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

Chapter XXXV

ISABEL, when she strolled in the Cascine with her lover, felt no impulse to tell him that he was not thought well of at the Palazzo Crecentini. The discreet opposition offered to her marriage by her aunt and her cousin made on the whole little impression upon her; the moral of it was simply that they disliked Gilbert Osmond. This dislike was not alarming to Isabel; she scarcely even regretted it; for it served mainly to throw into higher relief the fact, in every way so honourable, that she married to please herself. One did other things to please other people; one did this for a more personal satisfaction; and Isabel’s satisfaction was confirmed by her lover’s admirable good conduct. Gilbert Osmond was in love, and he had never deserved less than during these still, bright days, each of them numbered, which preceded the fulfilment of his hopes, the harsh criticism passed upon him by Ralph Touchett. The chief impression produced upon Isabel’s mind by this criticism was that the passion of love separated its victim terribly from every one but the loved object. She felt herself disjoined from every one she had ever known before—from her two sisters, who wrote to express a dutiful hope that she would be happy, and a surprise, somewhat more vague, at her not having chosen a consort who was the hero of a richer accumulation of anecdote; from Henrietta, who, she was sure, would come out, too late, on purpose to remonstrate; from Lord Warburton, who would certainly console himself, and from Caspar Goodwood, who perhaps would not; from her aunt, who had cold, shallow ideas about marriage, for which she was not sorry to manifest her contempt; and from Ralph, whose talk about having great views for her was surely but a whimsical cover for a personal disappointment. Ralph apparently wished her not to marry at all—that was what it really meant—because he was amused with the spectacle of her adventures as a single woman. His disappointment made him say angry things about the man she had preferred even to him: Isabel flattered herself that she believed Ralph had been angry. It was the more easy for her to believe this, because, as I say, she thought on the whole but little about it, and accepted as an incident of her lot the idea that to prefer Gilbert Osmond as she preferred him was perforce to break all other ties. She tasted of the sweets of this preference, and they made her feel that there was after all something very invidious in being in love; much as the sentiment was theoretically approved of. It was the tragical side of happiness; one’s right was always made of the wrong of some one else. Gilbert Osmond was not demonstrative; the consciousness of success, which must now have flamed high within him, emitted very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. Contentment, on his part, never took a vulgar form; excitement, in the most self-conscious of men, as a kind of ecstasy of self-control. This disposition, however, made him an admirable lover; it gave him a constant view of the amorous character. He never forgot himself, as I say; and so he never forgot to be graceful and tender, to wear the appearance of devoted intention. He was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. What could be a finer thing to live with than a high spirit attuned to softness? For would not the softness be all for one’s self, and the strenuousness for society, which admired the air of superiority? What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind, which saved one repetitions, and reflected one’s thought upon a scintillating surface. Osmond disliked to see his thought reproduced literally—that made it look stale and stupid; he preferred it to be brightened in the reproduction. His egotism, if egotism it was, had never taken the crude form of wishing for a dull wife; this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that conversation might become a sort of perpetual dessert. He found the silvery quality in perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make it ring. He knew perfectly, though he had not been told, that the union found little favour among the girl’s relations; but he had always treated her so completely as an independent person that it hardly seemed necessary to express regret for the attitude of her family. Nevertheless, one morning, he made an abrupt allusion to it.

“It’s the difference in our fortune they don’t like,” he said. “They think I am in love with your money.”

“Are you speaking of my aunt—of my cousin?” Isabel asked. “How do you know what they think?”

“You have not told me that they are pleased, and when I wrote to Mrs. Touchett the other day she never answered my note. If they had been delighted I should have learnt it, and the fact of my being poor and you rich is the most obvious explanation of their want of delight. But, of course, when a poor man marries a rich girl he must be prepared for imputations. I don’t mind them; I only care for one thing—your thinking it’s all right. I don’t care what others think. I have never cared much, and why should I begin to-day, when I have taken to myself a compensation for everything? I won’t pretend that I am sorry you are rich; I am delighted. I delight in everything that is yours—whether it be money or virtue. Money is a great advantage. It seems to me, however, that I have sufficiently proved that I can get on without it; I never in my life tried to earn a penny, and I ought to be less subject to suspicion than most people. I suppose it is their business to suspect—that of your own family; it’s proper on the whole they should. They will like me better some day; so will you, for that matter. Meanwhile my business is not to bother, but simply to be thankful for life and love. It has made me better, loving you,” he said on another occasion; “it has made me wiser, and easier, and brighter. I used to want a great many things before, and to be angry that I didn’t have them. Theoretically, I was satisfied, as I once told you. I flattered myself that I had limited my wants. But I was subject to irritation; I used to have morbid, sterile, hateful fits of hunger, of desire. Now I am really satisfied, because I can’t think of anything better. It is just as when one has been trying to spell out a book in the twilight, and suddenly the lamp comes in. I had been putting out my eyes over the book of life, and finding nothing to reward me for my pains; but now that I can read it properly I see that it’s a delightful story. My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there before us—what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter half of an Italian day—with a golden haze, and the shadows just lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life, and which you love to-day. Upon my word, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get on. We have got what we like—to say nothing of having each other. We have the faculty of admiration, and several excellent beliefs. We are not stupid, we are not heavy, we are not under bonds to any dull limitations. You are very fresh, and I am well-seasoned. We have got my poor child to amuse us; we will try and make up some little life for her. It is all soft and mellow—it has the Italian colouring.”

They made a good many plans, but they left themselves also a good deal of latitude; it was a matter of course, however, that they should live for the present in Italy. It was in Italy that they had met, Italy had been a party to their first impressions of each other, and Italy should be a party to their happiness. Osmond had the attachment of old acquaintance, and Isabel the stimulus of new, which seemed to assure her a future of beautiful hours. The desire for unlimited expansion had been succeeded in her mind by the sense that life was vacant without some private duty which gathered one’s energies to a point. She told Ralph that she had “seen life” in a year or two, and that she was already tired, not of life, but of observation. What had become of all her ardours, her aspirations, her theories, her high estimate of her independence, and her incipient conviction that she should never marry? These things had been absorbed in a more primitive sentiment—a sentiment which answered all questions, satisfied all needs, solved all difficulties. It simplified the future at a stroke, it came down from above, like the light of the stars, and it needed no explanation. There was explanation enough in the fact that he was her lover, her own, and that she was able to be of use to him. She could marry him with a kind of pride; she was not only taking but giving.

He brought Pansy with him two or three times to the Cascine—Pansy who was very little taller than a year before, and not much older. That she would always be a child was the conviction expressed by her father, who held her by the hand when she was in her sixteenth year, and told her to go and play while he sat down a while with the pretty lady. Pansy wore a short dress and a long coat; her hat always seemed too big for her. She amused herself with walking off, with quick, short steps, to the end of the alley, and then walking back with a smile that seemed an appeal for approbation. Isabel gave her approbation in abundance, and it was of that demonstrated personal kind which the child’s affectionate nature craved. She watched her development with a kind of amused suspense. Pansy had already become a little daughter. She was treated so completely as a child that Osmond had not yet explained to her the new relation in which he stood to the elegant Miss Archer. “She doesn’t know,” he said to Isabel; “she doesn’t suspect; she thinks it perfectly natural that you and I should come and walk here together, simply as good friends. There seems to me something enchantingly innocent in that; it’s the way I like her to be. No, I am not a failure, as I used to think; I have succeeded in two things. I am to marry the woman I adore, and I have brought up my child as I wished, in the old way.”

He was very fond, in all things, of the “old way;” that had struck Isabel as an element in the refinement of his character.

“It seems to me you will not know whether you have succeeded until you have told her,” she said. “You must see how she takes your news. She may be horrified—she may be jealous.”

“I am not afraid of that; she is too fond of you on her own account. I should like to leave her in the dark a little longer—to see if it will come into her head that if we are not engaged we ought to be.”

Isabel was impressed by Osmond’s æsthetic relish of Pansy’s innocence—her own appreciation of it being more moral. She was perhaps not the less pleased when he told her a few days later that he had broken the news to his daughter, who made such a pretty little speech. “Oh, then I shall have a sister!” She was neither surprised nor alarmed; she had not cried, as he expected.

“Perhaps she had guessed it,” said Isabel.

“Don’t say that; I should be disgusted if I believed that. I thought it would be just a little shock; but the way she took it proves that her good manners are paramount. That is also what I wished. You shall see for yourself; to-morrow she shall make you her congratulations in person.”

The meeting, on the morrow, took place at the Countess Gemini’s, whither Pansy had been conducted by her father, who knew that Isabel was to come in the afternoon to return a visit made her by the Countess on learning that they were to become sister-in-law. Calling at Casa Touchett, the visitor had not found Isabel at home; but after our young lady had been ushered into the Countess’s drawing-room, Pansy came in to say that her aunt would presently appear. Pansy was spending the day with her aunt, who thought she was of an age when she should begin to learn how to carry herself in company. It was Isabel’s view that the little girl might have given lessons in deportment to the elder lady, and nothing could have justified this conviction more than the manner in which Pansy acquitted herself while they waited together for the Countess. Her father’s decision, the year before, had finally been to send her back to the convent to receive the last graces, and Madame Catherine had evidently carried out her theory that Pansy was to be fitted for the great world.

“Papa has told me that you have kindly consented to marry him,” said the good woman’s pupil. “It is very delightful; I think you will suit very well.”

“You think I shall suit you?”

“You will suit me beautifully; but what I mean is that you and papa will suit each other. You are both so quiet and so serious. You are not so quiet as he—or even as Madame Merle; but you are more quiet than many others. He should not, for instance, have a wife like my aunt. She is always moving; to-day especially; you will see when she comes in. They told us at the convent it was wrong to judge our elders, but I suppose there is no harm if we judge them favourably. You will be a delightful companion for papa.”

“For you too, I hope,” Isabel said.

“I speak first of him on purpose. I have told you already what I myself think of you; I liked you from the first. I admire you so much that I think it will be a great good fortune to have you always before me. You will be my model; I shall try to imitate you—though I am afraid it will be very feeble. I am very glad for papa—he needed something more than me. Without you, I don’t see how he could have got it. You will be my stepmother; but we must not use that word. You don’t look at all like the word; it is somehow so ugly. They are always said to be cruel; but I think you will never be cruel. I am not afraid.”

“My good little Pansy,” said Isabel, gently, “I shall be very kind to you.”

“Very well then; I have nothing to fear,” the child declared, lightly.

Her description of her aunt had not been incorrect; the Countess Gemini was less than ever in a state of repose. She entered the room with a great deal of expression, and kissed Isabel, first on the lips, and then on each cheek, in the short, quick manner of a bird drinking. She made Isabel sit down on the sofa beside her, and looking at our heroine with a variety of turns of the head, delivered herself of a hundred remarks, from which I offer the reader but a brief selection.

“If you expect me to congratulate you, I must beg you to excuse me. I don’t suppose you care whether I do or not; I believe you are very proud. But I care myself whether I tell fibs or not; I never tell them unless there is something to be gained. I don’t see what there is to be gained with you—especially as you would not believe me. I don’t make phrases—I never made a phrase in my life. My fibs are always very crude. I am very glad, for my own sake, that you are going to marry Osmond; but I won’t pretend I am glad for yours. You are very remarkable—you know that’s what people call you; you are an heiress, and very good-looking and clever, very original; so it’s a good thing to have you in the family. Our family is very good, you know; Osmond will have told you that; and my mother was rather distinguished—she was called the American Corinne. But we are rather fallen, I think, and perhaps you will pick us up. I have great confidence in you; there are ever so many things I want to talk to you about. I never congratulate any girl on marrying; I think it’s the worst thing she can do. I suppose Pansy oughtn’t to hear all this; but that’s what she has come to me for—to acquire the tone of society. There is no harm in her knowing that it isn’t such a blessing to get married. When first I got an idea that my brother had designs upon you, I thought of writing to you, to recommend you, in the strongest terms, not to listen to him. Then I thought it would be disloyal, and I hate anything of that kind. Besides, as I say, I was enchanted, for myself; and after all, I am very selfish. By the way, you won’t respect me, and we shall never be intimate. I should like it, but you won’t. Some day, all the same, we shall be better friends than you will believe at first. My husband will come and see you, though, as you probably know, he is on no sort of terms with Osmond. He is very fond of going to see pretty women, but I am not afraid of you. In the first place, I don’t care what he does. In the second, you won’t care a straw for him; you will take his measure at a glance. Some day I will tell you all about him. Do you think my niece ought to go out of the room? Pansy, go and practise a little in my boudoir.”

“Let her stay, please,” said Isabel. “I would rather hear nothing that Pansy may not!”