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The Portrait of a Lady

Chapter 26
Gilbert Osmond came to see Isabel again; that is he came to Palazzo
Crescentini. He had other friends there as well, and to Mrs. Touchett and
Madame Merle he was always impartially civil; but the former of these ladies
noted the fact that in the course of a fortnight he called five times, and compared
it with another fact that she found no difficulty in remembering. Two visits a year
had hitherto constituted his regular tribute to Mrs. Touchett's worth, and she had
never observed him select for such visits those moments, of almost periodical
recurrence, when Madame Merle was under her roof. It was not for Madame
Merle that he came; these two were old friends and he never put himself out for
her. He was not fond of Ralph--Ralph had told her so--and it was not supposable
that Mr. Osmond had suddenly taken a fancy to her son. Ralph was
imperturbable--Ralph had a kind of loose-fitting urbanity that wrapped him about
like an ill-made overcoat, but of which he never divested himself; he thought Mr.
Osmond very good company and was willing at any time to look at him in the
light of hospitality. But he didn't flatter himself that the desire to repair a past
injustice was the motive of their visitor's calls; he read the situation more clearly.
Isabel was the attraction, and in all conscience a sufficient one. Osmond was a
critic, a student of the exquisite, and it was natural he should be curious of so
rare an apparition. So when his mother observed to him that it was plain what Mr.
Osmond was thinking of, Ralph replied that he was quite of her opinion. Mrs.
Touchett had from far back found a place on her scant list for this gentleman,
though wondering dimly by what art and what process--so negative and so wise
as they were--he had everywhere effectively imposed himself. As he had never
been an importunate visitor he had had no chance to be offensive, and he was
recommended to her by his appearance of being as well able to do without her
as she was to do without him--a quality that always, oddly enough, affected her
as providing ground for a relation with her. It gave her no satisfaction, however,
to think that he had taken it into his head to marry her niece. Such an alliance, on
Isabel's part, would have an air of almost morbid perversity. Mrs. Touchett easily
remembered that the girl had refused an English peer; and that a young lady with
whom Lord Warburton had not successfully wrestled should content herself with
an obscure American dilettante, a middle-aged widower with an uncanny child
and an ambiguous income, this answered to nothing in Mrs. Touchett's
conception of success. She took, it will be observed, not the sentimental, but the
political, view of matrimony--a view which has always had much to recommend it.
"I trust she won't have the folly to listen to him," she said to her son; to which
Ralph replied that Isabel's listening was one thing and Isabel's answering quite
another. He knew she had listened to several parties, as his father would have
said, but had made them listen in return; and he found much entertainment in the
idea that in these few months of his knowing her he should observe a fresh suitor
at her gate. She had wanted to see life, and fortune was serving her to her taste;
a succession of fine gentlemen going down on their knees to her would do as
well as anything else. Ralph looked forward to a fourth, a fifth, a tenth besieger;
 
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