One day, toward the end of February, Ralph Touchett made up his mind to return to England. He had his own reasons for this decision, which he was not bound to communicate; but Henrietta Stackpole, to whom he mentioned his intention, flattered herself that she guessed them. She forbore to express them, however; she only said, after a moment, as she sat by his sofa: "I suppose you know you can't go alone?"
"I've no idea of doing that," Ralph answered. "I shall have people with me."
"What do you mean by 'people'? Servants whom you pay?"
"Ah," said Ralph jocosely, "after all, they're human beings."
"Are there any women among them?" Miss Stackpole desired to know.
"You speak as if I had a dozen! No, I confess I haven't a soubrette in my employment."
"Well," said Henrietta calmly, "you can't go to England that way. You must have a woman's care."
"I've had so much of yours for the past fortnight that it will last me a good while."
"You've not had enough of it yet. I guess I'll go with you," said Henrietta.
"Go with me?" Ralph slowly raised himself from his sofa.
"Yes, I know you don't like me, but I'll go with you all the same. It would be better for your health to lie down again."
Ralph looked at her a little; then he slowly relapsed. "I like you very much," he said in a moment.
Miss Stackpole gave one of her infrequent laughs. "You needn't think that by saying that you can buy me off. I'll go with you, and what is more I'll take care of you."
"You're a very good woman," said Ralph.
"Wait till I get you safely home before you say that. It won't be easy. But you had better go, all the same."
Before she left him, Ralph said to her: "Do you really mean to take care of me?"
"Well, I mean to try."
"I notify you then that I submit. Oh, I submit!" And it was perhaps a sign of submission that a few minutes after she had left him alone he burst into a loud fit of laughter. It seemed to him so inconsequent, such a conclusive proof of his having abdicated all functions and renounced all exercise, that he should start on a journey across Europe under the supervision of Miss Stackpole. And the great oddity was that the prospect pleased him; he was gratefully, luxuriously passive. He felt even impatient to start; and indeed he had an immense longing to see his own house again. The end of everything was at hand; it seemed to him he could stretch out his arm and touch the goal. But he wanted to die at home; it was the only wish he had left — to extend himself in the large quiet room where he had last seen his father lie, and close his eyes upon the summer dawn.
That same day Caspar Goodwood came to see him, and he informed his visitor that Miss Stackpole had taken him up and was to conduct him back to England. "Ah then," said Caspar, "I'm afraid I shall be a fifth wheel to the coach. Mrs. Osmond has made me promise to go with you."
"Good heavens — it's the golden age! You're all too kind."
"The kindness on my part is to her; it's hardly to you."
"Granting that, SHE'S kind," smiled Ralph.
"To get people to go with you? Yes, that's a sort of kindness," Goodwood answered without lending himself to the joke. "For myself, however," he added, "I'll go so far as to say that I would much rather travel with you and Miss Stackpole than with Miss Stackpole alone."
"And you'd rather stay here than do either," said Ralph. "There's really no need of your coming. Henrietta's extraordinarily efficient."
"I'm sure of that. But I've promised Mrs. Osmond."
"You can easily get her to let you off."
"She wouldn't let me off for the world. She wants me to look after you, but that isn't the principal thing. The principal thing is that she wants me to leave Rome."
"Ah, you see too much in it," Ralph suggested.
"I bore her," Goodwood went on; "she has nothing to say to me, so she invented that."
"Oh then, if it's a convenience to her I certainly will take you with me. Though I don't see why it should be a convenience," Ralph added in a moment.
"Well," said Caspar Goodwood simply, "she thinks I'm watching her."
"Trying to make out if she's happy."
"That's easy to make out," said Ralph. "She's the most visibly happy woman I know."
"Exactly so; I'm satisfied," Goodwood answered dryly. For all his dryness, however, he had more to say. "I've been watching her; I was an old friend and it seemed to me I had the right. She pretends to be happy; that was what she undertook to be; and I thought I should like to see for myself what it amounts to. I've seen," he continued with a harsh ring in his voice, "and I don't want to see any more. I'm now quite ready to go."
"Do you know it strikes me as about time you should?" Ralph rejoined. And this was the only conversation these gentlemen had about Isabel Osmond.
Henrietta made her preparations for departure, and among them she found it proper to say a few words to the Countess Gemini, who returned at Miss Stackpole's pension the visit which this lady had paid her in Florence.