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

Chapter XXVI

GILBERT OSMOND came to see Isabel again; that is, he came to the Palazzo Crescentini. He had other friends there as well; and to Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle he was always impartially civil; but the former of these ladies noted the fact that in the course of a fortnight he called five times, and compared it with another fact that she found no difficulty in remembering. Two visits a year had hitherto constituted his regular tribute to Mrs. Touchett’s charms, and she had never observed that he selected for such visits those moments, of almost periodical recurrence, when Madame Merle was under her roof. It was not for Madame Merle that he came; these two were old friends, and he never put himself out for her. He was not fond of Ralph—Ralph had told her so—and it was not supposable that Mr. Osmond had suddenly taken a fancy to her son. Ralph was imperturbable—Ralph had a kind of loose-fitting urbanity that wrapped him about like an ill-made overcoat, but of which he never divested himself; he thought Mr. Osmond very good company, and would have been willing at any time to take the hospitable view of his idiosyncrasies. But he did not flatter himself that the desire to repair a past injustice was the motive of their visitor’s calls; he read the situation more clearly. Isabel was the attraction, and in all conscience a sufficient one. Osmond was a critic, a student of the exquisite, and it was natural he should admire an admirable person. So when his mother said to him that it was very plain what Mr. Osmond was thinking of, Ralph replied that he was quite of her opinion. Mrs. Touchett had always liked Mr. Osmond; she thought him so much of a gentleman. As he had never been an importunate visitor he had had no chance to be offensive, and he was recommended to Mrs. Touchett by his appearance of being as well able to do without her as she was to do without him—a quality that always excited her esteem. It gave her no satisfaction, however, to think that he had taken it into his head to marry her niece. Such an alliance, on Isabel’s part, would have an air of almost morbid perversity. Mrs. Touchett easily remembered that the girl had refused an English peer; and that a young lady for whom Lord Warburton had not been up to the mark should content herself with an obscure American dilettante, a middle-aged widower with an overgrown daughter and an income of nothing—this answered to nothing in Mrs. Touchett’s conception of success. She took, it will be observed, not the sentimental, but the political, view of matrimony—a view which has always had much to recommend it. “I trust she won’t have the folly to listen to him,” she said to her son; to which Ralph replied that Isabel’s listening was one thing and her answering quite another. He knew that she had listened to others, but that she had made them listen to her in return; and he found much entertainment in the idea that, in these few months that he had known her, he should see a third suitor at her gate. She had wanted to see life, and fortune was serving her to her taste; a succession of gentlemen going down on their knees to her was by itself a respectable chapter of experience. Ralph looked forward to a fourth and a fifth soupirant; he had no conviction that she would stop at a third. She would keep the gate ajar and open a parley; she would certainly not allow number three to come in. He expressed this view, somewhat after this fashion, to his mother, who looked at him as if he had been dancing a jig. He had such a fanciful, pictorial way of saying things that he might as well address her in the deaf-mute’s alphabet.

“I don’t think I know what you mean,” she said; “you use too many metaphors; I could never understand allegories. The two words in the language I most respect are Yes and No. If Isabel wants to marry Mr. Osmond, she will do so in spite of all your similes. Let her alone to find a favourable comparison for anything she undertakes. I know very little about the young man in America; I don’t think she spends much of her time in thinking of him, and I suspect he has got tired of waiting for her. There is nothing in life to prevent her marrying Mr. Osmond, if she only looks at him in a certain way. That is all very well; no one approves more than I of one’s pleasing one’s self. But she takes her pleasure in such odd things; she is capable of marrying Mr. Osmond for his opinions. She wants to be disinterested: as if she were the only person who is in danger of not being so! Will he be so disinterested when he has the spending of her money? That was her idea before your father’s death, and it has acquired new charms for her since. She ought to marry some one of whose disinterestedness she should be sure, herself; and there would be no such proof of that as his having a fortune of his own.”

“My dear mother, I am not afraid,” Ralph answered. “She is making fools of us all. She will please herself, of course; but she will do so by studying human nature and retaining her liberty. She has started on an exploring expedition, and I don’t think she will change her course, at the outset, at a signal from Gilbert Osmond. She may have slackened speed for an hour, but before we know it she will be steaming away again. Excuse another metaphor.”

Mrs. Touchett excused it perhaps, but she was not so much reassured as to withhold from Madame Merle the expression of her fears. “You who know everything,” she said, “you must know this: whether that man is making love to my niece.”

Madame Merle opened her expressive eyes, and with a brilliant smile—“Heaven help us,” she exclaimed, “that’s an idea!”

“Has it never occurred to you?”

“You make me feel like a fool—but I confess it hasn’t. I wonder,” added Madame Merle, “whether it has occurred to her.”

“I think I will ask her,” said Mrs. Touchett.

Madame Merle reflected a moment. “Don’t put it into her head. The thing would be to ask Mr. Osmond.”

“I can’t do that,” said Mrs. Touchett; “it’s none of my business.”

“I will ask him myself,” Madame Merle declared, bravely.

“It’s none of yours, either.”

“That’s precisely why I can afford to ask him; it is so much less my business than any one’s else, that in me the question will not seem to him embarrassing.”

“Pray let me know on the first day, then,” said Mrs. Touchett. “If I can’t speak to him, at least I can speak to her.”

“Don’t be too quick with her; don’t inflame her imagination.”

“I never did anything to any one’s imagination. But I am always sure she will do something I don’t like.”

“You wouldn’t like this,” Madame Merle observed, without the point of interrogation.

“Why should I, pray? Mr. Osmond has nothing to offer.”

Again Madame Merle was silent, while her thoughtful smile drew up her mouth more than usual toward the left corner. “Let us distinguish. Gilbert Osmond is certainly not the first comer. He is a man who under favourable circumstances might very well make an impression. He has made an impression, to my knowledge, more than once.”

“Don’t tell me about his love-affairs; they are nothing to me!” Mrs. Touchett cried. “What you say is precisely why I wish he would cease his visits. He has nothing in the world that I know of but a dozen or two of early masters and a grown up daughter.”

“The early masters are worth a good deal of money,” said Madame Merle, “and the daughter is a very young and very harmless person.”

“In other words, she is an insipid school-girl. Is that what you mean? Having no fortune, she can’t hope to marry, as they marry here; so that Isabel will have to furnish her either with a maintenance or with a dowry.”

“Isabel probably would not object to being kind to her. I think she likes the child.”

“Another reason for Mr. Osmond stopping at home! Otherwise, a week hence, we shall have Isabel arriving at the conviction that her mission in life is to prove that a stepmother may sacrifice herself—and that, to prove it, she must first become one.”

“She would make a charming stepmother,” said Madame Merle, smiling; “but I quite agree with you that she had better not decide upon her mission too hastily. Changing one’s mission is often awkward! I will investigate and report to you.”

All this went on quite over Isabel’s head; she had no suspicion that her relations with Mr. Osmond were being discussed. Madame Merle had said nothing to put her on her guard; she alluded no more pointedly to Mr. Osmond than to the other gentlemen of Florence, native and foreign, who came in considerable numbers to pay their respects to Miss Archer’s aunt. Isabel thought him very pleasant; she liked to think of him. She had carried away an image from her visit to his hill-top which her subsequent knowledge of him did nothing to efface and which happened to take her fancy particularly—the image of a quiet, clever, sensitive, distinguished man, strolling on a moss-grown terrace above the sweet Val d’Arno, and holding by the hand a little girl whose sympathetic docility gave a new aspect to childhood. The picture was not brilliant, but she liked its lowness of tone, and the atmosphere of summer twilight that pervaded it. It seemed to tell a story—a story of the sort that touched her most easily; to speak of a serious choice, a choice between things of a shallow, and things of a deep, interest; of a lonely, studious life in a lovely land; of an old sorrow that sometimes ached to-day; a feeling of pride that was perhaps exaggerated, but that had an element of nobleness; a care for beauty and perfection so natural and so cultivated together, that it had been the main occupation of a lifetime of which the arid places were watered with the sweet sense of a quaint, half-anxious, half-helpless fatherhood. At the Palazzo Crescentini Mr. Osmond’s manner remained the same; shy at first, and full of the effort (visible only to a sympathetic eye) to overcome this disadvantage; an effort which usually resulted in a great deal of easy, lively, very positive, rather aggressive, and always effective, talk. Mr. Osmond’s talk was not injured by the indication of an eagerness to shine; Isabel found no difficulty in believing that a person was sincere who had so many of the signs of strong conviction—as, for instance, an explicit and graceful appreciation of anything that might be said on his own side, said perhaps by Miss Archer in particular. What continued to please this young lady was his extraordinary subtlety. There was such a fine intellectual intention in what he said, and the movement of his wit was like that of a quick-flashing blade. One day he brought his little daughter with him, and Isabel was delighted to renew acquaintance with the child, who, as she presented her forehead to be kissed by every member of the circle, reminded her vividly of an ingénue in a French play. Isabel had never seen a young girl of this pattern; American girls were very different—different too were the daughters of England. This young lady was so neat, so complete in her manner; and yet in character, as one could see, so innocent and infantine. She sat on the sofa, by Isabel; she wore a small grenadine mantle and a pair of the useful gloves that Madame Merle had given her—little grey gloves, with a single button. She was like a sheet of blank paper—the ideal jeune fille of foreign fiction. Isabel hoped that so fair and smooth a page would be covered with an edifying text.

The Countess Gemini also came to call upon her, but the Countess was quite another affair. She was by no means a blank sheet; she had been written over in a variety of hands, and Mrs. Touchett, who felt by no means honoured by her visit, declared that a number of unmistakable blots were to be seen upon her surface. The Countess Gemini was indeed the occasion of a slight discussion between the mistress of the house and the visitor from Rome, in which Madame Merle (who was not such a fool as to irritate people by always agreeing with them) availed herself humourously of that large license of dissent which her hostess permitted as freely as she practised it. Mrs. Touchett had pronounced it a piece of audacity that the Countess Gemini should have presented herself at this time of day at the door of a house in which she was esteemed so little as she must long have known herself to be at the Palazzo Crescentini. Isabel had been made acquainted with the estimate which prevailed under this roof; it represented Mr. Osmond’s sister as a kind of flighty reprobate. She had been married by her mother—a heartless featherhead like herself, with an appreciation of foreign titles which the daughter, to do her justice, had probably by this time thrown off—to an Italian nobleman who had perhaps given her some excuse for attempting to quench the consciousness of neglect. The Countess, however, had consoled herself too well, and it was notorious in Florence that she had consoled others also. Mrs. Touchett had never consented to receive her, though the Countess had made overtures of old. Florence was not an austere city; but, as Mrs. Touchett said, she had to draw the line somewhere.

Madame Merle defended the unhappy lady with a great deal of zeal and wit. She could not see why Mrs. Touchett should make a scapegoat of that poor Countess, who had really done no harm, who had only done good in the wrong way. One must certainly draw the line, but while one was about it one should draw it straight; it was a very crooked chalkmark that would exclude the Countess Gemini. In that case Mrs. Touchett had better shut up her house; this perhaps would be the best course so long as she remained in Florence. One must be fair and not make arbitrary differences; the Countess had doubtless been imprudent; she had not been so clever as other women. She was a good creature, not clever at all; but since when had that been a ground of exclusion from the best society? It was a long time since one had heard anything about her, and there could be no better proof of her having renounced the error of her ways than her desire to become a member of Mrs. Touchett’s circle. Isabel could contribute nothing to this interesting dispute, not even a patient attention; she contented herself with having given a friendly welcome to the Countess Gemini, who, whatever her defects, had at least the merit of being Mr. Osmond’s sister. As she liked the brother, Isabel thought it proper to try and like the sister; in spite of the growing perplexity of things she was still perfectly capable of these rather primitive sequences of feeling. She had not received the happiest impression of the Countess on meeting her at the villa, but she was thankful for an opportunity to repair this accident. Had not Mr. Osmond declared that she was a good woman? To have proceeded from Gilbert Osmond, this was rather a rough statement; but Madame Merle bestowed upon it a certain improving polish. She told Isabel more about the poor Countess than Mr. Osmond had done, and related the history of her marriage and its consequences. The Count was a member of an ancient Tuscan family, but so poor that he had been glad to accept Amy Osmond, in spite of her being no beauty, with the modest dowry her mother was able to offer—a sum about equivalent to that which had already formed her brother’s share of their patrimony. Count Gemini, since then, however, had inherited money, and now they were well enough off, as Italians went, though Amy was horribly extravagant. The Count was a low-lived brute; he had given his wife every excuse. She had no children; she had lost three within a year of their birth. Her mother, who had pretensions to “culture,” wrote descriptive poems, and corresponded on Italian subjects with the English weekly journals—her mother had died three years after the Countess’s marriage, the father having died long before. One could see this in Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle Thought—see that he had been brought up by a woman; though to do him justice, one would suppose it had been by a more sensible woman than the American Corinne, as Mrs. Osmond liked to be called. She had brought her children to Italy after her husband’s death, and Mrs. Touchett remembered her during the years that followed her arrival. She thought her a horrible snob; but this was an irregularity of judgment on Mrs. Touchett’s part, for she, like Mrs. Osmond, approved of political marriages. The Countess was very good company, and not such a fool as she seemed; one got on with her perfectly if one observed a single simple condition—that of not believing a word she said. Madame Merle had always made the best of her for her brother’s sake; he always appreciated any kindness shown to Amy, because (if it had to be confessed for him) he was rather ashamed of her. Naturally, he couldn’t like her style, her loudness, her want of repose. She displeased him; she acted on his nerves; she was not his sort of woman. What was his sort of woman? Oh, the opposite of the Countess, a woman who should always speak the truth. Isabel was unable to estimate the number of fibs her visitor had told her; the Countess indeed had given her an impression of rather silly sincerity. She had talked almost exclusively about herself; how much she should like to know Miss Archer; how thankful she should be for a real friend; how nasty the people in Florence were; how tired she was of the place; how much she should like to live somewhere else—in Paris, or London, or St. Petersburg; how impossible it was to get anything nice to wear in Italy, except a little old lace; how dear the world was growing everywhere; what a life of suffering and privation she had led. Madame Merle listened with interest to Isabel’s account of her conversation with this plaintive butterfly; but she had not needed it to feel exempt from anxiety. On the whole, she was not afraid of the Countess, and she could afford to do what was altogether best—not to appear so.

Isabel had another visitor, whom it was not, even behind her back, so easy a matter to patronise. Henrietta Stackpole, who had left Paris after Mrs. Touchett’s departure for San Remo and had worked her way down, as she said, through the cities of North Italy, arrived in Florence about the middle of May. Madame Merle surveyed her with a single glance, comprehended her, and, after a moment’s concentrated reflection, determined to like her. She determined, indeed, to delight in her. To like her was impossible; but the intenser sentiment might be managed. Madame Merle managed it beautifully, and Isabel felt that in foreseeing this event she had done justice to her friend’s breadth of mind. Henrietta’s arrival had been announced by Mr. Bantling, who, coming down from Nice while she was at Venice, and expecting to find her in Florence, which she had not yet reached, came to the Palazzo Crescentini to express his disappointment. Henrietta’s own advent occurred two days later, and produced in Mr. Bantling an emotion amply accounted for by the fact that he had not seen her since the termination of the episodes at Versailles. The humorous view of his situation was generally taken, but it was openly expressed only by Ralph Touchett, who, in the privacy of his own apartment, when Bantling smoked a cigar there, indulged in Heaven knows what genial pleasantries on the subject of the incisive Miss Stackpole and her British ally. This gentleman took the joke in perfectly good part, and artlessly confessed that he regarded the affair as an intellectual flirtation. He liked Miss Stackpole extremely; he thought she had a wonderful head on her shoulders, and found great comfort in the society of a woman who was not perpetually thinking about what would be said and how it would look. Miss Stackpole never cared how it looked, and if she didn’t care, pray why should he? But his curiosity had been roused; he wanted awfully to see whether she ever would care. He was prepared to go as far as she—he did not see why he should stop first.

Henrietta showed no signs of stopping at all. Her prospects, as we know, had brightened upon her leaving England, and she was now in the full enjoyment of her copious resources. She had indeed been obliged to sacrifice her hopes with regard to the inner life; the social question, on the continent, bristled with difficulties even more numerous than those she had encountered in England. But on the continent there was the outer life, which was palpable and visible at every turn, and more easily convertible to literary uses than the customs of those opaque islanders. Out of doors, in foreign lands, as Miss Stackpole ingeniously remarked, one seemed to see the right side of the tapestry; out of doors, in England, one seemed to see the wrong side, which gave one no notion of the figure. It is mortifying to be obliged to confess it, but Henrietta, despairing of more occult things, was now paying much attention to the outer life. She had been studying it for two months at Venice, from which city she sent to the Interviewer a conscientious account of the gondolas, the Piazza, the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons and the young boatman who chanted Tasso. The Interviewer was perhaps disappointed, but Henrietta was at least seeing Europe. Her present purpose was to get down to Rome before the malaria should come on—she apparently supposed that it began on a fixed day; and with this design she was to spend at present but few days in Florence. Mr. Bantling was to go with her to Rome, and she pointed out to Isabel that as he had been there before, as he was a military man, and as he had a classical education—he was brought up at Eton, where they study nothing but Latin, said Miss Stackpole—he would be a most useful companion in the city of the Cæsars. At this juncture Ralph had the happy idea of proposing to Isabel that she also, under his own escort, should make a pilgrimage to Rome. She expected to pass a portion of the next winter there—that was very well; but meantime there was no harm in surveying the field. There were ten days left of the beautiful month of May—the most precious month of all to the true Rome-lover. Isabel would become a Rome-lover; that was a foregone conclusion. She was provided with a well-tested companion of her own sex, whose society, thanks to the fact that she had other calls upon her sympathy, would probably not be oppressive. Madame Merle would remain with Mrs. Touchett; she had left Rome for the summer and would not care to return. This lady professed herself delighted to be left at peace in Florence; she had locked up her apartment and sent her cook home to Palestrina. She urged Isabel, however, to assent to Ralph’s proposal, and assured her that a good introduction to Rome was not a thing to be despised. Isabel, in truth, needed no urging, and the party of four arranged its little journey. Mrs. Touchett, on this occasion, had resigned herself to the absence of a duenna; we have seen that she now inclined to the belief that her niece should stand alone.

Isabel saw Gilbert Osmond before she started, and mentioned her intention to him.

“I should like to be in Rome with you,” he said; “I should like to see you there.”

She hesitated a moment.

“You might come, then.”

“But you’ll have a lot of people with you.”

“Ah,” Isabel admitted, “of course I shall not be alone.”

For a moment he said nothing more.

“You’ll like it,” he went on, at last. “They have spoiled it, but you’ll like it.”

“Ought I to dislike it, because it’s spoiled?” she asked.

“No, I think not. It has been spoiled so often. If I were to go, what should I do with my little girl?”

“Can’t you leave her at the villa?”

“I don’t know that I like that—though there is a very good old woman who looks after her. I can’t afford a governess.”

“Bring her with you, then,” said Isabel, smiling.

Mr. Osmond looked grave.

“She has been in Rome all winter, at her convent; and she is too young to make journeys of pleasure.”

“You don’t like bringing her forward?” Isabel suggested.

“No, I think young girls should be kept out of the world.”

“I was brought up on a different system.”

“You? Oh, with you it succeeded, because you—you were exceptional.”

“I don’t see why,” said Isabel, who, however, was not sure there was not some truth in the speech.

Mr. Osmond did not explain; he simply went on. “If I thought it would make her resemble you to join a social group in Rome, I would take her there to-morrow.”

“Don’t make her resemble me,” said Isabel; “keep her like herself.”

“I might send her to my sister,” Mr. Osmond suggested. He had almost the air of asking advice; he seemed to like to talk over his domestic matters with Isabel.

“Yes,” said the girl; “I think that would not do much towards making her resemble me!”

After she had left Florence, Gilbert Osmond met Madame Merle at the Countess Gemini’s. There were other people present; the Countess’s drawing-room was usually well filled, and the talk had been general; but after a while Osmond left his place and came and sat on an ottoman half-behind, half-beside, Madame Merle’s chair.

“She wants me to go to Rome with her,” he announced, in a low voice.

“To go with her?”

“To be there while she is there. She proposed it.”

“I suppose you mean that you proposed it, and that she assented.”

“Of course I gave her a chance. But she is encouraging—she is very encouraging.”

“I am glad to hear it—but don’t cry victory too soon. Of course you will go to Rome.”

“Ah,” said Osmond, “It makes one work, this idea of yours!”

“Don’t pretend you don’t enjoy it—you are very ungrateful. You have not been so well occupied these many years.”

“The way you take it is beautiful,” said Osmond. “I ought to be grateful for that.”

“Not too much so, however,” Madame Merle answered. She talked with her usual smile, leaning back in her chair, and looking round the room. “You have made a very good impression, and I have seen for myself that you have received one. You have not come to Mrs. Touchett’s seven times to oblige me.”

“The girl is not disagreeable,” Osmond quietly remarked.

Madame Merle dropped her eye on him a moment, during which her lips closed with a certain firmness.

“Is that all you can find to say about that fine creature?”

“All? Isn’t it enough? Of how many people have you heard me say more?”

She made no answer to this, but still presented her conversational smile to the room.

“You’re unfathomable,” she murmured at last. “I am frightened at the abyss into which I shall have dropped her!”

Osmond gave a laugh.

“You can’t draw back—you have gone too far.”

“Very good; but you must do the rest yourself.”

“I shall do it,” said Osmond.

Madame Merle remained silent, and he changed his place again; but when she rose to go he also took leave. Mrs. Touchett’s victoria was awaiting her in the court, and after he had helped Madame Merle into it he stood there detaining her.

“You are very indiscreet,” she said, rather wearily; “you should not have moved when I did.”

He had taken off his hat; he passed his hand over his forehead.

“I always forget; I am out of the habit.”

“You are quite unfathomable,” she repeated, glancing up at the windows of the house; a modern structure in the new part of the town.

He paid no heed to this remark, but said to Madame Merle, with a considerable appearance of earnestness—

“She is really very charming; I have scarcely known any one more graceful.”

“I like to hear you say that. The better you like her, the better for me.”

“I like her very much. She is all you said, and into the bargain she is capable of great devotion. She has only one fault.”

“What is that?”

“She has too many ideas.”

“I warned you she was clever.”

“Fortunately they are very bad ones,” said Osmond.

“Why is that fortunate?”

“Dame, if they must be sacrificed!”

Madame Merle leaned back, looking straight before her; then she spoke to the coachman. But Osmond again detained her.

“If I go to Rome, what shall I do with Pansy?”

“I will go and see her,” said Madame Merle.