RALPH TOUCHETT, for reasons best known to himself, had seen fit to say that Gilbert Osmond was not a good fellow; but this assertion was not borne out by the gentlemans conduct during the rest of the visit to Rome. He spent a portion of each day with Isabel and her companions, and gave every indication of being an easy man to live with. It was impossible not to feel that he had excellent points, and indeed this is perhaps why Ralph Touchett made his want of good fellowship a reproach to him. Even Ralph was obliged to admit that just now he was a delightful companion. His good humour was imperturbable, his knowledge universal, his manners were the gentlest in the world. His spirits were not visibly high; it was difficult to think of Gilbert Osmond as boisterous; he had a mortal dislike to loudness or eagerness. He thought Miss Archer sometimes too eager, too pronounced. It was a pity she had that fault; because if she had not had it she would really have had none; she would have been as bright and soft as an April cloud. If Osmond was not loud, however, he was deep, and during these closing days of the Roman May he had a gaiety 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 pleasant occasions of life by a tribute to the muse. In general Osmond took his pleasure singly; he was usually disgusted with something that seemed to him ugly or offensive; his mind was rarely visited with moods of comprehensive satisfaction. But at present he was happyhappier than he had perhaps ever been in his life; and the feeling had a large foundation. This was simply the sense of successthe most agreeable emotion of the human heart. Osmond had never had too much of it; in this respect he had never been spoiled; as he knew perfectly well and often reminded himself. Ah no, I have not been spoiled; certainly I have not been spoiled, he used to repeat to himself. It I do succeed before I die, I shall have earned it well. Absolutely void of success his career had not been; a very moderate amount of reflection would have assured him of this. But his triumphs were, some of them, now, too old; others had been too easy. The present one had been less difficult than might have been expected; but it had been easythat is, it had been rapidonly because he had made an altogether exceptional effort, a greater effort than he had believed it was in him to make. The desire to succeed greatlyin something or otherhad been the dream of his youth; but as the years went on, the conditions attached to success became so various and repulsive that the idea of making an effort gradually lost its charm. It was not dead, however; it only slept; it revived after he had made the acquaintance of Isabel Archer. Osmond had felt that any enterprise in which the chance of failure was at all considerable would never have an attraction for him; to fail would have been unspeakably odious, would have left an ineffaceable stain upon his life. Success was to seem in advance definitely certaincertain, that is, on this one condition, that the effort should be an agreeable one to make. That of exciting an interest on the part of Isabel Archer corresponded to this description, for the girl had pleased him from the first of his seeing her. We have seen that she thought him fine; and Gilbert Osmond returned the compliment. We have also seen (or heard) that he had a great dread of vulgarity, and on this score his mind was at rest with regard to our young lady. He was not afraid that she would disgust him or irritate him; he had no fear that she would even, in the more special sense of the word, displease him. If she was too eager, she could be taught to be less so; that was a fault which diminished with growing knowledge. She might defy him, she might anger him; this was another matter from displeasing him, and on the whole a less serious one. If a woman were ungraceful and common, her whole quality was vitiated, and one could take no precautions against that; ones own delicacy would avail little. If, however, she were only wilful and high-tempered, the defect might be managed with comparative ease; for had one not a will of ones own that one had been keeping for years in the best conditionas pure and keen as a sword protected by its sheath?
Though I have tried to speak with extreme discretion, the reader may have gathered a suspicion that Gilbert Osmond was not untainted by selfishness. This is rather a coarse imputation to put upon a man of his refinement; and it behoves us at all times to remember the familiar proverb about those who live in glass houses. If Mr. Osmond was more selfish than most of his fellows, the fact will still establish itself. Lest it should fail to do so, I must decline to commit myself to an accusation so gross; the more especially as several of the items of our story would seem to point the other way. It is well known that there are few indications of selfishness more conclusive (on the part of a gentleman at least) than the preference for a single life. Gilbert Osmond, after having tasted of matrimony, had spent a succession of years in the full enjoyment of recovered singleness. He was familiar with the simplicity of purpose, the lonely liberties, of bachelorhood. He had reached that period of life when it is supposed to be doubly difficult to renounce these liberties, endeared as they are by long association; and yet he was prepared to make the generous sacrifice. It would seem that this might fairly be set down to the credit of the noblest of our qualitiesthe faculty of self-devotion. Certain it is that Osmonds desire to marry had been deep and distinct. It had not been notorious; he had not gone about asking people whether they knew a nice girl with a little money. Money was an object; but this was not his manner of proceeding, and no one knewor even greatly caredwhether he wished to marry or not. Madame Merle knewthat we have already perceived. It was not that he had told her; on the whole he would not have cared to tell her. But there were things of which she had no need to be toldthings as to which she had a sort of creative intuition. She had recognised a truth that was none the less pertinent for being very subtle: the truth that there was something very imperfect in Osmonds situation as it stood. He was a failure, of course; that was an old story; to Madame Merles perception he would always be a failure. But there were degrees of ineffectiveness, and there was no need of taking one of the highest. Success, for Gilbert Osmond, would be to make himself felt; that was the only success to which he could now pretend. It is not a kind of distinction that is officially recognisedunless indeed the operation be performed upon multitudes of men. Osmonds line would be to impress himself not largely but deeply; a distinction of the most private sort. A single character might offer the whole measure of it; the clear and sensitive nature of a generous girl would make space for the record. The record of course would be complete if the young lady should have a fortune, and Madame Merle would have taken no pains to make Mr. Osmond acquainted with Mrs. Touchetts niece if Isabel had been as scantily dowered as when first she met her. He had waited all these years because he wanted only the best, and a portionless bride naturally would not have been the best. He had waited so long in vain that he finally almost lost his interest in the subjectnot having kept it up by venturesome experiments. It had become improbable that the best was now to be had, and if he wished to make himself felt, there was soft and supple little Pansy, who would evidently respond to the slightest pressure. When at last the best did present itself Osmond recognised it like a gentleman. There was therefore no incongruity in his wishing to marryit was his own idea of success, as well as that which Madame Merle, with her old-time interest in his affairs, entertained for him. Let it not, however, be supposed that he was guilty of the error of believing that Isabels character was of that passive sort which offers a free field for domination. He was sure that she would constantly actact in the sense of enthusiastic concession.
Shortly before the time which had been fixed in advance for her return to Florence, this young lady received from Mrs. Touchett a telegram which ran as follows:Leave Florence 4th June, Bellaggio, and take you if you have not other views. But cant wait if you dawdle in Rome. The dawdling in Rome was very pleasant, but Isabel had no other views, and she wrote to her aunt that 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 among the Seven Hills. He should not return to Florence for ten days more, and in that time she would have started for Bellaggio. It might be long, in this case, before he should see her again. This conversation took place in the large decorated sitting-room which our friends occupied 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. Miss Stackpole contracted friendships, in travelling, with great freedom, and had formed several in railway-carriages, which were among her most valued ties. Ralph was making arrangements for the morrows 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. To Osmond the place was painfully ugly; the false colours, the sham splendour, made him suffer. Isabel had taken in hand a volume of Ampère, 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 go on with her reading. 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 will come back; but who knows? Gilbert Osmond said. I think you are much more likely to start on your voyage round the world. You are under no obligation to come back; you can do exactly what you choose; you can roam through space.
On the way round the world? No, dont do that. Dont put us into a parenthesisgive us a chapter to ourselves. I dont want to see you on your travels. I would rather see you when they are over. I should like to see you when you are tired and satiated, Osmond added, in a moment. I shall prefer you in that state.
You see my ignorance, my blunders, the way I wander about as if the world belonged to me, simply becausebecause it has been put into my power to do so. You dont think a woman ought to do that. You think it bold and ungraceful.
I think it beautiful, said Osmond. You know my opinionsI have treated you to enough of them. Dont you remember my telling you that one ought to make ones 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 life.
Isabel was not struck with the oddity of his saying this gravely; she was thinking that the pleasantest incident of her lifeso it pleased her to qualify her little visit to Romewas coming to an end. That most of the interest of this episode had been owing to Mr. Osmondthis reflection 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 that they should not meet again, perhaps after all it would be as well. Happy things do not repeat themselves, and these few days had been interfused with the element of success.
She might come back to Italy and find him differentthis 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 was the pity that this happy week was over; for a moment she felt her heart throb with a kind of delicious pain. The sensation kept her silent, and Gilbert Osmond was silent too; he was looking at her.
Exactly, said Osmond, with his quick responsiveness. As I intimated just now, you will be tired some day. He paused a moment, and then he went on: I dont know whether I had better not wait till then for something I wish to say to you.
I am not afraid; I should fold my arms and admire you, I am speaking very seriously. He was leaning forward, with 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 am in love with you.
She had turned away, but in the movement she had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him. The two remained a moment in this situation, exchanging a long lookthe 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.
The tears came into Isabels eyesthey were caused by an intenser throb of that pleasant pain I spoke of a moment ago. There was an immense sweetness in the words he had uttered; but, morally speaking, she retreated before themfacing him stillas she had retreated in two or three cases that we know of in which the same words had been spoken.
Oh, dont say that, please, she answered at last, in a tone of entreaty which had nothing of conventional modesty, but which 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 dreadthe consciousness of what was in her own heart. It was terrible to have to surrender herself to that.
I havent the idea that it will matter much to you, said Osmond. I have too little to offer you. What I haveits enough for me; but its not enough for you. I have neither fortune, nor fame, nor extrinsic advantages of any kind. So I offer nothing. I only tell you because I think it cant 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, bending forward a little, 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 keen, expressive, emphatic face. It gives me no pain, because it is perfectly simple. For me you will always be the most important woman in the world.
Isabel looked at herself in this characterlooked intently, and thought that she filled it with a certain grace. But what she said was not an expression of this complacency. You dont offend me; but you ought to remember that, without being offended, one may be incommoded, troubled. Incommoded: she heard herself saying that, and thought it a ridiculous word. But it was the word that came to her.
I dont know what it may leave. You see at all events that I am not overwhelmed, said Isabel, with rather a pale smile. I am not too troubled to think. And I think that I am glad we are separatingthat I leave Rome to-morrow.
God bless you! said Gilbert Osmond, taking the hand which she failed to surrender to him. And then in a moment he added, If we meet again, you will find me as you leave me. If we dont, I shall be so, all the same.
There was something quietly firm about Isabels visitor; he might go of his own movement, but he would not be dismissed. There is one thing more, he said. I havent asked anything of younot even a thought in the future; you must do me that justice. But there is a little service I should like to ask. I shall not return home for several days; Rome is delightful, and it is a good place for a man in my state of mind. Oh, I know you are sorry to leave it; but you are right to do what your aunt wishes.
Osmond for a moment was apparently on the point of saying something that would match these words. But he changed his mind, and rejoined, simplyAh well, its proper you should go with her, all the same. Do everything thats proper; I go in for that. Excuse my being so patronising. You say you dont know me; but when you do you will discover what a worship I have for propriety.
I like the way you utter that word! No, I am not conventional: I am convention itself. You dont understand that? And Osmond paused a moment, smiling. I should like to explain it. Then, with a sudden, quick, bright naturalnessDo come back again! he cried. There are so many things we might talk about.
Go and see my little daughter before you leave Florence. She is alone at the villa; I decided not to send her to my sister, who hasnt my ideas. Tell her she must love her poor father very much, said Gilbert Osmond, gently.
On this he took a rapid, respectful leave. When he had gone, she stood a moment, looking about her, and then she seated herself, slowly, with an air of deliberation. She sat thus until her companions came back, with folded hands, gazing at the ugly carpet. Her agitationfor it had not diminishedwas very still, very deep. That which had happened was something that for a week past her imagination had been going forward to meet; but here, when it came, she stoppedhere imagination halted. The working of this young ladys 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 stopped, as I say; there was a last vague space it could not crossa 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.