Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Though I have tried to speak with extreme discretion, the reader may have gathered a suspicion that Gilbert Osmond was not untainted by selfishness. This is rather a coarse imputation to put upon a man of his refinement; and it behoves us at all times to remember the familiar proverb about those who live in glass houses. If Mr. Osmond was more selfish than most of his fellows, the fact will still establish itself. Lest it should fail to do so, I must decline to commit myself to an accusation so gross; the more especially as several of the items of our story would seem to point the other way. It is well known that there are few indications of selfishness more conclusive (on the part of a gentleman at least) than the preference for a single life. Gilbert Osmond, after having tasted of matrimony, had spent a succession of years in the full enjoyment of recovered singleness. He was familiar with the simplicity of purpose, the lonely liberties, of bachelorhood. He had reached that period of life when it is supposed to be doubly difficult to renounce these liberties, endeared as they are by long association; and yet he was prepared to make the generous sacrifice. It would seem that this might fairly be set down to the credit of the noblest of our qualities—the faculty of self-devotion. Certain it is that Osmond’s desire to marry had been deep and distinct. It had not been notorious; he had not gone about asking people whether they knew a nice girl with a little money. Money was an object; but this was not his manner of proceeding, and no one knew—or even greatly cared—whether he wished to marry or not. Madame Merle knew—that we have already perceived. It was not that he had told her; on the whole he would not have cared to tell her. But there were things of which she had no need to be told—things as to which she had a sort of creative intuition. She had recognised a truth that was none the less pertinent for being very subtle: the truth that there was something very imperfect in Osmond’s situation as it stood. He was a failure, of course; that was an old story; to Madame Merle’s perception he would always be a failure. But there were degrees of ineffectiveness, and there was no need of taking one of the highest. Success, for Gilbert Osmond, would be to make himself felt; that was the only success to which he could now pretend. It is not a kind of distinction that is officially recognised—unless indeed the operation be performed upon multitudes of men. Osmond’s line would be to impress himself not largely but deeply; a distinction of the most private sort. A single character might offer the whole measure of it; the clear and sensitive nature of a generous girl would make space for the record. The record of course would be complete if the young lady should have a fortune, and Madame Merle would have taken no pains to make Mr. Osmond acquainted with Mrs. Touchett’s niece if Isabel had been as scantily dowered as when first she met her. He had waited all these years because he wanted only the best, and a portionless bride naturally would not have been the best. He had waited so long in vain that he finally almost lost his interest in the subject—not having kept it up by venturesome experiments. It had become improbable that the best was now to be had, and if he wished to make himself felt, there was soft and supple little Pansy, who would evidently respond to the slightest pressure. When at last the best did present itself Osmond recognised it like a gentleman. There was therefore no incongruity in his wishing to marry—it was his own idea of success, as well as that which Madame Merle, with her old-time interest in his affairs, entertained for him. Let it not, however, be supposed that he was guilty of the error of believing that Isabel’s character was of that passive sort which offers a free field for domination. He was sure that she would constantly act—act in the sense of enthusiastic concession.
Shortly before the time which had been fixed in advance for her return to Florence, this young lady received from Mrs. Touchett a telegram which ran as follows:—“Leave Florence 4th June, Bellaggio, and take you if you have not other views. But can’t wait if you dawdle in Rome.” The dawdling in Rome was very pleasant, but Isabel had no other views, and she wrote to her aunt that she would immediately join her. She told Gilbert Osmond that she had done so, and he replied that, spending many of his summers as well as his winters in Italy, he himself would loiter a little longer among the Seven Hills. He should not return to Florence for ten days more, and in that time she would have started for Bellaggio. It might be long, in this case, before he should see her again. This conversation took place in the large decorated sitting-room which our friends occupied at the hotel; it was late in the evening, and Ralph Touchett was to take his cousin back to Florence on the morrow. Osmond had found the girl alone; Miss Stackpole had contracted a friendship with a delightful American family on the fourth floor, and had mounted the interminable staircase to pay them a visit. Miss Stackpole contracted friendships, in travelling, with great freedom, and had formed several in railway-carriages, which were among her most valued ties. Ralph was making arrangements for the morrow’s journey, and Isabel sat alone in a wilderness of yellow upholstery. The chairs and sofas were orange; the walls and windows were draped in purple and gilt. The mirrors, the pictures, had great flamboyant frames; the ceiling was deeply vaulted and painted over with naked muses and cherubs. To Osmond the place was painfully ugly; the false colours, the sham splendour, made him suffer. Isabel had taken in hand a volume of Ampère, presented, on their arrival in Rome, by Ralph; but though she held it in her lap with her finger vaguely kept in the place, she was not impatient to go on with her reading. A lamp covered with a drooping veil of pink tissue-paper burned on the table beside her, and diffused a strange pale rosiness over the scene.
“You say you will come back; but who knows?” Gilbert Osmond said. “I think you are much more likely to start on your voyage round the world. You are under no obligation to come back; you can do exactly what you choose; you can roam through space.”
“Well, Italy is a part of space,” Isabel answered; “I can take it on the way.”
“On the way round the world? No, don’t do that. Don’t put us into a parenthesis—give us a chapter to ourselves. I don’t want to see you on your travels. I would rather see you when they are over. I should like to see you when you are tired and satiated,” Osmond added, in a moment. “I shall prefer you in that state.”
Isabel, with her eyes bent down, fingered the pages of M. Ampère a little.
“You turn things into ridicule without seeming to do it, though not, I think, without intending it,” she said at last. “You have no respect for my travels—you think them ridiculous.”
“Where do you find that?”
Isabel went on in the same tone, fretting the edge of her book with the paper-knife.
“You see my ignorance, my blunders, the way I wander about as if the world belonged to me, simply because—because it has been put into my power to do so. You don’t think a woman ought to do that. You think it bold and ungraceful.”
“I think it beautiful,” said Osmond. “You know my opinions—I have treated you to enough of them. Don’t you remember my telling you that one ought to make one’s life a work of art? You looked rather shocked at first; but then I told you that it was exactly what you seemed to me to be trying to do with your own life.”
Isabel looked up from her book.
“What you despise most in the world is bad art.”
“Possibly. But yours seem to me very good.”
“If I were to go to Japan next winter, you would laugh at me,” Isabel continued.
Osmond gave a smile—a keen one, but not a laugh, for the tone of their conversation was not jocular. Isabel was almost tremulously serious; he had seen her so before.
“You have an imagination that startles one!”
“That is exactly what I say. You think such an idea absurd.”
“I would give my little finger to go to Japan; it is one of the countries I want most to see. Can’t you believe that, with my taste for old lacquer?”
“I haven’t a taste for old lacquer to excuse me,” said Isabel.
“You have a better excuse—the means of going. You are quite wrong in your theory that I laugh at you. I don’t know what put it into your head.”
“It wouldn’t be remarkable if you did think it ridiculous that I should have the means to travel, when you have not; for you know everything, and I know nothing.”
“The more reason why you should travel and learn,” said Osmond, smiling. “Besides,” he added, more gravely, “I don’t know everything.”
Isabel was not struck with the oddity of his saying this gravely; she was thinking that the pleasantest incident of her life—so it pleased her to qualify her little visit to Rome—was coming to an end. That most of the interest of this episode had been owing to Mr. Osmond—this reflection she was not just now at pains to make; she had already done the point abundant justice. But she said to herself that if there were a danger that they should not meet again, perhaps after all it would be as well. Happy things do not repeat themselves, and these few days had been interfused with the element of success.
She might come back to Italy and find him different—this strange man who pleased her just as he was; and it would be better not to come than run the risk of that. But if she was not to come, the greater was the pity that this happy week was over; for a moment she felt her heart throb with a kind of delicious pain. The sensation kept her silent, and Gilbert Osmond was silent too; he was looking at her.
“Go everywhere,” he said at last, in a low, kind voice; “do everything; get everything out of life. Be happy—be triumphant.”
“What do you mean by being triumphant?”
“Doing what you like.”
“To triumph, then, it seems to me, is to fail! Doing what we like is often very tiresome.”
“Exactly,” said Osmond, with his quick responsiveness. “As I intimated just now, you will be tired some day.” He paused a moment, and then he went on: “I don’t know whether I had better not wait till then for something I wish to say to you.”
“Ah, I can’t advise you without knowing what it is. But I am horrid when I am tired,” Isabel added, with due inconsequence.
“I don’t believe that. You are angry, sometimes—that I can believe, though I have never seen it. But I am sure you are never disagreeable.”
“Not even when I lose my temper?”
“You don’t lose it—you find it, and that must be beautiful.” Osmond spoke very simply—almost solemnly. “There must be something very noble about that.”
“If I could only find it now!” the girl exclaimed, laughing, yet frowning.
“I am not afraid; I should fold my arms and admire you, I am speaking very seriously.” He was leaning forward, with a hand on each knee; for some moments he bent his eyes on the floor. “What I wish to say to you,” he went on at last, looking up, “is that I find I am in love with you.”
Isabel instantly rose from her chair.
“Ah, keep that till I am tired!” she murmured.
“Tired of hearing it from others?” And Osmond sat there, looking up at her. “No, you may heed it now, or never, as you please. But, after all, I must say it now.”
She had turned away, but in the movement she had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him. The two remained a moment in this situation, exchanging a long look—the large, conscious look of the critical hours of life. Then he got up and came near her, deeply respectful, as if he were afraid he had been too familiar.
“I am thoroughly in love with you.”
He repeated the announcement in a tone of almost impersonal discretion; like a man who expected very little from it, but spoke for his own relief.
The tears came into Isabel’s eyes—they were caused by an intenser throb of that pleasant pain I spoke of a moment ago. There was an immense sweetness in the words he had uttered; but, morally speaking, she retreated before them—facing him still—as she had retreated in two or three cases that we know of in which the same words had been spoken.
“Oh, don’t say that, please,” she answered at last, in a tone of entreaty which had nothing of conventional modesty, but which expressed the dread of having, in this case too, to choose and decide. What made her dread great was precisely the force which, as it would seem, ought to have banished all dread—the consciousness of what was in her own heart. It was terrible to have to surrender herself to that.
“I haven’t the idea that it will matter much to you,” said Osmond. “I have too little to offer you. What I have—it’s enough for me; but it’s not enough for you. I have neither fortune, nor fame, nor extrinsic advantages of any kind. So I offer nothing. I only tell you because I think it can’t offend you, and some day or other it may give you pleasure. It gives me pleasure, I assure you,” he went on, standing there before her, bending forward a little, turning his hat, which he had taken up, slowly round, with a movement which had all the decent tremor of awkwardness and none of its oddity, and presenting to her his keen, expressive, emphatic face. “It gives me no pain, because it is perfectly simple. For me you will always be the most important woman in the world.”
Isabel looked at herself in this character—looked intently, and thought that she filled it with a certain grace. But what she said was not an expression of this complacency. “You don’t offend me; but you ought to remember that, without being offended, one may be incommoded, troubled.” “Incommoded”: she heard herself saying that, and thought it a ridiculous word. But it was the word that came to her.
“I remember, perfectly. Of course you are surprised and startled. But if it is nothing but that, it will pass away. And it will perhaps leave something that I may not be ashamed of.”
“I don’t know what it may leave. You see at all events that I am not overwhelmed,” said Isabel, with rather a pale smile. “I am not too troubled to think. And I think that I am glad we are separating—that I leave Rome to-morrow.”
“Of course I don’t agree with you there.”
“I don’t know you,” said Isabel, abruptly; and then she coloured, as she heard herself saying what she had said almost a year before to Lord Warburton.
“If you were not going away you would know me better.”
“I shall do that some other time.”
“I hope so. I am very easy to know.”
“No, no,” said the girl, with a flash of bright eagerness; “there you are not sincere. You are not easy to know; no one could be less so.”
“Well,” Osmond answered, with a laugh, “I said that because I know myself. That may be a boast, but I do.”
“Very likely; but you are very wise.”
“So are you, Miss Archer!” Osmond exclaimed.
“I don’t feel so just now. Still, I am wise enough to think you had better go. Good night.”
“God bless you!” said Gilbert Osmond, taking the hand which she failed to surrender to him. And then in a moment he added, “If we meet again, you will find me as you leave me. If we don’t, I shall be so, all the same.”
“Thank you very much. Good-bye.”
There was something quietly firm about Isabel’s visitor; he might go of his own movement, but he would not be dismissed. “There is one thing more,” he said. “I haven’t asked anything of you—not even a thought in the future; you must do me that justice. But there is a little service I should like to ask. I shall not return home for several days; Rome is delightful, and it is a good place for a man in my state of mind. Oh, I know you are sorry to leave it; but you are right to do what your aunt wishes.”
“She doesn’t even wish it!” Isabel broke out, strangely.
Osmond for a moment was apparently on the point of saying something that would match these words. But he changed his mind, and rejoined, simply—“Ah well, it’s proper you should go with her, all the same. Do everything that’s proper; I go in for that. Excuse my being so patronising. You say you don’t know me; but when you do you will discover what a worship I have for propriety.”
“You are not conventional?” said Isabel, very gravely.
“I like the way you utter that word! No, I am not conventional: I am convention itself. You don’t understand that?” And Osmond paused a moment, smiling. “I should like to explain it.” Then, with a sudden, quick, bright naturalness—“Do come back again!” he cried. “There are so many things we might talk about.”
Isabel stood there with lowered eyes. “What service did you speak of just now?”
“Go and see my little daughter before you leave Florence. She is alone at the villa; I decided not to send her to my sister, who hasn’t my ideas. Tell her she must love her poor father very much,” said Gilbert Osmond, gently.
“It will be a great pleasure to me to go,” Isabel answered. “I will tell her what you say. Once more good-bye.”
On this he took a rapid, respectful leave. When he had gone, she stood a moment, looking about her, and then she seated herself, slowly, with an air of deliberation. She sat thus until her companions came back, with folded hands, gazing at the ugly carpet. Her agitation—for it had not diminished—was very still, very deep. That which had happened was something that for a week past her imagination had been going forward to meet; but here, when it came, she stopped—here imagination halted. The working of this young lady’s spirit was strange, and I can only give it to you as I see it, not hoping to make it seem altogether natural. Her imagination stopped, as I say; there was a last vague space it could not cross—a dusky, uncertain tract which looked ambiguous, and even slightly treacherous, like a moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she was to cross it yet.