"I don't know from whom, leading the life you've done."
"From the voices of the air! Oh, from no one else; I never let other people speak of you. They always say you're 'charming,' and that's so flat."
"I might have seen more of you certainly," Isabel said. "But when one's married one has so much occupation."
"Fortunately I'm not married. When you come to see me in England I shall be able to entertain you with all the freedom of a bachelor." He continued to talk as if they should certainly meet again, and succeeded in making the assumption appear almost just. He made no allusion to his term being near, to the probability that he should not outlast the summer. If he preferred it so, Isabel was willing enough; the reality was sufficiently distinct without their erecting finger-posts in conversation. That had been well enough for the earlier time, though about this, as about his other affairs, Ralph had never been egotistic. Isabel spoke of his journey, of the stages into which he should divide it, of the precautions he should take. "Henrietta's my greatest precaution," he went on. "The conscience of that woman's sublime."
"Certainly she'll be very conscientious."
"Will be? She has been! It's only because she thinks it's her duty that she goes with me. There's a conception of duty for you."
"Yes, it's a generous one," said Isabel, "and it makes me deeply ashamed. I ought to go with you, you know."
"Your husband wouldn't like that."
"No, he wouldn't like it. But I might go, all the same."
"I'm startled by the boldness of your imagination. Fancy my being a cause of disagreement between a lady and her husband!"
"That's why I don't go," said Isabel simply — yet not very lucidly.
Ralph understood well enough, however. "I should think so, with all those occupations you speak of."
"It isn't that. I'm afraid," said Isabel. After a pause she repeated, as if to make herself, rather than him, hear the words: "I'm afraid."
Ralph could hardly tell what her tone meant; it was so strangely deliberate — apparently so void of emotion. Did she wish to do public penance for a fault of which she had not been convicted? or were her words simply an attempt at enlightened self-analysis? However this might be, Ralph could not resist so easy an opportunity. "Afraid of your husband?"
"Afraid of myself!" she said, getting up. She stood there a moment and then added: "If I were afraid of my husband that would be simply my duty. That's what women are expected to be."
"Ah yes," laughed Ralph; "but to make up for it there's always some man awfully afraid of some woman!"
She gave no heed to this pleasantry, but suddenly took a different turn. "With Henrietta at the head of your little band," she exclaimed abruptly, "there will be nothing left for Mr. Goodwood!"
"Ah, my dear Isabel," Ralph answered, "he's used to that. There is nothing left for Mr. Goodwood."
She coloured and then observed, quickly, that she must leave him. They stood together a moment; both her hands were in both of his. "You've been my best friend," she said.
"It was for you that I wanted — that I wanted to live. But I'm of no use to you."
Then it came over her more poignantly that she should not see him again. She could not accept that; she could not part with him that way. "If you should send for me I'd come," she said at last.
"Your husband won't consent to that."
"Oh yes, I can arrange it."
"I shall keep that for my last pleasure!" said Ralph.
In answer to which she simply kissed him. It was a Thursday, and that evening Caspar Goodwood came to Palazzo Roccanera. He was among the first to arrive, and he spent some time in conversation with Gilbert Osmond, who almost always was present when his wife received. They sat down together, and Osmond, talkative, communicative, expansive, seemed possessed with a kind of intellectual gaiety. He leaned back with his legs crossed, lounging and chatting, while Goodwood, more restless, but not at all lively, shifted his position, played with his hat, made the little sofa creak beneath him. Osmond's face wore a sharp, aggressive smile; he was as a man whose perceptions have been quickened by good news. He remarked to Goodwood that he was sorry they were to lose him; he himself should particularly miss him. He saw so few intelligent men — they were surprisingly scarce in Rome. He must be sure to come back; there was something very refreshing, to an inveterate Italian like himself, in talking with a genuine outsider.
"I'm very fond of Rome, you know," Osmond said; "but there's nothing I like better than to meet people who haven't that superstition. The modern world's after all very fine. Now you're thoroughly modern and yet are not at all common. So many of the moderns we see are such very poor stuff. If they're the children of the future we're willing to die young. Of course the ancients too are often very tiresome. My wife and I like everything that's really new — not the mere pretence of it. There's nothing new, unfortunately, in ignorance and stupidity. We see plenty of that in forms that offer themselves as a revelation of progress, of light. A revelation of vulgarity! There's a certain kind of vulgarity which I believe is really new; I don't think there ever was anything like it before. Indeed I don't find vulgarity, at all, before the present century. You see a faint menace of it here and there in the last, but to-day the air has grown so dense that delicate things are literally not recognised. Now, we've liked you — !" With which he hesitated a moment, laying his hand gently on Goodwood's knee and smiling with a mixture of assurance and embarrassment. "I'm going to say something extremely offensive and patronising, but you must let me have the satisfaction of it. We've liked you because — because you've reconciled us a little to the future. If there are to be a certain number of people like you — a la bonne heure! I'm talking for my wife as well as for myself, you see. She speaks for me, my wife; why shouldn't I speak for her? We're as united, you know, as the candlestick and the snuffers. Am I assuming too much when I say that I think I've understood from you that your occupations have been — a — commercial? There's a danger in that, you know; but it's the way you have escaped that strikes us. Excuse me if my little compliment seems in execrable taste; fortunately my wife doesn't hear me. What I mean is that you might have been — a — what I was mentioning just now. The whole American world was in a conspiracy to make you so. But you resisted, you've something about you that saved you. And yet you're so modern, so modern; the most modern man we know! We shall always be delighted to see you again."