Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXXVIII

He went to see Madame Merle on the morrow, and to his surprise she let him off rather easily. But she made him promise that he would stop there till something should have been decided. Mr. Osmond had had higher expectations; it was very true that as he had no intention of giving his daughter a portion such expectations were open to criticism or even, if one would, to ridicule. But she would advise Mr. Rosier not to take that tone; if he would possess his soul in patience he might arrive at his felicity. Mr. Osmond was not favourable to his suit, but it wouldn’t be a miracle if he should gradually come round. Pansy would never defy her father, he might depend on that; so nothing was to be gained by precipitation. Mr. Osmond needed to accustom his mind to an offer of a sort that he had not hitherto entertained, and this result must come of itself — it was useless to try to force it. Rosier remarked that his own situation would be in the meanwhile the most uncomfortable in the world, and Madame Merle assured him that she felt for him. But, as she justly declared, one couldn’t have everything one wanted; she had learned that lesson for herself. There would be no use in his writing to Gilbert Osmond, who had charged her to tell him as much. He wished the matter dropped for a few weeks and would himself write when he should have anything to communicate that it might please Mr. Rosier to hear.

“He doesn’t like your having spoken to Pansy, Ah, he doesn’t like it at all,” said Madame Merle.

“I’m perfectly willing to give him a chance to tell me so!”

“If you do that he’ll tell you more than you care to hear. Go to the house, for the next month, as little as possible, and leave the rest to me.”

“As little as possible? Who’s to measure the possibility?”

“Let me measure it. Go on Thursday evenings with the rest of the world, but don’t go at all at odd times, and don’t fret about Pansy. I’ll see that she understands everything. She’s a calm little nature; she’ll take it quietly.”

Edward Rosier fretted about Pansy a good deal, but he did as he was advised, and awaited another Thursday evening before returning to Palazzo Roccanera. There had been a party at dinner, so that though he went early the company was already tolerably numerous. Osmond, as usual, was in the first room, near the fire, staring straight at the door, so that, not to be distinctly uncivil, Rosier had to go and speak to him.

“I’m glad that you can take a hint,” Pansy’s father said, slightly closing his keen, conscious eyes.

“I take no hints. But I took a message, as I supposed it to be.”

“You took it? Where did you take it?”

It seemed to poor Rosier he was being insulted, and he waited a moment, asking himself how much a true lover ought to submit to. “Madame Merle gave me, as I understood it, a message from you — to the effect that you declined to give me the opportunity I desire, the opportunity to explain my wishes to you.” And he flattered himself he spoke rather sternly.

“I don’t see what Madame Merle has to do with it. Why did you apply to Madame Merle?”

“I asked her for an opinion — for nothing more. I did so because she had seemed to me to know you very well.”

“She doesn’t know me so well as she thinks,” said Osmond.

“I’m sorry for that, because she has given me some little ground for hope.”

Osmond stared into the fire a moment. “I set a great price on my daughter.”

“You can’t set a higher one than I do. Don’t I prove it by wishing to marry her?”

“I wish to marry her very well,” Osmond went on with a dry impertinence which, in another mood, poor Rosier would have admired.

“Of course I pretend she’d marry well in marrying me. She couldn’t marry a man who loves her more — or whom, I may venture to add, she loves more.”

“I’m not bound to accept your theories as to whom my daughter loves”— and Osmond looked up with a quick, cold smile.

“I’m not theorising. Your daughter has spoken.”

“Not to me,” Osmond continued, now bending forward a little and dropping his eyes to his boot-toes.

“I have her promise, sir!” cried Rosier with the sharpness of exasperation.

As their voices had been pitched very low before, such a note attracted some attention from the company. Osmond waited till this little movement had subsided; then he said, all undisturbed: “I think she has no recollection of having given it.”

They had been standing with their faces to the fire, and after he had uttered these last words the master of the house turned round again to the room. Before Rosier had time to reply he perceived that a gentleman — a stranger — had just come in, unannounced, according to the Roman custom, and was about to present himself to his host. The latter smiled blandly, but somewhat blankly; the visitor had a handsome face and a large, fair beard, and was evidently an Englishman.

“You apparently don’t recognise me,” he said with a smile that expressed more than Osmond’s.

“Ah yes, now I do. I expected so little to see you.”

Rosier departed and went in direct pursuit of Pansy. He sought her, as usual, in the neighbouring room, but he again encountered Mrs. Osmond in his path. He gave his hostess no greeting — he was too righteously indignant, but said to her crudely: “Your husband’s awfully cold-blooded.”

She gave the same mystical smile he had noticed before. “You can’t expect every one to be as hot as yourself.”

“I don’t pretend to be cold, but I’m cool. What has he been doing to his daughter?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“Don’t you take any interest?” Rosier demanded with his sense that she too was irritating.

For a moment she answered nothing; then, “No!” she said abruptly and with a quickened light in her eyes which directly contradicted the word.

“Pardon me if I don’t believe that. Where’s Miss Osmond?”

“In the corner, making tea. Please leave her there.”

Rosier instantly discovered his friend, who had been hidden by intervening groups. He watched her, but her own attention was entirely given to her occupation. “What on earth has he done to her?” he asked again imploringly. “He declares to me she has given me up.”

“She has not given you up,” Isabel said in a low tone and without looking at him.

“Ah, thank you for that! Now I’ll leave her alone as long as you think proper!”

He had hardly spoken when he saw her change colour, and became aware that Osmond was coming toward her accompanied by the gentleman who had just entered. He judged the latter, in spite of the advantage of good looks and evident social experience, a little embarrassed. “Isabel,” said her husband, “I bring you an old friend.”

Mrs. Osmond’s face, though it wore a smile, was, like her old friend’s, not perfectly confident. “I’m very happy to see Lord Warburton,” she said. Rosier turned away and, now that his talk with her had been interrupted, felt absolved from the little pledge he had just taken. He had a quick impression that Mrs. Osmond wouldn’t notice what he did.

Isabel in fact, to do him justice, for some time quite ceased to observe him. She had been startled; she hardly knew if she felt a pleasure or a pain. Lord Warburton, however, now that he was face to face with her, was plainly quite sure of his own sense of the matter; though his grey eyes had still their fine original property of keeping recognition and attestation strictly sincere. He was “heavier” than of yore and looked older; he stood there very solidly and sensibly.

“I suppose you didn’t expect to see me,” he said; “I’ve but just arrived. Literally, I only got here this evening. You see I’ve lost no time in coming to pay you my respects. I knew you were at home on Thursdays.”

“You see the fame of your Thursdays has spread to England,” Osmond remarked to his wife.

“It’s very kind of Lord Warburton to come so soon; we’re greatly flattered,” Isabel said.

“Ah well, it’s better than stopping in one of those horrible inns,” Osmond went on.

“The hotel seems very good; I think it’s the same at which I saw you four years since. You know it was here in Rome that we first met; it’s a long time ago. Do you remember where I bade you good-bye?” his lordship asked of his hostess. “It was in the Capitol, in the first room.”

“I remember that myself,” said Osmond. “I was there at the time.”

“Yes, I remember you there. I was very sorry to leave Rome — so sorry that, somehow or other, it became almost a dismal memory, and I’ve never cared to come back till to-day. But I knew you were living here,” her old friend went on to Isabel, “and I assure you I’ve often thought of you. It must be a charming place to live in,” he added with a look, round him, at her established home, in which she might have caught the dim ghost of his old ruefulness.

“We should have been glad to see you at any time,” Osmond observed with propriety.

“Thank you very much. I haven’t been out of England since then. Till a month ago I really supposed my travels over.”

“I’ve heard of you from time to time,” said Isabel, who had already, with her rare capacity for such inward feats, taken the measure of what meeting him again meant for her.

“I hope you’ve heard no harm. My life has been a remarkably complete blank.”

“Like the good reigns in history,” Osmond suggested. He appeared to think his duties as a host now terminated — he had performed them so conscientiously. Nothing could have been more adequate, more nicely measured, than his courtesy to his wife’s old friend. It was punctilious, it was explicit, it was everything but natural — a deficiency which Lord Warburton, who, himself, had on the whole a good deal of nature, may be supposed to have perceived. “I’ll leave you and Mrs. Osmond together,” he added. “You have reminiscences into which I don’t enter.”

“I’m afraid you lose a good deal!” Lord Warburton called after him, as he moved away, in a tone which perhaps betrayed overmuch an appreciation of his generosity. Then the visitor turned on Isabel the deeper, the deepest, consciousness of his look, which gradually became more serious. “I’m really very glad to see you.”

“It’s very pleasant. You’re very kind.”

“Do you know that you’re changed — a little?”

She just hesitated. “Yes — a good deal.”

“I don’t mean for the worse, of course; and yet how can I say for the better?”

“I think I shall have no scruple in saying that to YOU,” she bravely returned.

“Ah well, for me — it’s a long time. It would be a pity there shouldn’t be something to show for it.” They sat down and she asked him about his sisters, with other enquiries of a somewhat perfunctory kind. He answered her questions as if they interested him, and in a few moments she saw — or believed she saw — that he would press with less of his whole weight than of yore. Time had breathed upon his heart and, without chilling it, given it a relieved sense of having taken the air. Isabel felt her usual esteem for Time rise at a bound. Her friend’s manner was certainly that of a contented man, one who would rather like people, or like her at least, to know him for such. “There’s something I must tell you without more delay,” he resumed. “I’ve brought Ralph Touchett with me.”

“Brought him with you?” Isabel’s surprise was great.

“He’s at the hotel; he was too tired to come out and has gone to bed.”

“I’ll go to see him,” she immediately said.

“That’s exactly what I hoped you’d do. I had an idea you hadn’t seen much of him since your marriage, that in fact your relations were a — a little more formal. That’s why I hesitated — like an awkward Briton.”

“I’m as fond of Ralph as ever,” Isabel answered. “But why has he come to Rome?” The declaration was very gentle, the question a little sharp.

“Because he’s very far gone, Mrs. Osmond.”

“Rome then is no place for him. I heard from him that he had determined to give up his custom of wintering abroad and to remain in England, indoors, in what he called an artificial climate.”

“Poor fellow, he doesn’t succeed with the artificial! I went to see him three weeks ago, at Gardencourt, and found him thoroughly ill. He has been getting worse every year, and now he has no strength left. He smokes no more cigarettes! He had got up an artificial climate indeed; the house was as hot as Calcutta. Nevertheless he had suddenly taken it into his head to start for Sicily. I didn’t believe in it — neither did the doctors, nor any of his friends. His mother, as I suppose you know, is in America, so there was no one to prevent him. He stuck to his idea that it would be the saving of him to spend the winter at Catania. He said he could take servants and furniture, could make himself comfortable, but in point of fact he hasn’t brought anything. I wanted him at least to go by sea, to save fatigue; but he said he hated the sea and wished to stop at Rome. After that, though I thought it all rubbish, I made up my mind to come with him. I’m acting as — what do you call it in America? — as a kind of moderator. Poor Ralph’s very moderate now. We left England a fortnight ago, and he has been very bad on the way. He can’t keep warm, and the further south we come the more he feels the cold. He has got rather a good man, but I’m afraid he’s beyond human help. I wanted him to take with him some clever fellow — I mean some sharp young doctor; but he wouldn’t hear of it. If you don’t mind my saying so, I think it was a most extraordinary time for Mrs. Touchett to decide on going to America.”

Isabel had listened eagerly; her face was full of pain and wonder. “My aunt does that at fixed periods and lets nothing turn her aside. When the date comes round she starts; I think she’d have started if Ralph had been dying.”

“I sometimes think he IS dying,” Lord Warburton said.

Isabel sprang up. “I’ll go to him then now.”

He checked her; he was a little disconcerted at the quick effect of his words. “I don’t mean I thought so to-night. On the contrary, to-day, in the train, he seemed particularly well; the idea of our reaching Rome — he’s very fond of Rome, you know — gave him strength. An hour ago, when I bade him goodnight, he told me he was very tired, but very happy. Go to him in the morning; that’s all I mean. I didn’t tell him I was coming here; I didn’t decide to till after we had separated. Then I remembered he had told me you had an evening, and that it was this very Thursday. It occurred to me to come in and tell you he’s here, and let you know you had perhaps better not wait for him to call. I think he said he hadn’t written to you.” There was no need of Isabel’s declaring that she would act upon Lord Warburton’s information; she looked, as she sat there, like a winged creature held back. “Let alone that I wanted to see you for myself,” her visitor gallantly added.

“I don’t understand Ralph’s plan; it seems to me very wild,” she said. “I was glad to think of him between those thick walls at Gardencourt.”

“He was completely alone there; the thick walls were his only company.”

“You went to see him; you’ve been extremely kind.”

“Oh dear, I had nothing to do,” said Lord Warburton.

“We hear, on the contrary, that you’re doing great things. Every one speaks of you as a great statesman, and I’m perpetually seeing your name in the Times, which, by the way, doesn’t appear to hold it in reverence. You’re apparently as wild a radical as ever.”

“I don’t feel nearly so wild; you know the world has come round to me. Touchett and I have kept up a sort of parliamentary debate all the way from London. I tell him he’s the last of the Tories, and he calls me the King of the Goths — says I have, down to the details of my personal appearance, every sign of the brute. So you see there’s life in him yet.”

Isabel had many questions to ask about Ralph, but she abstained from asking them all. She would see for herself on the morrow. She perceived that after a little Lord Warburton would tire of that subject — he had a conception of other possible topics. She was more and more able to say to herself that he had recovered, and, what is more to the point, she was able to say it without bitterness. He had been for her, of old, such an image of urgency, of insistence, of something to be resisted and reasoned with, that his reappearance at first menaced her with a new trouble. But she was now reassured; she could see he only wished to live with her on good terms, that she was to understand he had forgiven her and was incapable of the bad taste of making pointed allusions. This was not a form of revenge, of course; she had no suspicion of his wishing to punish her by an exhibition of disillusionment; she did him the justice to believe it had simply occurred to him that she would now take a good-natured interest in knowing he was resigned. It was the resignation of a healthy, manly nature, in which sentimental wounds could never fester. British politics had cured him; she had known they would. She gave an envious thought to the happier lot of men, who are always free to plunge into the healing waters of action. Lord Warburton of course spoke of the past, but he spoke of it without implications; he even went so far as to allude to their former meeting in Rome as a very jolly time. And he told her he had been immensely interested in hearing of her marriage and that it was a great pleasure for him to make Mr. Osmond’s acquaintance — since he could hardly be said to have made it on the other occasion. He had not written to her at the time of that passage in her history, but he didn’t apologise to her for this. The only thing he implied was that they were old friends, intimate friends. It was very much as an intimate friend that he said to her, suddenly, after a short pause which he had occupied in smiling, as he looked about him, like a person amused, at a provincial entertainment, by some innocent game of guesses —

“Well now, I suppose you’re very happy and all that sort of thing?”

Isabel answered with a quick laugh; the tone of his remark struck her almost as the accent of comedy. “Do you suppose if I were not I’d tell you?”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t see why not.”

“I do then. Fortunately, however, I’m very happy.”

“You’ve got an awfully good house.”

“Yes, it’s very pleasant. But that’s not my merit — it’s my husband’s.”

“You mean he has arranged it?”

“Yes, it was nothing when we came.”

“He must be very clever.”

“He has a genius for upholstery,” said Isabel.

“There’s a great rage for that sort of thing now. But you must have a taste of your own.”

“I enjoy things when they’re done, but I’ve no ideas. I can never propose anything.”

“Do you mean you accept what others propose?”

“Very willingly, for the most part.”

“That’s a good thing to know. I shall propose to you something.”

“It will be very kind. I must say, however, that I’ve in a few small ways a certain initiative. I should like for instance to introduce you to some of these people.”

“Oh, please don’t; I prefer sitting here. Unless it be to that young lady in the blue dress. She has a charming face.”

“The one talking to the rosy young man? That’s my husband’s daughter.”

“Lucky man, your husband. What a dear little maid!”

“You must make her acquaintance.”

“In a moment — with pleasure. I like looking at her from here.” He ceased to look at her, however, very soon; his eyes constantly reverted to Mrs. Osmond. “Do you know I was wrong just now in saying you had changed?” he presently went on. “You seem to me, after all, very much the same.”

“And yet I find it a great change to be married,” said Isabel with mild gaiety.

“It affects most people more than it has affected you. You see I haven’t gone in for that.”

“It rather surprises me.”

“You ought to understand it, Mrs. Osmond. But I do want to marry,” he added more simply.

“It ought to be very easy,” Isabel said, rising — after which she reflected, with a pang perhaps too visible, that she was hardly the person to say this. It was perhaps because Lord Warburton divined the pang that he generously forbore to call her attention to her not having contributed then to the facility.

Edward Rosier had meanwhile seated himself on an ottoman beside Pansy’s tea-table. He pretended at first to talk to her about trifles, and she asked him who was the new gentleman conversing with her stepmother.

“He’s an English lord,” said Rosier. “I don’t know more.”

“I wonder if he’ll have some tea. The English are so fond of tea.”

“Never mind that; I’ve something particular to say to you.”

“Don’t speak so loud every one will hear,” said Pansy.

“They won’t hear if you continue to look that way: as if your only thought in life was the wish the kettle would boil.”

“It has just been filled; the servants never know!”— and she sighed with the weight of her responsibility.

“Do you know what your father said to me just now? That you didn’t mean what you said a week ago.”

“I don’t mean everything I say. How can a young girl do that? But I mean what I say to you.”

“He told me you had forgotten me.”

“Ah no, I don’t forget,” said Pansy, showing her pretty teeth in a fixed smile.

“Then everything’s just the very same?”

“Ah no, not the very same. Papa has been terribly severe.”

“What has he done to you?”

“He asked me what you had done to me, and I told him everything. Then he forbade me to marry you.”

“You needn’t mind that.”

“Oh yes, I must indeed. I can’t disobey papa.”

“Not for one who loves you as I do, and whom you pretend to love?”

She raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths. “I love you just as much.”

“What good will that do me?”

“Ah,” said Pansy, raising her sweet, vague eyes, “I don’t know that.”

“You disappoint me,” groaned poor Rosier.

She was silent a little; she handed a tea-cup to a servant. “Please don’t talk any more.”

“Is this to be all my satisfaction?”

“Papa said I was not to talk with you.”

“Do you sacrifice me like that? Ah, it’s too much!”

“I wish you’d wait a little,” said the girl in a voice just distinct enough to betray a quaver.

“Of course I’ll wait if you’ll give me hope. But you take my life away.”

“I’ll not give you up — oh no!” Pansy went on.

“He’ll try and make you marry some one else.”

“I’ll never do that.”

“What then are we to wait for?”

She hesitated again. “I’ll speak to Mrs. Osmond and she’ll help us.” It was in this manner that she for the most part designated her stepmother.

“She won’t help us much. She’s afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Of your father, I suppose.”

Pansy shook her little head. “She’s not afraid of any one. We must have patience.”

“Ah, that’s an awful word,” Rosier groaned; he was deeply disconcerted. Oblivious of the customs of good society, he dropped his head into his hands and, supporting it with a melancholy grace, sat staring at the carpet. Presently he became aware of a good deal of movement about him and, as he looked up, saw Pansy making a curtsey — it was still her little curtsey of the convent — to the English lord whom Mrs. Osmond had introduced.

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