IT probably will not be surprising to the reflective reader that Ralph Touchett should have seen less of his cousin since her marriage than he had done before that eventan event of which he took such a view as could hardly prove a confirmation of intimacy. He had uttered his thought, as we know, and after this he had held his peace, Isabel not having invited him to resume a discussion which marked an era in their relations. That discussion had made a differencethe difference that he feared, rather than the one he hoped. It had not chilled the girls zeal in carrying out her engagement, but it had come dangerously near to spoiling a friendship. No reference was ever again made between them to Ralphs opinion of Gilbert Osmond; and by surrounding this topic with a sacred silence, they managed to preserve a semblance of reciprocal frankness. But there was a difference, as Ralph often said to himselfthere was a difference. She had not forgiven him, she never would forgive him; that was all he had gained. She thought she had forgiven him; she believed she didnt care; and as she was both very generous and very proud, these convictions represented a certain reality. But whether or no the event should justify him, he would virtually have done her a wrong, and the wrong was of the sort that women remember best. As Osmonds wife, she could never again be his friend. If in this character she could enjoy the felicity she expected, she would have nothing but contempt for the man who had attempted, in advance, to undermine a blessing so dear; and if on the other hand his warning should be justified, the vow she had taken that he should never know it, would lay upon her spirit a burden that would make her hate him. Such had been, during the year that followed his cousins marriage, Ralphs rather dismal prevision of the future; and if his meditations appear morbid, we must remember that he was not in the bloom of 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 learned from his mother that Isabel at first had thoughts of celebrating her nuptials in her native land, but that as simplicity was what she chiefly desired to secure, she had finally decided, in spite of Osmonds professed willingness to make a journey of any length, that this characteristic would best be preserved by their being married by the nearest clergyman in the shortest time. The thing was done, therefore, at the little American chapel, on a very hot day, in the presence only of Mrs. Touchett and her son, of Pansy Osmond and the Countess Gemini. That severity in the proceedings of which I just spoke, was in part the result of the absence of two persons who might have been looked for on the occasion, and who would have lent it a certain richness. Madame Merle had been invited, but Madame Merle, who was unable to leave Rome, sent a gracious letter of excuses. Henrietta Stackpole had not been invited, as her departure from America, announced to Isabel by Mr. Goodwood, was in fact frustrated by the duties of her profession; but she had sent a letter, less gracious than Madame Merles, intimating that had she been able to cross the Atlantic, she would have been present not only as a witness but as a critic. Her return to Europe took place somewhat later, and she effected a meeting with Isabel in the autumn, in Paris, when she indulgedperhaps a trifle too freelyher critical genius. Poor Osmond, who was chiefly the subject of it, protested so sharply that Henrietta was obliged to declare to Isabel that she had taken a step which erected a barrier between them. It isnt in the least that you have marriedit is that you have married him, she deemed it her duty to remark; agreeing, it will be seen, much more with Ralph Touchett than she suspected, though she had few of his hesitations and compunctions. Henriettas second visit to Europe, however, was not made in vain; for just at the moment when Osmond had declared to Isabel that he really must object to that newspaper-woman, and Isabel had answered that it seemed to her he took Henrietta too hard, the good Mr. Bantling appeared upon the scene and proposed that they should take a run down to Spain. Henriettas letters from Spain proved to be the most picturesque she had yet published, and there was one in especial, dated from the Alhambra, and entitled Moors and Moonlight, which generally passed for her masterpiece. Isabel was secretly disappointed at her husbands not having been able to judge the poor girl more humorously. She even wondered whether his sense of humour were by chance defective. Of course she herself looked at the matter as a person whose present happiness had nothing to grudge to Henriettas violated conscience. Osmond thought their alliance a kind of monstrosity; he couldnt imagine what they had in common. For him, Mr. Bantlings fellow-tourist was simply the most vulgar of women, and he also pronounced her the most abandoned. Against this latter clause of the verdict Isabel protested with an ardour which made him wonder afresh at the oddity of some of his wifes tastes. Isabel could explain it only by saying that she liked to know people who were as different as possible from herself. Why then dont you make the acquaintance of your washerwoman? Osmond had inquired; to which Isabel answered that she was afraid her washerwoman wouldnt care for her. Now Henrietta cared so much.
Ralph saw nothing of her for the greater part of the two years that followed her marriage; the winter that formed the beginning of her residence in Rome he spent again at San Remo, where he was joined in the spring by his mother, who afterwards went with him to England, to see what they were doing at the bankan operation she could not induce him to perform. Ralph had taken a lease of his house at San Remo, a small villa, which he occupied still another winter; but late in the month of April of this second year he came down to Rome. It was the first time since her marriage that he had stood face to face with Isabel; his desire to see her again was of the keenest. She had written to him from time to time, but her letters told him nothing that he wanted to know. He had asked his mother what she was making of her life, and his mother had simply answered that she supposed she was making the best of it. Mrs. Touchett had not the imagination that communes with the unseen, and she now pretended to no intimacy with her niece, whom she rarely encountered. This young woman appeared to be living in a sufficiently honourable way, but Mrs. Touchett still remained of the opinion that her marriage was a shabby affair. It gave her no pleasure to think of Isabels establishment, which she was sure was a very lame business. From time to time, in Florence, she rubbed against the Countess Gemini, doing her best, always, to minimise the contact; and the Countess reminded her of Osmond, who made her think of Isabel. The Countess was less talked about in these days: but Mrs. Touchett augured no good of that; it only proved how she had been talked about before. There was a more direct suggestion of Isabel in the person of Madame Merle; but Madame Merles relations with Mrs. Touchett had undergone a perceptible change. Isabels aunt had told her, without circumlocution, that she had played too ingenious a part; and Madame Merle, who never quarrelled with any one, who appeared to think no one worth it, and who had performed the miracle of living, more or less for several years with Mrs. Touchett, without a symptom of irritationMadame Merle now took a very high tone, and declared that this was an accusation from which she could not stoop to defend herself. She added, however (without stooping), that her behaviour had been only too simple, that she had believed only what she saw, that she saw that Isabel was not eager to marry, and that Osmond was not eager to please (his repeated visits were nothing; he was boring himself to death on his hill-top, and he came merely for amusement). Isabel had kept her sentiments to herself, and her journey to Greece and Egypt had effectually thrown dust in her companions eyes. Madame Merle accepted the eventshe was unprepared to think of it as a scandal; but that she had played any part in it, double or single, was an imputation against which she proudly protested. It was doubtless in consequence of Mrs. Touchetts attitude and of the injury it offered to habits consecrated by many charming seasons, that Madame Merle, after this, chose to pass many months in England, where her credit was quite unimpaired. Mrs. Touchett had done her a wrong; there are some things that cant be forgiven. But Madame Merle suffered in silence; there was always something exquisite in her dignity.
Ralph, as I say, had wished to see for himself; but while he was engaged in this pursuit he felt afresh what a fool he had been to put the girl on her guard. He had played the wrong card, and now he had lost the game. He should see nothing, he should learn nothing; for him she would always wear a mask. His true line would have been to profess delight in her marriage, so that later, when, as Ralph phrased it, the bottom should fall out of it, she might have the pleasure of saying to him that he had been a goose. He would gladly have consented to pass for a goose in order to know Isabels real situation. But now she neither taunted him with his fallacies nor pretended that her own confidence was justified; if she wore a mask, it completely covered her face. There was something fixed and mechanical in the serenity painted upon it; this was not an expression, Ralph saidit was a representation. She had lost her child; that was a sorrow, but it was a sorrow she scarcely spoke of; there was more to say about it than she could say to Ralph. It belonged to the past, moreover; it had occurred six months before, and she had already laid aside the tokens of mourning. She seemed to be leading the life of the world; Ralph heard her spoken of as having a charming position. He observed that she produced the impression of being peculiarly enviable, that it was supposed, among many people, to be a privilege even to know her. Her house was not open to every one, and she had an evening in the week, to which people were not invited as a matter of course. She lived with a certain magnificence, but you needed to be a 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 he knew that Isabel had no faculty for producing calculated impressions. She struck him as having a great love of movement, of gaiety, of late hours, of long drives, of fatigue; an eagerness to be entertained, to be interested, even to be bored, to make acquaintances, to see people that were talked about, to explore the neighbourhood of Rome, to enter into relation with certain of the mustiest relics of its old society. In all this there was much less discrimination than in that desire for comprehensiveness of development on which he used to exercise his wit. There was a kind of violence in some of her impulses, of crudity in some of her experiments, which took him by surprise; it seemed to him that she even spoke faster, moved faster, than before her marriage. Certainly she had fallen into exaggerationsshe who used to care so much for the pure truth; and whereas of old 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 she received a crushing blow full in the face and brushed it away as a feather), she appeared now to think there was nothing worth peoples either differing about or agreeing upon. Of old she had been curious, and now she was indifferent, and yet in spite of her indifference her activity was greater than ever. Slender still, but lovelier than before, she had gained no great maturity of aspect; but there was a kind of amplitude and brilliancy in her personal arrangements which gave a touch of insolence to her beauty. Poor human-hearted Isabel, what perversity had bitten her? Her light step drew a mass of drapery behind it; her intelligent head sustained a majesty of ornament. The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond. Good heavens, what a function! he exclaimed. 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 he kept all things within limits; how he adjusted, regulated, animated their manner of life. Osmond was in his element; at last he had material to work with. He always had an eye to effect; and his effects were elaborately studied. They were produced by no vulgar means, but the motive was as vulgar as the art was great. To surround his interior with a sort of invidious sanctity, to tantalise society with a sense of exclusion, to make people believe his house was different from every other, to impart to the face that he presented to the world a cold originalitythis was the ingenious effort of the personage to whom Isabel had attributed a superior morality. He works with superior material, Ralph said to himself; but its rich abundance compared with his former resources. Ralph was a clever man; but Ralph had neverto his own sensebeen so clever as when he observed, in petto, that under the guise of caring only for intrinsic values, Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from 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 with his eye on it, from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was posepose so deeply calculated that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of calculation. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been a pose of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the worlds curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It made him feel great to play the world a trick. The thing he had done in his life most directly to please himself was his marrying Isabel Archer; though in this case indeed the gullible world was in a manner embodied in poor Isabel, who had been mystified to the top of her bent. Ralph of course found a fitness in being consistent; he had embraced a creed, and as he had suffered for it he could not in honour forsake it. I give this little sketch of its articles for what they are worth. It was certain that he was very skilful in fitting the facts to his theoryeven the fact that during the month he spent in Rome at this period Gilbert Osmond appeared to regard him not in the least as an enemy. For Mr. Osmond Ralph had not now that importance. It was not that he had the importance of a friend; it was rather that he had none at all. He was Isabels cousin, and he was rather unpleasantly illit was on this basis that Osmond treated with him. He made the proper inquiries, asked about his health, about Mrs. Touchett, about his opinion of winter climates, whether he was comfortable at his hotel. He addressed him, on the few occasions of their meeting, not a word that was not necessary; but his manner had always the urbanity proper to conscious success in the presence of conscious failure. For all this, Ralph had, towards the end, an inward conviction that Osmond had made it uncomfortable for his wife that she should continue to receive her cousin. He was not jealoushe had not that excuse; no one could be jealous of Ralph. But he made Isabel pay for her old-time kindness, of which so much was still left; and as Ralph had no idea of her paying too much, when his suspicion had become sharp, he took himself off. In doing so he deprived Isabel of a very interesting occupation: she had been constantly wondering what fine principle kept him alive. She decided that it was his love of conversation; his conversation was better than ever. He had given up walking; he was no longer a humorous stroller. He sat all day in a chairalmost any chair would do, and was so dependent on what you would do for him that, had not his talk been highly contemplative, you might have thought he was blind. The reader already knows more about him than Isabel was ever 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 of his cousin; he was not yet satisfied. There was more to come; he couldnt make up his mind to lose that. He wished to see what she would make of her husbandor what he would make of her. This was only the first act of the drama, and he was determined to sit out the performance. His determination held good; it kept him going some eighteen months more, till the time of his return to Rome with Lord Warburton. It gave him indeed such an air of intending to live indefinitely that Mrs. Touchett, though more accessible to confusions of thought in the matter of this strange, unremunerativeand unremuneratedson of hers than she had even been before, had, as we have learned, not scrupled to embark for a distant land. If Ralph had been kept alive by suspense, it was with a good deal of the same emotionthe excitement of wondering in what state she should find himthat Isabel ascended to his apartment the day after Lord Warburton had notified her of his arrival in Rome.
She spent an hour with him; it was the first of several visits. Gilbert Osmond called on him punctually, and on Isabel sending a carriage for him Ralph came more than once to the Palazzo Roccanera. A fortnight elapsed, at the end of which Ralph announced to Lord Warburton that he thought after all he wouldnt go to Sicily. The two men had been dining together after a day spent by the latter in ranging about the Campagna. They had left the table, and Warburton, before the chimney, was lighting a cigar, which he instantly removed from his lips.
I cant try, said poor Ralph; I cant move further. I cant face that journey. Fancy me between Scylla and Charybdis! I dont want to die on the Sicilian plainsto be snatched away, like Proserpine in the same locality, to the Plutonian shades.
Because the idea took me. I see it wont do. It really doesnt matter where I am now. Ive exhausted all remedies, Ive swallowed all climates. As Im here Ill stay; I havent got any cousins in Sicily.
These two gentlemen were children of a race which is not distinguished by the absence of reserve, and they had travelled together from London to Rome without an allusion to matters that were uppermost in the mind of each. There was an old subject that they had once discussed, but it had lost its recognized place in their attention, and even after their arrival in Rome, where many things led back to it, they had kept the same half-diffident, half-confident silence.
My dear Touchett, your defensive powers Lord Warburton began, with a smile. But he saw something in his companions face that checked him. Your duty, in these premises, seems to me rather a nice question, he said.
It is true that my defensive powers are small, he remarked at last; but as my aggressive ones are still smaller, Osmond may, after all, not think me worth his gunpowder. At any rate, he added, there are things I am curious to see.
As that? My dear Warburton, the drawback of your position is that people neednt be fond of you at all to wish to be connected with you. Now, with me in such a case, I should have the happy confidence that they loved me.
Very truevery true. And Ralph slowly got up. Its an interesting questionhow far her fondness for the girl will carry her. He stood there a moment with his hands in his pockets, with a rather sombre eye. I hope, you know, that you are veryvery sureThe deuce! he broke off, I dont know how to say it.