"He has spoken very well of her — very properly. He has let me know, of course, that he thinks she would do very well at Lockleigh."
"Does he really think it?"
"Ah, what Warburton really thinks — !" said Ralph.
Isabel fell to smoothing her gloves again; they were long, loose gloves on which she could freely expend herself. Soon, however, she looked up, and then, "Ah, Ralph, you give me no help!" she cried abruptly and passionately.
It was the first time she had alluded to the need for help, and the words shook her cousin with their violence. He gave a long murmur of relief, of pity, of tenderness; it seemed to him that at last the gulf between them had been bridged. It was this that made him exclaim in a moment: "How unhappy you must be!"
He had no sooner spoken than she recovered her self-possession, and the first use she made of it was to pretend she had not heard him. "When I talk of your helping me I talk great nonsense," she said with a quick smile. "The idea of my troubling you with my domestic embarrassments! The matter's very simple; Lord Warburton must get on by himself. I can't undertake to see him through."
"He ought to succeed easily," said Ralph.
Isabel debated. "Yes — but he has not always succeeded."
"Very true. You know, however, how that always surprised me. Is Miss Osmond capable of giving us a surprise?"
"It will come from him, rather. I seem to see that after all he'll let the matter drop."
"He'll do nothing dishonourable," said Ralph.
"I'm very sure of that. Nothing can be more honourable than for him to leave the poor child alone. She cares for another person, and it's cruel to attempt to bribe her by magnificent offers to give him up."
"Cruel to the other person perhaps — the one she cares for. But Warburton isn't obliged to mind that."
"No, cruel to her," said Isabel. "She would be very unhappy if she were to allow herself to be persuaded to desert poor Mr. Rosier. That idea seems to amuse you; of course you're not in love with him. He has the merit — for Pansy — of being in love with Pansy. She can see at a glance that Lord Warburton isn't."
"He'd be very good to her," said Ralph.
"He has been good to her already. Fortunately, however, he has not said a word to disturb her. He could come and bid her good-bye to-morrow with perfect propriety."
"How would your husband like that?"
"Not at all; and he may be right in not liking it. Only he must obtain satisfaction himself."
"Has he commissioned you to obtain it?" Ralph ventured to ask.
"It was natural that as an old friend of Lord Warburton's — an older friend, that is, than Gilbert — I should take an interest in his intentions."
"Take an interest in his renouncing them, you mean?"
Isabel hesitated, frowning a little. "Let me understand. Are you pleading his cause?"
"Not in the least. I'm very glad he shouldn't become your stepdaughter's husband. It makes such a very queer relation to you!" said Ralph, smiling. "But I'm rather nervous lest your husband should think you haven't pushed him enough."
Isabel found herself able to smile as well as he. "He knows me well enough not to have expected me to push. He himself has no intention of pushing, I presume. I'm not afraid I shall not be able to justify myself!" she said lightly.
Her mask had dropped for an instant, but she had put it on again, to Ralph's infinite disappointment. He had caught a glimpse of her natural face and he wished immensely to look into it. He had an almost savage desire to hear her complain of her husband — hear her say that she should be held accountable for Lord Warburton's defection. Ralph was certain that this was her situation; he knew by instinct, in advance, the form that in such an event Osmond's displeasure would take. It could only take the meanest and cruellest. He would have liked to warn Isabel of it — to let her see at least how he judged for her and how he knew. It little mattered that Isabel would know much better; it was for his own satisfaction more than for hers that he longed to show her he was not deceived. He tried and tried again to make her betray Osmond; he felt cold-blooded, cruel, dishonourable almost, in doing so. But it scarcely mattered, for he only failed. What had she come for then, and why did she seem almost to offer him a chance to violate their tacit convention? Why did she ask him his advice if she gave him no liberty to answer her? How could they talk of her domestic embarrassments, as it pleased her humorously to designate them, if the principal factor was not to be mentioned? These contradictions were themselves but an indication of her trouble, and her cry for help, just before, was the only thing he was bound to consider. "You'll be decidedly at variance, all the same," he said in a moment. And as she answered nothing, looking as if she scarce understood, "You'll find yourselves thinking very differently," he continued.