Three nights after this she took Pansy to a great party, to which Osmond, wh_ever went to dances, did not accompany them. Pansy was as ready for a danc_s ever; she was not of a generalising turn and had not extended to othe_leasures the interdict she had seen placed on those of love. If she wa_iding her time or hoping to circumvent her father she must have had _revision of success. Isabel thought this unlikely; it was much more likel_hat Pansy had simply determined to be a good girl. She had never had such _hance, and she had a proper esteem for chances. She carried herself no les_ttentively than usual and kept no less anxious an eye upon her vaporou_kirts; she held her bouquet very tight and counted over the flowers for th_wentieth time. She made Isabel feel old; it seemed so long since she had bee_n a flutter about a ball. Pansy, who was greatly admired, was never in wan_f partners, and very soon after their arrival she gave Isabel, who was no_ancing, her bouquet to hold. Isabel had rendered her this service for som_inutes when she became aware of the near presence of Edward Rosier. He stoo_efore her; he had lost his affable smile and wore a look of almost militar_esolution. The change in his appearance would have made Isabel smile if sh_ad not felt his case to be at bottom a hard one: he had always smelt so muc_ore of heliotrope than of gunpowder. He looked at her a moment somewha_iercely, as if to notify her he was dangerous, and then dropped his eyes o_er bouquet. After he had inspected it his glance softened and he sai_uickly: "It's all pansies; it must be hers!"
Isabel smiled kindly. "Yes, it's hers; she gave it to me to hold."
"May I hold it a little, Mrs. Osmond?" the poor young man asked.
"No, I can't trust you; I'm afraid you wouldn't give it back."
"I'm not sure that I should; I should leave the house with it instantly. Bu_ay I not at least have a single flower?"
Isabel hesitated a moment, and then, smiling still, held out the bouquet.
"Choose one yourself. It's frightful what I'm doing for you."
"Ah, if you do no more than this, Mrs. Osmond!" Rosier exclaimed with hi_lass in one eye, carefully choosing his flower.
"Don't put it into your button-hole," she said. "Don't for the world!"
"I should like her to see it. She has refused to dance with me, but I wish t_how her that I believe in her still."
"It's very well to show it to her, but it's out of place to show it to others.
Her father has told her not to dance with you."
"And is that all YOU can do for me? I expected more from you, Mrs. Osmond,"
said the young man in a tone of fine general reference. "You know ou_cquaintance goes back very far—quite into the days of our innocen_hildhood."
"Don't make me out too old," Isabel patiently answered. "You come back to tha_ery often, and I've never denied it. But I must tell you that, old friends a_e are, if you had done me the honour to ask me to marry you I should hav_efused you on the spot."
"Ah, you don't esteem me then. Say at once that you think me a mere Parisia_rifler!"
"I esteem you very much, but I'm not in love with you. What I mean by that, o_ourse, is that I'm not in love with you for Pansy."
"Very good; I see. You pity me—that's all." And Edward Rosier looked al_ound, inconsequently, with his single glass. It was a revelation to him tha_eople shouldn't be more pleased; but he was at least too proud to show tha_he deficiency struck him as general.
Isabel for a moment said nothing. His manner and appearance had not th_ignity of the deepest tragedy; his little glass, among other things, wa_gainst that. But she suddenly felt touched; her own unhappiness, after all, had something in common with his, and it came over her, more than before, tha_ere, in recognisable, if not in romantic form, was the most affecting thin_n the world—young love struggling with adversity. "Would you really be ver_ind to her?" she finally asked in a low tone.
He dropped his eyes devoutly and raised the little flower that he held in hi_ingers to his lips. Then he looked at her. "You pity me; but don't you pit_ER a little?"
"I don't know; I'm not sure. She'll always enjoy life."
"It will depend on what you call life!" Mr. Rosier effectively said. "Sh_on't enjoy being tortured."
"There'll be nothing of that."
"I'm glad to hear it. She knows what she's about. You'll see."
"I think she does, and she'll never disobey her father. But she's coming bac_o me," Isabel added, "and I must beg you to go away."
Rosier lingered a moment till Pansy came in sight on the arm of her cavalier; he stood just long enough to look her in the face. Then he walked away, holding up his head; and the manner in which he achieved this sacrifice t_xpediency convinced Isabel he was very much in love.
Pansy, who seldom got disarranged in dancing, looking perfectly fresh and coo_fter this exercise, waited a moment and then took back her bouquet. Isabe_atched her and saw she was counting the flowers; whereupon she said t_erself that decidedly there were deeper forces at play than she ha_ecognised. Pansy had seen Rosier turn away, but she said nothing to Isabe_bout him; she talked only of her partner, after he had made his bow an_etired; of the music, the floor, the rare misfortune of having already tor_er dress. Isabel was sure, however, she had discovered her lover to hav_bstracted a flower; though this knowledge was not needed to account for th_utiful grace with which she responded to the appeal of her next partner. Tha_erfect amenity under acute constraint was part of a larger system. She wa_gain led forth by a flushed young man, this time carrying her bouquet; an_he had not been absent many minutes when Isabel saw Lord Warburton advancin_hrough the crowd. He presently drew near and bade her good-evening; she ha_ot seen him since the day before. He looked about him, and then "Where's th_ittle maid?" he asked. It was in this manner that he had formed the harmles_abit of alluding to Miss Osmond.
"She's dancing," said Isabel. "You'll see her somewhere."
He looked among the dancers and at last caught Pansy's eye. "She sees me, bu_he won't notice me," he then remarked. "Are you not dancing?"
"As you see, I'm a wall-flower."
"Won't you dance with me?"
"Thank you; I'd rather you should dance with the little maid."
"One needn't prevent the other—especially as she's engaged."
"She's not engaged for everything, and you can reserve yourself. She dance_ery hard, and you'll be the fresher."
"She dances beautifully," said Lord Warburton, following her with his eyes.
"Ah, at last," he added, "she has given me a smile." He stood there with hi_andsome, easy, important physiognomy; and as Isabel observed him it came ove_er, as it had done before, that it was strange a man of his mettle shoul_ake an interest in a little maid. It struck her as a great incongruity; neither Pansy's small fascinations, nor his own kindness, his good-nature, no_ven his need for amusement, which was extreme and constant, were sufficien_o account for it. "I should like to dance with you," he went on in a moment, turning back to Isabel; "but I think I like even better to talk with you."
"Yes, it's better, and it's more worthy of your dignity. Great statesme_ughtn't to waltz."
"Don't be cruel. Why did you recommend me then to dance with Miss Osmond?"
"Ah, that's different. If you danced with her it would look simply like _iece of kindness—as if you were doing it for her amusement. If you dance wit_e you'll look as if you were doing it for your own."
"And pray haven't I a right to amuse myself?"
"No, not with the affairs of the British Empire on your hands."
"The British Empire be hanged! You're always laughing at it."
"Amuse yourself with talking to me," said Isabel.
"I'm not sure it's really a recreation. You're too pointed; I've always to b_efending myself. And you strike me as more than usually dangerous to-night.
Will you absolutely not dance?"
"I can't leave my place. Pansy must find me here."
He was silent a little. "You're wonderfully good to her," he said suddenly.
Isabel stared a little and smiled. "Can you imagine one's not being?"
"No indeed. I know how one is charmed with her. But you must have done a grea_eal for her."
"I've taken her out with me," said Isabel, smiling still. "And I've seen tha_he has proper clothes."
"Your society must have been a great benefit to her. You've talked to her, advised her, helped her to develop."
"Ah yes, if she isn't the rose she has lived near it."
She laughed, and her companion did as much; but there was a certain visibl_reoccupation in his face which interfered with complete hilarity. "We all tr_o live as near it as we can," he said after a moment's hesitation.
Isabel turned away; Pansy was about to be restored to her, and she welcome_he diversion. We know how much she liked Lord Warburton; she thought hi_leasanter even than the sum of his merits warranted; there was something i_is friendship that appeared a kind of resource in case of indefinite need; i_as like having a large balance at the bank. She felt happier when he was i_he room; there was something reassuring in his approach; the sound of hi_oice reminded her of the beneficence of nature. Yet for all that it didn'_uit her that he should be too near her, that he should take too much of he_ood-will for granted. She was afraid of that; she averted herself from it; she wished he wouldn't. She felt that if he should come too near, as it were, it might be in her to flash out and bid him keep his distance. Pansy came bac_o Isabel with another rent in her skirt, which was the inevitable consequenc_f the first and which she displayed to Isabel with serious eyes. There wer_oo many gentlemen in uniform; they wore those dreadful spurs, which wer_atal to the dresses of little maids. It hereupon became apparent that th_esources of women are innumerable. Isabel devoted herself to Pansy'_esecrated drapery; she fumbled for a pin and repaired the injury; she smile_nd listened to her account of her adventures. Her attention, her sympath_ere immediate and active; and they were in direct proportion to a sentimen_ith which they were in no way connected—a lively conjecture as to whethe_ord Warburton might be trying to make love to her. It was not simply hi_ords just then; it was others as well; it was the reference and th_ontinuity. This was what she thought about while she pinned up Pansy's dress.
If it were so, as she feared, he was of course unwitting; he himself had no_aken account of his intention. But this made it none the more auspicious, made the situation none less impossible. The sooner he should get back int_ight relations with things the better. He immediately began to talk t_ansy—on whom it was certainly mystifying to see that he dropped a smile o_hastened devotion. Pansy replied, as usual, with a little air o_onscientious aspiration; he had to bend toward her a good deal i_onversation, and her eyes, as usual, wandered up and down his robust perso_s if he had offered it to her for exhibition. She always seemed a littl_rightened; yet her fright was not of the painful character that suggest_islike; on the contrary, she looked as if she knew that he knew she like_im. Isabel left them together a little and wandered toward a friend whom sh_aw near and with whom she talked till the music of the following dance began, for which she knew Pansy to be also engaged. The girl joined her presently, with a little fluttered flush, and Isabel, who scrupulously took Osmond's vie_f his daughter's complete dependence, consigned her, as a precious an_omentary loan, to her appointed partner. About all this matter she had he_wn imaginations, her own reserves; there were moments when Pansy's extrem_dhesiveness made each of them, to her sense, look foolish. But Osmond ha_iven her a sort of tableau of her position as his daughter's duenna, whic_onsisted of gracious alternations of concession and contraction; and ther_ere directions of his which she liked to think she obeyed to the letter.
Perhaps, as regards some of them, it was because her doing so appeared t_educe them to the absurd.
After Pansy had been led away, she found Lord Warburton drawing near he_gain. She rested her eyes on him steadily; she wished she could sound hi_houghts. But he had no appearance of confusion. "She has promised to danc_ith me later," he said.
"I'm glad of that. I suppose you've engaged her for the cotillion."
At this he looked a little awkward. "No, I didn't ask her for that. It's _uadrille."
"Ah, you're not clever!" said Isabel almost angrily. "I told her to keep th_otillion in case you should ask for it."
"Poor little maid, fancy that!" And Lord Warburton laughed frankly. "Of cours_ will if you like."
"If I like? Oh, if you dance with her only because I like it—!"
"I'm afraid I bore her. She seems to have a lot of young fellows on her book."
Isabel dropped her eyes, reflecting rapidly; Lord Warburton stood ther_ooking at her and she felt his eyes on her face. She felt much inclined t_sk him to remove them. She didn't do so, however; she only said to him, afte_ minute, with her own raised: "Please let me understand."
"You told me ten days ago that you'd like to marry my stepdaughter. You've no_orgotten it!"
"Forgotten it? I wrote to Mr. Osmond about it this morning."
"Ah," said Isabel, "he didn't mention to me that he had heard from you."
Lord Warburton stammered a little. "I—I didn't send my letter."
"Perhaps you forgot THAT."
"No, I wasn't satisfied with it. It's an awkward sort of letter to write, yo_now. But I shall send it to-night."
"At three o'clock in the morning?"
"I mean later, in the course of the day."
"Very good. You still wish then to marry her?"
"Very much indeed."
"Aren't you afraid that you'll bore her?" And as her companion stared at thi_nquiry Isabel added: "If she can't dance with you for half an hour how wil_he be able to dance with you for life?"
"Ah," said Lord Warburton readily, "I'll let her dance with other people!
About the cotillion, the fact is I thought that you— that you—"
"That I would do it with you? I told you I'd do nothing."
"Exactly; so that while it's going on I might find some quiet corner where w_ay sit down and talk."
"Oh," said Isabel gravely, "you're much too considerate of me."
When the cotillion came Pansy was found to have engaged herself, thinking, i_erfect humility, that Lord Warburton had no intentions. Isabel recommende_im to seek another partner, but he assured her that he would dance with n_ne but herself. As, however, she had, in spite of the remonstrances of he_ostess, declined other invitations on the ground that she was not dancing a_ll, it was not possible for her to make an exception in Lord Warburton'_avour.
"After all I don't care to dance," he said; "it's a barbarous amusement: I'_uch rather talk." And he intimated that he had discovered exactly the corne_e had been looking for—a quiet nook in one of the smaller rooms, where th_usic would come to them faintly and not interfere with conversation. Isabe_ad decided to let him carry out his idea; she wished to be satisfied. Sh_andered away from the ball-room with him, though she knew her husband desire_he should not lose sight of his daughter. It was with his daughter'_retendant, however; that would make it right for Osmond. On her way out o_he ball-room she came upon Edward Rosier, who was standing in a doorway, wit_olded arms, looking at the dance in the attitude of a young man withou_llusions. She stopped a moment and asked him if he were not dancing.
"Certainly not, if I can't dance with HER!" he answered.
"You had better go away then," said Isabel with the manner of good counsel.
"I shall not go till she does!" And he let Lord Warburton pass without givin_im a look.
This nobleman, however, had noticed the melancholy youth, and he asked Isabe_ho her dismal friend was, remarking that he had seen him somewhere before.
"It's the young man I've told you about, who's in love with Pansy."
"Ah yes, I remember. He looks rather bad."
"He has reason. My husband won't listen to him."
"What's the matter with him?" Lord Warburton enquired. "He seems ver_armless."
"He hasn't money enough, and he isn't very clever."
Lord Warburton listened with interest; he seemed struck with this account o_dward Rosier. "Dear me; he looked a well-set-up young fellow."
"So he is, but my husband's very particular."
"Oh, I see." And Lord Warburton paused a moment. "How much money has he got?"
he then ventured to ask.
"Some forty thousand francs a year."
"Sixteen hundred pounds? Ah, but that's very good, you know."
"So I think. My husband, however, has larger ideas."
"Yes; I've noticed that your husband has very large ideas. Is he really a_diot, the young man?"
"An idiot? Not in the least; he's charming. When he was twelve years old _yself was in love with him."
"He doesn't look much more than twelve to-day," Lord Warburton rejoine_aguely, looking about him. Then with more point, "Don't you think we migh_it here?" he asked.
"Wherever you please." The room was a sort of boudoir, pervaded by a subdued, rose-coloured light; a lady and gentleman moved out of it as our friends cam_n. "It's very kind of you to take such an interest in Mr. Rosier," Isabe_aid.
"He seems to me rather ill-treated. He had a face a yard long. I wondered wha_iled him."
"You're a just man," said Isabel. "You've a kind thought even for a rival."
Lord Warburton suddenly turned with a stare. "A rival! Do you call him m_ival?"
"Surely—if you both wish to marry the same person."
"Yes—but since he has no chance!"
"I like you, however that may be, for putting your self in his place. It show_magination."
"You like me for it?" And Lord Warburton looked at her with an uncertain eye.
"I think you mean you're laughing at me for it."
"Yes, I'm laughing at you a little. But I like you as somebody to laugh at."
"Ah well, then, let me enter into his situation a little more. What do yo_uppose one could do for him?"
"Since I have been praising your imagination I'll leave you to imagine tha_ourself," Isabel said. "Pansy too would like you for that."
"Miss Osmond? Ah, she, I flatter myself, likes me already."
"Very much, I think."
He waited a little; he was still questioning her face. "Well then, I don'_nderstand you. You don't mean that she cares for him?"
A quick blush sprang to his brow. "You told me she would have no wish apar_rom her father's, and as I've gathered that he would favour me—!" He paused _ittle and then suggested "Don't you see?" through his blush.
"Yes, I told you she has an immense wish to please her father, and that i_ould probably take her very far."
"That seems to me a very proper feeling," said Lord Warburton.
"Certainly; it's a very proper feeling." Isabel remained silent for som_oments; the room continued empty; the sound of the music reached them wit_ts richness softened by the interposing apartments. Then at last she said:
"But it hardly strikes me as the sort of feeling to which a man would wish t_e indebted for a wife."
"I don't know; if the wife's a good one and he thinks she does well!"
"Yes, of course you must think that."
"I do; I can't help it. You call that very British, of course."
"No, I don't. I think Pansy would do wonderfully well to marry you, and _on't know who should know it better than you. But you're not in love."
"Ah, yes I am, Mrs. Osmond!"
Isabel shook her head. "You like to think you are while you sit here with me.
But that's not how you strike me."
"I'm not like the young man in the doorway. I admit that. But what makes it s_nnatural? Could any one in the world be more loveable than Miss Osmond?"
"No one, possibly. But love has nothing to do with good reasons."
"I don't agree with you. I'm delighted to have good reasons."
"Of course you are. If you were really in love you wouldn't care a straw fo_hem."
"Ah, really in love—really in love!" Lord Warburton exclaimed, folding hi_rms, leaning back his head and stretching himself a little. "You mus_emember that I'm forty-two years old. I won't pretend I'm as I once was."
"Well, if you're sure," said Isabel, "it's all right."
He answered nothing; he sat there, with his head back, looking before him.
Abruptly, however, he changed his position; he turned quickly to his friend.
"Why are you so unwilling, so sceptical?" She met his eyes, and for a momen_hey looked straight at each other. If she wished to be satisfied she sa_omething that satisfied her; she saw in his expression the gleam of an ide_hat she was uneasy on her own account—that she was perhaps even in fear. I_howed a suspicion, not a hope, but such as it was it told her what she wante_o know. Not for an instant should he suspect her of detecting in his proposa_f marrying her step-daughter an implication of increased nearness to herself, or of thinking it, on such a betrayal, ominous. In that brief, extremel_ersonal gaze, however, deeper meanings passed between them than they wer_onscious of at the moment.
"My dear Lord Warburton," she said, smiling, "you may do, so far as I'_oncerned, whatever comes into your head."
And with this she got up and wandered into the adjoining room, where, withi_er companion's view, she was immediately addressed by a pair of gentlemen, high personages in the Roman world, who met her as if they had been lookin_or her. While she talked with them she found herself regretting she ha_oved; it looked a little like running away—all the more as Lord Warburto_idn't follow her. She was glad of this, however, and at any rate she wa_atisfied. She was so well satisfied that when, in passing back into the ball- room, she found Edward Rosier still planted in the doorway, she stopped an_poke to him again. "You did right not to go away. I've some comfort for you."
"I need it," the young man softly wailed, "when I see you so awfully thic_ith him!"
"Don't speak of him; I'll do what I can for you. I'm afraid it won't be much, but what I can I'll do."
He looked at her with gloomy obliqueness. "What has suddenly brought yo_ound?"
"The sense that you are an inconvenience in doorways!" she answered, smilin_s she passed him. Half an hour later she took leave, with Pansy, and at th_oot of the staircase the two ladies, with many other departing guests, waite_ while for their carriage. Just as it approached Lord Warburton came out o_he house and assisted them to reach their vehicle. He stood a moment at th_oor, asking Pansy if she had amused herself; and she, having answered him, fell back with a little air of fatigue. Then Isabel, at the window, detainin_im by a movement of her finger, murmured gently: "Don't forget to send you_etter to her father!"