Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XXVII

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

Chapter XXVII

I SHALL not undertake to give an account of Isabel’s impressions of Rome, to analyse her feelings as she trod the ancient pavement of the Forum, or to number her pulsations as she crossed the threshold of St. Peter’s. It is enough to say that her perception of the endless interest of the place was such as might have been expected in a young woman of her intelligence and culture. She had always been fond of history, and here was history in the stones of the street and the atoms of the sunshine. She had an imagination that kindled at the mention of great deeds, and wherever she turned some great deed had been acted. These things excited her, but she was quietly excited. It seemed to her companions that she spoke less than usual, and Ralph Touchett, when he appeared to be looking listlessly and awkwardly over her head, was really dropping an eye of observation upon her. To her own knowledge she was very happy; she would even have been willing to believe that these were to be on the whole the happiest hours of her life. The sense of the mighty human past was heavy upon her, but it was interfused in the strangest, suddenest, most capricious way, with the fresh, cool breath of the future. Her feelings were so mingled that she scarcely knew whither any of them would lead her, and she went about in a kind of repressed ecstasy of contemplation, seeing often in the things she looked at a great deal more than was there, and yet not seeing many of the items enumerated in “Murray.” Rome as Ralph said, was in capital condition. The herd of reechoing tourists had departed, and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains, in their mossy niches, had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled upon bundles of flowers.

Our friends had gone one afternoon—it was the third of their stay—to look at the latest excavations in the Forum; these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had gone down from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts which are traceable in the antique street, and the iron grooves which mark the course of the American horse-car. The sun had begun to sink, the air was filled with a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and formless pedestal were thrown across the field of ruin. Henrietta wandered away with Mr. Bantling, in whose Latin reminiscences she was apparently much engrossed, and Ralph addressed such elucidations as he was prepared to offer, to the attentive ear of our heroine. One of the humble archæologists who hover about the place had put himself at the disposal of the two, and repeated his lesson with a fluency which the decline of the season had done nothing to impair. A process of digging was going on in a remote corner of the Forum, and he presently remarked that if it should please the signori to go and watch it a little, they might see something interesting. The proposal commended itself more to Ralph than to Isabel, who was weary with much wandering; so that she charged her companion to satisfy his curiosity while she patiently awaited his return. The hour and the place were much to her taste, and she should enjoy being alone. Ralph accordingly went off with the cicerone, while Isabel sat down on a prostrate column, near the foundations of the Capitol. She desired a quarter of an hour’s solitude, but she was not long to enjoy it. Keen as was her interest in the rugged relics of the Roman past that lay scattered around her, and in which the corrosion of centuries had still left so much of individual life, her thoughts, after resting a while on these things, had wandered, by a concatenation of stages it might require some subtlety to trace, to regions and objects more contemporaneous. From the Roman past to Isabel Archer’s future was a long stride, but her imagination had taken it in a single flight, and now hovered in slow circles over the nearer and richer field. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, as she bent her eyes upon a row of cracked but not dislocated slabs covering the ground at her feet, that she had not heard the sound of approaching footsteps before a shadow was thrown across the line of her vision. She looked up and saw a gentleman—a gentleman who was not Ralph come back to say that the excavations were a bore. This personage was startled as she was startled; he stood there, smiling a little, blushing a good deal, and raising his hat.

“Lord Warburton!” Isabel exclaimed, getting up.

“I had no idea it was you,” he said. “I turned that corner and came upon you.”

Isabel looked about her.

“I am alone, but my companions have just left me. My cousin is gone to look at the digging over there.”

“Ah yes; I see.” And Lord Warburton’s eyes wandered vaguely in the direction Isabel had indicated. He stood firmly before her; he had stopped smiling; he folded his arms with a kind of deliberation. “Don’t let me disturb you,” he went on, looking at her dejected pillar. “I am afraid you are tired.”

“Yes, I am rather tired.” She hesitated a moment, and then she sat down. “But don’t let me interrupt you,” she added.

“Oh dear, I am quite alone, I have nothing on earth to do. I had no idea you were in Rome. I have just come from the East. I am only passing through.”

“You have been making a long journey,” said Isabel, who had learned from Ralph that Lord Warburton was absent from England.

“Yes, I came abroad for six months—soon after I saw you last. I have been in Turkey and Asia Minor; I came the other day from Athens.” He spoke with visible embarrassment; this unexpected meeting caused him an emotion he was unable to conceal. He looked at Isabel a moment, and then he said, abruptly—“Do you wish me to leave you, or will you let me stay a little?”

She looked up at him, gently. “I don’t wish you to leave me, Lord Warburton; I am very glad to see you.”

“Thank you for saying that. May I sit down?”

The fluted shaft on which Isabel had taken her seat would have afforded a resting-place to several persons, and there was plenty of room even for a highly-developed Englishman. This fine specimen of that great class seated himself near our young lady, and in the course of five minutes he had asked her several questions, taken rather at random, and of which, as he asked some of them twice over, he apparently did not always heed the answer; had given her, too, some information about himself which was not wasted upon her calmer feminine sense. Lord Warburton, though he tried hard to seem easy, was agitated; he repeated more than once that he had not expected to meet her, and it was evident that the encounter touched him in a way that would have made preparation advisable. He had abrupt alternations of gaiety and gravity; he appeared at one moment to seek his neighbour’s eye and at the next to avoid it. He was splendidly sunburnt; even his multitudinous beard seemed to have been burnished by the fire of Asia. He was dressed in the loose-fitting, heterogeneous garments in which the English traveller in foreign lands is wont to consult his comfort and affirm his nationality; and with his clear grey eye, his bronzed complexion, fresh beneath its brownness, his manly figure, his modest manner, and his general air of being a gentleman and an explorer, he was such a representative of the British race as need not in any clime have been disavowed by those who have a kindness for it. Isabel noted these things, and was glad she had always liked Lord Warburton. He was evidently as likeable as before, and the tone of his voice, which she had formerly thought delightful, was as good as an assurance that he would never change for the worse. They talked about the matters that were naturally in order; her uncle’s death, Ralph’s state of health, the way she had passed her winter, her visit to Rome, her return to Florence, her plans for the summer, the hotel she was staying at; and then Lord Warburton’s own adventures, movements, intentions, impressions and present domicile. At last there was a silence, and she knew what he was thinking of. His eyes were fixed on the ground; but at last he raised them and said gravely—“I have written to you several times.”

“Written to me? I have never got your letters.”

“I never sent them. I burned them up.”

“Ah,” said Isabel with a laugh, “it was better that you should do that than I!”

“I thought you wouldn’t care about them,” he went on, with a simplicity that might have touched her. “It seemed to me that after all I had no right to trouble you with letters.”

“I should have been very glad to have news of you. You know that I hoped that—that—” Isabel stopped; it seemed to her there would be a certain flatness in the utterance of her thought.

“I know what you are going to say. You hoped we should always remain good friends.” This formula, as Lord Warburton uttered it, was certainly flat enough; but then he was interested in making it appear so.

Isabel found herself reduced simply to saying—“Please don’t talk of all that;” a speech which hardly seemed to her an improvement on the other.

“It’s a small consolation to allow me!” Lord Warburton exclaimed, with force.

“I can’t pretend to console you,” said the girl, who, as she sat there, found it good to think that she had given him the answer that had satisfied him so little six months before. He was pleasant, he was powerful, he was gallant, there was no better man than he. But her answer remained.

“It’s very well you don’t try to console me; it would not be in your power,” she heard him say, through the medium of her quickened reflections.

“I hoped we should meet again, because I had no fear you would attempt to make me feel I had wronged you. But when you do that—the pain is greater than the pleasure.” And Isabel got up, looking for her companions.

“I don’t want to make you feel that; of course I can’t say that. I only just want you to know one or two things, in fairness to myself as it were. I won’t return to the subject again. I felt very strongly what I expressed to you last year; I couldn’t think of anything else. I tried to forget—energetically, systematically. I tried to take an interest in some one else. I tell you this because I want you to know I did my duty. I didn’t succeed. It was for the same purpose I went abroad—as far away as possible. They say travelling distracts the mind; but it didn’t distract mine. I have thought of you perpetually, ever since I last saw you. I am exactly the same. I love you just as much, and everything I said to you then is just as true. However, I don’t mean to trouble you now; it’s only for a moment. I may add that when I came upon you a moment since, without the smallest idea of seeing you, I was in the very act of wishing I knew where you were.”

He had recovered his self-control, as I say, and while he spoke it became complete. He spoke plainly and simply, in a low tone of voice, in a matter-of-fact way. There might have been something impressive, even to a woman of less imagination than the one he addressed, in hearing this brilliant, brave-looking gentleman express himself so modestly and reasonably.

“I have often thought of you, Lord Warburton,” Isabel answered. “You may be sure I shall always do that.” And then she added, with a smile—“There is no harm in that, on either side.”

They walked along together, and she asked kindly about his sisters and requested him to let them know she had done so. He said nothing more about his own feelings, but returned to those more objective topics they had already touched upon. Presently he asked her when she was to leave Rome, and on her mentioning the limit of her stay, declared he was glad it was still so distant.

“Why do you say that, if you yourself are only passing through?” she inquired, with some anxiety.

“Ah, when I said I was passing through, I didn’t mean that one would treat Rome as if it were Clapham Junction. To pass through Rome is to stop a week or two.”

“Say frankly that you mean to stay as long as I do!”

Lord Warburton looked at her a moment, with an uncomfortable smile. “You won’t like that. You are afraid you will see too much of me.”

“It doesn’t matter what I like. I certainly can’t expect you to leave this delightful place on my account. But I confess I am afraid of you.”

“Afraid I will begin again? I promise to be very careful.”

They had gradually stopped, and they stood a moment face to face. “Poor Lord Warburton!” said Isabel, with a melancholy smile.

“Poor Lord Warburton, indeed! But I will be careful.”

“You may be unhappy, but you shall not make me so. That I can’t allow.”

“If I believed I could make you unhappy, I think I should try it.” At this she walked in advance, and he also proceeded. “I will never say a word to displease you,” he promised, very gently.

“Very good. If you do, our friendship’s at an end.”

“Perhaps some day—after a while—you will give me leave,” he suggested.

“Give you leave—to make me unhappy?”

He hesitated. “To tell you again—” But he checked himself. “I will be silent,” he said; “silent always.”

Ralph Touchett had been joined, in his visit to the excavation, by Miss Stackpole and her attendant, and these three, now emerged from among the mounds of earth and stone collected round the aperture, and came into sight of Isabel and her companion. Ralph Touchett gave signs of greeting to Lord Warburton, and Henrietta exclaimed in a high voice, “Gracious, there’s that lord!” Ralph and his friend met each other with undemonstrative cordiality, and Miss Stackpole rested her large intellectual gaze upon the sunburnt traveller.

“I don’t suppose you remember me, sir,” she soon remarked.

“Indeed I do remember you,” said Lord Warburton. “I asked you to come and see me, and you never came.”

“I don’t go everywhere I am asked,” Miss Stackpole answered, coldly.

“Ah well, I won’t ask you again,” said the master of Lockleigh, good-humouredly.

“If you do I will go; so be sure!”

Lord Warburton, for all his good-humour, seemed sure enough. Mr. Bantling had stood by, without claiming a recognition, but he now took occasion to nod to his lordship, who answered him with a friendly “Oh, you here, Bantling?” and a hand-shake.

“Well,” said Henrietta, “I didn’t know you knew him!”

“I guess you don’t know every one I know,” Mr. Bantling rejoined, facetiously.

“I thought that when an Englishman knew a lord he always told you.”

“Ah, I am afraid Bantling was ashamed of me,” said Lord Warburton, laughing. Isabel was glad to hear him laugh; she gave a little sigh of relief as they took their way homeward.

The next day was Sunday; she spent her morning writing two long letters—one to her sister Lily, the other to Madame Merle; but in neither of these epistles did she mention the fact that a rejected suitor had threatened her with another appeal. Of a Sunday afternoon all good Romans (and the best Romans are often the northern barbarians) follow the custom of going to hear vespers at St. Peter’s; and it had been agreed among our friends that they would drive together to the great church. After lunch, an hour before the carriage came, Lord Warburton presented himself at the Hôtel de Paris and paid a visit to the two ladies, Ralph Touchett and Mr. Bantling having gone out together. The visitor seemed to have wished to give Isabel an example of his intention to keep the promise he had made her the evening before; he was both discreet and frank; he made not even a tacit appeal, but left it for her to judge what a mere good friend he could be. He talked about his travels, about Persia, about Turkey, and when Miss Stackpole asked him whether it would “pay” for her to visit those countries, assured her that they offered a great field to female enterprise. Isabel did him justice, but she wondered what his purpose was, and what he expected to gain even by behaving heroically. If he expected to melt her by showing what a good fellow he was, he might spare himself the trouble. She knew already he was a good fellow, and nothing he could do would add to this conviction. Moreover, his being in Rome at all made her vaguely uneasy. Nevertheless, when on bringing his call to a close, he said that he too should be at St. Peter’s and should look out for Isabel and her friends, she was obliged to reply that it would be a pleasure to see him again.

In the church, as she strolled over its tesselated acres, he was the first person she encountered. She had not been one of the superior tourists who are “disappointed” in St. Peter’s and find it smaller than its fame; the first time she passed beneath the huge leathern curtain that strains and bangs at the entrance—the first time she found herself beneath the far-arching dome and saw the light drizzle down through the air thickened with incense and with the reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze, her conception of greatness received an extension. After this it never lacked space to soar. She gazed and wondered, like a child or a peasant, and paid her silent tribute to visible grandeur. Lord Warburton walked beside her and talked of Saint Sophia of Constantinople; she was afraid that he would end by calling attention to his exemplary conduct. The service had not yet begun, but at St. Peter’s there is much to observe, and as there is something almost profane in the vastness of the place, which seems meant as much for physical as for spiritual exercise, the different figures and groups, the mingled worshippers and spectators, may follow their various intentions without mutual scandal. In that splendid immensity individual indiscretion carries but a short distance. Isabel and her companions, however, were guilty of none; for though Henrietta was obliged to declare that Michael Angelo’s dome suffered by comparison with that of the Capitol at Washington, she addressed her protest chiefly to Mr. Bantling’s ear, and reserved it, in its more accentuated form, for the columns of the Interviewer. Isabel made the circuit of the church with Lord Warburton, and as they drew near the choir on the left of the entrance the voices of the Pope’s singers were borne towards them over the heads of the large number of persons clustered outside the doors. They paused a while on the skirts of this crowd, composed in equal measure of Roman cockneys and inquisitive strangers, and while they stood there the sacred concert went forward. Ralph, with Henrietta and Mr. Bantling, was apparently within, where Isabel, above the heads of the dense group in front of her, saw the afternoon light, silvered by clouds of incense that seemed to mingle with the splendid chant, sloping through the embossed recesses of high windows. After a while the singing stopped, and then Lord Warburton seemed disposed to turn away again. Isabel for a moment did the same; whereupon she found herself confronted with Gilbert Osmond, who appeared to have been standing at a short distance behind her. He now approached with a formal salutation.

“So you decided to come?” she said, putting out her hand.

“Yes, I came last night, and called this afternoon at your hotel. They told me you had come here, and I looked about for you.”

“The others are inside,” said Isabel.

“I didn’t come for the others.” Gilbert Osmond murmured, smiling.

She turned away; Lord Warburton was looking at them; perhaps he had heard this. Suddenly she remembered that it was just what he had said to her the morning he came to Gardencourt to ask her to marry him. Mr. Osmond’s words had brought the colour to her cheek, and this reminiscence had not the effect of dispelling it. Isabel sought refuge from her slight agitation in mentioning to each gentleman the name of the other, and fortunately at this moment Mr. Bantling made his way out of the choir, cleaving the crowd with British valour, and followed by Miss Stackpole and Ralph Touchett. I say fortunately, but this is perhaps a superficial view of the matter; for on perceiving the gentleman from Florence, Ralph Touchett exhibited symptoms of surprise which might not perhaps have seemed flattering to Mr. Osmond. It must be added, however, that these manifestations were momentary, and Ralph was presently able to say to his cousin, with due jocularity, that she would soon have all her friends about her. His greeting to Mr. Osmond was apparently frank; that is, the two men shook hands and looked at each other. Miss Stackpole had met the newcomer in Florence, but she had already found occasion to say to Isabel that she liked him no better than her other admirers—than Mr. Touchett, Lord Warburton, and little Mr. Rosier in Paris. “I don’t know what it is in you,” she had been pleased to remark, “but for a nice girl you do attract the most unpleasant people. Mr. Goodwood is the only one I have any respect for, and he’s just the one you don’t appreciate.”

“What’s your opinion of St. Peter’s?” Mr. Osmond asked of Isabel.

“It’s very large and very bright,” said the girl.

“It’s too large; it makes one feel like an atom.”

“Is not that the right way to feel—in a church?” Isabel asked, with a faint but interested smile.

“I suppose it’s the right way to feel everywhere, when one is nobody. But I like it in a church as little as anywhere else.”

“You ought indeed to be a Pope!” Isabel exclaimed, remembering something he had said to her in Florence.

“Ah, I should have enjoyed that!” said Gilbert Osmond.

Lord Warburton meanwhile had joined Ralph Touchett, and the two strolled away together.

“Who is the gentleman speaking to Miss Archer?” his lordship inquired.

“His name is Gilbert Osmond—he lives in Florence,” Ralph said.

“What is he besides?”

“Nothing at all. Oh yes, he is an American; but one forgets that; he is so little of one.”

“Has he known Miss Archer long?”

“No, about a fortnight.”

“Does she like him?”

“Yes, I think she does.”

“Is he a good fellow?”

Ralph hesitated a moment. “No, he’s not,” he said, at last.

“Why then does she like him?” pursued Lord Warburton, with noble naïveté.

“Because she’s a woman.”

Lord Warburton was silent a moment. “There are other men who are good fellows,” he presently said, “and them—them——”

“And them she likes also!” Ralph interrupted, smiling.

“Oh, if you mean she likes him in that way!” And Lord Warburton turned round again. As far as he was concerned, however, the party was broken up. Isabel remained in conversation with the gentleman from Florence till they left the church, and her English lover consoled himself by lending such attention as he might to the strains which continued to proceed from the choir.