Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXXVI

One afternoon of the autumn of 1876, toward dusk, a young man of pleasing appearance rang at the door of a small apartment on the third floor of an old Roman house. On its being opened he enquired for Madame Merle; whereupon the servant, a neat, plain woman, with a French face and a lady’s maid’s manner, ushered him into a diminutive drawing-room and requested the favour of his name. “Mr. Edward Rosier,” said the young man, who sat down to wait till his hostess should appear.

The reader will perhaps not have forgotten that Mr. Rosier was an ornament of the American circle in Paris, but it may also be remembered that he sometimes vanished from its horizon. He had spent a portion of several winters at Pau, and as he was a gentleman of constituted habits he might have continued for years to pay his annual visit to this charming resort. In the summer of 1876, however, an incident befell him which changed the current not only of his thoughts, but of his customary sequences. He passed a month in the Upper Engadine and encountered at Saint Moritz a charming young girl. To this little person he began to pay, on the spot, particular attention: she struck him as exactly the household angel he had long been looking for. He was never precipitate, he was nothing if not discreet, so he forbore for the present to declare his passion; but it seemed to him when they parted — the young lady to go down into Italy and her admirer to proceed to Geneva, where he was under bonds to join other friends — that he should be romantically wretched if he were not to see her again. The simplest way to do so was to go in the autumn to Rome, where Miss Osmond was domiciled with her family. Mr. Rosier started on his pilgrimage to the Italian capital and reached it on the first of November. It was a pleasant thing to do, but for the young man there was a strain of the heroic in the enterprise. He might expose himself, unseasoned, to the poison of the Roman air, which in November lay, notoriously, much in wait. Fortune, however, favours the brave; and this adventurer, who took three grains of quinine a day, had at the end of a month no cause to deplore his temerity. He had made to a certain extent good use of his time; he had devoted it in vain to finding a flaw in Pansy Osmond’s composition. She was admirably finished; she had had the last touch; she was really a consummate piece. He thought of her in amorous meditation a good deal as he might have thought of a Dresden-china shepherdess. Miss Osmond, indeed, in the bloom of her juvenility, had a hint of the rococo which Rosier, whose taste was predominantly for that manner, could not fail to appreciate. That he esteemed the productions of comparatively frivolous periods would have been apparent from the attention he bestowed upon Madame Merle’s drawing-room, which, although furnished with specimens of every style, was especially rich in articles of the last two centuries. He had immediately put a glass into one eye and looked round; and then “By Jove, she has some jolly good things!” he had yearningly murmured. The room was small and densely filled with furniture; it gave an impression of faded silk and little statuettes which might totter if one moved. Rosier got up and wandered about with his careful tread, bending over the tables charged with knick-knacks and the cushions embossed with princely arms. When Madame Merle came in she found him standing before the fireplace with his nose very close to the great lace flounce attached to the damask cover of the mantel. He had lifted it delicately, as if he were smelling it.

“It’s old Venetian,” she said; “it’s rather good.”

“It’s too good for this; you ought to wear it.”

“They tell me you have some better in Paris, in the same situation.”

“Ah, but I can’t wear mine,” smiled the visitor.

“I don’t see why you shouldn’t! I’ve better lace than that to wear.”

His eyes wandered, lingeringly, round the room again. “You’ve some very good things.”

“Yes, but I hate them.”

“Do you want to get rid of them?” the young man quickly asked.

“No, it’s good to have something to hate: one works it off!”

“I love my things,” said Mr. Rosier as he sat there flushed with all his recognitions. “But it’s not about them, nor about yours, that I came to talk to you.” He paused a moment and then, with greater softness: “I care more for Miss Osmond than for all the bibelots in Europe!”

Madame Merle opened wide eyes. “Did you come to tell me that?”

“I came to ask your advice.”

She looked at him with a friendly frown, stroking her chin with her large white hand. “A man in love, you know, doesn’t ask advice.”

“Why not, if he’s in a difficult position? That’s often the case with a man in love. I’ve been in love before, and I know. But never so much as this time — really never so much. I should like particularly to know what you think of my prospects. I’m afraid that for Mr. Osmond I’m not — well, a real collector’s piece.”

“Do you wish me to intercede?” Madame Merle asked with her fine arms folded and her handsome mouth drawn up to the left.

“If you could say a good word for me I should be greatly obliged. There will be no use in my troubling Miss Osmond unless I have good reason to believe her father will consent.”

“You’re very considerate; that’s in your favour. But you assume in rather an off-hand way that I think you a prize.”

“You’ve been very kind to me,” said the young man. “That’s why I came.”

“I’m always kind to people who have good Louis Quatorze. It’s very rare now, and there’s no telling what one may get by it.” With which the left-hand corner of Madame Merle’s mouth gave expression to the joke.

But he looked, in spite of it, literally apprehensive and consistently strenuous. “Ah, I thought you liked me for myself!”

“I like you very much; but, if you please, we won’t analyse. Pardon me if I seem patronising, but I think you a perfect little gentleman. I must tell you, however, that I’ve not the marrying of Pansy Osmond.”

“I didn’t suppose that. But you’ve seemed to me intimate with her family, and I thought you might have influence.”

Madame Merle considered. “Whom do you call her family?”

“Why, her father; and — how do you say it in English? — her belle-mere.”

“Mr. Osmond’s her father, certainly; but his wife can scarcely be termed a member of her family. Mrs. Osmond has nothing to do with marrying her.”

“I’m sorry for that,” said Rosier with an amiable sigh of good faith. “I think Mrs. Osmond would favour me.”

“Very likely — if her husband doesn’t.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Does she take the opposite line from him?”

“In everything. They think quite differently.”

“Well,” said Rosier, “I’m sorry for that; but it’s none of my business. She’s very fond of Pansy.”

“Yes, she’s very fond of Pansy.”

“And Pansy has a great affection for her. She has told me how she loves her as if she were her own mother.”

“You must, after all, have had some very intimate talk with the poor child,” said Madame Merle. “Have you declared your sentiments?”

“Never!” cried Rosier, lifting his neatly-gloved hand. “Never till I’ve assured myself of those of the parents.”

“You always wait for that? You’ve excellent principles; you observe the proprieties.”

“I think you’re laughing at me,” the young man murmured, dropping back in his chair and feeling his small moustache. “I didn’t expect that of you, Madame Merle.”

She shook her head calmly, like a person who saw things as she saw them. “You don’t do me justice. I think your conduct in excellent taste and the best you could adopt. Yes, that’s what I think.”

“I wouldn’t agitate her — only to agitate her; I love her too much for that,” said Ned Rosier.

“I’m glad, after all, that you’ve told me,” Madame Merle went on. “Leave it to me a little; I think I can help you.”

“I said you were the person to come to!” her visitor cried with prompt elation.

“You were very clever,” Madame Merle returned more dryly. “When I say I can help you I mean once assuming your cause to be good. Let us think a little if it is.”

“I’m awfully decent, you know,” said Rosier earnestly. “I won’t say I’ve no faults, but I’ll say I’ve no vices.”

“All that’s negative, and it always depends, also, on what people call vices. What’s the positive side? What’s the virtuous? What have you got besides your Spanish lace and your Dresden teacups?”

“I’ve a comfortable little fortune — about forty thousand francs a year. With the talent I have for arranging, we can live beautifully on such an income.”

“Beautifully, no. Sufficiently, yes. Even that depends on where you live.”

“Well, in Paris. I would undertake it in Paris.”

Madame Merle’s mouth rose to the left. “It wouldn’t be famous; you’d have to make use of the teacups, and they’d get broken.”

“We don’t want to be famous. If Miss Osmond should have everything pretty it would be enough. When one’s as pretty as she one can afford — well, quite cheap faience. She ought never to wear anything but muslin — without the sprig,” said Rosier reflectively.

“Wouldn’t you even allow her the sprig? She’d be much obliged to you at any rate for that theory.”

“It’s the correct one, I assure you; and I’m sure she’d enter into it. She understands all that; that’s why I love her.”

“She’s a very good little girl, and most tidy — also extremely graceful. But her father, to the best of my belief, can give her nothing.”

Rosier scarce demurred. “I don’t in the least desire that he should. But I may remark, all the same, that he lives like a rich man.”

“The money’s his wife’s; she brought him a large fortune.”

“Mrs. Osmond then is very fond of her stepdaughter; she may do something.”

“For a love-sick swain you have your eyes about you!” Madame Merle exclaimed with a laugh.

“I esteem a dot very much. I can do without it, but I esteem it.”

“Mrs. Osmond,” Madame Merle went on, “will probably prefer to keep her money for her own children.”

“Her own children? Surely she has none.”

“She may have yet. She had a poor little boy, who died two years ago, six months after his birth. Others therefore may come.”

“I hope they will, if it will make her happy. She’s a splendid woman.”

Madame Merle failed to burst into speech. “Ah, about her there’s much to be said. Splendid as you like! We’ve not exactly made out that you’re a parti. The absence of vices is hardly a source of income.

“Pardon me, I think it may be,” said Rosier quite lucidly.

“You’ll be a touching couple, living on your innocence!”

“I think you underrate me.”

“You’re not so innocent as that? Seriously,” said Madame Merle, “of course forty thousand francs a year and a nice character are a combination to be considered. I don’t say it’s to be jumped at, but there might be a worse offer. Mr. Osmond, however, will probably incline to believe he can do better.”

“HE can do so perhaps; but what can his daughter do? She can’t do better than marry the man she loves. For she does, you know,” Rosier added eagerly.

“She does — I know it.”

“Ah,” cried the young man, “I said you were the person to come to.”

“But I don’t know how you know it, if you haven’t asked her,” Madame Merle went on.

“In such a case there’s no need of asking and telling; as you say, we’re an innocent couple. How did YOU know it?”

“I who am not innocent? By being very crafty. Leave it to me; I’ll find out for you.”

Rosier got up and stood smoothing his hat. “You say that rather coldly. Don’t simply find out how it is, but try to make it as it should be.”

“I’ll do my best. I’ll try to make the most of your advantages.”

“Thank you so very much. Meanwhile then I’ll say a word to Mrs. Osmond.”

“Gardez-vous-en bien!” And Madame Merle was on her feet. “Don’t set her going, or you’ll spoil everything.”

Rosier gazed into his hat; he wondered whether his hostess HAD been after all the right person to come to. “I don’t think I understand you. I’m an old friend of Mrs. Osmond, and I think she would like me to succeed.”

“Be an old friend as much as you like; the more old friends she has the better, for she doesn’t get on very well with some of her new. But don’t for the present try to make her take up the cudgels for you. Her husband may have other views, and, as a person who wishes her well, I advise you not to multiply points of difference between them.”

Poor Rosier’s face assumed an expression of alarm; a suit for the hand of Pansy Osmond was even a more complicated business than his taste for proper transitions had allowed. But the extreme good sense which he concealed under a surface suggesting that of a careful owner’s “best set” came to his assistance. “I don’t see that I’m bound to consider Mr. Osmond so very much!” he exclaimed. “No, but you should consider HER. You say you’re an old friend. Would you make her suffer?”

“Not for the world.”

“Then be very careful, and let the matter alone till I’ve taken a few soundings.”

“Let the matter alone, dear Madame Merle? Remember that I’m in love.”

“Oh, you won’t burn up! Why did you come to me, if you’re not to heed what I say?”

“You’re very kind; I’ll be very good,” the young man promised. “But I’m afraid Mr. Osmond’s pretty hard,” he added in his mild voice as he went to the door.

Madame Merle gave a short laugh. “It has been said before. But his wife isn’t easy either.”

“Ah, she’s a splendid woman!” Ned Rosier repeated, for departure. He resolved that his conduct should be worthy of an aspirant who was already a model of discretion; but he saw nothing in any pledge he had given Madame Merle that made it improper he should keep himself in spirits by an occasional visit to Miss Osmond’s home. He reflected constantly on what his adviser had said to him, and turned over in his mind the impression of her rather circumspect tone. He had gone to her de confiance, as they put it in Paris; but it was possible he had been precipitate. He found difficulty in thinking of himself as rash — he had incurred this reproach so rarely; but it certainly was true that he had known Madame Merle only for the last month, and that his thinking her a delightful woman was not, when one came to look into it, a reason for assuming that she would be eager to push Pansy Osmond into his arms, gracefully arranged as these members might be to receive her. She had indeed shown him benevolence, and she was a person of consideration among the girl’s people, where she had a rather striking appearance (Rosier had more than once wondered how she managed it) of being intimate without being familiar. But possibly he had exaggerated these advantages. There was no particular reason why she should take trouble for him; a charming woman was charming to every one, and Rosier felt rather a fool when he thought of his having appealed to her on the ground that she had distinguished him. Very likely — though she had appeared to say it in joke — she was really only thinking of his bibelots. Had it come into her head that he might offer her two or three of the gems of his collection? If she would only help him to marry Miss Osmond he would present her with his whole museum. He could hardly say so to her outright; it would seem too gross a bribe. But he should like her to believe it.

It was with these thoughts that he went again to Mrs. Osmond’s, Mrs. Osmond having an “evening”— she had taken the Thursday of each week — when his presence could be accounted for on general principles of civility. The object of Mr. Rosier’s well-regulated affection dwelt in a high house in the very heart of Rome; a dark and massive structure overlooking a sunny piazzetta in the neighbourhood of the Farnese Palace. In a palace, too, little Pansy lived — a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor Rosier’s apprehensive mind. It seemed to him of evil omen that the young lady he wished to marry, and whose fastidious father he doubted of his ability to conciliate, should be immured in a kind of domestic fortress, a pile which bore a stern old Roman name, which smelt of historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence, which was mentioned in “Murray” and visited by tourists who looked, on a vague survey, disappointed and depressed, and which had frescoes by Caravaggio in the piano nobile and a row of mutilated statues and dusty urns in the wide, nobly-arched loggia overhanging the damp court where a fountain gushed out of a mossy niche. In a less preoccupied frame of mind he could have done justice to the Palazzo Roccanera; he could have entered into the sentiment of Mrs. Osmond, who had once told him that on settling themselves in Rome she and her husband had chosen this habitation for the love of local colour. It had local colour enough, and though he knew less about architecture than about Limoges enamels he could see that the proportions of the windows and even the details of the cornice had quite the grand air. But Rosier was haunted by the conviction that at picturesque periods young girls had been shut up there to keep them from their true loves, and hen, under the threat of being thrown into convents, had been forced into unholy marriages. There was one point, however, to which he always did justice when once he found himself in Mrs. Osmond’s warm, rich-looking reception-rooms, which were on the second floor. He acknowledged that these people were very strong in “good things.” It was a taste of Osmond’s own — not at all of hers; this she had told him the first time he came to the house, when, after asking himself for a quarter of an hour whether they had even better “French” than he in Paris, he was obliged on the spot to admit that they had, very much, and vanquished his envy, as a gentleman should, to the point of expressing to his hostess his pure admiration of her treasures. He learned from Mrs. Osmond that her husband had made a large collection before their marriage and that, though he had annexed a number of fine pieces within the last three years, he had achieved his greatest finds at a time when he had not the advantage of her advice. Rosier interpreted this information according to principles of his own. For “advice” read “cash,” he said to himself; and the fact that Gilbert Osmond had landed his highest prizes during his impecunious season confirmed his most cherished doctrine — the doctrine that a collector may freely be poor if he be only patient. In general, when Rosier presented himself on a Thursday evening, his first recognition was for the walls of the saloon; there were three or four objects his eyes really yearned for. But after his talk with Madame Merle he felt the extreme seriousness of his position; and now, when he came in, he looked about for the daughter of the house with such eagerness as might be permitted a gentleman whose smile, as he crossed a threshold, always took everything comfortable for granted.

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