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Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII

On the morrow, in the evening, Lord Warburton went again to see
his friends at their hotel, and at this establishment he learned
that they had gone to the opera. He drove to the opera with the
idea of paying them a visit in their box after the easy Italian
fashion; and when he had obtained his admittance--it was one of
the secondary theatres--looked about the large, bare, ill-lighted
house. An act had just terminated and he was at liberty to pursue
his quest. After scanning two or three tiers of boxes he
perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom
he easily recognised. Miss Archer was seated facing the stage and
partly screened by the curtain of the box; and beside her,
leaning back in his chair, was Mr. Gilbert Osmond. They appeared
to have the place to themselves, and Warburton supposed their
companions had taken advantage of the recess to enjoy the
relative coolness of the lobby. He stood a while with his eyes on
the interesting pair; he asked himself if he should go up and
interrupt the harmony. At last he judged that Isabel had seen
him, and this accident determined him. There should be no marked
holding off. He took his way to the upper regions and on the
staircase met Ralph Touchett slowly descending, his hat at the
inclination of ennui and his hands where they usually were.

"I saw you below a moment since and was going down to you. I feel
lonely and want company," was Ralph's greeting.

"You've some that's very good which you've yet deserted."

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

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

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

"She seems to have plenty of friends."

"Yes, that's why I must watch," said Ralph with the same large
mock-melancholy.

"If she doesn't want you it's probable she doesn't want me."

"No, you're different. Go to the box and stay there while I walk
about."

Lord Warburton went to the box, where Isabel's welcome was as to
a friend so honourably old that he vaguely asked himself what
queer temporal province she was annexing. He exchanged greetings
with Mr. Osmond, to whom he had been introduced the day before
and who, after he came in, sat blandly apart and silent, as if
repudiating competence in the subjects of allusion now probable.
It struck her second visitor that Miss Archer had, in operatic
conditions, a radiance, even a slight exaltation; as she was,
however, at all times a keenly-glancing, quickly-moving,
completely animated young woman, he may have been mistaken on
this point. Her talk with him moreover pointed to presence of
mind; it expressed a kindness so ingenious and deliberate as to
indicate that she was in undisturbed possession of her faculties.
Poor Lord Warburton had moments of bewilderment. She had
discouraged him, formally, as much as a woman could; what
business had she then with such arts and such felicities, above
all with such tones of reparation--preparation? Her voice had
tricks of sweetness, but why play them on HIM? The others came
back; the bare, familiar, trivial opera began again. The box was
large, and there was room for him to remain if he would sit a
little behind and in the dark. He did so for half an hour, while
Mr. Osmond remained in front, leaning forward, his elbows on his
knees, just behind Isabel. Lord Warburton heard nothing, and from
his gloomy corner saw nothing but the clear profile of this young
lady defined against the dim illumination of the house. When
there was another interval no one moved. Mr. Osmond talked to
Isabel, and Lord Warburton kept his corner. He did so but for a
short time, however; after which he got up and bade good-night to
the ladies. Isabel said nothing to detain him, but it didn't
prevent his being puzzled again. Why should she mark so one of
his values--quite the wrong one--when she would have nothing to
do with another, which was quite the right? He was angry with
himself for being puzzled, and then angry for being angry.
Verdi's music did little to comfort him, and he left the theatre
and walked homeward, without knowing his way, through the
tortuous, tragic streets of Rome, where heavier sorrows than his
had been carried under the stars.

"What's the character of that gentleman?" Osmond asked of Isabel
after he had retired.

"Irreproachable--don't you see it?"

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

"Ah, he's a great proprietor? Happy man!" said Gilbert Osmond.

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

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

"Lord Warburton's a great radical," Isabel said. "He has very
advanced opinions."

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

"Don't they approve of iron fences?" asked Mr. Bantling.

"Only to shut up wicked conservatives. I always feel as if I were
talking to YOU over something with a neat top-finish of broken
glass."

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

"Well enough for all the use I have for him."

"And how much of a use is that?"

"Well, I like to like him."

"'Liking to like'--why, it makes a passion!" said Osmond.

"No"--she considered--"keep that for liking to DISlike."

"Do you wish to provoke me then," Osmond laughed, "to a passion
for HIM?"

She said nothing for a moment, but then met the light question
with a disproportionate gravity. "No, Mr. Osmond; I don't think I
should ever dare to provoke you. Lord Warburton, at any rate,"
she more easily added, "is a very nice man."

"Of great ability?" her friend enquired.

"Of excellent ability, and as good as he looks."

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

Isabel considered him with interest. "You seem to me to be always
envying some one. Yesterday it was the Pope; to-day it's poor
Lord Warburton."

"My envy's not dangerous; it wouldn't hurt a mouse. I don't want
to destroy the people--I only want to BE them. You see it would
destroy only myself."

"You'd like to be the Pope?" said Isabel.

"I should love it--but I should have gone in for it earlier. But
why"--Osmond reverted--"do you speak of your friend as poor?"

"Women--when they are very, very good sometimes pity men after
they've hurt them; that's their great way of showing kindness,"
said Ralph, joining in the conversation for the first time and
with a cynicism so transparently ingenious as to be virtually
innocent.

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

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

Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next
twenty-four hours, but on the second day after the visit to the
opera she encountered him in the gallery of the Capitol, where he
stood before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying
Gladiator. She had come in with her companions, among whom, on
this occasion again, Gilbert Osmond had his place, and the party,
having ascended the staircase, entered the first and finest of
the rooms. Lord Warburton addressed her alertly enough, but said
in a moment that he was leaving the gallery. "And I'm leaving
Rome," he added. "I must bid you goodbye." Isabel, inconsequently
enough, was now sorry to hear it. This was perhaps because she
had ceased to be afraid of his renewing his suit; she was
thinking of something else. She was on the point of naming her
regret, but she checked herself and simply wished him a happy
journey; which made him look at her rather unlightedly. "I'm
afraid you'll think me very 'volatile.' I told you the other day
I wanted so much to stop."

"Oh no; you could easily change your mind."

"That's what I have done."

"Bon voyage then."

"You're in a great hurry to get rid of me," said his lordship
quite dismally.

"Not in the least. But I hate partings."

"You don't care what I do," he went on pitifully.

Isabel looked at him a moment. "Ah," she said, "you're not
keeping your promise!"

He coloured like a boy of fifteen. "If I'm not, then it's because
I can't; and that's why I'm going."

"Good-bye then."

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

Isabel hesitated, but soon, as if she had had a happy inspiration:
"Some day after you're married."

"That will never be. It will be after you are."

"That will do as well," she smiled.

"Yes, quite as well. Good-bye."

They shook hands, and he left her alone in the glorious room,
among the shining antique marbles. She sat down in the centre of
the circle of these presences, regarding them vaguely, resting
her eyes on their beautiful blank faces; listening, as it were,
to their eternal silence. It is impossible, in Rome at least, to
look long at a great company of Greek sculptures without feeling
the effect of their noble quietude; which, as with a high door
closed for the ceremony, slowly drops on the spirit the large
white mantle of peace. I say in Rome especially, because the
Roman air is an exquisite medium for such impressions. The golden
sunshine mingles with them, the deep stillness of the past, so
vivid yet, though it is nothing but a void full of names, seems
to throw a solemn spell upon them. The blinds were partly closed
in the windows of the Capitol, and a clear, warm shadow rested on
the figures and made them more mildly human. Isabel sat there a
long time, under the charm of their motionless grace, wondering
to what, of their experience, their absent eyes were open, and
how, to our ears, their alien lips would sound. The dark red
walls of the room threw them into relief; the polished marble
floor reflected their beauty. She had seen them all before, but
her enjoyment repeated itself, and it was all the greater because
she was glad again, for the time, to be alone. At last, however,
her attention lapsed, drawn off by a deeper tide of life. An
occasional tourist came in, stopped and stared a moment at the
Dying Gladiator, and then passed out of the other door, creaking
over the smooth pavement. At the end of half an hour Gilbert
Osmond reappeared, apparently in advance of his companions. He
strolled toward her slowly, with his hands behind him and his
usual enquiring, yet not quite appealing smile. "I'm surprised to
find you alone, I thought you had company.

"So I have--the best." And she glanced at the Antinous and the
Faun.

"Do you call them better company than an English peer?"

"Ah, my English peer left me some time ago." She got up, speaking
with intention a little dryly.

Mr. Osmond noted her dryness, which contributed for him to the
interest of his question. "I'm afraid that what I heard the other
evening is true: you're rather cruel to that nobleman."

Isabel looked a moment at the vanquished Gladiator. "It's not
true. I'm scrupulously kind."

"That's exactly what I mean!" Gilbert Osmond returned, and with
such happy hilarity that his joke needs to be explained. We know
that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and
the exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he
thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a
new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who
had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice
objects by declining so noble a hand. Gilbert Osmond had a high
appreciation of this particular patriciate; not so much for its
distinction, which he thought easily surpassable, as for its
solid actuality. He had never forgiven his star for not appointing
him to an English dukedom, and he could measure the unexpectedness
of such conduct as Isabel's. It would be proper that the woman he
might marry should have done something of that sort.

Henry James