Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 41

CHAPTER XLI

Osmond touched on this matter that evening for the first time;
coming very late into the drawing-room, where she was sitting
alone. They had spent the evening at home, and Pansy had gone to
bed; he himself had been sitting since dinner in a small
apartment in which he had arranged his books and which he called
his study. At ten o'clock Lord Warburton had come in, as he
always did when he knew from Isabel that she was to be at home;
he was going somewhere else and he sat for half an hour. Isabel,
after asking him for news of Ralph, said very little to him, on
purpose; she wished him to talk with her stepdaughter. She
pretended to read; she even went after a little to the piano; she
asked herself if she mightn't leave the room. She had come little
by little to think well of the idea of Pansy's becoming the wife
of the master of beautiful Lockleigh, though at first it had not
presented itself in a manner to excite her enthusiasm. Madame
Merle, that afternoon, had applied the match to an accumulation
of inflammable material. When Isabel was unhappy she always
looked about her--partly from impulse and partly by theory--for
some form of positive exertion. She could never rid herself of
the sense that unhappiness was a state of disease--of suffering
as opposed to doing. To "do"--it hardly mattered what--would
therefore be an escape, perhaps in some degree a remedy. Besides,
she wished to convince herself that she had done everything
possible to content her husband; she was determined not to be
haunted by visions of his wife's limpness under appeal. It would
please him greatly to see Pansy married to an English nobleman,
and justly please him, since this nobleman was so sound a
character. It seemed to Isabel that if she could make it her duty
to bring about such an event she should play the part of a good
wife. She wanted to be that; she wanted to be able to believe
sincerely, and with proof of it, that she had been that. Then
such an undertaking had other recommendations. It would occupy
her, and she desired occupation. It would even amuse her, and if
she could really amuse herself she perhaps might be saved.
Lastly, it would be a service to Lord Warburton, who evidently
pleased himself greatly with the charming girl. It was a little
"weird" he should--being what he was; but there was no accounting
for such impressions. Pansy might captivate any one--any one at
least but Lord Warburton. Isabel would have thought her too
small, too slight, perhaps even too artificial for that. There
was always a little of the doll about her, and that was not what
he had been looking for. Still, who could say what men ever were
looking for? They looked for what they found; they knew what
pleased them only when they saw it. No theory was valid in such
matters, and nothing was more unaccountable or more natural than
anything else. If he had cared for HER it might seem odd he
should care for Pansy, who was so different; but he had not cared
for her so much as he had supposed. Or if he had, he had
completely got over it, and it was natural that, as that affair
had failed, he should think something of quite another sort might
succeed. Enthusiasm, as I say, had not come at first to Isabel,
but it came to-day and made her feel almost happy. It was
astonishing what happiness she could still find in the idea of
procuring a pleasure for her husband. It was a pity, however,
that Edward Rosier had crossed their path!

At this reflection the light that had suddenly gleamed upon that
path lost something of its brightness. Isabel was unfortunately
as sure that Pansy thought Mr. Rosier the nicest of all the young
men--as sure as if she had held an interview with her on the
subject. It was very tiresome she should be so sure, when she had
carefully abstained from informing herself; almost as tiresome as
that poor Mr. Rosier should have taken it into his own head. He
was certainly very inferior to Lord Warburton. It was not the
difference in fortune so much as the difference in the men; the
young American was really so light a weight. He was much more of
the type of the useless fine gentleman than the English nobleman.
It was true that there was no particular reason why Pansy should
marry a statesman; still, if a statesman admired her, that was
his affair, and she would make a perfect little pearl of a
peeress.

It may seem to the reader that Mrs. Osmond had grown of a sudden
strangely cynical, for she ended by saying to herself that this
difficulty could probably be arranged. An impediment that was
embodied in poor Rosier could not anyhow present itself as a
dangerous one; there were always means of levelling secondary
obstacles. Isabel was perfectly aware that she had not taken the
measure of Pansy's tenacity, which might prove to be
inconveniently great; but she inclined to see her as rather
letting go, under suggestion, than as clutching under deprecation
--since she had certainly the faculty of assent developed in a
very much higher degree than that of protest. She would cling,
yes, she would cling; but it really mattered to her very little
what she clung to. Lord Warburton would do as well as Mr. Rosier
--especially as she seemed quite to like him; she had expressed
this sentiment to Isabel without a single reservation; she had
said she thought his conversation most interesting--he had told
her all about India. His manner to Pansy had been of the rightest
and easiest--Isabel noticed that for herself, as she also
observed that he talked to her not in the least in a patronising
way, reminding himself of her youth and simplicity, but quite as
if she understood his subjects with that sufficiency with which
she followed those of the fashionable operas. This went far
enough for attention to the music and the barytone. He was
careful only to be kind--he was as kind as he had been to another
fluttered young chit at Gardencourt. A girl might well be touched
by that; she remembered how she herself had been touched, and
said to herself that if she had been as simple as Pansy the
impression would have been deeper still. She had not been simple
when she refused him; that operation had been as complicated as,
later, her acceptance of Osmond had been. Pansy, however, in
spite of HER simplicity, really did understand, and was glad that
Lord Warburton should talk to her, not about her partners and
bouquets, but about the state of Italy, the condition of the
peasantry, the famous grist-tax, the pellagra, his impressions
of Roman society. She looked at him, as she drew her needle
through her tapestry, with sweet submissive eyes, and when she
lowered them she gave little quiet oblique glances at his person,
his hands, his feet, his clothes, as if she were considering him.
Even his person, Isabel might have reminded her, was better than
Mr. Rosier's. But Isabel contented herself at such moments with
wondering where this gentleman was; he came no more at all to
Palazzo Roccanera. It was surprising, as I say, the hold it had
taken of her--the idea of assisting her husband to be pleased.

It was surprising for a variety of reasons which I shall
presently touch upon. On the evening I speak of, while Lord
Warburton sat there, she had been on the point of taking the
great step of going out of the room and leaving her companions
alone. I say the great step, because it was in this light that
Gilbert Osmond would have regarded it, and Isabel was trying as
much as possible to take her husband's view. She succeeded after
a fashion, but she fell short of the point I mention. After all
she couldn't rise to it; something held her and made this
impossible. It was not exactly that it would be base or
insidious; for women as a general thing practise such manoeuvres
with a perfectly good conscience, and Isabel was instinctively
much more true than false to the common genius of her sex. There
was a vague doubt that interposed--a sense that she was not quite
sure. So she remained in the drawing-room, and after a while Lord
Warburton went off to his party, of which he promised to give
Pansy a full account on the morrow. After he had gone she
wondered if she had prevented something which would have happened
if she had absented herself for a quarter of an hour; and then
she pronounced--always mentally--that when their distinguished
visitor should wish her to go away he would easily find means to
let her know it. Pansy said nothing whatever about him after he
had gone, and Isabel studiously said nothing, as she had taken a
vow of reserve until after he should have declared himself. He
was a little longer in coming to this than might seem to accord
with the description he had given Isabel of his feelings. Pansy
went to bed, and Isabel had to admit that she could not now guess
what her stepdaughter was thinking of. Her transparent little
companion was for the moment not to be seen through.

She remained alone, looking at the fire, until, at the end of
half an hour, her husband came in. He moved about a while in
silence and then sat down; he looked at the fire like herself.
But she now had transferred her eyes from the flickering flame in
the chimney to Osmond's face, and she watched him while he kept
his silence. Covert observation had become a habit with her; an
instinct, of which it is not an exaggeration to say that it was
allied to that of self-defence, had made it habitual. She wished
as much as possible to know his thoughts, to know what he would
say, beforehand, so that she might prepare her answer. Preparing
answers had not been her strong point of old; she had rarely in
this respect got further than thinking afterwards of clever
things she might have said. But she had learned caution--learned
it in a measure from her husband's very countenance. It was the
same face she had looked into with eyes equally earnest perhaps,
but less penetrating, on the terrace of a Florentine villa;
except that Osmond had grown slightly stouter since his marriage.
He still, however, might strike one as very distinguished.

"Has Lord Warburton been here?" he presently asked.

"Yes, he stayed half an hour."

"Did he see Pansy?"

"Yes; he sat on the sofa beside her."

"Did he talk with her much?"

"He talked almost only to her."

"It seems to me he's attentive. Isn't that what you call it?"

"I don't call it anything," said Isabel; "I've waited for you to
give it a name."

"That's a consideration you don't always show," Osmond answered
after a moment.

"I've determined, this time, to try and act as you'd like. I've
so often failed of that."

Osmond turned his head slowly, looking at her. "Are you trying to
quarrel with me?"

"No, I'm trying to live at peace."

"Nothing's more easy; you know I don't quarrel myself."

"What do you call it when you try to make me angry?" Isabel
asked.

"I don't try; if I've done so it has been the most natural thing
in the world. Moreover I'm not in the least trying now."

Isabel smiled. "It doesn't matter. I've determined never to be
angry again."

"That's an excellent resolve. Your temper isn't good."

"No--it's not good." She pushed away the book she had been
reading and took up the band of tapestry Pansy had left on the
table.

"That's partly why I've not spoken to you about this business of
my daughter's," Osmond said, designating Pansy in the manner that
was most frequent with him. "I was afraid I should encounter
opposition--that you too would have views on the subject. I've
sent little Rosier about his business."

"You were afraid I'd plead for Mr. Rosier? Haven't you noticed
that I've never spoken to you of him?"

"I've never given you a chance. We've so little conversation in
these days. I know he was an old friend of yours."

"Yes; he's an old friend of mine." Isabel cared little more for
him than for the tapestry that she held in her hand; but it was
true that he was an old friend and that with her husband she felt
a desire not to extenuate such ties. He had a way of expressing
contempt for them which fortified her loyalty to them, even when,
as in the present case, they were in themselves insignificant.
She sometimes felt a sort of passion of tenderness for memories
which had no other merit than that they belonged to her unmarried
life. "But as regards Pansy," she added in a moment, "I've given
him no encouragement."

"That's fortunate," Osmond observed.

"Fortunate for me, I suppose you mean. For him it matters little."

"There's no use talking of him," Osmond said. "As I tell you,
I've turned him out."

"Yes; but a lover outside's always a lover. He's sometimes even
more of one. Mr. Rosier still has hope."

"He's welcome to the comfort of it! My daughter has only to sit
perfectly quiet to become Lady Warburton."

"Should you like that?" Isabel asked with a simplicity which was
not so affected as it may appear. She was resolved to assume
nothing, for Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her
assumptions against her. The intensity with which he would like
his daughter to become Lady Warburton had been the very basis of
her own recent reflections. But that was for herself; she would
recognise nothing until Osmond should have put it into words; she
would not take for granted with him that he thought Lord
Warburton a prize worth an amount of effort that was unusual
among the Osmonds. It was Gilbert's constant intimation that for
him nothing in life was a prize; that he treated as from equal to
equal with the most distinguished people in the world, and that
his daughter had only to look about her to pick out a prince. It
cost him therefore a lapse from consistency to say explicitly
that he yearned for Lord Warburton and that if this nobleman
should escape his equivalent might not be found; with which
moreover it was another of his customary implications that he was
never inconsistent. He would have liked his wife to glide over
the point. But strangely enough, now that she was face to face
with him and although an hour before she had almost invented a
scheme for pleasing him, Isabel was not accommodating, would not
glide. And yet she knew exactly the effect on his mind of her
question: it would operate as an humiliation. Never mind; he was
terribly capable of humiliating her--all the more so that he was
also capable of waiting for great opportunities and of showing
sometimes an almost unaccountable indifference to small ones.
Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not
have availed herself of a great one.

Osmond at present acquitted himself very honourably. "I should
like it extremely; it would be a great marriage. And then Lord
Warburton has another advantage: he's an old friend of yours. It
would be pleasant for him to come into the family. It's very odd
Pansy's admirers should all be your old friends."

"It's natural that they should come to see me. In coming to see
me they see Pansy. Seeing her it's natural they should fall in
love with her."

"So I think. But you're not bound to do so."

"If she should marry Lord Warburton I should be very glad,"
Isabel went on frankly. "He's an excellent man. You say, however,
that she has only to sit perfectly still. Perhaps she won't sit
perfectly still. If she loses Mr. Rosier she may jump up!"

Osmond appeared to give no heed to this; he sat gazing at the
fire. "Pansy would like to be a great lady," he remarked in a
moment with a certain tenderness of tone. "She wishes above all
to please," he added.

"To please Mr. Rosier, perhaps."

"No, to please me."

"Me too a little, I think," said Isabel.

"Yes, she has a great opinion of you. But she'll do what I like."

"If you're sure of that, it's very well," she went on.

"Meantime," said Osmond, "I should like our distinguished visitor
to speak."

"He has spoken--to me. He has told me it would be a great
pleasure to him to believe she could care for him."

Osmond turned his head quickly, but at first he said nothing.
Then, "Why didn't you tell me that?" he asked sharply.

"There was no opportunity. You know how we live. I've taken the
first chance that has offered."

"Did you speak to him of Rosier?"

"Oh yes, a little."

"That was hardly necessary."

"I thought it best he should know, so that, so that--" And Isabel
paused.

"So that what?"

"So that he might act accordingly."

"So that he might back out, do you mean?"

"No, so that he might advance while there's yet time."

"That's not the effect it seems to have had."

"You should have patience," said Isabel. "You know Englishmen are
shy."

"This one's not. He was not when he made love to YOU."

She had been afraid Osmond would speak of that; it was
disagreeable to her. "I beg your pardon; he was extremely so,"
she returned.

He answered nothing for some time; he took up a book and fingered
the pages while she sat silent and occupied herself with Pansy's
tapestry. "You must have a great deal of influence with him,"
Osmond went on at last. "The moment you really wish it you can
bring him to the point."

This was more offensive still; but she felt the great naturalness
of his saying it, and it was after all extremely like what she
had said to herself. "Why should I have influence?" she asked.
"What have I ever done to put him under an obligation to me?"

"You refused to marry him," said Osmond with his eyes on his
book.

"I must not presume too much on that," she replied.

He threw down the book presently and got up, standing before the
fire with his hands behind him. "Well, I hold that it lies in
your hands. I shall leave it there. With a little good-will you
may manage it. Think that over and remember how much I count on
you." He waited a little, to give her time to answer; but she
answered nothing, and he presently strolled out of the room.


Henry James