Florence on the morrow. Osmond had found the girl alone; Miss Stackpole had contracted a friendship with a delightful American family on the fourth floor and had mounted the interminable staircase to pay them a visit. Henrietta contracted friendships, in travelling, with great freedom, and had formed in railway- carriages several that were among her most valued ties. Ralph was making arrangements for the morrow’s journey, and Isabel sat alone in a wilderness of yellow upholstery. The chairs and sofas were orange; the walls and windows were draped in purple and gilt. The mirrors, the pictures had great flamboyant frames; the ceiling was deeply vaulted and painted over with naked muses and cherubs. For Osmond the place was ugly to distress; the false colours, the sham splendour were like vulgar, bragging, lying talk. Isabel had taken in hand a volume of Ampère,1 presented, on their arrival in Rome, by Ralph; but though she held it in her lap with her finger vaguely kept in the place she was not impatient to pursue her study. A lamp covered with a drooping veil of pink tissue-paper burned on the table beside her and diffused a strange pale rosiness over the scene.

‘You say you’ll come back; but who knows?’ Gilbert Osmond said. ‘I think you’re much more likely to start on your voyage round the world. You’re under no obligation to come back; you can do exactly what you choose; you can roam through space.’

‘Well, Italy’s a part of space,’ Isabel answered. ‘I can take it on the way.’

‘On the way round the world? No, don’t do that. Don’t put us in a parenthesis—give us a chapter to ourselves. I don’t want to see you on your travels. I’d rather see you when they’re over. I should like to see you when you’re tired and satiated,’ Osmond added in a moment. ‘I shall prefer you in that state.’

Isabel, with her eyes bent, fingered the pages of M. Ampère. ‘You turn things into ridicule without seeming to do it, though not, I think, without intending it. You’ve no respect for my travels—you think them ridiculous.’

‘Where do you find that?’

She went on in the same tone, fretting the edge of her book with the paper-knife.2 ‘You see my ignorance, my blunders, the way I wander about as if the world belonged to me, simply because—because it has been put into my power to do so. You don’t think a woman ought to do that. You think it bold and ungraceful.’

‘I think it beautiful,’ said Osmond. ‘You know my opinions—I’ve treated you to enough of them. Don’t you remember my telling you that one ought to make one’s life a work of art? You looked rather shocked at first; but then I told you that it was exactly what you seemed to me to be trying to do with your own.’

She looked up from her book. ‘What you despise most in the world is bad, is stupid art.’

‘Possibly. But yours seem to me very clear and very good.’

‘If I were to go to Japan next winter you would laugh at me,’ she went on.

Osmond gave a smile—a keen one, but not a laugh, for the tone of their conversation was not jocose. Isabel had in fact her solemnity; he had seen it before. ‘You have an imagination that startles one!’

‘That’s exactly what I say. You think such an idea absurd.’

‘I would give my little finger to go to Japan; it’s one of the countries I want most to see. Can’t you believe that, with my taste for old lacquer?’

‘I haven’t a taste for old lacquer to excuse me,’ said Isabel.

‘You’ve a better excuse—the means of going. You’re quite wrong in your theory that I laugh at you. I don’t know what has put it into your head.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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