Isabel walked on again; she was silent for some minutes. "I'm very sure that, highly as I already think of you, my opinion of you, if I should know you well, would only rise. But I'm by no means sure that you wouldn't be disappointed. And I say that not in the least out of conventional modesty; it's perfectly sincere."
"I'm willing to risk it, Miss Archer," her companion replied.
"It's a great question, as you say. It's a very difficult question."
"I don't expect you of course to answer it outright. Think it over as long as may be necessary. If I can gain by waiting I'll gladly wait a long time. Only remember that in the end my dearest happiness depends on your answer."
"I should be very sorry to keep you in suspense," said Isabel.
"Oh, don't mind. I'd much rather have a good answer six months hence than a bad one to-day."
"But it's very probable that even six months hence I shouldn't be able to give you one that you'd think good."
"Why not, since you really like me?"
"Ah, you must never doubt that," said Isabel.
"Well then, I don't see what more you ask!"
"It's not what I ask; it's what I can give. I don't think I should suit you; I really don't think I should."
"You needn't worry about that. That's my affair. You needn't be a better royalist than the king."
"It's not only that," said Isabel; "but I'm not sure I wish to marry any one."
"Very likely you don't. I've no doubt a great many women begin that way," said his lordship, who, be it averred, did not in the least believe in the axiom he thus beguiled his anxiety by uttering. "But they're frequently persuaded."
"Ah, that's because they want to be!" And Isabel lightly laughed. Her suitor's countenance fell, and he looked at her for a while in silence. "I'm afraid it's my being an Englishman that makes you hesitate," he said presently. "I know your uncle thinks you ought to marry in your own country."
Isabel listened to this assertion with some interest; it had never occurred to her that Mr. Touchett was likely to discuss her matrimonial prospects with Lord Warburton. "Has he told you that?"
"I remember his making the remark. He spoke perhaps of Americans generally."
"He appears himself to have found it very pleasant to live in England." Isabel spoke in a manner that might have seemed a little perverse, but which expressed both her constant perception of her uncle's outward felicity and her general disposition to elude any obligation to take a restricted view.
It gave her companion hope, and he immediately cried with warmth: "Ah, my dear Miss Archer, old England's a very good sort of country, you know! And it will be still better when we've furbished it up a little."
"Oh, don't furbish it, Lord Warburton — , leave it alone. I like it this way."
"Well then, if you like it, I'm more and more unable to see your objection to what I propose."
"I'm afraid I can't make you understand."
"You ought at least to try. I've a fair intelligence. Are you afraid — afraid of the climate? We can easily live elsewhere, you know. You can pick out your climate, the whole world over."
These words were uttered with a breadth of candour that was like the embrace of strong arms — that was like the fragrance straight in her face, and by his clean, breathing lips, of she knew not what strange gardens, what charged airs. She would have given her little finger at that moment to feel strongly and simply the impulse to answer: "Lord Warburton, it's impossible for me to do better in this wonderful world, I think, than commit myself, very gratefully, to your loyalty." But though she was lost in admiration of her opportunity she managed to move back into the deepest shade of it, even as some wild, caught creature in a vast cage. The "splendid" security so offered her was not the greatest she could conceive. What she finally bethought herself of saying was something very different — something that deferred the need of really facing her crisis. "Don't think me unkind if I ask you to say no more about this to-day."
"Certainly, certainly!" her companion cried. "I wouldn't bore you for the world."
"You've given me a great deal to think about, and I promise you to do it justice."
"That's all I ask of you, of course — and that you'll remember how absolutely my happiness is in your hands."
Isabel listened with extreme respect to this admonition, but she said after a minute: "I must tell you that what I shall think about is some way of letting you know that what you ask is impossible — letting you know it without making you miserable."
"There's no way to do that, Miss Archer. I won't say that if you refuse me you'll kill me; I shall not die of it. But I shall do worse; I shall live to no purpose."
"You'll live to marry a better woman than I."