Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XLIII

Three nights after this she took Pansy to a great party, to which Osmond, who never went to dances, did not accompany them. Pansy was as ready for a dance as ever; she was not of a generalising turn and had not extended to other pleasures the interdict she had seen placed on those of love. If she was biding her time or hoping to circumvent her father she must have had a prevision of success. Isabel thought this unlikely; it was much more likely that Pansy had simply determined to be a good girl. She had never had such a chance, and she had a proper esteem for chances. She carried herself no less attentively than usual and kept no less anxious an eye upon her vaporous skirts; she held her bouquet very tight and counted over the flowers for the twentieth time. She made Isabel feel old; it seemed so long since she had been in a flutter about a ball. Pansy, who was greatly admired, was never in want of partners, and very soon after their arrival she gave Isabel, who was not dancing, her bouquet to hold. Isabel had rendered her this service for some minutes when she became aware of the near presence of Edward Rosier. He stood before her; he had lost his affable smile and wore a look of almost military resolution. The change in his appearance would have made Isabel smile if she had not felt his case to be at bottom a hard one: he had always smelt so much more of heliotrope than of gunpowder. He looked at her a moment somewhat fiercely, as if to notify her he was dangerous, and then dropped his eyes on her bouquet. After he had inspected it his glance softened and he said quickly: “It’s all pansies; it must be hers!”

Isabel smiled kindly. “Yes, it’s hers; she gave it to me to hold.”

“May I hold it a little, Mrs. Osmond?” the poor young man asked.

“No, I can’t trust you; I’m afraid you wouldn’t give it back.”

“I’m not sure that I should; I should leave the house with it instantly. But may I not at least have a single flower?”

Isabel hesitated a moment, and then, smiling still, held out the bouquet. “Choose one yourself. It’s frightful what I’m doing for you.”

“Ah, if you do no more than this, Mrs. Osmond!” Rosier exclaimed with his glass in one eye, carefully choosing his flower.

“Don’t put it into your button-hole,” she said. “Don’t for the world!”

“I should like her to see it. She has refused to dance with me, but I wish to show her that I believe in her still.”

“It’s very well to show it to her, but it’s out of place to show it to others. Her father has told her not to dance with you.”

“And is that all YOU can do for me? I expected more from you, Mrs. Osmond,” said the young man in a tone of fine general reference. “You know our acquaintance goes back very far — quite into the days of our innocent childhood.”

“Don’t make me out too old,” Isabel patiently answered. “You come back to that very often, and I’ve never denied it. But I must tell you that, old friends as we are, if you had done me the honour to ask me to marry you I should have refused you on the spot.”

“Ah, you don’t esteem me then. Say at once that you think me a mere Parisian trifler!”

“I esteem you very much, but I’m not in love with you. What I mean by that, of course, is that I’m not in love with you for Pansy.”

“Very good; I see. You pity me — that’s all.” And Edward Rosier looked all round, inconsequently, with his single glass. It was a revelation to him that people shouldn’t be more pleased; but he was at least too proud to show that the deficiency struck him as general.

Isabel for a moment said nothing. His manner and appearance had not the dignity of the deepest tragedy; his little glass, among other things, was against that. But she suddenly felt touched; her own unhappiness, after all, had something in common with his, and it came over her, more than before, that here, in recognisable, if not in romantic form, was the most affecting thing in the world — young love struggling with adversity. “Would you really be very kind to her?” she finally asked in a low tone.

He dropped his eyes devoutly and raised the little flower that he held in his fingers to his lips. Then he looked at her. “You pity me; but don’t you pity HER a little?”

“I don’t know; I’m not sure. She’ll always enjoy life.”

“It will depend on what you call life!” Mr. Rosier effectively said. “She won’t enjoy being tortured.”

“There’ll be nothing of that.”

“I’m glad to hear it. She knows what she’s about. You’ll see.”

“I think she does, and she’ll never disobey her father. But she’s coming back to me,” Isabel added, “and I must beg you to go away.”

Rosier lingered a moment till Pansy came in sight on the arm of her cavalier; he stood just long enough to look her in the face. Then he walked away, holding up his head; and the manner in which he achieved this sacrifice to expediency convinced Isabel he was very much in love.

Pansy, who seldom got disarranged in dancing, looking perfectly fresh and cool after this exercise, waited a moment and then took back her bouquet. Isabel watched her and saw she was counting the flowers; whereupon she said to herself that decidedly there were deeper forces at play than she had recognised. Pansy had seen Rosier turn away, but she said nothing to Isabel about him; she talked only of her partner, after he had made his bow and retired; of the music, the floor, the rare misfortune of having already torn her dress. Isabel was sure, however, she had discovered her lover to have abstracted a flower; though this knowledge was not needed to account for the dutiful grace with which she responded to the appeal of her next partner. That perfect amenity under acute constraint was part of a larger system. She was again led forth by a flushed young man, this time carrying her bouquet; and she had not been absent many minutes when Isabel saw Lord Warburton advancing through the crowd. He presently drew near and bade her good-evening; she had not seen him since the day before. He looked about him, and then “Where’s the little maid?” he asked. It was in this manner that he had formed the harmless habit of alluding to Miss Osmond.

“She’s dancing,” said Isabel. “You’ll see her somewhere.”

He looked among the dancers and at last caught Pansy’s eye. “She sees me, but she won’t notice me,” he then remarked. “Are you not dancing?”

“As you see, I’m a wall-flower.”

“Won’t you dance with me?”

“Thank you; I’d rather you should dance with the little maid.”

“One needn’t prevent the other — especially as she’s engaged.”

“She’s not engaged for everything, and you can reserve yourself. She dances very hard, and you’ll be the fresher.”

“She dances beautifully,” said Lord Warburton, following her with his eyes. “Ah, at last,” he added, “she has given me a smile.” He stood there with his handsome, easy, important physiognomy; and as Isabel observed him it came over her, as it had done before, that it was strange a man of his mettle should take an interest in a little maid. It struck her as a great incongruity; neither Pansy’s small fascinations, nor his own kindness, his good-nature, not even his need for amusement, which was extreme and constant, were sufficient to account for it. “I should like to dance with you,” he went on in a moment, turning back to Isabel; “but I think I like even better to talk with you.”

“Yes, it’s better, and it’s more worthy of your dignity. Great statesmen oughtn’t to waltz.”

“Don’t be cruel. Why did you recommend me then to dance with Miss Osmond?”

“Ah, that’s different. If you danced with her it would look simply like a piece of kindness — as if you were doing it for her amusement. If you dance with me you’ll look as if you were doing it for your own.”

“And pray haven’t I a right to amuse myself?”

“No, not with the affairs of the British Empire on your hands.”

“The British Empire be hanged! You’re always laughing at it.”

“Amuse yourself with talking to me,” said Isabel.

“I’m not sure it’s really a recreation. You’re too pointed; I’ve always to be defending myself. And you strike me as more than usually dangerous to-night. Will you absolutely not dance?”

“I can’t leave my place. Pansy must find me here.”

He was silent a little. “You’re wonderfully good to her,” he said suddenly.

Isabel stared a little and smiled. “Can you imagine one’s not being?”

“No indeed. I know how one is charmed with her. But you must have done a great deal for her.”

“I’ve taken her out with me,” said Isabel, smiling still. “And I’ve seen that she has proper clothes.”

“Your society must have been a great benefit to her. You’ve talked to her, advised her, helped her to develop.”

“Ah yes, if she isn’t the rose she has lived near it.”

She laughed, and her companion did as much; but there was a certain visible preoccupation in his face which interfered with complete hilarity. “We all try to live as near it as we can,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.

Isabel turned away; Pansy was about to be restored to her, and she welcomed the diversion. We know how much she liked Lord Warburton; she thought him pleasanter even than the sum of his merits warranted; there was something in his friendship that appeared a kind of resource in case of indefinite need; it was like having a large balance at the bank. She felt happier when he was in the room; there was something reassuring in his approach; the sound of his voice reminded her of the beneficence of nature. Yet for all that it didn’t suit her that he should be too near her, that he should take too much of her good-will for granted. She was afraid of that; she averted herself from it; she wished he wouldn’t. She felt that if he should come too near, as it were, it might be in her to flash out and bid him keep his distance. Pansy came back to Isabel with another rent in her skirt, which was the inevitable consequence of the first and which she displayed to Isabel with serious eyes. There were too many gentlemen in uniform; they wore those dreadful spurs, which were fatal to the dresses of little maids. It hereupon became apparent that the resources of women are innumerable. Isabel devoted herself to Pansy’s desecrated drapery; she fumbled for a pin and repaired the injury; she smiled and listened to her account of her adventures. Her attention, her sympathy were immediate and active; and they were in direct proportion to a sentiment with which they were in no way connected — a lively conjecture as to whether Lord Warburton might be trying to make love to her. It was not simply his words just then; it was others as well; it was the reference and the continuity. This was what she thought about while she pinned up Pansy’s dress. If it were so, as she feared, he was of course unwitting; he himself had not taken account of his intention. But this made it none the more auspicious, made the situation none less impossible. The sooner he should get back into right relations with things the better. He immediately began to talk to Pansy — on whom it was certainly mystifying to see that he dropped a smile of chastened devotion. Pansy replied, as usual, with a little air of conscientious aspiration; he had to bend toward her a good deal in conversation, and her eyes, as usual, wandered up and down his robust person as if he had offered it to her for exhibition. She always seemed a little frightened; yet her fright was not of the painful character that suggests dislike; on the contrary, she looked as if she knew that he knew she liked him. Isabel left them together a little and wandered toward a friend whom she saw near and with whom she talked till the music of the following dance began, for which she knew Pansy to be also engaged. The girl joined her presently, with a little fluttered flush, and Isabel, who scrupulously took Osmond’s view of his daughter’s complete dependence, consigned her, as a precious and momentary loan, to her appointed partner. About all this matter she had her own imaginations, her own reserves; there were moments when Pansy’s extreme adhesiveness made each of them, to her sense, look foolish. But Osmond had given her a sort of tableau of her position as his daughter’s duenna, which consisted of gracious alternations of concession and contraction; and there were directions of his which she liked to think she obeyed to the letter. Perhaps, as regards some of them, it was because her doing so appeared to reduce them to the absurd.

After Pansy had been led away, she found Lord Warburton drawing near her again. She rested her eyes on him steadily; she wished she could sound his thoughts. But he had no appearance of confusion. “She has promised to dance with me later,” he said.

“I’m glad of that. I suppose you’ve engaged her for the cotillion.”

At this he looked a little awkward. “No, I didn’t ask her for that. It’s a quadrille.”

“Ah, you’re not clever!” said Isabel almost angrily. “I told her to keep the cotillion in case you should ask for it.”

“Poor little maid, fancy that!” And Lord Warburton laughed frankly. “Of course I will if you like.”

“If I like? Oh, if you dance with her only because I like it —!”

“I’m afraid I bore her. She seems to have a lot of young fellows on her book.”

Isabel dropped her eyes, reflecting rapidly; Lord Warburton stood there looking at her and she felt his eyes on her face. She felt much inclined to ask him to remove them. She didn’t do so, however; she only said to him, after a minute, with her own raised: “Please let me understand.”

“Understand what?”

“You told me ten days ago that you’d like to marry my stepdaughter. You’ve not forgotten it!”

“Forgotten it? I wrote to Mr. Osmond about it this morning.”

“Ah,” said Isabel, “he didn’t mention to me that he had heard from you.”

Lord Warburton stammered a little. “I— I didn’t send my letter.”

“Perhaps you forgot THAT.”

“No, I wasn’t satisfied with it. It’s an awkward sort of letter to write, you know. But I shall send it to-night.”

“At three o’clock in the morning?”

“I mean later, in the course of the day.”

“Very good. You still wish then to marry her?”

“Very much indeed.”

“Aren’t you afraid that you’ll bore her?” And as her companion stared at this enquiry Isabel added: “If she can’t dance with you for half an hour how will she be able to dance with you for life?”

“Ah,” said Lord Warburton readily, “I’ll let her dance with other people! About the cotillion, the fact is I thought that you — that you —”

“That I would do it with you? I told you I’d do nothing.”

“Exactly; so that while it’s going on I might find some quiet corner where we may sit down and talk.”

“Oh,” said Isabel gravely, “you’re much too considerate of me.”

When the cotillion came Pansy was found to have engaged herself, thinking, in perfect humility, that Lord Warburton had no intentions. Isabel recommended him to seek another partner, but he assured her that he would dance with no one but herself. As, however, she had, in spite of the remonstrances of her hostess, declined other invitations on the ground that she was not dancing at all, it was not possible for her to make an exception in Lord Warburton’s favour.

“After all I don’t care to dance,” he said; “it’s a barbarous amusement: I’d much rather talk.” And he intimated that he had discovered exactly the corner he had been looking for — a quiet nook in one of the smaller rooms, where the music would come to them faintly and not interfere with conversation. Isabel had decided to let him carry out his idea; she wished to be satisfied. She wandered away from the ball-room with him, though she knew her husband desired she should not lose sight of his daughter. It was with his daughter’s pretendant, however; that would make it right for Osmond. On her way out of the ball-room she came upon Edward Rosier, who was standing in a doorway, with folded arms, looking at the dance in the attitude of a young man without illusions. She stopped a moment and asked him if he were not dancing.

“Certainly not, if I can’t dance with HER!” he answered.

“You had better go away then,” said Isabel with the manner of good counsel.

“I shall not go till she does!” And he let Lord Warburton pass without giving him a look.

This nobleman, however, had noticed the melancholy youth, and he asked Isabel who her dismal friend was, remarking that he had seen him somewhere before.

“It’s the young man I’ve told you about, who’s in love with Pansy.”

“Ah yes, I remember. He looks rather bad.”

“He has reason. My husband won’t listen to him.”

“What’s the matter with him?” Lord Warburton enquired. “He seems very harmless.”

“He hasn’t money enough, and he isn’t very clever.”

Lord Warburton listened with interest; he seemed struck with this account of Edward Rosier. “Dear me; he looked a well-set-up young fellow.”

“So he is, but my husband’s very particular.”

“Oh, I see.” And Lord Warburton paused a moment. “How much money has he got?” he then ventured to ask.

“Some forty thousand francs a year.”

“Sixteen hundred pounds? Ah, but that’s very good, you know.”

“So I think. My husband, however, has larger ideas.”

“Yes; I’ve noticed that your husband has very large ideas. Is he really an idiot, the young man?”

“An idiot? Not in the least; he’s charming. When he was twelve years old I myself was in love with him.”

“He doesn’t look much more than twelve to-day,” Lord Warburton rejoined vaguely, looking about him. Then with more point, “Don’t you think we might sit here?” he asked.

“Wherever you please.” The room was a sort of boudoir, pervaded by a subdued, rose-coloured light; a lady and gentleman moved out of it as our friends came in. “It’s very kind of you to take such an interest in Mr. Rosier,” Isabel said.

“He seems to me rather ill-treated. He had a face a yard long. I wondered what ailed him.”

“You’re a just man,” said Isabel. “You’ve a kind thought even for a rival.”

Lord Warburton suddenly turned with a stare. “A rival! Do you call him my rival?”

“Surely — if you both wish to marry the same person.”

“Yes — but since he has no chance!”

“I like you, however that may be, for putting your self in his place. It shows imagination.”

“You like me for it?” And Lord Warburton looked at her with an uncertain eye. “I think you mean you’re laughing at me for it.”

“Yes, I’m laughing at you a little. But I like you as somebody to laugh at.”

“Ah well, then, let me enter into his situation a little more. What do you suppose one could do for him?”

“Since I have been praising your imagination I’ll leave you to imagine that yourself,” Isabel said. “Pansy too would like you for that.”

“Miss Osmond? Ah, she, I flatter myself, likes me already.”

“Very much, I think.”

He waited a little; he was still questioning her face. “Well then, I don’t understand you. You don’t mean that she cares for him?”

A quick blush sprang to his brow. “You told me she would have no wish apart from her father’s, and as I’ve gathered that he would favour me —!” He paused a little and then suggested “Don’t you see?” through his blush.

“Yes, I told you she has an immense wish to please her father, and that it would probably take her very far.”

“That seems to me a very proper feeling,” said Lord Warburton.

“Certainly; it’s a very proper feeling.” Isabel remained silent for some moments; the room continued empty; the sound of the music reached them with its richness softened by the interposing apartments. Then at last she said: “But it hardly strikes me as the sort of feeling to which a man would wish to be indebted for a wife.”

“I don’t know; if the wife’s a good one and he thinks she does well!”

“Yes, of course you must think that.”

“I do; I can’t help it. You call that very British, of course.”

“No, I don’t. I think Pansy would do wonderfully well to marry you, and I don’t know who should know it better than you. But you’re not in love.”

“Ah, yes I am, Mrs. Osmond!”

Isabel shook her head. “You like to think you are while you sit here with me. But that’s not how you strike me.”

“I’m not like the young man in the doorway. I admit that. But what makes it so unnatural? Could any one in the world be more loveable than Miss Osmond?”

“No one, possibly. But love has nothing to do with good reasons.”

“I don’t agree with you. I’m delighted to have good reasons.”

“Of course you are. If you were really in love you wouldn’t care a straw for them.”

“Ah, really in love — really in love!” Lord Warburton exclaimed, folding his arms, leaning back his head and stretching himself a little. “You must remember that I’m forty-two years old. I won’t pretend I’m as I once was.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” said Isabel, “it’s all right.”

He answered nothing; he sat there, with his head back, looking before him. Abruptly, however, he changed his position; he turned quickly to his friend. “Why are you so unwilling, so sceptical?” She met his eyes, and for a moment they looked straight at each other. If she wished to be satisfied she saw something that satisfied her; she saw in his expression the gleam of an idea that she was uneasy on her own account — that she was perhaps even in fear. It showed a suspicion, not a hope, but such as it was it told her what she wanted to know. Not for an instant should he suspect her of detecting in his proposal of marrying her step-daughter an implication of increased nearness to herself, or of thinking it, on such a betrayal, ominous. In that brief, extremely personal gaze, however, deeper meanings passed between them than they were conscious of at the moment.

“My dear Lord Warburton,” she said, smiling, “you may do, so far as I’m concerned, whatever comes into your head.”

And with this she got up and wandered into the adjoining room, where, within her companion’s view, she was immediately addressed by a pair of gentlemen, high personages in the Roman world, who met her as if they had been looking for her. While she talked with them she found herself regretting she had moved; it looked a little like running away — all the more as Lord Warburton didn’t follow her. She was glad of this, however, and at any rate she was satisfied. She was so well satisfied that when, in passing back into the ball-room, she found Edward Rosier still planted in the doorway, she stopped and spoke to him again. “You did right not to go away. I’ve some comfort for you.”

“I need it,” the young man softly wailed, “when I see you so awfully thick with him!”

“Don’t speak of him; I’ll do what I can for you. I’m afraid it won’t be much, but what I can I’ll do.”

He looked at her with gloomy obliqueness. “What has suddenly brought you round?”

“The sense that you are an inconvenience in doorways!” she answered, smiling as she passed him. Half an hour later she took leave, with Pansy, and at the foot of the staircase the two ladies, with many other departing guests, waited a while for their carriage. Just as it approached Lord Warburton came out of the house and assisted them to reach their vehicle. He stood a moment at the door, asking Pansy if she had amused herself; and she, having answered him, fell back with a little air of fatigue. Then Isabel, at the window, detaining him by a movement of her finger, murmured gently: “Don’t forget to send your letter to her father!”

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