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Chapter 29

CHAPTER XXIX

Ralph Touchett, in talk with his excellent friend, had rather
markedly qualified, as we know, his recognition of Gilbert
Osmond's personal merits; but he might really have felt himself
illiberal in the light of that gentleman's conduct during the
rest of the visit to Rome. Osmond spent a portion of each day
with Isabel and her companions, and ended by affecting them as
the easiest of men to live with. Who wouldn't have seen that he
could command, as it were, both tact and gaiety?--which perhaps
was exactly why Ralph had made his old-time look of superficial
sociability a reproach to him. Even Isabel's invidious kinsman
was obliged to admit that he was just now a delightful associate.
His good humour was imperturbable, his knowledge of the right
fact, his production of the right word, as convenient as the
friendly flicker of a match for your cigarette. Clearly he was
amused--as amused as a man could be who was so little ever
surprised, and that made him almost applausive. It was not that
his spirits were visibly high--he would never, in the concert of
pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle: he had a
mortal dislike to the high, ragged note, to what he called random
ravings. He thought Miss Archer sometimes of too precipitate a
readiness. It was pity she had that fault, because if she had
not had it she would really have had none; she would have been
as smooth to his general need of her as handled ivory to the
palm. If he was not personally loud, however, he was deep, and
during these closing days of the Roman May he knew a complacency
that matched with slow irregular walks under the pines of the
Villa Borghese, among the small sweet meadow-flowers and the
mossy marbles. He was pleased with everything; he had never
before been pleased with so many things at once. Old impressions,
old enjoyments, renewed themselves; one evening, going home to
his room at the inn, he wrote down a little sonnet to which he
prefixed the title of "Rome Revisited." A day or two later he
showed this piece of correct and ingenious verse to Isabel,
explaining to her that it was an Italian fashion to commemorate
the occasions of life by a tribute to the muse.

He took his pleasures in general singly; he was too often--he
would have admitted that--too sorely aware of something wrong,
something ugly; the fertilising dew of a conceivable felicity too
seldom descended on his spirit. But at present he was happy--
happier than he had perhaps ever been in his life, and the
feeling had a large foundation. This was simply the sense of
success--the most agreeable emotion of the human heart. Osmond
had never had too much of it; in this respect he had the
irritation of satiety, as he knew perfectly well and often
reminded himself. "Ah no, I've not been spoiled; certainly I've
not been spoiled," he used inwardly to repeat. "If I do succeed
before I die I shall thoroughly have earned it." He was too apt
to reason as if "earning" this boon consisted above all of
covertly aching for it and might be confined to that exercise.
Absolutely void of it, also, his career had not been; he might
indeed have suggested to a spectator here and there that he was
resting on vague laurels. But his triumphs were, some of them,
now too old; others had been too easy. The present one had been
less arduous than might have been expected, but had been easy--
that is had been rapid--only because he had made an altogether
exceptional effort, a greater effort than he had believed it in
him to make. The desire to have something or other to show for
his "parts"--to show somehow or other--had been the dream of his
youth; but as the years went on the conditions attached to any
marked proof of rarity had affected him more and more as gross
and detestable; like the swallowing of mugs of beer to advertise
what one could "stand." If an anonymous drawing on a museum wall
had been conscious and watchful it might have known this peculiar
pleasure of being at last and all of a sudden identified--as from
the hand of a great master--by the so high and so unnoticed fact
of style. His "style" was what the girl had discovered with a
little help; and now, beside herself enjoying it, she should
publish it to the world without his having any of the trouble.
She should do the thing FOR him, and he would not have waited in
vain.

Shortly before the time fixed in advance for her departure this
young lady received from Mrs. Touchett a telegram running as
follows: "Leave Florence 4th June for Bellaggio, and take you if
you have not other views. But can't wait if you dawdle in Rome."
The dawdling in Rome was very pleasant, but Isabel had different
views, and she let her aunt know she would immediately join her.
She told Gilbert Osmond that she had done so, and he replied
that, spending many of his summers as well as his winters in
Italy, he himself would loiter a little longer in the cool shadow
of Saint Peter's. He would not return to Florence for ten days
more, and in that time she would have started for Bellaggio. It
might be months in this case before he should see her again. This
exchange took place in the large decorated sitting-room occupied
by our friends at the hotel; it was late in the evening, and
Ralph Touchett was to take his cousin back to Florence on the
morrow. Osmond had found the girl alone; Miss Stackpole had
contracted a friendship with a delightful American family on the
fourth floor and had mounted the interminable staircase to pay
them a visit. Henrietta contracted friendships, in travelling,
with great freedom, and had formed in railway-carriages several
that were among her most valued ties. Ralph was making
arrangements for the morrow's journey, and Isabel sat alone in a
wilderness of yellow upholstery. The chairs and sofas were
orange; the walls and windows were draped in purple and gilt. The
mirrors, the pictures had great flamboyant frames; the ceiling
was deeply vaulted and painted over with naked muses and cherubs.
For Osmond the place was ugly to distress; the false colours, the
sham splendour were like vulgar, bragging, lying talk. Isabel had
taken in hand a volume of Ampere, presented, on their arrival in
Rome, by Ralph; but though she held it in her lap with her
finger vaguely kept in the place she was not impatient to pursue
her study. A lamp covered with a drooping veil of pink
tissue-paper burned on the table beside her and diffused a
strange pale rosiness over the scene.

"You say you'll come back; but who knows?" Gilbert Osmond said.

"I think you're much more likely to start on your voyage round
the world. You're under no obligation to come back; you can do
exactly what you choose; you can roam through space."

"Well, Italy's a part of space," Isabel answered. "I can take it
on the way."

"On the way round the world? No, don't do that. Don't put us in a
parenthesis--give us a chapter to ourselves. I don't want to see
you on your travels. I'd rather see you when they're over. I
should like to see you when you're tired and satiated," Osmond
added in a moment. "I shall prefer you in that state."

Isabel, with her eyes bent, fingered the pages of M. Ampere. "You
turn things into ridicule without seeming to do it, though not, I
think, without intending it. You've no respect for my travels--
you think them ridiculous."

"Where do you find that?"

She went on in the same tone, fretting the edge of her book with
the paper-knife. "You see my ignorance, my blunders, the way I
wander about as if the world belonged to me, simply because--
because it has been put into my power to do so. You don't think a
woman ought to do that. You think it bold and ungraceful."

"I think it beautiful," said Osmond. "You know my opinions--I've
treated you to enough of them. Don't you remember my telling you
that one ought to make one's life a work of art? You looked
rather shocked at first; but then I told you that it was
exactly what you seemed to me to be trying to do with your own."

She looked up from her book. "What you despise most in the world
is bad, is stupid art."

"Possibly. But yours seem to me very clear and very good."

"If I were to go to Japan next winter you would laugh at me," she
went on.

Osmond gave a smile--a keen one, but not a laugh, for the tone of
their conversation was not jocose. Isabel had in fact her
solemnity; he had seen it before. "You have one!"

"That's exactly what I say. You think such an idea absurd."

"I would give my little finger to go to Japan; it's one of the
countries I want most to see. Can't you believe that, with my
taste for old lacquer?"

"I haven't a taste for old lacquer to excuse me," said Isabel.

"You've a better excuse--the means of going. You're quite wrong
in your theory that I laugh at you. I don't know what has put it
into your head."

"It wouldn't be remarkable if you did think it ridiculous that I
should have the means to travel when you've not; for you know
everything and I know nothing."

"The more reason why you should travel and learn," smiled Osmond.
"Besides," he added as if it were a point to be made, "I don't
know everything."

Isabel was not struck with the oddity of his saying this gravely;
she was thinking that the pleasantest incident of her life--so it
pleased her to qualify these too few days in Rome, which she
might musingly have likened to the figure of some small princess
of one of the ages of dress overmuffled in a mantle of state and
dragging a train that it took pages or historians to hold up--
that this felicity was coming to an end. That most of the
interest of the time had been owing to Mr. Osmond was a reflexion
she was not just now at pains to make; she had already done the
point abundant justice. But she said to herself that if there
were a danger they should never meet again, perhaps after all it
would be as well. Happy things don't repeat themselves, and her
adventure wore already the changed, the seaward face of some
romantic island from which, after feasting on purple grapes, she
was putting off while the breeze rose. She might come back to
Italy and find him different--this strange man who pleased her
just as he was; and it would be better not to come than run the
risk of that. But if she was not to come the greater the pity
that the chapter was closed; she felt for a moment a pang that
touched the source of tears. The sensation kept her silent, and
Gilbert Osmond was silent too; he was looking at her. "Go
everywhere," he said at last, in a low, kind voice; "do everything;
get everything out of life. Be happy,--be triumphant."

"What do you mean by being triumphant?"

"Well, doing what you like."

"To triumph, then, it seems to me, is to fail! Doing all the vain
things one likes is often very tiresome."

"Exactly," said Osmond with his quiet quickness. "As I intimated
just now, you'll be tired some day." He paused a moment and then
he went on: "I don't know whether I had better not wait till then
for something I want to say to you."

"Ah, I can't advise you without knowing what it is. But I'm
horrid when I'm tired," Isabel added with due inconsequence.

"I don't believe that. You're angry, sometimes--that I can
believe, though I've never seen it. But I'm sure you're never
'cross.'"

"Not even when I lose my temper?"

"You don't lose it--you find it, and that must be beautiful."
Osmond spoke with a noble earnestness. "They must be great
moments to see."

"If I could only find it now!" Isabel nervously cried.

"I'm not afraid; I should fold my arms and admire you. I'm
speaking very seriously." He leaned forward, a hand on each knee;
for some moments he bent his eyes on the floor. "What I wish to
say to you," he went on at last, looking up, "is that I find I'm
in love with you."

She instantly rose. "Ah, keep that till I am tired!"

"Tired of hearing it from others?" He sat there raising his eyes
to her. "No, you may heed it now or never, as you please. But
after all I must say it now." She had turned away, but in the
movement she had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him.
The two remained a while in this situation, exchanging a long look
--the large, conscious look of the critical hours of life. Then he
got up and came near her, deeply respectful, as if he were afraid
he had been too familiar. "I'm absolutely in love with you."

He had repeated the announcement in a tone of almost impersonal
discretion, like a man who expected very little from it but who
spoke for his own needed relief. The tears came into her eyes:
this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to
her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt--backward, forward, she
couldn't have said which. The words he had uttered made him, as
he stood there, beautiful and generous, invested him as with the
golden air of early autumn; but, morally speaking, she retreated
before them--facing him still--as she had retreated in the other
cases before a like encounter. "Oh don't say that, please," she
answered with an intensity that expressed the dread of having, in
this case too, to choose and decide. What made her dread great
was precisely the force which, as it would seem, ought to have
banished all dread--the sense of something within herself, deep
down, that she supposed to be inspired and trustful passion. It
was there like a large sum stored in a bank--which there was a
terror in having to begin to spend. If she touched it, it would
all come out.

"I haven't the idea that it will matter much to you," said
Osmond. "I've too little to offer you. What I have--it's enough
for me; but it's not enough for you. I've neither fortune, nor
fame, nor extrinsic advantages of any kind. So I offer nothing. I
only tell you because I think it can't offend you, and some day
or other it may give you pleasure. It gives me pleasure, I assure
you," he went on, standing there before her, considerately
inclined to her, turning his hat, which he had taken up, slowly
round with a movement which had all the decent tremor of
awkwardness and none of its oddity, and presenting to her his
firm, refined, slightly ravaged face. "It gives me no pain,
because it's perfectly simple. For me you'll always be the most
important woman in the world."

Isabel looked at herself in this character--looked intently,
thinking she filled it with a certain grace. But what she said
was not an expression of any such complacency. "You don't offend
me; but you ought to remember that, without being offended, one
may be incommoded, troubled." "Incommoded," she heard herself
saying that, and it struck her as a ridiculous word. But it was
what stupidly came to her.

"I remember perfectly. Of course you're surprised and startled.
But if it's nothing but that, it will pass away. And it will
perhaps leave something that I may not be ashamed of."

"I don't know what it may leave. You see at all events that I'm
not overwhelmed," said Isabel with rather a pale smile. "I'm not
too troubled to think. And I think that I'm glad I leave Rome
to-morrow."

"Of course I don't agree with you there."

"I don't at all KNOW you," she added abruptly; and then she
coloured as she heard herself saying what she had said almost a
year before to Lord Warburton.

"If you were not going away you'd know me better."

"I shall do that some other time."

"I hope so. I'm very easy to know."

"No, no," she emphatically answered--"there you're not sincere.
You're not easy to know; no one could be less so."

"Well," he laughed, "I said that because I know myself. It may be
a boast, but I do."

"Very likely; but you're very wise."

"So are you, Miss Archer!" Osmond exclaimed.

"I don't feel so just now. Still, I'm wise enough to think you
had better go. Good-night."

"God bless you!" said Gilbert Osmond, taking the hand which she
failed to surrender. After which he added: "If we meet again
you'll find me as you leave me. If we don't I shall be so all the
same."

"Thank you very much. Good-bye."

There was something quietly firm about Isabel's visitor; he might
go of his own movement, but wouldn't be dismissed. "There's one
thing more. I haven't asked anything of you--not even a thought
in the future; you must do me that justice. But there's a little
service I should like to ask. I shall not return home for several
days; Rome's delightful, and it's a good place for a man in my
state of mind. Oh, I know you're sorry to leave it; but you're
right to do what your aunt wishes."

"She doesn't even wish it!" Isabel broke out strangely.

Osmond was apparently on the point of saying something that would
match these words, but he changed his mind and rejoined simply:
"Ah well, it's proper you should go with her, very proper. Do
everything that's proper; I go in for that. Excuse my being so
patronising. You say you don't know me, but when you do you'll
discover what a worship I have for propriety."

"You're not conventional?" Isabel gravely asked.

"I like the way you utter that word! No, I'm not conventional:
I'm convention itself. You don't understand that?" And he paused
a moment, smiling. "I should like to explain it." Then with a
sudden, quick, bright naturalness, "Do come back again,"
he pleaded. "There are so many things we might talk about."

She stood there with lowered eyes. "What service did you speak of
just now?"

"Go and see my little daughter before you leave Florence. She's
alone at the villa; I decided not to send her to my sister, who
hasn't at all my ideas. Tell her she must love her poor father
very much," said Gilbert Osmond gently.

"It will be a great pleasure to me to go," Isabel answered. "I'll
tell her what you say. Once more good-bye."

On this he took a rapid, respectful leave. When he had gone she
stood a moment looking about her and seated herself slowly and
with an air of deliberation. She sat there till her companions
came back, with folded hands, gazing at the ugly carpet. Her
agitation--for it had not diminished--was very still, very deep.
What had happened was something that for a week past her
imagination had been going forward to meet; but here, when it
came, she stopped--that sublime principle somehow broke down. The
working of this young lady's spirit was strange, and I can only
give it to you as I see it, not hoping to make it seem altogether
natural. Her imagination, as I say, now hung back: there was a
last vague space it couldn't cross--a dusky, uncertain tract
which looked ambiguous and even slightly treacherous, like a
moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she was to cross it
yet.

Henry James