"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 the explosion. 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 then I thought it my duty to disappear. Now I think it's my duty to stop and defend her."
"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, in these premises, seems to me rather a nice question," he observed instead.
Ralph for a short time answered nothing. "It's true that my defensive powers are small," he returned 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'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. Osmond."
"So am I. But not as I once was," Lord Warburton added quickly. This was one of the allusions he had not hitherto found occasion to make.
"Does she strike you as very happy?" Ralph enquired, emboldened by this confidence.
"Well, I don't know; I've hardly thought. She told me the other night she was happy."
"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 might have complained to."
"Complained? She'll never complain. She has done it — what she HAS done — and she knows 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 that you don't mean to make love to her that you're so very civil to the little girl?"
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 age has 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 Osmond will be!"
His companion frowned. "I say, don't spoil it. I shouldn't propose for his daughter 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 people needn't 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."
Lord Warburton seemed scarcely in the mood for doing justice to general axioms — 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 interesting question — how far her fondness for Pansy will carry her." He stood there a moment with his hands in his pockets and rather a clouded brow. "I hope, you know, that you're very — very sure. The deuce!" he broke off. "I don't know how to 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 her being — a — so near her stepmother isn't a leading one?"
"Good heavens, Touchett!" cried Lord Warburton angrily, "for what do you take me?"