"I haven't the idea that it will matter much to you," said Osmond. "I've too little to offer you. What I have — it's enough for me; but it's not enough for you. I've neither fortune, nor fame, nor extrinsic advantages of any kind. So I offer nothing. I only tell you because I think it can't offend you, and some day or other it may give you pleasure. It gives me pleasure, I assure you," he went on, standing there before her, considerately inclined to her, turning his hat, which he had taken up, slowly round with a movement which had all the decent tremor of awkwardness and none of its oddity, and presenting to her his firm, refined, slightly ravaged face. "It gives me no pain, because it's perfectly simple. For me you'll always be the most important woman in the world."
Isabel looked at herself in this character — looked intently, thinking she filled it with a certain grace. But what she said was not an expression of any such complacency. "You don't offend me; but you ought to remember that, without being offended, one may be incommoded, troubled." "Incommoded," she heard herself saying that, and it struck her as a ridiculous word. But it was what stupidly came to her.
"I remember perfectly. Of course you're surprised and startled. But if it's nothing but that, it will pass away. And it will perhaps leave something that I may not be ashamed of."
"I don't know what it may leave. You see at all events that I'm not overwhelmed," said Isabel with rather a pale smile. "I'm not too troubled to think. And I think that I'm glad I leave Rome to-morrow."
"Of course I don't agree with you there."
"I don't at all KNOW you," she added abruptly; and then she coloured as she heard herself saying what she had said almost a year before to Lord Warburton.
"If you were not going away you'd know me better."
"I shall do that some other time."
"I hope so. I'm very easy to know."
"No, no," she emphatically answered — "there you're not sincere. You're not easy to know; no one could be less so."
"Well," he laughed, "I said that because I know myself. It may be a boast, but I do."
"Very likely; but you're very wise."
"So are you, Miss Archer!" Osmond exclaimed.
"I don't feel so just now. Still, I'm wise enough to think you had better go. Good-night."
"God bless you!" said Gilbert Osmond, taking the hand which she failed to surrender. After which he added: "If we meet again you'll find me as you leave me. If we don't I shall be so all the same."
"Thank you very much. Good-bye."
There was something quietly firm about Isabel's visitor; he might go of his own movement, but wouldn't be dismissed. "There's one thing more. I haven't asked anything of you — not even a thought in the future; you must do me that justice. But there's a little service I should like to ask. I shall not return home for several days; Rome's delightful, and it's a good place for a man in my state of mind. Oh, I know you're sorry to leave it; but you're right to do what your aunt wishes."
"She doesn't even wish it!" Isabel broke out strangely.
Osmond was apparently on the point of saying something that would match these words, but he changed his mind and rejoined simply: "Ah well, it's proper you should go with her, very proper. Do everything that's proper; I go in for that. Excuse my being so patronising. You say you don't know me, but when you do you'll discover what a worship I have for propriety."
"You're not conventional?" Isabel gravely asked.
"I like the way you utter that word! No, I'm not conventional: I'm convention itself. You don't understand that?" And he paused a moment, smiling. "I should like to explain it." Then with a sudden, quick, bright naturalness, "Do come back again," he pleaded. "There are so many things we might talk about."
She stood there with lowered eyes. "What service did you speak of just now?"
"Go and see my little daughter before you leave Florence. She's alone at the villa; I decided not to send her to my sister, who hasn't at all my ideas. Tell her she must love her poor father very much," said Gilbert Osmond gently.
"It will be a great pleasure to me to go," Isabel answered. "I'll tell her what you say. Once more good-bye."
On this he took a rapid, respectful leave. When he had gone she stood a moment looking about her and seated herself slowly and with an air of deliberation. She sat there till her companions came back, with folded hands, gazing at the ugly carpet. Her agitation — for it had not diminished — was very still, very deep. What had happened was something that for a week past her imagination had been going forward to meet; but here, when it came, she stopped — that sublime principle somehow broke down. The working of this young lady's spirit was strange, and I can only give it to you as I see it, not hoping to make it seem altogether natural. Her imagination, as I say, now hung back: there was a last vague space it couldn't cross — a dusky, uncertain tract which looked ambiguous and even slightly treacherous, like a moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she was to cross it yet.