Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XXVIII

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

Chapter XXVIII

ON the morrow, in the evening, Lord Warburton went again to see his friends at their hotel, and at this establishment he learned that they had gone to the opera. He drove to the opera, with the idea of paying them a visit in their box, in accordance with the time-honoured Italian custom; and after he had obtained his admittance—it was one of the secondary theatres—looked about the large, bare, ill-lighted house. An act had just terminated, and he was at liberty to pursue his quest. After scanning two or three tiers of boxes, he perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognised. Miss Archer was seated facing the stage, and partly screened by the curtain of the box; and beside her, leaning back in his chair, was Mr. Gilbert Osmond. They appeared to have the place to themselves, and Warburton supposed that their companions had taken advantage of the entr’acte to enjoy the relative coolness of the lobby. He stood a while watching the interesting pair in the box, and asking himself whether he should go up and interrupt their harmonious colloquy. At last it became apparent that Isabel had seen him, and this accident determined him. He took his way to the upper regions, and on the staircase he met Ralph Touchett, slowly descending, with his hat in the attitude of ennui and his hands where they usually were.

“I saw you below a moment since, and was going down to you. I feel lonely and want company,” Ralph remarked.

“You have some that is very good that you have deserted.”

“Do you mean my cousin? Oh, she has got a visitor and doesn’t want me. Then Miss Stackpole and Bantling have gone out to a café to eat an ice—Miss Stackpole delights in an ice. I didn’t think they wanted me either. The opera is very bad; the women look like laundresses and sing like peacocks. I feel very low.”

“You had better go home,” Lord Warburton said, without affectation.

“And leave my young lady in this sad place? Ah no, I must watch over her.”

“She seems to have plenty of friends.”

“Yes, that’s why I must watch,” said Ralph, with the same low-voiced mock-melancholy.

“If she doesn’t want you, it’s probable she doesn’t want me.”

“No, you are different. Go to the box and stay there while I walk about.”

Lord Warburton went to the box, where he received a very gracious welcome from the more attractive of its occupants. He exchanged greetings with Mr. Osmond, to whom he had been introduced the day before, and who, after he came in, sat very quietly, scarcely mingling in the somewhat disjointed talk in which Lord Warburton engaged with Isabel. It seemed to the latter gentleman that Miss Archer looked very pretty; he even thought she looked excited; as she was, however, at all times a keenly-glancing, quickly-moving, completely animated young woman, he may have been mistaken on this point. Her talk with him betrayed little agitation; it expressed a kindness so ingenious and deliberate as to indicate that she was in undisturbed possession of her faculties. Poor Lord Warburton had moments of bewilderment. She had discouraged him, formally, as much as a woman could; what business had she then to have such soft, reassuring tones in her voice? The others came back; the bare, familiar, trivial opera began again. The box was large, and there was room for Lord Warburton to remain if he would sit a little behind, in the dark. He did so for half-an-hour, while Mr. Osmond sat in front, leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees, just behind Isabel. Lord Warburton heard nothing, and from his gloomy corner saw nothing but the clear profile of this young lady, defined against the dim illumination of the house. When there was another interval no one moved. Mr. Osmond talked to Isabel, and Lord Warburton remained in his corner. He did so but for a short time, however; after which he got up and bade good-night to the ladies. Isabel said nothing to detain him, and then he was puzzled again. Why had she so sweet a voice—such a friendly accent? He was angry with himself for being puzzled, and then angry for being angry. Verdi’s music did little to comfort him, and he left the theatre and walked homeward, without knowing his way, through the tortuous, tragical streets of Rome, where heavier sorrows than his had been carried under the stars.

“What is the character of that gentleman?” Osmond asked of Isabel, after the visitor had gone.

“Irreproachable—don’t you see it?”

“He owns about half England; that’s his character,” Henrietta remarked. “That’s what they call a free country!”

“Ah, he is a great proprietor? Happy man!” said Gilbert Osmond.

“Do you call that happiness—the ownership of human beings?” cried Miss Stackpole. “He owns his tenants, and he has thousands of them. It is pleasant to own something, but inanimate objects are enough for me. I don’t insist on flesh and blood, and minds and consciences.”

“It seems to me you own a human being or two,” Mr. Bantling suggested jocosely. “I wonder if Warburton orders his tenants about as you do me.”

“Lord Warburton is a great radical,” Isabel said. “He has very advanced opinions.”

“He has very advanced stone walls. His park is inclosed by a gigantic iron fence, some thirty miles round,” Henrietta announced, for the information of Mr. Osmond. “I should like him to converse with a few of our Boston radicals.”

“Don’t they approve of iron fences?” asked Mr. Bantling.

“Only to shut up wicked conservatives. I always feel as if I were talking to you over a fence!”

“Do you know him well, this unreformed reformer?” Osmond went on, questioning Isabel.

“Well enough.”

“Do you like him?”

“Very much.”

“Is he a man of ability?”

“Of excellent ability, and as good as he looks.”

“As good as he is good-looking do you mean? He is very good-looking. How detestably fortunate! to be a great English magnate, to be clever and handsome into the bargain, and, by way of finishing off, to enjoy your favour! That’s a man I could envy.”

Isabel gave a serious smile.

“You seem to me to be always envying some one. Yesterday it was the Pope; to-day it’s poor Lord Warburton.”

“My envy is not dangerous; it is very platonic. Why do you call him poor?”

“Women usually pity men after they have hurt them; that is their way of showing kindness,” said Ralph, joining in the conversation for the first time, with cynicism so transparently ingenuous as to be virtually innocent.

“Pray, have I hurt Lord Warburton?” Isabel asked, raising her eyebrows, as if the idea were perfectly novel.

“It serves him right if you have,” said Henrietta, while the curtain rose for the ballet.

Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next twenty-four hours, but on the second day after the visit to the opera she encountered him in the gallery of the Capitol, where he was standing before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying Gladiator. She had come in with her companions, among whom, on this occasion again, Gilbert Osmond was numbered, and the party, having ascended the staircase, entered the first and finest of the rooms. Lord Warburton spoke to her with all his usual geniality, but said in a moment that he was leaving the gallery.

“And I am leaving Rome,” he added. “I should bid you good-bye.”

I shall not undertake to explain why, but Isabel was sorry to hear it. It was, perhaps, because she had ceased to be afraid of his renewing his suit; she was thinking of something else. She was on the point of saying she was sorry, but she checked herself and simply wished him a happy journey.

He looked at her with a somewhat heavy eye.

“I am afraid you think me rather inconsistent,” he said. “I told you the other day that I wanted so much to stay a while.”

“Oh no; you could easily change your mind.”

“That’s what I have done.”

“Bon voyage, then.”

“You’re in a great hurry to get rid of me,” said his lordship, rather dismally.

“Not in the least. But I hate partings.”

“You don’t care what I do,” he went on pitifully.

Isabel looked at him for a moment.

“Ah,” she said, “you are not keeping your promise!”

He coloured like a boy of fifteen.

“If I am not, then it’s because I can’t; and that’s why I am going.”

“Good-bye, then.”

“Good-bye.” He lingered still, however. “When shall I see you again?”

Isabel hesitated, and then, as if she had had a happy inspiration—“Some day after you are married.”

“That will never be. It will be after you are.”

“That will do as well,” said Isabel, smiling.

“Yes, quite as well. Good-bye.”

They shook hands, and he left her alone in the beautiful room, among the shining antique marbles. She sat down in the middle of the circle of statues, looking at them vaguely, resting her eyes on their beautiful blank faces; listening, as it were, to their eternal silence. It is impossible, in Rome at least, to look long at a great company of Greek sculptures without feeling the effect of their noble quietude. It soothes and moderates the spirit, it purifies the imagination. I say in Rome especially, because the Roman air is an exquisite medium for such impressions. The golden sunshine mingles with them, the great stillness of the past, so vivid yet, though it is nothing but a void full of names, seems to throw a solemn spell upon them. The blinds were partly closed in the windows of the Capitol, and a clear, warm shadow rested on the figures and made them more perfectly human. Isabel sat there a long time, under the charm of their motionless grace, seeing life between their gazing eyelids and purpose in their marble lips. The dark red walls of the room threw them into relief; the polished marble floor reflected their beauty. She had seen them all before, but her enjoyment repeated itself, and it was all the greater because she was glad, for the time, to be alone. At the last her thoughts wandered away from them, solicited by images of a vitality more complete. An occasional tourist came into the room, stopped and stared a moment at the Dying Gladiator, and then passed out of the other door, creaking over the smooth pavement. At the end of half-an-hour Gilbert Osmond reappeared, apparently in advance of his companions. He strolled towards her slowly, with his hands behind him, and with his usual bright, inquiring, yet not appealing smile.

“I am surprised to find you alone,” he said. “I thought you had company.”

“So I have—the best.” And Isabel glanced at the circle of sculpture.

“Do you call this better company than an English peer?”

“Ah, my English peer left me some time ago,” said Isabel, getting up. She spoke, with intention, a little dryly.

Mr. Osmond noted her dryness, but it did not prevent him from giving a laugh.

“I am afraid that what I heard the other evening is true; you are rather cruel to that nobleman.”

Isabel looked a moment at the vanquished Gladiator.

“It is not true. I am scrupulously kind.”

“That’s exactly what I mean!” Gilbert Osmond exclaimed, so humorously that his joke needs to be explained.

We knew that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior, the exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by rejecting the splendid offer of a British aristocrat. Gilbert Osmond had a high appreciation of the British aristocracy—he had never forgiven Providence for not making him an English duke—and could measure the unexpectedness of this conduct. It would be proper that the woman he should marry should have done something of that sort.