Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
“How d’ye do? My wife’s somewhere about.”
“Never fear; I shall find her,” said Rosier, cheerfully.
Osmond stood looking at him; he had never before felt the keenness of this gentleman’s eyes. “Madame Merle has told him, and he doesn’t like it,” Rosier said to himself. He had hoped Madame Merle would be there; but she was not within sight; perhaps she was in one of the other rooms, or would come later. He had never especially delighted in Gilbert Osmond; he had a fancy that he gave himself airs. But Rosier was not quickly resentful, and where politeness was concerned he had an inveterate wish to be in the right. He looked round him, smiling, and then, in a moment, he said—
“I saw a jolly good piece of Capo di Monte to-day.”
Osmond answered nothing at first; but presently, while he warmed his boot-sole, “I don’t care a fig for Capo di Monte!” he returned.
“I hope you are not losing your interest?”
“In old pots and plates? Yes, I am losing my interest.”
Rosier for a moment forgot the delicacy of his position.
“You are not thinking of parting with a—a piece or two?”
“No, I am not thinking of parting with anything at all, Mr. Rosier,” said Osmond, with his eyes still on the eyes of his visitor.
“Ah, you want to keep, but not to add,” Rosier remarked, brightly.
“Exactly. I have nothing that I wish to match.”
Poor Rosier was aware that he had blushed, and he was distressed at his want of assurance. “Ah, well, I have!” was all that he could murmur; and he knew that his murmur was partly lost as he turned away. He took his course to the adjoining room, and met Mrs. Osmond coming out of the deep doorway. She was dressed in black velvet; she looked brilliant and noble. We know what Mr. Rosier thought of her, and the terms in which, to Madame Merle, he had expressed his admiration. Like his appreciation of her dear little stepdaughter, it was based partly on his fine sense of the plastic; but also on a relish for a more impalpable sort of merit—that merit of a bright spirit, which Rosier’s devotion to brittle wares had not made him cease to regard as a quality. Mrs. Osmond, at present, might well have gratified such tastes. The years had touched her only to enrich her; the flower of her youth had not faded, it only hung more quietly on its stem. She had lost something of that quick eagerness to which her husband had privately taken exception—she had more the air of being able to wait. Now, at all events, framed in the gilded doorway she struck our young man as the picture of a gracious lady.
“You see I am very regular,” he said. “But who should be if I am not?”
“Yes, I have known you longer than any one here. But we must not indulge in tender reminiscences. I want to introduce you to a young lady.”
“Ah, please, what young lady?” Rosier was immensely obliging; but this was not what he had come for.
“She sits there by the fire in pink, and has no one to speak to.”
Rosier hesitated a moment.
“Can’t Mr. Osmond speak to her? He is within six feet of her.”
Mrs. Osmond also hesitated.
“She is not very lively, and he doesn’t like dull people.”
“But she is good enough for me? Ah now, that is hard.”
“I only mean that you have ideas for two. And then you are so obliging.”
“So is your husband.”
“No, he is not—to me.” And Mrs. Osmond smiled vaguely.
“That’s a sign he should be doubly so to other women.”
“So I tell him,” said Mrs. Osmond, still smiling.
“You see I want some tea,” Rosier went on, looking wistfully beyond.
“That’s perfect. Go and give some to my young lady.”
“Very good; but after that I will abandon her to her fate. The simple truth is that I am dying to have a little talk with Miss Osmond.”
“Ah,” said Isabel, turning away, “I can’t help you there!”
Five minutes later, while he handed a tea-cup to the young lady in pink, whom he had conducted into the other room, he wondered whether, in making to Mrs. Osmond the profession I have just quoted, he had broken the spirit of his promise to Madame Merle. Such a question was capable of occupying this young man’s mind for a considerable time. At last, however, he became—comparatively speaking—reckless, and cared little what promises he might break. The fate to which he had threatened to abandon the young lady in pink proved to be none so terrible; for Pansy Osmond, who had given him the tea for his companion—Pansy was as fond as ever of making tea—presently came and talked to her. Into this mild colloquy Edward Rosier entered little; he sat by moodily, watching his small sweetheart. If we look at her now through his eyes, we shall at first not see much to remind us of the obedient little girl who, at Florence, three years before, was sent to walk short distances in the Cascine while her father and Miss Archer talked together of matters sacred to elder people. But after a moment we shall perceive that if at nineteen Pansy has become a young lady, she does not really fill out the part; that if she has grown very pretty, she lacks in a deplorable degree the quality known and esteemed in the appearance of females as style; and that if she is dressed with great freshness, she wears her smart attire with an undisguised appearance of saving it—very much as if it were lent her for the occasion. Edward Rosier, it would seem, would have been just the man to note these defects; and in point of fact there was not a quality of this young lady, of any sort, that he had not noted. Only he called her qualities by names of his own—some of which indeed were happy enough. “No, she is unique—she is absolutely unique,” he used to say to himself; and you may be sure that not for an instant would he have admitted to you that she was wanting in style. Style? Why, she had the style of a little princess; if you couldn’t see it you had no eye. It was not modern, it was not conscious, it would produce no impression in Broadway; the small, serious damsel, in her stiff little dress, only looked like an Infanta of Velasquez. This was enough for Edward Rosier, who thought her delightfully old-fashioned. Her anxious eyes, her charming lips, her slip of a figure, were as touching as a childish prayer. He had now an acute desire to know just to what point she liked him—a desire which made him fidget as he sat in his chair. It made him feel hot, so that he had to pat his forehead with his handkerchief; he had never been so uncomfortable. She was such a perfect jeune fille; and one couldn’t make of a jeune fille the inquiry necessary for throwing light on such a point. A jeune fille was what Rosier had always dreamed of—a jeune fille who should yet not be French, for he had felt that this nationality would complicate the question. He was sure that Pansy had never looked at a newspaper, and that, in the way of novels, if she had read Sir Walter Scott it was the very most. An American jeune fille; what would be better than that? She would be frank and gay, and yet would not have walked alone, nor have received letters from men, nor have been taken to the theatre to see the comedy of manners. Rosier could not deny that, as the matter stood, it would be a breach of hospitality to appeal directly to this unsophisticated creature; but he was now in imminent danger of asking himself whether hospitality were the most sacred thing in the world. Was not the sentiment that he entertained for Miss Osmond of infinitely greater importance? Of greater importance to him—yes; but not probably to the master of the house. There was one comfort; even if this gentleman had been placed on his guard by Madame Merle, he would not have extended the warning to Pansy; it would not have been part of his policy to let her know that a prepossessing young man was in love with her. But he was in love with her, the prepossessing young man; and all these restrictions of circumstance had ended by irritating him. What had Gilbert Osmond meant by giving him two fingers of his left hand? If Osmond was rude, surely he himself might be bold. He felt extremely bold after the dull girl in pink had responded to the call of her mother, who came in to say, with a significant simper at Rosier, that she must carry her off to other triumphs. The mother and daughter departed together, and now it depended only upon him that he should be virtually alone with Pansy. He had never been alone with her before; he had never been alone with a jeune fille. It was a great moment; poor Rosier began to pat his forehead again. There was another room, beyond the one in which they stood—a small room which had been thrown open and lighted, but, the company not being numerous, had remained empty all the evening. It was empty yet; it was upholstered in pale yellow; there were several lamps; through the open door it looked very pretty. Rosier stood a moment, gazing through this aperture; he was afraid that Pansy would run away, and felt almost capable of stretching out a hand to detain her. But she lingered where the young lady in pink had left them, making no motion to join a knot of visitors on the other side of the room. For a moment it occurred to him that she was frightened—too frightened perhaps to move; but a glance assured him that she was not, and then he reflected that she was too innocent, indeed, for that. After a moment’s supreme hesitation he asked her whether he might go and look at the yellow room, which seemed so attractive yet so virginal. He had been there already with Osmond, to inspect the furniture, which was of the First French Empire, and especially to admire the clock (which he did not really admire), an immense classic structure of that period. He therefore felt that he had now begun to manœuvre.
“Certainly, you may go,” said Pansy; “and if you like, I will show you.” She was not in the least frightened.
“That’s just what I hoped you would say; you are so very kind,” Rosier murmured.
They went in together; Rosier really thought the room very ugly, and it seemed cold. The same idea appeared to have struck Pansy.
“It’s not for winter evenings; it’s more for summer,” she said. “It’s papa’s taste; he has so much.”
He had a good deal, Rosier thought; but some of it was bad. He looked about him; he hardly knew what to say in such a situation. “Doesn’t Mrs. Osmond care how her rooms are done? Has she no taste?” he asked.
“Oh yes, a great deal; but it’s more for literature,” said Pansy—“and for conversation. But papa cares also for those things: I think he knows everything.”
Rosier was silent a moment. “There is one thing I am sure he knows!” he broke out presently. “He knows that when I come here it is, with all respect to him, with all respect to Mrs. Osmond, who is so charming—it is really,” said the young man, “to see you!”
“To see me?” asked Pansy, raising her vaguely-troubled eyes.
“To see you; that’s what I come for,” Rosier repeated, feeling the intoxication of rupture with authority. Pansy stood looking at him, simply, intently, openly; a blush was not needed to make her face more modest.
“I thought it was for that,” she said.
“And it was not disagreeable to you?”
“I couldn’t tell; I didn’t know. You never told me,” said Pansy.
“I was afraid of offending you.”
“You don’t offend me,” the young girl murmured, smiling as if an angel had kissed her.
“You like me then, Pansy?” Rosier asked, very gently, feeling very happy.
“Yes—I like you.”
They had walked to the chimney-piece, where the big cold Empire clock was perched; they were well within the room, and beyond observation from without. The tone in which she had said these four words seemed to him the very breath of nature, and his only answer could be to take her hand and hold it a moment. Then he raised it to his lips. She submitted, still with her pure, trusting smile, in which there was something ineffably passive. She liked him—she had liked him all the while; now anything might happen! She was ready—she had been ready always, waiting for him to speak. If he had not spoken she would have waited for ever; but when the word came she dropped like the peach from the shaken tree. Rosier felt that if he should draw her towards him and hold her to his heart, she would submit without a murmur, she would rest there without a question. It was true that this would be a rash experiment in a yellow Empire salottino. She had known it was for her he came; and yet like what a perfect little lady she had carried it off!
“You are very dear to me,” he murmured, trying to believe that there was after all such a thing as hospitality.
She looked a moment at her hand, where he had kissed it.
“Did you say that papa knows?”
“You told me just now he knows everything.”
“I think you must make sure,” said Pansy.
“Ah, my dear, when once I am sure of you!” Rosier murmured in her ear, while she turned back to the other rooms with a little air of consistency which seemed to imply that their appeal should be immediate.
The other rooms meanwhile had become conscious of the arrival of Madame Merle, who, wherever she went, produced an impression when she entered. How she did it the most attentive spectator could not have told you; for she neither spoke loud, nor laughed profusely, nor moved rapidly, nor dressed with splendour, nor appealed in any appreciable manner to the audience. Large, fair, smiling, serene, there was something in her very tranquillity that diffused itself, and when people looked round it was because of a sudden quiet. On this occasion she had done the quietest thing she could do; after embracing Mrs. Osmond, which was more striking, she had sat down on a small sofa to commune with the master of the house. There was a brief exchange of commonplaces between these two—they always paid, in public, a certain formal tribute to the commonplace—and then Madame Merle, whose eyes had been wandering, asked if little Mr. Rosier had come this evening.
“He came nearly an hour ago—but he has disappeared,” Osmond said.
“And where is Pansy?”
“In the other room. There are several people there.”
“He is probably among them,” said Madame Merle.
“Do you wish to see him?” Osmond asked, in a provokingly pointless tone.
Madame Merle looked at him a moment; she knew his tones, to the eighth of a note. “Yes, I should like to say to him that I have told you what he wants, and that it interests you but feebly.”
“Don’t tell him that, he will try to interest me more—which is exactly what I don’t want. Tell him I hate his proposal.”
“But you don’t hate it.”
“It doesn’t signify: I don’t love it. I let him see that, myself, this evening; I was rude to him on purpose. That sort of thing is a great bore. There is no hurry.”
“I will tell him that you will take time and think it over.”
“No, don’t do that. He will hang on.”
“If I discourage him he will do the same.”
“Yes, but in the one case he will try and talk and explain; which would be exceedingly tiresome. In the other he will probably hold his tongue and go in for some deeper game. That will leave me quiet. I hate talking with a donkey.”
“Is that what you call poor Mr. Rosier?”
“Oh, he’s enervating, with his eternal majolica.”
Madame Merle dropped her eyes, with a faint smile. “He’s a gentleman, he has a charming temper; and, after all, an income of forty thousand francs——”
“It’s misery—genteel misery,” Osmond broke in. “It’s not what I have dreamed of for Pansy.”
“Very good, then. He has promised me not to speak to her.”
“Do you believe him?” Osmond asked, absent-mindedly.
“Perfectly. Pansy has thought a great deal about him; but I don’t suppose you think that matters.”
“I don’t think it matters at all; but neither do I believe she has thought about him.”
“That opinion is more convenient,” said Madame Merle, quietly.
“Has she told you that she is in love with him?”
“For what do you take her? And for what do you take me?” Madame Merle added in a moment.
Osmond had raised his foot and was resting his slim ankle on the other knee; he clasped his ankle in his hand, familiarly, and gazed a while before him. “This kind of thing doesn’t find me unprepared. It’s what I educated her for. It was all for this—that when such a case should come up she should do what I prefer.”
“I am not afraid that she will not do it.”
“Well then, where is the hitch?”
“I don’t see any. But all the same, I recommend you not to get rid of Mr. Rosier. Keep him on hand, he may be useful.”
“I can’t keep him. Do it yourself.”
“Very good; I will put him into a corner and allow him so much a day.” Madame Merle had, for the most part, while they talked, been glancing about her; it was her habit, in this situation, just as it was her habit to interpose a good many blank-looking pauses. A long pause followed the last words I have quoted; and before it was broken again, she saw Pansy come out of the adjoining room, followed by Edward Rosier. Pansy advanced a few steps and then stopped and stood looking at Madame Merle and at her father.
“He has spoken to her,” Madame Merle said, simply, to Osmond.
Her companion never turned his head. “So much for your belief in his promises. He ought to be horsewhipped.”
“He intends to confess, poor little man!”
Osmond got up; he had now taken a sharp look at his daughter. “It doesn’t matter,” he murmured, turning away.
Pansy after a moment came up to Madame Merle with her little manner of unfamiliar politeness. This lady’s reception of her was not more intimate; she simply, as she rose from the sofa, gave her a friendly smile.
“You are very late,” said the young girl, gently.
“My dear child, I am never later than I intend to be.”
Madame Merle had not got up to be gracious to Pansy; she moved towards Edward Rosier. He came to meet her, and, very quickly, as if to get it off his mind—“I have spoken to her!” he whispered.
“I know it, Mr. Rosier.”
“Did she tell you?”
“Yes, she told me. Behave properly for the rest of the evening, and come and see me to-morrow at a quarter past five.”
She was severe, and in the manner in which she turned her back to him there was a degree of contempt which caused him to mutter a decent imprecation.
He had no intention of speaking to Osmond; it was neither the time nor the place. But he instinctively wandered towards Isabel, who sat talking with an old lady. He sat down on the other side of her; the old lady was an Italian, and Rosier took for granted that she understood no English.
“You said just now you wouldn’t help me,” he began, to Mrs. Osmond. “Perhaps you will feel differently when you know—when you know——”
He hesitated a little.
“When I know what?” Isabel asked, gently.
“That she is all right.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, that we have come to an understanding.”
“She is all wrong,” said Isabel. “It won’t do.”
Poor Rosier gazed at her half-pleadingly, half-angrily; a sudden flush testified to his sense of injury.
“I have never been treated so,” he said. “What is there against me, after all? That is not the way I am usually considered. I could have married twenty times.”
“It’s a pity you didn’t. I don’t mean twenty times, but once, comfortably,” Isabel added, smiling kindly. “You are not rich enough for Pansy.”
“She doesn’t care a straw for one’s money.”
“No, but her father does.”
“Ah yes, he has proved that!” cried the young man.
Isabel got up, turning away from him, leaving her old lady, without saying anything; and he occupied himself for the next ten minutes in pretending to look at Gilbert Osmond’s collection of miniatures, which were neatly arranged on a series of small velvet screens. But he looked without seeing; his cheek burned; he was too full of his sense of injury. It was certain that he had never been treated that way before; he was not used to being thought not good enough. He knew how good he was, and if such a fallacy had not been so pernicious, he could have laughed at it. He looked about again for Pansy, but she had disappeared, and his main desire was now to get out of the house. Before doing so he spoke to Isabel again; it was not agreeable to him to reflect that he had just said a rude thing to her—the only point that would now justify a low view of him.
“I spoke of Mr. Osmond as I shouldn’t have done, a while ago,” he said. “But you must remember my situation.”
“I don’t remember what you said,” she answered, coldly.
“Ah, you are offended, and now you will never help me.”
She was silent an instant, and then, with a change of tone—
“It’s not that I won’t; I simply can’t!” Her manner was almost passionate.
“If you could—just a little,” said Rosier, “I would never again speak of your husband save as an angel.”
“The inducement is great,” said Isabel gravely—inscrutably, as he afterwards, to himself, called it; and she gave him, straight in the eyes, a look which was also inscrutable. It made him remember, somehow, that he had known her as a child; and yet it was keener than he liked, and he took himself off.