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Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter XLI

OSMOND touched on this matter that evening for the first time; coming very late into the drawing-room, where she was sitting alone. They had spent the evening at home, and Pansy had gone to bed; he himself had been sitting since dinner in a small apartment in which he had arranged his books and which he called his study. At ten o’clock Lord Warburton had come in, as he always did when he knew from Isabel that she was to be at home; he was going somewhere else, and he sat for half-an-hour. Isabel, after asking him for news of Ralph, said very little to him, on purpose; she wished him to talk with the young girl. She pretended to read; she even went after a little to the piano; she asked herself whether she might not leave the room. She had come little by little to think well of the idea of Pansy’s becoming the wife of the master of beautiful Lockleigh, though at first it had not presented itself in a manner to excite her enthusiasm. Madame Merle, that afternoon, had applied the match to an accumulation of inflammable material. When Isabel was unhappy, she always looked about her—partly from impulse and partly by theory—for some form of exertion. She could never rid herself of the conviction that unhappiness was a state of disease; it was suffering as opposed to action. To act, to do something—it hardly mattered what—would therefore be an escape, perhaps in some degree a remedy. Besides, she wished to convince herself that she had done everything possible to content her husband; she was determined not to be haunted by images of a flat want of zeal. It would please him greatly to see Pansy married to an English nobleman, and justly please him, since this nobleman was such a fine fellow. It seemed to Isabel that if she could make it her duty to bring about such an event, she should play the part of a good wife. She wanted to be that; she wanted to be able to believe, sincerely, that she had been that. Then, such an undertaking had other recommendations. It would occupy her, and she desired occupation. It would even amuse her, and if she could really amuse herself she perhaps might be saved. Lastly, it would be a service to Lord Warburton, who evidently pleased himself greatly with the young girl. It was a little odd that he should—being what he was; but there was no accounting for such impressions. Pansy might captivate any one—any one, at least, but Lord Warburton. Isabel would have thought her too small, too slight, perhaps even too artificial for that. There was always a little of the doll about her, and that was not what Lord Warburton had been looking for. Still, who could say what men looked for? They looked for what they found; they knew what pleased them only when they saw it. No theory was valid in such matters, and nothing was more unaccountable or more natural than anything else. If he had cared for her it might seem odd that he cared for Pansy, who was so different; but he had not cared for her so much as he supposed. Or if he had, he had completely got over it, and it was natural that as that affair had failed, he should think that something of quite another sort might succeed. Enthusiasm, as I say, had not come at first to Isabel, but it came to-day and made her feel almost happy. It was astonishing what happiness she could still find in the idea of procuring a pleasure for her husband. It was a pity, however, that Edward Rosier had crossed their path!

At this reflection the light that had suddenly gleamed upon that path lost something of its brightness. Isabel was unfortunately as sure that Pansy thought Mr. Rosier the nicest of all the young men—as sure as if she had held an interview with her on the subject. It was very tiresome that she should be so sure, when she had carefully abstained from informing herself; almost as tiresome as that poor Mr. Rosier should have taken it into his own head. He was certainly very inferior to Lord Warburton. It was not the difference in fortune so much as the difference in the men; the young American was really so very flimsy. He was much more of the type of the useless fine gentleman than the English nobleman. It was true that there was no particular reason why Pansy should marry a statesman; still, if a statesman admired her, that was his affair, and she would make a very picturesque little peeress.

It may seem to the reader that Isabel had suddenly grown strangely cynical; for she ended by saying to herself that this difficulty could probably be arranged. Somehow, an impediment that was embodied in poor Rosier could not present itself as a dangerous one; there were always means of levelling secondary obstacles. Isabel was perfectly aware that she had not taken the measure of Pansy’s tenacity, which might prove to be inconveniently great; but she inclined to think the young girl would not be tenacious, for she had the faculty of assent developed in a very much higher degree than that of resistance. She would cling, yes, she would cling; but it really mattered to her very little what she clung to. Lord Warburton would do as well as Mr. Rosier—especially as she seemed quite to like him. She had expressed this sentiment to Isabel without a single reservation; she said she thought his conversation most interesting—he had told her all about India. His manner to Pansy had been of the happiest; Isabel noticed that for herself, as she also observed that he talked to her not in the least in a patronising way, reminding himself of her youth and simplicity, but quite as if she could understand everything. He was careful only to be kind—he was as kind as he had been to Isabel herself at Gardencourt. A girl might well be touched by that; she remembered how she herself had been touched, and said to herself that if she had been as simple as Pansy, the impression would have been deeper still. She had not been simple when she refused him; that operation had been as complicated, as, later, her acceptance of Osmond. Pansy, however, in spite of her simplicity, really did understand, and was glad that Lord Warburton should talk to her, not about her partners and bouquets, but about the state of Italy, the condition of the peasantry, the famous grist-tax, the pellagra, his impressions of Roman society. She looked at him as she drew her needle through her tapestry, with sweet attentive eyes, and when she lowered them she gave little quiet oblique glances at his person, his hands, his feet, his clothes, as if she were considering him. Even his person, Isabel might have reminded her, was better than Mr. Rosier’s. But Isabel contented herself at such moments with wondering where this gentleman was; he came no more at all to the Palazzo Roccanera. It was surprising, as I say, the hold it had taken of her—the idea of assisting her husband to be pleased.

It was surprising for a variety of reasons, which I shall presently touch upon. On the evening I speak of, while Lord Warburton sat there, she had been on the point of taking the great step of going out of the room and leaving her companions alone. I say the great step, because it was in this light that Gilbert Osmond would have regarded it, and Isabel was trying as much as possible to take her husband’s view. She succeeded after a fashion, but she did not succeed in coming to the point I mention. After all, she couldn’t; something held her and made it impossible. It was not exactly that it would be base, insidious; for women as a general thing practise such manœuvres with a perfectly good conscience, and Isabel had all the qualities of her sex. It was a vague doubt that interposed—a sense that she was not quite sure. So she remained in the drawing-room, and after a while Lord Warburton went off to his party, of which he promised to give Pansy a full account on the morrow. After he had gone, Isabel asked herself whether she had prevented something which would have happened if she had absented herself for a quarter of an hour; and then she exclaimed—always mentally—that when Lord Warburton wished her to go away he would easily find means to let her know it. Pansy said nothing whatever about him after he had gone, and Isabel said nothing, as she had taken a vow of reserve until after he should have declared himself. He was a little longer in coming to this than might seem to accord with the description he had given Isabel of his feelings. Pansy went to bed, and Isabel had to admit that she could not now guess what her step-daughter was thinking of. Her transparent little companion was for the moment rather opaque.

Isabel remained alone, looking at the fire, until, at the end of half-an-hour, her husband came in. He moved about a while in silence, and then sat down, looking at the fire like herself. But Isabel now had transferred her eyes from the flickering flame in the chimney to Osmond’s face, and she watched him while he sat silent. Covert observation had become a habit with her; an instinct, of which it is not an exaggeration to say that it was allied to that of self-defence, had made it habitual. She wished as much as possible to know his thoughts, to know what he would say, beforehand, so that she might prepare her answer. Preparing answers had not been her strong point of old; she had rarely in this respect got further than thinking afterwards of clever things she might have said. But she had learned caution—learned it in a measure from her husband’s very countenance. It was the same face she had looked into with eyes equally earnest perhaps, but less penetrating, on the terrace of a Florentine villa; except that Osmond had grown a little stouter since his marriage. He still, however, looked very distinguished.

“Has Lord Warburton been here?” he presently asked.

“Yes, he stayed for half-an-hour.”

“Did he see Pansy?”

“Yes; he sat on the sofa beside her.”

“Did he talk with her much?”

“He talked almost only to her.”

“It seems to me he’s attentive. Isn’t that what you called it?”

“I don’t call it anything,” said Isabel; “I have waited for you to give it a name.”

“That’s a consideration you don’t always show,” Osmond answered, after a moment.

“I have determined, this time, to try and act as you would like. I have so often failed in that.”

Osmond turned his head, slowly, looking at her.

“Are you trying to quarrel with me?”

“No, I am trying to live at peace.”

“Nothing is more easy; you know I don’t quarrel myself.”

“What do you call it when you try to make me angry?” Isabel asked.

“I don’t try; if I have done so, it has been the most natural thing in the world. Moreover, I am not in the least trying now.”

Isabel smiled. “It doesn’t matter. I have determined never to be angry again.”

“That’s an excellent resolve. Your temper isn’t good.”

“No—it’s not good.” She pushed away the book she had been reading, and took up the band of tapestry that Pansy had left on the table.

“That’s partly why I have not spoken to you about this business of my daughter’s,” Osmond said, designating Pansy in the manner that was most frequent with him. “I was afraid I should encounter opposition—that you too would have views on the subject. I have sent little Rosier about his business.”

“You were afraid that I would plead for Mr. Rosier? Haven’t you noticed that I have never spoken to you of him?”

“I have never given you a chance. We have so little conservation in these days. I know he was an old friend of yours.”

“Yes; he’s an old friend of mine.” Isabel cared little more for him than for the tapestry that she held in her hand; but it was true that he was an old friend, and with her husband she felt a desire not to extenuate such ties. He had a way of expressing contempt for them which fortified her loyalty to them, even when, as in the present case, they were in themselves insignificant. She sometimes felt a sort of passion of tenderness for memories which had no other merit than that they belonged to her unmarried life. “But as regards Pansy,” she added in a moment, “I have given him no encouragement.”

“That’s fortunate,” Osmond observed.

“Fortunate for me, I suppose you mean. For him it matters little.”

“There is no use talking of him,” Osmond said. “As I tell you, I have turned him out.”

“Yes; but a lover outside is always a lover. He is sometimes even more of one. Mr. Rosier still has hope.”

“He’s welcome to the comfort of it! My daughter has only to sit still, to become Lady Warburton.”

“Should you like that?” Isabel asked, with a simplicity which was not so affected as it may appear. She was resolved to assume nothing, for Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her assumptions against her. The intensity with which he would like his daughter to become Lady Warburton had been the very basis of her own recent reflections. But that was for herself; she would recognise nothing until Osmond should have put it into words; she would not take for granted with him that he thought Lord Warburton a prize worth an amount of effort that was unusual among the Osmonds. It was Gilbert’s constant intimation that, for him, nothing was a prize; that he treated as from equal to equal with the most distinguished people in the world, and that his daughter had only to look about her to pick out a prince. It cost him therefore a lapse from consistency to say explicitly that he yearned for Lord Warburton, that if this nobleman should escape, his equivalent might not be found; and it was another of his customary implications that he was never inconsistent. He would have liked his wife to glide over the point. But strangely enough, now that she was face to face with him, though an hour before she had almost invented a scheme for pleasing him, Isabel was not accommodating, would not glide. And yet she knew exactly the effect on his mind of her question: it would operate as a humiliation. Never mind; he was terribly capable of humiliating her—all the more so that he was also capable of waiting for great opportunities and of showing, sometimes, an almost unaccountable indifference to small ones. Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed herself of a great one.

Osmond at present acquitted himself very honourably. “I should like it extremely; it would be a great marriage. And then Lord Warburton has another advantage; he is an old friend of yours. It would be pleasant for him to come into the family. It is very singular that Pansy’s admirers should all be your old friends.”

“It is natural that they should come to see me. In coming to see me, they see Pansy. Seeing her, it is natural that they should fall in love with her.”

“So I think. But you are not bound to do so.”

“If she should marry Lord Warburton, I should be very glad,” Isabel went on, frankly. “He’s an excellent man. You say, however, that she has only to sit still. Perhaps she won’t sit still; if she loses Mr. Rosier she may jump up!”

Osmond appeared to give no heed to this; he sat gazing at the fire. “Pansy would like to be a great lady,” he remarked in a moment, with a certain tenderness of tone. “She wishes, above all, to please,” he added.

“To please Mr. Rosier, perhaps.”

“No, to please me.”

“Me too a little, I think,” said Isabel.

“Yes, she has a great opinion of you. But she will do what I like.”

“If you are sure of that, it’s very well,” Isabel said.

“Meantime,” said Osmond, “I should like our distinguished visitor to speak.”

“He has spoken—to me. He has told me that it would be a great pleasure to him to believe she could care for him.”

Osmond turned his head quickly; but at first he said nothing. Then—“Why didn’t you tell me that?” he asked, quickly.

“There was no opportunity. You know how we live. I have taken the first chance that has offered.”

“Did you speak to him of Rosier?”

“Oh yes, a little.”

“That was hardly necessary.”

“I thought it best he should know, so that, so that——” And Isabel paused.

“So that what?”

“So that he should act accordingly.”

“So that he should back out, do you mean?”

“No, so that he should advance while there is yet time.”

“That is not the effect it seems to have had.”

“You should have patience,” said Isabel. “You know Englishmen are shy.”

“This one is not. He was not when he made love to you.”

She had been afraid Osmond would speak of that; it was disagreeable to her. “I beg your pardon; he was extremely so,” she said simply.

He answered nothing for some time; he took up a book and turned over the pages, while Isabel sat silent, occupying herself with Pansy’s tapestry. “You must have a great deal of influence with him,” Osmond went on at last. “The moment you really wish it, you can bring him to the point.”

This was more disagreeable still; but Isabel felt it to be natural that her husband should say it, and it was after all something very much of the same sort that she had said to herself. “Why should I have influence?” she asked. “What have I ever done to put him under an obligation to me?”

“You refused to marry him,” said Osmond, with his eyes on his book.

“I must not presume too much on that,” Isabel answered, gently.

He threw down the book presently, and got up, standing before the fire with his hands behind him. “Well,” he said, “I hold that it lies in your hands. I shall leave it there. With a little good-will you may manage it. Think that over and remember that I count upon you.”

He waited a little, to give her time to answer; but she answered nothing, and he presently strolled out of the room.