Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XXXVIII

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


HE went to see Madame Merle on the morrow, and to his surprise she let him off rather easily. But she made him promise that he would stop there until something should have been decided. Mr. Osmond had had higher expectations; it was very true that as he had no intention of giving his daughter a portion, such expectations were open to criticism, or even, if one would, to ridicule. But she would advise Mr. Rosier not to take that tone; if he would possess his soul in patience he might arrive at his felicity.

Mr. Osmond was not favourable to his suit, but it would not be a miracle if he should gradually come round. Pansy would never defy her father, he might depend upon that, so nothing was to be gained by precipitation. Mr. Osmond needed to accustom his mind to an offer of a sort that he had not hitherto entertained, and this result must come of itself—it was useless to try to force it. Rosier remarked that his own situation would be in the mean while the most uncomfortable in the world, and Madame Merle assured him that she felt for him. But, as she justly declared, one couldn’t have everything one wanted; she had learned that lesson for herself. There would be no use in his writing to Gilbert Osmond, who had charged her to tell him as much. He wished the matter dropped for a few weeks, and would himself write when he should have anything to communicate which it would please Mr. Rosier to hear.

“He doesn’t like your having spoken to Pansy. Ah, he doesn’t like it at all,” said Madame Merle.

“I am perfectly willing to give him a chance to tell me so!”

“If you do that he will tell you more than you care to hear. Go to the house, for the next month, as little as possible, and leave the rest to me.”

“As little as possible? Who is to measure that?”

“Let me measure it. Go on Thursday evenings with the rest of the world; but don’t go at all at odd times, and don’t fret about Pansy. I will see that she understands everything. She’s a calm little nature; she will take it quietly.”

Edward Rosier fretted about Pansy a good deal, but he did as he was advised, and waited for another Thursday evening before returning to the Palazzo Roccanera. There had been a party at dinner, so that although he went early the company was already tolerably numerous. Osmond, as usual, was in the first room, near the fire, staring straight at the door, so that, not to be distinctly uncivil, Rosier had to go and speak to him.

“I am glad that you can take a hint,” Pansy’s father said, slightly closing his keen, conscious eye.

“I take no hints. But I took a message, as I supposed it to be.”

“You took it? Where did you take it?”

It seemed to poor Rosier that he was being insulted and he waited a moment, asking himself how much a true lover ought to submit to.

“Madame Merle gave me, as I understood it, a message from you—to the effect that you declined to give me the opportunity I desire—the opportunity to explain my wishes to you.”

Rosier flattered himself that he spoke rather sternly.

“I don’t see what Madame Merle has to do with it. Why did you apply to Madame Merle?”

“I asked her for an opinion—for nothing more. I did so because she had seemed to me to know you very well.”

“She doesn’t know me so well as she thinks,” said Osmond.

“I am sorry for that, because she has given me some little ground for hope.”

Osmond stared into the fire for a moment.

“I set a great price on my daughter.”

“You can’t set a higher one than I do. Don’t I prove it by wishing to marry her?”

“I wish to marry her very well,” Osmond went on, with a dry impertinence which, in another mood, poor Rosier would have admired.

“Of course I pretend that she would marry well in marrying me. She couldn’t marry a man who loves her more; or whom, I may venture to add, she loves more.”

“I am not bound to accept your theories as to whom my daughter loves,” Osmond said, looking up with a quick, cold smile.

“I am not theorising. Your daughter has spoken.”

“Not to me,” Osmond continued, bending forward a little and dropping his eyes to his boot-toes.

“I have her promise, sir!” cried Rosier, with the sharpness of exasperation.

As their voices had been pitched very low before, such a note attracted some attention from the company. Osmond waited till this little movement had subsided, then he said very quickly—

“I think she has no recollection of having given it.”

They had been standing with their faces to the fire and after he had uttered these last words Osmond turned round again to the room. Before Rosier had time to rejoin he perceived that a gentleman—a stranger—had just come in, unannounced, according to the Roman custom, and was about to present himself to the master of the house. The latter smiled blandly, but somewhat blankly; the visitor was a handsome man, with a large, fair beard—evidently an Englishman.

“You apparently don’t recognise me,” he said, with a smile that expressed more than Osmond’s.

“Ah yes, now I do; I expected so little to see you.”

Rosier departed, and went in direct pursuit of Pansy. He sought her, as usual, in the neighbouring room, but he again encountered Mrs. Osmond in his path. He gave this gracious lady no greeting—he was too righteously indignant; but said to her crudely—

“Your husband is awfully cold-blooded.”

She gave the same mystical smile that he had noticed before.

“You can’t expect every one to be as hot as yourself.”

“I don’t pretend to be cold, but I am cool. What has he been doing to his daughter?”

“I have no idea.”

“Don’t you take any interest?” Rosier demanded, feeling that she too was irritating.

For a moment she answered nothing. Then—

“No!” she said abruptly, and with a quickened light in her eye which directly contradicted the word.

“Excuse me if I don’t believe that. Where is Miss Osmond?”

“In the corner, making tea. Please leave her there.”

Rosier instantly discovered the young girl, who had been hidden by intervening groups. He watched her, but her own attention was entirely given to her occupation.

“What on earth has he done to her?” he asked again imploringly. “He declares to me that she has given me up.”

“She has not given you up,” Isabel said, in a low tone, without looking at him.

“Ah, thank you for that! Now I will leave her alone as long as you think proper!”

He had hardly spoken when he saw her change colour, and became aware that Osmond was coming towards her, accompanied by the gentleman who had just entered. He thought the latter, in spite of the advantage of good looks and evident social experience, was a little embarrassed.

“Isabel,” said Osmond, “I bring you an old friend.”

Mrs. Osmond’s face, though it wore a smile, was, like her old friend’s not perfectly confident. “I am very happy to see Lord Warburton,” she said. Rosier turned away, and now that his talk with her had been interrupted, felt absolved from the little pledge he had just taken. He had a quick impression that Mrs. Osmond would not notice what he did.

To do him justice, Isabel for some time quite ceased to observe him. She had been startled; she hardly knew whether she were glad or not. Lord Warburton, however, now that he was face to face with her, was plainly very well pleased; his frank grey eye expressed a deep, if still somewhat shy, satisfaction. He was larger, stouter than of yore, and he looked older; he stood there very solidly and sensibly.

“I suppose you didn’t expect to see me,” he said; “I have only just arrived. Literally, I only got here this evening. You see I have lost no time in coming to pay you my respects; I knew you were at home on Thursdays.”

“You see the fame of your Thursday has spread to England,” Osmond remarked, smiling, to his wife.

“It is very kind of Lord Warburton to come so soon; we are greatly flattered,” Isabel said.

“Ah well, it’s better than stopping in one of those horrible inns,” Osmond went on.

“The hotel seems very good; I think it is the same one where I saw you four years ago. You know it was here in Rome that we first met; it is a long time ago. Do you remember where I bade you good-bye? It was in the Capitol, in the first room.”

“I remember that myself,” said Osmond; “I was there at the time.”

“Yes, I remember that you were there. I was very sorry to leave Rome—so sorry that, somehow or other, it became a melancholy sort of memory, and I have never cared to come back till to-day. But I knew you were living here, and I assure you I have often thought of you. It must be a charming place to live in,” said Lord Warburton, brightly, looking about him.

“We should have been glad to see you at any time,” remarked with propriety.

“Thank you very much. I haven’t been out of England since then. Till a month ago, I really supposed my travels were over.”

“I have heard of you from time to time,” said Isabel, who had now completely recovered her self-possession.

“I hope you have heard no harm. My life has been a blank.”

“Like the good reigns in history,” Osmond suggested. He appeared to think his duties as a host had now terminated, he had performed them very conscientiously. Nothing could have been more adequate, more nicely measured, than his courtesy to his wife’s old friend. It was punctilious, it was explicit, it was everything but natural—a deficiency which Lord Warburton, who, himself, had on the whole a good deal of nature, may be supposed to have perceived. “I will leave you and Mrs. Osmond together,” he added. “You have reminiscences into which I don’t enter.”

“I am afraid you lose a good deal!” said Lord Warburton, in a tone which perhaps betrayed overmuch his appreciation of Osmond’s generosity. He stood a moment, looking at Isabel with an eye that gradually became more serious. “I am really very glad to see you.”

“It is very pleasant. You are very kind.”

“Do you know that you are changed—a little?”

Isabel hesitated a moment.

“Yes—a good deal.”

“I don’t mean for the worse, of course; and yet how can I say for the better?”

“I think I shall have no scruple in saying that to you,” said Isabel, smiling.

“Ah well, for me—it’s a long time. It would be a pity that there shouldn’t be something to show for it.”

They sat down, and Isabel asked him about his sisters, with other inquiries of a somewhat perfunctory kind. He answered her questions as if they interested him, and in a few moments she saw—or believed she saw—that he would prove a more comfortable companion than of yore. Time had breathed upon his heart, and without chilling this organ, had freely ventilated it. Isabel felt her usual esteem for Time rise at a bound. Lord Warburton’s manner was certainly that of a contented man who would rather like one to know it.

“There is something I must tell you without more delay,” he said. “I have brought Ralph Touchett with me.”

“Brought him with you?” Isabel’s surprise was great.

“He is at the hotel; he was too tired to come out, and has gone to bed.”

“I will go and see him,” said Isabel, quickly.

“That is exactly what I hoped you would do. I had an idea that you hadn’t seen much of him since your marriage—that in fact your relations were a—a little more formal. That’s why I hesitated—like an awkward Englishman.”

“I am as fond of Ralph as ever,” Isabel answered. “But why has he come to Rome?”

The declaration was very gentle; the question a little sharp.

“Because he is very far gone, Mrs. Osmond.”

“Rome, then, is no place for him. I heard from him that he had determined to give up his custom of wintering abroad, and remain in England, indoors, in what he called an artificial climate.”

“Poor fellow, he doesn’t succeed with the artificial! I went to see him three weeks ago, at Gardencourt, and found him extremely ill. He has been getting worse every year, and now he has no strength left. He smokes no more cigarettes! He had got up an artificial climate indeed; the house was as hot as Calcutta. Nevertheless, he had suddenly taken it into his head to start for Sicily. I didn’t believe in it—neither did the doctors, nor any of his friends. His mother, as I suppose you know, is in America, so there was no one to prevent him. He stuck to his idea that it would be the saving of him to spend the winter at Catania. He said he could take servants and furniture, and make himself comfortable; but in point of fact he hasn’t brought anything. I wanted him at least to go by sea, to save fatigue; but he said he hated the sea, and wished to stop at Rome. After that, though I thought it all rubbish, I made up my mind to come with him. I am acting as—what do you call it in America?—as a kind of moderator. Poor Touchett’s very moderate now. We left England a fortnight ago, and he has been very bad on the way. He can’t keep warm, and the further south we come the more he feels the cold. He has got a rather good man, but I’m afraid he’s beyond human help. If you don’t mind my saying so, I think it was a most extraordinary time for Mrs. Touchett to choose for going to America.”

Isabel had listened eagerly; her face was full of pain and wonder.

“My aunt does that at fixed periods, and she lets nothing turn her aside. When the date comes round she starts; I think she would have started if Ralph had been dying.”

“I sometimes think he is dying,” Lord Warburton said.

Isabel started up.

“I will go to him now!”

He checked her; he was a little disconcerted at the quick effect of his words.

“I don’t mean that I thought so to-night. On the contrary, to-day, in the train, he seemed particularly well; the idea of our reaching Rome—he is very fond of Rome, you know—gave him strength. An hour ago, when I bade him goodnight, he told me that he was very tired, but very happy. Go to him in the morning; that’s all I mean. I didn’t tell him I was coming here; I didn’t think of it till after we separated. Then I remembered that he had told me that you had an evening, and that it was this very Thursday. It occurred to me to come in and tell you that he was here, and let you know that you had perhaps better not wait for him to call. I think he said he had not written to you.” There was no need of Isabel’s declaring that she would act upon Lord Warburton’s information; she looked, as she sat there, like a winged creature held back. “Let alone that I wanted to see you for myself,” her visitor added, gallantly.

“I don’t understand Ralph’s plan; it seems to me very wild,” she said. “I was glad to think of him between those thick walls at Gardencourt.”

“He was completely alone there; the thick walls were his only company.”

“You went to see him; you have been extremely kind.”

“Oh dear, I had nothing to do,” said Lord Warburton.

“We hear, on the contrary, that you are doing great things. Every one speaks of you as a great statesman, and I am perpetually seeing your name in the Times, which, by the way, doesn’t appear to hold it in reverence. You are apparently as bold a radical as ever.”

“I don’t feel nearly so bold; you know the world has come round to me. Touchett and I have kept up a sort of Parliamentary debate, all the way from London. I tell him he is the last of the Tories, and he calls me the head of the Communists. So you see there is life in him yet.”

Isabel had many questions to ask about Ralph, but she abstained from asking them all. She would see for herself on the morrow. She perceived that after a little Lord Warburton would tire of that subject—that he had a consciousness of other possible topics. She was more and more able to say to herself that he had recovered, and, what is more to the point, she was able to say it without bitterness. He had been for her, of old, such an image of urgency, of insistence, of something to be resisted and reasoned with, that his reappearance at first menaced her with a new trouble. But she was now reassured; she could see that he only wished to live with her on good terms, that she was to understand that he had forgiven her and was incapable of the bad taste of making pointed allusions. This was not a form of revenge, of course; she had no suspicion that he wished to punish her by an exhibition of disillusionment; she did him the justice to believe that it had simply occurred to him that she would now take a good-natured interest in knowing that he was resigned. It was the resignation of a healthy, manly nature, in which sentimental wounds could never fester. British politics had cured him; she had known they would. She gave an envious thought to the happier lot of men, who are always free to plunge into the healing waters of action. Lord Warburton of course spoke of the past, but he spoke of it without implication; he even went so far as to allude to their former meeting in Rome as a very jolly time. And he told her that he had been immensely interested in hearing of her marriage—that it was a great pleasure to him to make Mr. Osmond’s acquaintance—since he could hardly be said to have made it on the other occasion. He had not written to her when she married, but he did not apologise to her for that. The only thing he implied was that they were old friends, intimate friends. It was very much as an intimate friend that he said to her, suddenly, after a short pause which he had occupied in smiling, as he looked about him, like a man to whom everything suggested a cheerful interpretation—

“Well now, I suppose you are very happy, and all that sort of thing?”

Isabel answered with a quick laugh; the tone of his remark struck her almost as the accent of comedy.

“Do you suppose if I were not I would tell you?”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t see why not.”

“I do, then. Fortunately, however, I am very happy.”

“You have got a very good house.”

“Yes, it’s very pleasant. But that’s not my merit—it’s my husband’s.”

“You mean that he has arranged it?”

“Yes, it was nothing when we came.”

“He must be very clever.”

“He has a genius for upholstery,” said Isabel.

“There is a great rage for that sort of thing now. But you must have a taste of your own.”

“I enjoy things when they are done; but I have no ideas. I can never propose anything.”

“Do you mean that you accept what others propose?”

“Very willingly, for the most part.”

“That’s a good thing to know. I shall propose you something.”

“It will be very kind. I must say, however, that I have in a few small ways a certain initiative. I should like, for instance to introduce you to some of these people.”

“Oh, please don’t; I like sitting here. Unless it be to that young lady in the blue dress. She has a charming face.”

“The one talking to the rosy young man? That’s my husband’s daughter.”

“Lucky man, your husband. What a dear little maid!”

“You must make her acquaintance.”

“In a moment, with pleasure. I like looking at her from here.” He ceased to look at her, however, very soon; his eyes constantly reverted to Mrs. Osmond. “Do you know I was wrong just now in saying that you had changed?” he presently went on. “You seem to me, after all, very much the same.”

“And yet I find it’s a great change to be married,” said Isabel, with gaiety.

“It affects most people more than it has affected you. You see I haven’t gone in for that.”

“It rather surprises me.”

“You ought to understand it, Mrs. Osmond. But I want to marry,” he added, more simply.

“It ought to be very easy,” Isabel said, rising, and then blushing a little at the thought that she was hardly the person to say this. It was perhaps because Lord Warburton noticed her blush that he generously forebore to call her attention to the incongruity.

Edward Rosier meanwhile had seated himself on an ottoman beside Pansy’s tea-table. He pretended at first to talk to her about trifles, and she asked him who was the new gentleman conversing with her stepmother.

“He’s an English lord,” said Rosier. “I don’t know more.”

“I wonder if he will have some tea. The English are so fond of tea.”

“Never mind that; I have something particular to say to you.”

“Don’t speak so loud, or every one will hear us,” said Pansy.

“They won’t hear us if you continue to look that way: as if your only thought in life was the wish that the kettle would boil.”

“It has just been filled; the servants never know!” the young girl exclaimed, with a little sigh.

“Do you know what your father said to me just now? That you didn’t mean what you said a week ago.”

“I don’t mean everything I say. How can a young girl do that? But I mean what I say to you.”

“He told me that you had forgotten me.”

“Ah no, I don’t forget,” said Pansy, showing her pretty teeth in a fixed smile.

“Then everything is just the same?”

“Ah no, it’s not just the same. Papa has been very severe.”

“What has he done to you?

“He asked me what you had done to me, and I told him everything. Then he forbade me to marry you.”

“You needn’t mind that.”

“Oh yes, I must indeed. I can’t disobey papa.”

“Not for one who loves you as I do, and whom you pretend to love?”

Pansy raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths. “I love you just as much.”

“What good will that do me?”

“Ah,” said Pansy, raising her sweet, vague eyes, “I don’t know that.”

“You disappoint me,” groaned poor Rosier.

Pansy was silent a moment; she handed a tea-cup to a servant.

“Please don’t talk any more.”

“Is this to be all my satisfaction?”

“Papa said I was not to talk with you.”

“Do you sacrifice me like that? Ah, it’s too much!”

“I wish you would wait a little,” said the young girl, in a voice just distinct enough to betray a quaver.

“Of course I will wait if you will give me hope. But you take my life away.”

“I will not give you up—oh, no!” Pansy went on.

“He will try and make you marry some one else.”

“I will never do that.”

“What then are we to wait for?”

She hesitated a moment.

“I will speak to Mrs. Osmond, and she will help us.” It was in this manner that she for the most part designated her stepmother.

“She won’t help us much. She is afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Of your father, I suppose.”

Pansy shook her little head.

“She is not afraid of any one! We must have patience.”

“Ah, that’s an awful word,” Rosier groaned; he was deeply disconcerted. Oblivious of the customs of good society, he dropped his head into his hands, and, supporting it with a melancholy grace, sat starting at the carpet. Presently he became aware of a good deal of movement about him, and when he looked up saw Pansy making a curtsey—it was still her little curtsey of the convent—to the English lord whom Mrs. Osmond had presented.