Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XLVI

Lord Warburton was not seen in Mrs. Osmond’s drawing-room for several days, and Isabel couldn’t fail to observe that her husband said nothing to her about having received a letter from him. She couldn’t fail to observe, either, that Osmond was in a state of expectancy and that, though it was not agreeable to him to betray it, he thought their distinguished friend kept him waiting quite too long. At the end of four days he alluded to his absence.

“What has become of Warburton? What does he mean by treating one like a tradesman with a bill?”

“I know nothing about him,” Isabel said. “I saw him last Friday at the German ball. He told me then that he meant to write to you.”

“He has never written to me.”

“So I supposed, from your not having told me.”

“He’s an odd fish,” said Osmond comprehensively. And on Isabel’s making no rejoinder he went on to enquire whether it took his lordship five days to indite a letter. “Does he form his words with such difficulty?”

“I don’t know,” Isabel was reduced to replying. “I’ve never had a letter from him.”

“Never had a letter? I had an idea that you were at one time in intimate correspondence.”

She answered that this had not been the case, and let the conversation drop. On the morrow, however, coming into the drawing-room late in the afternoon, her husband took it up again.

“When Lord Warburton told you of his intention of writing what did you say to him?” he asked.

She just faltered. “I think I told him not to forget it.

“Did you believe there was a danger of that?”

“As you say, he’s an odd fish.”

“Apparently he has forgotten it,” said Osmond. “Be so good as to remind him.”

“Should you like me to write to him?” she demanded.

“I’ve no objection whatever.”

“You expect too much of me.”

“Ah yes, I expect a great deal of you.”

“I’m afraid I shall disappoint you,” said Isabel.

“My expectations have survived a good deal of disappointment.”

“Of course I know that. Think how I must have disappointed myself! If you really wish hands laid on Lord Warburton you must lay them yourself.”

For a couple of minutes Osmond answered nothing; then he said: “That won’t be easy, with you working against me.”

Isabel started; she felt herself beginning to tremble. He had a way of looking at her through half-closed eyelids, as if he were thinking of her but scarcely saw her, which seemed to her to have a wonderfully cruel intention. It appeared to recognise her as a disagreeable necessity of thought, but to ignore her for the time as a presence. That effect had never been so marked as now. “I think you accuse me of something very base,” she returned.

“I accuse you of not being trustworthy. If he doesn’t after all come forward it will be because you’ve kept him off. I don’t know that it’s base: it is the kind of thing a woman always thinks she may do. I’ve no doubt you’ve the finest ideas about it.”

“I told you I would do what I could,” she went on.

“Yes, that gained you time.”

It came over her, after he had said this, that she had once thought him beautiful. “How much you must want to make sure of him!” she exclaimed in a moment.

She had no sooner spoken than she perceived the full reach of her words, of which she had not been conscious in uttering them. They made a comparison between Osmond and herself, recalled the fact that she had once held this coveted treasure in her hand and felt herself rich enough to let it fall. A momentary exultation took possession of her — a horrible delight in having wounded him; for his face instantly told her that none of the force of her exclamation was lost. He expressed nothing otherwise, however; he only said quickly: “Yes, I want it immensely.”

At this moment a servant came in to usher a visitor, and he was followed the next by Lord Warburton, who received a visible check on seeing Osmond. He looked rapidly from the master of the house to the mistress; a movement that seemed to denote a reluctance to interrupt or even a perception of ominous conditions. Then he advanced, with his English address, in which a vague shyness seemed to offer itself as an element of good-breeding; in which the only defect was a difficulty in achieving transitions. Osmond was embarrassed; he found nothing to say; but Isabel remarked, promptly enough, that they had been in the act of talking about their visitor. Upon this her husband added that they hadn’t known what was become of him — they had been afraid he had gone away. “No,” he explained, smiling and looking at Osmond; “I’m only on the point of going.” And then he mentioned that he found himself suddenly recalled to England: he should start on the morrow or the day after. “I’m awfully sorry to leave poor Touchett!” he ended by exclaiming.

For a moment neither of his companions spoke; Osmond only leaned back in his chair, listening. Isabel didn’t look at him; she could only fancy how he looked. Her eyes were on their visitor’s face, where they were the more free to rest that those of his lordship carefully avoided them. Yet Isabel was sure that had she met his glance she would have found it expressive. “You had better take poor Touchett with you,” she heard her husband say, lightly enough, in a moment.

“He had better wait for warmer weather,” Lord Warburton answered. “I shouldn’t advise him to travel just now.”

He sat there a quarter of an hour, talking as if he might not soon see them again — unless indeed they should come to England, a course he strongly recommended. Why shouldn’t they come to England in the autumn? — that struck him as a very happy thought. It would give him such pleasure to do what he could for them — to have them come and spend a month with him. Osmond, by his own admission, had been to England but once; which was an absurd state of things for a man of his leisure and intelligence. It was just the country for him — he would be sure to get on well there. Then Lord Warburton asked Isabel if she remembered what a good time she had had there and if she didn’t want to try it again. Didn’t she want to see Gardencourt once more? Gardencourt was really very good. Touchett didn’t take proper care of it, but it was the sort of place you could hardly spoil by letting it alone. Why didn’t they come and pay Touchett a visit? He surely must have asked them. Hadn’t asked them? What an ill-mannered wretch! — and Lord Warburton promised to give the master of Gardencourt a piece of his mind. Of course it was a mere accident; he would be delighted to have them. Spending a month with Touchett and a month with himself, and seeing all the rest of the people they must know there, they really wouldn’t find it half bad. Lord Warburton added that it would amuse Miss Osmond as well, who had told him that she had never been to England and whom he had assured it was a country she deserved to see. Of course she didn’t need to go to England to be admired — that was her fate everywhere; but she would be an immense success there, she certainly would, if that was any inducement. He asked if she were not at home: couldn’t he say good-bye? Not that he liked good-byes — he always funked them. When he left England the other day he hadn’t said good-bye to a two-legged creature. He had had half a mind to leave Rome without troubling Mrs. Osmond for a final interview. What could be more dreary than final interviews? One never said the things one wanted — one remembered them all an hour afterwards. On the other hand one usually said a lot of things one shouldn’t, simply from a sense that one had to say something. Such a sense was upsetting; it muddled one’s wits. He had it at present, and that was the effect it produced on him. If Mrs. Osmond didn’t think he spoke as he ought she must set it down to agitation; it was no light thing to part with Mrs. Osmond. He was really very sorry to be going. He had thought of writing to her instead of calling — but he would write to her at any rate, to tell her a lot of things that would be sure to occur to him as soon as he had left the house. They must think seriously about coming to Lockleigh.

If there was anything awkward in the conditions of his visit or in the announcement of his departure it failed to come to the surface. Lord Warburton talked about his agitation; but he showed it in no other manner, and Isabel saw that since he had determined on a retreat he was capable of executing it gallantly. She was very glad for him; she liked him quite well enough to wish him to appear to carry a thing off. He would do that on any occasion — not from impudence but simply from the habit of success; and Isabel felt it out of her husband’s power to frustrate this faculty. A complex operation, as she sat there, went on in her mind. On one side she listened to their visitor; said what was proper to him; read, more or less, between the lines of what he said himself; and wondered how he would have spoken if he had found her alone. On the other she had a perfect consciousness of Osmond’s emotion. She felt almost sorry for him; he was condemned to the sharp pain of loss without the relief of cursing. He had had a great hope, and now, as he saw it vanish into smoke, he was obliged to sit and smile and twirl his thumbs. Not that he troubled himself to smile very brightly; he treated their friend on the whole to as vacant a countenance as so clever a man could very well wear. It was indeed a part of Osmond’s cleverness that he could look consummately uncompromised. His present appearance, however, was not a confession of disappointment; it was simply a part of Osmond’s habitual system, which was to be inexpressive exactly in proportion as he was really intent. He had been intent on this prize from the first; but he had never allowed his eagerness to irradiate his refined face. He had treated his possible son-in-law as he treated every one — with an air of being interested in him only for his own advantage, not for any profit to a person already so generally, so perfectly provided as Gilbert Osmond. He would give no sign now of an inward rage which was the result of a vanished prospect of gain — not the faintest nor subtlest. Isabel could be sure of that, if it was any satisfaction to her. Strangely, very strangely, it was a satisfaction; she wished Lord Warburton to triumph before her husband, and at the same time she wished her husband to be very superior before Lord Warburton. Osmond, in his way, was admirable; he had, like their visitor, the advantage of an acquired habit. It was not that of succeeding, but it was something almost as good — that of not attempting. As he leaned back in his place, listening but vaguely to the other’s friendly offers and suppressed explanations — as if it were only proper to assume that they were addressed essentially to his wife — he had at least (since so little else was left him) the comfort of thinking how well he personally had kept out of it, and how the air of indifference, which he was now able to wear, had the added beauty of consistency. It was something to be able to look as if the leave-taker’s movements had no relation to his own mind. The latter did well, certainly; but Osmond’s performance was in its very nature more finished. Lord Warburton’s position was after all an easy one; there was no reason in the world why he shouldn’t leave Rome. He had had beneficent inclinations, but they had stopped short of fruition; he had never committed himself, and his honour was safe. Osmond appeared to take but a moderate interest in the proposal that they should go and stay with him and in his allusion to the success Pansy might extract from their visit. He murmured a recognition, but left Isabel to say that it was a matter requiring grave consideration. Isabel, even while she made this remark, could see the great vista which had suddenly opened out in her husband’s mind, with Pansy’s little figure marching up the middle of it.

Lord Warburton had asked leave to bid good-bye to Pansy, but neither Isabel nor Osmond had made any motion to send for her. He had the air of giving out that his visit must be short; he sat on a small chair, as if it were only for a moment, keeping his hat in his hand. But he stayed and stayed; Isabel wondered what he was waiting for. She believed it was not to see Pansy; she had an impression that on the whole he would rather not see Pansy. It was of course to see herself alone — he had something to say to her. Isabel had no great wish to hear it, for she was afraid it would be an explanation, and she could perfectly dispense with explanations. Osmond, however, presently got up, like a man of good taste to whom it had occurred that so inveterate a visitor might wish to say just the last word of all to the ladies. “I’ve a letter to write before dinner,” he said; “you must excuse me. I’ll see if my daughter’s disengaged, and if she is she shall know you’re here. Of course when you come to Rome you’ll always look us up. Mrs. Osmond will talk to you about the English expedition: she decides all those things.”

The nod with which, instead of a hand-shake, he wound up this little speech was perhaps rather a meagre form of salutation; but on the whole it was all the occasion demanded. Isabel reflected that after he left the room Lord Warburton would have no pretext for saying, “Your husband’s very angry”; which would have been extremely disagreeable to her. Nevertheless, if he had done so, she would have said: “Oh, don’t be anxious. He doesn’t hate you: it’s me that he hates!”

It was only when they had been left alone together that her friend showed a certain vague awkwardness — sitting down in another chair, handling two or three of the objects that were near him. “I hope he’ll make Miss Osmond come,” he presently remarked. “I want very much to see her.”

“I’m glad it’s the last time,” said Isabel.

“So am I. She doesn’t care for me.”

“No, she doesn’t care for you.”

“I don’t wonder at it,” he returned. Then he added with inconsequence: “You’ll come to England, won’t you?”

“I think we had better not.”

“Ah, you owe me a visit. Don’t you remember that you were to have come to Lockleigh once, and you never did?”

“Everything’s changed since then,” said Isabel.

“Not changed for the worse, surely — as far as we’re concerned. To see you under my roof”— and he hung fire but an instant —“would be a great satisfaction.”

She had feared an explanation; but that was the only one that occurred. They talked a little of Ralph, and in another moment Pansy came in, already dressed for dinner and with a little red spot in either cheek. She shook hands with Lord Warburton and stood looking up into his face with a fixed smile — a smile that Isabel knew, though his lordship probably never suspected it, to be near akin to a burst of tears.

“I’m going away,” he said. “I want to bid you good-bye.”

“Good-bye, Lord Warburton.” Her voice perceptibly trembled.

“And I want to tell you how much I wish you may be very happy.”

“Thank you, Lord Warburton,” Pansy answered.

He lingered a moment and gave a glance at Isabel. “You ought to be very happy — you’ve got a guardian angel.”

“I’m sure I shall be happy,” said Pansy in the tone of a person whose certainties were always cheerful.

“Such a conviction as that will take you a great way. But if it should ever fail you, remember — remember —” And her interlocutor stammered a little. “Think of me sometimes, you know!” he said with a vague laugh. Then he shook hands with Isabel in silence, and presently he was gone.

When he had left the room she expected an effusion of tears from her stepdaughter; but Pansy in fact treated her to something very different.

“I think you ARE my guardian angel!” she exclaimed very sweetly.

Isabel shook her head. “I’m not an angel of any kind. I’m at the most your good friend.”

“You’re a very good friend then — to have asked papa to be gentle with me.”

“I’ve asked your father nothing,” said Isabel, wondering.

“He told me just now to come to the drawing-room, and then he gave me a very kind kiss.”

“Ah,” said Isabel, “that was quite his own idea!”

She recognised the idea perfectly; it was very characteristic, and she was to see a great deal more of it. Even with Pansy he couldn’t put himself the least in the wrong. They were dining out that day, and after their dinner they went to another entertainment; so that it was not till late in the evening that Isabel saw him alone. When Pansy kissed him before going to bed he returned her embrace with even more than his usual munificence, and Isabel wondered if he meant it as a hint that his daughter had been injured by the machinations of her stepmother. It was a partial expression, at any rate, of what he continued to expect of his wife. She was about to follow Pansy, but he remarked that he wished she would remain; he had something to say to her. Then he walked about the drawing-room a little, while she stood waiting in her cloak.

“I don’t understand what you wish to do,” he said in a moment. “I should like to know — so that I may know how to act.”

“Just now I wish to go to bed. I’m very tired.”

“Sit down and rest; I shall not keep you long. Not there — take a comfortable place.” And he arranged a multitude of cushions that were scattered in picturesque disorder upon a vast divan. This was not, however, where she seated herself; she dropped into the nearest chair. The fire had gone out; the lights in the great room were few. She drew her cloak about her; she felt mortally cold. “I think you’re trying to humiliate me,” Osmond went on. “It’s a most absurd undertaking.”

“I haven’t the least idea what you mean,” she returned.

“You’ve played a very deep game; you’ve managed it beautifully.”

“What is it that I’ve managed?”

“You’ve not quite settled it, however; we shall see him again.” And he stopped in front of her, with his hands in his pockets, looking down at her thoughtfully, in his usual way, which seemed meant to let her know that she was not an object, but only a rather disagreeable incident, of thought.

“If you mean that Lord Warburton’s under an obligation to come back you’re wrong,” Isabel said. “He’s under none whatever.”

“That’s just what I complain of. But when I say he’ll come back I don’t mean he’ll come from a sense of duty.”

“There’s nothing else to make him. I think he has quite exhausted Rome.”

“Ah no, that’s a shallow judgement. Rome’s inexhaustible.” And Osmond began to walk about again. “However, about that perhaps there’s no hurry,” he added. “It’s rather a good idea of his that we should go to England. If it were not for the fear of finding your cousin there I think I should try to persuade you.”

“It may be that you’ll not find my cousin,” said Isabel.

“I should like to be sure of it. However, I shall be as sure as possible. At the same time I should like to see his house, that you told me so much about at one time: what do you call it? — Gardencourt. It must be a charming thing. And then, you know, I’ve a devotion to the memory of your uncle: you made me take a great fancy to him. I should like to see where he lived and died. That indeed is a detail. Your friend was right. Pansy ought to see England.”

“I’ve no doubt she would enjoy it,” said Isabel.

“But that’s a long time hence; next autumn’s far off,” Osmond continued; “and meantime there are things that more nearly interest us. Do you think me so very proud?” he suddenly asked.

“I think you very strange.”

“You don’t understand me.”

“No, not even when you insult me.”

“I don’t insult you; I’m incapable of it. I merely speak of certain facts, and if the allusion’s an injury to you the fault’s not mine. It’s surely a fact that you have kept all this matter quite in your own hands.”

“Are you going back to Lord Warburton?” Isabel asked. “I’m very tired of his name.”

“You shall hear it again before we’ve done with it.”

She had spoken of his insulting her, but it suddenly seemed to her that this ceased to be a pain. He was going down — down; the vision of such a fall made her almost giddy: that was the only pain. He was too strange, too different; he didn’t touch her. Still, the working of his morbid passion was extraordinary, and she felt a rising curiosity to know in what light he saw himself justified. “I might say to you that I judge you’ve nothing to say to me that’s worth hearing,” she returned in a moment. “But I should perhaps be wrong. There’s a thing that would be worth my hearing — to know in the plainest words of what it is you accuse me.”

“Of having prevented Pansy’s marriage to Warburton. Are those words plain enough?”

“On the contrary, I took a great interest in it. I told you so; and when you told me that you counted on me — that I think was what you said — I accepted the obligation. I was a fool to do so, but I did it.”

“You pretended to do it, and you even pretended reluctance to make me more willing to trust you. Then you began to use your ingenuity to get him out of the way.”

“I think I see what you mean,” said Isabel.

“Where’s the letter you told me he had written me?” her husband demanded.

“I haven’t the least idea; I haven’t asked him.”

“You stopped it on the way,” said Osmond.

Isabel slowly got up; standing there in her white cloak, which covered her to her feet, she might have represented the angel of disdain, first cousin to that of pity. “Oh, Gilbert, for a man who was so fine —!” she exclaimed in a long murmur.

“I was never so fine as you. You’ve done everything you wanted. You’ve got him out of the say without appearing to do so, and you’ve placed me in the position in which you wished to see me — that of a man who has tried to marry his daughter to a lord, but has grotesquely failed.”

“Pansy doesn’t care for him. She’s very glad he’s gone,” Isabel said.

“That has nothing to do with the matter.”

“And he doesn’t care for Pansy.”

“That won’t do; you told me he did. I don’t know why you wanted this particular satisfaction,” Osmond continued; “you might have taken some other. It doesn’t seem to me that I’ve been presumptuous — that I have taken too much for granted. I’ve been very modest about it, very quiet. The idea didn’t originate with me. He began to show that he liked her before I ever thought of it. I left it all to you.”

“Yes, you were very glad to leave it to me. After this you must attend to such things yourself.”

He looked at her a moment; then he turned away. “I thought you were very fond of my daughter.”

“I’ve never been more so than to-day.”

“Your affection is attended with immense limitations. However, that perhaps is natural.”

“Is this all you wished to say to me?” Isabel asked, taking a candle that stood on one of the tables.

“Are you satisfied? Am I sufficiently disappointed?”

“I don’t think that on the whole you’re disappointed. You’ve had another opportunity to try to stupefy me.”

“It’s not that. It’s proved that Pansy can aim high.”

“Poor little Pansy!” said Isabel as she turned away with her candle.

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