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Chapter 36

CHAPTER XXXVI

One afternoon of the autumn of 1876, toward dusk, a young man of
pleasing appearance rang at the door of a small apartment on the
third floor of an old Roman house. On its being opened he
enquired for Madame Merle; whereupon the servant, a neat, plain
woman, with a French face and a lady's maid's manner, ushered him
into a diminutive drawing-room and requested the favour of his
name. "Mr. Edward Rosier," said the young man, who sat down to
wait till his hostess should appear.

The reader will perhaps not have forgotten that Mr. Rosier was an
ornament of the American circle in Paris, but it may also be
remembered that he sometimes vanished from its horizon. He had
spent a portion of several winters at Pau, and as he was a
gentleman of constituted habits he might have continued for years
to pay his annual visit to this charming resort. In the summer of
1876, however, an incident befell him which changed the current
not only of his thoughts, but of his customary sequences. He
passed a month in the Upper Engadine and encountered at Saint
Moritz a charming young girl. To this little person he began to
pay, on the spot, particular attention: she struck him as exactly
the household angel he had long been looking for. He was never
precipitate, he was nothing if not discreet, so he forbore for
the present to declare his passion; but it seemed to him when
they parted--the young lady to go down into Italy and her admirer
to proceed to Geneva, where he was under bonds to join other
friends--that he should be romantically wretched if he were not
to see her again. The simplest way to do so was to go in the
autumn to Rome, where Miss Osmond was domiciled with her family.
Mr. Rosier started on his pilgrimage to the Italian capital and
reached it on the first of November. It was a pleasant thing to
do, but for the young man there was a strain of the heroic in the
enterprise. He might expose himself, unseasoned, to the poison of
the Roman air, which in November lay, notoriously, much in wait.
Fortune, however, favours the brave; and this adventurer, who
took three grains of quinine a day, had at the end of a month no
cause to deplore his temerity. He had made to a certain extent
good use of his time; he had devoted it in vain to finding a flaw
in Pansy Osmond's composition. She was admirably finished; she
had had the last touch; she was really a consummate piece. He
thought of her in amorous meditation a good deal as he might have
thought of a Dresden-china shepherdess. Miss Osmond, indeed, in
the bloom of her juvenility, had a hint of the rococo which
Rosier, whose taste was predominantly for that manner, could not
fail to appreciate. That he esteemed the productions of
comparatively frivolous periods would have been apparent from the
attention he bestowed upon Madame Merle's drawing-room, which,
although furnished with specimens of every style, was especially
rich in articles of the last two centuries. He had immediately
put a glass into one eye and looked round; and then "By Jove, she
has some jolly good things!" he had yearningly murmured. The room
was small and densely filled with furniture; it gave an impression
of faded silk and little statuettes which might totter if one
moved. Rosier got up and wandered about with his careful tread,
bending over the tables charged with knick-knacks and the cushions
embossed with princely arms. When Madame Merle came in she found
him standing before the fireplace with his nose very close to the
great lace flounce attached to the damask cover of the mantel. He
had lifted it delicately, as if he were smelling it.

"It's old Venetian," she said; "it's rather good."

"It's too good for this; you ought to wear it."

"They tell me you have some better in Paris, in the same
situation."

"Ah, but I can't wear mine," smiled the visitor.

"I don't see why you shouldn't! I've better lace than that to
wear."

His eyes wandered, lingeringly, round the room again. "You've
some very good things."

"Yes, but I hate them."

"Do you want to get rid of them?" the young man quickly asked.

"No, it's good to have something to hate: one works it off!"

"I love my things," said Mr. Rosier as he sat there flushed with
all his recognitions. "But it's not about them, nor about yours,
that I came to talk to you." He paused a moment and then, with
greater softness: "I care more for Miss Osmond than for all the
bibelots in Europe!"

Madame Merle opened wide eyes. "Did you come to tell me that?"

"I came to ask your advice."

She looked at him with a friendly frown, stroking her chin with
her large white hand. "A man in love, you know, doesn't ask
advice."

"Why not, if he's in a difficult position? That's often the case
with a man in love. I've been in love before, and I know. But
never so much as this time--really never so much. I should like
particularly to know what you think of my prospects. I'm afraid
that for Mr. Osmond I'm not--well, a real collector's piece."

"Do you wish me to intercede?" Madame Merle asked with her fine
arms folded and her handsome mouth drawn up to the left.

"If you could say a good word for me I should be greatly obliged.
There will be no use in my troubling Miss Osmond unless I have
good reason to believe her father will consent."

"You're very considerate; that's in your favour. But you assume in
rather an off-hand way that I think you a prize."

"You've been very kind to me," said the young man. "That's why I
came."

"I'm always kind to people who have good Louis Quatorze. It's very
rare now, and there's no telling what one may get by it." With
which the left-hand corner of Madame Merle's mouth gave expression
to the joke.

But he looked, in spite of it, literally apprehensive and
consistently strenuous. "Ah, I thought you liked me for myself!"

"I like you very much; but, if you please, we won't analyse.
Pardon me if I seem patronising, but I think you a perfect little
gentleman. I must tell you, however, that I've not the marrying of
Pansy Osmond."

"I didn't suppose that. But you've seemed to me intimate with her
family, and I thought you might have influence."

Madame Merle considered. "Whom do you call her family?"

"Why, her father; and--how do you say it in English?--her
belle-mere."

"Mr. Osmond's her father, certainly; but his wife can scarcely be
termed a member of her family. Mrs. Osmond has nothing to do with
marrying her."

"I'm sorry for that," said Rosier with an amiable sigh of good
faith. "I think Mrs. Osmond would favour me."

"Very likely--if her husband doesn't."

He raised his eyebrows. "Does she take the opposite line from
him?"

"In everything. They think quite differently."

"Well," said Rosier, "I'm sorry for that; but it's none of my
business. She's very fond of Pansy."

"Yes, she's very fond of Pansy."

"And Pansy has a great affection for her. She has told me how she
loves her as if she were her own mother."

"You must, after all, have had some very intimate talk with the
poor child," said Madame Merle. "Have you declared your
sentiments?"

"Never!" cried Rosier, lifting his neatly-gloved hand. "Never till
I've assured myself of those of the parents."

"You always wait for that? You've excellent principles; you
observe the proprieties."

"I think you're laughing at me," the young man murmured, dropping
back in his chair and feeling his small moustache. "I didn't
expect that of you, Madame Merle."

She shook her head calmly, like a person who saw things as she saw
them. "You don't do me justice. I think your conduct in excellent
taste and the best you could adopt. Yes, that's what I think."

"I wouldn't agitate her--only to agitate her; I love her too
much for that," said Ned Rosier.

"I'm glad, after all, that you've told me," Madame Merle went on.
"Leave it to me a little; I think I can help you."

"I said you were the person to come to!" her visitor cried with
prompt elation.

"You were very clever," Madame Merle returned more dryly. "When I
say I can help you I mean once assuming your cause to be good. Let
us think a little if it is."

"I'm awfully decent, you know," said Rosier earnestly. "I won't
say I've no faults, but I'll say I've no vices."

"All that's negative, and it always depends, also, on what people
call vices. What's the positive side? What's the virtuous? What
have you got besides your Spanish lace and your Dresden teacups?"

"I've a comfortable little fortune--about forty thousand francs a
year. With the talent I have for arranging, we can live
beautifully on such an income."

"Beautifully, no. Sufficiently, yes. Even that depends on where
you live."

"Well, in Paris. I would undertake it in Paris."

Madame Merle's mouth rose to the left. "It wouldn't be famous;
you'd have to make use of the teacups, and they'd get broken."

"We don't want to be famous. If Miss Osmond should have everything
pretty it would be enough. When one's as pretty as she one can
afford--well, quite cheap faience. She ought never to wear
anything but muslin--without the sprig," said Rosier reflectively.

"Wouldn't you even allow her the sprig? She'd be much obliged to
you at any rate for that theory."

"It's the correct one, I assure you; and I'm sure she'd enter into
it. She understands all that; that's why I love her."

"She's a very good little girl, and most tidy--also extremely
graceful. But her father, to the best of my belief, can give her
nothing."

Rosier scarce demurred. "I don't in the least desire that he
should. But I may remark, all the same, that he lives like a rich
man."

"The money's his wife's; she brought him a large fortune."

"Mrs. Osmond then is very fond of her stepdaughter; she may do
something."

"For a love-sick swain you have your eyes about you! "Madame
Merle exclaimed with a laugh.

"I esteem a dot very much. I can do without it, but I esteem it."

"Mrs. Osmond," Madame Merle went on, "will probably prefer to keep
her money for her own children."

"Her own children? Surely she has none."

"She may have yet. She had a poor little boy, who died two years
ago, six months after his birth. Others therefore may come."

"I hope they will, if it will make her happy. She's a splendid
woman."

Madame Merle failed to burst into speech. "Ah, about her there's
much to be said. Splendid as you like! We've not exactly made out
that you're a parti. The absence of vices is hardly a source of
income.

"Pardon me, I think it may be," said Rosier quite lucidly.

"You'll be a touching couple, living on your innocence!"

"I think you underrate me."

"You're not so innocent as that? Seriously," said Madame Merle,
"of course forty thousand francs a year and a nice character are a
combination to be considered. I don't say it's to be jumped at,
but there might be a worse offer. Mr. Osmond, however, will
probably incline to believe he can do better."

"HE can do so perhaps; but what can his daughter do? She can't do
better than marry the man she loves. For she does, you know,"
Rosier added eagerly.

"She does--I know it."

"Ah," cried the young man, "I said you were the person to come to."

"But I don't know how you know it, if you haven't asked her,"
Madame Merle went on.

"In such a case there's no need of asking and telling; as you say,
we're an innocent couple. How did YOU know it?"

"I who am not innocent? By being very crafty. Leave it to me; I'll
find out for you."

Rosier got up and stood smoothing his hat. "You say that rather
coldly. Don't simply find out how it is, but try to make it as it
should be."

"I'll do my best. I'll try to make the most of your advantages."

"Thank you so very much. Meanwhile then I'll say a word to Mrs.
Osmond."

"Gardez-vous-en bien!" And Madame Merle was on her feet. "Don't
set her going, or you'll spoil everything."

Rosier gazed into his hat; he wondered whether his hostess HAD
been after all the right person to come to. "I don't think I
understand you. I'm an old friend of Mrs. Osmond, and I think she
would like me to succeed."

"Be an old friend as much as you like; the more old friends she
has the better, for she doesn't get on very well with some of her
new. But don't for the present try to make her take up the cudgels
for you. Her husband may have other views, and, as a person who
wishes her well, I advise you not to multiply points of difference
between them."

Poor Rosier's face assumed an expression of alarm; a suit for the
hand of Pansy Osmond was even a more complicated business than his
taste for proper transitions had allowed. But the extreme good
sense which he concealed under a surface suggesting that of a
careful owner's "best set" came to his assistance. "I don't see
that I'm bound to consider Mr. Osmond so very much!" he exclaimed.
"No, but you should consider HER. You say you're an old friend.
Would you make her suffer?"

"Not for the world."

"Then be very careful, and let the matter alone till I've taken a
few soundings."

"Let the matter alone, dear Madame Merle? Remember that I'm in
love."

"Oh, you won't burn up! Why did you come to me, if you're not to
heed what I say?"

"You're very kind; I'll be very good," the young man promised.
"But I'm afraid Mr. Osmond's pretty hard," he added in his mild
voice as he went to the door.

Madame Merle gave a short laugh. "It has been said before. But his
wife isn't easy either."

"Ah, she's a splendid woman!" Ned Rosier repeated, for departure.
He resolved that his conduct should be worthy of an aspirant who
was already a model of discretion; but he saw nothing in any
pledge he had given Madame Merle that made it improper he should
keep himself in spirits by an occasional visit to Miss Osmond's
home. He reflected constantly on what his adviser had said to
him, and turned over in his mind the impression of her rather
circumspect tone. He had gone to her de confiance, as they
put it in Paris; but it was possible he had been precipitate. He
found difficulty in thinking of himself as rash--he had incurred
this reproach so rarely; but it certainly was true that he had
known Madame Merle only for the last month, and that his thinking
her a delightful woman was not, when one came to look into it, a
reason for assuming that she would be eager to push Pansy Osmond
into his arms, gracefully arranged as these members might be to
receive her. She had indeed shown him benevolence, and she was a
person of consideration among the girl's people, where she had a
rather striking appearance (Rosier had more than once wondered how
she managed it) of being intimate without being familiar. But
possibly he had exaggerated these advantages. There was no
particular reason why she should take trouble for him; a charming
woman was charming to every one, and Rosier felt rather a fool
when he thought of his having appealed to her on the ground that
she had distinguished him. Very likely--though she had appeared to
say it in joke--she was really only thinking of his bibelots. Had
it come into her head that he might offer her two or three of the
gems of his collection? If she would only help him to marry Miss
Osmond he would present her with his whole museum. He could hardly
say so to her outright; it would seem too gross a bribe. But he
should like her to believe it.

It was with these thoughts that he went again to Mrs. Osmond's,
Mrs. Osmond having an "evening"--she had taken the Thursday of
each week--when his presence could be accounted for on general
principles of civility. The object of Mr. Rosier's well-regulated
affection dwelt in a high house in the very heart of Rome; a dark
and massive structure overlooking a sunny piazzetta in the
neighbourhood of the Farnese Palace. In a palace, too, little
Pansy lived--a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor
Rosier's apprehensive mind. It seemed to him of evil omen that the
young lady he wished to marry, and whose fastidious father he
doubted of his ability to conciliate, should be immured in a kind
of domestic fortress, a pile which bore a stern old Roman name,
which smelt of historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence,
which was mentioned in "Murray" and visited by tourists who
looked, on a vague survey, disappointed and depressed, and which
had frescoes by Caravaggio in the piano nobile and a row of
mutilated statues and dusty urns in the wide, nobly-arched
loggia overhanging the damp court where a fountain gushed out
of a mossy niche. In a less preoccupied frame of mind he could
have done justice to the Palazzo Roccanera; he could have entered
into the sentiment of Mrs. Osmond, who had once told him that on
settling themselves in Rome she and her husband had chosen this
habitation for the love of local colour. It had local colour
enough, and though he knew less about architecture than about
Limoges enamels he could see that the proportions of the windows
and even the details of the cornice had quite the grand air. But
Rosier was haunted by the conviction that at picturesque periods
young girls had been shut up there to keep them from their true
loves, and hen, under the threat of being thrown into convents,
had been forced into unholy marriages. There was one point,
however, to which he always did justice when once he found
himself in Mrs. Osmond's warm, rich-looking reception-rooms,
which were on the second floor. He acknowledged that these people
were very strong in "good things." It was a taste of Osmond's
own--not at all of hers; this she had told him the first time he
came to the house, when, after asking himself for a quarter of an
hour whether they had even better "French" than he in Paris, he
was obliged on the spot to admit that they had, very much, and
vanquished his envy, as a gentleman should, to the point of
expressing to his hostess his pure admiration of her treasures.
He learned from Mrs. Osmond that her husband had made a large
collection before their marriage and that, though he had annexed
a number of fine pieces within the last three years, he had
achieved his greatest finds at a time when he had not the
advantage of her advice. Rosier interpreted this information
according to principles of his own. For "advice" read "cash," he
said to himself; and the fact that Gilbert Osmond had landed his
highest prizes during his impecunious season confirmed his most
cherished doctrine--the doctrine that a collector may freely be
poor if he be only patient. In general, when Rosier presented
himself on a Thursday evening, his first recognition was for the
walls of the saloon; there were three or four objects his eyes
really yearned for. But after his talk with Madame Merle he felt
the extreme seriousness of his position; and now, when he came
in, he looked about for the daughter of the house with such
eagerness as might be permitted a gentleman whose smile, as he
crossed a threshold, always took everything comfortable for
granted.

Henry James