"Written to me? I've never had your letters."
"I never sent them. I burned them up."
"Ah," laughed Isabel, "it was better that you should do that than I!"
"I thought you wouldn't care for them," he went on with a simplicity that touched her. "It seemed to me that after all I had no right to trouble you with letters."
"I should have been very glad to have news of you. You know how I hoped that — that — " But she stopped; there would be such a flatness in the utterance of her thought.
"I know what you're going to say. You hoped we should always remain good friends." This formula, as Lord Warburton uttered it, was certainly flat enough; but then he was interested in making it appear so.
She found herself reduced simply to "Please don't talk of all that"; a speech which hardly struck her as improvement on the other.
"It's a small consolation to allow me!" her companion exclaimed with force.
"I can't pretend to console you," said the girl, who, all still as she sat there, threw herself back with a sort of inward triumph on the answer that had satisfied him so little six months before. He was pleasant, he was powerful, he was gallant; there was no better man than he. But her answer remained.
"It's very well you don't try to console me; it wouldn't be in your power," she heard him say through the medium of her strange elation.
"I hoped we should meet again, because I had no fear you would attempt to make me feel I had wronged you. But when you do that — the pain's greater than the pleasure." And she got up with a small conscious majesty, looking for her companions.
"I don't want to make you feel that; of course I can't say that. I only just want you to know one or two things — in fairness to myself, as it were. I won't return to the subject again. I felt very strongly what I expressed to you last year; I couldn't think of anything else. I tried to forget — energetically, systematically. I tried to take an interest in somebody else. I tell you this because I want you to know I did my duty. I didn't succeed. It was for the same purpose I went abroad — as far away as possible. They say travelling distracts the mind, but it didn't distract mine. I've thought of you perpetually, ever since I last saw you. I'm exactly the same. I love you just as much, and everything I said to you then is just as true. This instant at which I speak to you shows me again exactly how, to my great misfortune, you just insuperably charm me. There — I can't say less. I don't mean, however, to insist; it's only for a moment. I may add that when I came upon you a few minutes since, without the smallest idea of seeing you, I was, upon my honour, in the very act of wishing I knew where you were." He had recovered his self-control, and while he spoke it became complete. He might have been addressing a small committee — making all quietly and clearly a statement of importance; aided by an occasional look at a paper of notes concealed in his hat, which he had not again put on. And the committee, assuredly, would have felt the point proved.
"I've often thought of you, Lord Warburton," Isabel answered. "You may be sure I shall always do that." And she added in a tone of which she tried to keep up the kindness and keep down the meaning: "There's no harm in that on either side."
They walked along together, and she was prompt to ask about his sisters and request him to let them know she had done so. He made for the moment no further reference to their great question, but dipped again into shallower and safer waters. But he wished to know when she was to leave Rome, and on her mentioning the limit of her stay declared he was glad it was still so distant.
"Why do you say that if you yourself are only passing through?" she enquired with some anxiety.
"Ah, when I said I was passing through I didn't mean that one would treat Rome as if it were Clapham Junction. To pass through Rome is to stop a week or two."
"Say frankly that you mean to stay as long as I do!"
His flushed smile, for a little, seemed to sound her. "You won't like that. You're afraid you'll see too much of me."
"It doesn't matter what I like. I certainly can't expect you to leave this delightful place on my account. But I confess I'm afraid of you."
"Afraid I'll begin again? I promise to be very careful."
They had gradually stopped and they stood a moment face to face. "Poor Lord Warburton!" she said with a compassion intended to be good for both of them.
"Poor Lord Warburton indeed! But I'll be careful."
"You may be unhappy, but you shall not make ME so. That I can't allow."
"If I believed I could make you unhappy I think I should try it." At this she walked in advance and he also proceeded. "I'll never say a word to displease you."
"Very good. If you do, our friendship's at an end."
"Perhaps some day — after a while — you'll give me leave."
"Give you leave to make me unhappy?"
He hesitated. "To tell you again — " But he checked himself. "I'll keep it down. I'll keep it down always."
Ralph Touchett had been joined in his visit to the excavation by Miss Stackpole and her attendant, and these three now emerged from among the mounds of earth and stone collected round the aperture and came into sight of Isabel and her companion. Poor Ralph hailed his friend with joy qualified by wonder, and Henrietta exclaimed in a high voice "Gracious, there's that lord!" Ralph and his English neighbour greeted with the austerity with which, after long separations, English neighbours greet, and Miss Stackpole rested her large intellectual gaze upon the sunburnt traveller. But she soon established her relation to the crisis. "I don't suppose you remember me, sir."