It will probably not surprise the reflective reader that Ralph Touchett shoul_ave seen less of his cousin since her marriage than he had done before tha_vent—an event of which he took such a view as could hardly prove _onfirmation of intimacy. He had uttered his thought, as we know, and afte_his had held his peace, Isabel not having invited him to resume a discussio_hich marked an era in their relations. That discussion had made _ifference—the difference he feared rather than the one he hoped. It had no_hilled the girl's zeal in carrying out her engagement, but it had com_angerously near to spoiling a friendship. No reference was ever again mad_etween them to Ralph's opinion of Gilbert Osmond, and by surrounding thi_opic with a sacred silence they managed to preserve a semblance of reciproca_rankness. But there was a difference, as Ralph often said to himself—ther_as a difference. She had not forgiven him, she never would forgive him: tha_as all he had gained. She thought she had forgiven him; she believed sh_idn't care; and as she was both very generous and very proud thes_onvictions represented a certain reality. But whether or no the event shoul_ustify him he would virtually have done her a wrong, and the wrong was of th_ort that women remember best. As Osmond's wife she could never again be hi_riend. If in this character she should enjoy the felicity she expected, sh_ould have nothing but contempt for the man who had attempted, in advance, t_ndermine a blessing so dear; and if on the other hand his warning should b_ustified the vow she had taken that he should never know it would lay upo_er spirit such a burden as to make her hate him. So dismal had been, durin_he year that followed his cousin's marriage, Ralph's prevision of the future; and if his meditations appear morbid we must remember he was not in the bloo_f health. He consoled himself as he might by behaving (as he deemed) beautifully, and was present at the ceremony by which Isabel was united to Mr.
Osmond, and which was performed in Florence in the month of June. He learne_rom his mother that Isabel at first had thought of celebrating her nuptial_n her native land, but that as simplicity was what she chiefly desired t_ecure she had finally decided, in spite of Osmond's professed willingness t_ake a journey of any length, that this characteristic would be best embodie_n their being married by the nearest clergyman in the shortest time. Th_hing was done therefore at the little American chapel, on a very hot day, i_he presence only of Mrs. Touchett and her son, of Pansy Osmond and th_ountess Gemini. That severity in the proceedings of which I just spoke was i_art the result of the absence of two persons who might have been looked fo_n the occasion and who would have lent it a certain richness. Madame Merl_ad been invited, but Madame Merle, who was unable to leave Rome, had writte_ gracious letter of excuses. Henrietta Stackpole had not been invited, as he_eparture from America, announced to Isabel by Mr. Goodwood, was in fac_rustrated by the duties of her profession; but she had sent a letter, les_racious than Madame Merle's, intimating that, had she been able to cross th_tlantic, she would have been present not only as a witness but as a critic.
Her return to Europe had taken place somewhat later, and she had effected _eeting with Isabel in the autumn, in Paris, when she had indulged—perhaps _rifle too freely—her critical genius. Poor Osmond, who was chiefly th_ubject of it, had protested so sharply that Henrietta was obliged to declar_o Isabel that she had taken a step which put a barrier between them. "I_sn't in the least that you've married—it is that you have married HIM," sh_ad deemed it her duty to remark; agreeing, it will be seen, much more wit_alph Touchett than she suspected, though she had few of his hesitations an_ompunctions. Henrietta's second visit to Europe, however, was not apparentl_o have been made in vain; for just at the moment when Osmond had declared t_sabel that he really must object to that newspaper-woman, and Isabel ha_nswered that it seemed to her he took Henrietta too hard, the good Mr.
Bantling had appeared upon the scene and proposed that they should take a ru_own to Spain. Henrietta's letters from Spain had proved the most acceptabl_he had yet published, and there had been one in especial, dated from th_lhambra and entitled 'Moors and Moonlight,' which generally passed for he_asterpiece. Isabel had been secretly disappointed at her husband's not seein_is way simply to take the poor girl for funny. She even wondered if his sens_f fun, or of the funny—which would be his sense of humour, wouldn't it?—wer_y chance defective. Of course she herself looked at the matter as a perso_hose present happiness had nothing to grudge to Henrietta's violate_onscience. Osmond had thought their alliance a kind of monstrosity; h_ouldn't imagine what they had in common. For him, Mr. Bantling's fello_ourist was simply the most vulgar of women, and he had also pronounced he_he most abandoned. Against this latter clause of the verdict Isabel ha_ppealed with an ardour that had made him wonder afresh at the oddity of som_f his wife's tastes. Isabel could explain it only by saying that she liked t_now people who were as different as possible from herself. "Why then don'_ou make the acquaintance of your washerwoman?" Osmond had enquired; to whic_sabel had answered that she was afraid her washerwoman wouldn't care for her.
Now Henrietta cared so much.
Ralph had seen nothing of her for the greater part of the two years that ha_ollowed her marriage; the winter that formed the beginning of her residenc_n Rome he had spent again at San Remo, where he had been joined in the sprin_y his mother, who afterwards had gone with him to England, to see what the_ere doing at the bank—an operation she couldn't induce him to perform. Ralp_ad taken a lease of his house at San Remo, a small villa which he ha_ccupied still another winter; but late in the month of April of this secon_ear he had come down to Rome. It was the first time since her marriage tha_e had stood face to face with Isabel; his desire to see her again was then o_he keenest. She had written to him from time to time, but her letters tol_im nothing he wanted to know. He had asked his mother what she was making o_er life, and his mother had simply answered that she supposed she was makin_he best of it. Mrs. Touchett had not the imagination that communes with th_nseen, and she now pretended to no intimacy with her niece, whom she rarel_ncountered. This young woman appeared to be living in a sufficientl_onourable way, but Mrs. Touchett still remained of the opinion that he_arriage had been a shabby affair. It had given her no pleasure to think o_sabel's establishment, which she was sure was a very lame business. From tim_o time, in Florence, she rubbed against the Countess Gemini, doing her bes_lways to minimise the contact; and the Countess reminded her of Osmond, wh_ade her think of Isabel. The Countess was less talked of in these days; bu_rs. Touchett augured no good of that: it only proved how she had been talke_f before. There was a more direct suggestion of Isabel in the person o_adame Merle; but Madame Merle's relations with Mrs. Touchett had undergone _erceptible change. Isabel's aunt had told her, without circumlocution, tha_he had played too ingenious a part; and Madame Merle, who never quarrelle_ith any one, who appeared to think no one worth it, and who had performed th_iracle of living, more or less, for several years with Mrs. Touchett an_howing no symptom of irritation—Madame Merle now took a very high tone an_eclared that this was an accusation from which she couldn't stoop to defen_erself. She added, however (without stooping), that her behaviour had bee_nly too simple, that she had believed only what she saw, that she saw Isabe_as not eager to marry and Osmond not eager to please (his repeated visits ha_een nothing; he was boring himself to death on his hill-top and he cam_erely for amusement). Isabel had kept her sentiments to herself, and he_ourney to Greece and Egypt had effectually thrown dust in her companion'_yes. Madame Merle accepted the event—she was unprepared to think of it as _candal; but that she had played any part in it, double or single, was a_mputation against which she proudly protested. It was doubtless i_onsequence of Mrs. Touchett's attitude, and of the injury it offered t_abits consecrated by many charming seasons, that Madame Merle had, afte_his, chosen to pass many months in England, where her credit was quit_nimpaired. Mrs. Touchett had done her a wrong; there are some things tha_an't be forgiven. But Madame Merle suffered in silence; there was alway_omething exquisite in her dignity.
Ralph, as I say, had wished to see for himself; but while engaged in thi_ursuit he had yet felt afresh what a fool he had been to put the girl on he_uard. He had played the wrong card, and now he had lost the game. He shoul_ee nothing, he should learn nothing; for him she would always wear a mask.
His true line would have been to profess delight in her union, so that later, when, as Ralph phrased it, the bottom should fall out of it, she might hav_he pleasure of saying to him that he had been a goose. He would gladly hav_onsented to pass for a goose in order to know Isabel's real situation. A_resent, however, she neither taunted him with his fallacies nor pretende_hat her own confidence was justified; if she wore a mask it completel_overed her face. There was something fixed and mechanical in the serenit_ainted on it; this was not an expression, Ralph said— it was _epresentation, it was even an advertisement. She had lost her child; that wa_ sorrow, but it was a sorrow she scarcely spoke of; there was more to sa_bout it than she could say to Ralph. It belonged to the past, moreover; i_ad occurred six months before and she had already laid aside the tokens o_ourning. She appeared to be leading the life of the world; Ralph heard he_poken of as having a "charming position." He observed that she produced th_mpression of being peculiarly enviable, that it was supposed, among man_eople, to be a privilege even to know her. Her house was not open to ever_ne, and she had an evening in the week to which people were not invited as _atter of course. She lived with a certain magnificence, but you needed to b_ member of her circle to perceive it; for there was nothing to gape at, nothing to criticise, nothing even to admire, in the daily proceedings of Mr.
and Mrs. Osmond. Ralph, in all this, recognised the hand of the master; for h_new that Isabel had no faculty for producing studied impressions. She struc_im as having a great love of movement, of gaiety, of late hours, of lon_ides, of fatigue; an eagerness to be entertained, to be interested, even t_e bored, to make acquaintances, to see people who were talked about, t_xplore the neighbourhood of Rome, to enter into relation with certain of th_ustiest relics of its old society. In all this there was much les_iscrimination than in that desire for comprehensiveness of development o_hich he had been used to exercise his wit. There was a kind of violence i_ome of her impulses, of crudity in some of her experiments, which took him b_urprise: it seemed to him that she even spoke faster, moved faster, breathe_aster, than before her marriage. Certainly she had fallen int_xaggerations—she who used to care so much for the pure truth; and whereas o_ld she had a great delight in good-humoured argument, in intellectual play (she never looked so charming as when in the genial heat of discussion sh_eceived a crushing blow full in the face and brushed it away as a feather), she appeared now to think there was nothing worth people's either differin_bout or agreeing upon. Of old she had been curious, and now she wa_ndifferent, and yet in spite of her indifference her activity was greate_han ever. Slender still, but lovelier than before, she had gained no grea_aturity of aspect; yet there was an amplitude and a brilliancy in he_ersonal arrangements that gave a touch of insolence to her beauty. Poo_uman-hearted Isabel, what perversity had bitten her? Her light step drew _ass of drapery behind it; her intelligent head sustained a majesty o_rnament. The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw wa_he fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabe_epresent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that sh_epresented Gilbert Osmond. "Good heavens, what a function!" he then woefull_xclaimed. He was lost in wonder at the mystery of things.
He recognised Osmond, as I say; he recognised him at every turn. He saw how h_ept all things within limits; how he adjusted, regulated, animated thei_anner of life. Osmond was in his element; at last he had material to wor_ith. He always had an eye to effect, and his effects were deeply calculated.
They were produced by no vulgar means, but the motive was as vulgar as the ar_as great. To surround his interior with a sort of invidious sanctity, t_antalise society with a sense of exclusion, to make people believe his hous_as different from every other, to impart to the face that he presented to th_orld a cold originality—this was the ingenious effort of the personage t_hom Isabel had attributed a superior morality. "He works with superio_aterial," Ralph said to himself; "it's rich abundance compared with hi_ormer resources." Ralph was a clever man; but Ralph had never—to his ow_ense—been so clever as when he observed, in petto, that under the guise o_aring only for intrinsic values Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Fa_rom being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived wit_is eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it neve_uspected the trick. Everything he did was pose—pose so subtly considered tha_f one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never me_ man who lived so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on hi_ill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, wer_o many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model o_mpertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, bu_o please himself by exciting the world's curiosity and then declining t_atisfy it. It had made him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick. Th_hing he had done in his life most directly to please himself was his marryin_iss Archer; though in this case indeed the gullible world was in a manne_mbodied in poor Isabel, who had been mystified to the top of her bent. Ralp_f course found a fitness in being consistent; he had embraced a creed, and a_e had suffered for it he could not in honour forsake it. I give this littl_ketch of its articles for what they may at the time have been worth. It wa_ertain that he was very skilful in fitting the facts to his theory—even th_act that during the month he spent in Rome at this period the husband of th_oman he loved appeared to regard him not in the least as an enemy.
For Gilbert Osmond Ralph had not now that importance. It was not that he ha_he importance of a friend; it was rather that he had none at all. He wa_sabel's cousin and he was rather unpleasantly ill—it was on this basis tha_smond treated with him. He made the proper enquiries, asked about his health, about Mrs. Touchett, about his opinion of winter climates, whether he wer_omfortable at his hotel. He addressed him, on the few occasions of thei_eeting, not a word that was not necessary; but his manner had always th_rbanity proper to conscious success in the presence of conscious failure. Fo_ll this, Ralph had had, toward the end, a sharp inward vision of Osmond'_aking it of small ease to his wife that she should continue to receive Mr.
Touchett. He was not jealous—he had not that excuse; no one could be jealou_f Ralph. But he made Isabel pay for her old-time kindness, of which so muc_as still left; and as Ralph had no idea of her paying too much, so when hi_uspicion had become sharp, he had taken himself off. In doing so he ha_eprived Isabel of a very interesting occupation: she had been constantl_ondering what fine principle was keeping him alive. She had decided that i_as his love of conversation; his conversation had been better than ever. H_ad given up walking; be was no longer a humorous stroller. He sat all day i_ chair —almost any chair would serve, and was so dependent on what you woul_o for him that, had not his talk been highly contemplative, you might hav_hought he was blind. The reader already knows more about him than Isabel wa_ver to know, and the reader may therefore be given the key to the mystery.
What kept Ralph alive was simply the fact that he had not yet seen enough o_he person in the world in whom he was most interested: he was not ye_atisfied. There was more to come; he couldn't make up his mind to lose that.
He wanted to see what she would make of her husband—or what her husband woul_ake of her. This was only the first act of the drama, and he was determine_o sit out the performance. His determination had held good; it had kept hi_oing some eighteen months more, till the time of his return to Rome with Lor_arburton. It had given him indeed such an air of intending to liv_ndefinitely that Mrs. Touchett, though more accessible to confusions o_hought in the matter of this strange, unremunerative—and unremunerated—son o_ers than she had ever been before, had, as we have learned, not scrupled t_mbark for a distant land. If Ralph had been kept alive by suspense it wa_ith a good deal of the same emotion—the excitement of wondering in what stat_he should find him—that Isabel mounted to his apartment the day after Lor_arburton had notified her of his arrival in Rome.
She spent an hour with him; it was the first of several visits. Gilbert Osmon_alled on him punctually, and on their sending their carriage for him Ralp_ame more than once to Palazzo Roccanera. A fortnight elapsed, at the end o_hich Ralph announced to Lord Warburton that he thought after all he wouldn'_o to Sicily. The two men had been dining together after a day spent by th_atter in ranging about the Campagna. They had left the table, and Warburton, before the chimney, was lighting a cigar, which he instantly removed from hi_ips.
"Won't go to Sicily? Where then will you go?"
"Well, I guess I won't go anywhere," said Ralph, from the sofa, al_hamelessly.
"Do you mean you'll return to England?"
"Oh dear no; I'll stay in Rome."
"Rome won't do for you. Rome's not warm enough."
"It will have to do. I'll make it do. See how well I've been."
Lord Warburton looked at him a while, puffing a cigar and as if trying to se_t. "You've been better than you were on the journey, certainly. I wonder ho_ou lived through that. But I don't understand your condition. I recommend yo_o try Sicily."
"I can't try," said poor Ralph. "I've done trying. I can't move further. _an't face that journey. Fancy me between Scylla and Charybdis! I don't wan_o die on the Sicilian plains—to be snatched away, like Proserpine in the sam_ocality, to the Plutonian shades."
"What the deuce then did you come for?" his lordship enquired.
"Because the idea took me. I see it won't do. It really doesn't matter where _m now. I've exhausted all remedies, I've swallowed all climates. As I'm her_'ll stay. I haven't a single cousin in Sicily—much less a married one."
"Your cousin's certainly an inducement. But what does the doctor say?"
"I haven't asked him, and I don't care a fig. If I die here Mrs. Osmond wil_ury me. But I shall not die here."
"I hope not." Lord Warburton continued to smoke reflectively. "Well, I mus_ay," he resumed, "for myself I'm very glad you don't insist on Sicily. I ha_ horror of that journey."
"Ah, but for you it needn't have mattered. I had no idea of dragging you in m_rain."
"I certainly didn't mean to let you go alone."
"My dear Warburton, I never expected you to come further than this," Ralp_ried.
"I should have gone with you and seen you settled," said Lord Warburton.
"You're a very good Christian. You're a very kind man."
"Then I should have come back here."
"And then you'd have gone to England."
"No, no; I should have stayed."
"Well," said Ralph, "if that's what we are both up to, I don't see wher_icily comes in!"
His companion was silent; he sat staring at the fire. At last, looking up, "_ay, tell me this," he broke out; "did you really mean to go to Sicily when w_tarted?"
"Ah, vous m'en demandez trop! Let me put a question first. Did you come wit_e quite—platonically?"
"I don't know what you mean by that. I wanted to come abroad."
"I suspect we've each been playing our little game."
"Speak for yourself. I made no secret whatever of my desiring to be here _hile."
"Yes, I remember you said you wished to see the Minister of Foreign Affairs."
"I've seen him three times. He's very amusing."
"I think you've forgotten what you came for," said Ralph.
"Perhaps I have," his companion answered rather gravely.
These two were gentlemen of a race which is not distinguished by the absenc_f reserve, and they had travelled together from London to Rome without a_llusion to matters that were uppermost in the mind of each. There was an ol_ubject they had once discussed, but it had lost its recognised place in thei_ttention, and even after their arrival in Rome, where many things led back t_t, they had kept the same half-diffident, half-confident silence.
"I recommend you to get the doctor's consent, all the same," Lord Warburto_ent on, abruptly, after an interval.
"The doctor's consent will spoil it. I never have it when I can help it."
"What then does Mrs. Osmond think?" Ralph's friend demanded. I've not tol_er. She'll probably say that Rome's too cold and even offer to go with me t_atania. She's capable of that."
"In your place I should like it."
"Her husband won't like it."
"Ah well, I can fancy that; though it seems to me you're not bound to mind hi_ikings. They're his affair."
"I don't want to make any more trouble between them," said Ralph.
"Is there so much already?"
"There's complete preparation for it. Her going off with me would make th_xplosion. Osmond isn't fond of his wife's cousin."
"Then of course he'd make a row. But won't he make a row if you stop here?"
"That's what I want to see. He made one the last time I was in Rome, and the_ thought it my duty to disappear. Now I think it's my duty to stop and defen_er."
"My dear Touchett, your defensive powers—!" Lord Warburton began with a smile.
But he saw something in his companion's face that checked him. "Your duty, i_hese premises, seems to me rather a nice question," he observed instead.
Ralph for a short time answered nothing. "It's true that my defensive power_re small," he returned at last; "but as my aggressive ones are still smalle_smond may after all not think me worth his gunpowder. At any rate," he added,
"there are things I'm curious to see."
"You're sacrificing your health to your curiosity then?"
"I'm not much interested in my health, and I'm deeply interested in Mrs.
"So am I. But not as I once was," Lord Warburton added quickly. This was on_f the allusions he had not hitherto found occasion to make.
"Does she strike you as very happy?" Ralph enquired, emboldened by thi_onfidence.
"Well, I don't know; I've hardly thought. She told me the other night she wa_appy."
"Ah, she told YOU, of course," Ralph exclaimed, smiling.
"I don't know that. It seems to me I was rather the sort of person she migh_ave complained to."
"Complained? She'll never complain. She has done it—what she HAS done—and sh_nows it. She'll complain to you least of all. She's very careful."
"She needn't be. I don't mean to make love to her again."
"I'm delighted to hear it. There can be no doubt at least of YOUR duty."
"Ah no," said Lord Warburton gravely; "none!"
"Permit me to ask," Ralph went on, "whether it's to bring out the fact tha_ou don't mean to make love to her that you're so very civil to the littl_irl?"
Lord Warburton gave a slight start; he got up and stood before the fire, looking at it hard. "Does that strike you as very ridiculous?"
"Ridiculous? Not in the least, if you really like her."
"I think her a delightful little person. I don't know when a girl of that ag_as pleased me more."
"She's a charming creature. Ah, she at least is genuine."
"Of course there's the difference in our ages—more than twenty years."
"My dear Warburton," said Ralph, "are you serious?"
"Perfectly serious—as far as I've got."
"I'm very glad. And, heaven help us," cried Ralph, "how cheered-up old Osmon_ill be!"
His companion frowned. "I say, don't spoil it. I shouldn't propose for hi_aughter to please HIM."
"He'll have the perversity to be pleased all the same."
"He's not so fond of me as that," said his lordship.
"As that? My dear Warburton, the drawback of your position is that peopl_eedn't be fond of you at all to wish to be connected with you. Now, with m_n such a case, I should have the happy confidence that they loved me."
Lord Warburton seemed scarcely in the mood for doing justice to genera_xioms—he was thinking of a special case. "Do you judge she'll be pleased?"
"The girl herself? Delighted, surely."
"No, no; I mean Mrs. Osmond."
Ralph looked at him a moment. "My dear fellow, what has she to do with it?"
"Whatever she chooses. She's very fond of Pansy."
"Very true—very true." And Ralph slowly got up. "It's an interestin_uestion—how far her fondness for Pansy will carry her." He stood there _oment with his hands in his pockets and rather a clouded brow. "I hope, yo_now, that you're very—very sure. The deuce!" he broke off. "I don't know ho_o say it."
"Yes, you do; you know how to say everything."
"Well, it's awkward. I hope you're sure that among Miss Osmond's merits he_eing—a—so near her stepmother isn't a leading one?"
"Good heavens, Touchett!" cried Lord Warburton angrily, "for what do you tak_e?"