The Portrait of a Lady [Volume 1]
Part 7 out of 7
the surface; she would try to understand--she would not simply
utter graceful platitudes. Poor Isabel was doubtless not aware
that many women would have uttered graceful platitudes to cover
the working of their observation. It must be confessed that her
pride was a trifle alarmed. A man she had heard spoken of in
terms that excited interest and who was evidently capable of
distinguishing himself, had invited her, a young lady not lavish
of her favours, to come to his house. Now that she had done so
the burden of the entertainment rested naturally on his wit.
Isabel was not rendered less observant, and for the moment,
we judge, she was not rendered more indulgent, by perceiving that
Mr. Osmond carried his burden less complacently than might have
been expected. "What a fool I was to have let myself so
needlessly in--!" she could fancy his exclaiming to himself.
"You'll be tired when you go home, if he shows you all his
bibelots and gives you a lecture on each," said the Countess
"I'm not afraid of that; but if I'm tired I shall at least have
"Very little, I suspect. But my sister's dreadfully afraid of
learning anything," said Mr. Osmond.
"Oh, I confess to that; I don't want to know anything more--I
know too much already. The more you know the more unhappy you
"You should not undervalue knowledge before Pansy, who has not
finished her education," Madame Merle interposed with a smile.
"Pansy will never know any harm," said the child's father.
"Pansy's a little convent-flower."
"Oh, the convents, the convents!" cried the Countess with a
flutter of her ruffles. "Speak to me of the convents! You may
learn anything there; I'm a convent-flower myself. I don't
pretend to be good, but the nuns do. Don't you see what I mean?"
she went on, appealing to Isabel.
Isabel was not sure she saw, and she answered that she was very
bad at following arguments. The Countess then declared that she
herself detested arguments, but that this was her brother's taste
--he would always discuss. "For me," she said, "one should like a
thing or one shouldn't; one can't like everything, of course. But
one shouldn't attempt to reason it out--you never know where it
may lead you. There are some very good feelings that may have bad
reasons, don't you know? And then there are very bad feelings,
sometimes, that have good reasons. Don't you see what I mean? I
don't care anything about reasons, but I know what I like."
"Ah, that's the great thing," said Isabel, smiling and suspecting
that her acquaintance with this lightly flitting personage would
not lead to intellectual repose. If the Countess objected to
argument Isabel at this moment had as little taste for it, and
she put out her hand to Pansy with a pleasant sense that such a
gesture committed her to nothing that would admit of a divergence
of views. Gilbert Osmond apparently took a rather hopeless view
of his sister's tone; he turned the conversation to another
topic. He presently sat down on the other side of his daughter,
who had shyly brushed Isabel's fingers with her own; but he ended
by drawing her out of her chair and making her stand between his
knees, leaning against him while he passed his arm round her
slimness. The child fixed her eyes on Isabel with a still,
disinterested gaze which seemed void of an intention, yet
conscious of an attraction. Mr. Osmond talked of many things;
Madame Merle had said he could be agreeable when he chose, and
to-day, after a little, he appeared not only to have chosen but
to have determined. Madame Merle and the Countess Gemini sat a
little apart, conversing in the effortless manner of persons who
knew each other well enough to take their ease; but every now and
then Isabel heard the Countess, at something said by her
companion, plunge into the latter's lucidity as a poodle splashes
after a thrown stick. It was as if Madame Merle were seeing how
far she would go. Mr. Osmond talked of Florence, of Italy, of the
pleasure of living in that country and of the abatements to the
pleasure. There were both satisfactions and drawbacks; the
drawbacks were numerous; strangers were too apt to see such a
world as all romantic. It met the case soothingly for the human,
for the social failure--by which he meant the people who couldn't
"realise," as they said, on their sensibility: they could keep it
about them there, in their poverty, without ridicule, as you
might keep an heirloom or an inconvenient entailed place that
brought you in nothing. Thus there were advantages in living in
the country which contained the greatest sum of beauty. Certain
impressions you could get only there. Others, favourable to life,
you never got, and you got some that were very bad. But from time
to time you got one of a quality that made up for everything.
Italy, all the same, had spoiled a great many people; he was even
fatuous enough to believe at times that he himself might have
been a better man if he had spent less of his life there. It made
one idle and dilettantish and second-rate; it had no discipline
for the character, didn't cultivate in you, otherwise expressed,
the successful social and other "cheek" that flourished in Paris
and London. "We're sweetly provincial," said Mr. Osmond, "and I'm
perfectly aware that I myself am as rusty as a key that has no
lock to fit it. It polishes me up a little to talk with you--not
that I venture to pretend I can turn that very complicated lock I
suspect your intellect of being! But you'll be going away before
I've seen you three times, and I shall perhaps never see you
after that. That's what it is to live in a country that people
come to. When they're disagreeable here it's bad enough; when
they're agreeable it's still worse. As soon as you like them
they're off again! I've been deceived too often; I've ceased to
form attachments, to permit myself to feel attractions. You mean
to stay--to settle? That would be really comfortable. Ah yes, your
aunt's a sort of guarantee; I believe she may be depended on. Oh,
she's an old Florentine; I mean literally an old one; not a
modern outsider. She's a contemporary of the Medici; she must
have been present at the burning of Savonarola, and I'm not sure
she didn't throw a handful of chips into the flame. Her face is
very much like some faces in the early pictures; little, dry,
definite faces that must have had a good deal of expression, but
almost always the same one. Indeed I can show you her portrait in
a fresco of Ghirlandaio's. I hope you don't object to my speaking
that way of your aunt, eh? I've an idea you don't. Perhaps you
think that's even worse. I assure you there's no want of respect
in it, to either of you. You know I'm a particular admirer of
While Isabel's host exerted himself to entertain her in this
somewhat confidential fashion she looked occasionally at Madame
Merle, who met her eyes with an inattentive smile in which, on
this occasion, there was no infelicitous intimation that our
heroine appeared to advantage. Madame Merle eventually proposed
to the Countess Gemini that they should go into the garden, and
the Countess, rising and shaking out her feathers, began to
rustle toward the door. "Poor Miss Archer!" she exclaimed,
surveying the other group with expressive compassion. "She has
been brought quite into the family."
"Miss Archer can certainly have nothing but sympathy for a family
to which you belong," Mr. Osmond answered, with a laugh which,
though it had something of a mocking ring, had also a finer
"I don't know what you mean by that! I'm sure she'll see no harm
in me but what you tell her. I'm better than he says, Miss
Archer," the Countess went on. "I'm only rather an idiot and a
bore. Is that all he has said? Ah then, you keep him in
good-humour. Has he opened on one of his favourite subjects? I
give you notice that there are two or three that he treats a
fond. In that case you had better take off your bonnet."
"I don't think I know what Mr. Osmond's favourite subjects are,"
said Isabel, who had risen to her feet.
The Countess assumed for an instant an attitude of intense
meditation, pressing one of her hands, with the finger-tips
gathered together, to her forehead. "I'll tell you in a moment.
One's Machiavelli; the other's Vittoria Colonna; the next is
"Ah, with me," said Madame Merle, passing her arm into the
Countess Gemini's as if to guide her course to the garden, "Mr.
Osmond's never so historical."
"Oh you," the Countess answered as they moved away, "you yourself
are Machiavelli--you yourself are Vittoria Colonna!"
"We shall hear next that poor Madame Merle is Metastasio!"
Gilbert Osmond resignedly sighed.
Isabel had got up on the assumption that they too were to go into
the garden; but her host stood there with no apparent inclination
to leave the room, his hands in the pockets of his jacket and his
daughter, who had now locked her arm into one of his own,
clinging to him and looking up while her eyes moved from his own
face to Isabel's. Isabel waited, with a certain unuttered
contentedness, to have her movements directed; she liked Mr.
Osmond's talk, his company: she had what always gave her a very
private thrill, the consciousness of a new relation. Through the
open doors of the great room she saw Madame Merle and the
Countess stroll across the fine grass of the garden; then she
turned, and her eyes wandered over the things scattered about
her. The understanding had been that Mr. Osmond should show her
his treasures; his pictures and cabinets all looked like
treasures. Isabel after a moment went toward one of the pictures
to see it better; but just as she had done so he said to her
abruptly: "Miss Archer, what do you think of my sister?"
She faced him with some surprise. "Ah, don't ask me that--I've
seen your sister too little."
"Yes, you've seen her very little; but you must have observed
that there is not a great deal of her to see. What do you think
of our family tone?" he went on with his cool smile. "I should
like to know how it strikes a fresh, unprejudiced mind. I know
what you're going to say--you've had almost no observation of it.
Of course this is only a glimpse. But just take notice, in
future, if you have a chance. I sometimes think we've got into a
rather bad way, living off here among things and people not our
own, without responsibilities or attachments, with nothing to
hold us together or keep us up; marrying foreigners, forming
artificial tastes, playing tricks with our natural mission. Let
me add, though, that I say that much more for myself than for my
sister. She's a very honest lady--more so than she seems. She's
rather unhappy, and as she's not of a serious turn she doesn't
tend to show it tragically: she shows it comically instead. She
has got a horrid husband, though I'm not sure she makes the best
of him. Of course, however, a horrid husband's an awkward thing.
Madame Merle gives her excellent advice, but it's a good deal
like giving a child a dictionary to learn a language with. He can
look out the words, but he can't put them together. My sister
needs a grammar, but unfortunately she's not grammatical. Pardon
my troubling you with these details; my sister was very right in
saying you've been taken into the family. Let me take down that
picture; you want more light."
He took down the picture, carried it toward the window, related
some curious facts about it. She looked at the other works of
art, and he gave her such further information as might appear
most acceptable to a young lady making a call on a summer
afternoon. His pictures, his medallions and tapestries were
interesting; but after a while Isabel felt the owner much more
so, and independently of them, thickly as they seemed to overhang
him. He resembled no one she had ever seen; most of the people
she knew might be divided into groups of half a dozen specimens.
There were one or two exceptions to this; she could think for
instance of no group that would contain her aunt Lydia. There
were other people who were, relatively speaking, original--
original, as one might say, by courtesy such as Mr. Goodwood, as
her cousin Ralph, as Henrietta Stackpole, as Lord Warburton, as
Madame Merle. But in essentials, when one came to look at them,
these individuals belonged to types already present to her mind.
Her mind contained no class offering a natural place to Mr.
Osmond--he was a specimen apart. It was not that she recognised
all these truths at the hour, but they were falling into order
before her. For the moment she only said to herself that this
"new relation" would perhaps prove her very most distinguished.
Madame Merle had had that note of rarity, but what quite other
power it immediately gained when sounded by a man! It was not so
much what he said and did, but rather what he withheld, that
marked him for her as by one of those signs of the highly curious
that he was showing her on the underside of old plates and in the
corner of sixteenth-century drawings: he indulged in no striking
deflections from common usage, he was an original without being
an eccentric. She had never met a person of so fine a grain. The
peculiarity was physical, to begin with, and it extended to
impalpabilities. His dense, delicate hair, his overdrawn,
retouched features, his clear complexion, ripe without being
coarse, the very evenness of the growth of his beard, and that
light, smooth slenderness of structure which made the movement of
a single one of his fingers produce the effect of an expressive
gesture--these personal points struck our sensitive young woman
as signs of quality, of intensity, somehow as promises of
interest. He was certainly fastidious and critical; he was
probably irritable. His sensibility had governed him--possibly
governed him too much; it had made him impatient of vulgar
troubles and had led him to live by himself, in a sorted, sifted,
arranged world, thinking about art and beauty and history. He had
consulted his taste in everything--his taste alone perhaps, as a
sick man consciously incurable consults at last only his lawyer:
that was what made him so different from every one else. Ralph
had something of this same quality, this appearance of thinking
that life was a matter of connoisseurship; but in Ralph it was an
anomaly, a kind of humorous excrescence, whereas in Mr. Osmond it
was the keynote, and everything was in harmony with it. She was
certainly far from understanding him completely; his meaning was
not at all times obvious. It was hard to see what he meant for
instance by speaking of his provincial side--which was exactly
the side she would have taken him most to lack. Was it a harmless
paradox, intended to puzzle her? or was it the last refinement of
high culture? She trusted she should learn in time; it would be
very interesting to learn. If it was provincial to have that
harmony, what then was the finish of the capital? And she could
put this question in spite of so feeling her host a shy
personage; since such shyness as his--the shyness of ticklish
nerves and fine perceptions--was perfectly consistent with the
best breeding. Indeed it was almost a proof of standards and
touchstones other than the vulgar: he must be so sure the vulgar
would be first on the ground. He wasn't a man of easy assurance,
who chatted and gossiped with the fluency of a superficial
nature; he was critical of himself as well as of others, and,
exacting a good deal of others, to think them agreeable, probably
took a rather ironical view of what he himself offered: a proof
into the bargain that he was not grossly conceited. If he had not
been shy he wouldn't have effected that gradual, subtle,
successful conversion of it to which she owed both what pleased
her in him and what mystified her. If he had suddenly asked her
what she thought of the Countess Gemini, that was doubtless a
proof that he was interested in her; it could scarcely be as a
help to knowledge of his own sister. That he should be so
interested showed an enquiring mind; but it was a little singular
he should sacrifice his fraternal feeling to his curiosity. This
was the most eccentric thing he had done.
There were two other rooms, beyond the one in which she had been
received, equally full of romantic objects, and in these
apartments Isabel spent a quarter of an hour. Everything was in
the last degree curious and precious, and Mr. Osmond continued to
be the kindest of ciceroni as he led her from one fine piece to
another and still held his little girl by the hand. His kindness
almost surprised our young friend, who wondered why he should
take so much trouble for her; and she was oppressed at last with
the accumulation of beauty and knowledge to which she found
herself introduced. There was enough for the present; she had
ceased to attend to what he said; she listened to him with
attentive eyes, but was not thinking of what he told her. He
probably thought her quicker, cleverer in every way, more
prepared, than she was. Madame Merle would have pleasantly
exaggerated; which was a pity, because in the end he would be
sure to find out, and then perhaps even her real intelligence
wouldn't reconcile him to his mistake. A part of Isabel's fatigue
came from the effort to appear as intelligent as she believed
Madame Merle had described her, and from the fear (very unusual
with her) of exposing--not her ignorance; for that she cared
comparatively little--but her possible grossness of perception.
It would have annoyed her to express a liking for something he,
in his superior enlightenment, would think she oughtn't to like;
or to pass by something at which the truly initiated mind would
arrest itself. She had no wish to fall into that grotesqueness--
in which she had seen women (and it was a warning) serenely, yet
ignobly, flounder. She was very careful therefore as to what she
said, as to what she noticed or failed to notice; more careful
than she had ever been before.
They came back into the first of the rooms, where the tea had
been served; but as the two other ladies were still on the
terrace, and as Isabel had not yet been made acquainted with the
view, the paramount distinction of the place, Mr. Osmond directed
her steps into the garden without more delay. Madame Merle and
the Countess had had chairs brought out, and as the afternoon was
lovely the Countess proposed they should take their tea in the
open air. Pansy therefore was sent to bid the servant bring out
the preparations. The sun had got low, the golden light took a
deeper tone, and on the mountains and the plain that stretched
beneath them the masses of purple shadow glowed as richly as the
places that were still exposed. The scene had an extraordinary
charm. The air was almost solemnly still, and the large expanse
of the landscape, with its garden-like culture and nobleness of
outline, its teeming valley and delicately-fretted hills, its
peculiarly human-looking touches of habitation, lay there in
splendid harmony and classic grace. "You seem so well pleased
that I think you can be trusted to come back," Osmond said as he
led his companion to one of the angles of the terrace.
"I shall certainly come back," she returned, "in spite of what
you say about its being bad to live in Italy. What was that you
said about one's natural mission? I wonder if I should forsake my
natural mission if I were to settle in Florence."
"A woman's natural mission is to be where she's most
"The point's to find out where that is."
"Very true--she often wastes a great deal of time in the enquiry.
People ought to make it very plain to her."
"Such a matter would have to be made very plain to me," smiled
"I'm glad, at any rate, to hear you talk of settling. Madame
Merle had given me an idea that you were of a rather roving
disposition. I thought she spoke of your having some plan of
going round the world."
"I'm rather ashamed of my plans; I make a new one every day."
"I don't see why you should be ashamed; it's the greatest of
"It seems frivolous, I think," said Isabel. "One ought to choose
something very deliberately, and be faithful to that."
"By that rule then, I've not been frivolous."
"Have you never made plans?"
"Yes, I made one years ago, and I'm acting on it to-day."
"It must have been a very pleasant one," Isabel permitted herself
"It was very simple. It was to be as quiet as possible."
"As quiet?" the girl repeated.
"Not to worry--not to strive nor struggle. To resign myself. To
be content with little." He spoke these sentences slowly, with
short pauses between, and his intelligent regard was fixed on his
visitor's with the conscious air of a man who has brought himself
to confess something.
"Do you call that simple?" she asked with mild irony.
"Yes, because it's negative."
"Has your life been negative?"
"Call it affirmative if you like. Only it has affirmed my
indifference. Mind you, not my natural indifference--I HAD none.
But my studied, my wilful renunciation."
She scarcely understood him; it seemed a question whether he were
joking or not. Why should a man who struck her as having a great
fund of reserve suddenly bring himself to be so confidential?
This was his affair, however, and his confidences were interesting.
"I don't see why you should have renounced," she said in a moment.
"Because I could do nothing. I had no prospects, I was poor, and
I was not a man of genius. I had no talents even; I took my
measure early in life. I was simply the most fastidious young
gentleman living. There were two or three people in the world I
envied--the Emperor of Russia, for instance, and the Sultan of
Turkey! There were even moments when I envied the Pope of Rome--
for the consideration he enjoys. I should have been delighted to
be considered to that extent; but since that couldn't be I didn't
care for anything less, and I made up my mind not to go in for
honours. The leanest gentleman can always consider himself, and
fortunately I was, though lean, a gentleman. I could do nothing
in Italy--I couldn't even be an Italian patriot. To do that I
should have had to get out of the country; and I was too fond of
it to leave it, to say nothing of my being too well satisfied
with it, on the whole, as it then was, to wish it altered. So
I've passed a great many years here on that quiet plan I spoke
of. I've not been at all unhappy. I don't mean to say I've cared
for nothing; but the things I've cared for have been definite--
limited. The events of my life have been absolutely unperceived
by any one save myself; getting an old silver crucifix at a
bargain (I've never bought anything dear, of course), or
discovering, as I once did, a sketch by Correggio on a panel
daubed over by some inspired idiot."
This would have been rather a dry account of Mr. Osmond's career
if Isabel had fully believed it; but her imagination supplied the
human element which she was sure had not been wanting. His life
had been mingled with other lives more than he admitted;
naturally she couldn't expect him to enter into this. For the
present she abstained from provoking further revelations; to
intimate that he had not told her everything would be more
familiar and less considerate than she now desired to be--would
in fact be uproariously vulgar. He had certainly told her quite
enough. It was her present inclination, however, to express a
measured sympathy for the success with which he had preserved his
independence. "That's a very pleasant life," she said, "to
renounce everything but Correggio!"
"Oh, I've made in my way a good thing of it. Don't imagine I'm
whining about it. It's one's own fault if one isn't happy."
This was large; she kept down to something smaller. "Have you
lived here always?"
"No, not always. I lived a long time at Naples, and many years in
Rome. But I've been here a good while. Perhaps I shall have to
change, however; to do something else. I've no longer myself to
think of. My daughter's growing up and may very possibly not care
so much for the Correggios and crucifixes as I. I shall have to
do what's best for Pansy."
"Yes, do that," said Isabel. "She's such a dear little girl."
"Ah," cried Gilbert Osmond beautifully, "she's a little saint of
heaven! She is my great happiness!"
While this sufficiently intimate colloquy (prolonged for some
time after we cease to follow it) went forward Madame Merle and
her companion, breaking a silence of some duration, had begun to
exchange remarks. They were sitting in an attitude of unexpressed
expectancy; an attitude especially marked on the part of the
Countess Gemini, who, being of a more nervous temperament than
her friend, practised with less success the art of disguising
impatience. What these ladies were waiting for would not have
been apparent and was perhaps not very definite to their own
minds. Madame Merle waited for Osmond to release their young
friend from her tete-a-tete, and the Countess waited because
Madame Merle did. The Countess, moreover, by waiting, found the
time ripe for one of her pretty perversities. She might have
desired for some minutes to place it. Her brother wandered with
Isabel to the end of the garden, to which point her eyes followed
"My dear," she then observed to her companion, "you'll excuse me
if I don't congratulate you!"
"Very willingly, for I don't in the least know why you should."
"Haven't you a little plan that you think rather well of?" And
the Countess nodded at the sequestered couple.
Madame Merle's eyes took the same direction; then she looked
serenely at her neighbour. "You know I never understand you very
well," she smiled.
"No one can understand better than you when you wish. I see that
just now you DON'T wish."
"You say things to me that no one else does," said Madame Merle
gravely, yet without bitterness.
"You mean things you don't like? Doesn't Osmond sometimes say
"What your brother says has a point."
"Yes, a poisoned one sometimes. If you mean that I'm not so
clever as he you mustn't think I shall suffer from your sense of
our difference. But it will be much better that you should
"Why so?" asked Madame Merle. "To what will it conduce?"
"If I don't approve of your plan you ought to know it in order to
appreciate the danger of my interfering with it."
Madame Merle looked as if she were ready to admit that there
might be something in this; but in a moment she said quietly:
"You think me more calculating than I am."
"It's not your calculating I think ill of; it's your calculating
wrong. You've done so in this case."
"You must have made extensive calculations yourself to discover
"No, I've not had time. I've seen the girl but this once," said
the Countess, "and the conviction has suddenly come to me. I like
her very much."
"So do I," Madame Merle mentioned.
"You've a strange way of showing it."
"Surely I've given her the advantage of making your acquaintance."
"That indeed," piped the Countess, "is perhaps the best thing
that could happen to her!"
Madame Merle said nothing for some time. The Countess's manner
was odious, was really low; but it was an old story, and with her
eyes upon the violet slope of Monte Morello she gave herself up
to reflection. "My dear lady," she finally resumed, "I advise you
not to agitate yourself. The matter you allude to concerns three
persons much stronger of purpose than yourself."
"Three persons? You and Osmond of course. But is Miss Archer also
very strong of purpose?"
"Quite as much so as we."
"Ah then," said the Countess radiantly, "if I convince her it's
her interest to resist you she'll do so successfully!"
"Resist us? Why do you express yourself so coarsely? She's not
exposed to compulsion or deception."
"I'm not sure of that. You're capable of anything, you and
Osmond. I don't mean Osmond by himself, and I don't mean you by
yourself. But together you're dangerous--like some chemical
"You had better leave us alone then," smiled Madame Merle.
"I don't mean to touch you--but I shall talk to that girl."
"My poor Amy," Madame Merle murmured, "I don't see what has got
into your head."
"I take an interest in her--that's what has got into my head. I
Madame Merle hesitated a moment. "I don't think she likes you."
The Countess's bright little eyes expanded and her face was set
in a grimace. "Ah, you ARE dangerous--even by yourself!"
"If you want her to like you don't abuse your brother to her,"
said Madame Merle.
"I don't suppose you pretend she has fallen in love with him in
Madame Merle looked a moment at Isabel and at the master of the
house. He was leaning against the parapet, facing her, his arms
folded; and she at present was evidently not lost in the mere
impersonal view, persistently as she gazed at it. As Madame Merle
watched her she lowered her eyes; she was listening, possibly
with a certain embarrassment, while she pressed the point of her
parasol into the path. Madame Merle rose from her chair. "Yes, I
think so!" she pronounced.
The shabby footboy, summoned by Pansy--he might, tarnished as
to livery and quaint as to type, have issued from some stray
sketch of old-time manners, been "put in" by the brush of a
Longhi or a Goya--had come out with a small table and placed it
on the grass, and then had gone back and fetched the tea-tray;
after which he had again disappeared, to return with a couple of
chairs. Pansy had watched these proceedings with the deepest
interest, standing with her small hands folded together upon the
front of her scanty frock; but she had not presumed to offer
assistance. When the tea-table had been arranged, however, she
gently approached her aunt.
"Do you think papa would object to my making the tea?"
The Countess looked at her with a deliberately critical gaze and
without answering her question. "My poor niece," she said, "is
that your best frock?"
"Ah no," Pansy answered, "it's just a little toilette for
"Do you call it a common occasion when I come to see you?--to say
nothing of Madame Merle and the pretty lady yonder."
Pansy reflected a moment, turning gravely from one of the persons
mentioned to the other. Then her face broke into its perfect
smile. "I have a pretty dress, but even that one's very simple.
Why should I expose it beside your beautiful things?"
"Because it's the prettiest you have; for me you must always wear
the prettiest. Please put it on the next time. It seems to me
they don't dress you so well as they might."
The child sparingly stroked down her antiquated skirt. "It's a
good little dress to make tea--don't you think? Don't you believe
papa would allow me?"
"Impossible for me to say, my child," said the Countess. "For me,
your father's ideas are unfathomable. Madame Merle understands
them better. Ask HER."
Madame Merle smiled with her usual grace. "It's a weighty
question--let me think. It seems to me it would please your
father to see a careful little daughter making his tea. It's the
proper duty of the daughter of the house--when she grows up."
"So it seems to me, Madame Merle!" Pansy cried. "You shall see
how well I'll make it. A spoonful for each." And she began to
busy herself at the table.
"Two spoonfuls for me," said the Countess, who, with Madame
Merle, remained for some moments watching her. "Listen to me,
Pansy," the Countess resumed at last. "I should like to know what
you think of your visitor."
"Ah, she's not mine--she's papa's," Pansy objected.
"Miss Archer came to see you as well," said Madame Merle.
"I'm very happy to hear that. She has been very polite to me."
"Do you like her then?" the Countess asked.
"She's charming--charming," Pansy repeated in her little neat
conversational tone. "She pleases me thoroughly."
"And how do you think she pleases your father?"
"Ah really, Countess!" murmured Madame Merle dissuasively. "Go
and call them to tea," she went on to the child.
"You'll see if they don't like it!" Pansy declared; and departed
to summon the others, who had still lingered at the end of the
"If Miss Archer's to become her mother it's surely interesting to
know if the child likes her," said the Countess.
"If your brother marries again it won't be for Pansy's sake,"
Madame Merle replied. "She'll soon be sixteen, and after that
she'll begin to need a husband rather than a stepmother."
"And will you provide the husband as well?"
"I shall certainly take an interest in her marrying fortunately.
I imagine you'll do the same."
"Indeed I shan't!" cried the Countess. "Why should I, of all
women, set such a price on a husband?"
"You didn't marry fortunately; that's what I'm speaking of. When
I say a husband I mean a good one."
"There are no good ones. Osmond won't be a good one."
Madame Merle closed her eyes a moment. "You're irritated just
now; I don't know why," she presently said. "I don't think you'll
really object either to your brother's or to your niece's
marrying, when the time comes for them to do so; and as regards
Pansy I'm confident that we shall some day have the pleasure of
looking for a husband for her together. Your large acquaintance
will be a great help."
"Yes, I'm irritated," the Countess answered. "You often irritate
me. Your own coolness is fabulous. You're a strange woman."
"It's much better that we should always act together," Madame
Merle went on.
"Do you mean that as a threat?" asked the Countess rising.
Madame Merle shook her head as for quiet amusement. "No indeed,
you've not my coolness!"
Isabel and Mr. Osmond were now slowly coming toward them and
Isabel had taken Pansy by the hand. "Do you pretend to believe
he'd make her happy?" the Countess demanded.
"If he should marry Miss Archer I suppose he'd behave like a
The Countess jerked herself into a succession of attitudes. "Do
you mean as most gentlemen behave? That would be much to be
thankful for! Of course Osmond's a gentleman; his own sister
needn't be reminded of that. But does he think he can marry any
girl he happens to pick out? Osmond's a gentleman, of course; but
I must say I've NEVER, no, no, never, seen any one of Osmond's
pretensions! What they're all founded on is more than I can say.
I'm his own sister; I might he supposed to know. Who is he, if
you please? What has he ever done? If there had been anything
particularly grand in his origin--if he were made of some
superior clay--I presume I should have got some inkling of it. If
there had been any great honours or splendours in the family I
should certainly have made the most of them: they would have been
quite in my line. But there's nothing, nothing, nothing. One's
parents were charming people of course; but so were yours, I've
no doubt. Every one's a charming person nowadays. Even I'm a
charming person; don't laugh, it has literally been said. As for
Osmond, he has always appeared to believe that he's descended
from the gods."
"You may say what you please," said Madame Merle, who had
listened to this quick outbreak none the less attentively, we may
believe, because her eye wandered away from the speaker and her
hands busied themselves with adjusting the knots of ribbon on her
dress. "You Osmonds are a fine race--your blood must flow from
some very pure source. Your brother, like an intelligent man, has
had the conviction of it if he has not had the proofs. You're
modest about it, but you yourself are extremely distinguished.
What do you say about your niece? The child's a little princess.
Nevertheless," Madame Merle added, "it won't be an easy matter
for Osmond to marry Miss Archer. Yet he can try."
"I hope she'll refuse him. It will take him down a little."
"We mustn't forget that he is one of the cleverest of men."
"I've heard you say that before, but I haven't yet discovered
what he has done."
"What he has done? He has done nothing that has had to be undone.
And he has known how to wait."
"To wait for Miss Archer's money? How much of it is there?"
"That's not what I mean," said Madame Merle. "Miss Archer has
seventy thousand pounds."
"Well, it's a pity she's so charming," the Countess declared. "To
be sacrificed, any girl would do. She needn't be superior."
"If she weren't superior your brother would never look at her. He
must have the best."
"Yes," returned the Countess as they went forward a little to meet
the others, "he's very hard to satisfy. That makes me tremble for
Gilbert Osmond came to see Isabel again; that is he came to
Palazzo Crescentini. He had other friends there as well, and to
Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle he was always impartially civil;
but the former of these ladies noted the fact that in the course
of a fortnight he called five times, and compared it with another
fact that she found no difficulty in remembering. Two visits a
year had hitherto constituted his regular tribute to Mrs.
Touchett's worth, and she had never observed him select for such
visits those moments, of almost periodical recurrence, when
Madame Merle was under her roof. It was not for Madame Merle that
he came; these two were old friends and he never put himself out
for her. He was not fond of Ralph--Ralph had told her so--and it
was not supposable that Mr. Osmond had suddenly taken a fancy to
her son. Ralph was imperturbable--Ralph had a kind of
loose-fitting urbanity that wrapped him about like an ill-made
overcoat, but of which he never divested himself; he thought Mr.
Osmond very good company and was willing at any time to look at
him in the light of hospitality. But he didn't flatter himself
that the desire to repair a past injustice was the motive of
their visitor's calls; he read the situation more clearly. Isabel
was the attraction, and in all conscience a sufficient one.
Osmond was a critic, a student of the exquisite, and it was
natural he should be curious of so rare an apparition. So when
his mother observed to him that it was plain what Mr. Osmond was
thinking of, Ralph replied that he was quite of her opinion. Mrs.
Touchett had from far back found a place on her scant list for
this gentleman, though wondering dimly by what art and what
process--so negative and so wise as they were--he had everywhere
effectively imposed himself. As he had never been an importunate
visitor he had had no chance to be offensive, and he was
recommended to her by his appearance of being as well able to do
without her as she was to do without him--a quality that always,
oddly enough, affected her as providing ground for a relation
with her. It gave her no satisfaction, however, to think that he
had taken it into his head to marry her niece. Such an alliance,
on Isabel's part, would have an air of almost morbid perversity.
Mrs. Touchett easily remembered that the girl had refused an
English peer; and that a young lady with whom Lord Warburton had
not successfully wrestled should content herself with an obscure
American dilettante, a middle-aged widower with an uncanny child
and an ambiguous income, this answered to nothing in Mrs.
Touchett's conception of success. She took, it will be observed,
not the sentimental, but the political, view of matrimony--a view
which has always had much to recommend it. "I trust she won't
have the folly to listen to him," she said to her son; to which
Ralph replied that Isabel's listening was one thing and Isabel's
answering quite another. He knew she had listened to several
parties, as his father would have said, but had made them listen
in return; and he found much entertainment in the idea that in
these few months of his knowing her he should observe a fresh
suitor at her gate. She had wanted to see life, and fortune was
serving her to her taste; a succession of fine gentlemen going
down on their knees to her would do as well as anything else.
Ralph looked forward to a fourth, a fifth, a tenth besieger; he
had no conviction she would stop at a third. She would keep the
gate ajar and open a parley; she would certainly not allow number
three to come in. He expressed this view, somewhat after this
fashion, to his mother, who looked at him as if he had been
dancing a jig. He had such a fanciful, pictorial way of saying
things that he might as well address her in the deaf-mute's
"I don't think I know what you mean," she said; "you use too many
figures of speech; I could never understand allegories. The two
words in the language I most respect are Yes and No. If Isabel
wants to marry Mr. Osmond she'll do so in spite of all your
comparisons. Let her alone to find a fine one herself for
anything she undertakes. I know very little about the young man
in America; I don't think she spends much of her time in thinking
of him, and I suspect he has got tired of waiting for her.
There's nothing in life to prevent her marrying Mr. Osmond if she
only looks at him in a certain way. That's all very well; no one
approves more than I of one's pleasing one's self. But she takes
her pleasure in such odd things; she's capable of marrying Mr.
Osmond for the beauty of his opinions or for his autograph of
Michael Angelo. She wants to be disinterested: as if she were the
only person who's in danger of not being so! Will HE be so
disinterested when he has the spending of her money? That was
her idea before your father's death, and it has acquired new
charms for her since. She ought to marry some one of whose
disinterestedness she shall herself be sure; and there would be
no such proof of that as his having a fortune of his own."
"My dear mother, I'm not afraid," Ralph answered. "She's making
fools of us all. She'll please herself, of course; but she'll do
so by studying human nature at close quarters and yet retaining
her liberty. She has started on an exploring expedition, and I
don't think she'll change her course, at the outset, at a signal
from Gilbert Osmond. She may have slackened speed for an hour,
but before we know it she'll be steaming away again. Excuse
Mrs. Touchett excused it perhaps, but was not so much reassured
as to withhold from Madame Merle the expression of her fears.
"You who know everything," she said, "you must know this: whether
that curious creature's really making love to my niece."
"Gilbert Osmond?" Madame Merle widened her clear eyes and, with a
full intelligence, "Heaven help us," she exclaimed, "that's an
"Hadn't it occurred to you?"
"You make me feel an idiot, but I confess it hadn't. I wonder,"
she added, "if it has occurred to Isabel."
"Oh, I shall now ask her," said Mrs. Touchett.
Madame Merle reflected. "Don't put it into her head. The thing
would be to ask Mr. Osmond."
"I can't do that," said Mrs. Touchett. "I won't have him enquire
of me--as he perfectly may with that air of his, given Isabel's
situation--what business it is of mine."
"I'll ask him myself," Madame Merle bravely declared.
"But what business--for HIM--is it of yours?"
"It's being none whatever is just why I can afford to speak. It's
so much less my business than any one's else that he can put me
off with anything he chooses. But it will be by the way he does
this that I shall know."
"Pray let me hear then," said Mrs. Touchett, "of the fruits of
your penetration. If I can't speak to him, however, at least I
can speak to Isabel."
Her companion sounded at this the note of warning. "Don't be too
quick with her. Don't inflame her imagination."
"I never did anything in life to any one's imagination. But I'm
always sure of her doing something--well, not of MY kind."
"No, you wouldn't like this," Madame Merle observed without the
point of interrogation.
"Why in the world should I, pray? Mr. Osmond has nothing the
least solid to offer."
Again Madame Merle was silent while her thoughtful smile drew up
her mouth even more charmingly than usual toward the left corner.
"Let us distinguish. Gilbert Osmond's certainly not the first
comer. He's a man who in favourable conditions might very well
make a great impression. He has made a great impression, to my
knowledge, more than once."
"Don't tell me about his probably quite cold-blooded love-affairs;
they're nothing to me!" Mrs. Touchett cried. "What you say's
precisely why I wish he would cease his visits. He has nothing
in the world that I know of but a dozen or two of early masters
and a more or less pert little daughter."
"The early masters are now worth a good deal of money," said
Madame Merle, "and the daughter's a very young and very innocent
and very harmless person."
"In other words she's an insipid little chit. Is that what you
mean? Having no fortune she can't hope to marry as they marry
here; so that Isabel will have to furnish her either with a
maintenance or with a dowry."
"Isabel probably wouldn't object to being kind to her. I think
she likes the poor child."
"Another reason then for Mr. Osmond's stopping at home! Otherwise,
a week hence, we shall have my niece arriving at the conviction
that her mission in life's to prove that a stepmother may
sacrifice herself--and that, to prove it, she must first become
"She would make a charming stepmother," smiled Madame Merle; "but
I quite agree with you that she had better not decide upon her
mission too hastily. Changing the form of one's mission's almost
as difficult as changing the shape of one's nose: there they are,
each, in the middle of one's face and one's character--one has to
begin too far back. But I'll investigate and report to you."
All this went on quite over Isabel's head; she had no suspicions
that her relations with Mr. Osmond were being discussed. Madame
Merle had said nothing to put her on her guard; she alluded no
more pointedly to him than to the other gentlemen of Florence,
native and foreign, who now arrived in considerable numbers to
pay their respects to Miss Archer's aunt. Isabel thought him
interesting--she came back to that; she liked so to think of him.
She had carried away an image from her visit to his hill-top
which her subsequent knowledge of him did nothing to efface and
which put on for her a particular harmony with other supposed and
divined things, histories within histories: the image of a quiet,
clever, sensitive, distinguished man, strolling on a moss-grown
terrace above the sweet Val d'Arno and holding by the hand a
little girl whose bell-like clearness gave a new grace to
childhood. The picture had no flourishes, but she liked its
lowness of tone and the atmosphere of summer twilight that
pervaded it. It spoke of the kind of personal issue that touched
her most nearly; of the choice between objects, subjects,
contacts--what might she call them?--of a thin and those of a
rich association; of a lonely, studious life in a lovely land; of
an old sorrow that sometimes ached to-day; of a feeling of pride
that was perhaps exaggerated, but that had an element of
nobleness; of a care for beauty and perfection so natural and
so cultivated together that the career appeared to stretch
beneath it in the disposed vistas and with the ranges of steps
and terraces and fountains of a formal Italian garden--allowing
only for arid places freshened by the natural dews of a quaint
half-anxious, half-helpless fatherhood. At Palazzo Crescentini
Mr. Osmond's manner remained the same; diffident at first--oh
self-conscious beyond doubt! and full of the effort (visible only
to a sympathetic eye) to overcome this disadvantage; an effort
which usually resulted in a great deal of easy, lively, very
positive, rather aggressive, always suggestive talk. Mr. Osmond's
talk was not injured by the indication of an eagerness to shine;
Isabel found no difficulty in believing that a person was sincere
who had so many of the signs of strong conviction--as for
instance an explicit and graceful appreciation of anything that
might be said on his own side of the question, said perhaps by
Miss Archer in especial. What continued to please this young
woman was that while he talked so for amusement he didn't talk,
as she had heard people, for "effect." He uttered his ideas as
if, odd as they often appeared, he were used to them and had
lived with them; old polished knobs and heads and handles, of
precious substance, that could be fitted if necessary to new
walking-sticks--not switches plucked in destitution from the
common tree and then too elegantly waved about. One day he
brought his small daughter with him, and she rejoiced to renew
acquaintance with the child, who, as she presented her forehead
to be kissed by every member of the circle, reminded her vividly
of an ingenue in a French play. Isabel had never seen a little
person of this pattern; American girls were very different--
different too were the maidens of England. Pansy was so formed
and finished for her tiny place in the world, and yet in
imagination, as one could see, so innocent and infantine. She sat
on the sofa by Isabel; she wore a small grenadine mantle and a
pair of the useful gloves that Madame Merle had given her--
little grey gloves with a single button. She was like a sheet of
blank paper--the ideal jeune fille of foreign fiction. Isabel
hoped that so fair and smooth a page would be covered with an
The Countess Gemini also came to call upon her, but the Countess
was quite another affair. She was by no means a blank sheet; she
had been written over in a variety of hands, and Mrs. Touchett,
who felt by no means honoured by her visit, pronounced that a
number of unmistakeable blots were to be seen upon her surface.
The Countess gave rise indeed to some discussion between the
mistress of the house and the visitor from Rome, in which Madame
Merle (who was not such a fool as to irritate people by always
agreeing with them) availed herself felicitously enough of that
large licence of dissent which her hostess permitted as freely as
she practised it. Mrs. Touchett had declared it a piece of
audacity that this highly compromised character should have
presented herself at such a time of day at the door of a house in
which she was esteemed so little as she must long have known
herself to be at Palazzo Crescentini. Isabel had been made
acquainted with the estimate prevailing under that roof: it
represented Mr. Osmond's sister as a lady who had so mismanaged
her improprieties that they had ceased to hang together at all--
which was at the least what one asked of such matters--and had
become the mere floating fragments of a wrecked renown,
incommoding social circulation. She had been married by her
mother--a more administrative person, with an appreciation of
foreign titles which the daughter, to do her justice, had
probably by this time thrown off--to an Italian nobleman who had
perhaps given her some excuse for attempting to quench the
consciousness of outrage. The Countess, however, had consoled
herself outrageously, and the list of her excuses had now lost
itself in the labyrinth of her adventures. Mrs. Touchett had
never consented to receive her, though the Countess had made
overtures of old. Florence was not an austere city; but, as Mrs.
Touchett said, she had to draw the line somewhere.
Madame Merle defended the luckless lady with a great deal of zeal
and wit. She couldn't see why Mrs. Touchett should make a
scapegoat of a woman who had really done no harm, who had only
done good in the wrong way. One must certainly draw the line, but
while one was about it one should draw it straight: it was a very
crooked chalk-mark that would exclude the Countess Gemini. In
that case Mrs. Touchett had better shut up her house; this
perhaps would be the best course so long as she remained in
Florence. One must be fair and not make arbitrary differences:
the Countess had doubtless been imprudent, she had not been so
clever as other women. She was a good creature, not clever at
all; but since when had that been a ground of exclusion from the
best society? For ever so long now one had heard nothing about
her, and there could be no better proof of her having renounced
the error of her ways than her desire to become a member of Mrs.
Touchett's circle. Isabel could contribute nothing to this
interesting dispute, not even a patient attention; she contented
herself with having given a friendly welcome to the unfortunate
lady, who, whatever her defects, had at least the merit of being
Mr. Osmond's sister. As she liked the brother Isabel thought
it proper to try and like the sister: in spite of the growing
complexity of things she was still capable of these primitive
sequences. She had not received the happiest impression of the
Countess on meeting her at the villa, but was thankful for an
opportunity to repair the accident. Had not Mr. Osmond remarked
that she was a respectable person? To have proceeded from Gilbert
Osmond this was a crude proposition, but Madame Merle bestowed
upon it a certain improving polish. She told Isabel more about
the poor Countess than Mr. Osmond had done, and related the
history of her marriage and its consequences. The Count was a
member of an ancient Tuscan family, but of such small estate that
he had been glad to accept Amy Osmond, in spite of the
questionable beauty which had yet not hampered her career, with
the modest dowry her mother was able to offer--a sum about
equivalent to that which had already formed her brother's share
of their patrimony. Count Gemini since then, however, had
inherited money, and now they were well enough off, as Italians
went, though Amy was horribly extravagant. The Count was a
low-lived brute; he had given his wife every pretext. She had no
children; she had lost three within a year of their birth. Her
mother, who had bristled with pretensions to elegant learning and
published descriptive poems and corresponded on Italian subjects
with the English weekly journals, her mother had died three years
after the Countess's marriage, the father, lost in the grey
American dawn of the situation, but reputed originally rich and
wild, having died much earlier. One could see this in Gilbert
Osmond, Madame Merle held--see that he had been brought up by a
woman; though, to do him justice, one would suppose it had been
by a more sensible woman than the American Corinne, as Mrs.
Osmond had liked to be called. She had brought her children to
Italy after her husband's death, and Mrs. Touchett remembered her
during the year that followed her arrival. She thought her a
horrible snob; but this was an irregularity of judgement on Mrs.
Touchett's part, for she, like Mrs. Osmond, approved of political
marriages. The Countess was very good company and not really the
featherhead she seemed; all one had to do with her was to observe
the simple condition of not believing a word she said. Madame
Merle had always made the best of her for her brother's sake; he
appreciated any kindness shown to Amy, because (if it had to be
confessed for him) he rather felt she let down their common name.
Naturally he couldn't like her style, her shrillness, her
egotism, her violations of taste and above all of truth: she
acted badly on his nerves, she was not HIS sort of woman. What
was his sort of woman? Oh, the very opposite of the Countess, a
woman to whom the truth should be habitually sacred. Isabel was
unable to estimate the number of times her visitor had, in half
an hour, profaned it: the Countess indeed had given her an
impression of rather silly sincerity. She had talked almost
exclusively about herself; how much she should like to know Miss
Archer; how thankful she should be for a real friend; how base
the people in Florence were; how tired she was of the place; how
much she should like to live somewhere else--in Paris, in London,
in Washington; how impossible it was to get anything nice to wear
in Italy except a little old lace; how dear the world was growing
everywhere; what a life of suffering and privation she had led.
Madame Merle listened with interest to Isabel's account of this
passage, but she had not needed it to feel exempt from anxiety.
On the whole she was not afraid of the Countess, and she could
afford to do what was altogether best--not to appear so.
Isabel had meanwhile another visitor, whom it was not, even
behind her back, so easy a matter to patronise. Henrietta
Stackpole, who had left Paris after Mrs. Touchett's departure for
San Remo and had worked her way down, as she said, through the
cities of North Italy, reached the banks of the Arno about the
middle of May. Madame Merle surveyed her with a single glance,
took her in from head to foot, and after a pang of despair
determined to endure her. She determined indeed to delight in
her. She mightn't be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped
as a nettle. Madame Merle genially squeezed her into
insignificance, and Isabel felt that in foreseeing this
liberality she had done justice to her friend's intelligence.
Henrietta's arrival had been announced by Mr. Bantling, who,
coming down from Nice while she was at Venice, and expecting to
find her in Florence, which she had not yet reached, called at
Palazzo Crescentini to express his disappointment. Henrietta's
own advent occurred two days later and produced in Mr. Bantling
an emotion amply accounted for by the fact that he had not seen
her since the termination of the episode at Versailles. The
humorous view of his situation was generally taken, but it was
uttered only by Ralph Touchett, who, in the privacy of his own
apartment, when Bantling smoked a cigar there, indulged in
goodness knew what strong comedy on the subject of the
all-judging one and her British backer. This gentleman took the
joke in perfectly good part and candidly confessed that he
regarded the affair as a positive intellectual adventure. He
liked Miss Stackpole extremely; he thought she had a wonderful
head on her shoulders, and found great comfort in the society of
a woman who was not perpetually thinking about what would be said
and how what she did, how what they did--and they had done
things!--would look. Miss Stackpole never cared how anything
looked, and, if she didn't care, pray why should he? But his
curiosity had been roused; he wanted awfully to see if she ever
WOULD care. He was prepared to go as far as she--he didn't see
why he should break down first.
Henrietta showed no signs of breaking down. Her prospects had
brightened on her leaving England, and she was now in the full
enjoyment of her copious resources. She had indeed been obliged
to sacrifice her hopes with regard to the inner life; the social
question, on the Continent, bristled with difficulties even more
numerous than those she had encountered in England. But on the
Continent there was the outer life, which was palpable and
visible at every turn, and more easily convertible to literary
uses than the customs of those opaque islanders. Out of doors in
foreign lands, as she ingeniously remarked, one seemed to see the
right side of the tapestry; out of doors in England one seemed to
see the wrong side, which gave one no notion of the figure. The
admission costs her historian a pang, but Henrietta, despairing
of more occult things, was now paying much attention to the outer
life. She had been studying it for two months at Venice, from
which city she sent to the Interviewer a conscientious account of
the gondolas, the Piazza, the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons and
the young boatman who chanted Tasso. The Interviewer was perhaps
disappointed, but Henrietta was at least seeing Europe. Her
present purpose was to get down to Rome before the malaria should
come on--she apparently supposed that it began on a fixed day;
and with this design she was to spend at present but few days in
Florence. Mr. Bantling was to go with her to Rome, and she
pointed out to Isabel that as he had been there before, as he was
a military man and as he had had a classical education--he had
been bred at Eton, where they study nothing but Latin and
Whyte-Melville, said Miss Stackpole--he would be a most useful
companion in the city of the Caesars. At this juncture Ralph had
the happy idea of proposing to Isabel that she also, under his
own escort, should make a pilgrimage to Rome. She expected to
pass a portion of the next winter there--that was very well; but
meantime there was no harm in surveying the field. There were ten
days left of the beautiful month of May--the most precious month
of all to the true Rome-lover. Isabel would become a Rome-lover;
that was a foregone conclusion. She was provided with a trusty
companion of her own sex, whose society, thanks to the fact of
other calls on this lady's attention, would probably not be
oppressive. Madame Merle would remain with Mrs. Touchett; she had
left Rome for the summer and wouldn't care to return. She
professed herself delighted to be left at peace in Florence; she
had locked up her apartment and sent her cook home to Palestrina.
She urged Isabel, however, to assent to Ralph's proposal, and
assured her that a good introduction to Rome was not a thing to
be despised. Isabel in truth needed no urging, and the party of
four arranged its little journey. Mrs. Touchett, on this
occasion, had resigned herself to the absence of a duenna; we
have seen that she now inclined to the belief that her niece
should stand alone. One of Isabel's preparations consisted of her
seeing Gilbert Osmond before she started and mentioning her
intention to him.
"I should like to be in Rome with you," he commented. "I should
like to see you on that wonderful ground."
She scarcely faltered. "You might come then."
"But you'll have a lot of people with you."
"Ah," Isabel admitted, "of course I shall not be alone."
For a moment he said nothing more. "You'll like it," he went on
at last. "They've spoiled it, but you'll rave about it."
"Ought I to dislike it because, poor old dear--the Niobe of
Nations, you know--it has been spoiled?" she asked.
"No, I think not. It has been spoiled so often," he smiled. "If I
were to go, what should I do with my little girl?"
"Can't you leave her at the villa?"
"I don't know that I like that--though there's a very good old
woman who looks after her. I can't afford a governess."
"Bring her with you then," said Isabel promptly.
Mr. Osmond looked grave. "She has been in Rome all winter, at her
convent; and she's too young to make journeys of pleasure."
"You don't like bringing her forward?" Isabel enquired.
"No, I think young girls should be kept out of the world."
"I was brought up on a different system."
"You? Oh, with you it succeeded, because you--you were
"I don't see why," said Isabel, who, however, was not sure there
was not some truth in the speech.
Mr. Osmond didn't explain; he simply went on: "If I thought it
would make her resemble you to join a social group in Rome I'd
take her there to-morrow."
"Don't make her resemble me," said Isabel. "Keep her like
"I might send her to my sister," Mr. Osmond observed. He had
almost the air of asking advice; he seemed to like to talk over
his domestic matters with Miss Archer.
"Yes," she concurred; "I think that wouldn't do much towards
making her resemble me!"
After she had left Florence Gilbert Osmond met Madame Merle at
the Countess Gemini's. There were other people present; the
Countess's drawing-room was usually well filled, and the talk had
been general, but after a while Osmond left his place and came
and sat on an ottoman half-behind, half-beside Madame Merle's
chair. "She wants me to go to Rome with her," he remarked in a
"To go with her?"
"To be there while she's there. She proposed it.
"I suppose you mean that you proposed it and she assented."
"Of course I gave her a chance. But she's encouraging--she's very
"I rejoice to hear it--but don't cry victory too soon. Of course
you'll go to Rome."
"Ah," said Osmond, "it makes one work, this idea of yours!"
"Don't pretend you don't enjoy it--you're very ungrateful. You've
not been so well occupied these many years."
"The way you take it's beautiful," said Osmond. "I ought to be
grateful for that."
"Not too much so, however," Madame Merle answered. She talked
with her usual smile, leaning back in her chair and looking round
the room. "You've made a very good impression, and I've seen for
myself that you've received one. You've not come to Mrs.
Touchett's seven times to oblige me."
"The girl's not disagreeable," Osmond quietly conceded.
Madame Merle dropped her eye on him a moment, during which her
lips closed with a certain firmness. "Is that all you can find to
say about that fine creature?"
"All? Isn't it enough? Of how many people have you heard me say
She made no answer to this, but still presented her talkative
grace to the room. "You're unfathomable," she murmured at last.
"I'm frightened at the abyss into which I shall have cast her."
He took it almost gaily. "You can't draw back--you've gone too
"Very good; but you must do the rest yourself."
"I shall do it," said Gilbert Osmond.
Madame Merle remained silent and he changed his place again; but
when she rose to go he also took leave. Mrs. Touchett's victoria
was awaiting her guest in the court, and after he had helped his
friend into it he stood there detaining her. "You're very
indiscreet," she said rather wearily; "you shouldn't have moved
when I did."
He had taken off his hat; he passed his hand over his forehead.
"I always forget; I'm out of the habit."
"You're quite unfathomable," she repeated, glancing up at the
windows of the house, a modern structure in the new part of the
He paid no heed to this remark, but spoke in his own sense.
"She's really very charming. I've scarcely known any one more
"It does me good to hear you say that. The better you like her
the better for me."
"I like her very much. She's all you described her, and into the
bargain capable, I feel, of great devotion. She has only one
"Too many ideas."
"I warned you she was clever."
"Fortunately they're very bad ones," said Osmond.
"Why is that fortunate?"
"Dame, if they must be sacrificed!"
Madame Merle leaned back, looking straight before her; then she
spoke to the coachman. But her friend again detained her. "If I
go to Rome what shall I do with Pansy?"
"I'll go and see her," said Madame Merle.
I may not attempt to report in its fulness our young woman's
response to the deep appeal of Rome, to analyse her feelings as
she trod the pavement of the Forum or to number her pulsations as
she crossed the threshold of Saint Peter's. It is enough to say
that her impression was such as might have been expected of a
person of her freshness and her eagerness. 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 strongly moved her,
but moved her all inwardly. It seemed to her companions that she
talked less than usual, and Ralph Touchett, when he appeared to
be looking listlessly and awkwardly over her head, was really
dropping on her an intensity of observation. By her own measure
she was very happy; she would even have been willing to take
these hours for the happiest she was ever to know. The sense of
the terrible human past was heavy to her, but that of something
altogether contemporary would suddenly give it wings that it
could wave in the blue. Her consciousness was so mixed that she
scarcely knew where the different parts of it would lead her, and
she went about in a 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 her
Murray. Rome, as Ralph said, confessed to the psychological
moment. 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 on 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 descended 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
traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves
which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun
to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of
broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin.
Henrietta wandered away with Mr. Bantling, whom it was apparently
delightful to her to hear speak of Julius Caesar as a "cheeky old
boy," and Ralph addressed such elucidations as he was prepared to
offer to the attentive ear of our heroine. One of the humble
archeologists 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 on view 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 of interest. The
proposal commended itself more to Ralph than to Isabel, weary
with much wandering; so that she admonished her companion to
satisfy his curiosity while she patiently awaited his return. The
hour and the place were much to her taste--she should enjoy being
briefly alone. Ralph accordingly went off with the cicerone while
Isabel sat down on a prostrate column near the foundations of the
Capitol. She wanted a short 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 about 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 charged with a more active appeal.
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 baring his head to her perceptibly
"Lord Warburton!" Isabel exclaimed as she rose.
"I had no idea it was you. I turned that corner and came upon
She looked about her to explain. "I'm alone, but my companions
have just left me. My cousin's gone to look at the work over
"Ah yes; I see." And Lord Warburton's eyes wandered vaguely in
the direction she had indicated. He stood firmly before her now;
he had recovered his balance and seemed to wish to show it,
though very kindly. "Don't let me disturb you," he went on,
looking at her dejected pillar. "I'm afraid you're tired."
"Yes, I'm rather tired." She hesitated a moment, but sat down
again. "Don't let me interrupt you," she added.
"Oh dear, I'm quite alone, I've nothing on earth to do. I had no
idea you were in Rome. I've just come from the East. I'm only
"You've 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've been in Turkey and Asia Minor; I came the other day from
Athens." He managed not to be awkward, but he wasn't easy, and
after a longer look at the girl he came down to nature. "Do you
wish me to leave you, or will you let me stay a little?"
She took it all humanely. "I don't wish you to leave me, Lord
Warburton; I'm very glad to see you."
"Thank you for saying that. May I sit down?"
The fluted shaft on which she 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 to which, as he put some of
them twice over, he apparently somewhat missed catching the
answer; had given her too some information about himself which
was not wasted upon her calmer feminine sense. 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 began abruptly to pass from the
impunity of things to their solemnity, and from their being
delightful to their being impossible. He was splendidly sunburnt;
even his multitudinous beard had 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
pleasant steady eyes, his bronzed complexion, fresh beneath its
seasoning, his manly figure, his minimising 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 him. He had kept,
evidently in spite of shocks, every one of his merits--properties
these partaking of the essence of great decent houses, as one
might put it; resembling their innermost fixtures and ornaments,
not subject to vulgar shifting and removable only by some whole
break-up. They talked of the matters 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 of Lord
Warburton's own adventures, movements, intentions, impressions
and present domicile. At last there was a silence, and it said so
much more than either had said that it scarce needed his final
words. "I've written to you several times."
"Written to me? I've never had your letters."
"I never sent them. I burned them up."
"Ah," laughed Isabel, "it was better that you should do that
"I thought you wouldn't care for them," he went on with a
simplicity that 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 how I
hoped that--that--" But she stopped; there would be such a
flatness in the utterance of her thought.
"I know what you're 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.
She found herself reduced simply to "Please don't talk of all
that"; a speech which hardly struck her as improvement on the
"It's a small consolation to allow me!" her companion exclaimed
"I can't pretend to console you," said the girl, who, all still
as she sat there, threw herself back with a sort of inward
triumph on 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 wouldn't be in
your power," she heard him say through the medium of her strange
"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's greater than the pleasure." And she got up with a
small conscious majesty, 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 somebody 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've thought of you perpetually, ever since
I last saw you. I'm exactly the same. I love you just as much,
and everything I said to you then is just as true. This instant
at which I speak to you shows me again exactly how, to my great
misfortune, you just insuperably charm me. There--I can't say
less. I don't mean, however, to insist; it's only for a moment. I
may add that when I came upon you a few minutes since, without
the smallest idea of seeing you, I was, upon my honour, in the
very act of wishing I knew where you were." He had recovered his
self-control, and while he spoke it became complete. He might
have been addressing a small committee--making all quietly and
clearly a statement of importance; aided by an occasional look at
a paper of notes concealed in his hat, which he had not again put
on. And the committee, assuredly, would have felt the point
"I've often thought of you, Lord Warburton," Isabel answered.
"You may be sure I shall always do that." And she added in a
tone of which she tried to keep up the kindness and keep down the
meaning: "There's no harm in that on either side."
They walked along together, and she was prompt to ask about his
sisters and request him to let them know she had done so. He made
for the moment no further reference to their great question, but
dipped again into shallower and safer waters. But he wished to
know 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 enquired 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!"
His flushed smile, for a little, seemed to sound her. "You won't
like that. You're afraid you'll 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'm
afraid of you."
"Afraid I'll begin again? I promise to be very careful."
They had gradually stopped and they stood a moment face to face.
"Poor Lord Warburton!" she said with a compassion intended to be
good for both of them.
"Poor Lord Warburton indeed! But I'll be careful."
"You may be unhappy, but you shall not make ME so. That I can't
"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'll never
say a word to displease you."
"Very good. If you do, our friendship's at an end."
"Perhaps some day--after a while--you'll give me leave."
"Give you leave to make me unhappy?"
He hesitated. "To tell you again--" But he checked himself. "I'll
keep it down. I'll keep it down 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. Poor
Ralph hailed his friend with joy qualified by wonder, and
Henrietta exclaimed in a high voice "Gracious, there's that
lord!" Ralph and his English neighbour greeted with the austerity
with which, after long separations, English neighbours greet, and
Miss Stackpole rested her large intellectual gaze upon the
sunburnt traveller. But she soon established her relation to the
crisis. "I don't suppose you remember me, sir."
"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'm asked," Miss Stackpole answered
"Ah well, I won't ask you again," laughed the master of
"If you do I'll go; so be sure!"
Lord Warburton, for all his hilarity, 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
"I thought that when an Englishman knew a lord he always told
"Ah, I'm afraid Bantling was ashamed of me," Lord Warburton
laughed again. Isabel took pleasure in that note; she gave a
small sigh of relief as they kept their course homeward.
The next day was Sunday; she spent her morning over 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 vespers at
Saint 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
Hotel 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 a proof of his intention to keep the
promise made her the evening before; he was both discreet and
frank--not even dumbly importunate or remotely intense. He thus
left 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 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 proving the
superior strain of his sincerity. If he expected to melt her by
showing what a good fellow he was, he might spare himself the
trouble. She knew the superior strain of everything about him,
and nothing he could now do was required to light the view.
Moreover his being in Rome at all affected her as a complication
of the wrong sort--she liked so complications of the right.
Nevertheless, when, on bringing his call to a close, he said he
too should be at Saint Peter's and should look out for her and
her friends, she was obliged to reply that he must follow his
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 Saint 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 rose and dizzily rose. After
this it never lacked space to soar. She gazed and wondered like a
child or a peasant, she paid her silent tribute to the seated
sublime. Lord Warburton walked beside her and talked of Saint
Sophia of Constantinople; she feared for instance that he would
end by calling attention to his exemplary conduct. The service
had not yet begun, but at Saint 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 conflict or 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 in candour 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
his lordship, and as they drew near the choir on the left of the
entrance the voices of the Pope's singers were borne to 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, looking beyond the dense group in front of her, saw the
afternoon light, silvered by clouds of incense that seemed to
mingle with the splendid chant, slope through the embossed
recesses of high windows. After a while the singing stopped and
then Lord Warburton seemed disposed to move off with her. Isabel
could only accompany him; whereupon she found herself confronted
with Gilbert Osmond, who appeared to have been standing at a
short distance behind her. He now approached with all the forms
--he appeared to have multiplied them on this occasion to suit
"So you decided to come?" she said as she put 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," she decided to say.
"I didn't come for the others," he promptly returned.
She looked away; Lord Warburton was watching them; perhaps he had
heard this. Suddenly she remembered it to be 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.
She repaired any betrayal by mentioning to each companion the
name of the other, and fortunately at this moment Mr. Bantling
emerged from 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; since on perceiving the gentleman from Florence Ralph
Touchett appeared to take the case as not committing him to joy.
He didn't hang back, however, from civility, and presently
observed to Isabel, with due benevolence, that she would soon
have all her friends about her. Miss Stackpole had met Mr. Osmond
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 and Lord Warburton, and even than little Mr. Rosier in
Paris. "I don't know what it's in you," she had been pleased to
remark, "but for a nice girl you do attract the most unnatural
people. Mr. Goodwood's the only one I've any respect for, and
he's just the one you don't appreciate."
"What's your opinion of Saint Peter's?" Mr. Osmond was meanwhile
enquiring of our young lady.
"It's very large and very bright," she contented herself with
"It's too large; it makes one feel like an atom."
"Isn't that the right way to feel in the greatest of human
temples?" she asked with rather a liking for her phrase.
"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 referred to 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's the fellow speaking to Miss
Archer?" his lordship demanded.
"His name's Gilbert Osmond--he lives in Florence," Ralph said.
"What is he besides?"
"Nothing at all. Oh yes, he's an American; but one forgets that--
he's so little of one."
"Has he known Miss Archer long?"
"Three or four weeks."
"Does she like him?"
"She's trying to find out."
"And will she?"
"Find out--?" Ralph asked.
"Will she like him?"
"Do you mean will she accept him?"
"Yes," said Lord Warburton after an instant; "I suppose that's
what I horribly mean."
"Perhaps not if one does nothing to prevent it," Ralph replied.
His lordship stared a moment, but apprehended. "Then we must be
"As quiet as the grave. And only on the chance!" Ralph added.
"The chance she may?"
"The chance she may not?"
Lord Warburton took this at first in silence, but he spoke again.
"Is he awfully clever?"
"Awfully," said Ralph.
His companion thought. "And what else?"
"What more do you want?" Ralph groaned.
"Do you mean what more does SHE?"
Ralph took him by the arm to turn him: they had to rejoin the
others. "She wants nothing that WE can give her."
"Ah well, if she won't have You--!" said his lordship handsomely
as they went.
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