Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XLV

I have already had reason to say that Isabel knew her husband to be displeased by the continuance of Ralph’s visit to Rome. That knowledge was very present to her as she went to her cousin’s hotel the day after she had invited Lord Warburton to give a tangible proof of his sincerity; and at this moment, as at others, she had a sufficient perception of the sources of Osmond’s opposition. He wished her to have no freedom of mind, and he knew perfectly well that Ralph was an apostle of freedom. It was just because he was this, Isabel said to herself, that it was a refreshment to go and see him. It will be perceived that she partook of this refreshment in spite of her husband’s aversion to it, that is partook of it, as she flattered herself, discreetly. She had not as yet undertaken to act in direct opposition to his wishes; he was her appointed and inscribed master; she gazed at moments with a sort of incredulous blankness at this fact. It weighed upon her imagination, however; constantly present to her mind were all the traditionary decencies and sanctities of marriage. The idea of violating them filled her with shame as well as with dread, for on giving herself away she had lost sight of this contingency in the perfect belief that her husband’s intentions were as generous as her own. She seemed to see, none the less, the rapid approach of the day when she should have to take back something she had solemnly bestown. Such a ceremony would be odious and monstrous; she tried to shut her eyes to it meanwhile. Osmond would do nothing to help it by beginning first; he would put that burden upon her to the end. He had not yet formally forbidden her to call upon Ralph; but she felt sure that unless Ralph should very soon depart this prohibition would come. How could poor Ralph depart? The weather as yet made it impossible. She could perfectly understand her husband’s wish for the event; she didn’t, to be just, see how he COULD like her to be with her cousin. Ralph never said a word against him, but Osmond’s sore, mute protest was none the less founded. If he should positively interpose, if he should put forth his authority, she would have to decide, and that wouldn’t be easy. The prospect made her heart beat and her cheeks burn, as I say, in advance; there were moments when, in her wish to avoid an open rupture, she found herself wishing Ralph would start even at a risk. And it was of no use that, when catching herself in this state of mind, she called herself a feeble spirit, a coward. It was not that she loved Ralph less, but that almost anything seemed preferable to repudiating the most serious act — the single sacred act — of her life. That appeared to make the whole future hideous. To break with Osmond once would be to break for ever; any open acknowledgement of irreconcilable needs would be an admission that their whole attempt had proved a failure. For them there could be no condonement, no compromise, no easy forgetfulness, no formal readjustment. They had attempted only one thing, but that one thing was to have been exquisite. Once they missed it nothing else would do; there was no conceivable substitute for that success. For the moment, Isabel went to the Hotel de Paris as often as she thought well; the measure of propriety was in the canon of taste, and there couldn’t have been a better proof that morality was, so to speak, a matter of earnest appreciation. Isabel’s application of that measure had been particularly free to-day, for in addition to the general truth that she couldn’t leave Ralph to die alone she had something important to ask of him. This indeed was Gilbert’s business as well as her own.

She came very soon to what she wished to speak of. “I want you to answer me a question. It’s about Lord Warburton.”

“I think I guess your question,” Ralph answered from his arm-chair, out of which his thin legs protruded at greater length than ever.

“Very possibly you guess it. Please then answer it.”

“Oh, I don’t say I can do that.”

“You’re intimate with him,” she said; “you’ve a great deal of observation of him.”

“Very true. But think how he must dissimulate!”

“Why should he dissimulate? That’s not his nature.”

“Ah, you must remember that the circumstances are peculiar,” said Ralph with an air of private amusement.

“To a certain extent — yes. But is he really in love?”

“Very much, I think. I can make that out.”

“Ah!” said Isabel with a certain dryness.

Ralph looked at her as if his mild hilarity had been touched with mystification. “You say that as if you were disappointed.”

Isabel got up, slowly smoothing her gloves and eyeing them thoughtfully. “It’s after all no business of mine.”

“You’re very philosophic,” said her cousin. And then in a moment: “May I enquire what you’re talking about?”

Isabel stared. “I thought you knew. Lord Warburton tells me he wants, of all things in the world, to marry Pansy. I’ve told you that before, without eliciting a comment from you. You might risk one this morning, I think. Is it your belief that he really cares for her?”

“Ah, for Pansy, no!” cried Ralph very positively.

“But you said just now he did.”

Ralph waited a moment. “That he cared for you, Mrs. Osmond.”

Isabel shook her head gravely. “That’s nonsense, you know.”

“Of course it is. But the nonsense is Warburton’s, not mine.”

“That would be very tiresome.” She spoke, as she flattered herself, with much subtlety.

“I ought to tell you indeed,” Ralph went on, “that to me he has denied it.”

“It’s very good of you to talk about it together! Has he also told you that he’s in love with Pansy?”

“He has spoken very well of her — very properly. He has let me know, of course, that he thinks she would do very well at Lockleigh.”

“Does he really think it?”

“Ah, what Warburton really thinks —!” said Ralph.

Isabel fell to smoothing her gloves again; they were long, loose gloves on which she could freely expend herself. Soon, however, she looked up, and then, “Ah, Ralph, you give me no help!” she cried abruptly and passionately.

It was the first time she had alluded to the need for help, and the words shook her cousin with their violence. He gave a long murmur of relief, of pity, of tenderness; it seemed to him that at last the gulf between them had been bridged. It was this that made him exclaim in a moment: “How unhappy you must be!”

He had no sooner spoken than she recovered her self-possession, and the first use she made of it was to pretend she had not heard him. “When I talk of your helping me I talk great nonsense,” she said with a quick smile. “The idea of my troubling you with my domestic embarrassments! The matter’s very simple; Lord Warburton must get on by himself. I can’t undertake to see him through.”

“He ought to succeed easily,” said Ralph.

Isabel debated. “Yes — but he has not always succeeded.”

“Very true. You know, however, how that always surprised me. Is Miss Osmond capable of giving us a surprise?”

“It will come from him, rather. I seem to see that after all he’ll let the matter drop.”

“He’ll do nothing dishonourable,” said Ralph.

“I’m very sure of that. Nothing can be more honourable than for him to leave the poor child alone. She cares for another person, and it’s cruel to attempt to bribe her by magnificent offers to give him up.”

“Cruel to the other person perhaps — the one she cares for. But Warburton isn’t obliged to mind that.”

“No, cruel to her,” said Isabel. “She would be very unhappy if she were to allow herself to be persuaded to desert poor Mr. Rosier. That idea seems to amuse you; of course you’re not in love with him. He has the merit — for Pansy — of being in love with Pansy. She can see at a glance that Lord Warburton isn’t.”

“He’d be very good to her,” said Ralph.

“He has been good to her already. Fortunately, however, he has not said a word to disturb her. He could come and bid her good-bye to-morrow with perfect propriety.”

“How would your husband like that?”

“Not at all; and he may be right in not liking it. Only he must obtain satisfaction himself.”

“Has he commissioned you to obtain it?” Ralph ventured to ask.

“It was natural that as an old friend of Lord Warburton’s — an older friend, that is, than Gilbert — I should take an interest in his intentions.”

“Take an interest in his renouncing them, you mean?”

Isabel hesitated, frowning a little. “Let me understand. Are you pleading his cause?”

“Not in the least. I’m very glad he shouldn’t become your stepdaughter’s husband. It makes such a very queer relation to you!” said Ralph, smiling. “But I’m rather nervous lest your husband should think you haven’t pushed him enough.”

Isabel found herself able to smile as well as he. “He knows me well enough not to have expected me to push. He himself has no intention of pushing, I presume. I’m not afraid I shall not be able to justify myself!” she said lightly.

Her mask had dropped for an instant, but she had put it on again, to Ralph’s infinite disappointment. He had caught a glimpse of her natural face and he wished immensely to look into it. He had an almost savage desire to hear her complain of her husband — hear her say that she should be held accountable for Lord Warburton’s defection. Ralph was certain that this was her situation; he knew by instinct, in advance, the form that in such an event Osmond’s displeasure would take. It could only take the meanest and cruellest. He would have liked to warn Isabel of it — to let her see at least how he judged for her and how he knew. It little mattered that Isabel would know much better; it was for his own satisfaction more than for hers that he longed to show her he was not deceived. He tried and tried again to make her betray Osmond; he felt cold-blooded, cruel, dishonourable almost, in doing so. But it scarcely mattered, for be only failed. What had she come for then, and why did she seem almost to offer him a chance to violate their tacit convention? Why did she ask him his advice if she gave him no liberty to answer her? How could they talk of her domestic embarrassments, as it pleased her humorously to designate them, if the principal factor was not to be mentioned? These contradictions were themselves but an indication of her trouble, and her cry for help, just before, was the only thing he was bound to consider. “You’ll be decidedly at variance, all the same,” he said in a moment. And as she answered nothing, looking as if she scarce understood, “You’ll find yourselves thinking very differently,” he continued.

“That may easily happen, among the most united couples!” She took up her parasol; he saw she was nervous, afraid of what he might say. “It’s a matter we can hardly quarrel about, however,” she added; “for almost all the interest is on his side. That’s very natural. Pansy’s after all his daughter — not mine.” And she put out her hand to wish him goodbye.

Ralph took an inward resolution that she shouldn’t leave him without his letting her know that he knew everything: it seemed too great an opportunity to lose. “Do you know what his interest will make him say?” he asked as he took her hand. She shook her head, rather dryly — not discouragingly — and he went on. “It will make him say that your want of zeal is owing to jealousy.” He stopped a moment; her face made him afraid.

“To jealousy?”

“To jealousy of his daughter.”

She blushed red and threw back her head. “You’re not kind,” she said in a voice that he had never heard on her lips.

“Be frank with me and you’ll see,” he answered.

But she made no reply; she only pulled her hand out of his own, which he tried still to hold, and rapidly withdrew from the room. She made up her mind to speak to Pansy, and she took an occasion on the same day, going to the girl’s room before dinner. Pansy was already dressed; she was always in advance of the time: it seemed to illustrate her pretty patience and the graceful stillness with which she could sit and wait. At present she was seated, in her fresh array, before the bed-room fire; she had blown out her candles on the completion of her toilet, in accordance with the economical habits in which she had been brought up sand which she was now more careful than ever to observe; so that the room was lighted only by a couple of logs. The rooms in Palazzo Roccanera were as spacious as they were numerous, and Pansy’s virginal bower was an immense chamber with a dark, heavily-timbered ceiling. Its diminutive mistress, in the midst of it, appeared but a speck of humanity, and as she got up, with quick deference, to welcome Isabel, the latter was more than ever struck with her shy sincerity. Isabel had a difficult task — the only thing was to perform it as simply as possible. She felt bitter and angry, but she warned herself against betraying this heat. She was afraid even of looking too grave, or at least too stern; she was afraid of causing alarm. Put Pansy seemed to have guessed she had come more or less as a confessor; for after she had moved the chair in which she had been sitting a little nearer to the fire and Isabel had taken her place in it, she kneeled down on a cushion in front of her, looking up and resting her clasped hands on her stepmother’s knees. What Isabel wished to do was to hear from her own lips that her mind was not occupied with Lord Warburton; but if she desired the assurance she felt herself by no means at liberty to provoke it. The girl’s father would have qualified this as rank treachery; and indeed Isabel knew that if Pansy should display the smallest germ of a disposition to encourage Lord Warburton her own duty was to hold her tongue. It was difficult to interrogate without appearing to suggest; Pansy’s supreme simplicity, an innocence even more complete than Isabel had yet judged it, gave to the most tentative enquiry something of the effect of an admonition. As she knelt there in the vague firelight, with her pretty dress dimly shining, her hands folded half in appeal and half in submission, her soft eyes, raised and fixed, full of the seriousness of the situation, she looked to Isabel like a childish martyr decked out for sacrifice and scarcely presuming even to hope to avert it. When Isabel said to her that she had never yet spoken to her of what might have been going on in relation to her getting married, but that her silence had not been indifference or ignorance, had only been the desire to leave her at liberty, Pansy bent forward, raised her face nearer and nearer, and with a little murmur which evidently expressed a deep longing, answered that she had greatly wished her to speak and that she begged her to advise her now.

“It’s difficult for me to advise you,” Isabel returned. “I don’t know how I can undertake that. That’s for your father; you must get his advice and, above all, you must act on it.”

At this Pansy dropped her eyes; for a moment she said nothing. “I think I should like your advice better than papa’s,” she presently remarked.

“That’s not as it should be,” said Isabel coldly. “I love you very much, but your father loves you better.”

“It isn’t because you love me — it’s because you’re a lady,” Pansy answered with the air of saying something very reasonable. “A lady can advise a young girl better than a man.”

“I advise you then to pay the greatest respect to your father’s wishes.”

“Ah yes,” said the child eagerly, “I must do that.”

“But if I speak to you now about your getting married it’s not for your own sake, it’s for mine,” Isabel went on. “If I try to learn from you what you expect, what you desire, it’s only that I may act accordingly.”

Pansy stared, and then very quickly, “Will you do everything I want?” she asked.

“Before I say yes I must know what such things are.”

Pansy presently told her that the only thing she wanted in life was to marry Mr. Rosier. He had asked her and she had told him she would do so if her papa would allow it. Now her papa wouldn’t allow it.

“Very well then, it’s impossible,” Isabel pronounced.

“Yes, it’s impossible,” said Pansy without a sigh and with the same extreme attention in her clear little face.

“You must think of something else then,” Isabel went on; but Pansy, sighing at this, told her that she had attempted that feat without the least success.

“You think of those who think of you,” she said with a faint smile. “I know Mr. Rosier thinks of me.”

“He ought not to,” said Isabel loftily. “Your father has expressly requested he shouldn’t.”

“He can’t help it, because he knows I think of HIM.”

“You shouldn’t think of him. There’s some excuse for him, perhaps; but there’s none for you.”

“I wish you would try to find one,” the girl exclaimed as if she were praying to the Madonna.

“I should be very sorry to attempt it,” said the Madonna with unusual frigidity. “If you knew some one else was thinking of you, would you think of him?”

“No one can think of me as Mr. Rosier does; no one has the right.”

“Ah, but I don’t admit Mr. Rosier’s right!” Isabel hypocritically cried.

Pansy only gazed at her, evidently much puzzled; and Isabel, taking advantage of it, began to represent to her the wretched consequences of disobeying her father. At this Pansy stopped her with the assurance that she would never disobey him, would never marry without his consent. And she announced, in the serenest, simplest tone, that, though she might never marry Mr. Rosier, she would never cease to think of him. She appeared to have accepted the idea of eternal singleness; but Isabel of course was free to reflect that she had no conception of its meaning. She was perfectly sincere; she was prepared to give up her lover. This might seem an important step toward taking another, but for Pansy, evidently, it failed to lead in that direction. She felt no bitterness toward her father; there was no bitterness in her heart; there was only the sweetness of fidelity to Edward Rosier, and a strange, exquisite intimation that she could prove it better by remaining single than even by marrying him.

“Your father would like you to make a better marriage,” said Isabel. “Mr. Rosier’s fortune is not at all large.”

“How do you mean better — if that would be good enough? And I have myself so little money; why should I look for a fortune?”

“Your having so little is a reason for looking for more.” With which Isabel was grateful for the dimness of the room; she felt as if her face were hideously insincere. It was what she was doing for Osmond; it was what one had to do for Osmond! Pansy’s solemn eyes, fixed on her own, almost embarrassed her; she was ashamed to think she had made so light of the girl’s preference.

“What should you like me to do?” her companion softly demanded.

The question was a terrible one, and Isabel took refuge in timorous vagueness. “To remember all the pleasure it’s in your power to give your father.”

“To marry some one else, you mean — if he should ask me?”

For a moment Isabel’s answer caused itself to be waited for; then she heard herself utter it in the stillness that Pansy’s attention seemed to make. “Yes — to marry some one else.”

The child’s eyes grew more penetrating; Isabel believed she was doubting her sincerity, and the impression took force from her slowly getting up from her cushion. She stood there a moment with her small hands unclasped and then quavered out: “Well, I hope no one will ask me!”

“There has been a question of that. Some one else would have been ready to ask you.”

“I don’t think he can have been ready,” said Pansy.

“It would appear so if he had been sure he’d succeed.”

“If he had been sure? Then he wasn’t ready!”

Isabel thought this rather sharp; she also got up and stood a moment looking into the fire. “Lord Warburton has shown you great attention,” she resumed; “of course you know it’s of him I speak.” She found herself, against her expectation, almost placed in the position of justifying herself; which led her to introduce this nobleman more crudely than she had intended.

“He has been very kind to me, and I like him very much. But if you mean that he’ll propose for me I think you’re mistaken.”

“Perhaps I am. But your father would like it extremely.”

Pansy shook her head with a little wise smile. “Lord Warburton won’t propose simply to please papa.”

“Your father would like you to encourage him,” Isabel went on mechanically.

“How can I encourage him?”

“I don’t know. Your father must tell you that.”

Pansy said nothing for a moment; she only continued to smile as if she were in possession of a bright assurance. “There’s no danger — no danger!” she declared at last.

There was a conviction in the way she said this, and a felicity in her believing it, which conduced to Isabel’s awkwardness. She felt accused of dishonesty, and the idea was disgusting. To repair her self-respect she was on the point of saying that Lord Warburton had let her know that there was a danger. But she didn’t; she only said — in her embarrassment rather wide of the mark — that he surely had been most kind, most friendly.

“Yes, he has been very kind,” Pansy answered. “That’s what I like him for.”

“Why then is the difficulty so great?”

“I’ve always felt sure of his knowing that I don’t want — what did you say I should do? — to encourage him. He knows I don’t want to marry, and he wants me to know that he therefore won’t trouble me. That’s the meaning of his kindness. It’s as if he said to me: ‘I like you very much, but if it doesn’t please you I’ll never say it again.’ I think that’s very kind, very noble,” Pansy went on with deepening positiveness. “That is all we’ve said to each other. And he doesn’t care for me either. Ah no, there’s no danger.”

Isabel was touched with wonder at the depths of perception of which this submissive little person was capable; she felt afraid of Pansy’s wisdom — began almost to retreat before it. “You must tell your father that,” she remarked reservedly.

“I think I’d rather not,” Pansy unreservedly answered.

“You oughtn’t to let him have false hopes.”

“Perhaps not; but it will be good for me that he should. So long as he believes that Lord Warburton intends anything of the kind you say, papa won’t propose any one else. And that will be an advantage for me,” said the child very lucidly.

There was something brilliant in her lucidity, and it made her companion draw a long breath. It relieved this friend of a heavy responsibility. Pansy had a sufficient illumination of her own, and Isabel felt that she herself just now had no light to spare from her small stock. Nevertheless it still clung to her that she must be loyal to Osmond, that she was on her honour in dealing with his daughter. Under the influence of this sentiment she threw out another suggestion before she retired — a suggestion with which it seemed to her that she should have done her utmost.

“Your father takes for granted at least that you would like to marry a nobleman.”

Pansy stood in the open doorway; she had drawn back the curtain for Isabel to pass. “I think Mr. Rosier looks like one!” she remarked very gravely.

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