Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XLV

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

Chapter XLV

I HAVE already had reason to say that Isabel knew that her husband was displeased by the continuance of Ralph’s visit to Rome. This 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 displeasure. 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 disapproval; that is, she partook of it, as she flattered herself, discreetly. She had not as yet undertaken to act in direct opposition to Osmond’s wishes; he was her 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 when she gave 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, however, the rapid approach of the day when she should have to take back something that she had solemnly given. 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. He had not yet formally forbidden her to go and see 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; to be just, she didn’t see how he could like her to be with her cousin. Ralph never said a word against him; but Osmond’s objections were none the less founded. If Osmond should positively interpose, then she should have to decide, and that would not 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 with her husband, she found herself wishing that 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 acknowledgment 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 is no substitute for that success. For the moment, Isabel went to the Hôtel de Paris as often as she thought well; the measure of expediency resided in her moral consciousness. It had been very liberal 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,” she said. “It’s about Lord Warburton.”

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

“It’s very possible,” said Isabel. “Please then answer it.”

“Oh, I don’t say I can do that.”

“You are intimate with him,” said Isabel; “you have 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 a moment; a shade of perplexity mingled with his mild hilarity.

“You said 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 are very philosophic,” said her cousin. And then in a moment—“May I inquire what you are talking about?”

Isabel stared a little. “I thought you knew. Lord Warburton tells me he desires to marry Pansy. I have 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 just said now that he did.”

Ralph hesitated 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,” Isabel said, speaking, 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 is 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 upon which she could freely expend herself. Soon, however, she looked up, and then—

“Ah, Ralph, you give me no help!” she cried abruptly, 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 is very simple; Lord Warburton must get on by himself. I can’t undertake to help him.”

“He ought to succeed easily,” said Ralph.

Isabel hesitated a moment. “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 suspect that after all he will let the matter drop.”

“He will do nothing dishonourable,” said Ralph.

“I am very sure of that. Nothing can be more honourable than for him to leave the poor child alone. She cares for some one else, and it is 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 are not in love with him. He has the merit of being in love with her. She can see at a glance that Lord Warburton is not.”

“He would 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 Osmond—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 am very glad he should not become your step-daughter’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 am 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 that he knew it. It little mattered that Isabel would know it much better; it was for his own satisfaction more than for hers that he longed to show her that 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 he only failed. What had she come for them, 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 will be decidedly at variance, all the same,” he said, in a moment. And as she answered nothing, looking as if she scarcely understood—“You will find yourselves thinking very differently,” he continued.

“That may easily happen, among the most united couples!” She took up her parasol; he saw that 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 is very natural. Pansy is after all his daughter—not mine.” And she put out her hand to wish him good-bye.

Ralph took an inward resolution that she should not 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 are not kind,” she said, in a voice that he had never heard on her lips.

“Be frank with me, and you’ll see,” said Ralph.

But she made no answer; she only shook her hand out of his own, which he tried still to hold, and rapidly went out of the room. She made up her mind to speak to Pansy, and she took an occasion on the same day, going to the young 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 and 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 the 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 it to Pansy. She was afraid even of looking too grave, or at least too stern; she was afraid of frightening her. But Pansy seemed to have guessed that she had come a little 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 inquiry something of the effect of an admonition. As she knelt there in the vague firelight, with her pretty dress vaguely 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 to Isabel’s, 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 rejoined. “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 upon 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 Pansy, 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 is only that I may act accordingly.”

Pansy stared, and then, very quickly—

“Will you do everything I desire?” she asked.

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

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

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

“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 then, told her that she had attempted this feat without the least success.

“You think of those that think of you,” she said, with a faint smile. “I know that 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 that I think of him.”

“You shouldn’t think of him. There is some excuse for him, perhaps; but there is 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 cried, hypocritically.

Pansy only gazed at her; she was evidently deeply puzzled; and Isabel, taking advantage of it, began to represent to her the miserable 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 did not lead in that direction. She felt no bitterness towards 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 very large.”

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

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

“What should you like me to do?” said Pansy, softly.

The question was a terrible one, and Isabel pusillanimously took refuge in a generalisation.

“To remember all the pleasure it is 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.”

Pansy’s eyes grew more penetrating; Isabel believed that 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 she said, with a timorous sigh—

“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 that he would succeed.”

“If he had been sure? Then he was not 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 said; “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 will ask me to marry him, I think you are mistaken.”

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

Pansy shook her head, with a little wise smile. “Lord Warburton won’t ask me 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 is 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 made Isabel feel very awkward. 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 did not; 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 have always felt sure that he knows 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 will never say it again.’ I think that is very kind, very noble,” Pansy went on, with deepening positiveness. “That is all we have said to each other. And he doesn’t care for me, either. Ah no, there is 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 would rather not,” Pansy answered.

“You ought not 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 Pansy, very lucidly.

There was something brilliant in her lucidity, and it made Isabel draw a long breath. It relieved her 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.