The Portrait of a Lady Henry James by

The Portrait
of a Lady
by
Henry James
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Henry James
The Portrait
of a Lady
by
Henry James
PREFACE
The Portrait of a Lady was, like Roderick Hudson, begun in Florence,
during three months spent there in the spring of 1879. Like
“Roderick” and like “The American,” it had been designed for publication in The Atlantic Monthly, where it began to appear in 1880.
It differed from its two predecessors, however, in finding a course
also open to it, from month to month, in “Macmillan’s Magazine”;
which was to be for me one of the last occasions of simultaneous
“serialisation” in the two countries that the changing conditions of
literary intercourse between England and the United States had up
to then left unaltered. It is a long novel, and I was long in writing it;
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I remember being again much occupied with it, the following year,
during a stay of several weeks made in Venice. I had rooms on Riva
Schiavoni, at the top of a house near the passage leading off to San
Zaccaria; the waterside life, the wondrous lagoon spread before me,
and the ceaseless human chatter of Venice came in at my windows,
to which I seem to myself to have been constantly driven, in the
fruitless fidget of composition, as if to see whether, out in the blue
channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase,
of the next happy twist of my subject, the next true touch for my
canvas, mightn’t come into sight. But I recall vividly enough that
the response most elicited, in general, to these restless appeals was
the rather grim admonition that romantic and historic sites, such as
the land of Italy abounds in, offer the artist a questionable aid to
concentration when they themselves are not to be the subject of it.
They are too rich in their own life and too charged with their own
meanings merely to help him out with a lame phrase; they draw
him away from his small question to their own greater ones; so that,
after a little, he feels, while thus yearning toward them in his difficulty, as if he were asking an army of glorious veterans to help him
to arrest a peddler who has given him the wrong change.
There are pages of the book which, in the reading over, have seemed
to make me see again the bristling curve of the wide Riva, the large
colour-spots of the balconied houses and the repeated undulation
of the little hunchbacked bridges, marked by the rise and drop again,
with the wave, of foreshortened clicking pedestrians. The Venetian
footfall and the Venetian cry—all talk there, wherever uttered, having the pitch of a call across the water—come in once more at the
window, renewing one’s old impression of the delighted senses and
the divided, frustrated mind. How can places that speak in general
so to the imagination not give it, at the moment, the particular
thing it wants? I recollect again and again, in beautiful places, dropping into that wonderment. The real truth is, I think, that they
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express, under this appeal, only too much—more than, in the given
case, one has use for; so that one finds one’s self working less congruously, after all, so far as the surrounding picture is concerned,
than in presence of the moderate and the neutral, to which we may
lend something of the light of our vision. Such a place as Venice is
too proud for such charities; Venice doesn’t borrow, she but all magnificently gives. We profit by that enormously, but to do so we must
either be quite off duty or be on it in her service alone. Such, and so
rueful, are these reminiscences; though on the whole, no doubt, one’s
book, and one’s “literary effort” at large, were to be the better for
them. Strangely fertilising, in the long run, does a wasted effort of
attention often prove. It all depends on how the attention has been
cheated, has been squandered. There are high-handed insolent frauds,
and there are insidious sneaking ones. And there is, I fear, even on the
most designing artist’s part, always witless enough good faith, always
anxious enough desire, to fail to guard him against their deceits.
Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see
that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a “plot,”
nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of relations, or
in any one of those situations that, by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a
patter of quick steps; but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman,
to which all the usual elements of a “subject,” certainly of a setting,
were to need to be super added. Quite as interesting as the young
woman herself at her best, do I find, I must again repeat, this projection of memory upon the whole matter of the growth, in one’s
imagination, of some such apology for a motive. These are the fascinations of the fabulist’s art, these lurking forces of expansion, these
necessities of upspringing in the seed, these beautiful determinations, on the part of the idea entertained, to grow as tall as possible,
to push into the light and the air and thickly flower there; and,
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quite as much, these fine possibilities of recovering, from some good
standpoint on the ground gained, the intimate history of the business—of retracing and reconstructing its steps and stages. I have
always fondly remembered a remark that I heard fall years ago from
the lips of Ivan Turgenieff in regard to his own experience of the
usual origin of the fictive picture. It began for him almost always
with the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him,
soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and
appealing to him just as they were and by what they were. He saw
them, in that fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to the chances,
the complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had
to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring
them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the
situations most useful and favourable to the sense of the creatures
themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce
and to feel.
“To arrive at these things is to arrive at my story,” he said, “and
that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of
not having ‘story’ enough. I seem to myself to have as much as I
need—to show my people, to exhibit their relations with each other;
for that is all my measure. If I watch them long enough I see them
come together, I see them placed, I see them engaged in this or that
act and in this or that difficulty. How they look and move and speak
and behave, always in the setting I have found for them, is my account of them—of which I dare say, alas, que cela manque souvent
d’architecture. But I would rather, I think, have too little architecture than too much—when there’s danger of its interfering with my
measure of the truth. The French of course like more of it than I
give—having by their own genius such a hand for it; and indeed
one must give all one can. As for the origin of one’s wind-blown
germs themselves, who shall say, as you ask, where they come from?
We have to go too far back, too far behind, to say. Isn’t it all we can
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say that they come from every quarter of heaven, that they are there
at almost any turn of the road? They accumulate, and we are always
picking them over, selecting among them. They are the breath of
life—by which I mean that life, in its own way, breathes them upon
us. They are so, in a manner prescribed and imposed—floated into
our minds by the current of life. That reduces to imbecility the vain
critic’s quarrel, so often, with one’s subject, when he hasn’t the wit
to accept it. Will he point out then which other it should properly
have been? —his office being, essentially to point out. Il en serait
bien embarrasse. Ah, when he points out what I’ve done or failed to
do with it, that’s another matter: there he’s on his ground. I give
him up my ‘sarchitecture,’” my distinguished friend concluded, “as
much as he will.”
So this beautiful genius, and I recall with comfort the gratitude I
drew from his reference to the intensity of suggestion that may reside in the stray figure, the unattached character, the image en
disponibilite. It gave me higher warrant than I seemed then to have
met for just that blest habit of one’s own imagination, the trick of
investing some conceived or encountered individual, some brace or
group of individuals, with the germinal property and authority. I
was myself so much more antecedently conscious of my figures than
of their setting—a too preliminary, a preferential interest in which
struck me as in general such a putting of the cart before the horse. I
might envy, though I couldn’t emulate, the imaginative writer so
constituted as to see his fable first and to make out its agents afterwards. I could think so little of any fable that didn’t need its agents
positively to launch it; I could think so little of any situation that
didn’t depend for its interest on the nature of the persons situated,
and thereby on their way of taking it. There are methods of socalled presentation, I believe among novelists who have appeared to
flourish—that offer the situation as indifferent to that support; but
I have not lost the sense of the value for me, at the time, of the
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admirable Russian’s testimony to my not needing, all superstitiously,
to try and perform any such gymnastic. Other echoes from the same
source linger with me, I confess, as unfadingly—if it be not all indeed one much-embracing echo. It was impossible after that not to
read, for one’s uses, high lucidity into the tormented and disfigured
and bemuddled question of the objective value, and even quite into
that of the critical appreciation, of “subject” in the novel.
One had had from an early time, for that matter, the instinct of
the right estimate of such values and of its reducing to the inane the
dull dispute over the “immoral” subject and the moral. Recognising
so promptly the one measure of the worth of a given subject, the
question about it that, rightly answered, disposes of all others—is it
valid, in a word, is it genuine, is it sincere, the result of some direct
impression or perception of life?—I had found small edification,
mostly, in a critical pretension that had neglected from the first all
delimitation of ground and all definition of terms. The air of my
earlier time shows, to memory, as darkened, all round, with that
vanity—unless the difference to-day be just in one’s own final impatience, the lapse of one’s attention. There is, I think, no more
nutritive or suggestive truth in this connexion than that of the perfect dependence of the “moral” sense of a work of art on the amount
of felt life concerned in producing it. The question comes back thus,
obviously, to the kind and the degree of the artist’s prime sensibility,
which is the soil out of which his subject springs. The quality and
capacity of that soil, its ability to “grow” with due freshness and
straightness any vision of life, represents, strongly or weakly, the
projected morality. That element is but another name for the more
or less close connexion of the subject with some mark made on the
intelligence, with some sincere experience. By which, at the same
time, of course, one is far from contending that this enveloping air
of the artist’s humanity—which gives the last touch to the worth of
the work—is not a widely and wondrously varying element; being
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on one occasion a rich and magnificent medium and on another a
comparatively poor and ungenerous one. Here we get exactly the
high price of the novel as a literary form—its power not only, while
preserving that form with closeness, to range through all the differences of the individual relation to its general subject-matter, all the
varieties of outlook on life, of disposition to reflect and project,
created by conditions that are never the same from man to man (or,
so far as that goes, from man to woman), but positively to appear
more true to its character in proportion as it strains, or tends to
burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould.
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—
a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one
of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the
need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual
will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a
greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the
best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are
not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark
of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or
at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an
impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one
seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the
other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so
on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open; “fortunately” by reason,
precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the “choice of subject”; the pierced aperture, either broad
or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the “literary form”; but
they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of
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the watcher—without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I will tell you of what he has been
conscious. Thereby I shall express to you at once his boundless freedom and his “moral” reference.
All this is a long way round, however, for my word about my dim
first move toward “The Portrait,” which was exactly my grasp of a
single character—an acquisition I had made, moreover, after a fashion not here to be retraced. Enough that I was, as seemed to me, in
complete possession of it, that I had been so for a long time, that
this had made it familiar and yet had not blurred its charm, and
that, all urgently, all tormentingly, I saw it in motion and, so to
speak, in transit. This amounts to saying that I saw it as bent upon
its fate—some fate or other; which, among the possibilities, being
precisely the question. Thus I had my vivid individual—vivid, so
strangely, in spite of being still at large, not confined by the conditions, not engaged in the tangle, to which we look for much of the
impress that constitutes an identity. If the apparition was still all to
be placed how came it to be vivid?—since we puzzle such quantities
out, mostly, just by the business of placing them. One could answer
such a question beautifully, doubtless, if one could do so subtle, if
not so monstrous, a thing as to write the history of the growth of
one’s imagination. One would describe then what, at a given time,
had extraordinarily happened to it, and one would so, for instance,
be in a position to tell, with an approach to clearness, how, under
favour of occasion, it had been able to take over (take over straight
from life) such and such a constituted, animated figure or form.
The figure has to that extent, as you see, been placed—placed in the
imagination that detains it, preserves, protects, enjoys it, conscious
of its presence in the dusky, crowded, heterogeneous back-shop of
the mind very much as a wary dealer in precious odds and ends,
competent to make an “advance” on rare objects confided to him, is
conscious of the rare little “piece” left in deposit by the reduced,
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mysterious lady of title or the speculative amateur, and which is
already there to disclose its merit afresh as soon as a key shall have
clicked in a cupboard-door.
That may he, I recognise, a somewhat superfine analogy for the
particular “value” I here speak of, the image of the young feminine
nature that I had had for so considerable a time all curiously at my
disposal; but it appears to fond memory quite to fit the fact—with
the recall, in addition, of my pious desire but to place my treasure
right. I quite remind myself thus of the dealer resigned not to
“realise,” resigned to keeping the precious object locked up indefinitely rather than commit it, at no matter what price, to vulgar
hands. For there are dealers in these forms and figures and treasures
capable of that refinement. The point is, however, that this single
small corner-stone, the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny, had begun with being all my outfit for the
large building of “The Portrait of a Lady.” It came to be a square
and spacious house—or has at least seemed so to me in this going
over it again; but, such as it is, it had to be put up round my young
woman while she stood there in perfect isolation. That is to me,
artistically speaking, the circumstance of interest; for I have lost
myself once more, I confess, in the curiosity of analysing the structure. By what process of logical accretion was this slight “personality,” the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl, to
find itself endowed with the high attributes of a Subject?—and indeed by what thinness, at the best, would such a subject not be
vitiated? Millions of presumptuous girls, intelligent or not intelligent, daily affront their destiny, and what is it open to their destiny
to be, at the most, that we should make an ado about it? The novel
is of its very nature an “ado,” an ado about something, and the
larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado. Therefore,
consciously, that was what one was in for—for positively organising
an ado about Isabel Archer.
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One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognising the charm of the
problem. Challenge any such problem with any intelligence, and
you immediately see how full it is of substance; the wonder being,
all the while, as we look at the world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist
on mattering. George Eliot has admirably noted it—”In these frail
vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.” In Romeo and Juliet Juliet has to be important, just as, in
Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch and Daniel
Deronda, Hetty Sorrel and Maggie Tulliver and Rosamond Vincy
and Gwendolen Harleth have to be; with that much of firm ground,
that much of bracing air, at the disposal all the while of their feet
and their lungs. They are typical, none the less, of a class difficult,
in the individual case, to make a centre of interest; so difficult in
fact that many an expert painter, as for instance Dickens and Walter
Scott, as for instance even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of
R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted. There
are in fact writers as to whom we make out that their refuge from
this is to assume it to be not worth their attempting; by which pusillanimity in truth their honour is scantly saved. It is never an attestation of a value, or even of our imperfect sense of one, it is never a
tribute to any truth at all, that we shall represent that value badly. It
never makes up, artistically, for an artist’s dim feeling about a thing
that he shall “do” the thing as ill as possible. There are better ways
than that, the best of all of which is to begin with less stupidity.
It may be answered meanwhile, in regard to Shakespeare’s and to
George Eliot’s testimony, that their concession to the “importance”
of their Juliets and Cleopatras and Portias (even with Portia as the
very type and model of the young person intelligent and presumptuous) and to that of their Hettys and Maggies and Rosamonds and
Gwendolens, suffers the abatement that these slimnesses are, when
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figuring as the main props of the theme, never suffered to be sole
ministers of its appeal, but have their inadequacy eked out with
comic relief and underplots, as the playwrights say, when not with
murders and battles and the great mutations of the world. If they
are shown as “mattering” as much as they could possibly pretend to,
the proof of it is in a hundred other persons, made of much stouter
stuff; and each involved moreover in a hundred relations which
matter to them concomitantly with that one. Cleopatra matters,
beyond bounds, to Antony, but his colleagues, his antagonists, the
state of Rome and the impending battle also prodigiously matter;
Portia matters to Antonio, and to Shylock, and to the Prince of
Morocco, to the fifty aspiring princes, but for these gentry there are
other lively concerns; for Antonio, notably, there are Shylock and
Bassanio and his lost ventures and the extremity of his predicament.
This extremity indeed, by the same token, matters to Portia—though
its doing so becomes of interest all by the fact that Portia matters to
us. That she does so, at any rate, and that almost everything comes
round to it again, supports my contention as to this fine example of
the value recognised in the mere young thing. (I say “mere” young
thing because I guess that even Shakespeare, preoccupied mainly
though he may have been with the passions of princes, would scarce
have pretended to found the best of his appeal for her on her high
social position.) It is an example exactly of the deep difficulty
braved—the difficulty of making George Eliot’s “frail vessel,” if not
the all-in-all for our attention, at least the clearest of the call.
Now to see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really
addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang the beautiful incentive,
and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified.
The difficulty most worth tackling can only be for him, in these
conditions, the greatest the case permits of. So I remember feeling
here (in presence, always, that is, of the particular uncertainty of my
ground), that there would be one way better than another—oh,
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ever so much better than any other!—of making it fight out its
battle. The frail vessel, that charged with George Eliot’s “treasure,”
and thereby of such importance to those who curiously approach it,
has likewise possibilities of importance to itself, possibilities which
permit of treatment and in fact peculiarly require it from the moment they are considered at all. There is always the escape from any
close account of the weak agent of such spells by using as a bridge
for evasion, for retreat and flight, the view of her relation to those
surrounding her. Make it predominantly a view of their relation and
the trick is played: you give the general sense of her effect, and you
give it, so far as the raising on it of a superstructure goes, with the
maximum of ease. Well, I recall perfectly how little, in my now
quite established connexion, the maximum of ease appealed to me,
and how I seemed to get rid of it by an honest transposition of the
weights in the two scales. “Place the centre of the subject in the
young woman’s own consciousness,” I said to myself, “and you get
as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick
to that—for the centre; put the heaviest weight into that scale, which
will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. Make her only
interested enough, at the same time, in the things that are not herself, and this relation needn’t fear to be too limited. Place meanwhile in the other scale the lighter weight (which is usually the one
that tips the balance of interest): press least hard, in short, on the
consciousness of your heroine’s satellites, especially the male; make
it an interest contributive only to the greater one. See, at all events,
what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a
due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of
that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into ALL of them.
To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through
will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”
So far I reasoned, and it took nothing less than that technical
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rigour, I now easily see, to inspire me with the right confidence for
erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form,
constructionally speaking, a literary monument. Such is the aspect
that to-day “The Portrait” wears for me: a structure reared with an
“architectural” competence, as Turgenieff would have said, that makes
it, to the author’s own sense, the most proportioned of his productions after “The Ambassadors” which was to follow it so many years
later and which has, no doubt, a superior roundness. On one thing
I was determined; that, though I should clearly have to pile brick
upon brick for the creation of an interest, I would leave no pretext
for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective. I would
build large—in fine embossed vaults and painted arches, as who
should say, and yet never let it appear that the chequered pavement,
the ground under the reader’s feet, fails to stretch at every point to
the base of the walls. That precautionary spirit, on re-perusal of the
book, is the old note that most touches me: it testifies so, for my
own ear, to the anxiety of my provision for the reader’s amusement.
I felt, in view of the possible limitations of my subject, that no such
provision could be excessive, and the development of the latter was
simply the general form of that earnest quest. And I find indeed
that this is the only account I can give myself of the evolution of the
fable it is all under the head thus named that I conceive the needful
accretion as having taken place, the right complications as having
started. It was naturally of the essence that the young woman should
be herself complex; that was rudimentary—or was at any rate the
light in which Isabel Archer had originally dawned. It went, however, but a certain way, and other lights, contending, conflicting
lights, and of as many different colours, if possible, as the rockets,
the Roman candles and Catherine-wheels of a “pyrotechnic display,”
would be employable to attest that she was. I had, no doubt, a groping instinct for the right complications, since I am quite unable to
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track the footsteps of those that constitute, as the case stands, the
general situation exhibited. They are there, for what they are worth,
and as numerous as might be; but my memory, I confess, is a blank
as to how and whence they came.
I seem to myself to have waked up one morning in possession of
them—of Ralph Touchett and his parents, of Madame Merle, of
Gilbert Osmond and his daughter and his sister, of Lord Warburton,
Caspar Goodwood and Miss Stackpole, the definite array of contributions to Isabel Archer’s history. I recognised them, I knew them,
they were the numbered pieces of my puzzle, the concrete terms of
my “plot.” It was as if they had simply, by an impulse of their own,
floated into my ken, and all in response to my primary question:
“Well, what will she do?” Their answer seemed to be that if I would
trust them they would show me; on which, with an urgent appeal
to them to make it at least as interesting as they could, I trusted
them. They were like the group of attendants and entertainers who
come down by train when people in the country give a party; they
represented the contract for carrying the party on. That was an excellent relation with them —a possible one even with so broken a
reed (from her slightness of cohesion) as Henrietta Stackpole. It is a
familiar truth to the novelist, at the strenuous hour, that, as certain
elements in any work are of the essence, so others are only of the
form; that as this or that character, this or that disposition of the
material, belongs to the subject directly, so to speak, so this or that
other belongs to it but indirectly—belongs intimately to the treatment. This is a truth, however, of which he rarely gets the benefit—
since it could be assured to him, really, but by criticism based upon
perception, criticism which is too little of this world. He must not
think of benefits, moreover, I freely recognise, for that way dishonour
lies: he has, that is, but one to think of—the benefit, whatever it
may be, involved in his having cast a spell upon the simpler, the
very simplest, forms of attention. This is all he is entitled to; he is
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entitled to nothing, he is bound to admit, that can come to him,
from the reader, as a result on the latter’s part of any act of reflexion
or discrimination. He may enjoy this finer tribute—that is another
affair, but on condition only of taking it as a gratuity “thrown in,” a
mere miraculous windfall, the fruit of a tree he may not pretend to
have shaken. Against reflexion, against discrimination, in his interest, all earth and air conspire; wherefore it is that, as I say, he must
in many a case have schooled himself, from the first, to work but for
a “living wage.” The living wage is the reader’s grant of the least
possible quantity of attention required for consciousness of a “spell.”
The occasional charming “tip” is an act of his intelligence over and
beyond this, a golden apple, for the writer’s lap, straight from the
wind-stirred tree. The artist may of course, in wanton moods, dream
of some Paradise (for art) where the direct appeal to the intelligence
might be legalised; for to such extravagances as these his yearning
mind can scarce hope ever completely to close itself. The most he
can do is to remember they are extravagances.
All of which is perhaps but a gracefully devious way of saying that
Henrietta Stackpole was a good example, in “The Portrait,” of the
truth to which I just adverted—as good an example as I could name
were it not that Maria Gostrey, in “The Ambassadors,” then in the
bosom of time, may be mentioned as a better. Each of these persons
is but wheels to the coach; neither belongs to the body of that vehicle, or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside. There
the subject alone is ensconced, in the form of its “hero and heroine,” and of the privileged high officials, say, who ride with the king
and queen. There are reasons why one would have liked this to be
felt, as in general one would like almost anything to be felt, in one’s
work, that one has one’s self contributively felt. We have seen, however, how idle is that pretension, which I should be sorry to make
too much of. Maria Gostrey and Miss Stackpole then are cases, each,
of the light ficelle, not of the true agent; they may run beside the
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coach “for all they are worth,” they may cling to it till they are out
of breath (as poor Miss Stackpole all so visibly does), but neither, all
the while, so much as gets her foot on the step, neither ceases for a
moment to tread the dusty road. Put it even that they are like the
fishwives who helped to bring back to Paris from Versailles, on that
most ominous day of the first half of the French Revolution, the
carriage of the royal family. The only thing is that I may well be
asked, I acknowledge, why then, in the present fiction, I have suffered Henrietta (of whom we have indubitably too much) so officiously, so strangely, so almost inexplicably, to pervade. I will presently say what I can for that anomaly—and in the most conciliatory
fashion.
A point I wish still more to make is that if my relation of confidence with the actors in my drama who were, unlike Miss Stackpole,
true agents, was an excellent one to have arrived at, there still remained my relation with the reader, which was another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself. That
solicitude was to be accordingly expressed in the artful patience with
which, as I have said, I piled brick upon brick. The bricks, for the
whole counting-over—putting for bricks little touches and inventions and enhancements by the way—affect me in truth as wellnigh innumerable and as ever so scrupulously fitted together and
packed-in. It is an effect of detail, of the minutest; though, if one
were in this connexion to say all, one would express the hope that
the general, the ampler air of the modest monument still survives. I
do at least seem to catch the key to a part of this abundance of small
anxious, ingenious illustration as I recollect putting my finger, in
my young woman’s interest, on the most obvious of her predicates.
“What will she ‘do’? Why, the first thing she’ll do will be to come to
Europe; which in fact will form, and all inevitably, no small part of
her principal adventure. Coming to Europe is even for the ‘frail
vessels,’ in this wonderful age, a mild adventure; but what is truer
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than that on one side—the side of their independence of flood and
field, of the moving accident, of battle and murder and sudden
death—her adventures are to be mild? Without her sense of them,
her sense FOR them, as one may say, they are next to nothing at all;
but isn’t the beauty and the difficulty just in showing their mystic
conversion by that sense, conversion into the stuff of drama or, even
more delightful word still, of ‘story’?” It was all as clear, my contention, as a silver bell. Two very good instances, I think, of this effect
of conversion, two cases of the rare chemistry, are the pages in which
Isabel, coming into the drawing-room at Gardencourt, coming in
from a wet walk or whatever, that rainy afternoon, finds Madame
Merle in possession of the place, Madame Merle seated, all absorbed
but all serene, at the piano, and deeply recognises, in the striking of
such an hour, in the presence there, among the gathering shades, of
this personage, of whom a moment before she had never so much as
heard, a turning-point in her life. It is dreadful to have too much,
for any artistic demonstration, to dot one’s i’s and insist on one’s
intentions, and I am not eager to do it now; but the question here
was that of producing the maximum of intensity with the minimum of strain.
The interest was to be raised to its pitch and yet the elements to
be kept in their key; so that, should the whole thing duly impress, I
might show what an “exciting” inward life may do for the person
leading it even while it remains perfectly normal. And I cannot think
of a more consistent application of that ideal unless it be in the long
statement, just beyond the middle of the book, of my young woman’s
extraordinary meditative vigil on the occasion that was to become
for her such a landmark. Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of
searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward that
twenty “incidents” might have done. It was designed to have all the
vivacity of incidents and all the economy of picture. She sits up, by
her dying fire, far into the night, under the spell of recognitions on
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The Portrait of a Lady
which she finds the last sharpness suddenly wait. It is a representation simply of her motionlessly seeing, and an attempt withal to
make the mere still lucidity of her act as “interesting” as the surprise
of a caravan or the identification of a pirate. It represents, for that
matter, one of the identifications dear to the novelist, and even indispensable to him; but it all goes on without her being approached
by another person and without her leaving her chair. It is obviously
the best thing in the book, but it is only a supreme illustration of
the general plan. As to Henrietta, my apology for whom I just left
incomplete, she exemplifies, I fear, in her superabundance, not an
element of my plan, but only an excess of my zeal. So early was to
begin my tendency to overtreat, rather than undertreat (when there
was choice or danger) my subject. (Many members of my craft, I
gather, are far from agreeing with me, but I have always held overtreating the minor disservice.) “Treating” that of “The Portrait”
amounted to never forgetting, by any lapse, that the thing was under a special obligation to be amusing. There was the danger of the
noted “thinness”—which was to be averted, tooth and nail, by cultivation of the lively. That is at least how I see it to-day. Henrietta
must have been at that time a part of my wonderful notion of the
lively. And then there was another matter. I had, within the few
preceding years, come to live in London, and the “international”
light lay, in those days, to my sense, thick and rich upon the scene.
It was the light in which so much of the picture hung. But that is
another matter. There is really too much to say.
Henry James
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Henry James
THE PORTRAIT
OF A LADY
CHAPTER I
UNDER CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon
tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the
tea or not—some people of course never do,—the situation is in
itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold
this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the
lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the
perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of
the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many
hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had
grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.
They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense
of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s
enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to
eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The
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The Portrait of a Lady
persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they
were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries
of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect
lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old
man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the
tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in
desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his
hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the
rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its
contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close
to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had
either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they
smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from
time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the
elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon
the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the
lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most
characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted
to sketch.
It stood upon a low hill, above the river—the river being the
Thames at some forty miles from London. A long gabled front of
red brick, with the complexion of which time and the weather had
played all sorts of pictorial tricks, only, however, to improve and
refine it, presented to the lawn its patches of ivy, its clustered chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers. The house had a name
and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been
delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal
honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised
and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration,
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repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been
remodelled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed
into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had
bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with
much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and
who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real
aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell
you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the
hour when the shadows of its various protuberances which fell so
softly upon the warm, weary brickwork—were of the right measure. Besides this, as I have said, he could have counted off most of
the successive owners and occupants, several of whom were known
to general fame; doing so, however, with an undemonstrative conviction that the latest phase of its destiny was not the least honourable.
The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn with
which we are concerned was not the entrance-front; this was in quite
another quarter. Privacy here reigned supreme, and the wide carpet
of turf that covered the level hill-top seemed but the extension of a
luxurious interior. The great still oaks and beeches flung down a
shade as dense as that of velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich-coloured rugs,
with the books and papers that lay upon the grass. The river was at
some distance; where the ground began to slope the lawn, properly
speaking, ceased. But it was none the less a charming walk down to
the water.
The old gentleman at the tea-table, who had come from America
thirty years before, had brought with him, at the top of his baggage,
his American physiognomy; and he had not only brought it with
him, but he had kept it in the best order, so that, if necessary, he
might have taken it back to his own country with perfect confidence. At present, obviously, nevertheless, he was not likely to dis23
The Portrait of a Lady
place himself; his journeys were over and he was taking the rest that
precedes the great rest. He had a narrow, clean-shaven face, with
features evenly distributed and an expression of placid acuteness. It
was evidently a face in which the range of representation was not
large, so that the air of contented shrewdness was all the more of a
merit. It seemed to tell that he had been successful in life, yet it
seemed to tell also that his success had not been exclusive and invidious, but had had much of the inoffensiveness of failure. He had certainly had a great experience of men, but there was an almost rustic
simplicity in the faint smile that played upon his lean, spacious cheek
and lighted up his humorous eye as he at last slowly and carefully
deposited his big tea-cup upon the table. He was neatly dressed, in
well-brushed black; but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his
feet were encased in thick, embroidered slippers. A beautiful collie
dog lay upon the grass near his chair, watching the master’s face almost as tenderly as the master took in the still more magisterial physiognomy of the house; and a little bristling, bustling terrier bestowed a
desultory attendance upon the other gentlemen.
One of these was a remarkably well-made man of five-and-thirty,
with a face as English as that of the old gentleman I have just sketched
was something else; a noticeably handsome face, fresh-coloured, fair
and frank, with firm, straight features, a lively grey eye and the rich
adornment of a chestnut beard. This person had a certain fortunate,
brilliant exceptional look—the air of a happy temperament fertilised
by a high civilisation—which would have made almost any observer
envy him at a venture. He was booted and spurred, as if he had
dismounted from a long ride; he wore a white hat, which looked
too large for him; he held his two hands behind him, and in one of
them—a large, white, well-shaped fist—was crumpled a pair of soiled
dog-skin gloves.
His companion, measuring the length of the lawn beside him,
was a person of quite a different pattern, who, although he might
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Henry James
have excited grave curiosity, would not, like the other, have provoked you to wish yourself, almost blindly, in his place. Tall, lean,
loosely and feebly put together, he had an ugly, sickly, witty, charming face, furnished, but by no means decorated, with a straggling
moustache and whisker. He looked clever and ill—a combination
by no means felicitous; and he wore a brown velvet jacket. He carried his hands in his pockets, and there was something in the way
he did it that showed the habit was inveterate. His gait had a shambling, wandering quality; he was not very firm on his legs. As I have
said, whenever he passed the old man in the chair he rested his eyes
upon him; and at this moment, with their faces brought into relation, you would easily have seen they were father and son. The father caught his son’s eye at last and gave him a mild, responsive
smile.
“I’m getting on very well,” he said.
“Have you drunk your tea?” asked the son.
“Yes, and enjoyed it.”
“Shall I give you some more?”
The old man considered, placidly. “Well, I guess I’ll wait and see.”
He had, in speaking, the American tone.
“Are you cold?” the son enquired.
The father slowly rubbed his legs. “Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell
till I feel.”
“Perhaps some one might feel for you,” said the younger man,
laughing.
“Oh, I hope some one will always feel for me! Don’t you feel for
me, Lord Warburton?”
“Oh yes, immensely,” said the gentleman addressed as Lord
Warburton, promptly. “I’m bound to say you look wonderfully comfortable.”
“Well, I suppose I am, in most respects.” And the old man looked
down at his green shawl and smoothed it over his knees. “The fact is
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The Portrait of a Lady
I’ve been comfortable so many years that I suppose I’ve got so used to
it I don’t know it.”
“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” said Lord Warburton. “We only
know when we’re uncomfortable.”
“It strikes me we’re rather particular,” his companion remarked.
“Oh yes, there’s no doubt we’re particular,” Lord Warburton murmured. And then the three men remained silent a while; the two
younger ones standing looking down at the other, who presently
asked for more tea. “I should think you would be very unhappy
with that shawl,” Lord Warburton resumed while his companion
filled the old man’s cup again.
“Oh no, he must have the shawl!” cried the gentleman in the
velvet coat. “Don’t put such ideas as that into his head.”
“It belongs to my wife,” said the old man simply.
“Oh, if it’s for sentimental reasons—” And Lord Warburton made
a gesture of apology.
“I suppose I must give it to her when she comes,” the old man
went on.
“You’ll please to do nothing of the kind. You’ll keep it to cover
your poor old legs.”
“Well, you mustn’t abuse my legs,” said the old man. “I guess they
are as good as yours.”
“Oh, you’re perfectly free to abuse mine,” his son replied, giving
him his tea.
“Well, we’re two lame ducks; I don’t think there’s much difference.”
“I’m much obliged to you for calling me a duck. How’s your tea?”
“Well, it’s rather hot.”
“That’s intended to be a merit.”
“Ah, there’s a great deal of merit,” murmured the old man, kindly.
“He’s a very good nurse, Lord Warburton.”
“Isn’t he a bit clumsy?” asked his lordship.
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Henry James
“Oh no, he’s not clumsy—considering that he’s an invalid himself. He’s a very good nurse—for a sick-nurse. I call him my sicknurse because he’s sick himself.”
“Oh, come, daddy!” the ugly young man exclaimed.
“Well, you are; I wish you weren’t. But I suppose you can’t help it.”
“I might try: that’s an idea,” said the young man.
“Were you ever sick, Lord Warburton?” his father asked.
Lord Warburton considered a moment. “Yes, sir, once, in the Persian Gulf.”
“He’s making light of you, daddy,” said the other young man.
“That’s a sort of joke.”
“Well, there seem to be so many sorts now,” daddy replied, serenely. “You don’t look as if you had been sick, any way, Lord
Warburton.”
“He’s sick of life; he was just telling me so; going on fearfully
about it,” said Lord Warburton’s friend.
“Is that true, sir?” asked the old man gravely.
“If it is, your son gave me no consolation. He’s a wretched fellow
to talk to—a regular cynic. He doesn’t seem to believe in anything.”
“That’s another sort of joke,” said the person accused of cynicism.
“It’s because his health is so poor,” his father explained to Lord
Warburton. “It affects his mind and colours his way of looking at
things; he seems to feel as if he had never had a chance. But it’s
almost entirely theoretical, you know; it doesn’t seem to affect his
spirits. I’ve hardly ever seen him when he wasn’t cheerful—about as
he is at present. He often cheers me up.”
The young man so described looked at Lord Warburton and
laughed. “Is it a glowing eulogy or an accusation of levity? Should
you like me to carry out my theories, daddy?”
“By Jove, we should see some queer things!” cried Lord Warburton.
“I hope you haven’t taken up that sort of tone,” said the old man.
“Warburton’s tone is worse than mine; he pretends to be bored.
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The Portrait of a Lady
I’m not in the least bored; I find life only too interesting.”
“Ah, too interesting; you shouldn’t allow it to be that, you know!”
“I’m never bored when I come here,” said Lord Warburton. “One
gets such uncommonly good talk.”
“Is that another sort of joke?” asked the old man. “You’ve no excuse for being bored anywhere. When I was your age I had never
heard of such a thing.”
“You must have developed very late.”
“No, I developed very quick; that was just the reason. When I was
twenty years old I was very highly developed indeed. I was working
tooth and nail. You wouldn’t be bored if you had something to do;
but all you young men are too idle. You think too much of your
pleasure. You’re too fastidious, and too indolent, and too rich.”
“Oh, I say,” cried Lord Warburton, “you’re hardly the person to
accuse a fellow-creature of being too rich!”
“Do you mean because I’m a banker?” asked the old man.
“Because of that, if you like; and because you have—haven’t you?—
such unlimited means.”
“He isn’t very rich,” the other young man mercifully pleaded. “He
has given away an immense deal of money.”
“Well, I suppose it was his own,” said Lord Warburton; “and in
that case could there be a better proof of wealth? Let not a public
benefactor talk of one’s being too fond of pleasure.”
“Daddy’s very fond of pleasure—of other people’s.”
The old man shook his head. “I don’t pretend to have contributed
anything to the amusement of my contemporaries.”
“My dear father, you’re too modest!”
“That’s a kind of joke, sir,” said Lord Warburton.
“You young men have too many jokes. When there are no jokes
you’ve nothing left.”
“Fortunately there are always more jokes,” the ugly young man
remarked.
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Henry James
“I don’t believe it—I believe things are getting more serious. You
young men will find that out.”
“The increasing seriousness of things, then that’s the great opportunity of jokes.”
“They’ll have to be grim jokes,” said the old man. “I’m convinced
there will be great changes, and not all for the better.”
“I quite agree with you, sir,” Lord Warburton declared. “I’m very
sure there will be great changes, and that all sorts of queer things
will happen. That’s why I find so much difficulty in applying your
advice; you know you told me the other day that I ought to ‘take
hold’ of something. One hesitates to take hold of a thing that may
the next moment be knocked sky-high.”
“You ought to take hold of a pretty woman,” said his companion.
“He’s trying hard to fall in love,” he added, by way of explanation,
to his father.
“The pretty women themselves may be sent flying!” Lord
Warburton exclaimed.
“No, no, they’ll be firm,” the old man rejoined; “they’ll not be
affected by the social and political changes I just referred to.”
“You mean they won’t be abolished? Very well, then, I’ll lay hands
on one as soon as possible and tie her round my neck as a lifepreserver.”
“The ladies will save us,” said the old man; “that is the best of
them will—for I make a difference between them. Make up to a
good one and marry her, and your life will become much more
interesting.”
A momentary silence marked perhaps on the part of his auditors
a sense of the magnanimity of this speech, for it was a secret neither
for his son nor for his visitor that his own experiment in matrimony
had not been a happy one. As he said, however, he made a difference; and these words may have been intended as a confession of
personal error; though of course it was not in place for either of his
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The Portrait of a Lady
companions to remark that apparently the lady of his choice had
not been one of the best.
“If I marry an interesting woman I shall be interested: is that what
you say?” Lord Warburton asked. “I’m not at all keen about marrying—your son misrepresented me; but there’s no knowing what an
interesting woman might do with me.”
“I should like to see your idea of an interesting woman,” said his
friend.
“My dear fellow, you can’t see ideas—especially such highly ethereal ones as mine. If I could only see it myself—that would be a
great step in advance.”
“Well, you may fall in love with whomsoever you please; but you
mustn’t fall in love with my niece,” said the old man.
His son broke into a laugh. “He’ll think you mean that as a provocation! My dear father, you’ve lived with the English for thirty years,
and you’ve picked up a good many of the things they say. But you’ve
never learned the things they don’t say!”
“I say what I please,” the old man returned with all his serenity.
“I haven’t the honour of knowing your niece,” Lord Warburton
said. “I think it’s the first time I’ve heard of her.”
“She’s a niece of my wife’s; Mrs. Touchett brings her to England.”
Then young Mr. Touchett explained. “My mother, you know, has
been spending the winter in America, and we’re expecting her back.
She writes that she has discovered a niece and that she has invited
her to come out with her.”
“I see,—very kind of her,” said Lord Warburton. Is the young
lady interesting?”
“We hardly know more about her than you; my mother has not
gone into details. She chiefly communicates with us by means of
telegrams, and her telegrams are rather inscrutable. They say women
don’t know how to write them, but my mother has thoroughly mastered the art of condensation. ‘Tired America, hot weather awful,
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return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.’ That’s the
sort of message we get from her—that was the last that came. But
there had been another before, which I think contained the first
mention of the niece. ‘Changed hotel, very bad, impudent clerk,
address here. Taken sister’s girl, died last year, go to Europe, two
sisters, quite independent.’ Over that my father and I have scarcely
stopped puzzling; it seems to admit of so many interpretations.”
“There’s one thing very clear in it,” said the old man; “she has
given the hotel-clerk a dressing.”
“I’m not sure even of that, since he has driven her from the field. We
thought at first that the sister mentioned might be the sister of the
clerk; but the subsequent mention of a niece seems to prove that the
allusion is to one of my aunts. Then there was a question as to whose
the two other sisters were; they are probably two of my late aunt’s daughters. But who’s ‘quite independent,’ and in what sense is the term used?—
that point’s not yet settled. Does the expression apply more particularly
to the young lady my mother has adopted, or does it characterise her
sisters equally?—and is it used in a moral or in a financial sense? Does it
mean that they’ve been left well off, or that they wish to be under no
obligations? or does it simply mean that they’re fond of their own way?”
“Whatever else it means, it’s pretty sure to mean that,” Mr. Touchett
remarked.
“You’ll see for yourself,” said Lord Warburton. “When does Mrs.
Touchett arrive?”
“We’re quite in the dark; as soon as she can find a decent cabin.
She may be waiting for it yet; on the other hand she may already
have disembarked in England.”
“In that case she would probably have telegraphed to you.”
“She never telegraphs when you would expect it—only when
you don’t,” said the old man. “She likes to drop on me suddenly;
she thinks she’ll find me doing something wrong. She has never
done so yet, but she’s not discouraged.”
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“It’s her share in the family trait, the independence she speaks of.”
Her son’s appreciation of the matter was more favourable. “Whatever the high spirit of those young ladies may be, her own is a match
for it. She likes to do everything for herself and has no belief in any
one’s power to help her. She thinks me of no more use than a postage-stamp without gum, and she would never forgive me if I should
presume to go to Liverpool to meet her.”
“Will you at least let me know when your cousin arrives?” Lord
Warburton asked.
“Only on the condition I’ve mentioned—that you don’t fall in
love with her!” Mr. Touchett replied.
“That strikes me as hard, don’t you think me good enough?”
“I think you too good—because I shouldn’t like her to marry you.
She hasn’t come here to look for a husband, I hope; so many young
ladies are doing that, as if there were no good ones at home. Then
she’s probably engaged; American girls are usually engaged, I believe. Moreover I’m not sure, after all, that you’d be a remarkable
husband.”
“Very likely she’s engaged; I’ve known a good many American
girls, and they always were; but I could never see that it made any
difference, upon my word! As for my being a good husband,” Mr.
Touchett’s visitor pursued, “I’m not sure of that either. One can but
try!”
“Try as much as you please, but don’t try on my niece,” smiled the
old man, whose opposition to the idea was broadly humorous.
“Ah, well,” said Lord Warburton with a humour broader still, “perhaps, after all, she’s not worth trying on!”
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CHAPTER II
WHILE THIS EXCHANGE of pleasantries took place between the two
Ralph Touchett wandered away a little, with his usual slouching
gait, his hands in his pockets and his little rowdyish terrier at his
heels. His face was turned toward the house, but his eyes were bent
musingly on the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation
to a person who had just made her appearance in the ample doorway for some moments before he perceived her. His attention was
called to her by the conduct of his dog, who had suddenly darted
forward with a little volley of shrill barks, in which the note of welcome, however, was more sensible than that of defiance. The person
in question was a young lady, who seemed immediately to interpret
the greeting of the small beast. He advanced with great rapidity and
stood at her feet, looking up and barking hard; whereupon, without
hesitation, she stooped and caught him in her hands, holding him
face to face while he continued his quick chatter. His master now
had had time to follow and to see that Bunchie’s new friend was a
tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty. She was
bareheaded, as if she were staying in the house—a fact which conveyed perplexity to the son of its master, conscious of that immunity from visitors which had for some time been rendered necessary
by the latter’s ill-health. Meantime the two other gentlemen had
also taken note of the new-comer.
“Dear me, who’s that strange woman?” Mr. Touchett had asked.
“Perhaps it’s Mrs. Touchett’s niece—the independent young lady,”
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The Portrait of a Lady
Lord Warburton suggested. “I think she must be, from the way she
handles the dog.”
The collie, too, had now allowed his attention to be diverted, and
he trotted toward the young lady in the doorway, slowly setting his
tail in motion as he went.
“But where’s my wife then?” murmured the old man.
“I suppose the young lady has left her somewhere: that’s a part of
the independence.”
The girl spoke to Ralph, smiling, while she still held up the terrier. “Is this your little dog, sir?”
“He was mine a moment ago; but you’ve suddenly acquired a
remarkable air of property in him.”
“Couldn’t we share him?” asked the girl. “He’s such a perfect little
darling.”
Ralph looked at her a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty. “You
may have him altogether,” he then replied.
The young lady seemed to have a great deal of confidence, both
in herself and in others; but this abrupt generosity made her blush.
“I ought to tell you that I’m probably your cousin,” she brought
out, putting down the dog. “And here’s another!” she added quickly,
as the collie came up.
“Probably?” the young man exclaimed, laughing. “I supposed it
was quite settled! Have you arrived with my mother?”
“Yes, half an hour ago.”
“And has she deposited you and departed again?”
“No, she went straight to her room, and she told me that, if I
should see you, I was to say to you that you must come to her there
at a quarter to seven.”
The young man looked at his watch. “Thank you very much; I
shall be punctual.” And then he looked at his cousin. “You’re very
welcome here. I’m delighted to see you.”
She was looking at everything, with an eye that denoted clear
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perception—at her companion, at the two dogs, at the two gentlemen under the trees, at the beautiful scene that surrounded her.
“I’ve never seen anything so lovely as this place. I’ve been all over
the house; it’s too enchanting.”
“I’m sorry you should have been here so long without our knowing it.”
“Your mother told me that in England people arrived very quietly; so I thought it was all right. Is one of those gentlemen your
father?”
“Yes, the elder one—the one sitting down,” said Ralph.
The girl gave a laugh. “I don’t suppose it’s the other. Who’s the
other?”
“He’s a friend of ours—Lord Warburton.”
“Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it’s just like a novel!” And
then, “Oh you adorable creature!” she suddenly cried, stooping down
and picking up the small dog again.
She remained standing where they had met, making no offer to
advance or to speak to Mr. Touchett, and while she lingered so near
the threshold, slim and charming, her interlocutor wondered if she
expected the old man to come and pay her his respects. American
girls were used to a great deal of deference, and it had been intimated that this one had a high spirit. Indeed Ralph could see that
in her face.
“Won’t you come and make acquaintance with my father?” he
nevertheless ventured to ask. “He’s old and infirm—he doesn’t leave
his chair.”
“Ah, poor man, I’m very sorry!” the girl exclaimed, immediately
moving forward. “I got the impression from your mother that he
was rather intensely active.”
Ralph Touchett was silent a moment. “She hasn’t seen him for a
year.”
“Well, he has a lovely place to sit. Come along, little hound.”
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“It’s a dear old place,” said the young man, looking sidewise at his
neighbour.
“What’s his name?” she asked, her attention having again reverted
to the terrier.
“My father’s name?”
“Yes,” said the young lady with amusement; “but don’t tell him I
asked you.”
They had come by this time to where old Mr. Touchett was sitting, and he slowly got up from his chair to introduce himself.
“My mother has arrived,” said Ralph, “and this is Miss Archer.”
The old man placed his two hands on her shoulders, looked at her
a moment with extreme benevolence and then gallantly kissed her.
“It’s a great pleasure to me to see you here; but I wish you had given
us a chance to receive you.”
“Oh, we were received,” said the girl. “There were about a dozen
servants in the hall. And there was an old woman curtseying at the
gate.”
“We can do better than that—if we have notice!” And the old
man stood there smiling, rubbing his hands and slowly shaking his
head at her. “But Mrs. Touchett doesn’t like receptions.”
“She went straight to her room.”
“Yes—and locked herself in. She always does that. Well, I suppose
I shall see her next week.” And Mrs. Touchett’s husband slowly resumed his former posture.
“Before that,” said Miss Archer. “She’s coming down to dinner—
at eight o’clock. Don’t you forget a quarter to seven,” she added,
turning with a smile to Ralph.
“What’s to happen at a quarter to seven?”
“I’m to see my mother,” said Ralph.
“Ah, happy boy!” the old man commented. “You must sit down—
you must have some tea,” he observed to his wife’s niece.
“They gave me some tea in my room the moment I got there,”
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this young lady answered. “I’m sorry you’re out of health,” she added,
resting her eyes upon her venerable host.
“Oh, I’m an old man, my dear; it’s time for me to be old. But I
shall be the better for having you here.”
She had been looking all round her again—at the lawn, the great
trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house; and while
engaged in this survey she had made room in it for her companions;
a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part
of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited.
She had seated herself and had put away the little dog; her white
hands, in her lap, were folded upon her black dress; her head was
erect, her eye lighted, her flexible figure turned itself easily this way
and that, in sympathy with the alertness with which she evidently
caught impressions. Her impressions were numerous, and they were
all reflected in a clear, still smile. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.”
“It’s looking very well,” said Mr. Touchett. “I know the way it
strikes you. I’ve been through all that. But you’re very beautiful yourself,” he added with a politeness by no means crudely jocular and
with the happy consciousness that his advanced age gave him the
privilege of saying such things—even to young persons who might
possibly take alarm at them.
What degree of alarm this young person took need not be exactly
measured; she instantly rose, however, with a blush which was not a
refutation. “Oh yes, of course I’m lovely!” she returned with a quick
laugh. “How old is your house? Is it Elizabethan?”
“It’s early Tudor,” said Ralph Touchett.
She turned toward him, watching his face. “Early Tudor? How
very delightful! And I suppose there are a great many others.”
“There are many much better ones.”
“Don’t say that, my son!” the old man protested. “There’s nothing
better than this.”
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“I’ve got a very good one; I think in some respects it’s rather better,” said Lord Warburton, who as yet had not spoken, but who had
kept an attentive eye upon Miss Archer. He slightly inclined himself, smiling; he had an excellent manner with women. The girl
appreciated it in an instant; she had not forgotten that this was
Lord Warburton. “I should like very much to show it to you,” he
added.
“Don’t believe him,” cried the old man; “don’t look at it! It’s a
wretched old barrack—not to be compared with this.”
“I don’t know—I can’t judge,” said the girl, smiling at Lord
Warburton.
In this discussion Ralph Touchett took no interest whatever; he
stood with his hands in his pockets, looking greatly as if he should
like to renew his conversation with his new-found cousin.
“Are you very fond of dogs?” he enquired by way of beginning.
He seemed to recognise that it was an awkward beginning for a
clever man.
“Very fond of them indeed.”
“You must keep the terrier, you know,” he went on, still awkwardly.
“I’ll keep him while I’m here, with pleasure.”
“That will be for a long time, I hope.”
“You’re very kind. I hardly know. My aunt must settle that.”
“I’ll settle it with her—at a quarter to seven.” And Ralph looked
at his watch again.
“I’m glad to be here at all,” said the girl.
“I don’t believe you allow things to be settled for you.”
“Oh yes; if they’re settled as I like them.”
“I shall settle this as I like it,” said Ralph. It’s most unaccountable
that we should never have known you.”
“I was there—you had only to come and see me.”
“There? Where do you mean?”
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“In the United States: in New York and Albany and other American places.”
“I’ve been there—all over, but I never saw you. I can’t make it
out.”
Miss Archer just hesitated. “It was because there had been some
disagreement between your mother and my father, after my mother’s
death, which took place when I was a child. In consequence of it we
never expected to see you.”
“Ah, but I don’t embrace all my mother’s quarrels—heaven forbid!” the young man cried. “You’ve lately lost your father?” he went
on more gravely.
“Yes; more than a year ago. After that my aunt was very kind to
me; she came to see me and proposed that I should come with her
to Europe.”
“I see,” said Ralph. “She has adopted you.”
“Adopted me?” The girl stared, and her blush came back to her,
together with a momentary look of pain which gave her interlocutor some alarm. He had underestimated the effect of his words.
Lord Warburton, who appeared constantly desirous of a nearer view
of Miss Archer, strolled toward the two cousins at the moment, and
as he did so she rested her wider eyes on him.
“Oh no; she has not adopted me. I’m not a candidate for adoption.”
“I beg a thousand pardons,” Ralph murmured. “I meant—I
meant—” He hardly knew what he meant.
“You meant she has taken me up. Yes; she likes to take people up.
She has been very kind to me; but,” she added with a certain visible
eagerness of desire to be explicit, “I’m very fond of my liberty.”
“Are you talking about Mrs. Touchett?” the old man called out
from his chair. “Come here, my dear, and tell me about her. I’m
always thankful for information.”
The girl hesitated again, smiling. “She’s really very benevolent,”
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The Portrait of a Lady
she answered; after which she went over to her uncle, whose mirth
was excited by her words.
Lord Warburton was left standing with Ralph Touchett, to whom
in a moment he said: “You wished a while ago to see my idea of an
interesting woman. There it is!”
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CHAPTER III
MRS. TOUCHETT was certainly a person of many oddities, of which
her behaviour on returning to her husband’s house after many
months was a noticeable specimen. She had her own way of doing
all that she did, and this is the simplest description of a character
which, although by no means without liberal motions, rarely succeeded in giving an impression of suavity. Mrs. Touchett might do a
great deal of good, but she never pleased. This way of her own, of
which she was so fond, was not intrinsically offensive—it was just
unmistakeably distinguished from the ways of others. The edges of
her conduct were so very clear-cut that for susceptible persons it
sometimes had a knife-like effect. That hard fineness came out in
her deportment during the first hours of her return from America,
under circumstances in which it might have seemed that her first
act would have been to exchange greetings with her husband and
son. Mrs. Touchett, for reasons which she deemed excellent, always
retired on such occasions into impenetrable seclusion, postponing
the more sentimental ceremony until she had repaired the disorder
of dress with a completeness which had the less reason to be of high
importance as neither beauty nor vanity were concerned in it. She
was a plain-faced old woman, without graces and without any great
elegance, but with an extreme respect for her own motives. She was
usually prepared to explain these—when the explanation was asked
as a favour; and in such a case they proved totally different from
those that had been attributed to her. She was virtually separated
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from her husband, but she appeared to perceive nothing irregular in
the situation. It had become clear, at an early stage of their community, that they should never desire the same thing at the same moment, and this appearance had prompted her to rescue disagreement from the vulgar realm of accident. She did what she could to
erect it into a law—a much more edifying aspect of it—by going to
live in Florence, where she bought a house and established herself;
and by leaving her husband to take care of the English branch of his
bank. This arrangement greatly pleased her; it was so felicitously
definite. It struck her husband in the same light, in a foggy square
in London, where it was at times the most definite fact he discerned;
but he would have preferred that such unnatural things should have
a greater vagueness. To agree to disagree had cost him an effort; he
was ready to agree to almost anything but that, and saw no reason
why either assent or dissent should be so terribly consistent. Mrs.
Touchett indulged in no regrets nor speculations, and usually came
once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during
which she apparently took pains to convince him that she had
adopted the right system. She was not fond of the English style of
life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for
Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested
bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted
like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maidservants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett
was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a
mistress of her art. At fixed intervals she paid a visit to her own
country; but this last had been longer than any of its predecessors.
She had taken up her niece—there was little doubt of that. One
wet afternoon, some four months earlier than the occurrence lately
narrated, this young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say
she was so occupied is to say that her solitude did not press upon
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her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilising quality and her imagination was strong. There was at this time, however, a want of fresh
taste in her situation which the arrival of an unexpected visitor did
much to correct. The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard
her at last walking about the adjoining room. It was in an old house
at Albany, a large, square, double house, with a notice of sale in the
windows of one of the lower apartments. There were two entrances,
one of which had long been out of use but had never been removed.
They were exactly alike—large white doors, with an arched frame
and wide side-lights, perched upon little “stoops” of red stone, which
descended sidewise to the brick pavement of the street. The two
houses together formed a single dwelling, the party-wall having been
removed and the rooms placed in communication. These rooms,
above-stairs, were extremely numerous, and were painted all over
exactly alike, in a yellowish white which had grown sallow with
time. On the third floor there was a sort of arched passage, connecting the two sides of the house, which Isabel and her sisters used in
their childhood to call the tunnel and which, though it was short
and well lighted, always seemed to the girl to be strange and lonely,
especially on winter afternoons. She had been in the house, at different periods, as a child; in those days her grandmother lived there.
Then there had been an absence of ten years, followed by a return
to Albany before her father’s death. Her grandmother, old Mrs. Archer, had exercised, chiefly within the limits of the family, a large
hospitality in the early period, and the little girls often spent weeks
under her roof—weeks of which Isabel had the happiest memory.
The manner of life was different from that of her own home—
larger, more plentiful, practically more festal; the discipline of the
nursery was delightfully vague and the opportunity of listening to
the conversation of one’s elders (which with Isabel was a highlyvalued pleasure) almost unbounded. There was a constant coming
and going; her grandmother’s sons and daughters and their children
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appeared to be in the enjoyment of standing invitations to arrive
and remain, so that the house offered to a certain extent the appearance of a bustling provincial inn kept by a gentle old landlady who
sighed a great deal and never presented a bill. Isabel of course knew
nothing about bills; but even as a child she thought her grandmother’s
home romantic. There was a covered piazza behind it, furnished
with a swing which was a source of tremulous interest; and beyond
this was a long garden, sloping down to the stable and containing
peach-trees of barely credible familiarity. Isabel had stayed with her
grandmother at various seasons, but somehow all her visits had a
flavour of peaches. On the other side, across the street, was an old
house that was called the Dutch House—a peculiar structure dating from the earliest colonial time, composed of bricks that had
been painted yellow, crowned with a gable that was pointed out to
strangers, defended by a rickety wooden paling and standing sidewise to the street. It was occupied by a primary school for children
of both sexes, kept or rather let go, by a demonstrative lady of whom
Isabel’s chief recollection was that her hair was fastened with strange
bedroomy combs at the temples and that she was the widow of
some one of consequence. The little girl had been offered the opportunity of laying a foundation of knowledge in this establishment;
but having spent a single day in it, she had protested against its laws
and had been allowed to stay at home, where, in the September
days, when the windows of the Dutch House were open, she used
to hear the hum of childish voices repeating the multiplication
table—an incident in which the elation of liberty and the pain of
exclusion were indistinguishably mingled. The foundation of her
knowledge was really laid in the idleness of her grandmother’s house,
where, as most of the other inmates were not reading people, she
had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces,
which she used to climb upon a chair to take down. When she had
found one to her taste—she was guided in the selection chiefly by
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the frontispiece— she carried it into a mysterious apartment which
lay beyond the library and which was called, traditionally, no one
knew why, the office. Whose office it had been and at what period
it had flourished, she never learned; it was enough for her that it
contained an echo and a pleasant musty smell and that it was a
chamber of disgrace for old pieces of furniture whose infirmities
were not always apparent (so that the disgrace seemed unmerited
and rendered them victims of injustice) and with which, in the
manner of children, she had established relations almost human,
certainly dramatic. There was an old haircloth sofa in especial, to
which she had confided a hundred childish sorrows. The place owed
much of its mysterious melancholy to the fact that it was properly
entered from the second door of the house, the door that had been
condemned, and that it was secured by bolts which a particularly
slender little girl found it impossible to slide. She knew that this
silent, motionless portal opened into the street; if the sidelights had
not been filled with green paper she might have looked out upon
the little brown stoop and the well-worn brick pavement. But she
had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her
theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side—a
place which became to the child’s imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or of terror.
It was in the “office” still that Isabel was sitting on that melancholy afternoon of early spring which I have just mentioned. At this
time she might have had the whole house to choose from, and the
room she had selected was the most depressed of its scenes. She had
never opened the bolted door nor removed the green paper (renewed by other hands) from its sidelights; she had never assured
herself that the vulgar street lay beyond. A crude, cold rain fell heavily;
the spring-time was indeed an appeal—and it seemed a cynical,
insincere appeal—to patience. Isabel, however, gave as little heed as
possible to cosmic treacheries; she kept her eyes on her book and
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tried to fix her mind. It had lately occurred to her that her mind was
a good deal of a vagabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in
training it to a military step and teaching it to advance, to halt, to
retreat, to perform even more complicated manoeuvres, at the word
of command. Just now she had given it marching orders and it had
been trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German Thought.
Suddenly she became aware of a step very different from her own
intellectual pace; she listened a little and perceived that some one
was moving in the library, which communicated with the office. It
struck her first as the step of a person from whom she was looking
for a visit, then almost immediately announced itself as the tread of
a woman and a stranger—her possible visitor being neither. It had
an inquisitive, experimental quality which suggested that it would
not stop short of the threshold of the office; and in fact the doorway
of this apartment was presently occupied by a lady who paused there
and looked very hard at our heroine. She was a plain, elderly woman,
dressed in a comprehensive waterproof mantle; she had a face with
a good deal of rather violent point.
“Oh,” she began, “is that where you usually sit?” She looked about
at the heterogeneous chairs and tables.
“Not when I have visitors,” said Isabel, getting up to receive the
intruder.
She directed their course back to the library while the visitor continued to look about her. “You seem to have plenty of other rooms;
they’re in rather better condition. But everything’s immensely worn.”
“Have you come to look at the house?” Isabel asked. “The servant
will show it to you.”
“Send her away; I don’t want to buy it. She has probably gone to
look for you and is wandering about upstairs; she didn’t seem at all
intelligent. You had better tell her it’s no matter.” And then, since the
girl stood there hesitating and wondering, this unexpected critic said
to her abruptly: “I suppose you’re one of the daughters?”
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Isabel thought she had very strange manners. “It depends upon
whose daughters you mean.”
“The late Mr. Archer’s—and my poor sister’s.”
“Ah,” said Isabel slowly, “you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!”
“Is that what your father told you to call me? I’m your Aunt Lydia,
but I’m not at all crazy: I haven’t a delusion! And which of the daughters are you?”
“I’m the youngest of the three, and my name’s Isabel.”
“Yes; the others are Lilian and Edith. And are you the prettiest?”
“I haven’t the least idea,” said the girl.
“I think you must be.” And in this way the aunt and the niece
made friends. The aunt had quarrelled years before with her brotherin-law, after the death of her sister, taking him to task for the manner in which he brought up his three girls. Being a high-tempered
man he had requested her to mind her own business, and she had
taken him at his word. For many years she held no communication
with him and after his death had addressed not a word to his daughters, who had been bred in that disrespectful view of her which we
have just seen Isabel betray. Mrs. Touchett’s behaviour was, as usual,
perfectly deliberate. She intended to go to America to look after her
investments (with which her husband, in spite of his great financial
position, had nothing to do) and would take advantage of this opportunity to enquire into the condition of her nieces. There was no
need of writing, for she should attach no importance to any account of them she should elicit by letter; she believed, always, in
seeing for one’s self. Isabel found, however, that she knew a good
deal about them, and knew about the marriage of the two elder
girls; knew that their poor father had left very little money, but that
the house in Albany, which had passed into his hands, was to be
sold for their benefit; knew, finally, that Edmund Ludlow, Lilian’s
husband, had taken upon himself to attend to this matter, in consideration of which the young couple, who had come to Albany
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during Mr. Archer’s illness, were remaining there for the present
and, as well as Isabel herself, occupying the old place.
“How much money do you expect for it?” Mrs. Touchett asked of
her companion, who had brought her to sit in the front parlour,
which she had inspected without enthusiasm.
“I haven’t the least idea,” said the girl.
“That’s the second time you have said that to me,” her aunt rejoined. “And yet you don’t look at all stupid.”
“I’m not stupid; but I don’t know anything about money.”
“Yes, that’s the way you were brought up—as if you were to inherit a million. What have you in point of fact inherited?”
“I really can’t tell you. You must ask Edmund and Lilian; they’ll
be back in half an hour.”
“In Florence we should call it a very bad house,” said Mrs. Touchett;
“but here, I dare say, it will bring a high price. It ought to make a
considerable sum for each of you. In addition to that you must have
something else; it’s most extraordinary your not knowing. The
position’s of value, and they’ll probably pull it down and make a
row of shops. I wonder you don’t do that yourself; you might let the
shops to great advantage.”
Isabel stared; the idea of letting shops was new to her. “I hope
they won’t pull it down,” she said; “I’m extremely fond of it.”
“I don’t see what makes you fond of it; your father died here.”
“Yes; but I don’t dislike it for that,” the girl rather strangely returned. “I like places in which things have happened—even if they’re
sad things. A great many people have died here; the place has been
full of life.”
“Is that what you call being full of life?”
“I mean full of experience—of people’s feelings and sorrows. And
not of their sorrows only, for I’ve been very happy here as a child.”
“You should go to Florence if you like houses in which things
have happened—especially deaths. I live in an old palace in which
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three people have been murdered; three that were known and I don’t
know how many more besides.”
“In an old palace?” Isabel repeated.
“Yes, my dear; a very different affair from this. This is very bourgeois.”
Isabel felt some emotion, for she had always thought highly of her
grandmother’s house. But the emotion was of a kind which led her
to say: “I should like very much to go to Florence.”
“Well, if you’ll be very good, and do everything I tell you I’ll take
you there,” Mrs. Touchett declared.
Our young woman’s emotion deepened; she flushed a little and
smiled at her aunt in silence. “Do everything you tell me? I don’t
think I can promise that.”
“No, you don’t look like a person of that sort. You’re fond of your
own way; but it’s not for me to blame you.”
“And yet, to go to Florence,” the girl exclaimed in a moment, “I’d
promise almost anything!”
Edmund and Lilian were slow to return, and Mrs. Touchett had
an hour’s uninterrupted talk with her niece, who found her a strange
and interesting figure: a figure essentially—almost the first she had
ever met. She was as eccentric as Isabel had always supposed; and
hitherto, whenever the girl had heard people described as eccentric,
she had thought of them as offensive or alarming. The term had
always suggested to her something grotesque and even sinister. But
her aunt made it a matter of high but easy irony, or comedy, and led
her to ask herself if the common tone, which was all she had known,
had ever been as interesting. No one certainly had on any occasion
so held her as this little thin-lipped, bright-eyed, foreign-looking
woman, who retrieved an insignificant appearance by a distinguished
manner and, sitting there in a well-worn waterproof, talked with
striking familiarity of the courts of Europe. There was nothing flighty
about Mrs. Touchett, but she recognised no social superiors, and,
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judging the great ones of the earth in a way that spoke of this, enjoyed the consciousness of making an impression on a candid and
susceptible mind. Isabel at first had answered a good many questions, and it was from her answers apparently that Mrs. Touchett
derived a high opinion of her intelligence. But after this she had
asked a good many, and her aunt’s answers, whatever turn they took,
struck her as food for deep reflexion. Mrs. Touchett waited for the
return of her other niece as long as she thought reasonable, but as at
six o’clock Mrs. Ludlow had not come in she prepared to take her
departure.
“Your sister must be a great gossip. Is she accustomed to staying
out so many hours?”
“You’ve been out almost as long as she,” Isabel replied; “she can
have left the house but a short time before you came in.”
Mrs. Touchett looked at the girl without resentment; she appeared to
enjoy a bold retort and to be disposed to be gracious. “Perhaps she hasn’t
had so good an excuse as I. Tell her at any rate that she must come and see
me this evening at that horrid hotel. She may bring her husband if she
likes, but she needn’t bring you. I shall see plenty of you later.”
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CHAPTER IV
MRS. LUDLOW was the eldest of the three sisters, and was usually
thought the most sensible; the classification being in general that
Lilian was the practical one, Edith the beauty and Isabel the “intellectual” superior. Mrs. Keyes, the second of the group, was the wife
of an officer of the United States Engineers, and as our history is
not further concerned with her it will suffice that she was indeed
very pretty and that she formed the ornament of those various military stations, chiefly in the unfashionable West, to which, to her
deep chagrin, her husband was successively relegated. Lilian had
married a New York lawyer, a young man with a loud voice and an
enthusiasm for his profession; the match was not brilliant, any more
than Edith’s, but Lilian had occasionally been spoken of as a young
woman who might be thankful to marry at all—she was so much
plainer than her sisters. She was, however, very happy, and now, as
the mother of two peremptory little boys and the mistress of a wedge
of brown stone violently driven into Fifty-third Street, seemed to
exult in her condition as in a bold escape. She was short and solid,
and her claim to figure was questioned, but she was conceded presence, though not majesty; she had moreover, as people said, improved since her marriage, and the two things in life of which she
was most distinctly conscious were her husband’s force in argument
and her sister Isabel’s originality. “I’ve never kept up with Isabel—it
would have taken all my time,” she had often remarked; in spite of
which, however, she held her rather wistfully in sight; watching her
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as a motherly spaniel might watch a free greyhound. “I want to see
her safely married—that’s what I want to see,” she frequently noted
to her husband.
“Well, I must say I should have no particular desire to marry her,”
Edmund Ludlow was accustomed to answer in an extremely audible tone.
“I know you say that for argument; you always take the opposite
ground. I don’t see what you’ve against her except that she’s so original.”
“Well, I don’t like originals; I like translations,” Mr. Ludlow had
more than once replied. “Isabel’s written in a foreign tongue. I can’t
make her out. She ought to marry an Armenian or a Portuguese.”
“That’s just what I’m afraid she’ll do!” cried Lilian, who thought
Isabel capable of anything.
She listened with great interest to the girl’s account of Mrs.
Touchett’s appearance and in the evening prepared to comply with
their aunt’s commands. Of what Isabel then said no report has remained, but her sister’s words had doubtless prompted a word spoken to her husband as the two were making ready for their visit. “I
do hope immensely she’ll do something handsome for Isabel; she
has evidently taken a great fancy to her.”
“What is it you wish her to do?” Edmund Ludlow asked. “Make
her a big present?”
“No indeed; nothing of the sort. But take an interest in her—
sympathise with her. She’s evidently just the sort of person to appreciate her. She has lived so much in foreign society; she told Isabel all
about it. You know you’ve always thought Isabel rather foreign.”
“You want her to give her a little foreign sympathy, eh? Don’t you
think she gets enough at home?”
“Well, she ought to go abroad,” said Mrs. Ludlow. “She’s just the
person to go abroad.”
“And you want the old lady to take her, is that it?”
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“She has offered to take her—she’s dying to have Isabel go. But
what I want her to do when she gets her there is to give her all the
advantages. I’m sure all we’ve got to do,” said Mrs. Ludlow, “is to
give her a chance.”
“A chance for what?”
“A chance to develop.”
“Oh Moses!” Edmund Ludlow exclaimed. “I hope she isn’t going
to develop any more!”
“If I were not sure you only said that for argument I should feel
very badly,” his wife replied. “But you know you love her.”
“Do you know I love you?” the young man said, jocosely, to Isabel
a little later, while he brushed his hat.
“I’m sure I don’t care whether you do or not!” exclaimed the girl;
whose voice and smile, however, were less haughty than her words.
“Oh, she feels so grand since Mrs. Touchett’s visit,” said her sister.
But Isabel challenged this assertion with a good deal of seriousness. “You must not say that, Lily. I don’t feel grand at all.”
“I’m sure there’s no harm,” said the conciliatory Lily.
“Ah, but there’s nothing in Mrs. Touchett’s visit to make one feel
grand.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Ludlow, “she’s grander than ever!”
“Whenever I feel grand,” said the girl, “it will be for a better reason.”
Whether she felt grand or no, she at any rate felt different, as if
something had happened to her. Left to herself for the evening she
sat a while under the lamp, her hands empty, her usual avocations
unheeded. Then she rose and moved about the room, and from one
room to another, preferring the places where the vague lamplight
expired. She was restless and even agitated; at moments she trembled
a little. The importance of what had happened was out of proportion to its appearance; there had really been a change in her life.
What it would bring with it was as yet extremely indefinite; but
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Isabel was in a situation that gave a value to any change. She had a
desire to leave the past behind her and, as she said to herself, to
begin afresh. This desire indeed was not a birth of the present occasion; it was as familiar as the sound of the rain upon the window
and it had led to her beginning afresh a great many times. She closed
her eyes as she sat in one of the dusky corners of the quiet parlour;
but it was not with a desire for dozing forgetfulness. It was on the
contrary because she felt too wide-eyed and wished to check the
sense of seeing too many things at once. Her imagination was by
habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped
out of the window. She was not accustomed indeed to keep it behind bolts; and at important moments, when she would have been
thankful to make use of her judgement alone, she paid the penalty
of having given undue encouragement to the faculty of seeing without judging. At present, with her sense that the note of change had
been struck, came gradually a host of images of the things she was
leaving behind her. The years and hours of her life came back to her,
and for a long time, in a stillness broken only by the ticking of the
big bronze clock, she passed them in review. It had been a very
happy life and she had been a very fortunate person—this was the
truth that seemed to emerge most vividly. She had had the best of
everything, and in a world in which the circumstances of so many
people made them unenviable it was an advantage never to have
known anything particularly unpleasant. It appeared to Isabel that
the unpleasant had been even too absent from her knowledge, for
she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was
often a source of interest and even of instruction. Her father had
kept it away from her—her handsome, much loved father, who always had such an aversion to it. It was a great felicity to have been
his daughter; Isabel rose even to pride in her parentage. Since his
death she had seemed to see him as turning his braver side to his
children and as not having managed to ignore the ugly quite so
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much in practice as in aspiration. But this only made her tenderness
for him greater; it was scarcely even painful to have to suppose him
too generous, too good-natured, too indifferent to sordid considerations. Many persons had held that he carried this indifference too
far, especially the large number of those to whom he owed money.
Of their opinions Isabel was never very definitely informed; but it
may interest the reader to know that, while they had recognised in
the late Mr. Archer a remarkably handsome head and a very taking
manner (indeed, as one of them had said, he was always taking
something), they had declared that he was making a very poor use
of his life. He had squandered a substantial fortune, he had been
deplorably convivial, he was known to have gambled freely. A few
very harsh critics went so far as to say that he had not even brought
up his daughters. They had had no regular education and no permanent home; they had been at once spoiled and neglected; they
had lived with nursemaids and governesses (usually very bad ones)
or had been sent to superficial schools, kept by the French, from
which, at the end of a month, they had been removed in tears. This
view of the matter would have excited Isabel’s indignation, for to
her own sense her opportunities had been large. Even when her
father had left his daughters for three months at Neufchatel with a
French bonne who had eloped with a Russian nobleman staying at
the same hotel—even in this irregular situation (an incident of the
girl’s eleventh year) she had been neither frightened nor ashamed,
but had thought it a romantic episode in a liberal education. Her
father had a large way of looking at life, of which his restlessness
and even his occasional incoherency of conduct had been only a
proof. He wished his daughters, even as children, to see as much of
the world as possible; and it was for this purpose that, before Isabel
was fourteen, he had transported them three times across the Atlantic, giving them on each occasion, however, but a few months’ view
of the subject proposed: a course which had whetted our heroine’s
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curiosity without enabling her to satisfy it. She ought to have been
a partisan of her father, for she was the member of his trio who most
“made up” to him for the disagreeables he didn’t mention. In his last
days his general willingness to take leave of a world in which the
difficulty of doing as one liked appeared to increase as one grew
older had been sensibly modified by the pain of separation from his
clever, his superior, his remarkable girl. Later, when the journeys to
Europe ceased, he still had shown his children all sorts of indulgence, and if he had been troubled about money-matters nothing
ever disturbed their irreflective consciousness of many possessions.
Isabel, though she danced very well, had not the recollection of
having been in New York a successful member of the choreographic
circle; her sister Edith was, as every one said, so very much more
fetching. Edith was so striking an example of success that Isabel
could have no illusions as to what constituted this advantage, or as
to the limits of her own power to frisk and jump and shriek—above
all with rightness of effect. Nineteen persons out of twenty (including the younger sister herself) pronounced Edith infinitely the prettier of the two; but the twentieth, besides reversing this judgement,
had the entertainment of thinking all the others aesthetic vulgarians. Isabel had in the depths of her nature an even more unquenchable desire to please than Edith; but the depths of this young lady’s
nature were a very out-of-the-way place, between which and the
surface communication was interrupted by a dozen capricious forces.
She saw the young men who came in large numbers to see her sister;
but as a general thing they were afraid of her; they had a belief that
some special preparation was required for talking with her. Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult
questions and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The
poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought
bookish; she used to read in secret and, though her memory was
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excellent, to abstain from showy reference. She had a great desire
for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life
and was constantly staring and wondering. She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the
continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world. For this reason she was fond of seeing great crowds
and large stretches of country, of reading about revolutions and wars,
of looking at historical pictures—a class of efforts as to which she
had often committed the conscious solecism of forgiving them much
bad painting for the sake of the subject. While the Civil War went
on she was still a very young girl; but she passed months of this long
period in a state of almost passionate excitement, in which she felt
herself at times (to her extreme confusion) stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army. Of course the circumspection of
suspicious swains had never gone the length of making her a social
proscript; for the number of those whose hearts, as they approached
her, beat only just fast enough to remind them they had heads as
well, had kept her unacquainted with the supreme disciplines of her
sex and age. She had had everything a girl could have: kindness,
admiration, bonbons, bouquets, the sense of exclusion from none
of the privileges of the world she lived in, abundant opportunity for
dancing, plenty of new dresses, the London Spectator, the latest
publications, the music of Gounod, the poetry of Browning, the
prose of George Eliot.
These things now, as memory played over them, resolved themselves into a multitude of scenes and figures. Forgotten things came
back to her; many others, which she had lately thought of great
moment, dropped out of sight. The result was kaleidoscopic, but
the movement of the instrument was checked at last by the servant’s
coming in with the name of a gentleman. The name of the gentleman was Caspar Goodwood; he was a straight young man from
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Boston, who had known Miss Archer for the last twelvemonth and
who, thinking her the most beautiful young woman of her time,
had pronounced the time, according to the rule I have hinted at, a
foolish period of history. He sometimes wrote to her and had within
a week or two written from New York. She had thought it very
possible he would come in—had indeed all the rainy day been
vaguely expecting him. Now that she learned he was there, nevertheless, she felt no eagerness to receive him. He was the finest young
man she had ever seen, was indeed quite a splendid young man; he
inspired her with a sentiment of high, of rare respect. She had never
felt equally moved to it by any other person. He was supposed by
the world in general to wish to marry her, but this of course was
between themselves. It at least may be affirmed that he had travelled from New York to Albany expressly to see her; having learned
in the former city, where he was spending a few days and where he
had hoped to find her, that she was still at the State capital. Isabel
delayed for some minutes to go to him; she moved about the room
with a new sense of complications. But at last she presented herself
and found him standing near the lamp. He was tall, strong and
somewhat stiff; he was also lean and brown. He was not romantically, he was much rather obscurely, handsome; but his physiognomy had an air of requesting your attention, which it rewarded
according to the charm you found in blue eyes of remarkable fixedness, the eyes of a complexion other than his own, and a jaw of the
somewhat angular mould which is supposed to bespeak resolution.
Isabel said to herself that it bespoke resolution to-night; in spite of
which, in half an hour, Caspar Goodwood, who had arrived hopeful as well as resolute, took his way back to his lodging with the
feeling of a man defeated. He was not, it may be added, a man
weakly to accept defeat.
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CHAPTER V
RALPH TOUCHETT was a philosopher, but nevertheless he knocked at
his mother’s door (at a quarter to seven) with a good deal of eagerness. Even philosophers have their preferences, and it must be admitted that of his progenitors his father ministered most to his sense
of the sweetness of filial dependence. His father, as he had often
said to himself, was the more motherly; his mother, on the other
hand, was paternal, and even, according to the slang of the day,
gubernatorial. She was nevertheless very fond of her only child and
had always insisted on his spending three months of the year with
her. Ralph rendered perfect justice to her affection and knew that in
her thoughts and her thoroughly arranged and servanted life his
turn always came after the other nearest subjects of her solicitude,
the various punctualities of performance of the workers of her will.
He found her completely dressed for dinner, but she embraced her
boy with her gloved hands and made him sit on the sofa beside her.
She enquired scrupulously about her husband’s health and about
the young man’s own, and, receiving no very brilliant account of
either, remarked that she was more than ever convinced of her wisdom in not exposing herself to the English climate. In this case she
also might have given way. Ralph smiled at the idea of his mother’s
giving way, but made no point of reminding her that his own infirmity was not the result of the English climate, from which he
absented himself for a considerable part of each year.
He had been a very small boy when his father, Daniel Tracy
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Touchett, a native of Rutland, in the State of Vermont, came to
England as subordinate partner in a banking-house where some ten
years later he gained preponderant control. Daniel Touchett saw
before him a life-long residence in his adopted country, of which,
from the first, he took a simple, sane and accommodating view.
But, as he said to himself, he had no intention of disamericanising,
nor had he a desire to teach his only son any such subtle art. It had
been for himself so very soluble a problem to live in England assimilated yet unconverted that it seemed to him equally simple his
lawful heir should after his death carry on the grey old bank in the
white American light. He s was at pains to intensify this light, however, by sending the boy home for his education. Ralph spent several terms at an American school and took a degree at an American
university, after which, as he struck his father on his return as even
redundantly native, he was placed for some three years in residence
at Oxford. Oxford swallowed up Harvard, and Ralph became at last
English enough. His outward conformity to the manners that surrounded him was none the less the mask of a mind that greatly
enjoyed its independence, on which nothing long imposed itself,
and which, naturally inclined to adventure and irony, indulged in a
boundless liberty of appreciation. He began with being a young
man of promise; at Oxford he distinguished himself, to his father’s
ineffable satisfaction, and the people about him said it was a thousand pities so clever a fellow should be shut out from a career. He
might have had a career by returning to his own country (though
this point is shrouded in uncertainty) and even if Mr. Touchett had
been willing to part with him (which was not the case) it would
have gone hard with him to put a watery waste permanently between himself and the old man whom he regarded as his best friend.
Ralph was not only fond of his father, he admired him—he enjoyed
the opportunity of observing him. Daniel Touchett, to his perception, was a man of genius, and though he himself had no aptitude
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for the banking mystery he made a point of learning enough of it to
measure the great figure his father had played. It was not this, however, he mainly relished; it was the fine ivory surface, polished as by
the English air, that the old man had opposed to possibilities of
penetration. Daniel Touchett had been neither at Harvard nor at
Oxford, and it was his own fault if he had placed in his son’s hands
the key to modern criticism. Ralph, whose head was full of ideas
which his father had never guessed, had a high esteem for the latter’s
originality. Americans, rightly or wrongly, are commended for the
ease with which they adapt themselves to foreign conditions; but
Mr. Touchett had made of the very limits of his pliancy half the
ground of his general success. He had retained in their freshness
most of his marks of primary pressure; his tone, as his son always
noted with pleasure, was that of the more luxuriant parts of New
England. At the end of his life he had become, on his own ground,
as mellow as he was rich; he combined consummate shrewdness
with the disposition superficially to fraternise, and his “social position,” on which he had never wasted a care, had the firm perfection
of an unthumbed fruit. It was perhaps his want of imagination and
of what is called the historic consciousness; but to many of the impressions usually made by English life upon the cultivated stranger
his sense was completely closed. There were certain differences he
had never perceived, certain habits he had never formed, certain
obscurities he had never sounded. As regards these latter, on the day
he had sounded them his son would have thought less well of him.
Ralph, on leaving Oxford, had spent a couple of years in travelling; after which he had found himself perched on a high stool in
his father’s bank. The responsibility and honour of such positions is
not, I believe, measured by the height of the stool, which depends
upon other considerations: Ralph, indeed, who had very long legs,
was fond of standing, and even of walking about, at his work. To
this exercise, however, he was obliged to devote but a limited pe61
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riod, for at the end of some eighteen months he had become aware
of his being seriously out of health. He had caught a violent cold,
which fixed itself on his lungs and threw them into dire confusion.
He had to give up work and apply, to the letter, the sorry injunction
to take care of himself. At first he slighted the task; it appeared to
him it was not himself in the least he was taking care of, but an
uninteresting and uninterested person with whom he had nothing
in common. This person, however, improved on acquaintance, and
Ralph grew at last to have a certain grudging tolerance, even an
undemonstrative respect, for him. Misfortune makes strange bedfellows, and our young man, feeling that he had something at stake
in the matter—it usually struck him as his reputation for ordinary
wit—devoted to his graceless charge an amount of attention of which
note was duly taken and which had at least the effect of keeping the
poor fellow alive. One of his lungs began to heal, the other promised to follow its example, and he was assured he might outweather
a dozen winters if he would betake himself to those climates in which
consumptives chiefly congregate. As he had grown extremely fond
of London, he cursed the flatness of exile: but at the same time that
he cursed he conformed, and gradually, when he found his sensitive
organ grateful even for grim favours, he conferred them with a lighter
hand. He wintered abroad, as the phrase is; basked in the sun, stopped
at home when the wind blew, went to bed when it rained, and once
or twice, when it had snowed overnight, almost never got up again.
A secret hoard of indifference—like a thick cake a fond old nurse
might have slipped into his first school outfit—came to his aid and
helped to reconcile him to sacrifice; since at the best he was too ill
for aught but that arduous game. As he said to himself, there was
really nothing he had wanted very much to do, so that he had at
least not renounced the field of valour. At present, however, the
fragrance of forbidden fruit seemed occasionally to float past him
and remind him that the finest of pleasures is the rush of action.
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Living as he now lived was like reading a good book in a poor translation—a meagre entertainment for a young man who felt that he
might have been an excellent linguist. He had good winters and
poor winters, and while the former lasted he was sometimes the
sport of a vision of virtual recovery. But this vision was dispelled
some three years before the occurrence of the incidents with which
this history opens: he had on that occasion remained later than usual
in England and had been overtaken by bad weather before reaching
Algiers. He arrived more dead than alive and lay there for several
weeks between life and death. His convalescence was a miracle, but
the first use he made of it was to assure himself that such miracles
happen but once. He said to himself that his hour was in sight and
that it behoved him to keep his eyes upon it, yet that it was also
open to him to spend the interval as agreeably as might be consistent with such a preoccupation. With the prospect of losing them
the simple use of his faculties became an exquisite pleasure; it seemed
to him the joys of contemplation had never been sounded. He was
far from the time when he had found it hard that he should be
obliged to give up the idea of distinguishing himself; an idea none
the less importunate for being vague and none the less delightful for
having had to struggle in the same breast with bursts of inspiring
self-criticism. His friends at present judged him more cheerful, and
attributed it to a theory, over which they shook their heads knowingly, that he would recover his health. His serenity was but the
array of wild flowers niched in his ruin.
It was very probably this sweet-tasting property of the observed
thing in itself that was mainly concerned in Ralph’s quickly-stirred
interest in the advent of a young lady who was evidently not insipid.
If he was consideringly disposed, something told him, here was occupation enough for a succession of days. It may be added, in summary
fashion, that the imagination of loving—as distinguished from that
of being loved —had still a place in his reduced sketch. He had only
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forbidden himself the riot of expression. However, he shouldn’t inspire his cousin with a passion, nor would she be able, even should
she try, to help him to one. “And now tell me about the young lady,”
he said to his mother. “What do you mean to do with her?”
Mrs. Touchett was prompt. “I mean to ask your father to invite
her to stay three or four weeks at Gardencourt.”
“You needn’t stand on any such ceremony as that,” said Ralph.
“My father will ask her as a matter of course.”
“I don’t know about that. She’s my niece; she’s not his.”
“Good Lord, dear mother; what a sense of property! That’s all the
more reason for his asking her. But after that—I mean after three
months (for its absurd asking the poor girl to remain but for three
or four paltry weeks)—what do you mean to do with her?”
“I mean to take her to Paris. I mean to get her clothing.”
“Ah yes, that’s of course. But independently of that?”
“I shall invite her to spend the autumn with me in Florence.”
“You don’t rise above detail, dear mother,” said Ralph. “I should
like to know what you mean to do with her in a general way.”
“My duty!” Mrs. Touchett declared. “I suppose you pity her very
much,” she added.
“No, I don’t think I pity her. She doesn’t strike me as inviting
compassion. I think I envy her. Before being sure, however, give me
a hint of where you see your duty.”
“In showing her four European countries—I shall leave her the
choice of two of them—and in giving her the opportunity of perfecting herself in French, which she already knows very well.”
Ralph frowned a little. “That sounds rather dry—even allowing
her the choice of two of the countries.”
“If it’s dry,” said his mother with a laugh, “you can leave Isabel
alone to water it! She is as good as a summer rain, any day.”
“Do you mean she’s a gifted being?”
“I don’t know whether she’s a gifted being, but she’s a clever girl—
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with a strong will and a high temper. She has no idea of being bored.”
“I can imagine that,” said Ralph; and then he added abruptly:
“How do you two get on?”
“Do you mean by that that I’m a bore? I don’t think she finds me
one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel’s too clever for that. I
think I greatly amuse her. We get on because I understand her, I
know the sort of girl she is. She’s very frank, and I’m very frank: we
know just what to expect of each other.”
“Ah, dear mother,” Ralph exclaimed, “one always knows what to
expect of you! You’ve never surprised me but once, and that’s today—in presenting me with a pretty cousin whose existence I had
never suspected.”
“Do you think her so very pretty?”
“Very pretty indeed; but I don’t insist upon that. It’s her general
air of being some one in particular that strikes me. Who is this rare
creature, and what is she? Where did you find her, and how did you
make her acquaintance?”
“I found her in an old house at Albany, sitting in a dreary room
on a rainy day, reading a heavy book and boring herself to death.
She didn’t know she was bored, but when I left her no doubt of it
she seemed very grateful for the service. You may say I shouldn’t
have enlightened he—I should have let her alone. There’s a good
deal in that, but I acted conscientiously; I thought she was meant
for something better. It occurred to me that it would be a kindness
to take her about and introduce her to the world. She thinks she
knows a great deal of it—like most American girls; but like most
American girls she’s ridiculously mistaken. If you want to know, I
thought she would do me credit. I like to be well thought of, and
for a woman of my age there’s no greater convenience, in some ways,
than an attractive niece. You know I had seen nothing of my sister’s
children for years; I disapproved entirely of the father. But I always
meant to do something for them when he should have gone to his
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reward. I ascertained where they were to be found and, without any
preliminaries, went and introduced myself. There are two others of
them, both of whom are married; but I saw only the elder, who has,
by the way, a very uncivil husband. The wife, whose name is Lily,
jumped at the idea of my taking an interest in Isabel; she said it was
just what her sister needed—that some one should take an interest
in her. She spoke of her as you might speak of some young person
of genius—in want of encouragement and patronage. It may be
that Isabel’s a genius; but in that case I’ve not yet learned her special
line. Mrs. Ludlow was especially keen about my taking her to Europe; they all regard Europe over there as a land of emigration, of
rescue, a refuge for their superfluous population. Isabel herself seemed
very glad to come, and the thing was easily arranged. There was a
little difficulty about the money-question, as she seemed averse to
being under pecuniary obligations. But she has a small income and
she supposes herself to be travelling at her own expense.”
Ralph had listened attentively to this judicious report, by which
his interest in the subject of it was not impaired. “Ah, if she’s a
genius,” he said, “we must find out her special line. Is it by chance
for flirting?”
“I don’t think so. You may suspect that at first, but you’ll be wrong.
You won’t, I think, in anyway, be easily right about her.”
“Warburton’s wrong then!” Ralph rejoicingly exclaimed. “He flatters himself he has made that discovery.”
His mother shook her head. “Lord Warburton won’t understand
her. He needn’t try.”
“He’s very intelligent,” said Ralph; “but it’s right he should be
puzzled once in a while.”
“Isabel will enjoy puzzling a lord,” Mrs. Touchett remarked.
Her son frowned a little. What does she know about lords?”
“Nothing at all: that will puzzle him all the more.”
Ralph greeted these words with a laugh and looked out of the
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window. Then, “Are you not going down to see my father?” he asked.
“At a quarter to eight,” said Mrs. Touchett.
Her son looked at his watch. “You’ve another quarter of an hour
then. Tell me some more about Isabel.” After which, as Mrs. Touchett
declined his invitation, declaring that he must find out for himself,
“Well,” he pursued, “she’ll certainly do you credit. But won’t she
also give you trouble?”
“I hope not; but if she does I shall not shrink from it. I never do
that.”
“She strikes me as very natural,” said Ralph.
“Natural people are not the most trouble.”
“No,” said Ralph; “you yourself are a proof of that. You’re extremely natural, and I’m sure you have never troubled any one. It
takes trouble to do that. But tell me this; it just occurs to me. Is
Isabel capable of making herself disagreeable?”
“Ah,” cried his mother, “you ask too many questions! Find that
out for yourself.”
His questions, however, were not exhausted. “All this time,” he
said, “you’ve not told me what you intend to do with her.”
“Do with her? You talk as if she were a yard of calico. I shall do
absolutely nothing with her, and she herself will do everything she
chooses. She gave me notice of that.”
“What you meant then, in your telegram, was that her character’s
independent.”
“I never know what I mean in my telegrams—especially those I
send from America. Clearness is too expensive. Come down to your
father.”
“It’s not yet a quarter to eight,” said Ralph.
“I must allow for his impatience,” Mrs. Touchett answered. Ralph
knew what to think of his father’s impatience; but, making no rejoinder, he offered his mother his arm. This put it in his power, as
they descended together, to stop her a moment on the middle land67
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ing of the staircase—the broad, low, wide-armed staircase of timeblackened oak which was one of the most striking features of
Gardencourt. “You’ve no plan of marrying her?” he smiled.
“Marrying her? I should be sorry to play her such a trick! But
apart from that, she’s perfectly able to marry herself. She has every
facility.”
“Do you mean to say she has a husband picked out?”
“I don’t know about a husband, but there’s a young man in Boston—!”
Ralph went on; he had no desire to hear about the young man in
Boston. “As my father says, they’re always engaged!”
His mother had told him that he must satisfy his curiosity at the
source, and it soon became evident he should not want for occasion. He had a good deal of talk with his young kinswoman when
the two had been left together in the drawing-room. Lord Warburton,
who had ridden over from his own house, some ten miles distant,
remounted and took his departure before dinner; and an hour after
this meal was ended Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, who appeared to have
quite emptied the measure of their forms, withdrew, under the valid
pretext of fatigue, to their respective apartments. The young man
spent an hour with his cousin; though she had been travelling half
the day she appeared in no degree spent. She was really tired; she
knew it, and knew she should pay for it on the morrow; but it was
her habit at this period to carry exhaustion to the furthest point and
confess to it only when dissimulation broke down. A fine hypocrisy
was for the present possible; she was interested; she was, as she said
to herself, floated. She asked Ralph to show her the pictures; there
were a great many in the house, most of them of his own choosing.
The best were arranged in an oaken gallery, of charming proportions, which had a sitting-room at either end of it and which in the
evening was usually lighted. The light was insufficient to show the
pictures to advantage, and the visit might have stood over to the
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morrow. This suggestion Ralph had ventured to make; but Isabel
looked disappointed—smiling still, however—and said: “If you
please I should like to see them just a little.” She was eager, she
knew she was eager and now seemed so; she couldn’t help it. “She
doesn’t take suggestions,” Ralph said to himself; but he said it without irritation; her pressure amused and even pleased him. The lamps
were on brackets, at intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was
genial. It fell upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded
gilding of heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the
gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out
the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after another,
indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was evidently a
judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with that. She took a
candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it
high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of
the place and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on
her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances,
for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was
undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when
people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which
was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many
women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver
moments, had an enchanting range of concession. They walked
slowly up one side of the gallery and down the other, and then she
said: “Well, now I know more than I did when I began!”
“You apparently have a great passion for knowledge,” her cousin
returned.
“I think I have; most girls are horridly ignorant.”
“You strike me as different from most girls.”
“Ah, some of them would—but the way they’re talked to!” murmured Isabel, who preferred not to dilate just yet on herself. Then
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in a moment, to change the subject, “Please tell me—isn’t there a
ghost?” she went on.
“A ghost?”
“A castle-spectre, a thing that appears. We call them ghosts in
America.”
“So we do here, when we see them.”
“You do see them then? You ought to, in this romantic old house.”
“It’s not a romantic old house,” said Ralph. “You’ll be disappointed
if you count on that. It’s a dismally prosaic one; there’s no romance
here but what you may have brought with you.”
“I’ve brought a great deal; but it seems to me I’ve brought it to the
right place.”
“To keep it out of harm, certainly; nothing will ever happen to it
here, between my father and me.”
Isabel looked at him a moment. “Is there never any one here but
your father and you?”
“My mother, of course.”
“Oh, I know your mother; she’s not romantic. Haven’t you other
people?”
“Very few.”
“I’m sorry for that; I like so much to see people.”
“Oh, we’ll invite all the county to amuse you,” said Ralph.
“Now you’re making fun of me,” the girl answered rather gravely.
“Who was the gentleman on the lawn when I arrived?”
“A county neighbour; he doesn’t come very often.”
“I’m sorry for that; I liked him,” said Isabel.
“Why, it seemed to me that you barely spoke to him,” Ralph objected.
“Never mind, I like him all the same. I like your father too, immensely.”
“You can’t do better than that. He’s the dearest of the dear.”
“I’m so sorry he is ill,” said Isabel.
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“You must help me to nurse him; you ought to be a good nurse.”
“I don’t think I am; I’ve been told I’m not; I’m said to have too
many theories. But you haven’t told me about the ghost,” she added.
Ralph, however, gave no heed to this observation. “You like my
father and you like Lord Warburton. I infer also that you like my
mother.”
“I like your mother very much, because—because—” And Isabel
found herself attempting to assign a reason for her affection for
Mrs. Touchett.
“Ah, we never know why!” said her companion, laughing.
“I always know why,” the girl answered. “It’s because she doesn’t
expect one to like her. She doesn’t care whether one does or not.”
“So you adore her—out of perversity? Well, I take greatly after
my mother,” said Ralph.
“I don’t believe you do at all. You wish people to like you, and you
try to make them do it.”
“Good heavens, how you see through one!” he cried with a dismay that was not altogether jocular.
“But I like you all the same,” his cousin went on. “The way to
clinch the matter will be to show me the ghost.”
Ralph shook his head sadly. “I might show it to you, but you’d
never see it. The privilege isn’t given to every one; it’s not enviable.
It has never been seen by a young, happy, innocent person like you.
You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, have gained some
miserable knowledge. In that way your eyes are opened to it. I saw it
long ago,” said Ralph.
“I told you just now I’m very fond of knowledge,” Isabel answered.
“Yes, of happy knowledge—of pleasant knowledge. But you haven’t
suffered, and you’re not made to suffer. I hope you’ll never see the
ghost!”
She had listened to him attentively, with a smile on her lips, but
with a certain gravity in her eyes. Charming as he found her, she
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had struck him as rather presumptuous—indeed it was a part of her
charm; and he wondered what she would say. “I’m not afraid, you
know,” she said: which seemed quite presumptuous enough.
“You’re not afraid of suffering?”
“Yes, I’m afraid of suffering. But I’m not afraid of ghosts. And I
think people suffer too easily,” she added.
“I don’t believe you do,” said Ralph, looking at her with his hands
in his pockets.
“I don’t think that’s a fault,” she answered. “It’s not absolutely
necessary to suffer; we were not made for that.”
“You were not, certainly.”
“I’m not speaking of myself.” And she wandered off a little.
“No, it isn’t a fault,” said her cousin. “It’s a merit to be strong.”
“Only, if you don’t suffer they call you hard,” Isabel remarked.
They passed out of the smaller drawing-room, into which they
had returned from the gallery, and paused in the hall, at the foot of
the staircase. Here Ralph presented his companion with her bedroom candle, which he had taken from a niche. “Never mind what
they call you. When you do suffer they call you an idiot. The great
point’s to be as happy as possible.”
She looked at him a little; she had taken her candle and placed her
foot on the oaken stair. “Well,” she said, “that’s what I came to
Europe for, to be as happy as possible. Good-night.”
“Good-night! I wish you all success, and shall be very glad to
contribute to it!”
She turned away, and he watched her as she slowly ascended. Then,
with his hands always in his pockets, he went back to the empty
drawing-room.
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CHAPTER VI
ISABEL ARCHER was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a
finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast;
to have a larger perception of surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. It is true that among her
contemporaries she passed for a young woman of extraordinary profundity; for these excellent people never withheld their admiration
from a reach of intellect of which they themselves were not conscious, and spoke of Isabel as a prodigy of learning, a creature reported to have read the classic authors —in translations. Her paternal aunt, Mrs. Varian, once spread the rumour that Isabel was writing a book—Mrs. Varian having a reverence for books, and averred
that the girl would distinguish herself in print. Mrs. Varian thought
highly of literature, for which she entertained that esteem that is
connected with a sense of privation. Her own large house, remarkable for its assortment of mosaic tables and decorated ceilings, was
unfurnished with a library, and in the way of printed volumes contained nothing but half a dozen novels in paper on a shelf in the
apartment of one of the Miss Varians. Practically, Mrs. Varian’s acquaintance with literature was confined to The New York Interviewer; as she very justly said, after you had read the Interviewer
you had lost all faith in culture. Her tendency, with this, was rather
to keep the Interviewer out of the way of her daughters; she was
determined to bring them up properly, and they read nothing at all.
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Her impression with regard to Isabel’s labours was quite illusory;
the girl had never attempted to write a book and had no desire for
the laurels of authorship. She had no talent for expression and too
little of the consciousness of genius; she only had a general idea that
people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior. Whether or no she were superior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed to her often that her
mind moved more quickly than theirs, and this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority. It may
be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the
sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of
her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty
evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequently such as a
biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must
shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgement of people
speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own
way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated
herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head
higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only
under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of
the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t
help knowing her organsation was fine), should move in a realm of
light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic. It was almost as unnecessary to cultivate doubt of
one’s self as to cultivate doubt of one’s best friend: one should try to
be one’s own best friend and to give one’s self, in this manner, distinguished company. The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a
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great many tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and
bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard
the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible
action: she held it must be detestable to be afraid or ashamed. She
had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong. She
had resented so strongly, after discovering them, her mere errors of
feeling (the discovery always made her tremble as if she had escaped
from a trap which might have caught her and smothered her) that
the chance of inflicting a sensible injury upon another person, presented only as a contingency, caused her at moments to hold her
breath. That always struck her as the worst thing that could happen
to her. On the whole, reflectively, she was in no uncertainty about
the things that were wrong. She had no love of their look, but when
she fixed them hard she recognised them. It was wrong to be mean,
to be jealous, to be false, to be cruel; she had seen very little of the
evil of the world, but she had seen women who lied and who tried
to hurt each other. Seeing such things had quickened her high spirit;
it seemed indecent not to scorn them. Of course the danger of a
high spirit was the danger of inconsistency—the danger of keeping
up the flag after the place has surrendered; a sort of behaviour so
crooked as to be almost a dishonour to the flag. But Isabel, who
knew little of the sorts of artillery to which young women are exposed, flattered herself that such contradictions would never be noted
in her own conduct. Her life should always be in harmony with the
most pleasing impression she should produce; she would be what
she appeared, and she would appear what she was. Sometimes she
went so far as to wish that she might find herself some day in a
difficult position, so that she should have the pleasure of being as
heroic as the occasion demanded. Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of
curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire
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to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination
to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory,
flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions:
she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not
intended to awaken on the reader’s part an impulse more tender
and more purely expectant.
It was one of her theories that Isabel Archer was very fortunate in
being independent, and that she ought to make some very enlightened use of that state. She never called it the state of solitude, much
less of singleness; she thought such descriptions weak, and, besides,
her sister Lily constantly urged her to come and abide. She had a
friend whose acquaintance she had made shortly before her father’s
death, who offered so high an example of useful activity that Isabel
always thought of her as a model. Henrietta Stackpole had the advantage of an admired ability; she was thoroughly launched in journalism, and her letters to the Interviewer, from Washington, Newport, the White Mountains and other places, were universally quoted.
Isabel pronounced them with confidence “ephemeral,” but she esteemed the courage, energy and good-humour of the writer, who,
without parents and without property, had adopted three of the
children of an infirm and widowed sister and was paying their schoolbills out of the proceeds of her literary labour. Henrietta was in the
van of progress and had clear-cut views on most subjects; her cherished desire had long been to come to Europe and write a series of
letters to the Interviewer from the radical point of view—an enterprise the less difficult as she knew perfectly in advance what her
opinions would be and to how many objections most European
institutions lay open. When she heard that Isabel was coming she
wished to start at once; thinking, naturally, that it would be delightful the two should travel together. She had been obliged, however,
to postpone this enterprise. She thought Isabel a glorious creature,
and had spoken of her covertly in some of her letters, though she
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never mentioned the fact to her friend, who would not have taken
pleasure in it and was not a regular student of the Interviewer.
Henrietta, for Isabel, was chiefly a proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy. Her resources were of the obvious kind;
but even if one had not the journalistic talent and a genius for guessing, as Henrietta said, what the public was going to want, one was
not therefore to conclude that one had no vocation, no beneficent
aptitude of any sort, and resign one’s self to being frivolous and
hollow. Isabel was stoutly determined not to be hollow. If one should
wait with the right patience one would find some happy work to
one’s hand. Of course, among her theories, this young lady was not
without a collection of views on the subject of marriage. The first
on the list was a conviction of the vulgarity of thinking too much of
it. From lapsing into eagerness on this point she earnestly prayed
she might be delivered; she held that a woman ought to be able to
live to herself, in the absence of exceptional flimsiness, and that it
was perfectly possible to be happy without the society of a more or
less coarse-minded person of another sex. The girl’s prayer was very
sufficiently answered; something pure and proud that there was in
her—something cold and dry an unappreciated suitor with a taste
for analysis might have called it—had hitherto kept her from any
great vanity of conjecture on the article of possible husbands. Few
of the men she saw seemed worth a ruinous expenditure, and it
made her smile to think that one of them should present himself as
an incentive to hope and a reward of patience. Deep in her soul—it
was the deepest thing there—lay a belief that if a certain light should
dawn she could give herself completely; but this image, on the whole,
was too formidable to be attractive. Isabel’s thoughts hovered about
it, but they seldom rested on it long; after a little it ended in alarms.
It often seemed to her that she thought too much about herself; you
could have made her colour, any day in the year, by calling her a
rank egoist. She was always planning out her development, desiring
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her perfection, observing her progress. Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made
her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air,
and that a visit to the recesses of one’s spirit was harmless when one
returned from it with a lapful of roses. But she was often reminded
that there were other gardens in the world than those of her remarkable soul, and that there were moreover a great many places which
were not gardens at all—only dusky pestiferous tracts, planted thick
with ugliness and misery. In the current of that repaid curiosity on
which she had lately been floating, which had conveyed her to this
beautiful old England and might carry her much further still, she
often checked herself with the thought of the thousands of people
who were less happy than herself—a thought which for the moment made her fine, full consciousness appear a kind of immodesty.
What should one do with the misery of the world in a scheme of the
agreeable for one’s self? It must be confessed that this question never
held her long. She was too young, too impatient to live, too unacquainted with pain. She always returned to her theory that a young
woman whom after all every one thought clever should begin by
getting a general impression of life. This impression was necessary
to prevent mistakes, and after it should be secured she might make
the unfortunate condition of others a subject of special attention.
England was a revelation to her, and she found herself as diverted
as a child at a pantomime. In her infantine excursions to Europe she
had seen only the Continent, and seen it from the nursery window;
Paris, not London, was her father’s Mecca, and into many of his
interests there his children had naturally not entered. The images of
that time moreover had grown faint and remote, and the old-world
quality in everything that she now saw had all the charm of strangeness. Her uncle’s house seemed a picture made real; no refinement
of the agreeable was lost upon Isabel; the rich perfection of
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Gardencourt at once revealed a world and gratified a need. The
large, low rooms, with brown ceilings and dusky corners, the deep
embrasures and curious casements, the quiet light on dark, polished
panels, the deep greenness outside, that seemed always peeping in,
the sense of well-ordered privacy in the centre of a “property”—a
place where sounds were felicitously accidental, where the tread was
muffed by the earth itself and in the thick mild air all friction dropped
out of contact and all shrillness out of talk—these things were much
to the taste of our young lady, whose taste played a considerable
part in her emotions. She formed a fast friendship with her uncle,
and often sat by his chair when he had had it moved out to the
lawn. He passed hours in the open air, sitting with folded hands like
a placid, homely household god, a god of service, who had done his
work and received his wages and was trying to grow used to weeks
and months made up only of off-days. Isabel amused him more
than she suspected—the effect she produced upon people was often
different from what she supposed—and he frequently gave himself
the pleasure of making her chatter. It was by this term that he qualified her conversation, which had much of the “point” observable in
that of the young ladies of her country, to whom the ear of the
world is more directly presented than to their sisters in other lands.
Like the mass of American girls Isabel had been encouraged to express herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been expected to have emotions and opinions. Many of her opinions had
doubtless but a slender value, many of her emotions passed away in
the utterance; but they had left a trace in giving her the habit of
seeming at least to feel and think, and in imparting moreover to her
words when she was really moved that prompt vividness which so
many people had regarded as a sign of superiority. Mr. Touchett
used to think that she reminded him of his wife when his wife was
in her teens. It was because she was fresh and natural and quick to
understand, to speak—so many characteristics of her niece—that
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he had fallen in love with Mrs. Touchett. He never expressed this
analogy to the girl herself, however; for if Mrs. Touchett had once
been like Isabel, Isabel was not at all like Mrs. Touchett. The old
man was full of kindness for her; it was a long time, as he said, since
they had had any young life in the house; and our rustling, quicklymoving, clear-voiced heroine was as agreeable to his sense as the
sound of flowing water. He wanted to do something for her and
wished she would ask it of him. She would ask nothing but questions; it is true that of these she asked a quantity. Her uncle had a
great fund of answers, though her pressure sometimes came in forms
that puzzled him. She questioned him immensely about England,
about the British constitution, the English character, the state of
politics, the manners and customs of the royal family, the peculiarities of the aristocracy, the way of living and thinking of his
neighbours; and in begging to be enlightened on these points she
usually enquired whether they corresponded with the descriptions
in the books. The old man always looked at her a little with his fine
dry smile while he smoothed down the shawl spread across his legs.
“The books?” he once said; “well, I don’t know much about the
books. You must ask Ralph about that. I’ve always ascertained for
myself—got my information in the natural form. I never asked many
questions even; I just kept quiet and took notice. Of course I’ve had
very good opportunities—better than what a young lady would naturally have. I’m of an inquisitive disposition, though you mightn’t
think it if you were to watch me: however much you might watch
me I should be watching you more. I’ve been watching these people
for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve
acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the
whole—finer perhaps than what we give it credit for on the other
side. several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the
necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet. When the
necessity of a thing is generally felt they usually manage to accom80
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plish it; but they seem to feel pretty comfortable about waiting till
then. I certainly feel more at home among them than I expected to
when I first came over; I suppose it’s because I’ve had a considerable
degree of success. When you’re successful you naturally feel more at
home.”
“Do you suppose that if I’m successful I shall feel at home?” Isabel
asked.
“I should think it very probable, and you certainly will be successful. They like American young ladies very much over here; they
show them a great deal of kindness. But you mustn’t feel too much
at home, you know.”
“Oh, I’m by no means sure it will satisfy me,” Isabel judicially
emphasised. “I like the place very much, but I’m not sure I shall like
the people.”
“The people are very good people; especially if you like them.”
“I’ve no doubt they’re good,” Isabel rejoined; “but are they pleasant in society? They won’t rob me nor beat me; but will they make
themselves agreeable to me? That’s what I like people to do. I don’t
hesitate to say so, because I always appreciate it. I don’t believe they’re
very nice to girls; they’re not nice to them in the novels.”
“I don’t know about the novels,” said Mr. Touchett. “I believe the
novels have a great deal but I don’t suppose they’re very accurate.
We once had a lady who wrote novels staying here; she was a friend
of Ralph’s and he asked her down. She was very positive, quite up to
everything; but she was not the sort of person you could depend on
for evidence. Too free a fancy—I suppose that was it. She afterwards published a work of fiction in which she was understood to
have given a representation—something in the nature of a caricature, as you might say—of my unworthy self. I didn’t read it, but
Ralph just handed me the book with the principal passages marked.
It was understood to be a description of my conversation; American
peculiarities, nasal twang, Yankee notions, stars and stripes. Well, it
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was not at all accurate; she couldn’t have listened very attentively. I
had no objection to her giving a report of my conversation, if she
liked but I didn’t like the idea that she hadn’t taken the trouble to
listen to it. Of course I talk like an American—I can’t talk like a
Hottentot. However I talk, I’ve made them understand me pretty
well over here. But I don’t talk like the old gentleman in that lady’s
novel. He wasn’t an American; we wouldn’t have him over there at
any price. I just mention that fact to show you that they’re not always accurate. Of course, as I’ve no daughters, and as Mrs. Touchett
resides in Florence, I haven’t had much chance to notice about the
young ladies. It sometimes appears as if the young women in the
lower class were not very well treated; but I guess their position is
better in the upper and even to some extent in the middle.”
“Gracious,” Isabel exclaimed; “how many classes have they? About
fifty, I suppose.”
“Well, I don’t know that I ever counted them. I never took much
notice of the classes. That’s the advantage of being an American
here; you don’t belong to any class.”
“I hope so,” said Isabel. “Imagine one’s belonging to an English
class!”
“Well, I guess some of them are pretty comfortable—especially
towards the top. But for me there are only two classes: the people I
trust and the people I don’t. Of those two, my dear Isabel, you
belong to the first.”
“I’m much obliged to you,” said the girl quickly. Her way of taking compliments seemed sometimes rather dry; she got rid of them
as rapidly as possible. But as regards this she was sometimes misjudged; she was thought insensible to them, whereas in fact she was
simply unwilling to show how infinitely they pleased her. To show
that was to show too much. “I’m sure the English are very conventional,” she added.
“They’ve got everything pretty well fixed,” Mr. Touchett admit82
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ted. “It’s all settled beforehand—they don’t leave it to the last moment.”
“I don’t like to have everything settled beforehand,” said the girl.
“I like more unexpectedness.”
Her uncle seemed amused at her distinctness of preference. “Well,
it’s settled beforehand that you’ll have great success,” he rejoined. “I
suppose you’ll like that.”
“I shall not have success if they’re too stupidly conventional. I’m
not in the least stupidly conventional. I’m just the contrary. That’s
what they won’t like.”
“No, no, you’re all wrong,” said the old man. “You can’t tell what
they’ll like. They’re very inconsistent; that’s their principal interest.”
“Ah well,” said Isabel, standing before her uncle with her hands
clasped about the belt of her black dress and looking up and down
the lawn—“that will suit me perfectly!”
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CHAPTER VII
THE TWO AMUSED THEMSELVES, time and again, with talking of the
attitude of the British public as if the young lady had been in a
position to appeal to it; but in fact the British public remained for
the present profoundly indifferent to Miss Isabel Archer, whose fortune had dropped her, as her cousin said, into the dullest house in
England. Her gouty uncle received very little company, and Mrs.
Touchett, not having cultivated relations with her husband’s
neighbours, was not warranted in expecting visits from them. She
had, however, a peculiar taste; she liked to receive cards. For what is
usually called social intercourse she had very little relish; but nothing pleased her more than to find her hall-table whitened with oblong morsels of symbolic pasteboard. She flattered herself that she
was a very just woman, and had mastered the sovereign truth that
nothing in this world is got for nothing. She had played no social
part as mistress of Gardencourt, and it was not to be supposed that,
in the surrounding country, a minute account should be kept of her
comings and goings. But it is by no means certain that she did not
feel it to be wrong that so little notice was taken of them and that
her failure (really very gratuitous) to make herself important in the
neighbourhood had not much to do with the acrimony of her allusions to her husband’s adopted country. Isabel presently found herself in the singular situation of defending the British constitution
against her aunt; Mrs. Touchett having formed the habit of sticking
pins into this venerable instrument. Isabel always felt an impulse to
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pull out the pins; not that she imagined they inflicted any damage
on the tough old parchment, but because it seemed to her her aunt
might make better use of her sharpness. She was very critical herself—it was incidental to her age, her sex and her nationality; but
she was very sentimental as well, and there was something in Mrs.
Touchett’s dryness that set her own moral fountains flowing.
“Now what’s your point of view?” she asked of her aunt. “When
you criticise everything here you should have a point of view. Yours
doesn’t seem to be American—you thought everything over there
so disagreeable. When I criticise I have mine; it’s thoroughly American!”
“My dear young lady,” said Mrs. Touchett, “there are as many
points of view in the world as there are people of sense to take them.
You may say that doesn’t make them very numerous! American?
Never in the world; that’s shockingly narrow. My point of view,
thank God, is personal!”
Isabel thought this a better answer than she admitted; it was a
tolerable description of her own manner of judging, but it would
not have sounded well for her to say so. On the lips of a person less
advanced in life and less enlightened by experience than Mrs.
Touchett such a declaration would savour of immodesty, even of
arrogance. She risked it nevertheless in talking with Ralph, with
whom she talked a great deal and with whom her conversation was
of a sort that gave a large licence to extravagance. Her cousin used,
as the phrase is, to chaff her; he very soon established with her a
reputation for treating everything as a joke, and he was not a man to
neglect the privileges such a reputation conferred. She accused him
of an odious want of seriousness, of laughing at all things, beginning with himself. Such slender faculty of reverence as he possessed
centred wholly upon his father; for the rest, he exercised his wit
indifferently upon his father’s son, this gentleman’s weak lungs, his
useless life, his fantastic mother, his friends (Lord Warburton in
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especial), his adopted, and his native country, his charming newfound cousin. “I keep a band of music in my ante-room,” he said
once to her. “It has orders to play without stopping; it renders me
two excellent services. It keeps the sounds of the world from reaching the private apartments, and it makes the world think that
dancing’s going on within.” It was dance-music indeed that you
usually heard when you came within ear-shot of Ralph’s band; the
liveliest waltzes seemed to float upon the air. Isabel often found
herself irritated by this perpetual fiddling; she would have liked to
pass through the ante-room, as her cousin called it, and enter the
private apartments. It mattered little that he had assured her they
were a very dismal place; she would have been glad to undertake to
sweep them and set them in order. It was but half-hospitality to let
her remain outside; to punish him for which Isabel administered
innumerable taps with the ferule of her straight young wit. It must
be said that her wit was exercised to a large extent in self-defence,
for her cousin amused himself with calling her “Columbia “ and
accusing her of a patriotism so heated that it scorched. He drew a
caricature of her in which she was represented as a very pretty young
woman dressed, on the lines of the prevailing fashion, in the folds
of the national banner. Isabel’s chief dread in life at this period of
her development was that she should appear narrow-minded; what
she feared next afterwards was that she should really be so. But she
nevertheless made no scruple of abounding in her cousin’s sense
and pretending to sigh for the charms of her native land. She would
be as American as it pleased him to regard her, and if he chose to
laugh at her she would give him plenty of occupation. She defended
England against his mother, but when Ralph sang its praises on
purpose, as she said, to work her up, she found herself able to differ
from him on a variety of points. In fact, the quality of this small ripe
country seemed as sweet to her as the taste of an October pear; and
her satisfaction was at the root of the good spirits which enabled her
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to take her cousin’s chaff and return it in kind. If her good-humour
flagged at moments it was not because she thought herself ill-used,
but because she suddenly felt sorry for Ralph. It seemed to her he
was talking as a blind and had little heart in what he said. “I don’t
know what’s the matter with you,” she observed to him once; “but
I suspect you’re a great humbug.”
“That’s your privilege,” Ralph answered, who had not been used
to being so crudely addressed.
“I don’t know what you care for; I don’t think you care for anything. You don’t really care for England when you praise it; you
don’t care for America even when you pretend to abuse it.”
“I care for nothing but you, dear cousin,” said Ralph.
“If I could believe even that, I should be very glad.”
“Ah well, I should hope so!” the young man exclaimed.
Isabel might have believed it and not have been far from the truth.
He thought a great deal about her; she was constantly present to his
mind. At a time when his thoughts had been a good deal of a burden to him her sudden arrival, which promised nothing and was an
open-handed gift of fate, had refreshed and quickened them, given
them wings and something to fly for. Poor Ralph had been for many
weeks steeped in melancholy; his outlook, habitually sombre, lay
under the shadow of a deeper cloud. He had grown anxious about
his father, whose gout, hitherto confined to his legs, had begun to
ascend into regions more vital. The old man had been gravely ill in
the spring, and the doctors had whispered to Ralph that another
attack would be less easy to deal with. Just now he appeared
disburdened of pain, but Ralph could not rid himself of a suspicion
that this was a subterfuge of the enemy, who was waiting to take
him off his guard. If the manoeuvre should succeed there would be
little hope of any great resistance. Ralph had always taken for granted
that his father would survive him—that his own name would be the
first grimly called. The father and son had been close companions,
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and the idea of being left alone with the remnant of a tasteless life
on his hands was not gratifying to the young man, who had always
and tacitly counted upon his elder’s help in making the best of a
poor business. At the prospect of losing his great motive Ralph lost
indeed his one inspiration. If they might die at the same time it
would be all very well; but without the encouragement of his father’s
society he should barely have patience to await his own turn. He
had not the incentive of feeling that he was indispensable to his
mother; it was a rule with his mother to have no regrets. He bethought himself of course that it had been a small kindness to his
father to wish that, of the two, the active rather than the passive
party should know the felt wound; he remembered that the old
man had always treated his own forecast of an early end as a clever
fallacy, which he should be delighted to discredit so far as he might
by dying first. But of the two triumphs, that of refuting a sophistical son and that of holding on a while longer to a state of being
which, with all abatements, he enjoyed, Ralph deemed it no sin to
hope the latter might be vouchsafed to Mr. Touchett.
These were nice questions, but Isabel’s arrival put a stop to his
puzzling over them. It even suggested there might be a compensation for the intolerable ennui of surviving his genial sire. He wondered whether he were harbouring “love” for this spontaneous young
woman from Albany; but he judged that on the whole he was not.
After he had known her for a week he quite made up his mind to
this, and every day he felt a little more sure. Lord Warburton had
been right about her; she was a really interesting little figure. Ralph
wondered how their neighbour had found it out so soon; and then
he said it was only another proof of his friend’s high abilities, which
he had always greatly admired. If his cousin were to be nothing
more than an entertainment to him, Ralph was conscious she was
an entertainment of a high order. “A character like that,” he said to
himself—”a real little passionate force to see at play is the finest
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thing in nature. It’s finer than the finest work of art—than a Greek
bas-relief, than a great Titian, than a Gothic cathedral. It’s very pleasant to be so well treated where one had least looked for it. I had
never been more blue, more bored, than for a week before she came;
I had never expected less that anything pleasant would happen. Suddenly I receive a Titian, by the post, to hang on my wall—a Greek
bas-relief to stick over my chimney-piece. The key of a beautiful
edifice is thrust into my hand, and I’m told to walk in and admire.
My poor boy, you’ve been sadly ungrateful, and now you had better
keep very quiet and never grumble again.” The sentiment of these
reflexions was very just; but it was not exactly true that Ralph
Touchett had had a key put into his hand. His cousin was a very
brilliant girl, who would take, as he said, a good deal of knowing;
but she needed the knowing, and his attitude with regard to her,
though it was contemplative and critical, was not judicial. He surveyed the edifice from the outside and admired it greatly; he looked
in at the windows and received an impression of proportions equally
fair. But he felt that he saw it only by glimpses and that he had not
yet stood under the roof. The door was fastened, and though he had
keys in his pocket he had a conviction that none of them would fit.
She was intelligent and generous; it was a fine free nature; but what
was she going to do with herself? This question was irregular, for
with most women one had no occasion to ask it. Most women did
with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less
gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them
with a destiny. Isabel’s originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own. “Whenever she executes them,”
said Ralph, “may I be there to see!”
It devolved upon him of course to do the honours of the place.
Mr. Touchett was confined to his chair, and his wife’s position was
that of rather a grim visitor; so that in the line of conduct that opened
itself to Ralph duty and inclination were harmoniously mixed. He
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was not a great walker, but he strolled about the grounds with his
cousin—a pastime for which the weather remained favourable with
a persistency not allowed for in Isabel’s somewhat lugubrious prevision of the climate; and in the long afternoons, of which the length
was but the measure of her gratified eagerness, they took a boat on
the river, the dear little river, as Isabel called it, where the opposite
shore seemed still a part of the foreground of the landscape; or drove
over the country in a phaeton—a low, capacious, thick-wheeled
phaeton formerly much used by Mr. Touchett, but which he had
now ceased to enjoy. Isabel enjoyed it largely and, handling the reins
in a manner which approved itself to the groom as “knowing,” was
never weary of driving her uncle’s capital horses through winding
lanes and byways full of the rural incidents she had confidently expected to find; past cottages thatched and timbered, past ale-houses
latticed and sanded, past patches of ancient common and glimpses
of empty parks, between hedgerows made thick by midsummer.
When they reached home they usually found tea had been served
on the lawn and that Mrs. Touchett had not shrunk from the extremity of handing her husband his cup. But the two for the most
part sat silent; the old man with his head back and his eyes closed,
his wife occupied with her knitting and wearing that appearance of
rare profundity with which some ladies consider the movement of
their needles.
One day, however, a visitor had arrived. The two young persons,
after spending an hour on the river, strolled back to the house and
perceived Lord Warburton sitting under the trees and engaged in
conversation, of which even at a distance the desultory character
was appreciable, with Mrs. Touchett. He had driven over from his
own place with a portmanteau and had asked, as the father and son
often invited him to do, for a dinner and a lodging. Isabel, seeing
him for half an hour on the day of her arrival, had discovered in this
brief space that she liked him; he had indeed rather sharply regis90
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tered himself on her fine sense and she had thought of him several
times. She had hoped she should see him again—hoped too that
she should see a few others. Gardencourt was not dull; the place
itself was sovereign, her uncle was more and more a sort of golden
grandfather, and Ralph was unlike any cousin she had ever encountered—her idea of cousins having tended to gloom. Then her impressions were still so fresh and so quickly renewed that there was as
yet hardly a hint of vacancy in the view. But Isabel had need to
remind herself that she was interested in human nature and that her
foremost hope in coming abroad had been that she should see a
great many people. When Ralph said to her, as he had done several
times, “I wonder you find this endurable; you ought to see some of
the neighbours and some of our friends, because we have really got
a few, though you would never suppose it”—when he offered to
invite what he called a “lot of people” and make her acquainted
with English society, she encouraged the hospitable impulse and
promised in advance to hurl herself into the fray. Little, however,
for the present, had come of his offers, and it may be confided to
the reader that if the young man delayed to carry them out it was
because he found the labour of providing for his companion by no
means so severe as to require extraneous help. Isabel had spoken to
him very often about “specimens;” it was a word that played a considerable part in her vocabulary; she had given him to understand
that she wished to see English society illustrated by eminent cases.
“Well now, there’s a specimen,” he said to her as they walked up
from the riverside and he recognised Lord Warburton.
“A specimen of what?” asked the girl.
“A specimen of an English gentleman.”
“Do you mean they’re all like him?”
“Oh no; they’re not all like him.”
“He’s a favourable specimen then,” said Isabel; “because I’m sure
he’s nice.”
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“Yes, he’s very nice. And he’s very fortunate.”
The fortunate Lord Warburton exchanged a handshake with our
heroine and hoped she was very well. “But I needn’t ask that,” he
said, “since you’ve been handling the oars.”
“I’ve been rowing a little,” Isabel answered; “but how should you
know it?”
“Oh, I know he doesn’t row; he’s too lazy,” said his lordship, indicating Ralph Touchett with a laugh.
“He has a good excuse for his laziness,” Isabel rejoined, lowering
her voice a little.
“Ah, he has a good excuse for everything!” cried Lord Warburton,
still with his sonorous mirth.
“My excuse for not rowing is that my cousin rows so well,” said
Ralph. “She does everything well. She touches nothing that she
doesn’t adorn!”
“It makes one want to be touched, Miss Archer,” Lord Warburton
declared.
“Be touched in the right sense and you’ll never look the worse for
it,” said Isabel, who, if it pleased her to hear it said that her accomplishments were numerous, was happily able to reflect that such
complacency was not the indication of a feeble mind, inasmuch as
there were several things in which she excelled. Her desire to think
well of herself had at least the element of humility that it always
needed to be supported by proof.
Lord Warburton not only spent the night at Gardencourt, but he
was persuaded to remain over the second day; and when the second
day was ended he determined to postpone his departure till the
morrow. During this period he addressed many of his remarks to
Isabel, who accepted this evidence of his esteem with a very good
grace. She found herself liking him extremely; the first impression
he had made on her had had weight, but at the end of an evening
spent in his society she scarce fell short of seeing him—though quite
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without luridity—as a hero of romance. She retired to rest with a
sense of good fortune, with a quickened consciousness of possible
felicities. “It’s very nice to know two such charming people as those,”
she said, meaning by “those” her cousin and her cousin’s friend. It
must be added moreover that an incident had occurred which might
have seemed to put her good-humour to the test. Mr. Touchett went
to bed at half-past nine o’clock, but his wife remained in the drawingroom with the other members of the party. She prolonged her vigil
for something less than an hour, and then, rising, observed to Isabel
that it was time they should bid the gentlemen good-night. Isabel had
as yet no desire to go to bed; the occasion wore, to her sense, a festive
character, and feasts were not in the habit of terminating so early. So,
without further thought, she replied, very simply—
“Need I go, dear aunt? I’ll come up in half an hour.”
“It’s impossible I should wait for you,” Mrs. Touchett answered.
“Ah, you needn’t wait! Ralph will light my candle,” Isabel gaily
engaged.
“I’ll light your candle; do let me light your candle, Miss Archer!”
Lord Warburton exclaimed. “Only I beg it shall not be before midnight.”
Mrs. Touchett fixed her bright little eyes upon him a moment and
transferred them coldly to her niece. “You can’t stay alone with the
gentlemen. You’re not—you’re not at your blest Albany, my dear.”
Isabel rose, blushing. “I wish I were,” she said.
“Oh, I say, mother!” Ralph broke out.
“My dear Mrs. Touchett!” Lord Warburton murmured.
“I didn’t make your country, my lord,” Mrs. Touchett said majestically. “I must take it as I find it.”
“Can’t I stay with my own cousin?” Isabel enquired.
“I’m not aware that Lord Warburton is your cousin.”
“Perhaps I had better go to bed!” the visitor suggested. “That will
arrange it.”
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Mrs. Touchett gave a little look of despair and sat down again.
“Oh, if it’s necessary I’ll stay up till midnight.”
Ralph meanwhile handed Isabel her candlestick. He had been
watching her; it had seemed to him her temper was involved—an
accident that might be interesting. But if he had expected anything
of a flare he was disappointed, for the girl simply laughed a little,
nodded good-night and withdrew accompanied by her aunt. For
himself he was annoyed at his mother, though he thought she was
right. Above-stairs the two ladies separated at Mrs. Touchett’s door.
Isabel had said nothing on her way up.
“Of course you’re vexed at my interfering with you,” said Mrs.
Touchett.
Isabel considered. “I’m not vexed, but I’m surprised—and a good
deal mystified. Wasn’t it proper I should remain in the drawingroom?”
“Not in the least. Young girls here—in decent houses—don’t sit
alone with the gentlemen late at night.”
“You were very right to tell me then,” said Isabel. “I don’t understand it, but I’m very glad to know it.
“I shall always tell you,” her aunt answered, “whenever I see you
taking what seems to me too much liberty.”
“Pray do; but I don’t say I shall always think your remonstrance
just.”
“Very likely not. You’re too fond of your own ways.”
“Yes, I think I’m very fond of them. But I always want to know
the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.
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CHAPTER VIII
AS SHE WAS DEVOTED to romantic effects Lord Warburton ventured
to express a hope that she would come some day and see his house,
a very curious old place. He extracted from Mrs. Touchett a promise that she would bring her niece to Lockleigh, and Ralph signified
his willingness to attend the ladies if his father should be able to
spare him. Lord Warburton assured our heroine that in the mean
time his sisters would come and see her. She knew something about
his sisters, having sounded him, during the hours they spent together while he was at Gardencourt, on many points connected
with his family. When Isabel was interested she asked a great many
questions, and as her companion was a copious talker she urged
him on this occasion by no means in vain. He told her he had four
sisters and two brothers and had lost both his parents. The brothers
and sisters were very good people—”not particularly clever, you
know,” he said, “but very decent and pleasant;” and he was so good
as to hope Miss Archer might know them well. One of the brothers
was in the Church, settled in the family living, that of Lockleigh,
which was a heavy, sprawling parish, and was an excellent fellow in
spite of his thinking differently from himself on every conceivable
topic. And then Lord Warburton mentioned some of the opinions
held by his brother, which were opinions Isabel had often heard
expressed and that she supposed to be entertained by a considerable
portion of the human family. Many of them indeed she supposed
she had held herself, till he assured her she was quite mistaken, that
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it was really impossible, that she had doubtless imagined she entertained them, but that she might depend that, if she thought them
over a little, she would find there was nothing in them. When she
answered that she had already thought several of the questions involved over very attentively he declared that she was only another
example of what he had often been struck with—the fact that, of all
the people in the world, the Americans were the most grossly superstitious. They were rank Tories and bigots, every one of them; there
were no conservatives like American conservatives. Her uncle and
her cousin were there to prove it; nothing could be more medieval
than many of their views; they had ideas that people in England
nowadays were ashamed to confess to; and they had the impudence
moreover, said his lordship, laughing, to pretend they knew more
about the needs and dangers of this poor dear stupid old England
than he who was born in it and owned a considerable slice of it—
the more shame to him! From all of which Isabel gathered that Lord
Warburton was a nobleman of the newest pattern, a reformer, a
radical, a contemner of ancient ways. His other brother, who was in
the army in India, was rather wild and pig-headed and had not been
of much use as yet but to make debts for Warburton to pay—one of
the most precious privileges of an elder brother. “I don’t think I
shall pay any more,” said her friend; “he lives a monstrous deal better than I do, enjoys unheard-of luxuries and thinks himself a much
finer gentleman than I. As I’m a consistent radical I go in only for
equality; I don’t go in for the superiority of the younger brothers.”
Two of his four sisters, the second and fourth, were married, one of
them having done very well, as they said, the other only so-so. The
husband of the elder, Lord Haycock, was a very good fellow, but
unfortunately a horrid Tory; and his wife, like all good English wives,
was worse than her husband. The other had espoused a smallish
squire in Norfolk and, though married but the other day, had already five children. This information and much more Lord
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Warburton imparted to his young American listener, taking pains to
make many things clear and to lay bare to her apprehension the peculiarities of English life. Isabel was often amused at his explicitness and
at the small allowance he seemed to make either for her own experience or for her imagination. “He thinks I’m a barbarian,” she said,
“and that I’ve never seen forks and spoons;” and she used to ask him
artless questions for the pleasure of hearing him answer seriously. Then
when he had fallen into the trap, “It’s a pity you can’t see me in my
war-paint and feathers,” she remarked; “if I had known how kind you
are to the poor savages I would have brought over my native costume!” Lord Warburton had travelled through the United States and
knew much more about them than Isabel; he was so good as to say
that America was the most charming country in the world, but his
recollections of it appeared to encourage the idea that Americans in
England would need to have a great many things explained to them.
“If I had only had you to explain things to me in America!” he said. “I
was rather puzzled in your country; in fact I was quite bewildered,
and the trouble was that the explanations only puzzled me more. You
know I think they often gave me the wrong ones on purpose; they’re
rather clever about that over there. But when I explain you can trust
me; about what I tell you there’s no mistake.” There was no mistake
at least about his being very intelligent and cultivated and knowing
almost everything in the world. Although he gave the most interesting and thrilling glimpses Isabel felt he never did it to exhibit himself,
and though he had had rare chances and had tumbled in, as she put
it, for high prizes, he was as far as possible from making a merit of it.
He had enjoyed the best things of life, but they had not spoiled his
sense of proportion. His quality was a mixture of the effect of rich
experience—oh, so easily come by!—with a modesty at times almost
boyish; the sweet and wholesome savour of which—it was as agreeable as something tasted—lost nothing from the addition of a tone of
responsible kindness.
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“I like your specimen English gentleman very much,” Isabel said
to Ralph after Lord Warburton had gone.
“I like him too—I love him well,” Ralph returned. “But I pity
him more.”
Isabel looked at him askance. “Why, that seems to me his only
fault—that one can’t pity him a little. He appears to have everything, to know everything, to be everything.”
“Oh, he’s in a bad way!” Ralph insisted.
“I suppose you don’t mean in health?”
“No, as to that he’s detestably sound. What I mean is that he’s a
man with a great position who’s playing all sorts of tricks with it. He
doesn’t take himself seriously.”
“Does he regard himself as a joke?”
“Much worse; he regards himself as an imposition—as an abuse.”
“Well, perhaps he is,” said Isabel.
“Perhaps he is—though on the whole I don’t think so. But in that
case what’s more pitiable than a sentient, self-conscious abuse planted
by other hands, deeply rooted but aching with a sense of its injustice? For me, in his place, I could be as solemn as a statue of Buddha. He occupies a position that appeals to my imagination. Great
responsibilities, great opportunities, great consideration, great wealth,
great power, a natural share in the public affairs of a great country.
But he’s all in a muddle about himself, his position, his power, and
indeed about everything in the world. He’s the victim of a critical
age; he has ceased to believe in himself and he doesn’t know what to
believe in. When I attempt to tell him (because if I were he I know
very well what I should believe in) he calls me a pampered bigot. I
believe he seriously thinks me an awful Philistine; he says I don’t
understand my time. I understand it certainly better than he, who
can neither abolish himself as a nuisance nor maintain himself as an
institution.”
“He doesn’t look very wretched,” Isabel observed.
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“Possibly not; though, being a man of a good deal of charming
taste, I think he often has uncomfortable hours. But what is it to say
of a being of his opportunities that he’s not miserable? Besides, I
believe he is.”
“I don’t,” said Isabel.
“Well,” her cousin rejoined, “if he isn’t he ought to be!”
In the afternoon she spent an hour with her uncle on the lawn,
where the old man sat, as usual, with his shawl over his legs and his
large cup of diluted tea in his hands. In the course of conversation
he asked her what she thought of their late visitor.
Isabel was prompt. “I think he’s charming.”
“He’s a nice person,” said Mr. Touchett, “but I don’t recommend
you to fall in love with him.”
“I shall not do it then; I shall never fall in love but on your recommendation. Moreover,” Isabel added, “my cousin gives me rather a
sad account of Lord Warburton.”
“Oh, indeed? I don’t know what there may be to say, but you
must remember that Ralph must talk.”
“He thinks your friend’s too subversive—or not subversive enough!
I don’t quite understand which,” said Isabel.
The old man shook his head slowly, smiled and put down his cup.
“I don’t know which either. He goes very far, but it’s quite possible
he doesn’t go far enough. He seems to want to do away with a good
many things, but he seems to want to remain himself. I suppose
that’s natural, but it’s rather inconsistent.”
“Oh, I hope he’ll remain himself,” said Isabel. “If he were to be
done away with his friends would miss him sadly.”
“Well,” said the old man, “I guess he’ll stay and amuse his friends.
I should certainly miss him very much here at Gardencourt. He
always amuses me when he comes over, and I think he amuses himself as well. There’s a considerable number like him, round in society; they’re very fashionable just now. I don’t know what they’re
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trying to do—whether they’re trying to get up a revolution. I hope
at any rate they’ll put it off till after I’m gone. You see they want to
disestablish everything; but I’m a pretty big landowner here, and I
don’t want to be disestablished. I wouldn’t have come over if I had
thought they were going to behave like that,” Mr. Touchett went on
with expanding hilarity. “I came over because I thought England
was a safe country. I call it a regular fraud if they are going to introduce any considerable changes; there’ll be a large number disappointed in that case.”
“Oh, I do hope they’ll make a revolution!” Isabel exclaimed. “I
should delight in seeing a revolution.”
“Let me see,” said her uncle, with a humorous intention; “I forget
whether you’re on the side of the old or on the side of the new. I’ve
heard you take such opposite views.”
“I’m on the side of both. I guess I’m a little on the side of everything. In a revolution—after it was well begun—I think I should be
a high, proud loyalist. One sympathises more with them, and they’ve
a chance to behave so exquisitely. I mean so picturesquely.”
“I don’t know that I understand what you mean by behaving picturesquely, but it seems to me that you do that always, my dear.”
“Oh, you lovely man, if I could believe that!” the girl interrupted.
“I’m afraid, after all, you won’t have the pleasure of going gracefully to the guillotine here just now,” Mr. Touchett went on. “If you
want to see a big outbreak you must pay us a long visit. You see,
when you come to the point it wouldn’t suit them to be taken at
their word.”
“Of whom are you speaking?”
“Well, I mean Lord Warburton and his friends—the radicals of
the upper class. Of course I only know the way it strikes me. They
talk about the changes, but I don’t think they quite realise. You and
I, you know, we know what it is to have lived under democratic
institutions: I always thought them very comfortable, but I was used
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to them from the first. And then I ain’t a lord; you’re a lady, my dear,
but I ain’t a lord. Now over here I don’t think it quite comes home
to them. It’s a matter of every day and every hour, and I don’t think
many of them would find it as pleasant as what they’ve got. Of
course if they want to try, it’s their own business; but I expect they
won’t try very hard.”
“Don’t you think they’re sincere?” Isabel asked.
“Well, they want to feel earnest,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it
seems as if they took it out in theories mostly. Their radical views
are a kind of amusement; they’ve got to have some amusement, and
they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they’re very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They
make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position. They
think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis you’d
be pulled up very short.”
Isabel followed her uncle’s argument, which he unfolded with his
quaint distinctness, most attentively, and though she was unacquainted with the British aristocracy she found it in harmony with
her general impressions of human nature. But she felt moved to put
in a protest on Lord Warburton’s behalf. “I don’t believe Lord
Warburton’s a humbug; I don’t care what the others are. I should
like to see Lord Warburton put to the test.”
“Heaven deliver me from my friends!” Mr. Touchett answered.
“Lord Warburton’s a very amiable young man—a very fine young
man. He has a hundred thousand a year. He owns fifty thousand
acres of the soil of this little island and ever so many other things
besides. He has half a dozen houses to live in. He has a seat in
Parliament as I have one at my own dinner-table. He has elegant
tastes—cares for literature, for art, for science, for charming young
ladies. The most elegant is his taste for the new views. It affords him
a great deal of pleasure—more perhaps than anything else, except
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the young ladies. His old house over there—what does he call it,
Lockleigh?—is very attractive; but I don’t think it’s as pleasant as
this. That doesn’t matter, however—he has so many others. His views
don’t hurt any one as far as I can see; they certainly don’t hurt himself. And if there were to be a revolution he would come off very
easily. They wouldn’t touch him, they’d leave him as he is: he’s too
much liked.”
“Ah, he couldn’t be a martyr even if he wished!” Isabel sighed.
“That’s a very poor position.”
“He’ll never be a martyr unless you make him one,” said the old
man.
Isabel shook her head; there might have been something laughable in the fact that she did it with a touch of melancholy. “I shall
never make any one a martyr.”
“You’ll never be one, I hope.”
“I hope not. But you don’t pity Lord Warburton then as Ralph
does?”
Her uncle looked at her a while with genial acuteness. “Yes, I do,
after all!”
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CHAPTER IX
THE TWO MISSES MOLYNEUX, this nobleman’s sisters, came presently
to call upon her, and Isabel took a fancy to the young ladies, who
appeared to her to show a most original stamp. It is true that when
she described them to her cousin by that term he declared that no
epithet could be less applicable than this to the two Misses Molyneux,
since there were fifty thousand young women in England who exactly resembled them. Deprived of this advantage, however, Isabel’s
visitors retained that of an extreme sweetness and shyness of
demeanour, and of having, as she thought, eyes like the balanced
basins, the circles of “ornamental water,” set, in parterres, among the
geraniums.
“They’re not morbid, at any rate, whatever they are,” our heroine
said to herself; and she deemed this a great charm, for two or three
of the friends of her girlhood had been regrettably open to the charge
(they would have been so nice without it), to say nothing of Isabel’s
having occasionally suspected it as a tendency of her own. The Misses
Molyneux were not in their first youth, but they had bright, fresh
complexions and something of the smile of childhood. Yes, their
eyes, which Isabel admired, were round, quiet and contented, and
their figures, also of a generous roundness, were encased in sealskin
jackets. Their friendliness was great, so great that they were almost
embarrassed to show it; they seemed somewhat afraid of the young
lady from the other side of the world and rather looked than spoke
their good wishes. But they made it clear to her that they hoped she
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would come to luncheon at Lockleigh, where they lived with their
brother, and then they might see her very, very often. They wondered if she wouldn’t come over some day, and sleep: they were
expecting some people on the twenty-ninth, so perhaps she would
come while the people were there.
“I’m afraid it isn’t any one very remarkable,” said the elder sister;
“but I dare say you’ll take us as you find us.”
“I shall find you delightful; I think you’re enchanting just as you
are,” replied Isabel, who often praised profusely.
Her visitors flushed, and her cousin told her, after they were gone,
that if she said such things to those poor girls they would think she
was in some wild, free manner practising on them: he was sure it
was the first time they had been called enchanting.
“I can’t help it,” Isabel answered. “I think it’s lovely to be so quiet
and reasonable and satisfied. I should like to be like that.”
“Heaven forbid!” cried Ralph with ardour.
“I mean to try and imitate them,” said Isabel. “I want very much
to see them at home.”
She had this pleasure a few days later, when, with Ralph and his
mother, she drove over to Lockleigh. She found the Misses Molyneux
sitting in a vast drawing-room (she perceived afterwards it was one
of several) in a wilderness of faded chintz; they were dressed on this
occasion in black velveteen. Isabel liked them even better at home
than she had done at Gardencourt, and was more than ever struck
with the fact that they were not morbid. It had seemed to her before
that if they had a fault it was a want of play of mind; but she presently saw they were capable of deep emotion. Before luncheon she
was alone with them for some time, on one side of the room, while
Lord Warburton, at a distance, talked to Mrs. Touchett.
“Is it true your brother’s such a great radical?” Isabel asked. She
knew it was true, but we have seen that her interest in human nature
was keen, and she had a desire to draw the Misses Molyneux out.
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“Oh dear, yes; he’s immensely advanced,” said Mildred, the
younger sister.
“At the same time Warburton’s very reasonable,” Miss Molyneux
observed.
Isabel watched him a moment at the other side of the room; he
was clearly trying hard to make himself agreeable to Mrs. Touchett.
Ralph had met the frank advances of one of the dogs before the fire
that the temperature of an English August, in the ancient expanses,
had not made an impertinence. “Do you suppose your brother’s
sincere?” Isabel enquired with a smile.
“Oh, he must be, you know!” Mildred exclaimed quickly, while
the elder sister gazed at our heroine in silence.
“Do you think he would stand the test?”
“The test?”
“I mean for instance having to give up all this.”
“Having to give up Lockleigh?” said Miss Molyneux, finding her
voice.
“Yes, and the other places; what are they called?”
The two sisters exchanged an almost frightened glance. “Do you
mean—do you mean on account of the expense?” the younger one
asked.
“I dare say he might let one or two of his houses,” said the other.
“Let them for nothing?” Isabel demanded.
“I can’t fancy his giving up his property,” said Miss Molyneux.
“Ah, I’m afraid he is an impostor!” Isabel returned. “Don’t you
think it’s a false position?”
Her companions, evidently, had lost themselves. “My brother’s
position?” Miss Molyneux enquired.
“It’s thought a very good position,” said the younger sister. “It’s
the first position in this part of the county.”
“I dare say you think me very irreverent,” Isabel took occasion to remark. “I suppose you revere your brother and are rather afraid of him.”
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“Of course one looks up to one’s brother,” said Miss Molyneux
simply.
“If you do that he must be very good—because you, evidently, are
beautifully good.”
“He’s most kind. It will never be known, the good he does.”
“His ability is known,” Mildred added; “every one thinks it’s immense.”
“Oh, I can see that,” said Isabel. “But if I were he I should wish to
fight to the death: I mean for the heritage of the past. I should hold
it tight.”
“I think one ought to be liberal,” Mildred argued gently. “We’ve
always been so, even from the earliest times.”
“Ah well,” said Isabel, “you’ve made a great success of it; I don’t
wonder you like it. I see you’re very fond of crewels.”
When Lord Warburton showed her the house, after luncheon, it
seemed to her a matter of course that it should be a noble picture.
Within, it had been a good deal modernised—some of its best points
had lost their purity; but as they saw it from the gardens, a stout
grey pile, of the softest, deepest, most weather-fretted hue, rising
from a broad, still moat, it affected the young visitor as a castle in a
legend. The day was cool and rather lustreless; the first note of autumn had been struck, and the watery sunshine rested on the walls
in blurred and desultory gleams, washing them, as it were, in places
tenderly chosen, where the ache of antiquity was keenest. Her host’s
brother, the Vicar, had come to luncheon, and Isabel had had five
minutes’ talk with him—time enough to institute a search for a rich
ecclesiasticism and give it up as vain. The marks of the Vicar of
Lockleigh were a big, athletic figure, a candid, natural countenance,
a capacious appetite and a tendency to indiscriminate laughter. Isabel
learned afterwards from her cousin that before taking orders he had
been a mighty wrestler and that he was still, on occasion—in the
privacy of the family circle as it were—quite capable of flooring his
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man. Isabel liked him—she was in the mood for liking everything;
but her imagination was a good deal taxed to think of him as a
source of spiritual aid. The whole party, on leaving lunch, went to
walk in the grounds; but Lord Warburton exercised some ingenuity
in engaging his least familiar guest in a stroll apart from the others.
“I wish you to see the place properly, seriously,” he said. “You
can’t do so if your attention is distracted by irrelevant gossip.” His
own conversation (though he told Isabel a good deal about the house,
which had a very curious history) was not purely archaeological; he
reverted at intervals to matters more personal —matters personal to
the young lady as well as to himself. But at last, after a pause of
some duration, returning for a moment to their ostensible theme,
“Ah, well,” he said, “I’m very glad indeed you like the old barrack. I
wish you could see more of it —that you could stay here a while.
My sisters have taken an immense fancy to you—if that would be
any inducement.”
“There’s no want of inducements,” Isabel answered; “but I’m afraid
I can’t make engagements. I’m quite in my aunt’s hands.”
“Ah, pardon me if I say I don’t exactly believe that. I’m pretty sure
you can do whatever you want.”
“I’m sorry if I make that impression on you; I don’t think it’s a
nice impression to make.”
“It has the merit of permitting me to hope.” And Lord Warburton
paused a moment.
“To hope what?”
“That in future I may see you often.”
“Ah,” said Isabel, “to enjoy that pleasure I needn’t be so terribly
emancipated.”
“Doubtless not; and yet, at the same time, I don’t think your uncle
likes me.”
“You’re very much mistaken. I’ve heard him speak very highly of
you.”
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“I’m glad you have talked about me,” said Lord Warburton. “But,
I nevertheless don’t think he’d like me to keep coming to
Gardencourt.”
“I can’t answer for my uncle’s tastes,” the girl rejoined, “though I
ought as far as possible to take them into account. But for myself I
shall be very glad to see you.”
“Now that’s what I like to hear you say. I’m charmed when you
say that.”
“You’re easily charmed, my lord,” said Isabel.
“No, I’m not easily charmed!” And then he stopped a moment.
“But you’ve charmed me, Miss Archer.”
These words were uttered with an indefinable sound which startled
the girl; it struck her as the prelude to something grave: she had
heard the sound before and she recognised it. She had no wish,
however, that for the moment such a prelude should have a sequel,
and she said as gaily as possible and as quickly as an appreciable
degree of agitation would allow her: “I’m afraid there’s no prospect
of my being able to come here again.”
“Never?” said Lord Warburton.
“I won’t say ‘never’; I should feel very melodramatic.”
“May I come and see you then some day next week?”
“Most assuredly. What is there to prevent it?”
“Nothing tangible. But with you I never feel safe. I’ve a sort of
sense that you’re always summing people up.”
“You don’t of necessity lose by that.”
“It’s very kind of you to say so; but, even if I gain, stern justice is
not what I most love. Is Mrs. Touchett going to take you abroad?”
“I hope so.”
“Is England not good enough for you?”
“That’s a very Machiavellian speech; it doesn’t deserve an answer.
I want to see as many countries as I can.”
“Then you’ll go on judging, I suppose.”
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“Enjoying, I hope, too.”
“Yes, that’s what you enjoy most; I can’t make out what you’re up
to,” said Lord Warburton. “You strike me as having mysterious purposes—vast designs.”
“You’re so good as to have a theory about me which I don’t at all
fill out. Is there anything mysterious in a purpose entertained and
executed every year, in the most public manner, by fifty thousand of
my fellow-countrymen—the purpose of improving one’s mind by
foreign travel?”
“You can’t improve your mind, Miss Archer,” her companion declared. “It’s already a most formidable instrument. It looks down on
us all; it despises us.”
“Despises you? You’re making fun of me,” said Isabel seriously.
“Well, you think us ‘quaint’—that’s the same thing. I won’t be
thought ‘quaint,’ to begin with; I ‘m not so in the least. I protest.”
“That protest is one of the quaintest things I’ve ever heard,” Isabel
answered with a smile.
Lord Warburton was briefly silent. “You judge only from the outside—you don’t care,” he said presently. “You only care to amuse
yourself.” The note she had heard in his voice a moment before
reappeared, and mixed with it now was an audible strain of bitterness—a bitterness so abrupt and inconsequent that the girl was afraid
she had hurt him. She had often heard that the English are a highly
eccentric people, and she had even read in some ingenious author
that they are at bottom the most romantic of races. Was Lord
Warburton suddenly turning romantic—was he going to make her
a scene, in his own house, only the third time they had met? She
was reassured quickly enough by her sense of his great good manners, which was not impaired by the fact that he had already touched
the furthest limit of good taste in expressing his admiration of a
young lady who had confided in his hospitality. She was right in
trusting to his good manners, for he presently went on, laughing a
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little and without a trace of the accent that had discomposed her: “I
don’t mean of course that you amuse yourself with trifles. You select
great materials; the foibles, the afflictions of human nature, the peculiarities of nations!”
“As regards that,” said Isabel, “I should find in my own nation
entertainment for a lifetime. But we’ve a long drive, and my aunt
will soon wish to start.” She turned back toward the others and
Lord Warburton walked beside her in silence. But before they reached
the others, “I shall come and see you next week,” he said.
She had received an appreciable shock, but as it died away she felt
that she couldn’t pretend to herself that it was altogether a painful
one. Nevertheless she made answer to his declaration, coldly enough,
“Just as you please.” And her coldness was not the calculation of her
effect—a game she played in a much smaller degree than would
have seemed probable to many critics. It came from a certain fear.
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CHAPTER X
THE DAY AFTER her visit to Lockleigh she received a note from her
friend Miss Stackpole—a note of which the envelope, exhibiting in
conjunction the postmark of Liverpool and the neat calligraphy of
the quick-fingered Henrietta, caused her some liveliness of emotion. “Here I am, my lovely friend,” Miss Stackpole wrote; “I managed to get off at last. I decided only the night before I left New
York—the Interviewer having come round to my figure. I put a few
things into a bag, like a veteran journalist, and came down to the
steamer in a street-car. Where are you and where can we meet? I
suppose you’re visiting at some castle or other and have already acquired the correct accent. Perhaps even you have married a lord; I
almost hope you have, for I want some introductions to the first
people and shall count on you for a few. The Interviewer wants
some light on the nobility. My first impressions (of the people at
large) are not rose-coloured; but I wish to talk them over with you,
and you know that, whatever I am, at least I’m not superficial. I’ve
also something very particular to tell you. Do appoint a meeting as
quickly as you can; come to London (I should like so much to visit
the sights with you) or else let me come to you, wherever you are. I
will do so with pleasure; for you know everything interests me and
I wish to see as much as possible of the inner life.”
Isabel judged best not to show this letter to her uncle; but she
acquainted him with its purport, and, as she expected, he begged
her instantly to assure Miss Stackpole, in his name, that he should
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be delighted to receive her at Gardencourt. “Though she’s a literary
lady,” he said, “I suppose that, being an American, she won’t show
me up, as that other one did. She has seen others like me.”
“She has seen no other so delightful!” Isabel answered; but she
was not altogether at ease about Henrietta’s reproductive instincts,
which belonged to that side of her friend’s character which she regarded with least complacency. She wrote to Miss Stackpole, however, that she would be very welcome under Mr. Touchett’s roof;
and this alert young woman lost no time in announcing her prompt
approach. She had gone up to London, and it was from that centre
that she took the train for the station nearest to Gardencourt, where
Isabel and Ralph were in waiting to receive her.
“Shall I love her or shall I hate her?” Ralph asked while they moved
along the platform.
“Whichever you do will matter very little to her,” said Isabel. “She
doesn’t care a straw what men think of her.”
“As a man I’m bound to dislike her then. She must be a kind of
monster. Is she very ugly?”
“No, she’s decidedly pretty.”
“A female interviewer—a reporter in petticoats? I’m very curious
to see her,” Ralph conceded.
“It’s very easy to laugh at her but it is not easy to be as brave as
she.”
“I should think not; crimes of violence and attacks on the person
require more or less pluck. Do you suppose she’ll interview me?”
“Never in the world. She’ll not think you of enough importance.”
“You’ll see,” said Ralph. “She’ll send a description of us all, including Bunchie, to her newspaper.”
“I shall ask her not to,” Isabel answered.
“You think she’s capable of it then?”
“Perfectly.”
“And yet you’ve made her your bosom-friend?”
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“I’ve not made her my bosom-friend; but I like her in spite of her
faults.”
“Ah well,” said Ralph, “I’m afraid I shall dislike her in spite of her
merits.”
“You’ll probably fall in love with her at the end of three days.”
“And have my love-letters published in the Interviewer? Never!”
cried the young man.
The train presently arrived, and Miss Stackpole, promptly descending, proved, as Isabel had promised, quite delicately, even though
rather provincially, fair. She was a neat, plump person, of medium
stature, with a round face, a small mouth, a delicate complexion, a
bunch of light brown ringlets at the back of her head and a peculiarly open, surprised-looking eye. The most striking point in her
appearance was the remarkable fixedness of this organ, which rested
without impudence or defiance, but as if in conscientious exercise
of a natural right, upon every object it happened to encounter. It
rested in this manner upon Ralph himself, a little arrested by Miss
Stackpole’s gracious and comfortable aspect, which hinted that it
wouldn’t be so easy as he had assumed to disapprove of her. She
rustled, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph
saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as
a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no
misprint. She spoke in a clear, high voice—a voice not rich but
loud; yet after she had taken her place with her companions in Mr.
Touchett’s carriage she struck him as not all in the large type, the
type of horrid “headings,” that he had expected. She answered the
enquiries made of her by Isabel, however, and in which the young
man ventured to join, with copious lucidity; and later, in the library
at Gardencourt, when she had made the acquaintance of Mr.
Touchett (his wife not having thought it necessary to appear) did
more to give the measure of her confidence in her powers.
“Well, I should like to know whether you consider yourselves
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American or English,” she broke out. “If once I knew I could talk to
you accordingly.”
“Talk to us anyhow and we shall be thankful,” Ralph liberally
answered.
She fixed her eyes on him, and there was something in their character
that reminded him of large polished buttons—buttons that might have
fixed the elastic loops of some tense receptacle: he seemed to see the reflection of surrounding objects on the pupil. The expression of a button is
not usually deemed human, but there was something in Miss Stackpole’s
gaze that made him, as a very modest man, feel vaguely embarrassed—
less inviolate, more dishonoured, than he liked. This sensation, it must be
added, after he had spent a day or two in her company, sensibly diminished, though it never wholly lapsed. “I don’t suppose that you’re going to
undertake to persuade me that you’re an American,” she said.
“To please you I’ll be an Englishman, I’ll be a Turk!”
“Well, if you can change about that way you’re very welcome,”
Miss Stackpole returned.
“I’m sure you understand everything and that differences of nationality are no barrier to you,” Ralph went on.
Miss Stackpole gazed at him still. “Do you mean the foreign languages?”
“The languages are nothing. I mean the spirit—the genius.”
“I’m not sure that I understand you,” said the correspondent of
the Interviewer; “but I expect I shall before I leave.”
“He’s what’s called a cosmopolite,” Isabel suggested.
“That means he’s a little of everything and not much of any. I
must say I think patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.”
“Ah, but where does home begin, Miss Stackpole?” Ralph enquired.
“I don’t know where it begins, but I know where it ends. It ended
a long time before I got here.”
“Don’t you like it over here?” asked Mr. Touchett with his aged,
innocent voice.
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“Well, sir, I haven’t quite made up my mind what ground I shall
take. I feel a good deal cramped. I felt it on the journey from
Liverpool to London.”
“Perhaps you were in a crowded carriage,” Ralph suggested.
“Yes, but it was crowded with friends—party of Americans whose
acquaintance I had made upon the steamer; a lovely group from Little
Rock, Arkansas. In spite of that I felt cramped—I felt something pressing upon me; I couldn’t tell what it was. I felt at the very commencement as if I were not going to accord with the atmosphere. But I
suppose I shall make my own atmosphere. That’s the true way—then
you can breathe. Your surroundings seem very attractive.”
“Ah, we too are a lovely group!” said Ralph. “Wait a little and
you’ll see.”
Miss Stackpole showed every disposition to wait and evidently
was prepared to make a considerable stay at Gardencourt. She occupied herself in the mornings with literary labour; but in spite of this
Isabel spent many hours with her friend, who, once her daily task
performed, deprecated, in fact defied, isolation. Isabel speedily found
occasion to desire her to desist from celebrating the charms of their
common sojourn in print, having discovered, on the second morning of Miss Stackpole’s visit, that she was engaged on a letter to the
Interviewer, of which the title, in her exquisitely neat and legible
hand (exactly that of the copybooks which our heroine remembered
at school) was “Americans and Tudors—Glimpses of Gardencourt.”
Miss Stackpole, with the best conscience in the world, offered to
read her letter to Isabel, who immediately put in her protest.
“I don’t think you ought to do that. I don’t think you ought to
describe the place.”
Henrietta gazed at her as usual. “Why, it’s just what the people
want, and it’s a lovely place.”
“It’s too lovely to be put in the newspapers, and it’s not what my
uncle wants.”
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“Don’t you believe that!” cried Henrietta. “They’re always delighted
afterwards.”
“My uncle won’t be delighted—nor my cousin either. They’ll consider it a breach of hospitality.”
Miss Stackpole showed no sense of confusion; she simply wiped
her pen, very neatly, upon an elegant little implement which she
kept for the purpose, and put away her manuscript. “Of course if
you don’t approve I won’t do it; but I sacrifice a beautiful subject.”
“There are plenty of other subjects, there are subjects all round
you. We’ll take some drives; I’ll show you some charming scenery.”
“Scenery’s not my department; I always need a human interest.
You know I’m deeply human, Isabel; I always was,” Miss Stackpole
rejoined. “I was going to bring in your cousin—the alienated American. There’s a great demand just now for the alienated American,
and your cousin’s a beautiful specimen. I should have handled him
severely.”
“He would have died of it!” Isabel exclaimed. “Not of the severity,
but of the publicity.”
“Well, I should have liked to kill him a little. And I should have
delighted to do your uncle, who seems to me a much nobler type—
the American faithful still. He’s a grand old man; I don’t see how he
can object to my paying him honour.”
Isabel looked at her companion in much wonderment; it struck
her as strange that a nature in which she found so much to esteem
should break down so in spots. “My poor Henrietta,” she said, “you’ve
no sense of privacy.”
Henrietta coloured deeply, and for a moment her brilliant eyes
were suffused, while Isabel found her more than ever inconsequent.
“You do me great injustice,” said Miss Stackpole with dignity. “I’ve
never written a word about myself!”
“I’m very sure of that; but it seems to me one should be modest
for others also!”
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“Ah, that’s very good!” cried Henrietta, seizing her pen again. “Just
let me make a note of it and I’ll put it in somewhere.” she was a
thoroughly good-natured woman, and half an hour later she was in
as cheerful a mood as should have been looked for in a newspaperlady in want of matter. “I’ve promised to do the social side,” she said
to Isabel; “and how can I do it unless I get ideas? If I can’t describe
this place don’t you know some place I can describe?” Isabel promised she would bethink herself, and the next day, in conversation
with her friend, she happened to mention her visit to Lord
Warburton’s ancient house. “Ah, you must take me there—that’s
just the place for me!” Miss Stackpole cried. “I must get a glimpse of
the nobility.”
“I can’t take you,” said Isabel; “but Lord Warburton’s coming here,
and you’ll have a chance to see him and observe him. Only if you
intend to repeat his conversation I shall certainly give him warning.”
“Don’t do that,” her companion pleaded; “I want him to be natural.”
“An Englishman’s never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue,”
Isabel declared.
It was not apparent, at the end of three days, that her cousin had,
according to her prophecy, lost his heart to their visitor, though he
had spent a good deal of time in her society. They strolled about the
park together and sat under the trees, and in the afternoon, when it
was delightful to float along the Thames, Miss Stackpole occupied a
place in the boat in which hitherto Ralph had had but a single companion. Her presence proved somehow less irreducible to soft particles than Ralph had expected in the natural perturbation of his
sense of the perfect solubility of that of his cousin; for the correspondent of the Interviewer prompted mirth in him, and he had
long since decided that the crescendo of mirth should be the flower
of his declining days. Henrietta, on her side, failed a little to justify
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Isabel’s declaration with regard to her indifference to masculine opinion; for poor Ralph appeared to have presented himself to her as an
irritating problem, which it would be almost immoral not to work
out.
“What does he do for a living?” she asked of Isabel the evening of
her arrival. “Does he go round all day with his hands in his pockets?”
“He does nothing,” smiled Isabel; “he’s a gentleman of large leisure.”
“Well, I call that a shame—when I have to work like a car-conductor,” Miss Stackpole replied. “I should like to show him up.”
“He’s in wretched health; he’s quite unfit for work,” Isabel urged.
“Pshaw! don’t you believe it. I work when I’m sick,” cried her
friend. Later, when she stepped into the boat on joining the waterparty, she remarked to Ralph that she supposed he hated her and
would like to drown her.
“Ah no,” said Ralph, “I keep my victims for a slower torture. And
you’d be such an interesting one!”
“Well, you do torture me; I may say that. But I shock all your
prejudices; that’s one comfort.”
“My prejudices? I haven’t a prejudice to bless myself with. There’s
intellectual poverty for you.”
“The more shame to you; I’ve some delicious ones. Of course I spoil
your flirtation, or whatever it is you call it, with your cousin; but I don’t
care for that, as I render her the service of drawing you out. She’ll see
how thin you are.”
“Ah, do draw me out!” Ralph exclaimed. “So few people will take
the trouble.”
Miss Stackpole, in this undertaking, appeared to shrink from no
effort; resorting largely, whenever the opportunity offered, to the
natural expedient of interrogation. On the following day the weather
was bad, and in the afternoon the young man, by way of providing
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indoor amusement, offered to show her the pictures. Henrietta
strolled through the long gallery in his society, while he pointed out
its principal ornaments and mentioned the painters and subjects.
Miss Stackpole looked at the pictures in perfect silence, committing
herself to no opinion, and Ralph was gratified by the fact that she
delivered herself of none of the little ready-made ejaculations of
delight of which the visitors to Gardencourt were so frequently lavish. This young lady indeed, to do her justice, was but little addicted to the use of conventional terms; there was something earnest and inventive in her tone, which at times, in its strained deliberation, suggested a person of high culture speaking a foreign language. Ralph Touchett subsequently learned that she had at one
time officiated as art critic to a journal of the other world; but she
appeared, in spite of this fact, to carry in her pocket none of the
small change of admiration. Suddenly, just after he had called her
attention to a charming Constable, she turned and looked at him as
if he himself had been a picture.
“Do you always spend your time like this?” she demanded.
“I seldom spend it so agreeably.”
“Well, you know what I mean—without any regular occupation.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “I’m the idlest man living.”
Miss Stackpole directed her gaze to the Constable again, and Ralph
bespoke her attention for a small Lancret hanging near it, which
represented a gentleman in a pink doublet and hose and a ruff,
leaning against the pedestal of the statue of a nymph in a garden
and playing the guitar to two ladies seated on the grass. “That’s my
ideal of a regular occupation,” he said.
Miss Stackpole turned to him again, and, though her eyes had
rested upon the picture, he saw she had missed the subject. She was
thinking of something much more serious. “I don’t see how you can
reconcile it to your conscience.”
“My dear lady, I have no conscience!”
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“Well, I advise you to cultivate one. You’ll need it the next time
you go to America.”
“I shall probably never go again.”
“Are you ashamed to show yourself?”
Ralph meditated with a mild smile. “I suppose that if one has no
conscience one has no shame.”
“Well, you’ve got plenty of assurance,” Henrietta declared. “Do
you consider it right to give up your country?”
“Ah, one doesn’t give up one’s country any more than one gives up
one’s grandmother. They’re both antecedent to choice—elements
of one’s composition that are not to be eliminated.”
“I suppose that means that you’ve tried and been worsted. What
do they think of you over here?”
“They delight in me.”
“That’s because you truckle to them.”
“Ah, set it down a little to my natural charm!” Ralph sighed.
“I don’t know anything about your natural charm. If you’ve got
any charm it’s quite unnatural. It’s wholly acquired—or at least you’ve
tried hard to acquire it, living over here. I don’t say you’ve succeeded.
It’s a charm that I don’t appreciate, anyway. Make yourself useful in
some way, and then we’ll talk about it.” “Well, now, tell me what I
shall do,” said Ralph.
“Go right home, to begin with.”
“Yes, I see. And then?”
“Take right hold of something.”
“Well, now, what sort of thing?”
“Anything you please, so long as you take hold. Some new idea,
some big work.”
“Is it very difficult to take hold?” Ralph enquired.
“Not if you put your heart into it.”
“Ah, my heart,” said Ralph. “If it depends upon my heart—!”
“Haven’t you got a heart?”
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“I had one a few days ago, but I’ve lost it since.”
“You’re not serious,” Miss Stackpole remarked; “that’s what’s the
matter with you.” But for all this, in a day or two, she again permitted him to fix her attention and on the later occasion assigned a
different cause to her mysterious perversity. “I know what’s the matter
with you, Mr. Touchett,” she said. “You think you’re too good to get
married.”
“I thought so till I knew you, Miss Stackpole,” Ralph answered;
“and then I suddenly changed my mind.”
“Oh pshaw!” Henrietta groaned.
“Then it seemed to me,” said Ralph, “that I was not good enough.”
“It would improve you. Besides, it’s your duty.”
“Ah,” cried the young man, “one has so many duties! Is that a
duty too?”
“Of course it is—did you never know that before? It’s every one’s
duty to get married.”
Ralph meditated a moment; he was disappointed. There was something in Miss Stackpole he had begun to like; it seemed to him that
if she was not a charming woman she was at least a very good “sort.”
She was wanting in distinction, but, as Isabel had said, she was brave:
she went into cages, she flourished lashes, like a spangled lion-tamer.
He had not supposed her to be capable of vulgar arts, but these last
words struck him as a false note. When a marriageable young woman
urges matrimony on an unencumbered young man the most obvious explanation of her conduct is not the altruistic impulse.
“Ah, well now, there’s a good deal to be said about that,” Ralph
rejoined.
“There may be, but that’s the principal thing. I must say I think it
looks very exclusive, going round all alone, as if you thought no
woman was good enough for you. Do you think you’re better than
any one else in the world? In America it’s usual for people to marry.”
“If it’s my duty,” Ralph asked, “is it not, by analogy, yours as well?”
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Miss Stackpole’s ocular surfaces unwinkingly caught the sun. “Have
you the fond hope of finding a flaw in my reasoning? Of course I’ve
as good a right to marry as any one else.”
“Well then,” said Ralph, “I won’t say it vexes me to see you single.
It delights me rather.”
“You’re not serious yet. You never will be.”
“Shall you not believe me to be so on the day I tell you I desire to
give up the practice of going round alone?”
Miss Stackpole looked at him for a moment in a manner which
seemed to announce a reply that might technically be called encouraging. But to his great surprise this expression suddenly resolved
itself into an appearance of alarm and even of resentment. “No, not
even then,” she answered dryly. After which she walked away.
“I’ve not conceived a passion for your friend,” Ralph said that
evening to Isabel, “though we talked some time this morning
about it.”
“And you said something she didn’t like,” the girl replied.
Ralph stared. “Has she complained of me?”
“She told me she thinks there’s something very low in the tone of
Europeans towards women.”
“Does she call me a European?”
“One of the worst. She told me you had said to her something
that an American never would have said. But she didn’t repeat it.”
Ralph treated himself to a luxury of laughter. “She’s an extraordinary combination. Did she think I was making love to her?”
“No; I believe even Americans do that. But she apparently thought
you mistook the intention of something she had said, and put an
unkind construction on it.”
“I thought she was proposing marriage to me and I accepted her.
Was that unkind?”
Isabel smiled. “It was unkind to me. I don’t want you to marry.”
“My dear cousin, what’s one to do among you all?” Ralph de122
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manded. “Miss Stackpole tells me it’s my bounden duty, and that
it’s hers, in general, to see I do mine!”
“She has a great sense of duty,” said Isabel gravely. “She has indeed, and it’s the motive of everything she says. That’s what I like
her for. She thinks it’s unworthy of you to keep so many things to
yourself. That’s what she wanted to express. If you thought she was
trying to—to attract you, you were very wrong.”
“It’s true it was an odd way, but I did think she was trying to
attract me. Forgive my depravity.”
“You’re very conceited. She had no interested views, and never
supposed you would think she had.”
“One must be very modest then to talk with such women,” Ralph
said humbly. “But it’s a very strange type. She’s too personal—considering that she expects other people not to be. She walks in without
knocking at the door.”
“Yes,” Isabel admitted, “she doesn’t sufficiently recognise the existence of knockers; and indeed I’m not sure that she doesn’t think
them rather a pretentious ornament. She thinks one’s door should
stand ajar. But I persist in liking her.”
“I persist in thinking her too familiar,” Ralph rejoined, naturally
somewhat uncomfortable under the sense of having been doubly
deceived in Miss Stackpole.
“Well,” said Isabel, smiling, “I’m afraid it’s because she’s rather
vulgar that I like her.”
“She would be flattered by your reason!”
“If I should tell her I wouldn’t express it in that way. I should say
it’s because there’s something of the ‘people’ in her.”
“What do you know about the people? and what does she, for
that matter?”
“She knows a great deal, and I know enough to feel that she’s a
kind of emanation of the great democracy—of the continent, the
country, the nation. I don’t say that she sums it all up, that would be
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too much to ask of her. But she suggests it; she vividly figures it.”
“You like her then for patriotic reasons. I’m afraid it is on those
very grounds I object to her.”
“Ah,” said Isabel with a kind of joyous sigh, “I like so many things!
If a thing strikes me with a certain intensity I accept it. I don’t want
to swagger, but I suppose I’m rather versatile. I like people to be
totally different from Henrietta—in the style of Lord Warburton’s
sisters for instance. So long as I look at the Misses Molyneux they
seem to me to answer a kind of ideal. Then Henrietta presents herself, and I’m straightway convinced by her; not so much in respect
to herself as in respect to what masses behind her.”
“Ah, you mean the back view of her,” Ralph suggested.
“What she says is true,” his cousin answered; “you’ll never be serious. I like the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and
across the prairies, blooming and smiling and spreading till it stops
at the green Pacific! A strong, sweet, fresh odour seems to rise from
it, and Henrietta—pardon my simile—has something of that odour
in her garments.”
Isabel blushed a little as she concluded this speech, and the blush,
together with the momentary ardour she had thrown into it, was so
becoming to her that Ralph stood smiling at her for a moment after
she had ceased speaking. “I’m not sure the Pacific’s so green as that,”
he said; “but you’re a young woman of imagination. Henrietta, however, does smell of the Future—it almost knocks one down!”
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CHAPTER XI
HE TOOK A RESOLVE after this not to misinterpret her words even when
Miss Stackpole appeared to strike the personal note most strongly. He
bethought himself that persons, in her view, were simple and homogeneous organisms, and that he, for his own part, was too perverted a
representative of the nature of man to have a right to deal with her in
strict reciprocity. He carried out his resolve with a great deal of tact,
and the young lady found in renewed contact with him no obstacle
to the exercise of her genius for unshrinking enquiry, the general application of her confidence. Her situation at Gardencourt therefore,
appreciated as we have seen her to be by Isabel and full of appreciation herself of that free play of intelligence which, to her sense, rendered Isabel’s character a sister-spirit, and of the easy venerableness of
Mr. Touchett, whose noble tone, as she said, met with her full approval—her situation at Gardencourt would have been perfectly comfortable had she not conceived an irresistible mistrust of the little lady
for whom she had at first supposed herself obliged to “allow” as mistress of the house. She presently discovered, in truth, that this obligation was of the lightest and that Mrs. Touchett cared very little how
Miss Stackpole behaved. Mrs. Touchett had defined her to Isabel as
both an adventuress and a bore—adventuresses usually giving one
more of a thrill; she had expressed some surprise at her niece’s having
selected such a friend, yet had immediately added that she knew Isabel’s
friends were her own affair and that she had never undertaken to like
them all or to restrict the girl to those she liked.
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“If you could see none but the people I like, my dear, you’d have a
very small society,” Mrs. Touchett frankly admitted; “and I don’t
think I like any man or woman well enough to recommend them to
you. When it comes to recommending it’s a serious affair. I don’t
like Miss Stackpole—everything about her displeases me; she talks
so much too loud and looks at one as if one wanted to look at her—
which one doesn’t. I’m sure she has lived all her life in a boardinghouse, and I detest the manners and the liberties of such places. If
you ask me if I prefer my own manners, which you doubtless think
very bad, I’ll tell you that I prefer them immensely. Miss Stackpole
knows I detest boarding-house civilisation, and she detests me for
detesting it, because she thinks it the highest in the world. She’d like
Gardencourt a great deal better if it were a boarding-house. For me,
I find it almost too much of one! We shall never get on together
therefore, and there’s no use trying.”
Mrs. Touchett was right in guessing that Henrietta disapproved
of her, but she had not quite put her finger on the reason. A day or
two after Miss Stackpole’s arrival she had made some invidious
reflexions on American hotels, which excited a vein of counter-argument on the part of the correspondent of the Interviewer, who in
the exercise of her profession had acquainted herself, in the western
world, with every form of caravansary. Henrietta expressed the opinion that American hotels were the best in the world, and Mrs.
Touchett, fresh from a renewed struggle with them, recorded a conviction that they were the worst. Ralph, with his experimental geniality, suggested, by way of healing the breach, that the truth lay
between the two extremes and that the establishments in question
ought to be described as fair middling. This contribution to the
discussion, however, Miss Stackpole rejected with scorn. Middling
indeed! If they were not the best in the world they were the worst,
but there was nothing middling about an American hotel.
“We judge from different points of view, evidently,” said Mrs.
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Touchett. “I like to be treated as an individual; you like to be treated
as a ‘party.’”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Henrietta replied. “I like to be
treated as an American lady.”
“Poor American ladies!” cried Mrs. Touchett with a laugh. “They’re
the slaves of slaves.”
“They’re the companions of freemen,” Henrietta retorted.
“They’re the companions of their servants—the Irish chambermaid and the negro waiter. They share their work.”
“Do you call the domestics in an American household ‘slaves’?”
Miss Stackpole enquired. “If that’s the way you desire to treat them,
no wonder you don’t like America.”
“If you’ve not good servants you’re miserable,” Mrs. Touchett serenely said. “They’re very bad in America, but I’ve five perfect ones
in Florence.”
“I don’t see what you want with five,” Henrietta couldn’t help
observing. “I don’t think I should like to see five persons surrounding me in that menial position.”
“I like them in that position better than in some others,” proclaimed Mrs. Touchett with much meaning.
“Should you like me better if I were your butler, dear?” her husband asked.
“I don’t think I should: you wouldn’t at all have the tenue.”
“The companions of freemen—I like that, Miss Stackpole,” said
Ralph. “It’s a beautiful description.”
“When I said freemen I didn’t mean you, sir!”
And this was the only reward that Ralph got for his compliment.
Miss Stackpole was baffled; she evidently thought there was something treasonable in Mrs. Touchett’s appreciation of a class which
she privately judged to be a mysterious survival of feudalism. It was
perhaps because her mind was oppressed with this image that she
suffered some days to elapse before she took occasion to say to Isabel:
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“My dear friend, I wonder if you’re growing faithless.”
“Faithless? Faithless to you, Henrietta?”
“No, that would be a great pain; but it’s not that.”
“Faithless to my country then?”
“Ah, that I hope will never be. When I wrote to you from Liverpool
I said I had something particular to tell you. You’ve never asked me
what it is. Is it because you’ve suspected?”
“Suspected what? As a rule I don’t think I suspect,” said Isabel.
“I remember now that phrase in your letter, but I confess I had
forgotten it. What have you to tell me?”
Henrietta looked disappointed, and her steady gaze betrayed it.
“You don’t ask that right—as if you thought it important. You’re
changed—you’re thinking of other things.”
“Tell me what you mean, and I’ll think of that.”
“Will you really think of it? That’s what I wish to be sure of.”
“I’ve not much control of my thoughts, but I’ll do my best,” said
Isabel. Henrietta gazed at her, in silence, for a period which tried
Isabel’s patience, so that our heroine added at last: “Do you mean
that you’re going to be married?”
“Not till I’ve seen Europe!” said Miss Stackpole. “What are you
laughing at?” she went on. “What I mean is that Mr. Goodwood
came out in the steamer with me.”
“Ah!” Isabel responded.
“You say that right. I had a good deal of talk with him; he has
come after you.”
“Did he tell you so?”
“No, he told me nothing; that’s how I knew it,” said Henrietta
cleverly. “He said very little about you, but I spoke of you a good
deal.”
Isabel waited. At the mention of Mr. Goodwood’s name she had
turned a little pale. “I’m very sorry you did that,” she observed at
last.
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“It was a pleasure to me, and I liked the way he listened. I could
have talked a long time to such a listener; he was so quiet, so intense; he drank it all in.”
“What did you say about me?” Isabel asked.
“I said you were on the whole the finest creature I know.”
“I’m very sorry for that. He thinks too well of me already; he
oughtn’t to be encouraged.”
“He’s dying for a little encouragement. I see his face now, and his
earnest absorbed look while I talked. I never saw an ugly man look
so handsome.”
“He’s very simple-minded,” said Isabel. “And he’s not so ugly.”
“There’s nothing so simplifying as a grand passion.”
“It’s not a grand passion; I’m very sure it’s not that.”
“You don’t say that as if you were sure.”
Isabel gave rather a cold smile. “I shall say it better to Mr.
Goodwood himself.”
“He’ll soon give you a chance,” said Henrietta. Isabel offered no
answer to this assertion, which her companion made with an air of
great confidence. “He’ll find you changed,” the latter pursued.
“You’ve been affected by your new surroundings.”
“Very likely. I’m affected by everything.”
“By everything but Mr. Goodwood!” Miss Stackpole exclaimed
with a slightly harsh hilarity.
Isabel failed even to smile back and in a moment she said: “Did
he ask you to speak to me?”
“Not in so many words. But his eyes asked it—and his handshake, when he bade me good-bye.”
“Thank you for doing so.” And Isabel turned away.
“Yes, you’re changed; you’ve got new ideas over here,” her friend
continued.
“I hope so,” said Isabel; “one should get as many new ideas as
possible.”
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“Yes; but they shouldn’t interfere with the old ones when the old
ones have been the right ones.”
Isabel turned about again. “If you mean that I had any idea with
regard to Mr. Goodwood—!” But she faltered before her friend’s
implacable glitter.
“My dear child, you certainly encouraged him.”
Isabel made for the moment as if to deny this charge; instead of
which, however, she presently answered: “It’s very true. I did encourage him.” And then she asked if her companion had learned
from Mr. Goodwood what he intended to do. It was a concession to
her curiosity, for she disliked discussing the subject and found
Henrietta wanting in delicacy.
“I asked him, and he said he meant to do nothing,” Miss Stackpole
answered. “But I don’t believe that; he’s not a man to do nothing.
He is a man of high, bold action. Whatever happens to him he’ll
always do something, and whatever he does will always be right.”
“I quite believe that.” Henrietta might be wanting in delicacy, but
it touched the girl, all the same, to hear this declaration.
“Ah, you do care for him!” her visitor rang out.
“Whatever he does will always be right,” Isabel repeated. “When
a man’s of that infallible mould what does it matter to him what one
feels?”
“It may not matter to him, but it matters to one’s self.”
“Ah, what it matters to me—that’s not what we’re discussing,”
said Isabel with a cold smile.
This time her companion was grave. “Well, I don’t care; you have
changed. You’re not the girl you were a few short weeks ago, and
Mr. Goodwood will see it. I expect him here any day.”
“I hope he’ll hate me then,” said Isabel.
“I believe you hope it about as much as I believe him capable of it.”
To this observation our heroine made no return; she was absorbed
in the alarm given her by Henrietta’s intimation that Caspar
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Goodwood would present himself at Gardencourt. She pretended
to herself, however, that she thought the event impossible, and, later,
she communicated her disbelief to her friend. For the next fortyeight hours, nevertheless, she stood prepared to hear the young man’s
name announced. The feeling pressed upon her; it made the air
sultry, as if there were to be a change of weather; and the weather,
socially speaking, had been so agreeable during Isabel’s stay at
Gardencourt that any change would be for the worse. Her suspense
indeed was dissipated the second day. She had walked into the park
in company with the sociable Bunchie, and after strolling about for
some time, in a manner at once listless and restless, had seated herself on a garden-bench, within sight of the house, beneath a spreading beech, where, in a white dress ornamented with black ribbons,
she formed among the flickering shadows a graceful and harmonious image. She entertained herself for some moments with talking
to the little terrier, as to whom the proposal of an ownership divided with her cousin had been applied as impartially as possible—
as impartially as Bunchie’s own somewhat fickle and inconstant sympathies would allow. But she was notified for the first time, on this
occasion, of the finite character of Bunchie’s intellect; hitherto she
had been mainly struck with its extent. It seemed to her at last that
she would do well to take a book; formerly, when heavy-hearted,
she had been able, with the help of some well-chosen volume, to
transfer the seat of consciousness to the organ of pure reason. Of
late, it was not to be denied, literature had seemed a fading light,
and even after she had reminded herself that her uncle’s library was
provided with a complete set of those authors which no gentleman’s
collection should be without, she sat motionless and empty-handed,
her eyes bent on the cool green turf of the lawn. Her meditations
were presently interrupted by the arrival of a servant who handed
her a letter. The letter bore the London postmark and was addressed
in a hand she knew—that came into her vision, already so held by
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him, with the vividness of the writer’s voice or his face. This document proved short and may be given entire.
My Dear Miss Archer—I don’t know whether you will have heard of
my coming to England, but even if you have not it will scarcely be
a surprise to you. You will remember that when you gave me my
dismissal at Albany, three months ago, I did not accept it. I protested against it. You in fact appeared to accept my protest and to
admit that I had the right on my side. I had come to see you with
the hope that you would let me bring you over to my conviction;
my reasons for entertaining this hope had been of the best. But you
disappointed it; I found you changed, and you were able to give me
no reason for the change. You admitted that you were unreasonable, and it was the only concession you would make; but it was a
very cheap one, because that’s not your character. No, you are not,
and you never will be, arbitrary or capricious. Therefore it is that I
believe you will let me see you again. You told me that I’m not
disagreeable to you, and I believe it; for I don’t see why that should
be. I shall always think of you; I shall never think of any one else. I
came to England simply because you are here; I couldn’t stay at
home after you had gone: I hated the country because you were not
in it. If I like this country at present it is only because it holds you.
I have been to England before, but have never enjoyed it much.
May I not come and see you for half an hour? This at present is the
dearest wish of yours faithfully
Caspar Goodwood.
Isabel read this missive with such deep attention that she had not
perceived an approaching tread on the soft grass. Looking up, however, as she mechanically folded it she saw Lord Warburton standing before her.
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CHAPTER XII
SHE PUT THE LETTER into her pocket and offered her visitor a smile
of welcome, exhibiting no trace of discomposure and half surprised
at her coolness.
“They told me you were out here,” said Lord Warburton; “and as
there was no one in the drawing-room and it’s really you that I wish
to see, I came out with no more ado.”
Isabel had got up; she felt a wish, for the moment, that he should
not sit down beside her. “I was just going indoors.”
“Please don’t do that; it’s much jollier here; I’ve ridden over from
Lockleigh; it’s a lovely day.” His smile was peculiarly friendly and
pleasing, and his whole person seemed to emit that radiance of goodfeeling and good fare which had formed the charm of the girl’s first
impression of him. It surrounded him like a zone of fine June weather.
“We’ll walk about a little then,” said Isabel, who could not divest
herself of the sense of an intention on the part of her visitor and
who wished both to elude the intention and to satisfy her curiosity
about it. It had flashed upon her vision once before, and it had
given her on that occasion, as we know, a certain alarm. This alarm
was composed of several elements, not all of which were disagreeable; she had indeed spent some days in analysing them and had
succeeded in separating the pleasant part of the idea of Lord
Warburton’s “making up” to her from the painful. It may appear to
some readers that the young lady was both precipitate and unduly
fastidious; but the latter of these facts, if the charge be true, may
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serve to exonerate her from the discredit of the former. She was not
eager to convince herself that a territorial magnate, as she had heard
Lord Warburton called, was smitten with her charms; the fact of a
declaration from such a source carrying with it really more questions than it would answer. She had received a strong impression of
his being a “personage,” and she had occupied herself in examining
the image so conveyed. At the risk of adding to the evidence of her
self-sufficiency it must be said that there had been moments when
this possibility of admiration by a personage represented to her an
aggression almost to the degree of an affront, quite to the degree of
an inconvenience. She had never yet known a personage; there had
been no personages, in this sense, in her life; there were probably
none such at all in her native land. When she had thought of individual eminence she had thought of it on the basis of character and
wit—of what one might like in a gentleman’s mind and in his talk.
She herself was a character —she couldn’t help being aware of that;
and hitherto her visions of a completed consciousness had concerned
themselves largely with moral images—things as to which the question would be whether they pleased her sublime soul. Lord
Warburton loomed up before her, largely and brightly, as a collection of attributes and powers which were not to be measured by this
simple rule, but which demanded a different sort of appreciation—
an appreciation that the girl, with her habit of judging quickly and
freely, felt she lacked patience to bestow. He appeared to demand of
her something that no one else, as it were, had presumed to do.
What she felt was that a territorial, a political, a social magnate had
conceived the design of drawing her into the system in which he
rather invidiously lived and moved. A certain instinct, not imperious, but persuasive, told her to resist—murmured to her that virtually she had a system and an orbit of her own. It told her other
things besides—things which both contradicted and confirmed each
other; that a girl might do much worse than trust herself to such a
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man and that it would be very interesting to see something of his
system from his own point of view; that on the other hand, however, there was evidently a great deal of it which she should regard
only as a complication of every hour, and that even in the whole
there was something stiff and stupid which would make it a burden. Furthermore there was a young man lately come from America
who had no system at all, but who had a character of which it was
useless for her to try to persuade herself that the impression on her
mind had been light. The letter she carried in her pocket all sufficiently reminded her of the contrary. Smile not, however, I venture
to repeat, at this simple young woman from Albany who debated
whether she should accept an English peer before he had offered
himself and who was disposed to believe that on the whole she could
do better. She was a person of great good faith, and if there was a
great deal of folly in her wisdom those who judge her severely may
have the satisfaction of finding that, later, she became consistently
wise only at the cost of an amount of folly which will constitute
almost a direct appeal to charity.
Lord Warburton seemed quite ready to walk, to sit or to do anything that Isabel should propose, and he gave her this assurance
with his usual air of being particularly pleased to exercise a social
virtue. But he was, nevertheless, not in command of his emotions,
and as he strolled beside her for a moment, in silence, looking at her
without letting her know it, there was something embarrassed in his
glance and his misdirected laughter. Yes, assuredly—as we have
touched on the point, we may return to it for a moment again—the
English are the most romantic people in the world and Lord
Warburton was about to give an example of it. He was about to take
a step which would astonish all his friends and displease a great
many of them, and which had superficially nothing to recommend
it. The young lady who trod the turf beside him had come from a
queer country across the sea which he knew a good deal about; her
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antecedents, her associations were very vague to his mind except in
so far as they were generic, and in this sense they showed as distinct
and unimportant. Miss Archer had neither a fortune nor the sort of
beauty that justifies a man to the multitude, and he calculated that
he had spent about twenty-six hours in her company. He had
summed up all this—the perversity of the impulse, which had declined to avail itself of the most liberal opportunities to subside, and
the judgement of mankind, as exemplified particularly in the more
quickly-judging half of it: he had looked these things well in the
face and then had dismissed them from his thoughts. He cared no
more for them than for the rosebud in his buttonhole. It is the good
fortune of a man who for the greater part of a lifetime has abstained
without effort from making himself disagreeable to his friends, that
when the need comes for such a course it is not discredited by irritating associations.
“I hope you had a pleasant ride,” said Isabel, who observed her
companion’s hesitancy.
“It would have been pleasant if for nothing else than that it brought
me here.”
“Are you so fond of Gardencourt?” the girl asked, more and more
sure that he meant to make some appeal to her; wishing not to
challenge him if he hesitated, and yet to keep all the quietness of her
reason if he proceeded. It suddenly came upon her that her situation was one which a few weeks ago she would have deemed deeply
romantic: the park of an old English country-house, with the foreground embellished by a “great” (as she supposed) nobleman in the
act of making love to a young lady who, on careful inspection, should
be found to present remarkable analogies with herself. But if she
was now the heroine of the situation she succeeded scarcely the less
in looking at it from the outside.
“I care nothing for Gardencourt,” said her companion. “I care
only for you.”
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“You’ve known me too short a time to have a right to say that, and
I can’t believe you’re serious.”
These words of Isabel’s were not perfectly sincere, for she had no
doubt whatever that he himself was. They were simply a tribute to
the fact, of which she was perfectly aware, that those he had just
uttered would have excited surprise on the part of a vulgar world.
And, moreover, if anything beside the sense she had already acquired
that Lord Warburton was not a loose thinker had been needed to
convince her, the tone in which he replied would quite have served
the purpose.
“One’s right in such a matter is not measured by the time, Miss
Archer; it’s measured by the feeling itself. If I were to wait three
months it would make no difference; I shall not be more sure of
what I mean than I am to-day. Of course I’ve seen you very little,
but my impression dates from the very first hour we met. I lost no
time, I fell in love with you then. It was at first sight, as the novels
say; I know now that’s not a fancy-phrase, and I shall think better of
novels for evermore. Those two days I spent here settled it; I don’t
know whether you suspected I was doing so, but I paid-mentally
speaking I mean—the greatest possible attention to you. Nothing
you said, nothing you did, was lost upon me. When you came to
Lockleigh the other day—or rather when you went away—I was
perfectly sure. Nevertheless I made up my mind to think it over and
to question myself narrowly. I’ve done so; all these days I’ve done
nothing else. I don’t make mistakes about such things; I’m a very
judicious animal. I don’t go off easily, but when I’m touched, it’s for
life. It’s for life, Miss Archer, it’s for life,” Lord Warburton repeated
in the kindest, tenderest, pleasantest voice Isabel had ever heard,
and looking at her with eyes charged with the light of a passion that
had sifted itself clear of the baser parts of emotion—the heat, the
violence, the unreason—and that burned as steadily as a lamp in a
windless place.
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By tacit consent, as he talked, they had walked more and more
slowly, and at last they stopped and he took her hand. “Ah, Lord
Warburton, how little you know me!” Isabel said very gently. Gently too she drew her hand away.
“Don’t taunt me with that; that I don’t know you better makes me
unhappy enough already; it’s all my loss. But that’s what I want, and
it seems to me I’m taking the best way. If you’ll be my wife, then I
shall know you, and when I tell you all the good I think of you
you’ll not be able to say it’s from ignorance.”
“If you know me little I know you even less,” said Isabel.
“You mean that, unlike yourself, I may not improve on acquaintance? Ah, of course that’s very possible. But think, to speak to you
as I do, how determined I must be to try and give satisfaction! You
do like me rather, don’t you?”
“I like you very much, Lord Warburton,” she answered; and at
this moment she liked him immensely.
“I thank you for saying that; it shows you don’t regard me as a
stranger. I really believe I’ve filled all the other relations of life very
creditably, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t fill this one—in which I
offer myself to you—seeing that I care so much more about it. Ask
the people who know me well; I’ve friends who’ll speak for me.”
“I don’t need the recommendation of your friends,” said Isabel.
“Ah now, that’s delightful of you. You believe in me yourself.”
“Completely,” Isabel declared. She quite glowed there, inwardly,
with the pleasure of feeling she did.
The light in her companion’s eyes turned into a smile, and he gave
a long exhalation of joy. “If you’re mistaken, Miss Archer, let me
lose all I possess!”
She wondered whether he meant this for a reminder that he was
rich, and, on the instant, felt sure that he didn’t. He was thinking
that, as he would have said himself; and indeed he might safely
leave it to the memory of any interlocutor, especially of one to whom
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he was offering his hand. Isabel had prayed that she might not be
agitated, and her mind was tranquil enough, even while she listened
and asked herself what it was best she should say, to indulge in this
incidental criticism. What she should say, had she asked herself?
Her foremost wish was to say something if possible not less kind
than what he had said to her. His words had carried perfect conviction with them; she felt she did, all so mysteriously, matter to him.
“I thank you more than I can say for your offer,” she returned at
last. “ It does me great honour.”
“Ah, don’t say that!” he broke out. “I was afraid you’d say something like that. I don’t see what you’ve to do with that sort of thing.
I don’t see why you should thank me—it’s I who ought to thank
you for listening to me: a man you know so little coming down on
you with such a thumper! Of course it’s a great question; I must tell
you that I’d rather ask it than have it to answer myself. But the way
you’ve listened—or at least your having listened at all—gives me
some hope.”
“Don’t hope too much,” Isabel said.
“Oh Miss Archer!” her companion murmured, smiling again, in
his seriousness, as if such a warning might perhaps be taken but as
the play of high spirits, the exuberance of elation.
“Should you be greatly surprised if I were to beg you not to hope
at all?” Isabel asked.
“Surprised? I don’t know what you mean by surprise. It wouldn’t
be that; it would be a feeling very much worse.”
Isabel walked on again; she was silent for some minutes. “I’m very
sure that, highly as I already think of you, my opinion of you, if I
should know you well, would only rise. But I’m by no means sure
that you wouldn’t be disappointed. And I say that not in the least
out of conventional modesty; it’s perfectly sincere.”
“I’m willing to risk it, Miss Archer,” her companion replied.
“It’s a great question, as you say. It’s a very difficult question.”
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“I don’t expect you of course to answer it outright. Think it over
as long as may be necessary. If I can gain by waiting I’ll gladly wait
a long time. Only remember that in the end my dearest happiness
depends on your answer.”
“I should be very sorry to keep you in suspense,” said Isabel.
“Oh, don’t mind. I’d much rather have a good answer six months
hence than a bad one to-day.”
“But it’s very probable that even six months hence I shouldn’t be
able to give you one that you’d think good.”
“Why not, since you really like me?”
“Ah, you must never doubt that,” said Isabel.
“Well then, I don’t see what more you ask!”
“It’s not what I ask; it’s what I can give. I don’t think I should suit
you; I really don’t think I should.”
“You needn’t worry about that. That’s my affair. You needn’t be a
better royalist than the king.”
“It’s not only that,” said Isabel; “but I’m not sure I wish to marry
any one.”
“Very likely you don’t. I’ve no doubt a great many women begin
that way,” said his lordship, who, be it averred, did not in the least
believe in the axiom he thus beguiled his anxiety by uttering. “But
they’re frequently persuaded.”
“Ah, that’s because they want to be!” And Isabel lightly laughed.
Her suitor’s countenance fell, and he looked at her for a while in
silence. “I’m afraid it’s my being an Englishman that makes you
hesitate,” he said presently. “I know your uncle thinks you ought to
marry in your own country.”
Isabel listened to this assertion with some interest; it had never
occurred to her that Mr. Touchett was likely to discuss her matrimonial prospects with Lord Warburton. “Has he told you that?”
“I remember his making the remark. He spoke perhaps of Americans generally.”
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“He appears himself to have found it very pleasant to live in England.” Isabel spoke in a manner that might have seemed a little
perverse, but which expressed both her constant perception of her
uncle’s outward felicity and her general disposition to elude any
obligation to take a restricted view.
It gave her companion hope, and he immediately cried with
warmth: “Ah, my dear Miss Archer, old England’s a very good sort
of country, you know! And it will be still better when we’ve furbished it up a little.”
“Oh, don’t furbish it, Lord Warburton—, leave it alone. I like it
this way.”
“Well then, if you like it, I’m more and more unable to see your
objection to what I propose.”
“I’m afraid I can’t make you understand.”
“You ought at least to try. I’ve a fair intelligence. Are you afraid—
afraid of the climate? We can easily live elsewhere, you know. You
can pick out your climate, the whole world over.”
These words were uttered with a breadth of candour that was like the
embrace of strong arms—that was like the fragrance straight in her face,
and by his clean, breathing lips, of she knew not what strange gardens,
what charged airs. She would have given her little finger at that moment
to feel strongly and simply the impulse to answer: “Lord Warburton, it’s
impossible for me to do better in this wonderful world, I think, than
commit myself, very gratefully, to your loyalty.” But though she was lost
in admiration of her opportunity she managed to move back into the
deepest shade of it, even as some wild, caught creature in a vast cage. The
“splendid” security so offered her was not the greatest she could conceive.
What she finally bethought herself of saying was something very different—something that deferred the need of really facing her crisis. “Don’t
think me unkind if I ask you to say no more about this to-day.”
“Certainly, certainly!” her companion cried. “I wouldn’t bore you
for the world.”
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“You’ve given me a great deal to think about, and I promise you to
do it justice.”
“That’s all I ask of you, of course—and that you’ll remember how
absolutely my happiness is in your hands.”
Isabel listened with extreme respect to this admonition, but she
said after a minute: “I must tell you that what I shall think about is
some way of letting you know that what you ask is impossible—
letting you know it without making you miserable.”
“There’s no way to do that, Miss Archer. I won’t say that if you
refuse me you’ll kill me; I shall not die of it. But I shall do worse; I
shall live to no purpose.”
“You’ll live to marry a better woman than I.”
“Don’t say that, please,” said Lord Warburton very gravely. “That’s
fair to neither of us.”
“To marry a worse one then.”
“If there are better women than you I prefer the bad ones. That’s
all I can say,” he went on with the same earnestness. “There’s no
accounting for tastes.”
His gravity made her feel equally grave, and she showed it by
again requesting him to drop the subject for the present. “I’ll speak
to you myself—very soon. Perhaps I shall write to you.”
“At your convenience, yes,” he replied. “Whatever time you take,
it must seem to me long, and I suppose I must make the best of
that.”
“I shall not keep you in suspense; I only want to collect my mind
a little.”
He gave a melancholy sigh and stood looking at her a moment,
with his hands behind him, giving short nervous shakes to his hunting-crop. “Do you know I’m very much afraid of it—of that remarkable mind of yours?”
Our heroine’s biographer can scarcely tell why, but the question
made her start and brought a conscious blush to her cheek. She
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returned his look a moment, and then with a note in her voice that
might almost have appealed to his compassion, “So am I, my lord!”
she oddly exclaimed.
His compassion was not stirred, however; all he possessed of the
faculty of pity was needed at home. “Ah! be merciful, be merciful,”
he murmured.
“I think you had better go,” said Isabel. “I’ll write to you.”
“Very good; but whatever you write I’ll come and see you, you
know.” And then he stood reflecting, his eyes fixed on the observant
countenance of Bunchie, who had the air of having understood all
that had been said and of pretending to carry off the indiscretion by
a simulated fit of curiosity as to the roots of an ancient oak. “There’s
one thing more,” he went on. “You know, if you don’t like
Lockleigh—if you think it’s damp or anything of that sort—you
need never go within fifty miles of it. It’s not damp, by the way; I’ve
had the house thoroughly examined; it’s perfectly safe and right.
But if you shouldn’t fancy it you needn’t dream of living in it. There’s
no difficulty whatever about that; there are plenty of houses. I
thought I’d just mention it; some people don’t like a moat, you
know. Good-bye.”
“I adore a moat,” said Isabel. “Good-bye.”
He held out his hand, and she gave him hers a moment—a moment long enough for him to bend his handsome bared head and
kiss it. Then, still agitating, in his mastered emotion, his implement
of the chase, he walked rapidly away. He was evidently much upset.
Isabel herself was upset, but she had not been affected as she would
have imagined. What she felt was not a great responsibility, a great
difficulty of choice; it appeared to her there had been no choice in
the question. She couldn’t marry Lord Warburton; the idea failed to
support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration
of life that she had hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining. She must write this to him, she must convince him, and
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that duty was comparatively simple. But what disturbed her, in the
sense that it struck her with wonderment, was this very fact that it
cost her so little to refuse a magnificent “chance.” With whatever
qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great
opportunity; the situation might have discomforts, might contain
oppressive, might contain narrowing elements, might prove really
but a stupefying anodyne; but she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated
themselves to it without a pang. Why then upon her also should it
not irresistibly impose itself? Who was she, what was she, that she
should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon
fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be
larger than these large these fabulous occasions? If she wouldn’t do
such a thing as that then she must do great things, she must do
something greater. Poor Isabel found ground to remind herself from
time to time that she must not be too proud, and nothing could be
more sincere than her prayer to be delivered from such a danger: the
isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a
desert place. If it had been pride that interfered with her accepting
Lord Warburton such a betise was singularly misplaced; and she
was so conscious of liking him that she ventured to assure herself it
was the very softness, and the fine intelligence, of sympathy. She
liked him too much to marry him, that was the truth; something
assured her there was a fallacy somewhere in the glowing logic of
the proposition—as he saw it—even though she mightn’t put her
very finest finger-point on it; and to inflict upon a man who offered
so much a wife with a tendency to criticise would be a peculiarly
discreditable act. She had promised him she would consider his question, and when, after he had left her, she wandered back to the
bench where he had found her and lost herself in meditation, it
might have seemed that she was keeping her vow. But this was not
the case; she was wondering if she were not a cold, hard, priggish
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person, and, on her at last getting up and going rather quickly back
to the house, felt, as she had said to her friend, really frightened at
herself.
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CHAPTER XIII
IT WAS THIS FEELING and not the wish to ask advice—she had no
desire whatever for that—that led her to speak to her uncle of what
had taken place. She wished to speak to some one; she should feel
more natural, more human, and her uncle, for this purpose, presented himself in a more attractive light than either her aunt or her
friend Henrietta. Her cousin of course was a possible confidant; but
she would have had to do herself violence to air this special secret to
Ralph. So the next day, after breakfast, she sought her occasion. Her
uncle never left his apartment till the afternoon, but he received his
cronies, as he said, in his dressing-room. Isabel had quite taken her
place in the class so designated, which, for the rest, included the old
man’s son, his physician, his personal servant, and even Miss
Stackpole. Mrs. Touchett did not figure in the list, and this was an
obstacle the less to Isabel’s finding her host alone. He sat in a complicated mechanical chair, at the open window of his room, looking
westward over the park and the river, with his newspapers and letters piled up beside him, his toilet freshly and minutely made, and
his smooth, speculative face composed to benevolent expectation.
She approached her point directly. “I think I ought to let you
know that Lord Warburton has asked me to marry him. I suppose I
ought to tell my aunt; but it seems best to tell you first.”
The old man expressed no surprise, but thanked her for the confidence she showed him. “Do you mind telling me whether you
accepted him?” he then enquired.
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“I’ve not answered him definitely yet; I’ve taken a little time to
think of it, because that seems more respectful. But I shall not accept him.”
Mr. Touchett made no comment upon this; he had the air of thinking that, whatever interest he might take in the matter from the
point of view of sociability, he had no active voice in it. “Well, I told
you you’d be a success over here. Americans are highly appreciated.”
“Very highly indeed,” said Isabel. “But at the cost of seeming both
tasteless and ungrateful, I don’t think I can marry Lord Warburton.”
“Well,” her uncle went on, “of course an old man can’t judge for a
young lady. I’m glad you didn’t ask me before you made up your mind.
I suppose I ought to tell you,” he added slowly, but as if it were not of
much consequence, “that I’ve known all about it these three days.”
“About Lord Warburton’s state of mind?”
“About his intentions, as they say here. He wrote me a very pleasant letter, telling me all about them. Should you like to see his letter?” the old man obligingly asked.
“Thank you; I don’t think I care about that. But I’m glad he wrote
to you; it was right that he should, and he would be certain to do
what was right.”
“Ah well, I guess you do like him!” Mr. Touchett declared. “You
needn’t pretend you don’t.”
“I like him extremely; I’m very free to admit that. But I don’t wish
to marry any one just now.”
“You think some one may come along whom you may like better.
Well, that’s very likely,” said Mr. Touchett, who appeared to wish to
show his kindness to the girl by easing off her decision, as it were,
and finding cheerful reasons for it.
“I don’t care if I don’t meet any one else. I like Lord Warburton
quite well enough.” she fell into that appearance of a sudden change
of point of view with which she sometimes startled and even displeased her interlocutors.
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Her uncle, however, seemed proof against either of these impressions. “He’s a very fine man,” he resumed in a tone which might
have passed for that of encouragement. “His letter was one of the
pleasantest I’ve received for some weeks. I suppose one of the reasons I liked it was that it was all about you; that is all except the part
that was about himself. I suppose he told you all that.”
“He would have told me everything I wished to ask him,” Isabel
said.
“But you didn’t feel curious?”
“My curiosity would have been idle—once I had determined to
decline his offer.”
“You didn’t find it sufficiently attractive?” Mr. Touchett enquired.
She was silent a little. “I suppose it was that,” she presently admitted. “But I don’t know why.”
“Fortunately ladies are not obliged to give reasons,” said her uncle.
“There’s a great deal that’s attractive about such an idea; but I don’t
see why the English should want to entice us away from our native
land. I know that we try to attract them over there, but that’s because our population is insufficient. Here, you know, they’re rather
crowded. However, I presume there’s room for charming young ladies everywhere.”
“There seems to have been room here for you,” said Isabel, whose
eyes had been wandering over the large pleasure-spaces of the park.
Mr. Touchett gave a shrewd, conscious smile. “There’s room everywhere, my dear, if you’ll pay for it. I sometimes think I’ve paid
too much for this. Perhaps you also might have to pay too much.”
“Perhaps I might,” the girl replied.
That suggestion gave her something more definite to rest on than
she had found in her own thoughts, and the fact of this association
of her uncle’s mild acuteness with her dilemma seemed to prove
that she was concerned with the natural and reasonable emotions of
life and not altogether a victim to intellectual eagerness and vague
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ambitions—ambitions reaching beyond Lord Warburton’s beautiful appeal, reaching to something indefinable and possibly not commendable. In so far as the indefinable had an influence upon Isabel’s
behaviour at this juncture, it was not the conception, even unformulated, of a union with Caspar Goodwood; for however she might
have resisted conquest at her English suitor’s large quiet hands she
was at least as far removed from the disposition to let the young
man from Boston take positive possession of her. The sentiment in
which She sought refuge after reading his letter was a critical view of
his having come abroad; for it was part of the influence he had
upon her that he seemed to deprive her of the sense of freedom.
There was a disagreeably strong push, a kind of hardness of presence, in his way of rising before her. She had been haunted at moments by the image, by the danger, of his disapproval and had wondered—a consideration she had never paid in equal degree to any
one else—whether he would like what she did. The difficulty was
that more than any man she had ever known, more than poor Lord
Warburton (she had begun now to give his lordship the benefit of
this epithet), Caspar Goodwood expressed for her an energy—and
she had already felt it as a power that was of his very nature. It was
in no degree a matter of his “advantages”—it was a matter of the
spirit that sat in his clear-burning eyes like some tireless watcher at
a window. She might like it or not, but he insisted, ever, with his
whole weight and force: even in one’s usual contact with him one
had to reckon with that. The idea of a diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to her at present, since she had just given a
sort of personal accent to her independence by looking so straight
at Lord Warburton’s big bribe and yet turning away from it. Sometimes Caspar Goodwood had seemed to range himself on the side
of her destiny, to be the stubbornest fact she knew; she said to herself at such moments that she might evade him for a time, but that
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tain to be favourable to himself. Her impulse had been to avail herself of the things that helped her to resist such an obligation; and
this impulse had been much concerned in her eager acceptance of
her aunt’s invitation, which had come to her at an hour when she
expected from day to day to see Mr. Goodwood and when she was
glad to have an answer ready for something she was sure he would
say to her. When she had told him at Albany, on the evening of
Mrs. Touchett’s visit, that she couldn’t then discuss difficult questions, dazzled as she was by the great immediate opening of her
aunt’s offer of “Europe,” he declared that this was no answer at all;
and it was now to obtain a better one that he was following her
across the sea. To say to herself that he was a kind of grim fate was
well enough for a fanciful young woman who was able to take much
for granted in him; but the reader has a right to a nearer and a
clearer view.
He was the son of a proprietor of well-known cotton-mills in
Massachusetts—a gentleman who had accumulated a considerable
fortune in the exercise of this industry. Caspar at present managed
the works, and with a judgement and a temper which, in spite of
keen competition and languid years, had kept their prosperity from
dwindling. He had received the better part of his education at
Harvard College, where, however, he had gained renown rather as a
gymnast and an oarsman than as a gleaner of more dispersed knowledge. Later on he had learned that the finer intelligence too could
vault and pull and strain—might even, breaking the record, treat
itself to rare exploits. He had thus discovered in himself a sharp eye
for the mystery of mechanics, and had invented an improvement in
the cotton-spinning process which was now largely used and was
known by his name. You might have seen it in the newspapers in
connection with this fruitful contrivance; assurance of which he
had given to Isabel by showing her in the columns of the New York
Interviewer an exhaustive article on the Goodwood patent—an ar150
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ticle not prepared by Miss Stackpole, friendly as she had proved
herself to his more sentimental interests. There were intricate, bristling things he rejoiced in; he liked to organise, to contend, to administer; he could make people work his will, believe in him, march
before him and justify him. This was the art, as they said, of managing men—which rested, in him, further, on a bold though brooding ambition. It struck those who knew him well that he might do
greater things than carry on a cotton-factory; there was nothing
cottony about Caspar Goodwood, and his friends took for granted
that he would somehow and somewhere write himself in bigger letters. But it was as if something large and confused, something dark
and ugly, would have to call upon him: he was not after all in harmony with mere smug peace and greed and gain, an order of things
of which the vital breath was ubiquitous advertisement. It pleased
Isabel to believe that he might have ridden, on a plunging steed, the
whirlwind of a great war—a war like the Civil strife that had
overdarkened her conscious childhood and his ripening youth.
She liked at any rate this idea of his being by character and in fact
a mover of men—liked it much better than some other points in his
nature and aspect. She cared nothing for his cotton-mill—the
Goodwood patent left her imagination absolutely cold. She wished
him no ounce less of his manhood, but she sometimes thought he
would be rather nicer if he looked, for instance, a little differently.
His jaw was too square and set and his figure too straight and stiff:
these things suggested a want of easy consonance with the deeper
rhythms of life. Then she viewed with reserve a habit he had of
dressing always in the same manner; it was not apparently that he
wore the same clothes continually, for, on the contrary, his garments
had a way of looking rather too new. But they all seemed of the
same piece; the figure, the stuff, was so drearily usual. She had reminded herself more than once that this was a frivolous objection
to a person of his importance; and then she had amended the re151
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buke by saying that it would be a frivolous objection only if she
were in love with him. She was not in love with him and therefore
might criticise his small defects as well as his great—which latter
consisted in the collective reproach of his being too serious, or, rather,
not of his being so, since one could never be, but certainly of his
seeming so. He showed his appetites and designs too simply and
artlessly; when one was alone with him he talked too much about
the same subject, and when other people were present he talked too
little about anything. And yet he was of supremely strong, clean
make—which was so much she saw the different fitted parts of him
as she had seen, in museums and portraits, the different fitted parts
of armoured warriors—in plates of steel handsomely inlaid with
gold. It was very strange: where, ever, was any tangible link between
her impression and her act? Caspar Goodwood had never corresponded to her idea of a delightful person, and she supposed that
this was why he left her so harshly critical. When, however, Lord
Warburton, who not only did correspond with it, but gave an extension to the term, appealed to her approval, she found herself still
unsatisfied. It was certainly strange.
The sense of her incoherence was not a help to answering Mr.
Goodwood’s letter, and Isabel determined to leave it a while
unhonoured. If he had determined to persecute her he must take
the consequences; foremost among which was his being left to perceive how little it charmed her that he should come down to
Gardencourt. She was already liable to the incursions of one suitor
at this place, and though it might be pleasant to be appreciated in
opposite quarters there was a kind of grossness in entertaining two
such passionate pleaders at once, even in a case where the entertainment should consist of dismissing them. She made no reply to Mr.
Goodwood; but at the end of three days she wrote to Lord
Warburton, and the letter belongs to our history.
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Dear Lord Warburton—A great deal of earnest thought has not led
me to change my mind about the suggestion you were so kind as to
make me the other day. I am not, I am really and truly not, able to
regard you in the light of a companion for life; or to think of your
home—your various homes—as the settled seat of my existence.
These things cannot be reasoned about, and I very earnestly entreat
you not to return to the subject we discussed so exhaustively. We see
our lives from our own point of view; that is the privilege of the
weakest and humblest of us; and I shall never be able to see mine in
the manner you proposed. Kindly let this suffice you, and do me
the justice to believe that I have given your proposal the deeply
respectful consideration it deserves. It is with this very great regard
that I remain sincerely yours,
Isabel Archer.
While the author of this missive was making up her mind to dispatch it Henrietta Stackpole formed a resolve which was accompanied by no demur. She invited Ralph Touchett to take a walk with
her in the garden, and when he had assented with that alacrity which
seemed constantly to testify to his high expectations, she informed
him that she had a favour to ask of him. It may be admitted that at
this information the young man flinched; for we know that Miss
Stackpole had struck him as apt to push an advantage. The alarm
was unreasoned, however; for he was clear about the area of her
indiscretion as little as advised of its vertical depth, and he made a
very civil profession of the desire to serve her. He was afraid of her
and presently told her so. “When you look at me in a certain way
my knees knock together, my faculties desert me; I’m filled with
trepidation and I ask only for strength to execute your commands.
You’ve an address that I’ve never encountered in any woman.”
“Well,” Henrietta replied good-humouredly, “if I had not known
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before that you were trying somehow to abash me I should know it
now. Of course I’m easy game—I was brought up with such different customs and ideas. I’m not used to your arbitrary standards, and
I’ve never been spoken to in America as you have spoken to me. If a
gentleman conversing with me over there were to speak to me like
that I shouldn’t know what to make of it. We take everything more
naturally over there, and, after all, we’re a great deal more simple. I
admit that; I’m very simple myself. Of course if you choose to laugh
at me for it you’re very welcome; but I think on the whole I would
rather be myself than you. I’m quite content to be myself; I don’t
want to change. There are plenty of people that appreciate me just
as I am. It’s true they’re nice fresh free-born Americans!” Henrietta
had lately taken up the tone of helpless innocence and large concession. “I want you to assist me a little,” she went on. “I don’t care in
the least whether I amuse you while you do so; or, rather, I’m perfectly willing your amusement should be your reward. I want you
to help me about Isabel.”
“Has she injured you?” Ralph asked.
“If she had I shouldn’t mind, and I should never tell you. What
I’m afraid of is that she’ll injure herself.”
“I think that’s very possible,” said Ralph.
His companion stopped in the garden-walk, fixing on him perhaps the very gaze that unnerved him. “That too would amuse you,
I suppose. The way you do say things! I never heard any one so
indifferent.”
“To Isabel? Ah, not that!”
“Well, you’re not in love with her, I hope.”
“How can that be, when I’m in love with Another?”
“You’re in love with yourself, that’s the Other!” Miss Stackpole
declared. “Much good may it do you! But if you wish to be serious
once in your life here’s a chance; and if you really care for your
cousin here’s an opportunity to prove it. I don’t expect you to un154
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derstand her; that’s too much to ask. But you needn’t do that to
grant my favour. I’ll supply the necessary intelligence.”
“I shall enjoy that immensely!” Ralph exclaimed. “I’ll be Caliban
and you shall be Ariel.”
“You’re not at all like Caliban, because you’re sophisticated, and
Caliban was not. But I’m not talking about imaginary characters;
I’m talking about Isabel. Isabel’s intensely real. What I wish to tell
you is that I find her fearfully changed.”
“Since you came, do you mean?”
“Since I came and before I came. She’s not the same as she once so
beautifully was.”
“As she was in America?”
“Yes, in America. I suppose you know she comes from there. She
can’t help it, but she does.”
“Do you want to change her back again?”
“Of course I do, and I want you to help me.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “I’m only Caliban; I’m not Prospero.”
“You were Prospero enough to make her what she has become.
You’ve acted on Isabel Archer since she came here, Mr. Touchett.”
“I, my dear Miss Stackpole? Never in the world. Isabel Archer has
acted on me—yes; she acts on every one. But I’ve been absolutely
passive.”
“You’re too passive then. You had better stir yourself and be careful. Isabel’s changing every day; she’s drifting away—right out to
sea. I’ve watched her and I can see it. She’s not the bright American
girl she was. She’s taking different views, a different colour, and
turning away from her old ideals. I want to save those ideals, Mr.
Touchett, and that’s where you come in.”
“Not surely as an ideal?”
“Well, I hope not,” Henrietta replied promptly. “I’ve got a fear in
my heart that she’s going to marry one of these fell Europeans, and
I want to prevent it.
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“Ah, I see,” cried Ralph; “and to prevent it you want me to step in
and marry her?”
“Not quite; that remedy would be as bad as the disease, for you’re
the typical, the fell European from whom I wish to rescue her. No;
I wish you to take an interest in another person—a young man to
whom she once gave great encouragement and whom she now doesn’t
seem to think good enough. He’s a thoroughly grand man and a
very dear friend of mine, and I wish very much you would invite
him to pay a visit here.”
Ralph was much puzzled by this appeal, and it is perhaps not to the
credit of his purity of mind that he failed to look at it at first in the
simplest light. It wore, to his eyes, a tortuous air, and his fault was that
he was not quite sure that anything in the world could really be as
candid as this request of Miss Stackpole’s appeared. That a young woman
should demand that a gentleman whom she described as her very dear
friend should be furnished with an opportunity to make himself agreeable to another young woman, a young woman whose attention had
wandered and whose charms were greater—this was an anomaly which
for the moment challenged all his ingenuity of interpretation. To read
between the lines was easier than to follow the text, and to suppose that
Miss Stackpole wished the gentleman invited to Gardencourt on her
own account was the sign not so much of a vulgar as of an embarrassed
mind. Even from this venial act of vulgarity, however, Ralph was saved,
and saved by a force that I can only speak of as inspiration. With no
more outward light on the subject than he already possessed he suddenly acquired the conviction that it would be a sovereign injustice to
the correspondent of the Interviewer to assign a dishonourable motive
to any act of hers. This conviction passed into his mind with extreme
rapidity; it was perhaps kindled by the pure radiance of the young lady’s
imperturbable gaze. He returned this challenge a moment, consciously,
resisting an inclination to frown as one frowns in the presence of larger
luminaries. “Who’s the gentleman you speak of?”
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“Mr. Caspar Goodwood—of Boston. He has been extremely attentive to Isabel—just as devoted to her as he can live. He has followed her out here and he’s at present in London. I don’t know his
address, but I guess I can obtain it.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” said Ralph.
“Well, I suppose you haven’t heard of every one. I don’t believe he
has ever heard of you; but that’s no reason why Isabel shouldn’t
marry him.”
Ralph gave a mild ambiguous laugh. “What a rage you have for
marrying people! Do you remember how you wanted to marry me
the other day?”
“I’ve got over that. You don’t know how to take such ideas. Mr.
Goodwood does, however; and that’s what I like about him. He’s a
splendid man and a perfect gentleman, and Isabel knows it.”
“Is she very fond of him?”
“If she isn’t she ought to be. He’s simply wrapped up in her.”
“And you wish me to ask him here,” said Ralph reflectively.
“It would be an act of true hospitality.”
“Caspar Goodwood,” Ralph continued—”it’s rather a striking
name.”
“I don’t care anything about his name. It might be Ezekiel Jenkins,
and I should say the same. He’s the only man I have ever seen whom
I think worthy of Isabel.”
“You’re a very devoted friend,” said Ralph.
“Of course I am. If you say that to pour scorn on me I don’t care.”
“I don’t say it to pour scorn on you; I’m very much struck with it.”
“You’re more satiric than ever, but I advise you not to laugh at Mr.
Goodwood.”
“I assure you I’m very serious; you ought to understand that,”
said Ralph.
In a moment his companion understood it. “I believe you are;
now you’re too serious.”
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“You’re difficult to please.”
“Oh, you’re very serious indeed. You won’t invite Mr. Goodwood.”
“I don’t know,” said Ralph. “I’m capable of strange things. Tell me
a little about Mr. Goodwood. What’s he like?”
“He’s just the opposite of you. He’s at the head of a cotton-factory; a very fine one.”
“Has he pleasant manners?” asked Ralph.
“Splendid manners—in the American style.”
“Would he be an agreeable member of our little circle?”
“I don’t think he’d care much about our little circle. He’d concentrate on Isabel.”
“And how would my cousin like that?”
“Very possibly not at all. But it will be good for her. It will call
back her thoughts.”
“Call them back—from where?”
“From foreign parts and other unnatural places. Three months
ago she gave Mr. Goodwood every reason to suppose he was acceptable to her, and it’s not worthy of Isabel to go back on a real friend
simply because she has changed the scene. I’ve changed the scene
too, and the effect of it has been to make me care more for my old
associations than ever. It’s my belief that the sooner Isabel changes it
back again the better. I know her well enough to know that she
would never be truly happy over here, and I wish her to form some
strong American tie that will act as a preservative.”
“Aren’t you perhaps a little too much in a hurry?” Ralph enquired.
“Don’t you think you ought to give her more of a chance in poor
old England?”
“A chance to ruin her bright young life? One’s never too much in
a hurry to save a precious human creature from drowning.”
“As I understand it then,” said Ralph, “you wish me to push Mr.
Goodwood overboard after her. Do you know,” he added, “that I’ve
never heard her mention his name?”
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Henrietta gave a brilliant smile. “I’m delighted to hear that; it
proves how much she thinks of him.”
Ralph appeared to allow that there was a good deal in this, and he
surrendered to thought while his companion watched him askance.
“If I should invite Mr. Goodwood,” he finally said, “it would be to
quarrel with him.”
“Don’t do that; he’d prove the better man.”
“You certainly are doing your best to make me hate him! I really
don’t think I can ask him. I should be afraid of being rude to him.”
“It’s just as you please,” Henrietta returned. “I had no idea you
were in love with her yourself.”
“Do you really believe that?” the young man asked with lifted
eyebrows.
“That’s the most natural speech I’ve ever heard you make! Of course
I believe it,” Miss Stackpole ingeniously said.
“Well,” Ralph concluded, “to prove to you that you’re wrong I’ll
invite him. It must be of course as a friend of yours.”
“It will not be as a friend of mine that he’ll come; and it will not
be to prove to me that I’m wrong that you’ll ask him—but to prove
it to yourself!”
These last words of Miss Stackpole’s (on which the two presently
separated) contained an amount of truth which Ralph Touchett was
obliged to recognise; but it so far took the edge from too sharp a
recognition that, in spite of his suspecting it would be rather more
indiscreet to keep than to break his promise, he wrote Mr. Goodwood
a note of six lines, expressing the pleasure it would give Mr. Touchett
the elder that he should join a little party at Gardencourt, of which
Miss Stackpole was a valued member. Having sent his letter (to the
care of a banker whom Henrietta suggested) he waited in some suspense. He had heard this fresh formidable figure named for the first
time; for when his mother had mentioned on her arrival that there
was a story about the girl’s having an “admirer” at home, the idea
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had seemed deficient in reality and he had taken no pains to ask
questions the answers to which would involve only the vague or the
disagreeable. Now, however, the native admiration of which his
cousin was the object had become more concrete; it took the form
of a young man who had followed her to London, who was interested in a cotton-mill and had manners in the most splendid of the
American styles. Ralph had two theories about this intervenes. Either his passion was a sentimental fiction of Miss Stackpole’s (there
was always a sort of tacit understanding among women, born of the
solidarity of the sex, that they should discover or invent lovers for
each other), in which case he was not to be feared and would probably not accept the invitation; or else he would accept the invitation
and in this event prove himself a creature too irrational to demand
further consideration. The latter clause of Ralph’s argument might
have seemed incoherent; but it embodied his conviction that if Mr.
Goodwood were interested in Isabel in the serious manner described
by Miss Stackpole he would not care to present himself at
Gardencourt on a summons from the latter lady. “On this supposition,” said Ralph, “he must regard her as a thorn on the stem of his
rose; as an intercessor he must find her wanting in tact.”
Two days after he had sent his invitation he received a very short
note from Caspar Goodwood, thanking him for it, regretting that
other engagements made a visit to Gardencourt impossible and presenting many compliments to Miss Stackpole. Ralph handed the
note to Henrietta, who, when she had read it, exclaimed: “Well, I
never have heard of anything so stiff!”
“I’m afraid he doesn’t care so much about my cousin as you suppose,” Ralph observed.
“No, it’s not that; it’s some subtler motive. His nature’s very deep.
But I’m determined to fathom it, and I shall write to him to know
what he means.”
His refusal of Ralph’s overtures was vaguely disconcerting; from
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the moment he declined to come to Gardencourt our friend began to think him of importance. He asked himself what it signified to him whether Isabel’s admirers should be desperadoes or
laggards; they were not rivals of his and were perfectly welcome to
act out their genius. Nevertheless he felt much curiosity as to the
result of Miss Stackpole’s promised enquiry into the causes of Mr.
Goodwood’s stiffness—a curiosity for the present ungratified, inasmuch as when he asked her three days later if she had written to
London she was obliged to confess she had written in vain. Mr.
Goodwood had not replied.
“I suppose he’s thinking it over,” she said; “he thinks everything
over; he’s not really at all impetuous. But I’m accustomed to having
my letters answered the same day.” She presently proposed to Isabel,
at all events, that they should make an excursion to London together. “If I must tell the truth,” she observed, “I’m not seeing much
at this place, and I shouldn’t think you were either. I’ve not even
seen that aristocrat—what’s his name?—Lord Washburton. He seems
to let you severely alone.”
“Lord Warburton’s coming to-morrow, I happen to know,” replied her friend, who had received a note from the master of
Lockleigh in answer to her own letter. “You’ll have every opportunity of turning him inside out.”
“Well, he may do for one letter, but what’s one letter when you
want to write fifty? I’ve described all the scenery in this vicinity and
raved about all the old women and donkeys. You may say what you
please, scenery doesn’t make a vital letter. I must go back to London
and get some impressions of real life. I was there but three days
before I came away, and that’s hardly time to get in touch.”
As Isabel, on her journey from New York to Gardencourt, had
seen even less of the British capital than this, it appeared a happy
suggestion of Henrietta’s that the two should go thither on a visit of
pleasure. The idea struck Isabel as charming; he was curious of the
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thick detail of London, which had always loomed large and rich to
her. They turned over their schemes together and indulged in visions of romantic hours. They would stay at some picturesque old
inn—one of the inns described by Dickens—and drive over the
town in those delightful hansoms. Henrietta was a literary woman,
and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you
could go everywhere and do everything. They would dine at a coffee-house and go afterwards to the play; they would frequent the
Abbey and the British Museum and find out where Doctor Johnson
had lived, and Goldsmith and Addison. Isabel grew eager and presently unveiled the bright vision to Ralph, who burst into a fit of
laughter which scarce expressed the sympathy she had desired.
“It’s a delightful plan,” he said. “I advise you to go to the Duke’s
Head in Covent Garden, an easy, informal, old-fashioned place,
and I’ll have you put down at my club.”
“Do you mean it’s improper?” Isabel asked. “Dear me, isn’t anything proper here? With Henrietta surely I may go anywhere; she
isn’t hampered in that way. She has travelled over the whole American continent and can at least find her way about this minute island.”
“Ah then,” said Ralph, “let me take advantage of her protection to
go up to town as well. I may never have a chance to travel so safely!”
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CHAPTER XIV
MISS STACKPOLE would have prepared to start immediately; but Isabel,
as we have seen, had been notified that Lord Warburton would come
again to Gardencourt, and she believed it her duty to remain there
and see him. For four or five days he had made no response to her
letter; then he had written, very briefly, to say he would come to
luncheon two days later. There was something in these delays and
postponements that touched the girl and renewed her sense of his
desire to be considerate and patient, not to appear to urge her too
grossly; a consideration the more studied that she was so sure he
“really liked” her. Isabel told her uncle she had written to him, mentioning also his intention of coming; and the old man, in consequence, left his room earlier than usual and made his appearance at
the two o’clock repast. This was by no means an act of vigilance on
his part, but the fruit of a benevolent belief that his being of the
company might help to cover any conjoined straying away in case
Isabel should give their noble visitor another hearing. That personage drove over from Lockleigh and brought the elder of his sisters
with him, a measure presumably dictated by reflexions of the same
order as Mr. Touchett’s. The two visitors were introduced to Miss
Stackpole, who, at luncheon, occupied a seat adjoining Lord
Warburton’s. Isabel, who was nervous and had no relish for the
prospect of again arguing the question he had so prematurely opened,
could not help admiring his good-humoured self-possession, which
quite disguised the symptoms of that preoccupation with her pres163
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ence it was natural she should suppose him to feel. He neither looked
at her nor spoke to her, and the only sign of his emotion was that he
avoided meeting her eyes. He had plenty of talk for the others, however, and he appeared to eat his luncheon with discrimination and
appetite. Miss Molyneux, who had a smooth, nun-like forehead and
wore a large silver cross suspended from her neck, was evidently
preoccupied with Henrietta Stackpole, upon whom her eyes constantly rested in a manner suggesting a conflict between deep alienation and yearning wonder. Of the two ladies from Lockleigh she
was the one Isabel had liked best; there was such a world of hereditary quiet in her. Isabel was sure moreover that her mild forehead
and silver cross referred to some weird Anglican mystery—some
delightful reinstitution perhaps of the quaint office of the canoness.
She wondered what Miss Molyneux would think of her if she knew
Miss Archer had refused her brother; and then she felt sure that
Miss Molyneux would never know—that Lord Warburton never
told her such things. He was fond of her and kind to her, but on the
whole he told her little. Such, at least, was Isabel’s theory; when, at
table, she was not occupied in conversation she was usually occupied in forming theories about her neighbours. According to Isabel,
if Miss Molyneux should ever learn what had passed between Miss
Archer and Lord Warburton she would probably be shocked at such
a girl’s failure to rise; or no, rather (this was our heroine’s last position) she would impute to the young American but a due consciousness of inequality.
Whatever Isabel might have made of her opportunities, at all
events, Henrietta Stackpole was by no means disposed to neglect
those in which she now found herself immersed. “Do you know
you’re the first lord I’ve ever seen?” she said very promptly to her
neighbour. “I suppose you think I’m awfully benighted.”
“You’ve escaped seeing some very ugly men,” Lord Warburton
answered, looking a trifle absently about the table.
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“Are they very ugly? They try to make us believe in America that
they’re all handsome and magnificent and that they wear wonderful
robes and crowns.”
“Ah, the robes and crowns are gone out of fashion,” said Lord
Warburton, “like your tomahawks and revolvers.”
“I’m sorry for that; I think an aristocracy ought to be splendid,”
Henrietta declared. “If it’s not that, what is it?”
“Oh, you know, it isn’t much, at the best,” her neighbour allowed.
“Won’t you have a potato?”
“I don’t care much for these European potatoes. I shouldn’t know
you from an ordinary American gentleman.”
“Do talk to me as if I were one,” said Lord Warburton. “I don’t see
how you manage to get on without potatoes; you must find so few
things to eat over here.”
Henrietta was silent a little; there was a chance he was not sincere.
“I’ve had hardly any appetite since I’ve been here,” she went on at
last; “so it doesn’t much matter. I don’t approve of you, you know; I
feel as if I ought to tell you that.”
“Don’t approve of me?”
“Yes; I don’t suppose any one ever said such a thing to you before,
did they? I don’t approve of lords as an institution. I think the world
has got beyond them—far beyond.”
“Oh, so do I. I don’t approve of myself in the least. Sometimes it
comes over me—how I should object to myself if I were not myself,
don’t you know? But that’s rather good, by the way—not to be vainglorious.”
“Why don’t you give it up then?” Miss Stackpole enquired.
“Give up—a—?” asked Lord Warburton, meeting her harsh
inflexion with a very mellow one.
“Give up being a lord.”
“Oh, I’m so little of one! One would really forget all about it if
you wretched Americans were not constantly reminding one. How165
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ever, I do think of giving it up, the little there is left of it, one of
these days.”
“I should like to see you do it!” Henrietta exclaimed rather grimly.
“I’ll invite you to the ceremony; we’ll have a supper and a dance.”
“Well,” said Miss Stackpole, “I like to see all sides. I don’t approve
of a privileged class, but I like to hear what they have to say for
themselves.”
“Mighty little, as you see!”
“I should like to draw you out a little more,” Henrietta continued. “But you’re always looking away. You’re afraid of meeting my
eye. I see you want to escape me.”
“No, I’m only looking for those despised potatoes.”
“Please explain about that young lady—your sister—then. I don’t
understand about her. Is she a Lady?”
“She’s a capital good girl.”
“I don’t like the way you say that—as if you wanted to change the
subject. Is her position inferior to yours?”
“We neither of us have any position to speak of; but she’s better
off than I, because she has none of the bother.”
“Yes, she doesn’t look as if she had much bother. I wish I had as
little bother as that. You do produce quiet people over here, whatever else you may do.”
“Ah, you see one takes life easily, on the whole,” said Lord
Warburton. “And then you know we’re very dull. Ah, we can be dull
when we try!”
“I should advise you to try something else. I shouldn’t know what
to talk to your sister about; she looks so different. Is that silver cross
a badge?”
“A badge?”
“A sign of rank.”
Lord Warburton’s glance had wandered a good deal, but at this it
met the gaze of his neighbour. “Oh yes,” he answered in a moment;
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“the women go in for those things. The silver cross is worn by the
eldest daughters of Viscounts.” Which was his harmless revenge for
having occasionally had his credulity too easily engaged in America.
After luncheon he proposed to Isabel to come into the gallery and
look at the pictures; and though she knew he had seen the pictures
twenty times she complied without criticising this pretext. Her conscience now was very easy; ever since she sent him her letter she had
felt particularly light of spirit. He walked slowly to the end of the
gallery, staring at its contents and saying nothing; and then he suddenly broke out: “I hoped you wouldn’t write to me that way.”
“It was the only way, Lord Warburton,” said the girl. “Do try and
believe that.”
“If I could believe it of course I should let you alone. But we can’t
believe by willing it; and I confess I don’t understand. I could understand your disliking me; that I could understand well. But that
you should admit you do—”
“What have I admitted?” Isabel interrupted, turning slightly pale.
“That you think me a good fellow; isn’t that it?” She said nothing,
and he went on: “You don’t seem to have any reason, and that gives
me a sense of injustice.”
“I have a reason, Lord Warburton.” She said it in a tone that made
his heart contract.
“I should like very much to know it.”
“I’ll tell you some day when there’s more to show for it.”
“Excuse my saying that in the mean time I must doubt of it.”
“You make me very unhappy,” said Isabel.
“I’m not sorry for that; it may help you to know how I feel. Will
you kindly answer me a question?” Isabel made no audible assent,
but he apparently saw in her eyes something that gave him courage
to go on. “Do you prefer some one else?”
“That’s a question I’d rather not answer.”
“Ah, you do then!” her suitor murmured with bitterness.
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The bitterness touched her, and she cried out: “You’re mistaken! I
don’t.”
He sat down on a bench, unceremoniously, doggedly, like a man
in trouble; leaning his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor.
“I can’t even be glad of that,” he said at last, throwing himself back
against the wall; “for that would be an excuse.”
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “An excuse? Must I excuse
myself?”
He paid, however, no answer to the question. Another idea had
come into his head. “Is it my political opinions? Do you think I go
too far?”
“I can’t object to your political opinions, because I don’t understand them.”
“You don’t care what I think!” he cried, getting up. “It’s all the
same to you.”
Isabel walked to the other side of the gallery and stood there showing him her charming back, her light slim figure, the length of her
white neck as she bent her head, and the density of her dark braids.
She stopped in front of a small picture as if for the purpose of examining it; and there was something so young and free in her movement that her very pliancy seemed to mock at him. Her eyes, however, saw nothing; they had suddenly been suffused with tears. In a
moment he followed her, and by this time she had brushed her tears
away; but when she turned round her face was pale and the expression of her eyes strange. “That reason that I wouldn’t tell you—I’ll
tell it you after all. It’s that I can’t escape my fate.”
“Your fate?”
“I should try to escape it if I were to marry you.”
“I don’t understand. Why should not that be your fate as well as
anything else?”
“Because it’s not,” said Isabel femininely. “I know it’s not. It’s not
my fate to give up—I know it can’t be.”
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Poor Lord Warburton stared, an interrogative point in either eye.
“Do you call marrying me giving up?”
“Not in the usual sense. It’s getting—getting—getting a great deal.
But it’s giving up other chances.”
“Other chances for what?”
“I don’t mean chances to marry,” said Isabel, her colour quickly
coming back to her. And then she stopped, looking down with a
deep frown, as if it were hopeless to attempt to make her meaning
clear.
“I don’t think it presumptuous in me to suggest that you’ll gain
more than you’ll lose,” her companion observed.
“I can’t escape unhappiness,” said Isabel. “In marrying you I shall
be trying to.”
“I don’t know whether you’d try to, but you certainly would: that
I must in candour admit!” he exclaimed with an anxious laugh.
“I mustn’t—I can’t!” cried the girl.
“Well, if you’re bent on being miserable I don’t see why you should
make me so. Whatever charms a life of misery may have for you, it
has none for me.
“I’m not bent on a life of misery,” said Isabel. “I’ve always been
intensely determined to be happy, and I’ve often believed I should
be. I’ve told people that; you can ask them. But it comes over me
every now and then that I can never be happy in any extraordinary
way; not by turning away, by separating myself.”
“By separating yourself from what?”
“From life. From the usual chances and dangers, from what most
people know and suffer.”
Lord Warburton broke into a smile that almost denoted hope.
“Why, my dear Miss Archer,” he began to explain with the most
considerate eagerness, “I don’t offer you any exoneration from life
or from any chances or dangers whatever. I wish I could; depend
upon it I would! For what do you take me, pray? Heaven help me,
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I’m not the Emperor of China! All I offer you is the chance of taking the common lot in a comfortable sort of way. The common lot?
Why, I’m devoted to the common lot! Strike an alliance with me,
and I promise you that you shall have plenty of it. You shall separate
from nothing whatever—not even from your friend Miss Stackpole.”
“She’d never approve of it,” said Isabel, trying to smile and take
advantage of this side-issue; despising herself too, not a little, for
doing so.
“Are we speaking of Miss Stackpole?” his lordship asked impatiently. “I never saw a person judge things on such theoretic grounds.”
“Now I suppose you’re speaking of me,” said Isabel with humility;
and she turned away again, for she saw Miss Molyneux enter the
gallery, accompanied by Henrietta and by Ralph.
Lord Warburton’s sister addressed him with a certain timidity and
reminded him she ought to return home in time for tea, as she was
expecting company to partake of it. He made no answer—apparently not having heard her; he was preoccupied, and with good
reason. Miss Molyneux—as if he had been Royalty—stood like a
lady-in-waiting.
“Well, I never, Miss Molyneux!” said Henrietta Stackpole. “If I
wanted to go he’d have to go. If I wanted my brother to do a thing
he’d have to do it.”
“Oh, Warburton does everything one wants,” Miss Molyneux
answered with a quick, shy laugh. “How very many pictures you
have!” she went on, turning to Ralph.
“They look a good many, because they’re all put together,” said
Ralph. “But it’s really a bad way.”
“Oh, I think it’s so nice. I wish we had a gallery at Lockleigh. I’m
so very fond of pictures,” Miss Molyneux went on, persistently, to
Ralph, as if she were afraid Miss Stackpole would address her again.
Henrietta appeared at once to fascinate sand to frighten her.
“Ah yes, pictures are very convenient,” said Ralph, who appeared
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to know better what style of reflexion was acceptable to her.
“They’re so very pleasant when it rains,” the young lady continued. “It has rained of late so very often.”
“I’m sorry you’re going away, Lord Warburton,” said Henrietta. “I
wanted to get a great deal more out of you.”
“I’m not going away,” Lord Warburton answered.
“Your sister says you must. In America the gentlemen obey the
ladies.”
“I’m afraid we have some people to tea,” said Miss Molyneux,
looking at her brother.
“Very good, my dear. We’ll go.”
“I hoped you would resist!” Henrietta exclaimed. “I wanted to see
what Miss Molyneux would do.”
“I never do anything,” said this young lady.
“I suppose in your position it’s sufficient for you to exist!” Miss
Stackpole returned. “I should like very much to see you at home.”
“You must come to Lockleigh again,” said Miss Molyneux, very
sweetly, to Isabel, ignoring this remark of Isabel’s friend. Isabel looked
into her quiet eyes a moment, and for that moment seemed to see
in their grey depths the reflexion of everything she had rejected in
rejecting Lord Warburton—the peace, the kindness, the honour,
the possessions, a deep security and a great exclusion. She kissed
Miss Molyneux and then she said: “I’m afraid I can never come
again.”
“Never again?”
“I’m afraid I’m going away.”
“Oh, I’m so very sorry,” said Miss Molyneux. “I think that’s so
very wrong of you.”
Lord Warburton watched this tittle passage; then he turned away
and stared at a picture. Ralph, leaning against the rail before the
picture with his hands in his pockets, had for the moment been
watching him.
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“I should like to see you at home,” said Henrietta, whom Lord
Warburton found beside him. “I should like an hour’s talk with
you; there are a great many questions I wish to ask you.”
“I shall be delighted to see you,” the proprietor of Lockleigh answered; “but I’m certain not to be able to answer many of your
questions. When will you come?”
“Whenever Miss Archer will take me. We’re thinking of going to
London, but we’ll go and see you first. I’m determined to get some
satisfaction out of you.”
“If it depends upon Miss Archer I’m afraid you won’t get much.
She won’t come to Lockleigh; she doesn’t like the place.”
“She told me it was lovely!” said Henrietta.
Lord Warburton hesitated. “She won’t come, all the same. You
had better come alone,” he added.
Henrietta straightened herself, and her large eyes expanded.
“Would you make that remark to an English lady?” she enquired
with soft asperity.
Lord Warburton stared. “Yes, if I liked her enough.”
“You’d be careful not to like her enough. If Miss Archer won’t visit
your place again it’s because she doesn’t want to take me. I know
what she thinks of me, and I suppose you think the same—that I
oughtn’t to bring in individuals.” Lord Warburton was at a loss; he
had not been made acquainted with Miss Stackpole’s professional
character and failed to catch her allusion. “Miss Archer has been
warning you!” she therefore went on.
“Warning me?”
“Isn’t that why she came off alone with you here—to put you on
your guard?”
“Oh dear, no,” said Lord Warburton brazenly; “our talk had no
such solemn character as that.”
“Well, you’ve been on your guard—intensely. I suppose it’s natural to you; that’s just what I wanted to observe. And so, too, Miss
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Molyneux—she wouldn’t commit herself. You have been warned,
anyway,” Henrietta continued, addressing this young lady; “but for
you it wasn’t necessary.”
“I hope not,” said Miss Molyneux vaguely.
“Miss Stackpole takes notes,” Ralph soothingly explained. “She’s
a great satirist; she sees through us all and she works us up.”
“Well, I must say I never have had such a collection of bad material!” Henrietta declared, looking from Isabel to Lord Warburton
and from this nobleman to his sister and to Ralph. “There’s something the matter with you all; you’re as dismal as if you had got a
bad cable.”
“You do see through us, Miss Stackpole,” said Ralph in a low
tone, giving her a little intelligent nod as he led the party out of the
gallery. “There’s something the matter with us all.”
Isabel came behind these two; Miss Molyneux, who decidedly
liked her immensely, had taken her arm, to walk beside her over the
polished floor. Lord Warburton strolled on the other side with his
hands behind him and his eyes lowered. For some moments he said
nothing; and then, “Is it true you’re going to London?” he asked.
“I believe it has been arranged.”
“And when shall you come back?”
“In a few days; but probably for a very short time. I’m going to
Paris with my aunt.”
“When, then, shall I see you again?”
“Not for a good while,” said Isabel. “But some day or other, I
hope.”
“Do you really hope it?”
“Very much.”
He went a few steps in silence; then he stopped and put out his
hand. “Good-bye.”
“Good-bye,” said Isabel.
Miss Molyneux kissed her again, and she let the two depart. After
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it, without rejoining Henrietta and Ralph, she retreated to her own
room; in which apartment, before dinner, she was found by Mrs.
Touchett, who had stopped on her way to the saloon. “I may as well
tell you,” said that lady, “that your uncle has informed me of your
relations with Lord Warburton.”
Isabel considered. “Relations? They’re hardly relations. That’s the
strange part of it: he has seen me but three or four times.”
“Why did you tell your uncle rather than me?” Mrs. Touchett
dispassionately asked.
Again the girl hesitated. “Because he knows Lord Warburton better.”
“Yes, but I know you better.”
“I’m not sure of that,” said Isabel, smiling.
“Neither am I, after all; especially when you give me that rather
conceited look. One would think you were awfully pleased with yourself and had carried off a prize! I suppose that when you refuse an
offer like Lord Warburton’s it’s because you expect to do something
better.”
“Ah, my uncle didn’t say that!” cried Isabel, smiling still.
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CHAPTER XV
IT HAD BEEN ARRANGED that the two young ladies should proceed to
London under Ralph’s escort, though Mrs. Touchett looked with
little favour on the plan. It was just the sort of plan, she said, that
Miss Stackpole would be sure to suggest, and she enquired if the
correspondent of the Interviewer was to take the party to stay at her
favourite boarding-house.
“I don’t care where she takes us to stay, so long as there’s local
colour,” said Isabel. “That’s what we’re going to London for.”
“I suppose that after a girl has refused an English lord she may do
anything,” her aunt rejoined. “After that one needn’t stand on trifles.”
“Should you have liked me to marry Lord Warburton?” Isabel
enquired.
“Of course I should.”
“I thought you disliked the English so much.”
“So I do; but it’s all the greater reason for making use of them.”
“Is that your idea of marriage?” And Isabel ventured to add that
her aunt appeared to her to have made very little use of Mr. Touchett.
“Your uncle’s not an English nobleman,” said Mrs. Touchett,
“though even if he had been I should still probably have taken up
my residence in Florence.”
“Do you think Lord Warburton could make me any better than I
am?” the girl asked with some animation. “I don’t mean I’m too
good to improve. I mean that I don’t love Lord Warburton enough
to marry him.”
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“You did right to refuse him then,” said Mrs. Touchett in her
smallest, sparest voice. “Only, the next great offer you get, I hope
you’ll manage to come up to your standard.”
“We had better wait till the offer comes before we talk about it. I
hope very much I may have no more offers for the present. They
upset me completely.”
“You probably won’t be troubled with them if you adopt permanently the Bohemian manner of life. However, I’ve promised Ralph
not to criticise.”
“I’ll do whatever Ralph says is right,” Isabel returned. “I’ve unbounded confidence in Ralph.”
“His mother’s much obliged to you!” this lady dryly laughed.
“It seems to me indeed she ought to feel it!” Isabel irrepressibly
answered.
Ralph had assured her that there would be no violation of decency in their paying a visit—the little party of three—to the sights
of the metropolis; but Mrs. Touchett took a different view. Like
many ladies of her country who had lived a long time in Europe,
she had completely lost her native tact on such points, and in her
reaction, not in itself deplorable, against the liberty allowed to young
persons beyond the seas, had fallen into gratuitous and exaggerated
scruples. Ralph accompanied their visitors to town and established
them at a quiet inn in a street that ran at right angles to Piccadilly.
His first idea had been to take them to his father’s house in Winchester Square, a large, dull mansion which at this period of the
year was shrouded in silence and brown holland; but he bethought
himself that, the cook being at Gardencourt, there was no one in
the house to get them their meals, and Pratt’s Hotel accordingly
became their resting-place. Ralph, on his side, found quarters in
Winchester Square, having a “den” there of which he was very fond
and being familiar with deeper fears than that of a cold kitchen. He
availed himself largely indeed of the resources of Pratt’s Hotel, be176
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ginning his day with an early visit to his fellow travellers, who had
Mr. Pratt in person, in a large bulging white waistcoat, to remove
their dish-covers. Ralph turned up, as he said, after breakfast, and
the little party made out a scheme of entertainment for the day. As
London wears in the month of September a face blank but for its
smears of prior service, the young man, who occasionally took an
apologetic tone, was obliged to remind his companion, to Miss
Stackpole’s high derision, that there wasn’t a creature in town.
“I suppose you mean the aristocracy are absent,” Henrietta answered; “but I don’t think you could have a better proof that if they
were absent altogether they wouldn’t be missed. It seems to me the
place is about as full as it can be. There’s no one here, of course, but
three or four millions of people. What is it you call them—the lowermiddle class? They’re only the population of London, and that’s of
no consequence.”
Ralph declared that for him the aristocracy left no void that Miss
Stackpole herself didn’t fill, and that a more contented man was
nowhere at that moment to be found. In this he spoke the truth, for
the stale September days, in the huge half-empty town, had a charm
wrapped in them as a coloured gem might be wrapped in a dusty
cloth. When he went home at night to the empty house in Winchester Square, after a chain of hours with his comparatively ardent
friends, he wandered into the big dusky dining-room, where the
candle he took from the hall-table, after letting himself in, constituted the only illumination. The square was still, the house was still;
when he raised one of the windows of the dining-room to let in the
air he heard the slow creak of the boots of a lone constable. His own
step, in the empty place, seemed loud and sonorous; some of the
carpets had been raised, and whenever he moved he roused a melancholy echo. He sat down in one of the armchairs; the big dark
dining table twinkled here and there in the small candle-light; the
pictures on the wall, all of them very brown, looked vague and inco177
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herent. There was a ghostly presence as of dinners long since digested, of table-talk that had lost its actuality. This hint of the supernatural perhaps had something to do with the fact that his imagination took a flight and that he remained in his chair a long time
beyond the hour at which he should have been in bed; doing nothing, not even reading the evening paper. I say he did nothing, and I
maintain the phrase in the face of the fact that he thought at these
moments of Isabel. To think of Isabel could only be for him an idle
pursuit, leading to nothing and profiting little to any one. His cousin
had not yet seemed to him so charming as during these days spent
in sounding, tourist-fashion, the deeps and shallows of the metropolitan element. Isabel was full of premises, conclusions, emotions;
if she had come in search of local colour she found it everywhere.
She asked more questions than he could answer, and launched brave
theories, as to historic cause and social effect, that he was equally
unable to accept or to refute. The party went more than once to the
British Museum and to that brighter palace of art which reclaims
for antique variety so large an area of a monotonous suburb; they
spent a morning in the Abbey and went on a penny-steamer to the
Tower; they looked at pictures both in public and private collections and sat on various occasions beneath the great trees in
Kensington Gardens. Henrietta proved an indestructible sight-seer
and a more lenient judge than Ralph had ventured to hope. She had
indeed many disappointments, and London at large suffered from
her vivid remembrance of the strong points of the American civic
idea; but she made the best of its dingy dignities and only heaved an
occasional sigh and uttered a desultory “Well!” which led no further
and lost itself in retrospect. The truth was that, as she said herself,
she was not in her element. “I’ve not a sympathy with inanimate
objects,” she remarked to Isabel at the National Gallery; and she
continued to suffer from the meagreness of the glimpse that had as
yet been vouchsafed to her of the inner life. Landscapes by Turner
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and Assyrian bulls were a poor substitute for the literary dinnerparties at which she had hoped to meet the genius and renown of
Great Britain.
“Where are your public men, where are your men and women of
intellect?” she enquired of Ralph, standing in the middle of Trafalgar
Square as if she had supposed this to be a place where she would
naturally meet a few. “That’s one of them on the top of the column,
you say—Lord Nelson. Was he a lord too? Wasn’t he high enough,
that they had to stick him a hundred feet in the air? That’s the past—
I don’t care about the past; I want to see some of the leading minds
of the present. I won’t say of the future, because I don’t believe much
in your future.” Poor Ralph had few leading minds among his acquaintance and rarely enjoyed the pleasure of buttonholing a celebrity; a state of things which appeared to Miss Stackpole to indicate a
deplorable want of enterprise. “If I were on the other side I should
call,” she said, “and tell the gentleman, whoever he might be, that I
had heard a great deal about him and had come to see for myself.
But I gather from what you say that this is not the custom here. You
seem to have plenty of meaningless customs, but none of those that
would help along. We are in advance, certainly. I suppose I shall
have to give up the social side altogether;” and Henrietta, though
she went about with her guidebook and pencil and wrote a letter to
the Interviewer about the Tower (in which she described the execution of Lady Jane Grey), had a sad sense of falling below her mission.
The incident that had preceded Isabel’s departure from
Gardencourt left a painful trace in our young woman’s mind: when
she felt again in her face, as from a recurrent wave, the cold breath
of her last suitor’s surprise, she could only muffle her head till the
air cleared. She could not have done less than what she did; this was
certainly true. But her necessity, all the same, had been as graceless
as some physical act in a strained attitude, and she felt no desire to
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take credit for her conduct. Mixed with this imperfect pride, nevertheless, was a feeling of freedom which in itself was sweet and which,
as she wandered through the great city with her ill-matched companions, occasionally throbbed into odd demonstrations. When she
walked in Kensington Gardens she stopped the children (mainly of
the poorer sort) whom she saw playing on the grass; she asked them
their names and gave them sixpence and, when they were pretty,
kissed them. Ralph noticed these quaint charities; he noticed everything she did. One afternoon, that his companions might pass the
time, he invited them to tea in Winchester Square, and he had the
house set in order as much as possible for their visit. There was
another guest to meet them, an amiable bachelor, an old friend of
Ralph’s who happened to be in town and for whom prompt commerce with Miss Stackpole appeared to have neither difficulty nor
dread. Mr. Bantling, a stout, sleek, smiling man of forty, wonderfully dressed, universally informed and incoherently amused, laughed
immoderately at everything Henrietta said, gave her several cups of
tea, examined in her society the bric-a-brac, of which Ralph had a
considerable collection, and afterwards, when the host proposed they
should go out into the square and pretend it was a fete-champetre,
walked round the limited enclosure several times with her and, at a
dozen turns of their talk, bounded responsive—as with a positive
passion for argument—to her remarks upon the inner life.
“Oh, I see; I dare say you found it very quiet at Gardencourt.
Naturally there’s not much going on there when there’s such a lot of
illness about. Touchett’s very bad, you know; the doctors have forbidden his being in England at all, and he has only come back to
take care of his father. The old man, I believe, has half a dozen
things the matter with him. They call it gout, but to my certain
knowledge he has organic disease so developed that you may depend upon it he’ll go, some day soon, quite quickly. Of course that
sort of thing makes a dreadfully dull house; I wonder they have
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people when they can do so little for them. Then I believe Mr.
Touchett’s always squabbling with his wife; she lives away from her
husband, you know, in that extraordinary American way of yours.
If you want a house where there’s always something going on, I
recommend you to go down and stay with my sister, Lady Pensil, in
Bedfordshire. I’ll write to her to-morrow and I’m sure she’ll be delighted to ask you. I know just what you want—you want a house
where they go in for theatricals and picnics and that sort of thing.
My sister’s just that sort of woman; she’s always getting up something or other and she’s always glad to have the sort of people who
help her. I’m sure she’ll ask you down by return of post: she’s tremendously fond of distinguished people and writers. She writes
herself, you know; but I haven’t read everything she has written. It’s
usually poetry, and I don’t go in much for poetry—unless it’s Byron.
I suppose you think a great deal of Byron in America,” Mr. Bantling
continued, expanding in the stimulating air of Miss Stackpole’s attention, bringing up his sequences promptly and changing his topic
with an easy turn of hand. Yet he none the less gracefully kept in
sight of the idea, dazzling to Henrietta, of her going to stay with
Lady Pensil in Bedfordshire. “I understand what you want; you want
to see some genuine English sport. The Touchetts aren’t English at
all, you know; they have their own habits, their own language, their
own food—some odd religion even, I believe, of their own. The old
man thinks it’s wicked to hunt, I’m told. You must get down to my
sister’s in time for the theatricals, and I’m sure she’ll be glad to give
you a part. I’m sure you act well; I know you’re very clever. My
sister’s forty years old and has seven children, but she’s going to play
the principal part. Plain as she is she makes up awfully well—I will
say for her. Of course you needn’t act if you don’t want to.”
In this manner Mr. Bantling delivered himself while they strolled
over the grass in Winchester Square, which, although it had been
peppered by the London soot, invited the tread to linger. Henrietta
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thought her blooming, easy-voiced bachelor, with his impressibility
to feminine merit and his splendid range of suggestion, a very agreeable man, and she valued the opportunity he offered her. “I don’t
know but I would go, if your sister should ask me. I think it would
be my duty. What do you call her name?”
“Pensil. It’s an odd name, but it isn’t a bad one.”
“I think one name’s as good as another. But what’s her rank?”.
“Oh, she’s a baron’s wife; a convenient sort of rank. You’re fine
enough and you’re not too fine.”
“I don’t know but what she’d be too fine for me. What do you call
the place she lives in—Bedfordshire?”
“She lives away in the northern corner of it. It’s a tiresome country, but I dare say you won’t mind it. I’ll try and run down while
you’re there.”
All this was very pleasant to Miss Stackpole, and she was sorry to
be obliged to separate from Lady Pensil’s obliging brother. But it
happened that she had met the day before, in Piccadilly, some friends
whom she had not seen for a year: the Miss Climbers, two ladies
from Wilmington, Delaware, who had been travelling on the Continent and were now preparing to re-embark. Henrietta had had a
long interview with them on the Piccadilly pavement, and though
the three ladies all talked at once they had not exhausted their store.
It had been agreed therefore that Henrietta should come and dine
with them in their lodgings in Jermyn Street at six o’clock on the
morrow, and she now bethought herself of this engagement. She
prepared to start for Jermyn Street, taking leave first of Ralph
Touchett and Isabel, who, seated on garden chairs in another part
of the enclosure, were occupied—if the term may be used—with an
exchange of amenities less pointed than the practical colloquy of
Miss Stackpole and Mr. Bantling. When it had been settled between Isabel and her friend that they should be reunited at some
reputable hour at Pratt’s Hotel, Ralph remarked that the latter must
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have a cab. She couldn’t walk all the way to Jermyn Street.
“I suppose you mean it’s improper for me to walk alone!” Henrietta
exclaimed. “Merciful powers, have I come to this?”
“There’s not the slightest need of your walking alone,” Mr. Bantling gaily interposed. “I should be greatly pleased to go with you.”
“I simply meant that you’d be late for dinner,” Ralph returned.
“Those poor ladies may easily believe that we refuse, at the last, to
spare you.”
“You had better have a hansom, Henrietta,” said Isabel.
“I’ll get you a hansom if you’ll trust me,” Mr. Bantling went on.
“We might walk a little till we meet one.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t trust him, do you?” Henrietta enquired of Isabel.
“I don’t see what Mr. Bantling could do to you,” Isabel obligingly
answered; “but, if you like, we’ll walk with you till you find your
cab.”
“Never mind; we’ll go alone. Come on, Mr. Bantling, and take
care you get me a good one.”
Mr. Bantling promised to do his best, and the two took their departure, leaving the girl and her cousin together in the square, over
which a clear September twilight had now begun to gather. It was
perfectly still; the wide quadrangle of dusky houses showed lights in
none of the windows, where the shutters and blinds were closed;
the pavements were a vacant expanse, and, putting aside two small
children from a neighbouring slum, who, attracted by symptoms of
abnormal animation in the interior, poked their faces between the
rusty rails of the enclosure, the most vivid object within sight was
the big red pillar-post on the southeast corner.
“Henrietta will ask him to get into the cab and go with her to
Jermyn Street,” Ralph observed. He always spoke of Miss Stackpole
as Henrietta.
“Very possibly,” said his companion.
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“Or rather, no, she won’t,” he went on. “But Bantling will ask
leave to get in.”
“Very likely again. I’m glad very they’re such good friends.”
“She has made a conquest. He thinks her a brilliant woman. It
may go far,” said Ralph.
Isabel was briefly silent. “I call Henrietta a very brilliant woman,
but I don’t think it will go far. They would never really know each
other. He has not the least idea what she really is, and she has no
just comprehension of Mr. Bantling.”
“There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding. But it ought not to be so difficult to understand Bob Bantling,” Ralph added. “He is a very simple organism.”
“Yes, but Henrietta’s a simpler one still. And, pray, what am I to
do?” Isabel asked, looking about her through the fading light, in which
the limited landscape-gardening of the square took on a large and
effective appearance. “I don’t imagine that you’ll propose that you
and I, for our amusement, shall drive about London in a hansom.”
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t stay here—if you don’t dislike it.
It’s very warm; there will he half an hour yet before dark; and if you
permit it I’ll light a cigarette.”
“You may do what you please,” said Isabel, “if you’ll amuse me till
seven o’clock. I propose at that hour to go back and partake of a
simple and solitary repast—two poached eggs and a muffin—at
Pratt’s Hotel.”
“Mayn’t I dine with you?” Ralph asked.
“No, you’ll dine at your club.”
They had wandered back to their chairs in the centre of the square
again, and Ralph had lighted his cigarette. It would have given him
extreme pleasure to be present in person at the modest little feast
she had sketched; but in default of this he liked even being forbidden. For the moment, however, he liked immensely being alone
with her, in the thickening dusk, in the centre of the multitudinous
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town; it made her seem to depend upon him and to be in his power.
This power he could exert but vaguely; the best exercise of it was to
accept her decisions submissively which indeed there was already an
emotion in doing. “Why won’t you let me dine with you?” he demanded after a pause.
“Because I don’t care for it.”
“I suppose you’re tired of me.”
“I shall be an hour hence. You see I have the gift of foreknowledge.”
“Oh, I shall be delightful meanwhile,” said Ralph.
But he said nothing more, and as she made no rejoinder they sat
some time in a stillness which seemed to contradict his promise of
entertainment. It seemed to him she was preoccupied, and he wondered what she was thinking about; there were two or three very
possible subjects. At last he spoke again. “Is your objection to my
society this evening caused by your expectation of another visitor?”
She turned her head with a glance of her clear, fair eyes. “Another
visitor? What visitor should I have?”
He had none to suggest; which made his question seem to himself
silly as well as brutal. “You’ve a great many friends that I don’t know.
You’ve a whole past from which I was perversely excluded.”
“You were reserved for my future. You must remember that my
past is over there across the water. There’s none of it here in London.”
“Very good, then, since your future is seated beside you. Capital
thing to have your future so handy.” And Ralph lighted another
cigarette and reflected that Isabel probably meant she had received
news that Mr. Caspar Goodwood had crossed to Paris. After he had
lighted his cigarette he puffed it a while, and then he resumed. “I
promised just now to be very amusing; but you see I don’t come up
to the mark, and the fact is there’s a good deal of temerity in one’s
undertaking to amuse a person like you. What do you care for my
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feeble attempts? You’ve grand ideas—you’ve a high standard in such
matters. I ought at least to bring in a band of music or a company of
mountebanks.”
“One mountebank’s enough, and you do very well. Pray go on,
and in another ten minutes I shall begin to laugh.”
“I assure you I’m very serious,” said Ralph. “You do really ask a
great deal.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I ask nothing.”
“You accept nothing,” said Ralph. She coloured, and now suddenly it seemed to her that she guessed his meaning. But why should
he speak to her of such things? He hesitated a little and then he
continued: “There’s something I should like very much to say to
you. It’s a question I wish to ask. It seems to me I’ve a right to ask it,
because I’ve a kind of interest in the answer.”
“Ask what you will,” Isabel replied gently, “and I’ll try to satisfy
you.”
“Well then, I hope you won’t mind my saying that Warburton has
told me of something that has passed between you.”
Isabel suppressed a start; she sat looking at her open fan. “Very
good; I suppose it was natural he should tell you.”
“I have his leave to let you know he has done so. He has some
hope still,” said Ralph.
“Still?”
“He had it a few days ago.”
“I don’t believe he has any now,” said the girl.
“I’m very sorry for him then; he’s such an honest man.”
“Pray, did he ask you to talk to me?”
“No, not that. But he told me because he couldn’t help it. We’re
old friends, and he was greatly disappointed. He sent me a line asking me to come and see him, and I drove over to Lockleigh the day
before he and his sister lunched with us. He was very heavy-hearted;
he had just got a letter from you.”
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“Did he show you the letter?” asked Isabel with momentary loftiness.
“By no means. But he told me it was a neat refusal. I was very
sorry for him,” Ralph repeated.
For some moments Isabel said nothing; then at last, “Do you know
how often he had seen me?” she enquired. “Five or six times.”
“That’s to your glory.”
“It’s not for that I say it.”
“What then do you say it for. Not to prove that poor Warburton’s
state of mind’s superficial, because I’m pretty sure you don’t think
that.”
Isabel certainly was unable to say she thought it; but presently she
said something else. “If you’ve not been requested by Lord Warburton
to argue with me, then you’re doing it disinterestedly —or for the
love of argument.”
“I’ve no wish to argue with you at all. I only wish to leave you
alone. I’m simply greatly interested in your own sentiments.”
“I’m greatly obliged to you!” cried Isabel with a slightly nervous
laugh.
“Of course you mean that I’m meddling in what doesn’t concern
me. But why shouldn’t I speak to you of this matter without annoying you or embarrassing myself? What’s the use of being your cousin
if I can’t have a few privileges? What’s the use of adoring you without hope of a reward if I can’t have a few compensations? What’s the
use of being ill and disabled and restricted to mere spectatorship at
the game of life if I really can’t see the show when I’ve paid so much
for my ticket? Tell me this,” Ralph went on while she listened to
him with quickened attention. “What had you in mind when you
refused Lord Warburton?”
“What had I in mind?”
“What was the logic—the view of your situation—that dictated
so remarkable an act?”
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“I didn’t wish to marry him—if that’s logic.”
“No, that’s not logic—and I knew that before. It’s really nothing,
you know. What was it you said to yourself? You certainly said more
than that.”
Isabel reflected a moment, then answered with a question of her
own. “Why do you call it a remarkable act? That’s what your mother
thinks too.”
“Warburton’s such a thorough good sort; as a man, I consider he
has hardly a fault. And then he’s what they call here no end of a
swell. He has immense possessions, and his wife would be thought
a superior being. He unites the intrinsic and the extrinsic advantages.”
Isabel watched her cousin as to see how far he would go. “I refused him because he was too perfect then. I’m not perfect myself,
and he’s too good for me. Besides, his perfection would irritate me.”
“That’s ingenious rather than candid,” said Ralph. “As a fact you
think nothing in the world too perfect for you.”
“Do you think I’m so good?”
“No, but you’re exacting, all the same, without the excuse of thinking yourself good. Nineteen women out of twenty, however, even of
the most exacting sort, would have managed to do with Warburton.
Perhaps you don’t know how he has been stalked.”
“I don’t wish to know. But it seems to me,” said Isabel, “that one
day when we talked of him you mentioned odd things in him.”
Ralph smokingly considered. “I hope that what I said then had no
weight with you; for they were not faults, the things I spoke of: they
were simply peculiarities of his position. If I had known he wished
to marry you I’d never have alluded to them. I think I said that as
regards that position he was rather a sceptic. It would have been in
your power to make him a believer.”
“I think not. I don’t understand the matter, and I’m not conscious
of any mission of that sort. You’re evidently disappointed,” Isabel
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added, looking at her cousin with rueful gentleness. “You’d have
liked me to make such a marriage.”
“Not in the least. I’m absolutely without a wish on the subject. I
don’t pretend to advise you, and I content myself with watching
you—with the deepest interest.”
She gave rather a conscious sigh. “I wish I could be as interesting
to myself as I am to you!”
“There you’re not candid again; you’re extremely interesting to
yourself. Do you know, however,” said Ralph, “that if you’ve really
given Warburton his final answer I’m rather glad it has been what it
was. I don’t mean I’m glad for you, and still less of course for him.
I’m glad for myself.”
“Are you thinking of proposing to me?”
“By no means. From the point of view I speak of that would be
fatal; I should kill the goose that supplies me with the material of
my inimitable omelettes. I use that animal as the symbol of my
insane illusions. What I mean is that I shall have the thrill of seeing
what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton.”
“That’s what your mother counts upon too,” said Isabel.
“Ah, there will be plenty of spectators! We shall hang on the rest of
your career. I shall not see all of it, but I shall probably see the most
interesting years. Of course if you were to marry our friend you’d still
have a career—a very decent, in fact a very brilliant one. But relatively
speaking it would be a little prosaic. It would be definitely marked
out in advance; it would be wanting in the unexpected. You know I’m
extremely fond of the unexpected, and now that you’ve kept the game
in your hands I depend on your giving us some grand example of it.”
“I don’t understand you very well,” said Isabel, “but I do so well
enough to be able to say that if you look for grand examples of
anything from me I shall disappoint you.”
“You’ll do so only by disappointing yourself and that will go hard
with you!”
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To this she made no direct reply; there was an amount of truth in
it that would bear consideration. At last she said abruptly: “I don’t
see what harm there is in my wishing not to tie myself. I don’t want
to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.”
“There’s nothing she can do so well. But you’re of course so manysided.”
“If one’s two-sided it’s enough,” said Isabel.
“You’re the most charming of polygons!” her companion broke
out. At a glance from his companion, however, he became grave,
and to prove it went on: “You want to see life—you’ll be hanged if
you don’t, as the young men say.”
“I don’t think I want to see it as the young men want to see it. But
I do want to look about me.”
“You want to drain the cup of experience.”
“No, I don’t wish to touch the cup of experience. It’s a poisoned
drink! I only want to see for myself.”
“You want to see, but not to feel,” Ralph remarked.
“I don’t think that if one’s a sentient being one can make the distinction. I’m a good deal like Henrietta. The other day when I asked
her if she wished to marry she said: ‘Not till I’ve seen Europe!’ I too
don’t wish to marry till I’ve seen Europe.”
“You evidently expect a crowned head will be struck with you.”
“No, that would be worse than marrying Lord Warburton. But it’s
getting very dark,” Isabel continued, “and I must go home.” She rose
from her place, but Ralph only sat still and looked at her. As he remained there she stopped, and they exchanged a gaze that was full on
either side, but especially on Ralph’s, of utterances too vague for words.
“You’ve answered my question,” he said at last. “You’ve told me
what I wanted. I’m greatly obliged to you.”
“It seems to me I’ve told you very little.”
“You’ve told me the great thing: that the world interests you and
that you want to throw yourself into it.”
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Her silvery eyes shone a moment in the dusk. “I never said that.”
“I think you meant it. Don’t repudiate it. It’s so fine!”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to fasten upon me, for I’m not in
the least an adventurous spirit. Women are not like men.”
Ralph slowly rose from his seat and they walked together to the
gate of the square. “No,” he said; “women rarely boast of their courage. Men do so with a certain frequency.”
“Men have it to boast of!”
“Women have it too. You’ve a great deal.”
“Enough to go home in a cab to Pratt’s Hotel, but not more.”
Ralph unlocked the gate, and after they had passed out he fastened it. “We’ll find your cab,” he said; and as they turned toward a
neighbouring street in which this quest might avail he asked her
again if he mightn’t see her safely to the inn.
“By no means,” she answered; “you’re very tired; you must go
home and go to bed.”
The cab was found, and he helped her into it, standing a moment
at the door. “When people forget I’m a poor creature I’m often incommoded,” he said. “But it’s worse when they remember it!”
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CHAPTER XVI
SHE HAD HAD NO hidden motive in wishing him not to take her
home; it simply struck her that for some days past she had consumed an inordinate quantity of his time, and the independent spirit
of the American girl whom extravagance of aid places in an attitude
that she ends by finding “affected” had made her decide that for
these few hours she must suffice to herself. She had moreover a
great fondness for intervals of solitude, which since her arrival in
England had been but meagrely met. It was a luxury she could always command at home and she had wittingly missed it. That
evening, however, an incident occurred which—had there been a
critic to note it—would have taken all colour from the theory that
the wish to be quite by herself had caused her to dispense with her
cousin’s attendance. Seated toward nine o’clock in the dim illumination of Pratt’s Hotel and trying with the aid of two tall candles to
lose herself in a volume she had brought from Gardencourt, she
succeeded only to the extent of reading other words than those
printed on the page—words that Ralph had spoken to her that afternoon. Suddenly the well-muffed knuckle of the waiter was applied to the door, which presently gave way to his exhibition, even
as a glorious trophy, of the card of a visitor. When this memento
had offered to her fixed sight the name of Mr. Caspar Goodwood
she let the man stand before her without signifying her wishes.
“Shall I show the gentleman up, ma’am?” he asked with a slightly
encouraging inflexion.
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Isabel hesitated still and while she hesitated glanced at the mirror.
“He may come in,” she said at last; and waited for him not so much
smoothing her hair as girding her spirit.
Caspar Goodwood was accordingly the next moment shaking
hands with her, but saying nothing till the servant had left the room.
“Why didn’t you answer my letter?” he then asked in a quick, full,
slightly peremptory tone—the tone of a man whose questions were
habitually pointed and who was capable of much insistence.
She answered by a ready question, “How did you know I was
here?”
“Miss Stackpole let me know,” said Caspar Goodwood. “She told
me you would probably be at home alone this evening and would
be willing to see me.”
“Where did she see you—to tell you that?”
“She didn’t see me; she wrote to me.”
Isabel was silent; neither had sat down; they stood there with an
air of defiance, or at least of contention. “Henrietta never told me
she was writing to you,” she said at last. “This is not kind of her.”
“Is it so disagreeable to you to see me?” asked the young man.
“I didn’t expect it. I don’t like such surprises.”
“But you knew I was in town; it was natural we should meet.”
“Do you call this meeting? I hoped I shouldn’t see you. In so big a
place as London it seemed very possible.”
“It was apparently repugnant to you even to write to me,” her
visitor went on.
Isabel made no reply; the sense of Henrietta Stackpole’s treachery,
as she momentarily qualified it, was strong within her. “Henrietta’s
certainly not a model of all the delicacies!” she exclaimed with bitterness. “It was a great liberty to take.”
“I suppose I’m not a model either—of those virtues or of any
others. The fault’s mine as much as hers.”
As Isabel looked at him it seemed to her that his jaw had never
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been more square. This might have displeased her, but she took a
different turn. “No, it’s not your fault so much as hers. What you’ve
done was inevitable, I suppose, for you.”
“It was indeed!” cried Caspar Goodwood with a voluntary laugh.
“And now that I’ve come, at any rate, mayn’t I stay?”
“You may sit down, certainly.”
She went back to her chair again, while her visitor took the first
place that offered, in the manner of a man accustomed to pay little
thought to that sort of furtherance. “I’ve been hoping every day for
an answer to my letter. You might have written me a few lines.”
“It wasn’t the trouble of writing that prevented me; I could as
easily have written you four pages as one. But my silence was an
intention,” Isabel said. “I thought it the best thing.”
He sat with his eyes fixed on hers while she spoke; then he lowered them and attached them to a spot in the carpet as if he were
making a strong effort to say nothing but what he ought. He was
a strong man in the wrong, and he was acute enough to see that an
uncompromising exhibition of his strength would only throw the
falsity of his position into relief. Isabel was not incapable of tasting any advantage of position over a person of this quality, and
though little desirous to flaunt it in his face she could enjoy being
able to say “You know you oughtn’t to have written to me yourself!” and to say it with an air of triumph.
Caspar Goodwood raised his eyes to her own again; they seemed
to shine through the vizard of a helmet. He had a strong sense of
justice and was ready any day in the year—over and above this—to
argue the question of his rights. “You said you hoped never to hear
from me again; I know that. But I never accepted any such rule as
my own. I warned you that you should hear very soon.”
“I didn’t say I hoped never to hear from you,” said Isabel.
“Not for five years then; for ten years; twenty years. It’s the same
thing.”
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“Do you find it so? It seems to me there’s a great difference. I can
imagine that at the end of ten years we might have a very pleasant
correspondence. I shall have matured my epistolary style.”
She looked away while she spoke these words, knowing them of
so much less earnest a cast than the countenance of her listener. Her
eyes, however, at last came back to him, just as he said very irrelevantly; “Are you enjoying your visit to your uncle?”
“Very much indeed.” She dropped, but then she broke out. “What
good do you expect to get by insisting?”
“The good of not losing you.”
“You’ve no right to talk of losing what’s not yours. And even from
your own point of view,” Isabel added, “you ought to know when to
let one alone.”
“I disgust you very much,” said Caspar Goodwood gloomily; not
as if to provoke her to compassion for a man conscious of this blighting fact, but as if to set it well before himself, so that he might
endeavour to act with his eyes on it.
“Yes, you don’t at all delight me, you don’t fit in, not in any way,
just now, and the worst is that your putting it to the proof in this
manner is quite unnecessary.” It wasn’t certainly as if his nature had
been soft, so that pin-pricks would draw blood from it; and from
the first of her acquaintance with him, and of her having to defend
herself against a certain air that he had of knowing better what was
good for her than she knew herself, she had recognised the fact that
perfect frankness was her best weapon. To attempt to spare his sensibility or to escape from him edgewise, as one might do from a
man who had barred the way less sturdily—this, in dealing with
Caspar Goodwood, who would grasp at everything of every sort
that one might give him, was wasted agility. It was not that he had
not susceptibilities, but his passive surface, as well as his active, was
large and hard, and he might always be trusted to dress his wounds,
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sure of possible pangs and aches in him, to her old sense that he was
naturally plated and steeled, armed essentially for aggression.
“I can’t reconcile myself to that,” he simply said. There was a dangerous liberality about it; for she felt how open it was to him to
make the point that he had not always disgusted her.
“I can’t reconcile myself to it either, and it’s not the state of things
that ought to exist between us. If you’d only try to banish me from
your mind for a few months we should be on good terms again.”
“I see. If I should cease to think of you at all for a prescribed time,
I should find I could keep it up indefinitely.”
“Indefinitely is more than I ask. It’s more even than I should like.”
“You know that what you ask is impossible,” said the young man,
taking his adjective for granted in a manner she found irritating.
“Aren’t you capable of making a calculated effort?” she demanded.
“You’re strong for everything else; why shouldn’t you be strong for
that?”
“An effort calculated for what?” And then as she hung fire, “I’m
capable of nothing with regard to you,” he went on, “but just of
being infernally in love with you. If one’s strong one loves only the
more strongly.”
“There’s a good deal in that;” and indeed our young lady felt the
force of it—felt it thrown off, into the vast of truth and poetry, as
practically a bait to her imagination. But she promptly came round.
“Think of me or not, as you find most possible; only leave me alone.”
“Until when?”
“Well, for a year or two.”
“Which do you mean? Between one year and two there’s all the
difference in the world.”
“Call it two then,” said Isabel with a studied effect of eagerness.
“And what shall I gain by that?” her friend asked with no sign of
wincing.
“You’ll have obliged me greatly.”
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“And what will be my reward?”
“Do you need a reward for an act of generosity?”
“Yes, when it involves a great sacrifice.”
“There’s no generosity without some sacrifice. Men don’t understand such things. If you make the sacrifice you’ll have all my admiration.”
“I don’t care a cent for your admiration—not one straw, with nothing to show for it. When will you marry me? That’s the only question.”
“Never—if you go on making me feel only as I feel at present.”
“What do I gain then by not trying to make you feel otherwise?”
“You’ll gain quite as much as by worrying me to death!” Caspar
Goodwood bent his eyes again and gazed a while into the crown of
his hat. A deep flush overspread his face; she could see her sharpness
had at last penetrated. This immediately had a value —classic, romantic, redeeming, what did she know? for her; “the strong man in
pain” was one of the categories of the human appeal, little charm as
he might exert in the given case. “Why do you make me say such
things to you?” she cried in a trembling voice. “I only want to be
gentle—to be thoroughly kind. It’s not delightful to me to feel people
care for me and yet to have to try and reason them out of it. I think
others also ought to be considerate; we have each to judge for ourselves. I know you’re considerate, as much as you can be; you’ve
good reasons for what you do. But I really don’t want to marry, or to
talk about it at all now. I shall probably never do it—no, never. I’ve
a perfect right to feel that way, and it’s no kindness to a woman to
press her so hard, to urge her against her will. If I give you pain I can
only say I’m very sorry. It’s not my fault; I can’t marry you simply to
please you. I won’t say that I shall always remain your friend, because when women say that, in these situations, it passes, I believe,
for a sort of mockery. But try me some day.”
Caspar Goodwood, during this speech, had kept his eyes fixed
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upon the name of his hatter, and it was not until some time after
she had ceased speaking that he raised them. When he did so the
sight of a rosy, lovely eagerness in Isabel’s face threw some confusion into his attempt to analyse her words. “I’ll go home—I’ll go tomorrow—I’ll leave you alone,” he brought out at last. “Only,” he
heavily said, “I hate to lose sight of you!”
“Never fear. I shall do no harm.”
“You’ll marry some one else, as sure as I sit here,” Caspar
Goodwood declared.
“Do you think that a generous charge?”
“Why not? Plenty of men will try to make you.”
“I told you just now that I don’t wish to marry and that I almost
certainly never shall.”
“I know you did, and I like your ‘almost certainly’! I put no faith
in what you say.”
“Thank you very much. Do you accuse me of lying to shake you
off? You say very delicate things.”
“Why should I not say that? You’ve given me no pledge of anything at all.”
“No, that’s all that would be wanting!”
“You may perhaps even believe you’re safe—from wishing to be.
But you’re not,” the young man went on as if preparing himself for
the worst.
“Very well then. We’ll put it that I’m not safe. Have it as you
please.”
“I don’t know, however,” said Caspar Goodwood, “that my keeping you in sight would prevent it.”
“Don’t you indeed? I’m after all very much afraid of you. Do you
think I’m so very easily pleased?” she asked suddenly, changing her
tone.
“No—I don’t; I shall try to console myself with that. But there are
a certain number of very dazzling men in the world, no doubt; and
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if there were only one it would be enough. The most dazzling of all
will make straight for you. You’ll be sure to take no one who isn’t
dazzling.”
“If you mean by dazzling brilliantly clever,” Isabel said—”and I
can’t imagine what else you mean—I don’t need the aid of a clever
man to teach me how to live. I can find it out for myself.”
“Find out how to live alone? I wish that, when you have, you’d
teach me!”
She looked at him a moment; then with a quick smile, “Oh, you
ought to marry!” she said.
He might be pardoned if for an instant this exclamation seemed
to him to sound the infernal note, and it is not on record that her
motive for discharging such a shaft had been of the clearest. He
oughtn’t to stride about lean and hungry, however—she certainly
felt that for him. “God forgive you!” he murmured between his
teeth as he turned away.
Her accent had put her slightly in the wrong, and after a moment
she felt the need to right herself. The easiest way to do it was to place
him where she had been. “You do me great injustice—you say what
you don’t know!” she broke out. “I shouldn’t be an easy victim—I’ve
proved it.”
“Oh, to me, perfectly.”
“I’ve proved it to others as well.” And she paused a moment. “I
refused a proposal of marriage last week; what they call—no doubt—
a dazzling one.”
“I’m very glad to hear it,” said the young man gravely.
“It was a proposal many girls would have accepted; it had everything to recommend it.” Isabel had not proposed to herself to tell
this story, but, now she had begun, the satisfaction of speaking it
out and doing herself justice took possession of her. “I was offered a
great position and a great fortune—by a person whom I like extremely.”
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Caspar watched her with intense interest. “Is he an Englishman?”
“He’s an English nobleman,” said Isabel.
Her visitor received this announcement at first in silence, but at
last said: “I’m glad he’s disappointed.”
“Well then, as you have companions in misfortune, make the best
of it.”
“I don’t call him a companion,” said Casper grimly.
“Why not—since I declined his offer absolutely?”
“That doesn’t make him my companion. Besides, he’s an Englishman.”
“And pray isn’t an Englishman a human being?” Isabel asked.
“Oh, those people They’re not of my humanity, and I don’t care
what becomes of them.”
“You’re very angry,” said the girl. “We’ve discussed this matter
quite enough.”
“Oh yes, I’m very angry. I plead guilty to that!”
She turned away from him, walked to the open window and stood
a moment looking into the dusky void of the street, where a turbid
gaslight alone represented social animation. For some time neither
of these young persons spoke; Caspar lingered near the chimneypiece with eyes gloomily attached. She had virtually requested him
to go—he knew that; but at the risk of making himself odious he
kept his ground. She was far too dear to him to be easily renounced,
and he had crossed the sea all to wring from her some scrap of a
vow. Presently she left the window and stood again before him. “You
do me very little justice—after my telling you what I told you just
now. I’m sorry I told you—since it matters so little to you.”
“Ah,” cried the young man, “if you were thinking of ME when
you did it!” And then he paused with the fear that she might contradict so happy a thought.
“I was thinking of you a little,” said Isabel.
“A little? I don’t understand. If the knowledge of what I feel for
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you had any weight with you at all, calling it a ‘little’ is a poor
account of it.”
Isabel shook her head as if to carry off a blunder. “I’ve refused a
most kind, noble gentleman. Make the most of that.”
“I thank you then,” said Caspar Goodwood gravely. “I thank you
immensely.”
“And now you had better go home.”
“May I not see you again?” he asked.
“I think it’s better not. You’ll be sure to talk of this, and you see it
leads to nothing.”
“I promise you not to say a word that will annoy you.”
Isabel reflected and then answered: “I return in a day or two to
my uncle’s, and I can’t propose to you to come there. It would be
too inconsistent.”
Caspar Goodwood, on his side, considered. “You must do me
justice too. I received an invitation to your uncle’s more than a week
ago, and I declined it.”
She betrayed surprise. “From whom was your invitation?”
“From Mr. Ralph Touchett, whom I suppose to be your cousin. I
declined it because I had not your authorisation to accept it. The
suggestion that Mr. Touchett should invite me appeared to have
come from Miss Stackpole.”
“It certainly never did from me. Henrietta really goes very far,”
Isabel added.
“Don’t be too hard on her—that touches me.”
“No; if you declined you did quite right, and I thank you for it.”
And she gave a little shudder of dismay at the thought that Lord
Warburton and Mr. Goodwood might have met at Gardencourt: it
would have been so awkward for Lord Warburton.
“When you leave your uncle where do you go?” her companion
asked.
“I go abroad with my aunt—to Florence and other places.”
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The serenity of this announcement struck a chill to the young
man’s heart; he seemed to see her whirled away into circles from
which he was inexorably excluded. Nevertheless he went on quickly
with his questions. “And when shall you come back to America?”
“Perhaps not for a long time. I’m very happy here.”
“Do you mean to give up your country?”
“Don’t be an infant!”
“Well, you’ll be out of my sight indeed!” said Caspar Goodwood.
“I don’t know,” she answered rather grandly. “The world—with
all these places so arranged and so touching each other—comes to
strike one as rather small.”
“It’s a sight too big for me!” Caspar exclaimed with a simplicity
our young lady might have found touching if her face had not been
set against concessions.
This attitude was part of a system, a theory, that she had lately
embraced, and to be thorough she said after a moment: “Don’t think
me unkind if I say it’s just that—being out of your sight—that I
like. If you were in the same place I should feel you were watching
me, and I don’t like that—I like my liberty too much. If there’s a
thing in the world I’m fond of,” she went on with a slight recurrence of grandeur, “it’s my personal independence.”
But whatever there might be of the too superior in this speech
moved Caspar Goodwood’s admiration; there was nothing he winced
at in the large air of it. He had never supposed she hadn’t wings and
the need of beautiful free movements—he wasn’t, with his own long
arms and strides, afraid of any force in her. Isabel’s words, if they
had been meant to shock him, failed of the mark and only made
him smile with the sense that here was common ground. “Who
would wish less to curtail your liberty than I? What can give me
greater pleasure than to see you perfectly independent—doing whatever you like? It’s to make you independent that I want to marry
you.”
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“That’s a beautiful sophism,” said the girl with a smile more beautiful still.
“An unmarried woman—a girl of your age—isn’t independent.
There are all sorts of things she can’t do. She’s hampered at every
step.”
“That’s as she looks at the question,” Isabel answered with much
spirit. “I’m not in my first youth—I can do what I choose—I belong quite to the independent class. I’ve neither father nor mother;
I’m poor and of a serious disposition; I’m not pretty. I therefore am
not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can’t afford such
luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I
think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be
a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.” She paused a moment, but not long
enough for her companion to reply. He was apparently on the point
of doing so when she went on: “Let me say this to you, Mr.
Goodwood. You’re so kind as to speak of being afraid of my marrying. If you should hear a rumour that I’m on the point of doing
so—girls are liable to have such things said about them—remember what I have told you about my love of liberty and venture to
doubt it.”
There was something passionately positive in the tone in which
she gave him this advice, and he saw a shining candour in her eyes
that helped him to believe her. On the whole he felt reassured, and
you might have perceived it by the manner in which he said, quite
eagerly: “You want simply to travel for two years? I’m quite willing
to wait two years, and you may do what you like in the interval. If
that’s all you want, pray say so. I don’t want you to be conventional;
do I strike you as conventional myself? Do you want to improve
your mind? Your mind’s quite good enough for me; but if it interests you to wander about a while and see different countries I shall
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be delighted to help you in any way in my power.”
“You’re very generous; that’s nothing new to me. The best way to
help me will be to put as many hundred miles of sea between us as
possible.”
“One would think you were going to commit some atrocity!” said
Caspar Goodwood.
“Perhaps I am. I wish to be free even to do that if the fancy takes
me.”
“Well then,” he said slowly, “I’ll go home.” And he put out his
hand, trying to look contented and confident.
Isabel’s confidence in him, however, was greater than any he could
feel in her. Not that he thought her capable of committing an atrocity; but, turn it over as he would, there was something ominous in
the way she reserved her option. As she took his hand she felt a great
respect for him; she knew how much he cared for her and she thought
him magnanimous. They stood so for a moment, looking at each
other, united by a hand-clasp which was not merely passive on her
side. “That’s right,” she said very kindly, almost tenderly. “You’ll
lose nothing by being a reasonable man.”
“But I’ll come back, wherever you are, two years hence,” he returned with characteristic grimness.
We have seen that our young lady was inconsequent, and at this
she suddenly changed her note. “Ah, remember, I promise nothing—absolutely nothing!” Then more softly, as if to help him to
leave her: “And remember too that I shall not be an easy victim!”
“You’ll get very sick of your independence.”
“Perhaps I shall; it’s even very probable. When that day comes I
shall be very glad to see you.”
She had laid her hand on the knob of the door that led into her
room, and she waited a moment to see whether her visitor would
not take his departure. But he appeared unable to move; there was
still an immense unwillingness in his attitude and a sore remon204
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strance in his eyes. “I must leave you now,” said Isabel; and she
opened the door and passed into the other room.
This apartment was dark, but the darkness was tempered by a
vague radiance sent up through the window from the court of the
hotel, and Isabel could make out the masses of the furniture, the
dim shining of the mirror and the looming of the big four-posted
bed. She stood still a moment, listening, and at last she heard Caspar
Goodwood walk out of the sitting-room and close the door behind
him. She stood still a little longer, and then, by an irresistible impulse, dropped on her knees before her bed and hid her face in her
arms.
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CHAPTER XVII
SHE WAS NOT PRAYING; she was trembling—trembling all over. Vibration was easy to her, was in fact too constant with her, and she
found herself now humming like a smitten harp. She only asked,
however, to put on the cover, to case herself again in brown holland,
but she wished to resist her excitement, and the attitude of devotion, which she kept for some time, seemed to help her to be still.
She intensely rejoiced that Caspar Goodwood was gone; there was
something in having thus got rid of him that was like the payment,
for a stamped receipt, of some debt too long on her mind. As she
felt the glad relief she bowed her head a little lower; the sense was
there, throbbing in her heart; it was part of her emotion, but it was
a thing to be ashamed of—it was profane and out of place. It was
not for some ten minutes that she rose from her knees, and even
when she came back to the sitting-room her tremor had not quite
subsided. It had had, verily, two causes: part of it was to be accounted for by her long discussion with Mr. Goodwood, but it might
be feared that the rest was simply the enjoyment she found in the
exercise of her power. She sat down in the same chair again and
took up her book, but without going through the form of opening
the volume. She leaned back, with that low, soft, aspiring murmur
with which she often uttered her response to accidents of which the
brighter side was not superficially obvious, and yielded to the satisfaction of having refused two ardent suitors in a fortnight. That
love of liberty of which she had given Caspar Goodwood so bold a
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sketch was as yet almost exclusively theoretic; she had not been able
to indulge it on a large scale. But it appeared to her she had done
something; she had tasted of the delight, if not of battle, at least of
victory; she had done what was truest to her plan. In the glow of
this consciousness the image of Mr. Goodwood taking his sad walk
homeward through the dingy town presented itself with a certain
reproachful force; so that, as at the same moment the door of the
room was opened, she rose with an apprehension that he had come
back. But it was only Henrietta Stackpole returning from her dinner.
Miss Stackpole immediately saw that our young lady had been
“through” something, and indeed the discovery demanded no great
penetration. She went straight up to her friend, who received her
without a greeting. Isabel’s elation in having sent Caspar Goodwood
back to America presupposed her being in a manner glad he had
come to see her; but at the same time she perfectly remembered
Henrietta had had no right to set a trap for her. “Has he been here,
dear?” the latter yearningly asked.
Isabel turned away and for some moments answered nothing. “You
acted very wrongly,” she declared at last.
“I acted for the best. I only hope you acted as well.”
“You’re not the judge. I can’t trust you,” said Isabel.
This declaration was unflattering, but Henrietta was much too
unselfish to heed the charge it conveyed; she cared only for what it
intimated with regard to her friend. “Isabel Archer,” she observed
with equal abruptness and solemnity, “if you marry one of these
people I’ll never speak to you again!”
“Before making so terrible a threat you had better wait till I’m
asked,” Isabel replied. Never having said a word to Miss Stackpole
about Lord Warburton’s overtures, she had now no impulse whatever to justify herself to Henrietta by telling her that she had refused
that nobleman.
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“Oh, you’ll be asked quick enough, once you get off on the Continent. Annie Climber was asked three times in Italy - poor plain
little Annie.”
“Well, if Annie Climber wasn’t captured why should I be?”
“I don’t believe Annie was pressed; but you’ll be.”
“That’s a flattering conviction,” said Isabel without alarm.
“I don’t flatter you, Isabel, I tell you the truth!” cried her friend. “I
hope you don’t mean to tell me that you didn’t give Mr. Goodwood
some hope.”
“I don’t see why I should tell you anything; as I said to you just
now, I can’t trust you. But since you’re so much interested in Mr.
Goodwood I won’t conceal from you that he returns immediately to
America.”
“You don’t mean to say you’ve sent him off?” Henrietta almost
shrieked.
“I asked him to leave me alone; and I ask you the same, Henrietta.”
Miss Stackpole glittered for an instant with dismay, and then passed
to the mirror over the chimney-piece and took off her bonnet. “I
hope you’ve enjoyed your dinner,” Isabel went on.
But her companion was not to be diverted by frivolous propositions. “Do you know where you’re going, Isabel Archer?”
“Just now I’m going to bed,” said Isabel with persistent frivolity.
“Do you know where you’re drifting?” Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.
“No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to
know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses
over roads that one can’t see—that’s my idea of happiness.”
“Mr. Goodwood certainly didn’t teach you to say such things as that—
like the heroine of an immoral novel,” said Miss Stackpole. “You’re
drifting to some great mistake.”
Isabel was irritated by her friend’s interference, yet she still tried
to think what truth this declaration could represent. She could think
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of nothing that diverted her from saying: “You must be very fond of
me, Henrietta, to be willing to be so aggressive.”
“I love you intensely, Isabel,” said Miss Stackpole with feeling,
“Well, if you love me intensely let me as intensely alone. I asked
that of Mr. Goodwood, and I must also ask it of you.”
“Take care you’re not let alone too much.”
“That’s what Mr. Goodwood said to me. I told him I must take
the risks.”
“You’re a creature of risks—you make me shudder!” cried Henrietta.
“When does Mr. Goodwood return to America?”
“I don’t know—he didn’t tell me.”
“Perhaps you didn’t enquire,” said Henrietta with the note of righteous irony.
“I gave him too little satisfaction to have the right to ask questions
of him.”
This assertion seemed to Miss Stackpole for a moment to bid
defiance to comment; but at last she exclaimed: “Well, Isabel, if I
didn’t know you I might think you were heartless!”
“Take care,” said Isabel; “you’re spoiling me.”
“I’m afraid I’ve done that already. I hope, at least,” Miss Stackpole
added, “that he may cross with Annie Climber!”
Isabel learned from her the next morning that she had determined
not to return to Gardencourt (where old Mr. Touchett had promised her a renewed welcome), but to await in London the arrival of
the invitation that Mr. Bantling had promised her from his sister
Lady Pensil. Miss Stackpole related very freely her conversation with
Ralph Touchett’s sociable friend and declared to Isabel that she really believed she had now got hold of something that would lead to
something. On the receipt of Lady Pensil’s letter—Mr. Bantling had
virtually guaranteed the arrival of this document—she would immediately depart for Bedfordshire, and if Isabel cared to look out
for her impressions in the Interviewer she would certainly find them.
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Henrietta was evidently going to see something of the inner life this
time.
“Do you know where you’re drifting, Henrietta Stackpole?” Isabel
asked, imitating the tone in which her friend had spoken the night
before.
“I’m drifting to a big position—that of the Queen of American
Journalism. If my next letter isn’t copied all over the West I’ll swallow my penwiper!”
She had arranged with her friend Miss Annie Climber, the young
lady of the continental offers, that they should go together to make
those purchases which were to constitute Miss Climber’s farewell to
a hemisphere in which she at least had been appreciated; and she
presently repaired to Jermyn Street to pick up her companion. Shortly
after her departure Ralph Touchett was announced, and as soon as
he came in Isabel saw he had something on his mind. He very soon
took his cousin into his confidence. He had received from his mother
a telegram to the effect that his father had had a sharp attack of his
old malady, that she was much alarmed and that she begged he
would instantly return to Gardencourt. On this occasion at least
Mrs. Touchett’s devotion to the electric wire was not open to criticism.
“I’ve judged it best to see the great doctor, Sir Matthew Hope,
first,” Ralph said; “by great good luck he’s in town. He’s to see me at
half-past twelve, and I shall make sure of his coming down to
Gardencourt—which he will do the more readily as he has already
seen my father several times, both there and in London. There’s an
express at two-forty-five, which I shall take; and you’ll come back
with me or remain here a few days longer, exactly as you prefer.”
“I shall certainly go with you,” Isabel returned. “I don’t suppose I
can be of any use to my uncle, but if he’s ill I shall like to be near
him.”
“I think you’re fond of him,” said Ralph with a certain shy plea210
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sure in his face. “You appreciate him, which all the world hasn’t
done. The quality’s too fine.”
“I quite adore him,” Isabel after a moment said.
“That’s very well. After his son he’s your greatest admirer.” She
welcomed this assurance, but she gave secretly a small sigh of relief
at the thought that Mr. Touchett was one of those admirers who
couldn’t propose to marry her. This, however, was not what she
spoke; she went on to inform Ralph that there were other reasons
for her not remaining in London. She was tired of it and wished to
leave it; and then Henrietta was going away—going to stay in
Bedfordshire.
“In Bedfordshire?”
“With Lady Pensil, the sister of Mr. Bantling, who has answered
for an invitation.”
Ralph was feeling anxious, but at this he broke into a laugh. Suddenly, none the less, his gravity returned. “Bantling’s a man of courage. But if the invitation should get lost on the way?”
“I thought the British post-office was impeccable.”
“The good Homer sometimes nods,” said Ralph. “However,” he
went on more brightly, “the good Bantling never does, and, whatever happens, he’ll take care of Henrietta.”
Ralph went to keep his appointment with Sir Matthew Hope,
and Isabel made her arrangements for quitting Pratt’s Hotel. Her
uncle’s danger touched her nearly, and while she stood before her
open trunk, looking about her vaguely for what she should put into
it, the tears suddenly rose to her eyes. It was perhaps for this reason
that when Ralph came back at two o’clock to take her to the station
she was not yet ready. He found Miss Stackpole, however, in the
sitting-room, where she had just risen from her luncheon, and this
lady immediately expressed her regret at his father’s illness.
“He’s a grand old man,” she said; “he’s faithful to the last. If it’s
really to be the last—pardon my alluding to it, but you must often
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have thought of the possibility—I’m sorry that I shall not be at
Gardencourt.”
“You’ll amuse yourself much more in Bedfordshire.”
“I shall be sorry to amuse myself at such a time,” said Henrietta
with much propriety. But she immediately added: “I should like so
to commemorate the closing scene.”
“My father may live a long time,” said Ralph simply. Then, adverting to topics more cheerful, he interrogated Miss Stackpole as
to her own future.
Now that Ralph was in trouble she addressed him in a tone of
larger allowance and told him that she was much indebted to him
for having made her acquainted with Mr. Bantling. “He has told
me just the things I want to know,” she said; “all the society items
and all about the royal family. I can’t make out that what he tells me
about the royal family is much to their credit; but he says that’s only
my peculiar way of looking at it. Well, all I want is that he should
give me the facts; I can put them together quick enough, once I’ve
got them.” And she added that Mr. Bantling had been so good as to
promise to come and take her out that afternoon.
“To take you where?” Ralph ventured to enquire.
“To Buckingham Palace. He’s going to show me over it, so that I
may get some idea how they live.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “we leave you in good hands. The first thing we
shall hear is that you’re invited to Windsor Castle.”
“If they ask me, I shall certainly go. Once I get started I’m not
afraid. But for all that,” Henrietta added in a moment, “I’m not
satisfied; I’m not at peace about Isabel.”
“What is her last misdemeanour?”
“Well, I’ve told you before, and I suppose there’s no harm in my
going on. I always finish a subject that I take up. Mr. Goodwood
was here last night.”
Ralph opened his eyes; he even blushed a little—his blush being the
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sign of an emotion somewhat acute. He remembered that Isabel, in
separating from him in Winchester Square, had repudiated his suggestion that her motive in doing so was the expectation of a visitor at
Pratt’s Hotel, and it was a new pang to him to have to suspect her of
duplicity. On the other hand, he quickly said to himself, what concern
was it of his that she should have made an appointment with a lover?
Had it not been thought graceful in every age that young ladies should
make a mystery of such appointments? Ralph gave Miss Stackpole a
diplomatic answer. “I should have thought that, with the views you
expressed to me the other day, this would satisfy you perfectly.”
“That he should come to see her? That was very well, as far as it
went. It was a little plot of mine; I let him know that we were in
London, and when it had been arranged that I should spend the
evening out I sent him a word—the word we just utter to the ‘wise.’
I hoped he would find her alone; I won’t pretend I didn’t hope that
you’d be out of the way. He came to see her, but he might as well
have stayed away.”
“Isabel was cruel?”—and Ralph’s face lighted with the relief of his
cousin’s not having shown duplicity.
“I don’t exactly know what passed between them. But she gave
him no satisfaction—she sent him back to America.”
“Poor Mr. Goodwood!” Ralph sighed.
“Her only idea seems to be to get rid of him,” Henrietta went on.
“Poor Mr. Goodwood!” Ralph repeated. The exclamation, it must
be confessed, was automatic; it failed exactly to express his thoughts,
which were taking another line.
“You don’t say that as if you felt it. I don’t believe you care.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “you must remember that I don’t know this
interesting young man—that I’ve never seen him.”
“Well, I shall see him, and I shall tell him not to give up. If I didn’t
believe Isabel would come round,” Miss Stackpole added—”well,
I’d give up myself. I mean I’d give her up!”
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CHAPTER XVIII
IT HAD OCCURRED to Ralph that, in the conditions, Isabel’s parting
with her friend might be of a slightly embarrassed nature, and he
went down to the door of the hotel in advance of his cousin, who,
after a slight delay, followed with the traces of an unaccepted remonstrance, as he thought, in her eyes. The two made the journey
to Gardencourt in almost unbroken silence, and the servant who
met them at the station had no better news to give them of Mr.
Touchett—a fact which caused Ralph to congratulate himself afresh
on Sir Matthew Hope’s having promised to come down in the five
o’clock train and spend the night. Mrs. Touchett, he learned, on
reaching home, had been constantly with the old man and was with
him at that moment; and this fact made Ralph say to himself that,
after all, what his mother wanted was just easy occasion. The finer
natures were those that shone at the larger times. Isabel went to her
own room, noting throughout the house that perceptible hush which
precedes a crisis. At the end of an hour, however, she came downstairs in search of her aunt, whom she wished to ask about Mr.
Touchett. She went into the library, but Mrs. Touchett was not there,
and as the weather, which had been damp and chill, was now altogether spoiled, it was not probable she had gone for her usual walk
in the grounds. Isabel was on the point of ringing to send a question
to her room, when this purpose quickly yielded to an unexpected
sound—the sound of low music proceeding apparently from the
saloon. She knew her aunt never touched the piano, and the musi214
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cian was therefore probably Ralph, who played for his own amusement. That he should have resorted to this recreation at the present
time indicated apparently that his anxiety about his father had been
relieved; so that the girl took her way, almost with restored cheer,
toward the source of the harmony. The drawing-room at
Gardencourt was an apartment of great distances, and, as the piano
was placed at the end of it furthest removed from the door at which
she entered, her arrival was not noticed by the person seated before
the instrument. This person was neither Ralph nor his mother; it
was a lady whom Isabel immediately saw to be a stranger to herself,
though her back was presented to the door. This back—an ample
and well-dressed one—Isabel viewed for some moments with surprise. The lady was of course a visitor who had arrived during her
absence and who had not been mentioned by either of the servants—
one of them her aunt’s maid—of whom she had had speech since
her return. Isabel had already learned, however, with what treasures
of reserve the function of receiving orders may be accompanied,
and she was particularly conscious of having been treated with dryness by her aunt’s maid, through whose hands she had slipped perhaps a little too mistrustfully and with an effect of plumage but the
more lustrous. The advent of a guest was in itself far from disconcerting; she had not yet divested herself of a young faith that each
new acquaintance would exert some momentous influence on her
life. By the time she had made these reflexions she became aware
that the lady at the piano played remarkably well. She was playing
something of Schubert’s—Isabel knew not what, but recognised
Schubert—and she touched the piano with a discretion of her own.
It showed skill, it showed feeling; Isabel sat down noiselessly on the
nearest chair and waited till the end of the piece. When it was finished she felt a strong desire to thank the player, and rose from her
seat to do so, while at the same time the stranger turned quickly
round, as if but just aware of her presence.
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“That’s very beautiful, and your playing makes it more beautiful
still,” said Isabel with all the young radiance with which she usually
uttered a truthful rapture.
“You don’t think I disturbed Mr. Touchett then?” the musician
answered as sweetly as this compliment deserved. “The house is so
large and his room so far away that I thought I might venture, especially as I played just—just du bout des doigts.”
“She’s a Frenchwoman,” Isabel said to herself; “she says that as if
she were French.” And this supposition made the visitor more interesting to our speculative heroine. “I hope my uncle’s doing well,”
Isabel added. “I should think that to hear such lovely music as that
would really make him feel better.”
The lady smiled and discriminated. “I’m afraid there are moments
in life when even Schubert has nothing to say to us. We must admit, however, that they are our worst.”
“I’m not in that state now then,” said Isabel. “On the contrary I
should be so glad if you would play something more.”
“If it will give you pleasure—delighted.” And this obliging person
took her place again and struck a few chords, while Isabel sat down
nearer the instrument. Suddenly the new-comer stopped with her hands
on the keys, half-turning and looking over her shoulder. She was forty
years old and not pretty, though her expression charmed. “Pardon me,”
she said; “but are you the niece —the young American?”
“I’m my aunt’s niece,” Isabel replied with simplicity.
The lady at the piano sat still a moment longer, casting her air of
interest over her shoulder. “That’s very well; we’re compatriots.” And
then she began to play.
“Ah then she’s not French,” Isabel murmured; and as the opposite
supposition had made her romantic it might have seemed that this
revelation would have marked a drop. But such was not the fact;
rarer even than to be French seemed it to be American on such
interesting terms.
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The lady played in the same manner as before, softly and solemnly, and while she played the shadows deepened in the room.
The autumn twilight gathered in, and from her place Isabel could
see the rain, which had now begun in earnest, washing the coldlooking lawn and the wind shaking the great trees. At last, when the
music had ceased, her companion got up and, coming nearer with a
smile, before Isabel had time to thank her again, said: “I’m very glad
you’ve come back; I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
Isabel thought her a very attractive person, but nevertheless spoke
with a certain abruptness in reply to this speech. “From whom have
you heard about me?”
The stranger hesitated a single moment and then, “From your
uncle,” she answered. “I’ve been here three days, and the first day he
let me come and pay him a visit in his room. Then he talked constantly of you.”
“As you didn’t know me that must rather have bored you.”
“It made me want to know you. All the more that since then—
your aunt being so much with Mr. Touchett—I’ve been quite alone
and have got rather tired of my own society. I’ve not chosen a good
moment for my visit.”
A servant had come in with lamps and was presently followed by
another bearing the tea-tray. On the appearance of this repast Mrs.
Touchett had apparently been notified, for she now arrived and
addressed herself to the tea-pot. Her greeting to her niece did not
differ materially from her manner of raising the lid of this receptacle in order to glance at the contents: in neither act was it becoming to make a show of avidity. Questioned about her husband she
was unable to say he was better; but the local doctor was with him,
and much light was expected from this gentleman’s consultation
with Sir Matthew Hope.
“I suppose you two ladies have made acquaintance,” she pursued.
“If you haven’t I recommend you to do so; for so long as we con217
The Portrait of a Lady
tinue—Ralph and I—to cluster about Mr. Touchett’s bed you’re
not likely to have much society but each other.”
“I know nothing about you but that you’re a great musician,”
Isabel said to the visitor.
“There’s a good deal more than that to know,” Mrs. Touchett
affirmed in her little dry tone.
“A very little of it, I am sure, will content Miss Archer!” the lady
exclaimed with a light laugh. “I’m an old friend of your aunt’s. I’ve
lived much in Florence. I’m Madame Merle.” She made this last
announcement as if she were referring to a person of tolerably distinct identity. For Isabel, however, it represented little; she could
only continue to feel that Madame Merle had as charming a manner as any she had ever encountered.
“She’s not a foreigner in spite of her name,” said Mrs. Touchett.
“She was born—I always forget where you were born.”
“It’s hardly worth while then I should tell you.”
“On the contrary,” said Mrs. Touchett, who rarely missed a logical point; “if I remembered your telling me would be quite superfluous.”
Madame Merle glanced at Isabel with a sort of world-wide smile,
a thing that over-reached frontiers. “I was born under the shadow
of the national banner.”
“She’s too fond of mystery,” said Mrs. Touchett; “that’s her great
fault.”
“Ah,” exclaimed Madame Merle, “I’ve great faults, but I don’t think
that’s one of then; it certainly isn’t the greatest. I came into the world
in the Brooklyn navy-yard. My father was a high officer in the United
States Navy, and had a post—a post of responsibility—in that establishment at the time. I suppose I ought to love the sea, but I hate
it. That’s why I don’t return to America. I love the land; the great
thing is to love something.”
Isabel, as a dispassionate witness, had not been struck with the
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force of Mrs. Touchett’s characterisation of her visitor, who had an
expressive, communicative, responsive face, by no means of the sort
which, to Isabel’s mind, suggested a secretive disposition. It was a
face that told of an amplitude of nature and of quick and free motions and, though it had no regular beauty, was in the highest degree engaging and attaching. Madame Merle was a tall, fair, smooth
woman; everything in her person was round and replete, though
without those accumulations which suggest heaviness. Her features
were thick but in perfect proportion and harmony, and her complexion had a healthy clearness. Her grey eyes were small but full of
light and incapable of stupidity—incapable, according to some
people, even of tears; she had a liberal, full-rimmed mouth which
when she smiled drew itself upward to the left side in a manner that
most people thought very odd, some very affected and a few very
graceful. Isabel inclined to range herself in the last category. Madame Merle had thick, fair hair, arranged somehow “classically” and
as if she were a Bust, Isabel judged—a Juno or a Niobe; and large
white hands, of a perfect shape, a shape so perfect that their possessor, preferring to leave them unadorned, wore no jewelled rings.
Isabel had taken her at first, as we have seen, for a Frenchwoman;
but extended observation might have ranked her as a German—a
German of high degree, perhaps an Austrian, a baroness, a countess, a princess. It would never have been supposed she had come
into the world in Brooklyn—though one could doubtless not have
carried through any argument that the air of distinction marking
her in so eminent a degree was inconsistent with such a birth. It was
true that the national banner had floated immediately over her cradle,
and the breezy freedom of the stars and stripes might have shed an
influence upon the attitude she there took towards life. And yet she
had evidently nothing of the fluttered, flapping quality of a morsel
of bunting in the wind; her manner expressed the repose and confidence which come from a large experience. Experience, however,
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had not quenched her youth; it had simply made her sympathetic
and supple. She was in a word a woman of strong impulses kept in
admirable order. This commended itself to Isabel as an ideal combination.
The girl made these reflexions while the three ladies sat at their
tea, but that ceremony was interrupted before long by the arrival of
the great doctor from London, who had been immediately ushered
into the drawing-room. Mrs. Touchett took him off to the library
for a private talk; and then Madame Merle and Isabel parted, to
meet again at dinner. The idea of seeing more of this interesting
woman did much to mitigate Isabel’s sense of the sadness now settling on Gardencourt.
When she came into the drawing-room before dinner she found
the place empty; but in the course of a moment Ralph arrived. His
anxiety about his father had been lightened; Sir Matthew Hope’s
view of his condition was less depressed than his own had been. The
doctor recommended that the nurse alone should remain with the
old man for the next three or four hours; so that Ralph, his mother
and the great physician himself were free to dine at table. Mrs.
Touchett and Sir Matthew appeared; Madame Merle was the last.
Before she came Isabel spoke of her to Ralph, who was standing
before the fireplace. “Pray who is this Madame Merle?”
“The cleverest woman I know, not excepting yourself,” said Ralph.
“I thought she seemed very pleasant.”
“I was sure you’d think her very pleasant.”
“Is that why you invited her?”
“I didn’t invite her, and when we came back from London I didn’t
know she was here. No one invited her. She’s a friend of my mother’s,
and just after you and I went to town my mother got a note from
her. She had arrived in England (she usually lives abroad, though
she has first and last spent a good deal of time here), and asked leave
to come down for a few days. She’s a woman who can make such
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Henry James
proposals with perfect confidence; she’s so welcome wherever she
goes. And with my mother there could be no question of hesitating;
she’s the one person in the world whom my mother very much
admires. If she were not herself (which she after all much prefers),
she would like to be Madame Merle. It would indeed be a great
change.”
“Well, she’s very charming,” said Isabel. “And she plays beautifully.”
“She does everything beautifully. She’s complete.”
Isabel looked at her cousin a moment. “You don’t like her.”
“On the contrary, I was once in love with her.”
“And she didn’t care for you, and that’s why you don’t like her.”
“How can we have discussed such things? Monsieur Merle was
then living.”
“Is he dead now?”
“So she says.”
“Don’t you believe her?”
“Yes, because the statement agrees with the probabilities. The
husband of Madame Merle would be likely to pass away.”
Isabel gazed at her cousin again. “I don’t know what you mean.
You mean something—that you don’t mean. What was Monsieur
Merle?”
“The husband of Madame.”
“You’re very odious. Has she any children?”
“Not the least little child—fortunately.”
“Fortunately?”
“I mean fortunately for the child. She’d be sure to spoil it.”
Isabel was apparently on the point of assuring her cousin for the
third time that he was odious; but the discussion was interrupted by
the arrival of the lady who was the topic of it. She came rustling in
quickly, apologising for being late, fastening a bracelet, dressed in
dark blue satin, which exposed a white bosom that was ineffectually
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covered by a curious silver necklace. Ralph offered her his arm with
the exaggerated alertness of a man who was no longer a lover.
Even if this had still been his condition, however, Ralph had other
things to think about. The great doctor spent the night at Gardencourt
and, returning to London on the morrow, after another consultation
with Mr. Touchett’s own medical adviser, concurred in Ralph’s desire
that he should see the patient again on the day following. On the day
following Sir Matthew Hope reappeared at Gardencourt, and now
took a less encouraging view of the old man, who had grown worse in
the twenty-four hours. His feebleness was extreme, and to his son,
who constantly sat by his bedside, it often seemed that his end must
be at hand. The local doctor, a very sagacious man, in whom Ralph
had secretly more confidence than in his distinguished colleague, was
constantly in attendance, and Sir Matthew Hope came back several
times. Mr. Touchett was much of the time unconscious; he slept a
great deal; he rarely spoke. Isabel had a great desire to be useful to him
and was allowed to watch with him at hours when his other attendants (of whom Mrs. Touchett was not the least regular) went to take
rest. He never seemed to know her, and she always said to herself
“Suppose he should die while I’m sitting here;” an idea which excited
her and kept her awake. Once he opened his eyes for a while and
fixed them upon her intelligently, but when she went to him, hoping
he would recognise her, he closed them and relapsed into stupor. The
day after this, however, he revived for a longer time; but on this occasion Ralph only was with him. The old man began to talk, much to
his son’s satisfaction, who assured him that they should presently have
him sitting up.
“No, my boy,” said Mr. Touchett, “not unless you bury me in a
sitting posture, as some of the ancients—was it the ancients?—used
to do.”
“Ah, daddy, don’t talk about that,” Ralph murmured. “You mustn’t
deny that you’re getting better.”
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Henry James
“There will be no need of my denying it if you don’t say it,” the
old man answered. “Why should we prevaricate just at the last? We
never prevaricated before. I’ve got to die some time, and it’s better
to die when one’s sick than when one’s well. I’m very sick —as sick
as I shall ever be. I hope you don’t want to prove that I shall ever be
worse than this? That would be too bad. You don’t? Well then.”
Having made this excellent point he became quiet; but the next
time that Ralph was with him he again addressed himself to conversation. The nurse had gone to her supper and Ralph was alone in
charge, having just relieved Mrs. Touchett, who had been on guard
since dinner. The room was lighted only by the flickering fire, which
of late had become necessary, and Ralph’s tall shadow was projected
over wall and ceiling with an outline constantly varying but always
grotesque.
“Who’s that with me—is it my son?” the old man asked.
“Yes, it’s your son, daddy.”
“And is there no one else?”
“No one else.”
Mr. Touchett said nothing for a while; and then, “I want to talk a
little,” he went on.
“Won’t it tire you?” Ralph demurred.
“It won’t matter if it does. I shall have a long rest. I want to talk
about you.”
Ralph had drawn nearer to the bed; he sat leaning forward with
his hand on his father’s. “You had better select a brighter topic.”
“You were always bright; I used to be proud of your brightness. I
should like so much to think you’d do something.”
“If you leave us,” said Ralph, “I shall do nothing but miss you.”
“That’s just what I don’t want; it’s what I want to talk about. You
must get a new interest.”
“I don’t want a new interest, daddy. I have more old ones than I
know what to do with.”
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The old man lay there looking at his son; his face was the face of
the dying, but his eyes were the eyes of Daniel Touchett. He seemed
to be reckoning over Ralph’s interests. “Of course you have your
mother,” he said at last. “You’ll take care of her.”
“My mother will always take care of herself,” Ralph returned.
“Well,” said his father, “perhaps as she grows older she’ll need a
little help.”
“I shall not see that. She’ll outlive me.”
“Very likely she will; but that’s no reason—!” Mr. Touchett let his
phrase die away in a helpless but not quite querulous sigh and remained silent again.
“Don’t trouble yourself about us,” said his son, “My mother and I
get on very well together, you know.”
“You get on by always being apart; that’s not natural.”
“If you leave us we shall probably see more of each other.”
“Well,” the old man observed with wandering irrelevance, “it can’t
be said that my death will make much difference in your mother’s
life.”
“It will probably make more than you think.”
“Well, she’ll have more money,” said Mr. Touchett. “I’ve left her a
good wife’s portion, just as if she had been a good wife.”
“She has been one, daddy, according to her own theory. She has
never troubled you.”
“Ah, some troubles are pleasant,” Mr. Touchett murmured. “Those
you’ve given me for instance. But your mother has been less—less—
what shall I call it? less out of the way since I’ve been ill. I presume
she knows I’ve noticed it.”
“I shall certainly tell her so; I’m so glad you mention it.”
“It won’t make any difference to her; she doesn’t do it to please me.
She does it to please—to please—” And he lay a while trying to think
why she did it. “She does it because it suits her. But that’s not what I
want to talk about,” he added. “It’s about you. You’ll be very well off.”
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“Yes,” said Ralph, “I know that. But I hope you’ve not forgotten
the talk we had a year ago—when I told you exactly what money I
should need and begged you to make some good use of the rest.”
“Yes, yes, I remember. I made a new will—in a few days. I suppose
it was the first time such a thing had happened—a young man trying
to get a will made against him.”
“It is not against me,” said Ralph. “It would be against me to have
a large property to take care of. It’s impossible for a man in my state
of health to spend much money, and enough is as good as a feast.”
“Well, you’ll have enough—and something over. There will be
more than enough for one—there will be enough for two.”
“That’s too much,” said Ralph.
“Ah, don’t say that. The best thing you can do; when I’m gone,
will be to marry.”
Ralph had foreseen what his father was coming to, and this suggestion was by no means fresh. It had long been Mr. Touchett’s
most ingenious way of taking the cheerful view of his son’s possible
duration. Ralph had usually treated it facetiously; but present circumstances proscribed the facetious. He simply fell back in his chair
and returned his father’s appealing gaze.
“If I, with a wife who hasn’t been very fond of me, have had a very
happy life,” said the old man, carrying his ingenuity further still,
“what a life mightn’t you have if you should marry a person different from Mrs. Touchett. There are more different from her than
there are like her.” Ralph still said nothing; and after a pause his
father resumed softly: “What do you think of your cousin?”
At this Ralph started, meeting the question with a strained smile.
“Do I understand you to propose that I should marry Isabel?”
“Well, that’s what it comes to in the end. Don’t you like Isabel?”
“Yes, very much.” And Ralph got up from his chair and wandered
over to the fire. He stood before it an instant and then he stooped
and stirred it mechanically. “I like Isabel very much,” he repeated.
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“Well,” said his father, “I know she likes you. She has told me
how much she likes you.”
“Did she remark that she would like to marry me?”
“No, but she can’t have anything against you. And she’s the most
charming young lady I’ve ever seen. And she would be good to you.
I have thought a great deal about it.”
“So have I,” said Ralph, coming back to the bedside again. “I
don’t mind telling you that.”
“You are in love with her then? I should think you would be. It’s
as if she came over on purpose.”
“No, I’m not in love with her; but I should be if—if certain things
were different.”
“Ah, things are always different from what they might be,” said
the old man. “If you wait for them to change you’ll never do anything. I don’t know whether you know,” he went on; “but I suppose
there’s no harm in my alluding to it at such an hour as this: there
was some one wanted to marry Isabel the other day, and she wouldn’t
have him.”
“I know she refused Warburton: he told me himself.”
“Well, that proves there’s a chance for somebody else.”
“Somebody else took his chance the other day in London—and
got nothing by it.”
“Was it you?” Mr. Touchett eagerly asked.
“No, it was an older friend; a poor gentleman who came over
from America to see about it.”
“Well, I’m sorry for him, whoever he was. But it only proves what
I say—that the way’s open to you.”
“If it is, dear father, it’s all the greater pity that I’m unable to tread
it. I haven’t many convictions; but I have three or four that I hold
strongly. One is that people, on the whole, had better not marry
their cousins. Another is that people in an advanced stage of pulmonary disorder had better not marry at all.”
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Henry James
The old man raised his weak hand and moved it to and fro before
his face. “What do you mean by that? You look at things in a way
that would make everything wrong. What sort of a cousin is a cousin
that you had never seen for more than twenty years of her life? We’re
all each other’s cousins, and if we stopped at that the human race
would die out. It’s just the same with your bad lung. You’re a great
deal better than you used to be. All you want is to lead a natural life.
It is a great deal more natural to marry a pretty young lady that
you’re in love with than it is to remain single on false principles.”
“I’m not in love with Isabel,” said Ralph.
“You said just now that you would be if you didn’t think it wrong.
I want to prove to you that it isn’t wrong.”
“It will only tire you, dear daddy,” said Ralph, who marvelled at
his father’s tenacity and at his finding strength to insist. “Then where
shall we all be?”
“Where shall you be if I don’t provide for you? You won’t have
anything to do with the bank, and you won’t have me to take care
of. You say you’ve so many interests; but I can’t make them out.”
Ralph leaned back in his chair with folded arms; his eyes were
fixed for some time in meditation. At last, with the air of a man
fairly mustering courage, “I take a great interest in my cousin,” he
said, “but not the sort of interest you desire. I shall not live many
years; but I hope I shall live long enough to see what she does with
herself. She’s entirely independent of me; I can exercise very little
influence upon her life. But I should like to do something for her.”
“What should you like to do?”
“I should like to put a little wind in her sails.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I should like to put it into her power to do some of the things she
wants. She wants to see the world for instance. I should like to put
money in her purse.”
“Ah, I’m glad you’ve thought of that,” said the old man. “But I’ve
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thought of it too. I’ve left her a legacy—five thousand pounds.”
“That’s capital; it’s very kind of you. But I should like to do a little
more.”
Something of that veiled acuteness with which it had been on
Daniel Touchett’s part the habit of a lifetime to listen to a financial
proposition still lingered in the face in which the invalid had not
obliterated the man of business. “I shall be happy to consider it,” he
said softly.
“Isabel’s poor then. My mother tells me that she has but a few
hundred dollars a year. I should like to make her rich.”
“What do you mean by rich?”
“I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of
their imagination. Isabel has a great deal of imagination.”
“So have you, my son,” said Mr. Touchett, listening very attentively but a little confusedly.
“You tell me I shall have money enough for two. What I want is
that you should kindly relieve me of my superfluity and make it
over to Isabel. Divide my inheritance into two equal halves and give
her the second.”
“To do what she likes with?”
“Absolutely what she likes.”
“And without an equivalent?”
“What equivalent could there be?”
“The one I’ve already mentioned.”
“Her marrying—some one or other? It’s just to do away with anything of that sort that I make my suggestion. If she has an easy
income she’ll never have to marry for a support. That’s what I want
cannily to prevent. She wishes to be free, and your bequest will
make her free.”
“Well, you seem to have thought it out,” said Mr. Touchett. “But
I don’t see why you appeal to me. The money will be yours, and you
can easily give it to her yourself.”
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Henry James
Ralph openly stared. “Ah, dear father, I can’t offer Isabel money!”
The old man gave a groan. “Don’t tell me you’re not in love with
her! Do you want me to have the credit of it?”
“Entirely. I should like it simply to be a clause in your will, without the slightest reference to me.”
“Do you want me to make a new will then?”
“A few words will do it; you can attend to it the next time you feel
a little lively.”
“You must telegraph to Mr. Hilary then. I’ll do nothing without
my solicitor.”
“You shall see Mr. Hilary to-morrow.”
“He’ll think we’ve quarrelled, you and I,” said the old man.
“Very probably; I shall like him to think it,” said Ralph, smiling;
“and, to carry out the idea, I give you notice that I shall be very
sharp, quite horrid and strange, with you.”
The humour of this appeared to touch his father, who lay a little
while taking it in. “I’ll do anything you like,” Mr. Touchett said at
last; “but I’m not sure it’s right. You say you want to put wind in her
sails; but aren’t you afraid of putting too much?”
“I should like to see her going before the breeze!” Ralph answered.
“You speak as if it were for your mere amusement.”
“So it is, a good deal.”
“Well, I don’t think I understand,” said Mr. Touchett with a sigh.
“Young men are very different from what I was. When I cared for a
girl—when I was young—I wanted to do more than look at her.”
“You’ve scruples that I shouldn’t have had, and you’ve ideas that I
shouldn’t have had either. You say Isabel wants to be free, and that
her being rich will keep her from marrying for money. Do you think
that she’s a girl to do that?”
“By no means. But she has less money than she has ever had before. Her father then gave her everything, because he used to spend
his capital. She has nothing but the crumbs of that feast to live on,
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and she doesn’t really know how meagre they are—she has yet to
learn it. My mother has told me all about it. Isabel will learn it when
she’s really thrown upon the world, and it would be very painful to
me to think of her coming to the consciousness of a lot of wants she
should be unable to satisfy.”
“I’ve left her five thousand pounds. She can satisfy a good many
wants with that.”
“She can indeed. But she would probably spend it in two or three
years.”
“You think she’d be extravagant then?”
“Most certainly,” said Ralph, smiling serenely.
Poor Mr. Touchett’s acuteness was rapidly giving place to pure
confusion. “It would merely be a question of time then, her spending the larger sum?”
“No—though at first I think she’d plunge into that pretty freely:
she’d probably make over a part of it to each of her sisters. But after
that she’d come to her senses, remember she has still a lifetime before her, and live within her means.”
“Well, you have worked it out,” said the old man helplessly. “You
do take an interest in her, certainly.”
“You can’t consistently say I go too far. You wished me to go further.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Mr. Touchett answered. “I don’t think I
enter into your spirit. It seems to me immoral.”
“Immoral, dear daddy?”
“Well, I don’t know that it’s right to make everything so easy for a
person.”
“It surely depends upon the person. When the person’s good, your
making things easy is all to the credit of virtue. To facilitate the
execution of good impulses, what can be a nobler act?”
This was a little difficult to follow, and Mr. Touchett considered it
for a while. At last he said: “Isabel’s a sweet young thing; but do you
think she’s so good as that?”
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“She’s as good as her best opportunities,” Ralph returned.
“Well,” Mr. Touchett declared, “she ought to get a great many
opportunities for sixty thousand pounds.”
“I’ve no doubt she will.”
“Of course I’ll do what you want,” said the old man. “I only want
to understand it a little.”
“Well, dear daddy, don’t you understand it now?” his son caressingly asked. “If you don’t we won’t take any more trouble about it.
We’ll leave it alone.”
Mr. Touchett lay a long time still. Ralph supposed he had given
up the attempt to follow. But at last, quite lucidly, he began again.
“Tell me this first. Doesn’t it occur to you that a young lady with
sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?”
“She’ll hardly fall a victim to more than one.”
“Well, one’s too many.”
“Decidedly. That’s a risk, and it has entered into my calculation. I
think it’s appreciable, but I think it’s small, and I’m prepared to take it.”
Poor Mr. Touchett’s acuteness had passed into perplexity, and his
perplexity now passed into admiration. “Well, you have gone into
it!” he repeated. “But I don’t see what good you’re to get of it.”
Ralph leaned over his father’s pillows and gently smoothed them;
he was aware their talk had been unduly prolonged. “I shall get just
the good I said a few moments ago I wished to put into Isabel’s
reach—that of having met the requirements of my imagination.
But it’s scandalous, the way I’ve taken advantage of you!”
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CHAPTER XIX
AS MRS. TOUCHETT had foretold, Isabel and Madame Merle were
thrown much together during the illness of their host, so that if
they had not become intimate it would have been almost a breach
of good manners. Their manners were of the best, but in addition
to this they happened to please each other. It is perhaps too much to
say that they swore an eternal friendship, but tacitly at least they
called the future to witness. Isabel did so with a perfectly good conscience, though she would have hesitated to admit she was intimate
with her new friend in the high sense she privately attached to this
term. She often wondered indeed if she ever had been, or ever could
be, intimate with any one. She had an ideal of friendship as well as
of several other sentiments, which it failed to seem to her in this
case—it had not seemed to her in other cases—that the actual completely expressed. But she often reminded herself that there were
essential reasons why one’s ideal could never become concrete. It
was a thing to believe in, not to see—a matter of faith, not of experience. Experience, however, might supply us with very creditable
imitations of it, and the part of wisdom was to make the best of
these. Certainly, on the whole, Isabel had never encountered a more
agreeable and interesting figure than Madame Merle; she had never
met a person having less of that fault which is the principal obstacle
to friendship—the air of reproducing the more tiresome, the stale,
the too-familiar parts of one’s own character. The gates of the girl’s
confidence were opened wider than they had ever been; she said
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things to this amiable auditress that she had not yet said to any one.
Sometimes she took alarm at her candour: it was as if she had given
to a comparative stranger the key to her cabinet of jewels. These
spiritual gems were the only ones of any magnitude that Isabel possessed, but there was all the greater reason for their being carefully
guarded. Afterwards, however, she always remembered that one
should never regret a generous error and that if Madame Merle had
not the merits she attributed to her, so much the worse for Madame
Merle. There was no doubt she had great merits—she was charming, sympathetic, intelligent, cultivated. More than this (for it had
not been Isabel’s ill-fortune to go through life without meeting in
her own sex several persons of whom no less could fairly be said),
she was rare, superior and preeminent. There are many amiable
people in the world, and Madame Merle was far from being vulgarly good-natured and restlessly witty. She knew how to think—
an accomplishment rare in women; and she had thought to very
good purpose. Of course, too, she knew how to feel; Isabel couldn’t
have spent a week with her without being sure of that. This was
indeed Madame Merle’s great talent, her most perfect gift. Life had
told upon her; she had felt it strongly, and it was part of the satisfaction to be taken in her society that when the girl talked of what she
was pleased to call serious matters this lady understood her so seasily
and quickly. Emotion, it is true, had become with her rather historic; she made no secret of the fact that the fount of passion, thanks
to having been rather violently tapped at one period, didn’t flow
quite so freely as of yore. She proposed moreover, as well as expected, to cease feeling; she freely admitted that of old she had been
a little mad, and now she pretended to be perfectly sane.
“I judge more than I used to,” she said to Isabel, “but it seems to
me one has earned the right. One can’t judge till one’s forty; before
that we’re too eager, too hard, too cruel, and in addition much too
ignorant. I’m sorry for you; it will be a long time before you’re forty.
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But every gain’s a loss of some kind; I often think that after forty
one can’t really feel. The freshness, the quickness have certainly gone.
You’ll keep them longer than most people; it will be a great satisfaction to me to see you some years hence. I want to see what life
makes of you. One thing’s certain—it can’t spoil you. It may pull
you about horribly, but I defy it to break you up.”
Isabel received this assurance as a young soldier, still panting from
a slight skirmish in which he has come off with honour, might receive a pat on the shoulder from his colonel. Like such a recognition of merit it seemed to come with authority. How could the lightest word do less on the part of a person who was prepared to say, of
almost everything Isabel told her, “Oh, I’ve been in that, my dear; it
passes, like everything else.” On many of her interlocutors Madame
Merle might have produced an irritating effect; it was disconcertingly difficult to surprise her. But Isabel, though by no means incapable of desiring to be effective, had not at present this impulse. She
was too sincere, too interested in her judicious companion. And
then moreover Madame Merle never said such things in the tone of
triumph or of boastfulness; they dropped from her like cold confessions.
A period of bad weather had settled upon Gardencourt; the days
grew shorter and there was an end to the pretty tea-parties on the
lawn. But our young woman had long indoor conversations with
her fellow visitor, and in spite of the rain the two ladies often sallied
forth for a walk, equipped with the defensive apparatus which the
English climate and the English genius have between them brought
to such perfection. Madame Merle liked almost everything, including the English rain. “There’s always a little of it and never too
much at once,” she said; “and it never wets you and it always smells
good.” She declared that in England the pleasures of smell were
great—that in this inimitable island there was a certain mixture of
fog and beer and soot which, however odd it might sound, was the
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national aroma, and was most agreeable to the nostril; and she used
to lift the sleeve of her British overcoat and bury her nose in it,
inhaling the clear, fine scent of the wool. Poor Ralph Touchett, as
soon as the autumn had begun to define itself, became almost a
prisoner; in bad weather he was unable to step out of the house, and
he used sometimes to stand at one of the windows with his hands in
his pockets and, from a countenance half-rueful, half-critical, watch
Isabel and Madame Merle as they walked down the avenue under a
pair of umbrellas. The roads about Gardencourt were so firm, even
in the worst weather, that the two ladies always came back with a
healthy glow in their cheeks, looking at the soles of their neat, stout
boots and declaring that their walk had done them inexpressible
good. Before luncheon, always, Madame Merle was engaged; Isabel
admired and envied her rigid possession of her morning. Our heroine had always passed for a person of resources and had taken a
certain pride in being one; but she wandered, as by the wrong side
of the wall of a private garden, round the enclosed talents, accomplishments, aptitudes of Madame Merle. She found herself desiring
to emulate them, and in twenty such ways this lady presented herself as a model. “I should like awfully to be so!” Isabel secretly exclaimed, more than once, as one after another of her friend’s fine
aspects caught the light, and before long she knew that she had
learned a lesson from a high authority. It took no great time indeed
for her to feel herself, as the phrase is, under an influence. “What’s
the harm,” she wondered, “so long as it’s a good one? The more
one’s under a good influence the better. The only thing is to see our
steps as we take them—to understand them as we go. That, no
doubt, I shall always do. I needn’t be afraid of becoming too pliable;
isn’t it my fault that I’m not pliable enough?” It is said that imitation is the sincerest flattery; and if Isabel was sometimes moved to
gape at her friend aspiringly and despairingly it was not so much
because she desired herself to shine as because she wished to hold
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up the lamp for Madame Merle. She liked her extremely, but was
even more dazzled than attracted. She sometimes asked herself what
Henrietta Stackpole would say to her thinking so much of this perverted product of their common soil, and had a conviction that it
would be severely judged. Henrietta would not at all subscribe to
Madame Merle; for reasons she could not have defined this truth
came home to the girl. On the other hand she was equally sure that,
should the occasion offer, her new friend would strike off some happy
view of her old: Madame Merle was too humorous, too observant,
not to do justice to Henrietta, and on becoming acquainted with
her would probably give the measure of a tact which Miss Stackpole
couldn’t hope to emulate. She appeared to have in her experience a
touchstone for everything, and somewhere in the capacious pocket
of her genial memory she would find the key to Henrietta’s value.
“That’s the great thing,” Isabel solemnly pondered; “that’s the supreme good fortune: to be in a better position for appreciating people
than they are for appreciating you.” And she added that such, when
one considered it, was simply the essence of the aristocratic situation. In this light, if in none other, one should aim at the aristocratic situation.
I may not count over all the links in the chain which led Isabel to
think of Madame Merle’s situation as aristocratic—a view of it never
expressed in any reference made to it by that lady herself. She had
known great things and great people, but she had never played a
great part. She was one of the small ones of the earth; she had not
been born to honours; she knew the world too well to nourish fatuous illusions on the article of her own place in it. She had encountered many of the fortunate few and was perfectly aware of those
points at which their fortune differed from hers. But if by her informed measure she was no figure for a high scene, she had yet to
Isabel’s imagination a sort of greatness. To be so cultivated and
civilised, so wise and so easy, and still make so light of it—that was
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really to be a great lady, especially when one so carried and presented one’s self. It was as if somehow she had all society under
contribution, and all the arts and graces it practised—or was the
effect rather that of charming uses found for her, even from a distance, subtle service rendered by her to a clamorous world wherever
she might be? After breakfast she wrote a succession of letters, as
those arriving for her appeared innumerable: her correspondence
was a source of surprise to Isabel when they sometimes walked together to the village post-office to deposit Madame Merle’s offering
to the mail. She knew more people, as she told Isabel, than she
knew what to do with, and something was always turning up to be
written about. Of painting she was devotedly fond, and made no
more of brushing in a sketch than of pulling off her gloves. At
Gardencourt she was perpetually taking advantage of an hour’s sunshine to go out with a camp-stool and a box of water-colours. That
she was a brave musician we have already perceived, and it was evidence of the fact that when she seated herself at the piano, as she
always did in the evening, her listeners resigned themselves without
a murmur to losing the grace of her talk. Isabel, since she had known
her, felt ashamed of her own facility, which she now looked upon as
basely inferior; and indeed, though she had been thought rather a
prodigy at home, the loss to society when, in taking her place upon
the music-stool, she turned her back to the room, was usually deemed
greater than the gain. When Madame Merle was neither writing,
nor painting, nor touching the piano, she was usually employed
upon wonderful tasks of rich embroidery, cushions, curtains, decorations for the chimneypiece; an art in which her bold, free invention was as noted as the agility of her needle. She was never idle, for
when engaged in none of the ways I have mentioned she was either
reading (she appeared to Isabel to read “everything important”), or
walking out, or playing patience with the cards, or talking with her
fellow inmates. And with all this she had always the social quality,
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was never rudely absent and yet never too seated. She laid down her
pastimes as easily as she took them up; she worked and talked at the
same time, and appeared to impute scant worth to anything she
did. She gave away her sketches and tapestries; she rose from the
piano or remained there, according to the convenience of her auditors, which she always unerringly divined. She was in short the most
comfortable, profitable, amenable person to live with. If for Isabel
she had a fault it was that she was not natural; by which the girl
meant, not that she was either affected or pretentious, since from
these vulgar vices no woman could have been more exempt, but
that her nature had been too much overlaid by custom and her
angles too much rubbed away. She had become too flexible, too
useful, was too ripe and too final. She was in a word too perfectly
the social animal that man and woman are supposed to have been
intended to be; and she had rid herself of every remnant of that
tonic wildness which we may assume to have belonged even to the
most amiable persons in the ages before country-house life was the
fashion. Isabel found it difficult to think of her in any detachment
or privacy, she existed only in her relations, direct or indirect, with
her fellow mortals. One might wonder what commerce she could
possibly hold with her own spirit. One always ended, however, by
feeling that a charming surface doesn’t necessarily prove one superficial; this was an illusion in which, in one’s youth, one had but just
escaped being nourished. Madame Merle was not superficial—not
she. She was deep, and her nature spoke none the less in her behaviour
because it spoke a conventional tongue. “What’s language at all but
a convention?” said Isabel. “She has the good taste not to pretend,
like some people I’ve met, to express herself by original signs.”
“I’m afraid you’ve suffered much,” she once found occasion to say
to her friend in response to some allusion that had appeared to reach
far.
“What makes you think that?” Madame Merle asked with the
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amused smile of a person seated at a game of guesses. “I hope I
haven’t too much the droop of the misunderstood.”
“No; but you sometimes say things that I think people who have
always been happy wouldn’t have found out.”
“I haven’t always been happy,” said Madame Merle, smiling still,
but with a mock gravity, as if she were telling a child a secret. “Such
a wonderful thing!”
But Isabel rose to the irony. “A great many people give me the
impression of never having for a moment felt anything.”
“It’s very true; there are many more iron pots certainly than porcelain. But you may depend on it that every one bears some mark;
even the hardest iron pots have a little bruise, a little hole somewhere. I flatter myself that I’m rather stout, but if I must tell you the
truth I’ve been shockingly chipped and cracked. I do very well for
service yet, because I’ve been cleverly mended; and I try to remain
in the cupboard—the quiet, dusky cupboard where there’s an odour
of stale spices—as much as I can. But when I’ve to come out and
into a strong light—then, my dear, I’m a horror!”
I know not whether it was on this occasion or on some other that
the conversation had taken the turn I have just indicated she said to
Isabel that she would some day a tale unfold. Isabel assured her she
should delight to listen to one, and reminded her more than once of
this engagement. Madame Merle, however, begged repeatedly for a
respite, and at last frankly told her young companion that they must
wait till they knew each other better. This would be sure to happen,
a long friendship so visibly lay before them. Isabel assented, but at
the same time enquired if she mightn’t be trusted—if she appeared
capable of a betrayal of confidence.
“It’s not that I’m afraid of your repeating what I say,” her fellow
visitor answered; “I’m afraid, on the contrary, of your taking it too
much to yourself. You’d judge me too harshly; you’re of the cruel
age.” She preferred for the present to talk to Isabel of Isabel, and
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exhibited the greatest interest in our heroine’s history, sentiments,
opinions, prospects. She made her chatter and listened to her chatter with infinite good nature. This flattered and quickened the girl,
who was struck with all the distinguished people her friend had
known and with her having lived, as Mrs. Touchett said, in the best
company in Europe. Isabel thought the better of herself for enjoying the favour of a person who had so large a field of comparison;
and it was perhaps partly to gratify the sense of profiting by comparison that she often appealed to these stores of reminiscence.
Madame Merle had been a dweller in many lands and had social
ties in a dozen different countries. “I don’t pretend to be educated,”
she would say, “but I think I know my Europe;” and she spoke one
day of going to Sweden to stay with an old friend, and another of
proceeding to Malta to follow up a new acquaintance. With England, where she had often dwelt, she was thoroughly familiar, and
for Isabel’s benefit threw a great deal of light upon the customs of
the country and the character of the people, who “after all,” as she
was fond of saying, were the most convenient in the world to live
with.
“You mustn’t think it strange her remaining here at such a time as
this, when Mr. Touchett’s passing away,” that gentleman’s wife remarked to her niece. “She is incapable of a mistake; she’s the most
tactful woman I know. It’s a favour to me that she stays; she’s putting off a lot of visits at great houses,” said Mrs. Touchett, who
never forgot that when she herself was in England her social value
sank two or three degrees in the scale. “She has her pick of places;
she’s not in want of a shelter. But I’ve asked her to put in this time
because I wish you to know her. I think it will be a good thing for
you. Serena Merle hasn’t a fault.”
“If I didn’t already like her very much that description might alarm
me,” Isabel returned.
“She’s never the least little bit ‘off.’ I’ve brought you out here and
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I wish to do the best for you. Your sister Lily told me she hoped I
would give you plenty of opportunities. I give you one in putting
you in relation with Madame Merle. She’s one of the most brilliant
women in Europe.”
“I like her better than I like your description of her,” Isabel persisted in saying.
“Do you flatter yourself that you’ll ever feel her open to criticism?
I hope you’ll let me know when you do.”
“That will be cruel—to you,” said Isabel.
“You needn’t mind me. You won’t discover a fault in her.”
“Perhaps not. But I dare say I shan’t miss it.”
“She knows absolutely everything on earth there is to know,” said
Mrs. Touchett.
Isabel after this observed to their companion that she hoped she
knew Mrs. Touchett considered she hadn’t a speck on her perfection. On which “I’m obliged to you,” Madame Merle replied, “but
I’m afraid your aunt imagines, or at least alludes to, no aberrations
that the clock-face doesn’t register.”
“So that you mean you’ve a wild side that’s unknown to her?”
“Ah no, I fear my darkest sides are my tamest. I mean that having
no faults, for your aunt, means that one’s never late for dinner —
that is for her dinner. I was not late, by the way, the other day, when
you came back from London; the clock was just at eight when I
came into the drawing-room: it was the rest of you that were before
the time. It means that one answers a letter the day one gets it and
that when one comes to stay with her one doesn’t bring too much
luggage and is careful not to be taken ill. For Mrs. Touchett those
things constitute virtue; it’s a blessing to be able to reduce it to its
elements.”
Madame Merle’s own conversation, it will be perceived, was enriched with bold, free touches of criticism, which, even when they
had a restrictive effect, never struck Isabel as ill-natured. It couldn’t
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occur to the girl for instance that Mrs. Touchett’s accomplished guest
was abusing her; and this for very good reasons. In the first place
Isabel rose eagerly to the sense of her shades; in the second Madame
Merle implied that there was a great deal more to say; and it was
clear in the third that for a person to speak to one without ceremony of one’s near relations was an agreeable sign of that person’s
intimacy with one’s self. These signs of deep communion multiplied as the days elapsed, and there was none of which Isabel was
more sensible than of her companion’s preference for making Miss
Archer herself a topic. Though she referred frequently to the incidents of her own career she never lingered upon them; she was as
little of a gross egotist as she was of a flat gossip.
“I’m old and stale and faded,” she said more than once; “I’m of no
more interest than last week’s newspaper. You’re young and fresh
and of to-day; you’ve the great thing—you’ve actuality. I once had
it—we all have it for an hour. You, however, will have it for longer.
Let us talk about you then; you can say nothing I shall not care to
hear. It’s a sign that I’m growing old—that I like to talk with younger
people. I think it’s a very pretty compensation. If we can’t have youth
within us we can have it outside, and I really think we see it and feel
it better that way. Of course we must be in sympathy with it—that
I shall always be. I don’t know that I shall ever be ill-natured with
old people—I hope not; there are certainly some old people I adore.
But I shall never be anything but abject with the young; they touch
me and appeal to me too much. I give you carte blanche then; you
can even be impertinent if you like; I shall let it pass and horribly
spoil you. I speak as if I were a hundred years old, you say? Well, I
am, if you please; I was born before the French Revolution. Ah, my
dear, je viens de loin; I belong to the old, old world. But it’s not of
that I want to talk; I want to talk about the new. You must tell me
more about America; you never tell me enough. Here I’ve been since
I was brought here as a helpless child, and it’s ridiculous, or rather
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it’s scandalous, how little I know about that splendid, dreadful, funny
country—surely the greatest and drollest of them all. There are a
great many of us like that in these parts, and I must say I think we’re
a wretched set of people. You should live in your own land; whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we’re not good
Americans we’re certainly poor Europeans; we’ve no natural place
here. We’re mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our
feet in the soil. At least one can know it and not have illusions. A
woman perhaps can get on; a woman, it seems to me, has no natural
place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the
surface and, more or less, to crawl. You protest, my dear? you’re
horrified? you declare you’ll never crawl? It’s very true that I don’t
see you crawling; you stand more upright than a good many poor
creatures. Very good; on the whole, I don’t think you’ll crawl. But
the men, the Americans; je vous demande un peu, what do they
make of it over here? I don’t envy them trying to arrange themselves. Look at poor Ralph Touchett: what sort of a figure do you
call that? Fortunately he has a consumption; I say fortunately, because it gives him something to do. His consumption’s his carriere
it’s a kind of position. You can say: ‘Oh, Mr. Touchett, he takes care
of his lungs, he knows a great deal about climates.’ But without that
who would he be, what would he represent? ‘Mr. Ralph Touchett:
an American who lives in Europe.’ That signifies absolutely nothing—it’s impossible anything should signify less. ‘He’s very cultivated,’ they say: ‘he has a very pretty collection of old snuff-boxes.’
The collection is all that’s wanted to make it pitiful. I’m tired of the
sound of the word; I think it’s grotesque. With the poor old father
it’s different; he has his identity, and it’s rather a massive one. He
represents a great financial house, and that, in our day, is as good as
anything else. For an American, at any rate, that will do very well.
But I persist in thinking your cousin very lucky to have a chronic
malady so long as he doesn’t die of it. It’s much better than the
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snuffboxes. If he weren’t ill, you say, he’d do something?—he’d take
his father’s place in the house. My poor child, I doubt it; I don’t
think he’s at all fond of the house. However, you know him better
than I, though I used to know him rather well, and he may have the
benefit of the doubt. The worst case, I think, is a friend of mine, a
countryman of ours, who lives in Italy (where he also was brought
before he knew better), and who is one of the most delightful men
I know. Some day you must know him. I’ll bring you together and
then you’ll see what I mean. He’s Gilbert Osmond—he lives in Italy;
that’s all one can say about him or make of him. He’s exceedingly
clever, a man made to be distinguished; but, as I tell you, you exhaust the description when you say he’s Mr. Osmond who lives tout
betement in Italy. No career, no name, no position, no fortune, no
past, no future, no anything. Oh yes, he paints, if you please—
paints in water-colours; like me, only better than I. His painting’s
pretty bad; on the whole I’m rather glad of that. Fortunately he’s
very indolent, so indolent that it amounts to a sort of position. He
can say, ‘Oh, I do nothing; I’m too deadly lazy. You can do nothing
to-day unless you get up at five o’clock in the morning.’ In that way
he becomes a sort of exception; you feel he might do something if
he’d only rise early. He never speaks of his painting to people at
large; he’s too clever for that. But he has a little girl—a dear little
girl; he does speak of her. He’s devoted to her, and if it were a career
to be an excellent father he’d be very distinguished. But I’m afraid
that’s no better than the snuff-boxes; perhaps not even so good. Tell
me what they do in America,” pursued Madame Merle, who, it
must be observed parenthetically, did not deliver herself all at once
of these reflexions, which are presented in a cluster for the convenience of the reader. She talked of Florence, where Mr. Osmond
lived and where Mrs. Touchett occupied a medieval palace; she talked
of Rome, where she herself had a little pied-a-terre with some rather
good old damask. She talked of places, of people and even, as the
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phrase is, of “subjects”; and from time to time she talked of their
kind old host and of the prospect of his recovery. From the first she
had thought this prospect small, and Isabel had been struck with
the positive, discriminating, competent way in which she took the
measure of his remainder of life. One evening she announced definitely that he wouldn’t live.
“Sir Matthew Hope told me so as plainly as was proper,” she said;
“standing there, near the fire, before dinner. He makes himself very
agreeable, the great doctor. I don’t mean his saying that has anything to do with it. But he says such things with great tact. I had
told him I felt ill at my ease, staying here at such a time; it seemed to
me so indiscreet—it wasn’t as if I could nurse. ‘You must remain,
you must remain,’ he answered; ‘your office will come later.’ Wasn’t
that a very delicate way of saying both that poor Mr. Touchett would
go and that I might be of some use as a consoler? In fact, however, I
shall not be of the slightest use. Your aunt will console herself; she,
and she alone, knows just how much consolation she’ll require. It
would be a very delicate matter for another person to undertake to
administer the dose. With your cousin it will be different; he’ll miss
his father immensely. But I should never presume to condole with
Mr. Ralph; we’re not on those terms.” Madame Merle had alluded
more than once to some undefined incongruity in her relations with
Ralph Touchett; so Isabel took this occasion of asking her if they
were not good friends.
“Perfectly, but he doesn’t like me.”
“What have you done to him?”
“Nothing whatever. But one has no need of a reason for that.”
“For not liking you? I think one has need of a very good reason.”
“You’re very kind. Be sure you have one ready for the day you
begin.”
“Begin to dislike you? I shall never begin.”
“I hope not; because if you do you’ll never end. That’s the way
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with your cousin; he doesn’t get over it. It’s an antipathy of nature—
if I can call it that when it’s all on his side. I’ve nothing whatever
against him and don’t bear him the least little grudge for not doing
me justice. Justice is all I want. However, one feels that he’s a gentleman and would never say anything underhand about one. Cartes
sur table,” Madame Merle subjoined in a moment, “I’m not afraid
of him.”
“I hope not indeed,” said Isabel, who added something about his
being the kindest creature living. She remembered, however, that
on her first asking him about Madame Merle he had answered her
in a manner which this lady might have thought injurious without
being explicit. There was something between them, Isabel said to
herself, but she said nothing more than this. If it were something of
importance it should inspire respect; if it were not it was not worth
her curiosity. With all her love of knowledge she had a natural shrinking from raising curtains and looking into unlighted corners. The
love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with the finest capacity for
ignorance.
But Madame Merle sometimes said things that startled her, made
her raise her clear eyebrows at the time and think of the words afterwards. “I’d give a great deal to be your age again,” she broke out
once with a bitterness which, though diluted in her customary amplitude of ease, was imperfectly disguised by it. “If I could only
begin again—if I could have my life before me!”
“Your life’s before you yet,” Isabel answered gently, for she was
vaguely awe-struck.
“No; the best part’s gone, and gone for nothing.”
“Surely not for nothing,” said Isabel.
“Why not—what have I got? Neither husband, nor child, nor
fortune, nor position, nor the traces of a beauty that I never had.”
“You have many friends, dear lady.”
“I’m not so sure!” cried Madame Merle.
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“Ah, you’re wrong. You have memories, graces, talents—”
But Madame Merle interrupted her. “What have my talents
brought me? Nothing but the need of using them still, to get through
the hours, the years, to cheat myself with some pretence of movement, of unconsciousness. As for my graces and memories the less
said about them the better. You’ll be my friend till you find a better
use for your friendship.”
“It will be for you to see that I don’t then,” said Isabel.
“Yes; I would make an effort to keep you.” And her companion
looked at her gravely. “When I say I should like to be your age I
mean with your qualities—frank, generous, sincere like you. In that
case I should have made something better of my life.”
“What should you have liked to do that you’ve not done?”
Madame Merle took a sheet of music—she was seated at the piano and had abruptly wheeled about on the stool when she first
spoke —and mechanically turned the leaves. “I’m very ambitious!”
she at last replied.
“And your ambitions have not been satisfied? They must have
been great.”
“They were great. I should make myself ridiculous by talking of
them.”
Isabel wondered what they could have been—whether Madame
Merle had aspired to wear a crown. “I don’t know what your idea of
success may be, but you seem to me to have been successful. To me
indeed you’re a vivid image of success.”
Madame Merle tossed away the music with a smile. “What’s your
idea of success?”
“You evidently think it must be a very tame one. It’s to see some
dream of one’s youth come true.”
“Ah,” Madame Merle exclaimed, “that I’ve never seen! But my
dreams were so great—so preposterous. Heaven forgive me, I’m
dreaming now!” And she turned back to the piano and began grandly
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to play. On the morrow she said to Isabel that her definition of
success had been very pretty, yet frightfully sad. Measured in that
way, who had ever succeeded? The dreams of one’s youth, why they
were enchanting, they were divine! Who had ever seen such things
come to pass?
“I myself—a few of them,” Isabel ventured to answer.
“Already? They must have been dreams of yesterday.”
“I began to dream very young,” Isabel smiled.
“Ah, if you mean the aspirations of your childhood—that of having a pink sash and a doll that could close her eyes.”
“No, I don’t mean that.”
“Or a young man with a fine moustache going down on his knees
to you.”
“No, nor that either,” Isabel declared with still more emphasis.
Madame Merle appeared to note this eagerness. “I suspect that’s
what you do mean. We’ve all had the young man with the moustache. He’s the inevitable young man; he doesn’t count.”
Isabel was silent a little but then spoke with extreme and characteristic inconsequence. “Why shouldn’t he count? There are young
men and young men.”
“And yours was a paragon—is that what you mean?” asked her
friend with a laugh. “If you’ve had the identical young man you
dreamed of, then that was success, and I congratulate you with all
my heart. Only in that case why didn’t you fly with him to his castle
in the Apennines?”
“He has no castle in the Apennines.”
“What has he? An ugly brick house in Fortieth Street? Don’t tell
me that; I refuse to recognise that as an ideal.”
“I don’t care anything about his house,” said Isabel.
“That’s very crude of you. When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see
that every human being has his shell and that you must take the
shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of cir248
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cumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman;
we’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What
shall we call our ‘self ’? Where does it begin? where does it end? It
overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back
again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to
wear. I’ve a great respect for things! One’s self—for other people—is
one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s
garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things
are all expressive.”
This was very metaphysical; not more so, however, than several
observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of
metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this bold
analysis of the human personality. “I don’t agree with you. I think
just the other way. I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing
myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that
belongs to me is any measure of me; everything’s on the contrary a
limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes
which, as you say, I choose to wear, don’t express me; and heaven
forbid they should!”
“You dress very well,” Madame Merle lightly interposed.
“Possibly; but I don’t care to be judged by that. My clothes may
express the dressmaker, but they don’t express me. To begin with it’s
not my own choice that I wear them; they’re imposed upon me by
society.”
“Should you prefer to go without them?” Madame Merle enquired in a
tone which virtually terminated the discussion.
I am bound to confess, though it may cast some discredit on the
sketch I have given of the youthful loyalty practised by our heroine
toward this accomplished woman, that Isabel had said nothing
whatever to her about Lord Warburton and had been equally reticent on the subject of Caspar Goodwood. She had not, however,
concealed the fact that she had had opportunities of marrying and
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had even let her friend know of how advantageous a kind they had
been. Lord Warburton had left Lockleigh and was gone to Scotland, taking his sisters with him; and though he had written to Ralph
more than once to ask about Mr. Touchett’s health the girl was not
liable to the embarrassment of such enquiries as, had he still been in
the neighbourhood, he would probably have felt bound to make in
person. He had excellent ways, but she felt sure that if he had come
to Gardencourt he would have seen Madame Merle, and that if he
had seen her he would have liked her and betrayed to her that he
was in love with her young friend. It so happened that during this
lady’s previous visits to Gardencourt—each of them much shorter
than the present—he had either not been at Lockleigh or had not
called at Mr. Touchett’s. Therefore, though she knew him by name
as the great man of that county, she had no cause to suspect him as
a suitor of Mrs. Touchett’s freshly-imported niece.
“You’ve plenty of time,” she had said to Isabel in return for the
mutilated confidences which our young woman made her and which
didn’t pretend to be perfect, though we have seen that at moments
the girl had compunctions at having said so much. “I’m glad you’ve
done nothing yet—that you have it still to do. It’s a very good thing
for a girl to have refused a few good offers—so long of course as
they are not the best she’s likely to have. Pardon me if my tone
seems horribly corrupt; one must take the worldly view sometimes.
Only don’t keep on refusing for the sake of refusing. It’s a pleasant
exercise of power; but accepting’s after all an exercise of power as
well. There’s always the danger of refusing once too often. It was
not the one I fell into—I didn’t refuse often enough. You’re an exquisite creature, and I should like to see you married to a prime
minister. But speaking strictly, you know, you’re not what is technically called a parti. You’re extremely good-looking and extremely
clever; in yourself you’re quite exceptional. You appear to have the
vaguest ideas about your earthly possessions; but from what I can
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make out you’re not embarrassed with an income. I wish you had a
little money.”
“I wish I had!” said Isabel, simply, apparently forgetting for the
moment that her poverty had been a venial fault for two gallant
gentlemen.
In spite of Sir Matthew Hope’s benevolent recommendation Madame Merle did not remain to the end, as the issue of poor Mr.
Touchett’s malady had now come frankly to be designated. She was
under pledges to other people which had at last to be redeemed,
and she left Gardencourt with the understanding that she should in
any event see Mrs. Touchett there again, or else in town, before
quitting England. Her parting with Isabel was even more like the
beginning of a friendship than their meeting had been. “I’m going
to six places in succession, but I shall see no one I like so well as you.
They’ll all be old friends, however; one doesn’t make new friends at
my age. I’ve made a great exception for you. You must remember
that and must think as well of me as possible. You must reward me
by believing in me.”
By way of answer Isabel kissed her, and, though some women kiss
with facility, there are kisses and kisses, and this embrace was satisfactory to Madame Merle. Our young lady, after this, was much
alone; she saw her aunt and cousin only at meals, and discovered
that of the hours during which Mrs. Touchett was invisible only a
minor portion was now devoted to nursing her husband. She spent
the rest in her own apartments, to which access was not allowed
even to her niece, apparently occupied there with mysterious and
inscrutable exercises. At table she was grave and silent; but her solemnity was not an attitude—Isabel could see it was a conviction.
She wondered if her aunt repented of having taken her own way so
much; but there was no visible evidence of this—no tears, no sighs,
no exaggeration of a zeal always to its own sense adequate. Mrs.
Touchett seemed simply to feel the need of thinking things over
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and summing them up; she had a little moral account-book—with
columns unerringly ruled and a sharp steel clasp—which she kept
with exemplary neatness. Uttered reflection had with her ever, at
any rate, a practical ring. “If I had foreseen this I’d not have proposed your coming abroad now,” she said to Isabel after Madame
Merle had left the house. “I’d have waited and sent for you next
year.”
“So that perhaps I should never have known my uncle? It’s a great
happiness to me to have come now.”
“That’s very well. But it was not that you might know your uncle
that I brought you to Europe.” A perfectly veracious speech; but, as
Isabel thought, not as perfectly timed. She had leisure to think of
this and other matters. She took a solitary walk every day and spent
vague hours in turning over books in the library. Among the subjects that engaged her attention were the adventures of her friend
Miss Stackpole, with whom she was in regular correspondence. Isabel
liked her friend’s private epistolary style better than her public; that
is she felt her public letters would have been excellent if they had
not been printed. Henrietta’s career, however, was not so successful
as might have been wished even in the interest of her private felicity; that view of the inner life of Great Britain which she was so
eager to take appeared to dance before her like an ignis fatuus. The
invitation from Lady Pensil, for mysterious reasons, had never arrived; and poor Mr. Bantling himself, with all his friendly ingenuity, had been unable to explain so grave a dereliction on the part of
a missive that had obviously been sent. He had evidently taken
Henrietta’s affairs much to heart, and believed that he owed her a
set-off to this illusory visit to Bedfordshire. “He says he should think
I would go to the Continent,” Henrietta wrote; “and as he thinks of
going there himself I suppose his advice is sincere. He wants to
know why I don’t take a view of French life; and it’s a fact that I
want very much to see the new Republic. Mr. Bantling doesn’t care
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much about the Republic, but he thinks of going over to Paris anyway. I must say he’s quite as attentive as I could wish, and at least I
shall have seen one polite Englishman. I keep telling Mr. Bantling
that he ought to have been an American, and you should see how
that pleases him. Whenever I say so he always breaks out with the
same exclamation—’Ah, but really, come now!” A few days later she
wrote that she had decided to go to Paris at the end of the week and
that Mr. Banding had promised to see her off—perhaps even would
go as far as Dover with her. She would wait in Paris till Isabel should
arrive, Henrietta added; speaking quite as if Isabel were to start on
her continental journey alone and making no allusion to Mrs.
Touchett. Bearing in mind his interest in their late companion, our
heroine communicated several passages from this correspondence
to Ralph, who followed with an emotion akin to suspense the career
of the representative of the sInterviewer.
“It seems to me she’s doing very well,” he said, “going over to
Paris with an ex-Lancer! If she wants something to write about she
has only to describe that episode.”
“It’s not conventional, certainly,” Isabel answered; “but if you mean
that—as far as Henrietta is concerned—it’s not perfectly innocent,
you’re very much mistaken. You’ll never understand Henrietta.”
“Pardon me, I understand her perfectly. I didn’t at all at first, but
now I’ve the point of view. I’m afraid, however, that Bantling hasn’t;
he may have some surprises. Oh, I understand Henrietta as well as
if I had made her!”
Isabel was by no means sure of this, but she abstained from expressing further doubt, for she was disposed in these days to extend
a great charity to her cousin. One afternoon less than a week after
Madame Merle’s departure she was seated in the library with a volume to which her attention was not fastened. She had placed herself in a deep window-bench, from which she looked out into the
dull, damp park; and as the library stood at right angles to the en253
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trance-front of the house she could see the doctor’s brougham, which
had been waiting for the last two hours before the door. She was
struck with his remaining so long, but at last she saw him appear in
the portico, stand a moment slowly drawing on his gloves and looking at the knees of his horse, and then get into the vehicle and roll
away. Isabel kept her place for half an hour; there was a great stillness in the house. It was so great that when she at last heard a soft,
slow step on the deep carpet of the room she was almost startled by
the sound. She turned quickly away from the window and saw Ralph
Touchett standing there with his hands still in his pockets, but with
a face absolutely void of its usual latent smile. She got up and her
movement and glance were a question.
“It’s all over,” said Ralph.
“Do you mean that my uncle…?” And Isabel stopped.
“My dear father died an hour ago.”
“Ah, my poor Ralph!” she gently wailed, putting out her two hands
to him.
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CHAPTER XX
SOME FORTNIGHT after this Madame Merle drove up in a hansom
cab to the house in Winchester Square. As she descended from her
vehicle she observed, suspended between the dining-room windows,
a large, neat, wooden tablet, on whose fresh black ground were inscribed in white paint the words—“This noble freehold mansion to
be sold”; with the name of the agent to whom application should be
made. “They certainly lose no time,” said the visitor as, after sounding the big brass knocker, she waited to be admitted; “it’s a practical
country!” And within the house, as she ascended to the drawingroom, she perceived numerous signs of abdication; pictures removed
from the walls and placed upon sofas, windows undraped and floors
laid bare. Mrs. Touchett presently received her and intimated in a
few words that condolences might be taken for granted.
“I know what you’re going to say—he was a very good man. But I
know it better than any one, because I gave him more chance to show
it. In that I think I was a good wife.” Mrs. Touchett added that at the
end her husband apparently recognised this fact. “He has treated me
most liberally,” she said; “I won’t say more liberally than I expected,
because I didn’t expect. You know that as a general thing I don’t expect. But he chose, I presume, to recognise the fact that though I
lived much abroad and mingled—you may say freely—in foreign life,
I never exhibited the smallest preference for any one else.”
“For any one but yourself,” Madame Merle mentally observed;
but the reflexion was perfectly inaudible.
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“I never sacrificed my husband to another,” Mrs. Touchett continued with her stout curtness.
“Oh no,” thought Madame Merle; “you never did anything for
another!”
There was a certain cynicism in these mute comments which demands an explanation; the more so as they are not in accord either
with the view—somewhat superficial perhaps—that we have hitherto enjoyed of Madame Merle’s character or with the literal facts of
Mrs. Touchett’s history; the more so, too, as Madame Merle had a
well-founded conviction that her friend’s last remark was not in the
least to be construed as a side-thrust at herself. The truth is that the
moment she had crossed the threshold she received an impression
that Mr. Touchett’s death had had subtle consequences and that
these consequences had been profitable to a little circle of persons
among whom she was not numbered. Of course it was an event
which would naturally have consequences; her imagination had more
than once rested upon this fact during her stay at Gardencourt. But
it had been one thing to foresee such a matter mentally and another
to stand among its massive records. The idea of a distribution of
property—she would almost have said of spoils—just now pressed
upon her senses and irritated her with a sense of exclusion. I am far
from wishing to picture her as one of the hungry mouths or envious
hearts of the general herd, but we have already learned of her having
desires that had never been satisfied. If she had been questioned,
she would of course have admitted—with a fine proud smile—that
she had not the faintest claim to a share in Mr. Touchett’s relics.
“There was never anything in the world between us,” she would
have said. “There was never that, poor man!”—with a fillip of her
thumb and her third finger. I hasten to add, moreover, that if she
couldn’t at the present moment keep from quite perversely yearning
she was careful not to betray herself. She had after all as much sympathy for Mrs. Touchett’s gains as for her losses.
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“He has left me this house,” the newly-made widow said; “but of
course I shall not live in it; I’ve a much better one in Florence. The
will was opened only three days since, but I’ve already offered the
house for sale. I’ve also a share in the bank; but I don’t yet understand if I’m obliged to leave it there. If not I shall certainly take it
out. Ralph, of course, has Gardencourt; but I’m not sure that he’ll
have means to keep up the place. He’s naturally left very well off,
but his father has given away an immense deal of money; there are
bequests to a string of third cousins in Vermont. Ralph, however, is
very fond of Gardencourt and would be quite capable of living
there—in summer—with a maid-of-all-work and a gardener’s boy.
There’s one remarkable clause in my husband’s will,” Mrs. Touchett
added. “He has left my niece a fortune.”
“A fortune!” Madame Merle softly repeated.
“Isabel steps into something like seventy thousand pounds.” Madame Merle’s hands were clasped in her lap; at this she raised them,
still clasped, and held them a moment against her bosom while her
eyes, a little dilated, fixed themselves on those of her friend. “Ah,”
she cried, “the clever creature!”
Mrs. Touchett gave her a quick look. “What do you mean by
that?”
For an instant Madame Merle’s colour rose and she dropped her eyes.
“It certainly is clever to achieve such results—without an effort!”
“There assuredly was no effort. Don’t call it an achievement.”
Madame Merle was seldom guilty of the awkwardness of retracting what she had said; her wisdom was shown rather in maintaining
it and placing it in a favourable light. “My dear friend, Isabel would
certainly not have had seventy thousand pounds left her if she had
not been the most charming girl in the world. Her charm includes
great cleverness.”
“She never dreamed, I’m sure, of my husband’s doing anything
for her; and I never dreamed of it either, for he never spoke to me of
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his intention,” Mrs. Touchett said. “She had no claim upon him
whatever; it was no great recommendation to him that she was my
niece. Whatever she achieved she achieved unconsciously.”
“Ah,” rejoined Madame Merle, “those are the greatest strokes!”
Mrs. Touchett reserved her opinion. “The girl’s fortunate; I don’t
deny that. But for the present she’s simply stupefied.”
“Do you mean that she doesn’t know what to do with the money?”
“That, I think, she has hardly considered. She doesn’t know what
to think about the matter at all. It has been as if a big gun were
suddenly fired off behind her; she’s feeling herself to see if she be
hurt. It’s but three days since she received a visit from the principal
executor, who came in person, very gallantly, to notify her. He told
me afterwards that when he had made his little speech she suddenly
burst into tears. The money’s to remain in the affairs of the bank,
and she’s to draw the interest.”
Madame Merle shook her head with a wise and now quite benignant smile. “How very delicious! After she has done that two or
three times she’ll get used to it.” Then after a silence, “What does
your son think of it?” she abruptly asked.
“He left England before the will was read—used up by his fatigue
and anxiety and hurrying off to the south. He’s on his way to the
Riviera and I’ve not yet heard from him. But it’s not likely he’ll ever
object to anything done by his father.”
“Didn’t you say his own share had been cut down?”
“Only at his wish. I know that he urged his father to do something for the people in America. He’s not in the least addicted to
looking after number one.”
“It depends upon whom he regards as number one!” said Madame Merle. And she remained thoughtful a moment, her eyes bent
on the floor.
“Am I not to see your happy niece?” she asked at last as she raised
them.
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“You may see her; but you’ll not be struck with her being happy.
She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue Madonna!”
And Mrs. Touchett rang for a servant.
Isabel came in shortly after the footman had been sent to call her;
and Madame Merle thought, as she appeared, that Mrs. Touchett’s
comparison had its force. The girl was pale and grave —an effect not
mitigated by her deeper mourning; but the smile of her brightest
moments came into her face as she saw Madame Merle, who went
forward, laid her hand on our heroine’s shoulder and, after looking at
her a moment, kissed her as if she were returning the kiss she had
received from her at Gardencourt. This was the only allusion the visitor, in her great good taste, made for the present to her young friend’s
inheritance.
Mrs. Touchett had no purpose of awaiting in London the sale of
her house. After selecting from among its furniture the objects she
wished to transport to her other abode, she left the rest of its contents to be disposed of by the auctioneer and took her departure for
the Continent. She was of course accompanied on this journey by
her niece, who now had plenty of leisure to measure and weigh and
otherwise handle the windfall on which Madame Merle had covertly congratulated her. Isabel thought very often of the fact of her
accession of means, looking at it in a dozen different lights; but we
shall not now attempt to follow her train of thought or to explain
exactly why her new consciousness was at first oppressive. This failure to rise to immediate joy was indeed but brief; the girl presently
made up her mind that to be rich was a virtue because it was to be
able to do, and that to do could only be sweet. It was the graceful
contrary of the stupid side of weakness—especially the feminine
variety. To be weak was, for a delicate young person, rather graceful,
but, after all, as Isabel said to herself, there was a larger grace than
that. Just now, it is true, there was not much to do—once she had
sent off a cheque to Lily and another to poor Edith; but she was
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thankful for the quiet months which her mourning robes and her
aunt’s fresh widowhood compelled them to spend together. The
acquisition of power made her serious; she scrutinised her power
with a kind of tender ferocity, but was not eager to exercise it. She
began to do so during a stay of some weeks which she eventually
made with her aunt in Paris, though in ways that will inevitably
present themselves as trivial. They were the ways most naturally
imposed in a city in which the shops are the admiration of the world,
and that were prescribed unreservedly by the guidance of Mrs.
Touchett, who took a rigidly practical view of the transformation of
her niece from a poor girl to a rich one. “Now that you’re a young
woman of fortune you must know how to play the part—I mean to
play it well,” she said to Isabel once for all; and she added that the
girl’s first duty was to have everything handsome. “You don’t know
how to take care of your things, but you must learn,” she went on;
this was Isabel’s second duty. Isabel submitted, but for the present
her imagination was not kindled; she longed for opportunities, but
these were not the opportunities she meant.
Mrs. Touchett rarely changed her plans, and, having intended
before her husband’s death to spend a part of the winter in Paris,
saw no reason to deprive herself—still less to deprive her companion—of this advantage. Though they would live in great retirement
she might still present her niece, informally, to the little circle of her
fellow countrymen dwelling upon the skirts of the Champs Elysees.
With many of these amiable colonists Mrs. Touchett was intimate;
she shared their expatriation, their convictions, their pastimes, their
ennui. Isabel saw them arrive with a good deal of assiduity at her
aunt’s hotel, and pronounced on them with a trenchancy doubtless
to be accounted for by the temporary exaltation of her sense of human duty. She made up her mind that their lives were, though luxurious, inane, and incurred some disfavour by expressing this view
on bright Sunday afternoons, when the American absentees were
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engaged in calling on each other. Though her listeners passed for people
kept exemplarily genial by their cooks and dressmakers, two or three
of them thought her cleverness, which was generally admitted, inferior to that of the new theatrical pieces. “You all live here this way, but
what does it lead to?” she was pleased to ask. “It doesn’t seem to lead
to anything, and I should think you’d get very tired of it.”
Mrs. Touchett thought the question worthy of Henrietta Stackpole.
The two ladies had found Henrietta in Paris, and Isabel constantly
saw her; so that Mrs. Touchett had some reason for saying to herself
that if her niece were not clever enough to originate almost anything, she might be suspected of having borrowed that style of remark from her journalistic friend. The first occasion on which Isabel
had spoken was that of a visit paid by the two ladies to Mrs. Luce,
an old friend of Mrs. Touchett’s and the only person in Paris she
now went to see. Mrs. Luce had been living in Paris since the days
of Louis Philippe; she used to say jocosely that she was one of the
generation of 1830—a joke of which the point was not always taken.
When it failed Mrs. Luce used to explain—”Oh yes, I’m one of the
romantics;” her French had never become quite perfect. She was
always at home on Sunday afternoons and surrounded by sympathetic compatriots, usually the same. In fact she was at home at all
times, and reproduced with wondrous truth in her well-cushioned
little corner of the brilliant city, the domestic tone of her native
Baltimore. This reduced Mr. Luce, her worthy husband, a tall, lean,
grizzled, well-brushed gentleman who wore a gold eye-glass and
carried his hat a little too much on the back of his head, to mere
platonic praise of the “distractions” of Paris —they were his great
word—since you would never have guessed from what cares he escaped to them. One of them was that he went every day to the
American banker’s, where he found a post-office that was almost as
sociable and colloquial an institution as in an American country
town. He passed an hour (in fine weather) in a chair in the Champs
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Elysees, and he dined uncommonly well at his own table, seated
above a waxed floor which it was Mrs. Luce’s happiness to believe
had a finer polish than any other in the French capital. Occasionally he dined with a friend or two at the Cafe Anglais, where his
talent for ordering a dinner was a source of felicity to his companions and an object of admiration even to the headwaiter of the establishment. These were his only known pastimes, but they had
beguiled his hours for upwards of half a century, and they doubtless
justified his frequent declaration that there was no place like Paris.
In no other place, on these terms, could Mr. Luce flatter himself
that he was enjoying life. There was nothing like Paris, but it must
be confessed that Mr. Luce thought less highly of this scene of his
dissipations than in earlier days. In the list of his resources his political reflections should not be omitted, for they were doubtless the
animating principle of many hours that superficially seemed vacant.
Like many of his fellow colonists Mr. Luce was a high—or rather a
deep—conservative, and gave no countenance to the government
lately established in France. He had no faith in its duration and
would assure you from year to year that its end was close at hand.
“They want to be kept down, sir, to be kept down; nothing but the
strong hand—the iron heel -will do for them,” he would frequently
say of the French people; and his ideal of a fine showy clever rule
was that of the superseded Empire. “Paris is much less attractive
than in the days of the Emperor; HE knew how to make a city
pleasant,” Mr. Luce had often remarked to Mrs. Touchett, who was
quite of his own way of thinking and wished to know what one had
crossed that odious Atlantic for but to get away from republics.
“Why, madam, sitting in the Champs Elysees, opposite to the
Palace of Industry, I’ve seen the court-carriages from the Tuileries
pass up and down as many as seven times a day. I remember one
occasion when they went as high as nine. What do you see now? It’s
no use talking, the style’s all gone. Napoleon knew what the French
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people want, and there’ll be a dark cloud over Paris, our Paris, till
they get the Empire back again.”
Among Mrs. Luce’s visitors on Sunday afternoons was a young
man with whom Isabel had had a good deal of conversation and
whom she found full of valuable knowledge. Mr. Edward Rosier—
Ned Rosier as he was called—was native to New York and had been
brought up in Paris, living there under the eye of his father who, as
it happened, had been an early and intimate friend of the late Mr.
Archer. Edward Rosier remembered Isabel as a little girl; it had been
his father who came to the rescue of the small Archers at the inn at
Neufchatel (he was travelling that way with the boy and had stopped
at the hotel by chance), after their bonne had gone off with the
Russian prince and when Mr. Archer’s whereabouts remained for
some days a mystery. Isabel remembered perfectly the neat little
male child whose hair smelt of a delicious cosmetic and who had a
bonne all his own, warranted to lose sight of him under no provocation. Isabel took a walk with the pair beside the lake and thought
little Edward as pretty as an angel—a comparison by no means conventional in her mind, for she had a very definite conception of a
type of features which she supposed to be angelic and which her
new friend perfectly illustrated. A small pink face surmounted by a
blue velvet bonnet and set off by a stiff embroidered collar had become the countenance of her childish dreams; and she had firmly
believed for some time afterwards that the heavenly hosts conversed
among themselves in a queer little dialect of French-English, expressing the properest sentiments, as when Edward told her that he
was “defended” by his bonne to go near the edge of the lake, and
that one must always obey to one’s bonne. Ned Rosier’s English had
improved; at least it exhibited in a less degree the French variation.
His father was dead and his bonne dismissed, but the young man
still conformed to the spirit of their teaching —he never went to the
edge of the lake. There was still something agreeable to the nostrils
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about him and something not offensive to nobler organs. He was a
very gentle and gracious youth, with what are called cultivated
tastes—an acquaintance with old china, with good wine, with the
bindings of books, with the Almanach de Gotha, with the best shops,
the best hotels, the hours of railway-trains. He could order a dinner
almost as well as Mr. Luce, and it was probable that as his experience
accumulated he would be a worthy successor to that gentleman, whose
rather grim politics he also advocated in a soft and innocent voice. He
had some charming rooms in Paris, decorated with old Spanish altarlace, the envy of his female friends, who declared that his chimneypiece was better draped than the high shoulders of many a duchess.
He usually, however, spent a part of every winter at Pau, and had once
passed a couple of months in the United States.
He took a great interest in Isabel and remembered perfectly the
walk at Neufchatel, when she would persist in going so near the
edge. He seemed to recognise this same tendency in the subversive
enquiry that I quoted a moment ago, and set himself to answer our
heroine’s question with greater urbanity than it perhaps deserved.
“What does it lead to, Miss Archer? Why Paris leads everywhere.
You can’t go anywhere unless you come here first. Every one that
comes to Europe has got to pass through. You don’t mean it in that
sense so much? You mean what good it does you? Well, how can
you penetrate futurity? How can you tell what lies ahead ? If it’s a
pleasant road I don’t care where it leads. I like the road, Miss Archer; I like the dear old asphalte. You can’t get tired of it—you can’t
if you try. You think you would, but you wouldn’t; there’s always
something new and fresh. Take the Hotel Drouot, now; they sometimes have three and four sales a week. Where can you get such
things as you can here? In spite of all they say I maintain they’re
cheaper too, if you know the right places. I know plenty of places,
but I keep them to myself. I’ll tell you, if you like, as a particular
favour; only you mustn’t tell any one else. Don’t you go anywhere
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without asking me first; I want you to promise me that. As a general
thing avoid the Boulevards; there’s very little to be done on the Boulevards. Speaking conscientiously—sans blague—I don’t believe any
one knows Paris better than I. You and Mrs. Touchett must come
and breakfast with me some day, and I’ll show you my things; je ne
vous dis que ca! There has been a great deal of talk about London of
late; it’s the fashion to cry up London. But there’s nothing in it—
you can’t do anything in London. No Louis Quinze—nothing of
the First Empire; nothing but their eternal Queen Anne. It’s good
for one’s bed-room, Queen Anne—for one’s washing-room; but it
isn’t proper for a salon. Do I spend my life at the auctioneer’s?” Mr.
Rosier pursued in answer to another question of Isabel’s. “Oh no; I
haven’t the means. I wish I had. You think I’m a mere trifler; I can
tell by the expression of your face—you’ve got a wonderfully expressive face. I hope you don’t mind my saying that; I mean it as a
kind of warning. You think I ought to do something, and so do I, so
long as you leave it vague. But when you come to the point you see
you have to stop. I can’t go home and be a shopkeeper. You think
I’m very well fitted? Ah, Miss Archer, you overrate me. I can buy
very well, but I can’t sell; you should see when I sometimes try to
get rid of my things. It takes much more ability to make other people
buy than to buy yourself. When I think how clever they must be,
the people who make ME buy! Ah no; I couldn’t be a shopkeeper. I
can’t be a doctor; it’s a repulsive business. I can’t be a clergyman; I
haven’t got convictions. And then I can’t pronounce the names right
in the Bible. They’re very difficult, in the Old Testament particularly. I can’t be a lawyer; I don’t understand—how do you call it?—
the American procedure. Is there anything else? There’s nothing for
a gentleman in America. I should like to be a diplomatist; but American diplomacy—that’s not for gentlemen either. I’m sure if you had
seen the last min—”
Henrietta Stackpole, who was often with her friend when Mr.
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Rosier, coming to pay his compliments late in the afternoon, expressed himself after the fashion I have sketched, usually interrupted
the young man at this point and read him a lecture on the duties of
the American citizen. She thought him most unnatural; he was worse
than poor Ralph Touchett. Henrietta, however, was at this time more
than ever addicted to fine criticism, for her conscience had been
freshly alarmed as regards Isabel. She had not congratulated this
young lady on her augmentations and begged to be excused from
doing so.
“If Mr. Touchett had consulted me about leaving you the money,”
she frankly asserted, “I’d have said to him ‘Never!”
“I see,” Isabel had answered. “You think it will prove a curse in
disguise. Perhaps it will.”
“Leave it to some one you care less for—that’s what I should have
said.”
“To yourself for instance?” Isabel suggested jocosely. And then,
“Do you really believe it will ruin me?” she asked in quite another
tone.
“I hope it won’t ruin you; but it will certainly confirm your dangerous tendencies.”
“Do you mean the love of luxury—of extravagance?”
“No, no,” said Henrietta; “I mean your exposure on the moral
side. I approve of luxury; I think we ought to be as elegant as possible. Look at the luxury of our western cities; I’ve seen nothing over
here to compare with it. I hope you’ll never become grossly sensual;
but I’m not afraid of that. The peril for you is that you live too
much in the world of your own dreams. You’re not enough in contact with reality—with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even
say sinning, world that surrounds you. You’re too fastidious; you’ve
too many graceful illusions. Your newly-acquired thousands will shut
you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless
people who will be interested in keeping them up.”
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Isabel’s eyes expanded as she gazed at this lurid scene. “What are
my illusions?” she asked. “I try so hard not to have any.”
“Well,” said Henrietta, “you think you can lead a romantic life,
that you can live by pleasing yourself and pleasing others. You’ll
find you’re mistaken. Whatever life you lead you must put your soul
in it—to make any sort of success of it; and from the moment you
do that it ceases to be romance, I assure you: it becomes grim reality! And you can’t always please yourself; you must sometimes please
other people. That, I admit, you’re very ready to do; but there’s
another thing that’s still more important—you must often displease
others. You must always be ready for that—you must never shrink
from it. That doesn’t suit you at all—you’re too fond of admiration,
you like to be thought well of. You think we can escape disagreeable
duties by taking romantic views—that’s your great illusion, my dear.
But we can’t. You must be prepared on many occasions in life to
please no one at all—not even yourself.”
Isabel shook her head sadly; she looked troubled and frightened.
“This, for you, Henrietta,” she said, “must be one of those occasions!”
It was certainly true that Miss Stackpole, during her visit to Paris,
which had been professionally more remunerative than her English
sojourn, had not been living in the world of dreams. Mr. Bantling,
who had now returned to England, was her companion for the first
four weeks of her stay; and about Mr. Bantling there was nothing
dreamy. Isabel learned from her friend that the two had led a life of
great personal intimacy and that this had been a peculiar advantage
to Henrietta, owing to the gentleman’s remarkable knowledge of
Paris. He had explained everything, shown her everything, been her
constant guide and interpreter. They had breakfasted together, dined
together, gone to the theatre together, supped together, really in a
manner quite lived together. He was a true friend, Henrietta more
than once assured our heroine; and she had never supposed that she
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could like any Englishman so well. Isabel could not have told you
why, but she found something that ministered to mirth in the alliance the correspondent of the Interviewer had struck with Lady
Pensil’s brother; her amusement moreover subsisted in face of the
fact that she thought it a credit to each of them. Isabel couldn’t rid
herself of a suspicion that they were playing somehow at cross-purposes—that the simplicity of each had been entrapped. But this
simplicity was on either side none the less honourable. It was as
graceful on Henrietta’s part to believe that Mr. Bantling took an
interest in the diffusion of lively journalism and in consolidating
the position of lady-correspondents as it was on the part of his companion to suppose that the cause of the Interviewer—a periodical of
which he never formed a very definite conception—was, if subtly
analysed (a task to which Mr. Bantling felt himself quite equal), but
the cause of Miss Stackpole’s need of demonstrative affection. Each
of these groping celibates supplied at any rate a want of which the
other was impatiently conscious. Mr. Bantling, who was of rather a
slow and a discursive habit, relished a prompt, keen, positive woman,
who charmed him by the influence of a shining, challenging eye
and a kind of bandbox freshness, and who kindled a perception of
raciness in a mind to which the usual fare of life seemed unsalted.
Henrietta, on the other hand, enjoyed the society of a gentleman
who appeared somehow, in his way, made, by expensive, roundabout, almost “quaint” processes, for her use, and whose leisured
state, though generally indefensible, was a decided boon to a breathless mate, and who was furnished with an easy, traditional, though
by no means exhaustive, answer to almost any social or practical
question that could come up. She often found Mr. Bantling’s answers very convenient, and in the press of catching the American
post would largely and showily address them to publicity. It was to
be feared that she was indeed drifting toward those abysses of sophistication as to which Isabel, wishing for a good-humoured re268
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tort, had warned her. There might be danger in store for Isabel; but
it was scarcely to be hoped that Miss Stackpole, on her side, would
find permanent rest in any adoption of the views of a class pledged
to all the old abuses. Isabel continued to warn her good-humouredly;
Lady Pensil’s obliging brother was sometimes, on our heroine’s lips,
an object of irreverent and facetious allusion. Nothing, however,
could exceed Henrietta’s amiability on this point; she used to abound
in the sense of Isabel’s irony and to enumerate with elation the hours
she had spent with this perfect man of the world—a term that had
ceased to make with her, as previously, for opprobrium. Then, a few
moments later, she would forget that they had been talking jocosely
and would mention with impulsive earnestness some expedition she
had enjoyed in his company. She would say: “Oh, I know all about
Versailles; I went there with Mr. Bantling. I was bound to see it
thoroughly—I warned him when we went out there that I was thorough: so we spent three days at the hotel and wandered all over the
place. It was lovely weather —a kind of Indian summer, only not so
good. We just lived in that park. Oh yes; you can’t tell me anything
about Versailles.” Henrietta appeared to have made arrangements
to meet her gallant friend during the spring in Italy.
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CHAPTER XXI
MRS. TOUCHETT, before arriving in Paris, had fixed the day for her
departure and by the middle of February had begun to travel southward. She interrupted her journey to pay a visit to her son, who at
San Remo, on the Italian shore of the Mediterranean, had been
spending a dull, bright winter beneath a slow-moving white umbrella. Isabel went with her aunt as a matter of course, though Mrs.
Touchett, with homely, customary logic, had laid before her a pair
of alternatives.
“Now, of course, you’re completely your own mistress and are as
free as the bird on the bough. I don’t mean you were not so before,
but you’re at present on a different footing—property erects a kind
of barrier. You can do a great many things if you’re rich which would
be severely criticised if you were poor. You can go and come, you
can travel alone, you can have your own establishment: I mean of
course if you’ll take a companion—some decayed gentlewoman,
with a darned cashmere and dyed hair, who paints on velvet. You
don’t think you’d like that? Of course you can do as you please; I
only want you to understand how much you’re at liberty. You might
take Miss Stackpole as your dame de compagnie; she’d keep people
off very well. I think, however, that it’s a great deal better you should
remain with me, in spite of there being no obligation. It’s better for
several reasons, quite apart from your liking it. I shouldn’t think
you’d like it, but I recommend you to make the sacrifice. Of course
whatever novelty there may have been at first in my society has
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quite passed away, and you see me as I am—a dull, obstinate, narrow-minded old woman.”
“I don’t think you’re at all dull,” Isabel had replied to this.
“But you do think I’m obstinate and narrow-minded? I told you
so!” said Mrs. Touchett with much elation at being justified.
Isabel remained for the present with her aunt, because, in spite of
eccentric impulses, she had a great regard for what was usually
deemed decent, and a young gentlewoman without visible relations
had always struck her as a flower without foliage. It was true that
Mrs. Touchett’s conversation had never again appeared so brilliant
as that first afternoon in Albany, when she sat in her damp waterproof and sketched the opportunities that Europe would offer to a
young person of taste. This, however, was in a great measure the
girl’s own fault; she had got a glimpse of her aunt’s experience, and
her imagination constantly anticipated the judgements and emotions of a woman who had very little of the same faculty. Apart
from this, Mrs. Touchett had a great merit; she was as honest as a
pair of compasses. There was a comfort in her stiffness and firmness; you knew exactly where to find her and were never liable to
chance encounters and concussions. On her own ground she was
perfectly present, but was never over-inquisitive as regards the territory of her neighbour. Isabel came at last to have a kind of
undemonstrable pity for her; there seemed something so dreary in
the condition of a person whose nature had, as it were, so little
surface—offered so limited a face to the accretions of human contact. Nothing tender, nothing sympathetic, had ever had a chance
to fasten upon it—no wind-sown blossom, no familiar softening
moss. Her offered, her passive extent, in other words, was about
that of a knife-edge. Isabel had reason to believe none the less that
as she advanced in life she made more of those concessions to the
sense of something obscurely distinct from convenience—more of
them than she independently exacted. She was learning to sacrifice
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consistency to considerations of that inferior order for which the
excuse must be found in the particular case. It was not to the credit
of her absolute rectitude that she should have gone the longest way
round to Florence in order to spend a few weeks with her invalid
son; since in former years it had been one of her most definite convictions that when Ralph wished to see her he was at liberty to remember that Palazzo Crescentini contained a large apartment known
as the quarter of the signorino.
“I want to ask you something,” Isabel said to this young man the
day after her arrival at San Remo—”something I’ve thought more
than once of asking you by letter, but that I’ve hesitated on the whole
to write about. Face to face, nevertheless, my question seems easy
enough. Did you know your father intended to leave me so much
money?”
Ralph stretched his legs a little further than usual and gazed a
little more fixedly at the Mediterranean.
“What does it matter, my dear Isabel, whether I knew? My father
was very obstinate.”
“So,” said the girl, “you did know.”
“Yes; he told me. We even talked it over a little.” “What did he do
it for?” asked Isabel abruptly. “Why, as a kind of compliment.”
“A compliment on what?”
“On your so beautifully existing.”
“He liked me too much,” she presently declared.
“That’s a way we all have.”
“If I believed that I should be very unhappy. Fortunately I don’t
believe it. I want to be treated with justice; I want nothing but that.”
“Very good. But you must remember that justice to a lovely being
is after all a florid sort of sentiment.”
“I’m not a lovely being. How can you say that, at the very moment when I’m asking such odious questions? I must seem to you
delicate!”
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“You seem to me troubled,” said Ralph.
“I am troubled.”
“About what?”
For a moment she answered nothing; then she broke out: “Do
you think it good for me suddenly to be made so rich? Henrietta
doesn’t.”
“Oh, hang Henrietta!” said Ralph coarsely, “If you ask me I’m
delighted at it.”
“Is that why your father did it—for your amusement?”
“I differ with Miss Stackpole,” Ralph went on more gravely. “I
think it very good for you to have means.”
Isabel looked at him with serious eyes. “I wonder whether you
know what’s good for me—or whether you care.”
“If I know depend upon it I care. Shall I tell you what it is? Not to
torment yourself.”
“Not to torment you, I suppose you mean.”
“You can’t do that; I’m proof. Take things more easily. Don’t ask
yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Don’t question your conscience so much—it will get out of tune like a strummed
piano. Keep it for great occasions. Don’t try so much to form your
character—it’s like trying to pull open a tight, tender young rose.
Live as you like best, and your character will take care of itself. Most
things are good for you; the exceptions are very rare, and a comfortable income’s not one of them.” Ralph paused, smiling; Isabel had
listened quickly. “You’ve too much power of thought—above all
too much conscience,” Ralph added. “It’s out of all reason, the number of things you think wrong. Put back your watch. Diet your
fever. Spread your wings; rise above the ground. It’s never wrong to
do that.”
She had listened eagerly, as I say; and it was her nature to understand quickly. “I wonder if you appreciate what you say. If you do,
you take a great responsibility.”
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“You frighten me a little, but I think I’m right,” said Ralph, persisting in cheer.
“All the same what you say is very true,” Isabel pursued. “You
could say nothing more true. I’m absorbed in myself—I look at life
too much as a doctor’s prescription. Why indeed should we perpetually be thinking whether things are good for us, as if we were
patients lying in a hospital? Why should I be so afraid of not doing
right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do right or wrong!”
“You’re a capital person to advise,” said Ralph; “you take the wind
out of my sails!”
She looked at him as if she had not heard him—though she was
following out the train of reflexion which he himself had kindled.
“I try to care more about the world than about myself—but I always come back to myself. It’s because I’m afraid.” She stopped; her
voice had trembled a little. “Yes, I’m afraid; I can’t tell you. A large
fortune means freedom, and I’m afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing,
and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t one
would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it’s a constant
effort. I’m not sure it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”
“For weak people I’ve no doubt it’s a greater happiness. For weak
people the effort not to be contemptible must be great.”
“And how do you know I’m not weak?” Isabel asked.
“Ah,” Ralph answered with a flush that the girl noticed, “if you
are I’m awfully sold!”
The charm of the Mediterranean coast only deepened for our heroine on acquaintance, for it was the threshold of Italy, the gate of
admirations. Italy, as yet imperfectly seen and felt, stretched before
her as a land of promise, a land in which a love of the beautiful
might be comforted by endless knowledge. Whenever she strolled
upon the shore with her cousin—and she was the companion of his
daily walk—she looked across the sea, with longing eyes, to where
she knew that Genoa lay. She was glad to pause, however, on the
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edge of this larger adventure; there was such a thrill even in the
preliminary hovering. It affected her moreover as a peaceful interlude, as a hush of the drum and fife in a career which she had little
warrant as yet for regarding as agitated, but which nevertheless she
was constantly picturing to herself by the light of her hopes, her
fears, her fancies, her ambitions, her predilections, and which reflected these subjective accidents in a manner sufficiently dramatic.
Madame Merle had predicted to Mrs. Touchett that after their young
friend had put her hand into her pocket half a dozen times she
would be reconciled to the idea that it had been filled by a munificent uncle; and the event justified, as it had so often justified before, that lady’s perspicacity. Ralph Touchett had praised his cousin
for being morally inflammable, that is for being quick to take a hint
that was meant as good advice. His advice had perhaps helped the
matter; she had at any rate before leaving San Remo grown used to
feeling rich. The consciousness in question found a proper place in
rather a dense little group of ideas that she had about herself, and
often it was by no means the least agreeable. It took perpetually for
granted a thousand good intentions. She lost herself in a maze of
visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent, generous
girl who took a large human view of occasions and obligations were
sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a
part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her
own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the
imagination of others is another affair, and on this point we must
also touch in time. The visions I have just spoken of were mixed
with other debates. Isabel liked better to think of the future than of
the past; but at times, as she listened to the murmur of the Mediterranean waves, her glance took a backward flight. It rested upon two
figures which, in spite of increasing distance, were still sufficiently
salient; they were recognisable without difficulty as those of Caspar
Goodwood and Lord Warburton. It was strange how quickly these
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images of energy had fallen into the background of our young lady’s
life. It was in her disposition at all times to lose faith in the reality of
absent things; she could summon back her faith, in case of need,
with an effort, but the effort was often painful even when the reality
had been pleasant. The past was apt to look dead and its revival
rather to show the livid light of a judgement-day. The girl moreover
was not prone to take for granted that she herself lived in the mind
of others—she had not the fatuity to believe she left indelible traces.
She was capable of being wounded by the discovery that she had
been forgotten; but of all liberties the one she herself found sweetest
was the liberty to forget. She had not given her last shilling, sentimentally speaking, either to Caspar Goodwood or to Lord
Warburton, and yet couldn’t but feel them appreciably in debt to
her. She had of course reminded herself that she was to hear from
Mr. Goodwood again; but this was not to be for another year and a
half, and in that time a great many things might happen. She had
indeed failed to say to herself that her American suitor might find
some other girl more comfortable to woo; because, though it was
certain many other girls would prove so, she had not the smallest
belief that this merit would attract him. But she reflected that she
herself might know the humiliation of change, might really, for that
matter, come to the end of the things that were not Caspar (even
though there appeared so many of them), and find rest in those very
elements of his presence which struck her now as impediments to
the finer respiration. It was conceivable that these impediments
should some day prove a sort of blessing in disguise—a clear and
quiet harbour enclosed by a brave granite breakwater. But that day
could only come in its order, and she couldn’t wait for it with folded
hands. That Lord Warburton should continue to cherish her image
seemed to her more than a noble humility or an enlightened pride
ought to wish to reckon with. She had so definitely undertaken to
preserve no record of what had passed between them that a corre276
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sponding effort on his own part would be eminently just. This was
not, as it may seem, merely a theory tinged with sarcasm. Isabel
candidly believed that his lordship would, in the usual phrase, get
over his disappointment. He had been deeply affected—this she
believed, and she was still capable of deriving pleasure from the
belief; but it was absurd that a man both so intelligent and so
honourably dealt with should cultivate a scar out of proportion to
any wound. Englishmen liked moreover to be comfortable, said
Isabel, and there could be little comfort for Lord Warburton, in the
long run, in brooding over a self-sufficient American girl who had
been but a casual acquaintance. She flattered herself that, should
she hear from one day to another that he had married some young
woman of his own country who had done more to deserve him, she
should receive the news without a pang even of surprise. It would
have proved that he believed she was firm—which was what she
wished to seem to him. That alone was grateful to her pride.
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CHAPTER XXII
ON ONE OF THE FIRST DAYS of May, some six months after old Mr.
Touchett’s death, a small group that might have been described by a
painter as composing well was gathered in one of the many rooms
of an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill outside of the
Roman gate of Florence. The villa was a long, rather blank-looking
structure, with the far-projecting roof which Tuscany loves and
which, on the hills that encircle Florence, when considered from a
distance, makes so harmonious a rectangle with the straight, dark,
definite cypresses that usually rise in groups of three or four beside
it. The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza
which occupied a part of the hill-top; and this front, pierced with a
few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench
lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of
undervalued merit which in Italy, for some reason or other, always
gracefully invests any one who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude—this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front
had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not
the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in
reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. In that quarter the villa
overhung the slope of its hill and the long valley of the Arno, hazy
with Italian colour. It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace, productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses and other old stone
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benches, mossy and sun-warmed. The parapet of the terrace was
just the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined
into the vagueness of olive-crops and vineyards. It is not, however,
with the outside of the place that we are concerned; on this bright
morning of ripened spring its tenants had reason to prefer the shady
side of the wall. The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them
from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with
the world than to defy the world to look in. They were massively
cross-barred, and placed at such a height that curiosity, even on
tiptoe, expired before it reached them. In an apartment lighted by a
row of three of these jealous apertures—one of the several distinct
apartments into which the villa was divided and which were mainly
occupied by foreigners of random race long resident in Florence—
a gentleman was seated in company with a young girl and two good
sisters from a religious house. The room was, however, less sombre
than our indications may have represented, for it had a wide, high
door, which now stood open into the tangled garden behind; and
the tall iron lattices admitted on occasion more than enough of the
Italian sunshine. It was moreover a seat of ease, indeed of luxury,
telling of arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed, and containing a variety of those faded hangings of damask and tapestry, those chests and cabinets of carved and time-polished oak, those angular specimens of pictorial art in frames as pedantically primitive, those perverse-looking relics of medieval brass
and pottery, of which Italy has long been the not quite exhausted
storehouse. These things kept terms with articles of modern furniture in which large allowance had been made for a lounging generation; it was to be noticed that all the chairs were deep and well
padded and that much space was occupied by a writing-table of
which the ingenious perfection bore the stamp of London and the
nineteenth century. There were books in profusion and magazines
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and newspapers, and a few small, odd, elaborate pictures, chiefly in
water-colour. One of these productions stood on a drawing-room
easel before which, at the moment we begin to be concerned with
her, the young girl I have mentioned had placed herself. She was
looking at the picture in silence.
Silence—absolute silence—had not fallen upon her companions;
but their talk had an appearance of embarrassed continuity. The
two good sisters had not settled themselves in their respective chairs;
their attitude expressed a final reserve and their faces showed the
glaze of prudence. They were plain, ample, mild-featured women,
with a kind of business-like modesty to which the impersonal aspect of their stiffened linen and of the serge that draped them as if
nailed on frames gave an advantage. One of them, a person of a
certain age, in spectacles, with a fresh complexion and a full cheek,
had a more discriminating manner than her colleague, as well as the
responsibility of their errand, which apparently related to the young
girl. This object of interest wore her hat—an ornament of extreme
simplicity and not at variance with her plain muslin gown, too short
for her years, though it must already have been “let out.” The gentleman who might have been supposed to be entertaining the two
nuns was perhaps conscious of the difficulties of his function, it
being in its way as arduous to converse with the very meek as with
the very mighty. At the same time he was clearly much occupied
with their quiet charge, and while she turned her back to him his
eyes rested gravely on her slim, small figure. He was a man of forty,
with a high but well-shaped head, on which the hair, still dense, but
prematurely grizzled, had been cropped close. He had a fine, narrow, extremely modelled and composed face, of which the only fault
was just this effect of its running a trifle too much to points; an
appearance to which the shape of the beard contributed not a little.
This beard, cut in the manner of the portraits of the sixteenth century and surmounted by a fair moustache, of which the ends had a
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romantic upward flourish, gave its wearer a foreign, traditionary
look and suggested that he was a gentleman who studied style. His
conscious, curious eyes, however, eyes at once vague and penetrating, intelligent and hard, expressive of the observer as well as of the
dreamer, would have assured you that he studied it only within wellchosen limits, and that in so far as he sought it he found it. You
would have been much at a loss to determine his original clime and
country; he had none of the superficial signs that usually render the
answer to this question an insipidly easy one. If he had English
blood in his veins it had probably received some French or Italian
commixture; but he suggested, fine gold coin as he was, no stamp
nor emblem of the common mintage that provides for general circulation; he was the elegant complicated medal struck off for a special occasion. He had a light, lean, rather languid-looking figure,
and was apparently neither tall nor short. He was dressed as a man
dresses who takes little other trouble about it than to have no vulgar
things.
“Well, my dear, what do you think of it?” he asked of the young
girl. He used the Italian tongue, and used it with perfect ease; but
this would not have convinced you he was Italian.
The child turned her head earnestly to one side and the other.
“It’s very pretty, papa. Did you make it yourself?”
“Certainly I made it. Don’t you think I’m clever?”
“Yes, papa, very clever; I also have learned to make pictures.” And
she turned round and showed a small, fair face painted with a fixed
and intensely sweet smile.
“You should have brought me a specimen of your powers.”
“I’ve brought a great many; they’re in my trunk.”
“She draws very—very carefully,” the elder of the nuns remarked,
speaking in French.
“I’m glad to hear it. Is it you who have instructed her?”
“Happily no,” said the good sister, blushing a little. “Ce n’est pas
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ma partie. I teach nothing; I leave that to those who are wiser. We’ve
an excellent drawing-master, Mr.—Mr.—what is his name?” she
asked of her companion.
Her companion looked about at the carpet. “It’s a German name,”
she said in Italian, as if it needed to be translated.
“Yes,” the other went on, “he’s a German, and we’ve had him
many years.”
The young girl, who was not heeding the conversation, had wandered away to the open door of the large room and stood looking
into the garden. “And you, my sister, are French,” said the gentleman.
“Yes, sir,” the visitor gently replied. “I speak to the pupils in my
own tongue. I know no other. But we have sisters of other countries—English, German, Irish. They all speak their proper language.”
The gentleman gave a smile. “Has my daughter been under the
care of one of the Irish ladies?” And then, as he saw that his visitors
suspected a joke, though failing to understand it, “You’re very complete,” he instantly added.
“Oh, yes, we’re complete. We’ve everything, and everything’s of
the best.”
“We have gymnastics,” the Italian sister ventured to remark. “But
not dangerous.”
“I hope not. Is that your branch?” A question which provoked
much candid hilarity on the part of the two ladies; on the subsidence of which their entertainer, glancing at his daughter, remarked
that she had grown.
“Yes, but I think she has finished. She’ll remain—not big,” said
the French sister.
“I’m not sorry. I prefer women like books—very good and not
too long. But I know,” the gentleman said, “no particular reason
why my child should be short.”
The nun gave a temperate shrug, as if to intimate that such things
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might be beyond our knowledge. “She’s in very good health; that’s
the best thing.”
“Yes, she looks sound.” And the young girl’s father watched her a
moment. “What do you see in the garden?” he asked in French.
“I see many flowers,” she replied in a sweet, small voice and with
an accent as good as his own.
“Yes, but not many good ones. However, such as they are, go out
and gather some for ces dames.”
The child turned to him with her smile heightened by pleasure.
“May I, truly?”
“Ah, when I tell you,” said her father.
The girl glanced at the elder of the nuns. “May I, truly, ma mere?”
“Obey monsieur your father, my child,” said the sister, blushing
again.
The child, satisfied with this authorisation, descended from the
threshold and was presently lost to sight. “You don’t spoil them,”
said her father gaily.
“For everything they must ask leave. That’s our system. Leave is
freely granted, but they must ask it.”
“Oh, I don’t quarrel with your system; I’ve no doubt it’s excellent.
I sent you my daughter to see what you’d make of her. I had faith.”
“One must have faith,” the sister blandly rejoined, gazing through
her spectacles.
“Well, has my faith been rewarded What have you made of her?”
The sister dropped her eyes a moment. “A good Christian, monsieur.”
Her host dropped his eyes as well; but it was probable that the
movement had in each case a different spring. “Yes, and what else?”
He watched the lady from the convent, probably thinking she
would say that a good Christian was everything; but for all her simplicity she was not so crude as that. “A charming young lady—a real
little woman—a daughter in whom you will have nothing but contentment.”
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“She seems to me very gentille,” said the father. “She’s really pretty.”
“She’s perfect. She has no faults.”
“She never had any as a child, and I’m glad you have given her
none.”
“We love her too much,” said the spectacled sister with dignity.
“And as for faults, how can we give what we have not? Le couvent
n’est pas comme le monde, monsieur. She’s our daughter, as you
may say. We’ve had her since she was so small.”
“Of all those we shall lose this year she’s the one we shall miss most,”
the younger woman murmured deferentially.
“Ah, yes, we shall talk long of her,” said the other. “We shall hold
her up to the new ones.” And at this the good sister appeared to find
her spectacles dim; while her companion, after fumbling a moment,
presently drew forth a pocket-handkerchief of durable texture.
“It’s not certain you’ll lose her; nothing’s settled yet,” their host
rejoined quickly; not as if to anticipate their tears, but in the tone of
a man saying what was most agreeable to himself. “We should be
very happy to believe that. Fifteen is very young to leave us.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the gentleman with more vivacity than he had
yet used, “it is not I who wish to take her away. I wish you could
keep her always!”
“Ah, monsieur,” said the elder sister, smiling and getting up, “good
as she is, she’s made for the world. Le monde y gagnera.”
“If all the good people were hidden away in convents how would
the world get on?” her companion softly enquired, rising also.
This was a question of a wider bearing than the good woman
apparently supposed; and the lady in spectacles took a harmonising
view by saying comfortably: “Fortunately there are good people everywhere.”
“If you’re going there will be two less here,” her host remarked
gallantly.
For this extravagant sally his simple visitors had no answer, and
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they simply looked at each other in decent deprecation; but their
confusion was speedily covered by the return of the young girl with
two large bunches of roses—one of them all white, the other red.
“I give you your choice, mamman Catherine,” said the child. “It’s
only the colour that’s different, mamman Justine; there are just as
many roses in one bunch as in the other.”
The two sisters turned to each other, smiling and hesitating, with
“Which will you take?” and “No, it’s for you to choose.”
“I’ll take the red, thank you,” said Catherine in the spectacles.
“I’m so red myself. They’ll comfort us on our way back to Rome.”
“Ah, they won’t last,” cried the young girl. I wish I could give you
something that would last!”
“You’ve given us a good memory of yourself, my daughter. That
will last!”
“I wish nuns could wear pretty things. I would give you my blue
beads,” the child went on.
“And do you go back to Rome to-night?” her father enquired.
“Yes, we take the train again. We’ve so much to do la-bas.”
“Are you not tired?”
“We are never tired.”
“Ah, my sister, sometimes,” murmured the junior votaress.
“Not to-day, at any rate. We have rested too well here. Que Dieu
vows garde, ma fine.”
Their host, while they exchanged kisses with his daughter, went
forward to open the door through which they were to pass; but as
he did so he gave a slight exclamation, and stood looking beyond.
The door opened into a vaulted ante-chamber, as high as a chapel
and paved with red tiles; and into this antechamber a lady had just
been admitted by a servant, a lad in shabby livery, who was now
ushering her toward the apartment in which our friends were
grouped. The gentleman at the door, after dropping his exclamation, remained silent; in silence too the lady advanced. He gave her
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no further audible greeting and offered her no hand, but stood aside
to let her pass into the saloon. At the threshold she hesitated. “Is
there any one?” she asked.
“Some one you may see.”
She went in and found herself confronted with the two nuns and
their pupil, who was coming forward, between them, with a hand
in the arm of each. At the sight of the new visitor they all paused,
and the lady, who had also stopped, stood looking at them. The
young girl gave a little soft cry: “Ah, Madame Merle!”
The visitor had been slightly startled, but her manner the next
instant was none the less gracious. “Yes, it’s Madame Merle, come
to welcome you home.” And she held out two hands to the girl,
who immediately came up to her, presenting her forehead to be
kissed. Madame Merle saluted this portion of her charming little
person and then stood smiling at the two nuns. They acknowledged
her smile with a decent obeisance, but permitted themselves no direct scrutiny of this imposing, brilliant woman, who seemed to bring
in with her something of the radiance of the outer world. “These
ladies have brought my daughter home, and now they return to the
convent,” the gentleman explained.
“Ah, you go back to Rome? I’ve lately come from there. It’s very
lovely now,” said Madame Merle.
The good sisters, standing with their hands folded into their sleeves,
accepted this statement uncritically; and the master of the house
asked his new visitor how long it was since she had left Rome. “She
came to see me at the convent,” said the young girl before the lady
addressed had time to reply.
“I’ve been more than once, Pansy,” Madame Merle declared. “Am
I not your great friend in Rome?”
“I remember the last time best,” said Pansy, “because you told me
I should come away.”
“Did you tell her that?” the child’s father asked.
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“I hardly remember. I told her what I thought would please her.
I’ve been in Florence a week. I hoped you would come to see me.”
“I should have done so if I had known you were there. One doesn’t
know such things by inspiration—though I suppose one ought. You
had better sit down.”
These two speeches were made in a particular tone of voice—a
tone half-lowered and carefully quiet, but as from habit rather than
from any definite need. Madame Merle looked about her, choosing
her seat. “You’re going to the door with these women? Let me of
course not interrupt the ceremony. Je vous salue, mesdames,” she
added, in French, to the nuns, as if to dismiss them.
“This lady’s a great friend of ours; you will have seen her at the
convent,” said their entertainer. “We’ve much faith in her judgement, and she’ll help me to decide whether my daughter shall return to you at the end of the holidays.”
“I hope you’ll decide in our favour, madame,” the sister in spectacles ventured to remark.
“That’s Mr. Osmond’s pleasantry; I decide nothing,” said Madame Merle, but also as in pleasantry. “I believe you’ve a very good
school, but Miss Osmond’s friends must remember that she’s very
naturally meant for the world.”
“That’s what I’ve told monsieur,” sister Catherine answered. “It’s precisely to fit her for the world,” she murmured, glancing at Pansy, who
stood, at a little distance, attentive to Madame Merle’s elegant apparel.
“Do you hear that, Pansy? You’re very naturally meant for the
world,” said Pansy’s father.
The child fixed him an instant with her pure young eyes. “Am I
not meant for you, papa?”
Papa gave a quick, light laugh. “That doesn’t prevent it! I’m of the
world, Pansy.”
“Kindly permit us to retire,” said sister Catherine. “Be good and
wise and happy in any case, my daughter.”
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“I shall certainly come back and see you,” Pansy returned, recommencing her embraces, which were presently interrupted by Madame Merle.
“Stay with me, dear child,” she said, “while your father takes the
good ladies to the door.”
Pansy stared, disappointed, yet not protesting. She was evidently
impregnated with the idea of submission, which was due to any one
who took the tone of authority; and she was a passive spectator of
the operation of her fate. “May I not see mamman Catherine get
into the carriage?” she nevertheless asked very gently.
“It would please me better if you’d remain with me,” said Madame Merle, while Mr. Osmond and his companions, who had
bowed low again to the other visitor, passed into the ante-chamber.
“Oh yes, I’ll stay,” Pansy answered; and she stood near Madame
Merle, surrendering her little hand, which this lady took. She stared
out of the window; her eyes had filled with tears.
“I’m glad they’ve taught you to obey,” said Madame Merle. “That’s
what good little girls should do.”
“Oh yes, I obey very well,” cried Pansy with soft eagerness, almost
with boastfulness, as if she had been speaking of her piano-playing.
And then she gave a faint, just audible sigh.
Madame Merle, holding her hand, drew it across her own fine
palm and looked at it. The gaze was critical, but it found nothing to
deprecate; the child’s small hand was delicate and fair. “I hope they
always see that you wear gloves,” she said in a moment. “Little girls
usually dislike them.”
“I used to dislike them, but I like them now,” the child made
answer.
“Very good, I’ll make you a present of a dozen.”
“I thank you very much. What colours will they be?” Pansy demanded with interest.
Madame Merle meditated. “Useful colours.”
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“But very pretty?”
“Are you very fond of pretty things?”
“Yes; but—but not too fond,” said Pansy with a trace of asceticism.
“Well, they won’t be too pretty,” Madame Merle returned with a
laugh. She took the child’s other hand and drew her nearer; after
which, looking at her a moment, “Shall you miss mother Catherine?”
she went on.
“Yes—when I think of her.”
“Try then not to think of her. Perhaps some day,” added Madame
Merle, “you’ll have another mother.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Pansy said, repeating her little soft
conciliatory sigh. “I had more than thirty mothers at the convent.”
Her father’s step sounded again in the antechamber, and Madame
Merle got up, releasing the child. Mr. Osmond came in and closed
the door; then, without looking at Madame Merle, he pushed one
or two chairs back into their places. His visitor waited a moment for
him to speak, watching him as he moved about. Then at last she
said: “I hoped you’d have come to Rome. I thought it possible you’d
have wished yourself to fetch Pansy away.”
“That was a natural supposition; but I’m afraid it’s not the first
time I’ve acted in defiance of your calculations.”
“Yes,” said Madame Merle, “I think you very perverse.”
Mr. Osmond busied himself for a moment in the room—there
was plenty of space in it to move about—in the fashion of a man
mechanically seeking pretexts for not giving an attention which may
be embarrassing. Presently, however, he had exhausted his pretexts;
there was nothing left for him—unless he took up a book—but to
stand with his hands behind him looking at Pansy. “Why didn’t you
come and see the last of mamman Catherine?” he asked of her
abruptly in French.
Pansy hesitated a moment, glancing at Madame Merle. “I asked
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her to stay with me,” said this lady, who had seated herself again in
another place.
“Ah, that was better,” Osmond conceded. With which he dropped
into a chair and sat looking at Madame Merle; bent forward a little,
his elbows on the edge of the arms and his hands interlocked.
“She’s going to give me some gloves,” said Pansy.
“You needn’t tell that to every one, my dear,” Madame Merle observed.
“You’re very kind to her,” said Osmond. “She’s supposed to have
everything she needs.”
“I should think she had had enough of the nuns.”
“If we’re going to discuss that matter she had better go out of the
room.”
“Let her stay,” said Madame Merle. “We’ll talk of something else.”
“If you like I won’t listen,” Pansy suggested with an appearance of
candour which imposed conviction.
“You may listen, charming child, because you won’t understand,”
her father replied. The child sat down, deferentially, near the open
door, within sight of the garden, into which she directed her innocent, wistful eyes; and Mr. Osmond went on irrelevantly, addressing
himself to his other companion. “You’re looking particularly well.”
“I think I always look the same,” said Madame Merle.
“You always are the same. You don’t vary. You’re a wonderful
woman.”
“Yes, I think I am.”
“You sometimes change your mind, however. You told me on your
return from England that you wouldn’t leave Rome again for the
present.”
“I’m pleased that you remember so well what I say. That was my
intention. But I’ve come to Florence to meet some friends who have
lately arrived and as to whose movements I was at that time uncertain.”
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“That reason’s characteristic. You’re always doing something for
your friends.”
Madame Merle smiled straight at her host. “It’s less characteristic
than your comment upon it which is perfectly insincere. I don’t, however, make a crime of that,” she added, “because if you don’t believe
what you say there’s no reason why you should. I don’t ruin myself for
my friends; I don’t deserve your praise. I care greatly for myself.”
“Exactly; but yourself includes so many other selves—so much of
every one else and of everything. I never knew a person whose life
touched so many other lives.”
“What do you call one’s life?” asked Madame Merle. “One’s appearance, one’s movements, one’s engagements, one’s society?”
“I call your life your ambitions,” said Osmond.
Madame Merle looked a moment at Pansy. “I wonder if she understands that,” she murmured.
“You see she can’t stay with us!” And Pansy’s father gave rather a
joyless smile. “Go into the garden, mignonne, and pluck a flower or
two for Madame Merle,” he went on in French.
“That’s just what I wanted to do,” Pansy exclaimed, rising with
promptness and noiselessly departing. Her father followed her to
the open door, stood a moment watching her, and then came back,
but remained standing, or rather strolling to and fro, as if to cultivate a sense of freedom which in another attitude might be wanting.
“My ambitions are principally for you,” said Madame Merle, looking up at him with a certain courage.
“That comes back to what I say. I’m part of your life—I and a
thousand others. You’re not selfish—I can’t admit that. If you were
selfish, what should I be? What epithet would properly describe
me?”
“You’re indolent. For me that’s your worst fault.”
“I’m afraid it’s really my best.”
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“You don’t care,” said Madame Merle gravely.
“No; I don’t think I care much. What sort of a fault do you call
that? My indolence, at any rate, was one of the reasons I didn’t go to
Rome. But it was only one of them.”
“It’s not of importance—to me at least—that you didn’t go; though
I should have been glad to see you. I’m glad you’re not in Rome
now—which you might be, would probably be, if you had gone
there a month ago. There’s something I should like you to do at
present in Florence.”
“Please remember my indolence,” said Osmond.
“I do remember it; but I beg you to forget it. In that way you’ll
have both the virtue and the reward. This is not a great labour, and
it may prove a real interest. How long is it since you made a new
acquaintance?”
“I don’t think I’ve made any since I made yours.”
“It’s time then you should make another. There’s a friend of mine
I want you to know.”
Mr. Osmond, in his walk, had gone back to the open door again
and was looking at his daughter as she moved about in the intense
sunshine. “What good will it do me?” he asked with a sort of genial
crudity.
Madame Merle waited. “It will amuse you.” There was nothing
crude in this rejoinder; it had been thoroughly well considered.
“If you say that, you know, I believe it,” said Osmond, coming
toward her. “There are some points in which my confidence in you
is complete. I’m perfectly aware, for instance, that you know good
society from bad.”
“Society is all bad.”
“Pardon me. That isn’t—the knowledge I impute to you—a common sort of wisdom. You’ve gained it in the right way—experimentally; you’ve compared an immense number of more or less impossible people with each other.”
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“Well, I invite you to profit by my knowledge.”
“To profit? Are you very sure that I shall?”
“It’s what I hope. It will depend on yourself. If I could only induce you to make an effort!”
“Ah, there you are! I knew something tiresome was coming. What
in the world—that’s likely to turn up here—is worth an effort?”
Madame Merle flushed as with a wounded intention. “Don’t be
foolish, Osmond. No one knows better than you what is worth an
effort. Haven’t I seen you in old days?”
“I recognise some things. But they’re none of them probable in
this poor life.”
“It’s the effort that makes them probable,” said Madame Merle.
“There’s something in that. Who then is your friend?”
“The person I came to Florence to see. She’s a niece of Mrs.
Touchett, whom you’ll not have forgotten.”
“A niece? The word niece suggests youth and ignorance. I see what
you’re coming to.”
“Yes, she’s young—twenty-three years old. She’s a great friend of
mine. I met her for the first time in England, several months ago,
and we struck up a grand alliance. I like her immensely, and I do
what I don’t do every day—I admire her. You’ll do the same.”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Precisely. But you won’t be able to help it.”
“Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent and
unprecedentedly virtuous? It’s only on those conditions that I care to
make her acquaintance. You know I asked you some time ago never to
speak to me of a creature who shouldn’t correspond to that description.
I know plenty of dingy people; I don’t want to know any more.”
“Miss Archer isn’t dingy; she’s as bright as the morning. She corresponds to your description; it’s for that I wish you to know her. She
fills all your requirements.”
“More or less, of course.”
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“No; quite literally. She’s beautiful, accomplished, generous and,
for an American, well-born. She’s also very clever and very amiable,
and she has a handsome fortune.”
Mr. Osmond listened to this in silence, appearing to turn it over
in his mind with his eyes on his informant. “What do you want to
do with her?” he asked at last.
“What you see. Put her in your way.”
“Isn’t she meant for something better than that?”
“I don’t pretend to know what people are meant for,” said Madame Merle. “I only know what I can do with them.”
“I’m sorry for Miss Archer!” Osmond declared.
Madame Merle got up. “If that’s a beginning of interest in her I
take note of it.”
The two stood there face to face; she settled her mantilla, looking
down at it as she did so. “You’re looking very well,” Osmond repeated
still less relevantly than before. “You have some idea. You’re never so
well as when you’ve got an idea; they’re always becoming to you.”
In the manner and tone of these two persons, on first meeting at
any juncture, and especially when they met in the presence of others, was something indirect and circumspect, as if they had approached each other obliquely and addressed each other by implication. The effect of each appeared to be to intensify to an appreciable degree the self-consciousness of the other. Madame Merle of
course carried off any embarrassment better than her friend; but
even Madame Merle had not on this occasion the form she would
have liked to have—the perfect self-possession she would have wished
to wear for her host. The point to be made is, however, that at a
certain moment the element between them, whatever it was, always
levelled itself and left them more closely face to face than either ever
was with any one else. This was what had happened now. They
stood there knowing each other well and each on the whole willing
to accept the satisfaction of knowing as a compensation for the in294
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convenience—whatever it might be—of being known. “I wish very
much you were not so heartless,” Madame Merle quietly said. “It
has always been against you, and it will be against you now.”
“I’m not so heartless as you think. Every now and then something
touches me—as for instance your saying just now that your ambitions are for me. I don’t understand it; I don’t see how or why they
should be. But it touches me, all the same.”
“You’ll probably understand it even less as time goes on. There are
some things you’ll never understand. There’s no particular need you
should.”
“You, after all, are the most remarkable of women,” said Osmond.
“You have more in you than almost any one. I don’t see why you
think Mrs. Touchett’s niece should matter very much to me, when—
when—” But he paused a moment.
“When I myself have mattered so little?”
“That of course is not what I meant to say. When I’ve known and
appreciated such a woman as you.”
“Isabel Archer’s better than I,” said Madame Merle.
Her companion gave a laugh. “How little you must think of her
to say that!”
“Do you suppose I’m capable of jealousy? Please answer me that.”
“With regard to me? No; on the whole I don’t.”
“Come and see me then, two days hence. I’m staying at Mrs.
Touchett’s—Palazzo Crescentini—and the girl will be there.”
“Why didn’t you ask me that at first simply, without speaking of
the girl?” said Osmond. “You could have had her there at any rate.”
Madame Merle looked at him in the manner of a woman whom
no question he could ever put would find unprepared. “Do you
wish to know why? Because I’ve spoken of you to her.”
Osmond frowned and turned away. “I’d rather not know that.”
Then in a moment he pointed out the easel supporting the little
water-colour drawing. “Have you seen what’s there—my last?”
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Madame Merle drew near and considered. “Is it the Venetian
Alps—one of your last year’s sketches?”
“Yes—but how you guess everything!”
She looked a moment longer, then turned away. “You know I
don’t care for your drawings.”
“I know it, yet I’m always surprised at it. They’re really so much
better than most people’s.”
“That may very well be. But as the only thing you do—well, it’s
so little. I should have liked you to do so many other things: those
were my ambitions.”
“Yes; you’ve told me many times—things that were impossible.”
“Things that were impossible,” said Madame Merle. And then in
quite a different tone: “In itself your little picture’s very good.” She
looked about the room—at the old cabinets, pictures, tapestries,
surfaces of faded silk. “Your rooms at least are perfect. I’m struck
with that afresh whenever I come back; I know none better anywhere. You understand this sort of thing as nobody anywhere does.
You’ve such adorable taste.”
“I’m sick of my adorable taste,” said Gilbert Osmond.
“You must nevertheless let Miss Archer come and see it. I’ve told
her about it.”
“I don’t object to showing my things—when people are not idiots.”
“You do it delightfully. As cicerone of your museum you appear
to particular advantage.”
Mr. Osmond, in return for this compliment, simply looked at
once colder and more attentive. “Did you say she was rich?”
“She has seventy thousand pounds.”
“En ecus bien comptes?”
“There’s no doubt whatever about her fortune. I’ve seen it, as I
may say.”
“Satisfactory woman!—I mean you. And if I go to see her shall I
see the mother?”
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“The mother? She has none—nor father either.”
“The aunt then—whom did you say?—Mrs. Touchett. “I can easily
keep her out of the way.”
“I don’t object to her,” said Osmond; “I rather like Mrs. Touchett.
She has a sort of old-fashioned character that’s passing away—a vivid
identity. But that long jackanapes the son—is he about the place?”
“He’s there, but he won’t trouble you.”
“He’s a good deal of a donkey.”
“I think you’re mistaken. He’s a very clever man. But he’s not fond
of being about when I’m there, because he doesn’t like me.”
“What could he be more asinine than that? Did you say she has
looks?” Osmond went on.
“Yes; but I won’t say it again, lest you should be disappointed in
them. Come and make a beginning; that’s all I ask of you.”
“A beginning of what?”
Madame Merle was silent a little. “I want you of course to marry
her.”
“The beginning of the end? Well, I’ll see for myself. Have you
told her that?”
“For what do you take me? She’s not so coarse a piece of machinery—nor am I.”
“Really,” said Osmond after some meditation, “I don’t understand
your ambitions.”
“I think you’ll understand this one after you’ve seen Miss Archer.
Suspend your judgement.” Madame Merle, as she spoke, had drawn
near the open door of the garden, where she stood a moment looking out. “Pansy has really grown pretty,” she presently added.
“So it seemed to me.”
“But she has had enough of the convent.”
“I don’t know,” said Osmond. “I like what they’ve made of her.
It’s very charming.”
“That’s not the convent. It’s the child’s nature.”
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“It’s the combination, I think. She’s as pure as a pearl.”
“Why doesn’t she come back with my flowers then?” Madame
Merle asked. “She’s not in a hurry.”
“We’ll go and get them.”
“She doesn’t like me,” the visitor murmured as she raised her parasol
and they passed into the garden.
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CHAPTER XXIII
MADAME MERLE, who had come to Florence on Mrs. Touchett’s arrival at the invitation of this lady—Mrs. Touchett offering her for a
month the hospitality of Palazzo Crescentini—the judicious Madame Merle spoke to Isabel afresh about Gilbert Osmond and expressed the hope she might know him; making, however, no such
point of the matter as we have seen her do in recommending the
girl herself to Mr. Osmond’s attention. The reason of this was perhaps that Isabel offered no resistance whatever to Madame Merle’s
proposal. In Italy, as in England, the lady had a multitude of friends,
both among the natives of the country and its heterogeneous visitors. She had mentioned to Isabel most of the people the girl would
find it well to “meet”—of course, she said, Isabel could know whomever in the wide world she would—and had placed Mr. Osmond
near the top of the list. He was an old friend of her own; she had
known him these dozen years; he was one of the cleverest and most
agreeable men—well, in Europe simply. He was altogether above
the respectable average; quite another affair. He wasn’t a professional
charmer—far from it, and the effect he produced depended a good
deal on the state of his nerves and his spirits. When not in the right
mood he could fall as low as any one, saved only by his looking at
such hours rather like a demoralised prince in exile. But if he cared
or was interested or rightly challenged—just exactly rightly it had
to be—then one felt his cleverness and his distinction. Those qualities didn’t depend, in him, as in so many people, on his not com299
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mitting or exposing himself. He had his perversities—which indeed
Isabel would find to be the case with all the men really worth knowing—and didn’t cause his light to shine equally for all persons. Madame Merle, however, thought she could undertake that for Isabel
he would be brilliant. He was easily bored, too easily, and dull people
always put him out; but a quick and cultivated girl like Isabel would
give him a stimulus which was too absent from his life. At any rate
he was a person not to miss. One shouldn’t attempt to live in Italy
without making a friend of Gilbert Osmond, who knew more about
the country than any one except two or three German professors.
And if they had more knowledge than he it was he who had most
perception and taste—being artistic through and through. Isabel
remembered that her friend had spoken of him during their plunge,
at Gardencourt, into the deeps of talk, and wondered a little what
was the nature of the tie binding these superior spirits. She felt that
Madame Merle’s ties always somehow had histories, and such an
impression was part of the interest created by this inordinate woman.
As regards her relations with Mr. Osmond, however, she hinted at
nothing but a long-established calm friendship. Isabel said she should
be happy to know a person who had enjoyed so high a confidence
for so many years. “You ought to see a great many men,” Madame
Merle remarked; “you ought to see as many as possible, so as to get
used to them.”
“Used to them?” Isabel repeated with that solemn stare which
sometimes seemed to proclaim her deficient in the sense of comedy.
“Why, I’m not afraid of them—I’m as used to them as the cook to
the butcher-boys.”
“Used to them, I mean, so as to despise them. That’s what one
comes to with most of them. You’ll pick out, for your society, the
few whom you don’t despise.”
This was a note of cynicism that Madame Merle didn’t often allow herself to sound; but Isabel was not alarmed, for she had never
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supposed that as one saw more of the world the sentiment of respect became the most active of one’s emotions. It was excited, none
the less, by the beautiful city of Florence, which pleased her not less
than Madame Merle had promised; and if her unassisted perception had not been able to gauge its charms she had clever companions as priests to the mystery. She was—in no want indeed of esthetic illumination, for Ralph found it a joy that renewed his own
early passion to act as cicerone to his eager young kinswoman. Madame Merle remained at home; she had seen the treasures of Florence again and again and had always something else to do. But she
talked of all things with remarkable vividness of memory—she recalled the right-hand corner of the large Perugino and the position
of the hands of the Saint Elizabeth in the picture next to it. She had
her opinions as to the character of many famous works of art, differing often from Ralph with great sharpness and defending her
interpretations with as much ingenuity as good-humour. Isabel listened to the discussions taking place between the two with a sense
that she might derive much benefit from them and that they were
among the advantages she couldn’t have enjoyed for instance in Albany. In the clear May mornings before the formal breakfast—this
repast at Mrs. Touchett’s was served at twelve o’clock—she wandered with her cousin through the narrow and sombre Florentine
streets, resting a while in the thicker dusk of some historic church
or the vaulted chambers of some dispeopled convent. She went to
the galleries and palaces; she looked at the pictures and statues that
had hitherto been great names to her, and exchanged for a knowledge which was sometimes a limitation a presentiment which proved
usually to have been a blank. She performed all those acts of mental
prostration in which, on a first visit to Italy, youth and enthusiasm
so freely indulge; she felt her heart beat in the presence of immortal
genius and knew the sweetness of rising tears in eyes to which faded
fresco and darkened marble grew dim. But the return, every day,
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was even pleasanter than the going forth; the return into the wide,
monumental court of the great house in which Mrs. Touchett, many
years before, had established herself, and into the high, cool rooms
where the carven rafters and pompous frescoes of the sixteenth century looked down on the familiar commodities of the age of advertisement. Mrs. Touchett inhabited an historic building in a narrow
street whose very name recalled the strife of medieval factions; and
found compensation for the darkness of her frontage in the modicity
of her rent and the brightness of a garden where nature itself looked
as archaic as the rugged architecture of the palace and which cleared
and scented the rooms in regular use. To live in such a place was, for
Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past. This
vague eternal rumour kept her imagination awake.
Gilbert Osmond came to see Madame Merle, who presented him
to the young lady lurking at the other side of the room. Isabel took
on this occasion little part in the talk; she scarcely even smiled when
the others turned to her invitingly; she sat there as if she had been at
the play and had paid even a large sum for her place. Mrs. Touchett
was not present, and these two had it, for the effect of brilliancy, all
their own way. They talked of the Florentine, the Roman, the cosmopolite world, and might have been distinguished performers figuring for a charity. It all had the rich readiness that would have
come from rehearsal. Madame Merle appealed to her as if she had
been on the stage, but she could ignore any learnt cue without spoiling the scene—though of course she thus put dreadfully in the wrong
the friend who had told Mr. Osmond she could be depended on.
This was no matter for once; even if more had been involved she
could have made no attempt to shine. There was something in the
visitor that checked her and held her in suspense—made it more
important she should get an impression of him than that she should
produce one herself. Besides, she had little skill in producing an
impression which she knew to be expected: nothing could be hap302
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pier, in general, than to seem dazzling, but she had a perverse unwillingness to glitter by arrangement. Mr. Osmond, to do him justice, had a well-bred air of expecting nothing, a quiet ease that covered everything, even the first show of his own wit. This was the
more grateful as his face, his head, was sensitive; he was not handsome, but he was fine, as fine as one of the drawings in the long
gallery above the bridge of the Uffizi. And his very voice was fine—
the more strangely that, with its clearness, it yet somehow wasn’t
sweet. This had had really to do with making her abstain from interference. His utterance was the vibration of glass, and if she had
put out her finger she might have changed the pitch and spoiled the
concert. Yet before he went she had to speak.
“Madame Merle,” he said, “consents to come up to my hill-top
some day next week and drink tea in my garden. It would give me
much pleasure if you would come with her. It’s thought rather
pretty—there’s what they call a general view. My daughter too would
be so glad—or rather, for she’s too young to have strong emotions,
I should be so glad—so very glad.” And Mr. Osmond paused with
a slight air of embarrassment, leaving his sentence unfinished. “I
should be so happy if you could know my daughter,” he went on a
moment afterwards.
Isabel replied that she should be delighted to see Miss Osmond
and that if Madame Merle would show her the way to the hill-top
she should be very grateful. Upon this assurance the visitor took his
leave; after which Isabel fully expected her friend would scold her
for having been so stupid. But to her surprise that lady, who indeed
never fell into the mere matter-of-course, said to her in a few moments
“You were charming, my dear; you were just as one would have
wished you. You’re never disappointing.”
A rebuke might possibly have been irritating, though it is much
more probable that Isabel would have taken it in good part; but,
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strange to say, the words that Madame Merle actually used caused
her the first feeling of displeasure she had known this ally to excite.
“That’s more than I intended,” she answered coldly. “I’m under no
obligation that I know of to charm Mr. Osmond.”
Madame Merle perceptibly flushed, but we know it was not her
habit to retract. “My dear child, I didn’t speak for him, poor man; I
spoke for yourself. It’s not of course a question as to his liking you;
it matters little whether he likes you or not! But I thought you liked
him.”
“I did,” said Isabel honestly. “But I don’t see what that matters
either.”
“Everything that concerns you matters to me,” Madame Merle
returned with her weary nobleness; “especially when at the same
time another old friend’s concerned.”
Whatever Isabel’s obligations may have been to Mr. Osmond, it
must be admitted that she found them sufficient to lead her to put
to Ralph sundry questions about him. She thought Ralph’s judgements distorted by his trials, but she flattered herself she had learned
to make allowance for that.
“Do I know him?” said her cousin. “Oh, yes, I ‘know’ him; not
well, but on the whole enough. I’ve never cultivated his society, and
he apparently has never found mine indispensable to his happiness.
Who is he, what is he? He’s a vague, unexplained American who has
been living these thirty years, or less, in Italy. Why do I call him
unexplained? Only as a cover for my ignorance; I don’t know his
antecedents, his family, his origin. For all I do know he may be a
prince in disguise; he rather looks like one, by the way—like a prince
who has abdicated in a fit of fastidiousness and has been in a state of
disgust ever since. He used to live in Rome; but of late years he has
taken up his abode here; I remember hearing him say that Rome
has grown vulgar. He has a great dread of vulgarity; that’s his special
line; he hasn’t any other that I know of. He lives on his income,
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which I suspect of not being vulgarly large. He’s a poor but honest
gentleman that’s what he calls himself. He married young and lost
his wife, and I believe he has a daughter. He also has a sister, who’s
married to some small Count or other, of these parts; I remember
meeting her of old. She’s nicer than he, I should think, but rather
impossible. I remember there used to be some stories about her. I
don’t think I recommend you to know her. But why don’t you ask
Madame Merle about these people? She knows them all much better than I.”
“I ask you because I want your opinion as well as hers,” said Isabel.
“A fig for my opinion! If you fall in love with Mr. Osmond what
will you care for that?”
“Not much, probably. But meanwhile it has a certain importance.
The more information one has about one’s dangers the better.”
“I don’t agree to that—it may make them dangers. We know too
much about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our
minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don’t mind anything any one tells you about any one else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.”
“That’s what I try to do,” said Isabel “but when you do that people
call you conceited.”
“You’re not to mind them—that’s precisely my argument; not to
mind what they say about yourself any more than what they say
about your friend or your enemy.”
Isabel considered. “I think you’re right; but there are some things
I can’t help minding: for instance when my friend’s attacked or when
I myself am praised.”
“Of course you’re always at liberty to judge the critic. Judge people
as critics, however,” Ralph added, “and you’ll condemn them all!”
“I shall see Mr. Osmond for myself,” said Isabel. “I’ve promised
to pay him a visit.”
“To pay him a visit?”
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“To go and see his view, his pictures, his daughter—I don’t know
exactly what. Madame Merle’s to take me; she tells me a great many
ladies call on him.”
“Ah, with Madame Merle you may go anywhere, de confiance,”
said Ralph. “She knows none but the best people.”
Isabel said no more about Mr. Osmond, but she presently remarked to her cousin that she was not satisfied with his tone about
Madame Merle. “It seems to me you insinuate things about her. I
don’t know what you mean, but if you’ve any grounds for disliking
her I think you should either mention them frankly or else say nothing at all.”
Ralph, however, resented this charge with more apparent earnestness than he commonly used. “I speak of Madame Merle exactly as
I speak to her: with an even exaggerated respect.”
“Exaggerated, precisely. That’s what I complain of.”
“I do so because Madame Merle’s merits are exaggerated.”
“By whom, pray? By me? If so I do her a poor service.”
“No, no; by herself.”
“Ah, I protest!” Isabel earnestly cried. “If ever there was a woman
who made small claims—!”
“You put your finger on it,” Ralph interrupted. “Her modesty’s
exaggerated. She has no business with small claims—she has a perfect right to make large ones.”
“Her merits are large then. You contradict yourself.”
“Her merits are immense,” said Ralph. “She’s indescribably blameless; a pathless desert of virtue; the only woman I know who never
gives one a chance.”
“A chance for what?”
“Well, say to call her a fool! She’s the only woman I know who has
but that one little fault.”
Isabel turned away with impatience. “I don’t understand you; you’re
too paradoxical for my plain mind.”
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“Let me explain. When I say she exaggerates I don’t mean it in the
vulgar sense—that she boasts, overstates, gives too fine an account
of herself. I mean literally that she pushes the search for perfection
too far—that her merits are in themselves overstrained. She’s too
good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too everything. She’s too complete, in a word. I confess to you that she
acts on my nerves and that I feel about her a good deal as that
intensely human Athenian felt about Aristides the Just.”
Isabel looked hard at her cousin; but the mocking spirit, if it lurked
in his words, failed on this occasion to peep from his face. “Do you
wish Madame Merle to be banished?”
“By no means. She’s much too good company. I delight in Madame Merle,” said Ralph Touchett simply.
“You’re very odious, sir!” Isabel exclaimed. And then she asked
him if he knew anything that was not to the honour of her brilliant
friend.
“Nothing whatever. Don’t you see that’s just what I mean? On the
character of every one else you may find some little black speck; if I
were to take half an hour to it, some day, I’ve no doubt I should be
able to find one on yours. For my own, of course, I’m spotted like a
leopard. But on Madame Merle’s nothing, nothing, nothing!”
“That’s just what I think!” said Isabel with a toss of her head.
“That is why I like her so much.”
“She’s a capital person for you to know. Since you wish to see the
world you couldn’t have a better guide.”
“I suppose you mean by that that she’s worldly?”
“Worldly? No,” said Ralph, “she’s the great round world itself!”
It had certainly not, as Isabel for the moment took it into her
head to believe, been a refinement of malice in him to say that he
delighted in Madame Merle. Ralph Touchett took his refreshment
wherever he could find it, and he would not have forgiven himself if
he had been left wholly unbeguiled by such a mistress of the social
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art. There are deep-lying sympathies and antipathies, and it may
have been that, in spite of the administered justice she enjoyed at
his hands, her absence from his mother’s house would not have
made life barren to him. But Ralph Touchett had learned more or
less inscrutably to attend, and there could have been nothing so
“sustained” to attend to as the general performance of Madame
Merle. He tasted her in sips, he let her stand, with an opportuneness she herself could not have surpassed. There were moments when
he felt almost sorry for her; and these, oddly enough, were the moments when his kindness was least demonstrative. He was sure she
had been yearningly ambitious and that what she had visibly accomplished was far below her secret measure. She had got herself
into perfect training, but had won none of the prizes. She was always plain Madame Merle, the widow of a Swiss negociant, with a
small income and a large acquaintance, who stayed with people a
great deal and was almost as universally “liked” as some new volume of smooth twaddle. The contrast between this position and
any one of some half-dozen others that he supposed to have at various moments engaged her hope had an element of the tragical. His
mother thought he got on beautifully with their genial guest; to
Mrs. Touchett’s sense two persons who dealt so largely in too-ingenious theories of conduct—that is of their own—would have much
in common. He had given due consideration to Isabel’s intimacy
with her eminent friend, having long since made up his mind that
he could not, without opposition, keep his cousin to himself; and
he made the best of it, as he had done of worse things. He believed
it would take care of itself; it wouldn’t last forever. Neither of these
two superior persons knew the other as well as she supposed, and
when each had made an important discovery or two there would
be, if not a rupture, at least a relaxation. Meanwhile he was quite
willing to admit that the conversation of the elder lady was an advantage to the younger, who had a great deal to learn and would
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doubtless learn it better from Madame Merle than from some other
instructors of the young. It was not probable that Isabel would be
injured.
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CHAPTER XXIV
IT WOULD CERTAINLY have been hard to see what injury could arise to
her from the visit she presently paid to Mr. Osmond’s hill-top. Nothing could have been more charming than this occasion—a soft afternoon in the full maturity of the Tuscan spring. The companions
drove out of the Roman Gate, beneath the enormous blank superstructure which crowns the fine clear arch of that portal and makes
it nakedly impressive, and wound between high-walled lanes into
which the wealth of blossoming orchards over-drooped and flung a
fragrance, until they reached the small superurban piazza, of crooked
shape, where the long brown wall of the villa occupied in part by
Mr. Osmond formed a principal, or at least a very imposing, object.
Isabel went with her friend through a wide, high court, where a
clear shadow rested below and a pair of light-arched galleries, facing
each other above, caught the upper sunshine upon their slim columns and the flowering plants in which they were dressed. There
was something grave and strong in the place; it looked somehow as
if, once you were in, you would need an act of energy to get out. For
Isabel, however, there was of course as yet no thought of getting
out, but only of advancing. Mr. Osmond met her in the cold antechamber—it was cold even in the month of May—and ushered her,
with her conductress, into the apartment to which we have already
been introduced. Madame Merle was in front, and while Isabel lingered a little, talking with him, she went forward familiarly and
greeted two persons who were seated in the saloon. One of these
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was little Pansy, on whom she bestowed a kiss; the other was a lady
whom Mr. Osmond indicated to Isabel as his sister, the Countess
Gemini. “And that’s my little girl,” he said, “who has just come out
of her convent.”
Pansy had on a scant white dress, and her fair hair was neatly
arranged in a net; she wore her small shoes tied sandal-fashion about
her ankles. She made Isabel a little conventual curtsey and then
came to be kissed. The Countess Gemini simply nodded without
getting up: Isabel could see she was a woman of high fashion. She
was thin and dark and not at all pretty, having features that suggested some tropical bird—a long beak-like nose, small, quicklymoving eyes and a mouth and chin that receded extremely. Her
expression, however, thanks to various intensities of emphasis and
wonder, of horror and joy, was not inhuman, and, as regards her
appearance, it was plain she understood herself and made the most
of her points. Her attire, voluminous and delicate, bristling with
elegance, had the look of shimmering plumage, and her attitudes
were as light and sudden as those of a creature who perched upon
twigs. She had a great deal of manner; Isabel, who had never known
any one with so much manner, immediately classed her as the most
affected of women. She remembered that Ralph had not recommended her as an acquaintance; but she was ready to acknowledge
that to a casual view the Countess Gemini revealed no depths. Her
demonstrations suggested the violent waving of some flag of general truce—white silk with fluttering streamers.
“You’ll believe I’m glad to see you when I tell you it’s only because
I knew you were to be here that I came myself. I don’t come and see
my brother—I make him come and see me. This hill of his is impossible—I don’t see what possesses him. Really, Osmond, you’ll be
the ruin of my horses some day, and if it hurts them you’ll have to
give me another pair. I heard them wheezing to-day; I assure you I
did. It’s very disagreeable to hear one’s horses wheezing when one’s
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sitting in the carriage; it sounds too as if they weren’t what they
should be. But I’ve always had good horses; whatever else I may have
lacked I’ve always managed that. My husband doesn’t know much,
but I think he knows a horse. In general Italians don’t, but my husband goes in, according to his poor light, for everything English. My
horses are English—so it’s all the greater pity they should be ruined. I
must tell you,” she went on, directly addressing Isabel, “that Osmond
doesn’t often invite me; I don’t think he likes to have me. It was quite
my own idea, coming to-day. I like to see new people, and I’m sure
you’re very new. But don’t sit there; that chair’s not what it looks.
There are some very good seats here, but there are also some horrors.”
These remarks were delivered with a series of little jerks and pecks,
of roulades of shrillness, and in an accent that was as some fond
recall of good English, or rather of good American, in adversity.
“I don’t like to have you, my dear?” said her brother. “I’m sure
you’re invaluable.”
“I don’t see any horrors anywhere,” Isabel returned, looking about
her. “Everything seems to me beautiful and precious.”
“I’ve a few good things,” Mr. Osmond allowed; “indeed I’ve nothing very bad. But I’ve not what I should have liked.”
He stood there a little awkwardly, smiling and glancing about; his
manner was an odd mixture of the detached and the involved. He
seemed to hint that nothing but the right “values” was of any consequence. Isabel made a rapid induction: perfect simplicity was not
the badge of his family. Even the little girl from the convent, who,
in her prim white dress, with her small submissive face and her
hands locked before her, stood there as if she were about to partake
of her first communion, even Mr. Osmond’s diminutive daughter
had a kind of finish that was not entirely artless.
“You’d have liked a few things from the Uffzi and the Pitti—that’s
what you’d have liked,” said Madame Merle.
“Poor Osmond, with his old curtains and crucifixes!” the Count312
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ess Gemini exclaimed: she appeared to call her brother only by his
family-name. Her ejaculation had no particular object; she smiled
at Isabel as she made it and looked at her from head to foot.
Her brother had not heard her; he seemed to be thinking what he
could say to Isabel. “Won’t you have some tea?—you must be very
tired,” he at last bethought himself of remarking.
“No indeed, I’m not tired; what have I done to tire me?” Isabel
felt a certain need of being very direct, of pretending to nothing;
there was something in the air, in her general impression of things—
she could hardly have said what it was—that deprived her of all
disposition to put herself forward. The place, the occasion, the combination of people, signified more than lay on the surface; she would
try to understand—she would not simply utter graceful platitudes.
Poor Isabel was doubtless not aware that many women would have
uttered graceful platitudes to cover the working of their observation. It must be confessed that her pride was a trifle alarmed. A man
she had heard spoken of in terms that excited interest and who was
evidently capable of distinguishing himself, had invited her, a young
lady not lavish of her favours, to come to his house. Now that she
had done so the burden of the entertainment rested naturally on his
wit. Isabel was not rendered less observant, and for the moment, we
judge, she was not rendered more indulgent, by perceiving that Mr.
Osmond carried his burden less complacently than might have been
expected. “What a fool I was to have let myself so needlessly in—
!”she could fancy his exclaiming to himself.
“You’ll be tired when you go home, if he shows you all his bibelots
and gives you a lecture on each,” said the Countess Gemini.
“I’m not afraid of that; but if I’m tired I shall at least have learned
something.”
“Very little, I suspect. But my sister’s dreadfully afraid of learning
anything,” said Mr. Osmond.
“Oh, I confess to that; I don’t want to know anything more—I
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know too much already. The more you know the more unhappy
you are.”
“You should not undervalue knowledge before Pansy, who has
not finished her education,” Madame Merle interposed with a smile.
“Pansy will never know any harm,” said the child’s father. “Pansy’s a
little convent-flower.”
“Oh, the convents, the convents!” cried the Countess with a flutter of her ruffles. “Speak to me of the convents! You may learn anything there; I’m a convent-flower myself. I don’t pretend to be good,
but the nuns do. Don’t you see what I mean?” she went on, appealing to Isabel.
Isabel was not sure she saw, and she answered that she was very
bad at following arguments. The Countess then declared that she
herself detested arguments, but that this was her brother’s taste —
he would always discuss. “For me,” she said, “one should like a thing
or one shouldn’t; one can’t like everything, of course. But one
shouldn’t attempt to reason it out—you never know where it may
lead you. There are some very good feelings that may have bad reasons, don’t you know? And then there are very bad feelings, sometimes, that have good reasons. Don’t you see what I mean? I don’t
care anything about reasons, but I know what I like.”
“Ah, that’s the great thing,” said Isabel, smiling and suspecting
that her acquaintance with this lightly flitting personage would not
lead to intellectual repose. If the Countess objected to argument
Isabel at this moment had as little taste for it, and she put out her
hand to Pansy with a pleasant sense that such a gesture committed
her to nothing that would admit of a divergence of views. Gilbert
Osmond apparently took a rather hopeless view of his sister’s tone;
he turned the conversation to another topic. He presently sat down
on the other side of his daughter, who had shyly brushed Isabel’s
fingers with her own; but he ended by drawing her out of her chair
and making her stand between his knees, leaning against him while
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he passed his arm round her slimness. The child fixed her eyes on
Isabel with a still, disinterested gaze which seemed void of an intention, yet conscious of an attraction. Mr. Osmond talked of many
things; Madame Merle had said he could be agreeable when he chose,
and to-day, after a little, he appeared not only to have chosen but to
have determined. Madame Merle and the Countess Gemini sat a
little apart, conversing in the effortless manner of persons who knew
each other well enough to take their ease; but every now and then
Isabel heard the Countess, at something said by her companion,
plunge into the latter’s lucidity as a poodle splashes after a thrown
stick. It was as if Madame Merle were seeing how far she would go.
Mr. Osmond talked of Florence, of Italy, of the pleasure of living in
that country and of the abatements to the pleasure. There were both
satisfactions and drawbacks; the drawbacks were numerous; strangers were too apt to see such a world as all romantic. It met the case
soothingly for the human, for the social failure—by which he meant
the people who couldn’t “realise,” as they said, on their sensibility:
they could keep it about them there, in their poverty, without ridicule, as you might keep an heirloom or an inconvenient entailed
place that brought you in nothing. Thus there were advantages in
living in the country which contained the greatest sum of beauty.
Certain impressions you could get only there. Others, favourable to
life, you never got, and you got some that were very bad. But from
time to time you got one of a quality that made up for everything.
Italy, all the same, had spoiled a great many people; he was even
fatuous enough to believe at times that he himself might have been
a better man if he had spent less of his life there. It made one idle
and dilettantish and second-rate; it had no discipline for the character, didn’t cultivate in you, otherwise expressed, the successful social
and other “cheek” that flourished in Paris and London. “We’re sweetly
provincial,” said Mr. Osmond, “and I’m perfectly aware that I myself am as rusty as a key that has no lock to fit it. It polishes me up a
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little to talk with you—not that I venture to pretend I can turn that
very complicated lock I suspect your intellect of being! But you’ll be
going away before I’ve seen you three times, and I shall perhaps
never see you after that. That’s what it is to live in a country that
people come to. When they’re disagreeable here it’s bad enough;
when they’re agreeable it’s still worse. As soon as you like them they’re
off again! I’ve been deceived too often; I’ve ceased to form attachments, to permit myself to feel attractions. You mean to stay—to
settle? That would be really comfortable. Ah yes, your aunt’s a sort
of guarantee; I believe she may be depended on. Oh, she’s an old
Florentine; I mean literally an old one; not a modern outsider. She’s
a contemporary of the Medici; she must have been present at the
burning of Savonarola, and I’m not sure she didn’t throw a handful
of chips into the flame. Her face is very much like some faces in the
early pictures; little, dry, definite faces that must have had a good
deal of expression, but almost always the same one. Indeed I can
show you her portrait in a fresco of Ghirlandaio’s. I hope you don’t
object to my speaking that way of your aunt, eh? I’ve an idea you
don’t. Perhaps you think that’s even worse. I assure you there’s no
want of respect in it, to either of you. You know I’m a particular
admirer of Mrs. Touchett.”
While Isabel’s host exerted himself to entertain her in this somewhat confidential fashion she looked occasionally at Madame Merle,
who met her eyes with an inattentive smile in which, on this occasion, there was no infelicitous intimation that our heroine appeared
to advantage. Madame Merle eventually proposed to the Countess
Gemini that they should go into the garden, and the Countess, rising
and shaking out her feathers, began to rustle toward the door. “Poor
Miss Archer!” she exclaimed, surveying the other group with expressive compassion. “She has been brought quite into the family.”
“Miss Archer can certainly have nothing but sympathy for a family to which you belong,” Mr. Osmond answered, with a laugh which,
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though it had something of a mocking ring, had also a finer patience.
“I don’t know what you mean by that! I’m sure she’ll see no harm
in me but what you tell her. I’m better than he says, Miss Archer,”
the Countess went on. “I’m only rather an idiot and a bore. Is that
all he has said? Ah then, you keep him in good-humour. Has he
opened on one of his favourite subjects? I give you notice that there
are two or three that he treats a fond. In that case you had better
take off your bonnet.”
“I don’t think I know what Mr. Osmond’s favourite subjects are,”
said Isabel, who had risen to her feet.
The Countess assumed for an instant an attitude of intense meditation, pressing one of her hands, with the finger-tips gathered together, to her forehead. “I’ll tell you in a moment. One’s Machiavelli;
the other’s Vittoria Colonna; the next is Metastasio.”
“Ah, with me,” said Madame Merle, passing her arm into the
Countess Gemini’s as if to guide her course to the garden, “Mr.
Osmond’s never so historical.”
“Oh you,” the Countess answered as they moved away, “you yourself are Machiavelli—you yourself are Vittoria Colonna!”
“We shall hear next that poor Madame Merle is Metastasio!” Gilbert Osmond resignedly sighed.
Isabel had got up on the assumption that they too were to go into
the garden; but her host stood there with no apparent inclination to
leave the room, his hands in the pockets of his jacket and his daughter, who had now locked her arm into one of his own, clinging to
him and looking up while her eyes moved from his own face to
Isabel’s. Isabel waited, with a certain unuttered contentedness, to
have her movements directed; she liked Mr. Osmond’s talk, his company: she had what always gave her a very private thrill, the consciousness of a new relation. Through the open doors of the great
room she saw Madame Merle and the Countess stroll across the fine
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grass of the garden; then she turned, and her eyes wandered over the
things scattered about her. The understanding had been that Mr.
Osmond should show her his treasures; his pictures and cabinets all
looked like treasures. Isabel after a moment went toward one of the
pictures to see it better; but just as she had done so he said to her
abruptly: “Miss Archer, what do you think of my sister?”
She faced him with some surprise. “Ah, don’t ask me that—I’ve
seen your sister too little.”
“Yes, you’ve seen her very little; but you must have observed that
there is not a great deal of her to see. What do you think of our
family tone?” he went on with his cool smile. “I should like to know
how it strikes a fresh, unprejudiced mind. I know what you’re going
to say—you’ve had almost no observation of it. Of course this is
only a glimpse. But just take notice, in future, if you have a chance.
I sometimes think we’ve got into a rather bad way, living off here
among things and people not our own, without responsibilities or
attachments, with nothing to hold us together or keep us up; marrying foreigners, forming artificial tastes, playing tricks with our
natural mission. Let me add, though, that I say that much more for
myself than for my sister. She’s a very honest lady—more so than
she seems. She’s rather unhappy, and as she’s not of a serious turn
she doesn’t tend to show it tragically: she shows it comically instead.
She has got a horrid husband, though I’m not sure she makes the
best of him. Of course, however, a horrid husband’s an awkward
thing. Madame Merle gives her excellent advice, but it’s a good deal
like giving a child a dictionary to learn a language with. He can look
out the words, but he can’t put them together. My sister needs a
grammar, but unfortunately she’s not grammatical. Pardon my troubling you with these details; my sister was very right in saying you’ve
been taken into the family. Let me take down that picture; you want
more light.”
He took down the picture, carried it toward the window, related
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some curious facts about it. She looked at the other works of art,
and he gave her such further information as might appear most
acceptable to a young lady making a call on a summer afternoon.
His pictures, his medallions and tapestries were interesting; but after a while Isabel felt the owner much more so, and independently
of them, thickly as they seemed to overhang him. He resembled no
one she had ever seen; most of the people she knew might be divided into groups of half a dozen specimens. There were one or two
exceptions to this; she could think for instance of no group that
would contain her aunt Lydia. There were other people who were,
relatively speaking, original—original, as one might say, by courtesy such as Mr. Goodwood, as her cousin Ralph, as Henrietta
Stackpole, as Lord Warburton, as Madame Merle. But in essentials,
when one came to look at them, these individuals belonged to types
already present to her mind. Her mind contained no class offering a
natural place to Mr. Osmond—he was a specimen apart. It was not
that she recognised all these truths at the hour, but they were falling
into order before her. For the moment she only said to herself that
this “new relation” would perhaps prove her very most distinguished.
Madame Merle had had that note of rarity, but what quite other
power it immediately gained when sounded by a man! It was not so
much what he said and did, but rather what he withheld, that marked
him for her as by one of those signs of the highly curious that he
was showing her on the underside of old plates and in the corner of
sixteenth-century drawings: he indulged in no striking deflections
from common usage, he was an original without being an eccentric.
She had never met a person of so fine a grain. The peculiarity was
physical, to begin with, and it extended to impalpabilities. His dense,
delicate hair, his overdrawn, retouched features, his clear complexion, ripe without being coarse, the very evenness of the growth of
his beard, and that light, smooth slenderness of structure which
made the movement of a single one of his fingers produce the effect
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of an expressive gesture—these personal points struck our sensitive
young woman as signs of quality, of intensity, somehow as promises
of interest. He was certainly fastidious and critical; he was probably
irritable. His sensibility had governed him—possibly governed him
too much; it had made him impatient of vulgar troubles and had
led him to live by himself, in a sorted, sifted, arranged world, thinking about art and beauty and history. He had consulted his taste in
everything—his taste alone perhaps, as a sick man consciously incurable consults at last only his lawyer: that was what made him so
different from every one else. Ralph had something of this same
quality, this appearance of thinking that life was a matter of connoisseurship; but in Ralph it was an anomaly, a kind of humorous
excrescence, whereas in Mr. Osmond it was the keynote, and everything was in harmony with it. She was certainly far from understanding him completely; his meaning was not at all times obvious.
It was hard to see what he meant for instance by speaking of his
provincial side—which was exactly the side she would have taken
him most to lack. Was it a harmless paradox, intended to puzzle
her? or was it the last refinement of high culture? She trusted she
should learn in time; it would be very interesting to learn. If it was
provincial to have that harmony, what then was the finish of the
capital? And she could put this question in spite of so feeling her
host a shy personage; since such shyness as his—the shyness of ticklish nerves and fine perceptions—was perfectly consistent with the
best breeding. Indeed it was almost a proof of standards and touchstones other than the vulgar: he must be so sure the vulgar would be
first on the ground. He wasn’t a man of easy assurance, who chatted
and gossiped with the fluency of a superficial nature; he was critical
of himself as well as of others, and, exacting a good deal of others, to
think them agreeable, probably took a rather ironical view of what
he himself offered: a proof into the bargain that he was not grossly
conceited. If he had not been shy he wouldn’t have effected that
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gradual, subtle, successful conversion of it to which she owed both
what pleased her in him and what mystified her. If he had suddenly
asked her what she thought of the Countess Gemini, that was doubtless a proof that he was interested in her; it could scarcely be as a
help to knowledge of his own sister. That he should be so interested
showed an enquiring mind; but it was a little singular he should
sacrifice his fraternal feeling to his curiosity. This was the most eccentric thing he had done.
There were two other rooms, beyond the one in which she had
been received, equally full of romantic objects, and in these apartments Isabel spent a quarter of an hour. Everything was in the last
degree curious and precious, and Mr. Osmond continued to be the
kindest of ciceroni as he led her from one fine piece to another and
still held his little girl by the hand. His kindness almost surprised
our young friend, who wondered why he should take so much trouble
for her; and she was oppressed at last with the accumulation of beauty
and knowledge to which she found herself introduced. There was
enough for the present; she had ceased to attend to what he said;
she listened to him with attentive eyes, but was not thinking of
what he told her. He probably thought her quicker, cleverer in every
way, more prepared, than she was. Madame Merle would have pleasantly exaggerated; which was a pity, because in the end he would be
sure to find out, and then perhaps even her real intelligence wouldn’t
reconcile him to his mistake. A part of Isabel’s fatigue came from
the effort to appear as intelligent as she believed Madame Merle had
described her, and from the fear (very unusual with her) of exposing—not her ignorance; for that she cared comparatively little—
but her possible grossness of perception. It would have annoyed her
to express a liking for something he, in his superior enlightenment,
would think she oughtn’t to like; or to pass by something at which
the truly initiated mind would arrest itself. She had no wish to fall
into that grotesqueness—in which she had seen women (and it was
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a warning) serenely, yet ignobly, flounder. She was very careful therefore as to what she said, as to what she noticed or failed to notice;
more careful than she had ever been before.
They came back into the first of the rooms, where the tea had been
served; but as the two other ladies were still on the terrace, and as
Isabel had not yet been made acquainted with the view, the paramount distinction of the place, Mr. Osmond directed her steps into
the garden without more delay. Madame Merle and the Countess
had had chairs brought out, and as the afternoon was lovely the Countess proposed they should take their tea in the open air. Pansy therefore was sent to bid the servant bring out the preparations. The sun
had got low, the golden light took a deeper tone, and on the mountains and the plain that stretched beneath them the masses of purple
shadow glowed as richly as the places that were still exposed. The
scene had an extraordinary charm. The air was almost solemnly still,
and the large expanse of the landscape, with its garden-like culture
and nobleness of outline, its teeming valley and delicately-fretted hills,
its peculiarly human-looking touches of habitation, lay there in splendid harmony and classic grace. “You seem so well pleased that I think
you can be trusted to come back,” Osmond said as he led his companion to one of the angles of the terrace.
“I shall certainly come back,” she returned, “in spite of what you
say about its being bad to live in Italy. What was that you said about
one’s natural mission? I wonder if I should forsake my natural mission if I were to settle in Florence.”
“A woman’s natural mission is to be where she’s most appreciated.”
“The point’s to find out where that is.”
“Very true—she often wastes a great deal of time in the enquiry.
People ought to make it very plain to her.”
“Such a matter would have to be made very plain to me,” smiled
Isabel.
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“I’m glad, at any rate, to hear you talk of settling. Madame Merle
had given me an idea that you were of a rather roving disposition. I
thought she spoke of your having some plan of going round the
world.”
“I’m rather ashamed of my plans; I make a new one every day.”
“I don’t see why you should be ashamed; it’s the greatest of pleasures.”
“It seems frivolous, I think,” said Isabel. “One ought to choose
something very deliberately, and be faithful to that.”
“By that rule then, I’ve not been frivolous.”
“Have you never made plans?”
“Yes, I made one years ago, and I’m acting on it to-day.”
“It must have been a very pleasant one,” Isabel permitted herself
to observe.
“It was very simple. It was to be as quiet as possible.”
“As quiet?” the girl repeated.
“Not to worry—not to strive nor struggle. To resign myself. To be
content with little.” He spoke these sentences slowly, with short
pauses between, and his intelligent regard was fixed on his visitor’s
with the conscious air of a man who has brought himself to confess
something.
“Do you call that simple?” she asked with mild irony.
“Yes, because it’s negative.”
“Has your life been negative?”
“Call it affirmative if you like. Only it has affirmed my indifference. Mind you, not my natural indifference—I had none. But my
studied, my wilful renunciation.”
She scarcely understood him; it seemed a question whether he were
joking or not. Why should a man who struck her as having a great
fund of reserve suddenly bring himself to be so confidential? This was
his affair, however, and his confidences were interesting. “I don’t see
why you should have renounced,” she said in a moment.
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“Because I could do nothing. I had no prospects, I was poor, and
I was not a man of genius. I had no talents even; I took my measure
early in life. I was simply the most fastidious young gentleman living. There were two or three people in the world I envied—the
Emperor of Russia, for instance, and the Sultan of Turkey! There
were even moments when I envied the Pope of Rome—for the consideration he enjoys. I should have been delighted to be considered
to that extent; but since that couldn’t be I didn’t care for anything
less, and I made up my mind not to go in for honours. The leanest
gentleman can always consider himself, and fortunately I was, though
lean, a gentleman. I could do nothing in Italy—I couldn’t even be
an Italian patriot. To do that I should have had to get out of the
country; and I was too fond of it to leave it, to say nothing of my
being too well satisfied with it, on the whole, as it then was, to wish
it altered. So I’ve passed a great many years here on that quiet plan
I spoke of. I’ve not been at all unhappy. I don’t mean to say I’ve
cared for nothing; but the things I’ve cared for have been definite—
limited. The events of my life have been absolutely unperceived by
any one save myself; getting an old silver crucifix at a bargain (I’ve
never bought anything dear, of course), or discovering, as I once
did, a sketch by Correggio on a panel daubed over by some inspired
idiot.”
This would have been rather a dry account of Mr. Osmond’s career if Isabel had fully believed it; but her imagination supplied the
human element which she was sure had not been wanting. His life
had been mingled with other lives more than he admitted; naturally
she couldn’t expect him to enter into this. For the present she abstained from provoking further revelations; to intimate that he had
not told her everything would be more familiar and less considerate
than she now desired to be—would in fact be uproariously vulgar.
He had certainly told her quite enough. It was her present inclination, however, to express a measured sympathy for the success with
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which he had preserved his independence. “That’s a very pleasant
life,” she said, “to renounce everything but Correggio!”
“Oh, I’ve made in my way a good thing of it. Don’t imagine I’m
whining about it. It’s one’s own fault if one isn’t happy.”
This was large; she kept down to something smaller. “Have you
lived here always?”
“No, not always. I lived a long time at Naples, and many years in
Rome. But I’ve been here a good while. Perhaps I shall have to change,
however; to do something else. I’ve no longer myself to think of.
My daughter’s growing up and may very possibly not care so much
for the Correggios and crucifixes as I. I shall have to do what’s best
for Pansy.”
“Yes, do that,” said Isabel. “She’s such a dear little girl.”
“Ah,” cried Gilbert Osmond beautifully, “she’s a little saint of
heaven! She is my great happiness!”
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CHAPTER XXV
WHILE THIS SUFFICIENTLY intimate colloquy (prolonged for some time
after we cease to follow it) went forward Madame Merle and her companion, breaking a silence of some duration, had begun to exchange
remarks. They were sitting in an attitude of unexpressed expectancy; an
attitude especially marked on the part of the Countess Gemini, who,
being of a more nervous temperament than her friend, practised with
less success the art of disguising impatience. What these ladies were
waiting for would not have been apparent and was perhaps not very
definite to their own minds. Madame Merle waited for Osmond to
release their young friend from her tete-a-tete, and the Countess waited
because Madame Merle did. The Countess, moreover, by waiting, found
the time ripe for one of her pretty perversities. She might have desired
for some minutes to place it. Her brother wandered with Isabel to the
end of the garden, to which point her eyes followed them.
“My dear,” she then observed to her companion, “you’ll excuse
me if I don’t congratulate you!”
“Very willingly, for I don’t in the least know why you should.”
“Haven’t you a little plan that you think rather well of?” And the
Countess nodded at the sequestered couple.
Madame Merle’s eyes took the same direction; then she looked
serenely at her neighbour. “You know I never understand you very
well,” she smiled.
“No one can understand better than you when you wish. I see
that just now you don’t wish.”
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“You say things to me that no one else does,” said Madame Merle
gravely, yet without bitterness.
“You mean things you don’t like? Doesn’t Osmond sometimes say
such things?”
“What your brother says has a point.”
“Yes, a poisoned one sometimes. If you mean that I’m not so clever
as he you mustn’t think I shall suffer from your sense of our difference. But it will be much better that you should understand me.”
“Why so?” asked Madame Merle. “To what will it conduce?”
“If I don’t approve of your plan you ought to know it in order to
appreciate the danger of my interfering with it.”
Madame Merle looked as if she were ready to admit that there
might be something in this; but in a moment she said quietly: “You
think me more calculating than I am.”
“It’s not your calculating I think ill of; it’s your calculating wrong.
You’ve done so in this case.”
“You must have made extensive calculations yourself to discover
that.”
“No, I’ve not had time. I’ve seen the girl but this once,” said the
Countess, “and the conviction has suddenly come to me. I like her
very much.”
“So do I,” Madame Merle mentioned.
“You’ve a strange way of showing it.”
“Surely I’ve given her the advantage of making your acquaintance.”
“That indeed,” piped the Countess, “is perhaps the best thing
that could happen to her!”
Madame Merle said nothing for some time. The Countess’s manner was odious, was really low; but it was an old story, and with her
eyes upon the violet slope of Monte Morello she gave herself up to
reflection. “My dear lady,” she finally resumed, “I advise you not to
agitate yourself. The matter you allude to concerns three persons
much stronger of purpose than yourself.”
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“Three persons? You and Osmond of course. But is Miss Archer
also very strong of purpose?”
“Quite as much so as we.”
“Ah then,” said the Countess radiantly, “if I convince her it’s her
interest to resist you she’ll do so successfully!”
“Resist us? Why do you express yourself so coarsely? She’s not
exposed to compulsion or deception.”
“I’m not sure of that. You’re capable of anything, you and Osmond.
I don’t mean Osmond by himself, and I don’t mean you by yourself.
But together you’re dangerous—like some chemical combination.”
“You had better leave us alone then,” smiled Madame Merle.
“I don’t mean to touch you—but I shall talk to that girl.”
“My poor Amy,” Madame Merle murmured, “I don’t see what has
got into your head.”
“I take an interest in her—that’s what has got into my head. I like
her.”
Madame Merle hesitated a moment. “I don’t think she likes you.”
The Countess’s bright little eyes expanded and her face was set in
a grimace. “Ah, you are dangerous—even by yourself!”
“If you want her to like you don’t abuse your brother to her,” said
Madame Merle.
“I don’t suppose you pretend she has fallen in love with him in
two interviews.”
Madame Merle looked a moment at Isabel and at the master of
the house. He was leaning against the parapet, facing her, his arms
folded; and she at present was evidently not lost in the mere impersonal view, persistently as she gazed at it. As Madame Merle watched
her she lowered her eyes; she was listening, possibly with a certain
embarrassment, while she pressed the point of her parasol into the
path. Madame Merle rose from her chair. “Yes, I think so!” she pronounced.
The shabby footboy, summoned by Pansy—he might, tarnished
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as to livery and quaint as to type, have issued from some stray sketch
of old-time manners, been “put in” by the brush of a Longhi or a
Goya—had come out with a small table and placed it on the grass,
and then had gone back and fetched the tea-tray; after which he
had again disappeared, to return with a couple of chairs. Pansy had
watched these proceedings with the deepest interest, standing with
her small hands folded together upon the front of her scanty frock;
but she had not presumed to offer assistance. When the tea-table
had been arranged, however, she gently approached her aunt.
“Do you think papa would object to my making the tea?”
The Countess looked at her with a deliberately critical gaze and
without answering her question. “My poor niece,” she said, “is that
your best frock?”
“Ah no,” Pansy answered, “it’s just a little toilette for common
occasions.”
“Do you call it a common occasion when I come to see you?—to
say nothing of Madame Merle and the pretty lady yonder.”
Pansy reflected a moment, turning gravely from one of the persons mentioned to the other. Then her face broke into its perfect
smile. “I have a pretty dress, but even that one’s very simple. Why
should I expose it beside your beautiful things?”
“Because it’s the prettiest you have; for me you must always wear
the prettiest. Please put it on the next time. It seems to me they
don’t dress you so well as they might.”
The child sparingly stroked down her antiquated skirt. “It’s a good
little dress to make tea—don’t you think? Don’t you believe papa
would allow me?”
“Impossible for me to say, my child,” said the Countess. “For me,
your father’s ideas are unfathomable. Madame Merle understands
them better. Ask her.”
Madame Merle smiled with her usual grace. “It’s a weighty question—let me think. It seems to me it would please your father to see
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a careful little daughter making his tea. It’s the proper duty of the
daughter of the house—when she grows up.”
“So it seems to me, Madame Merle!” Pansy cried. “You shall see
how well I’ll make it. A spoonful for each.” And she began to busy
herself at the table.
“Two spoonfuls for me,” said the Countess, who, with Madame
Merle, remained for some moments watching her. “Listen to me,
Pansy,” the Countess resumed at last. “I should like to know what
you think of your visitor.”
“Ah, she’s not mine—she’s papa’s,” Pansy objected.
“Miss Archer came to see you as well,” said Madame Merle.
“I’m very happy to hear that. She has been very polite to me.”
“Do you like her then?” the Countess asked.
“She’s charming—charming,” Pansy repeated in her little neat
conversational tone. “She pleases me thoroughly.”
“And how do you think she pleases your father?”
“Ah really, Countess!” murmured Madame Merle dissuasively. “Go
and call them to tea,” she went on to the child.
“You’ll see if they don’t like it!” Pansy declared; and departed to
summon the others, who had still lingered at the end of the terrace.
“If Miss Archer’s to become her mother it’s surely interesting to
know if the child likes her,” said the Countess.
“If your brother marries again it won’t be for Pansy’s sake,” Madame Merle replied. “She’ll soon be sixteen, and after that she’ll
begin to need a husband rather than a stepmother.”
“And will you provide the husband as well?”
“I shall certainly take an interest in her marrying fortunately. I
imagine you’ll do the same.”
“Indeed I shan’t!” cried the Countess. “Why should I, of all women,
set such a price on a husband?”
“You didn’t marry fortunately; that’s what I’m speaking of. When
I say a husband I mean a good one.”
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“There are no good ones. Osmond won’t be a good one.”
Madame Merle closed her eyes a moment. “You’re irritated just now;
I don’t know why,” she presently said. “I don’t think you’ll really object either to your brother’s or to your niece’s marrying, when the
time comes for them to do so; and as regards Pansy I’m confident that
we shall some day have the pleasure of looking for a husband for her
together. Your large acquaintance will be a great help.”
“Yes, I’m irritated,” the Countess answered. “You often irritate
me. Your own coolness is fabulous. You’re a strange woman.”
“It’s much better that we should always act together,” Madame
Merle went on.
“Do you mean that as a threat?” asked the Countess rising. Madame Merle shook her head as for quiet amusement. “No indeed,
you’ve not my coolness!”
Isabel and Mr. Osmond were now slowly coming toward them
and Isabel had taken Pansy by the hand. “Do you pretend to believe
he’d make her happy?” the Countess demanded.
“If he should marry Miss Archer I suppose he’d behave like a gentleman.”
The Countess jerked herself into a succession of attitudes. “Do
you mean as most gentlemen behave? That would be much to be
thankful for! Of course Osmond’s a gentleman; his own sister needn’t
be reminded of that. But does he think he can marry any girl he
happens to pick out? Osmond’s a gentleman, of course; but I must
say I’ve never, no, no, never, seen any one of Osmond’s pretensions!
What they’re all founded on is more than I can say. I’m his own
sister; I might he supposed to know. Who is he, if you please? What
has he ever done? If there had been anything particularly grand in
his origin—if he were made of some superior clay—I presume I
should have got some inkling of it. If there had been any great
honours or splendours in the family I should certainly have made
the most of them: they would have been quite in my line. But there’s
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nothing, nothing, nothing. One’s parents were charming people of
course; but so were yours, I’ve no doubt. Every one’s a charming
person nowadays. Even I’m a charming person; don’t laugh, it has
literally been said. As for Osmond, he has always appeared to believe that he’s descended from the gods.”
“You may say what you please,” said Madame Merle, who had
listened to this quick outbreak none the less attentively, we may
believe, because her eye wandered away from the speaker and her
hands busied themselves with adjusting the knots of ribbon on her
dress. “You Osmonds are a fine race—your blood must flow from
some very pure source. Your brother, like an intelligent man, has
had the conviction of it if he has not had the proofs. You’re modest
about it, but you yourself are extremely distinguished. What do you
say about your niece? The child’s a little princess. Nevertheless,”
Madame Merle added, “it won’t be an easy matter for Osmond to
marry Miss Archer. Yet he can try.”
“I hope she’ll refuse him. It will take him down a little.”
“We mustn’t forget that he is one of the cleverest of men.”
“I’ve heard you say that before, but I haven’t yet discovered what
he has done.”
“What he has done? He has done nothing that has had to be
undone. And he has known how to wait.”
“To wait for Miss Archer’s money? How much of it is there?”
“That’s not what I mean,” said Madame Merle. “Miss Archer has
seventy thousand pounds.”
“Well, it’s a pity she’s so charming,” the Countess declared. “To
be sacrificed, any girl would do. She needn’t be superior.”
“If she weren’t superior your brother would never look at her. He
must have the best.”
“Yes,” returned the Countess as they went forward a little to meet
the others, “he’s very hard to satisfy. That makes me tremble for her
happiness!”
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CHAPTER XXVI
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
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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; he
had no conviction she would stop at a third. She would keep the gate
ajar and open a parley; she would certainly not allow number three to
come in. He expressed this view, somewhat after this fashion, to his
mother, who looked at him as if he had been dancing a jig. He had
such a fanciful, pictorial way of saying things that he might as well
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address her in the deaf-mute’s alphabet.
“I don’t think I know what you mean,” she said; “you use too
many figures of speech; I could never understand allegories. The
two words in the language I most respect are Yes and No. If Isabel
wants to marry Mr. Osmond she’ll do so in spite of all your comparisons. Let her alone to find a fine one herself for anything she
undertakes. I know very little about the young man in America; I
don’t think she spends much of her time in thinking of him, and I
suspect he has got tired of waiting for her. There’s nothing in life to
prevent her marrying Mr. Osmond if she only looks at him in a
certain way. That’s all very well; no one approves more than I of
one’s pleasing one’s self. But she takes her pleasure in such odd things;
she’s capable of marrying Mr. Osmond for the beauty of his opinions or for his autograph of Michael Angelo. She wants to be disinterested: as if she were the only person who’s in danger of not being so!
Will he be so disinterested when he has the spending of her money?
That was her idea before your father’s death, and it has acquired new
charms for her since. She ought to marry some one of whose disinterestedness she shall herself be sure; and there would be no such proof
of that as his having a fortune of his own.”
“My dear mother, I’m not afraid,” Ralph answered. “She’s making
fools of us all. She’ll please herself, of course; but she’ll do so by studying human nature at close quarters and yet retaining her liberty. She
has started on an exploring expedition, and I don’t think she’ll change
her course, at the outset, at a signal from Gilbert Osmond. She may
have slackened speed for an hour, but before we know it she’ll be
steaming away again. Excuse another metaphor.”
Mrs. Touchett excused it perhaps, but was not so much reassured
as to withhold from Madame Merle the expression of her fears. “You
who know everything,” she said, “you must know this: whether that
curious creature’s really making love to my niece.”
“Gilbert Osmond?” Madame Merle widened her clear eyes and,
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with a full intelligence, “Heaven help us,” she exclaimed, “that’s an
idea!”
“Hadn’t it occurred to you?”
“You make me feel an idiot, but I confess it hadn’t. I wonder,” she
added, “if it has occurred to Isabel.”
“Oh, I shall now ask her,” said Mrs. Touchett.
Madame Merle reflected. “Don’t put it into her head. The thing
would be to ask Mr. Osmond.”
“I can’t do that,” said Mrs. Touchett. “I won’t have him enquire of
me—as he perfectly may with that air of his, given Isabel’s situation—what business it is of mine.”
“I’ll ask him myself,” Madame Merle bravely declared.
“But what business—for him—is it of yours?”
“It’s being none whatever is just why I can afford to speak. It’s so
much less my business than any one’s else that he can put me off
with anything he chooses. But it will be by the way he does this that
I shall know.”
“Pray let me hear then,” said Mrs. Touchett, “of the fruits of your
penetration. If I can’t speak to him, however, at least I can speak to
Isabel.”
Her companion sounded at this the note of warning. “Don’t be
too quick with her. Don’t inflame her imagination.”
“I never did anything in life to any one’s imagination. But I’m
always sure of her doing something—well, not of my kind.”
“No, you wouldn’t like this,” Madame Merle observed without
the point of interrogation.
“Why in the world should I, pray? Mr. Osmond has nothing the
least solid to offer.”
Again Madame Merle was silent while her thoughtful smile drew
up her mouth even more charmingly than usual toward the left
corner. “Let us distinguish. Gilbert Osmond’s certainly not the first
comer. He’s a man who in favourable conditions might very well
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make a great impression. He has made a great impression, to my
knowledge, more than once.”
“Don’t tell me about his probably quite cold-blooded love-affairs;
they’re nothing to me!” Mrs. Touchett cried. “What you say’s precisely why I wish he would cease his visits. He has nothing in the
world that I know of but a dozen or two of early masters and a more
or less pert little daughter.”
“The early masters are now worth a good deal of money,” said
Madame Merle, “and the daughter’s a very young and very innocent and very harmless person.”
“In other words she’s an insipid little chit. Is that what you mean?
Having no fortune she can’t hope to marry as they marry here; so
that Isabel will have to furnish her either with a maintenance or
with a dowry.”
“Isabel probably wouldn’t object to being kind to her. I think she
likes the poor child.”
“Another reason then for Mr. Osmond’s stopping at home! Otherwise, a week hence, we shall have my niece arriving at the conviction that her mission in life’s to prove that a stepmother may sacrifice herself—and that, to prove it, she must first become one.”
“She would make a charming stepmother,” smiled Madame Merle;
“but I quite agree with you that she had better not decide upon her
mission too hastily. Changing the form of one’s mission’s almost as
difficult as changing the shape of one’s nose: there they are, each, in
the middle of one’s face and one’s character—one has to begin too
far back. But I’ll investigate and report to you.”
All this went on quite over Isabel’s head; she had no suspicions
that her relations with Mr. Osmond were being discussed. Madame
Merle had said nothing to put her on her guard; she alluded no
more pointedly to him than to the other gentlemen of Florence,
native and foreign, who now arrived in considerable numbers to
pay their respects to Miss Archer’s aunt. Isabel thought him inter337
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esting—she came back to that; she liked so to think of him. She had
carried away an image from her visit to his hill-top which her subsequent knowledge of him did nothing to efface and which put on for
her a particular harmony with other supposed and divined things,
histories within histories: the image of a quiet, clever, sensitive, distinguished man, strolling on a moss-grown terrace above the sweet
Val d’Arno and holding by the hand a little girl whose bell-like clearness gave a new grace to childhood. The picture had no flourishes,
but she liked its lowness of tone and the atmosphere of summer
twilight that pervaded it. It spoke of the kind of personal issue that
touched her most nearly; of the choice between objects, subjects,
contacts—what might she call them?—of a thin and those of a rich
association; of a lonely, studious life in a lovely land; of an old sorrow that sometimes ached to-day; of a feeling of pride that was
perhaps exaggerated, but that had an element of nobleness; of a care
for beauty and perfection so natural and so cultivated together that
the career appeared to stretch beneath it in the disposed vistas and
with the ranges of steps and terraces and fountains of a formal Italian garden—allowing only for arid places freshened by the natural
dews of a quaint half-anxious, half-helpless fatherhood. At Palazzo
Crescentini Mr. Osmond’s manner remained the same; diffident at
first—oh self-conscious beyond doubt! and full of the effort (visible
only to a sympathetic eye) to overcome this disadvantage; an effort
which usually resulted in a great deal of easy, lively, very positive,
rather aggressive, always suggestive talk. Mr. Osmond’s talk was not
injured by the indication of an eagerness to shine; Isabel found no
difficulty in believing that a person was sincere who had so many of
the signs of strong conviction—as for instance an explicit and graceful
appreciation of anything that might be said on his own side of the
question, said perhaps by Miss Archer in especial. What continued
to please this young woman was that while he talked so for amusement he didn’t talk, as she had heard people, for “effect.” He uttered
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his ideas as if, odd as they often appeared, he were used to them and
had lived with them; old polished knobs and heads and handles, of
precious substance, that could be fitted if necessary to new walkingsticks—not switches plucked in destitution from the common tree
and then too elegantly waved about. One day he brought his small
daughter with him, and she rejoiced to renew acquaintance with
the child, who, as she presented her forehead to be kissed by every
member of the circle, reminded her vividly of an ingenue in a French
play. Isabel had never seen a little person of this pattern; American
girls were very different—different too were the maidens of England. Pansy was so formed and finished for her tiny place in the
world, and yet in imagination, as one could see, so innocent and
infantine. She sat on the sofa by Isabel; she wore a small grenadine
mantle and a pair of the useful gloves that Madame Merle had given
her—little grey gloves with a single button. She was like a sheet of
blank paper—the ideal jeune fille of foreign fiction. Isabel hoped
that so fair and smooth a page would be covered with an edifying
text.
The Countess Gemini also came to call upon her, but the Countess was quite another affair. She was by no means a blank sheet; she
had been written over in a variety of hands, and Mrs. Touchett, who
felt by no means honoured by her visit, pronounced that a number
of unmistakeable blots were to be seen upon her surface. The Countess gave rise indeed to some discussion between the mistress of the
house and the visitor from Rome, in which Madame Merle (who
was not such a fool as to irritate people by always agreeing with
them) availed herself felicitously enough of that large licence of dissent which her hostess permitted as freely as she practised it. Mrs.
Touchett had declared it a piece of audacity that this highly compromised character should have presented herself at such a time of
day at the door of a house in which she was esteemed so little as she
must long have known herself to be at Palazzo Crescentini. Isabel
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had been made acquainted with the estimate prevailing under that
roof: it represented Mr. Osmond’s sister as a lady who had so mismanaged her improprieties that they had ceased to hang together at
all—which was at the least what one asked of such matters—and
had become the mere floating fragments of a wrecked renown, incommoding social circulation. She had been married by her
mother—a more administrative person, with an appreciation of foreign titles which the daughter, to do her justice, had probably by
this time thrown off—to an Italian nobleman who had perhaps given
her some excuse for attempting to quench the consciousness of outrage. The Countess, however, had consoled herself outrageously,
and the list of her excuses had now lost itself in the labyrinth of her
adventures. Mrs. Touchett had never consented to receive her, though
the Countess had made overtures of old. Florence was not an austere city; but, as Mrs. Touchett said, she had to draw the line somewhere.
Madame Merle defended the luckless lady with a great deal of zeal
and wit. She couldn’t see why Mrs. Touchett should make a scapegoat of a woman who had really done no harm, who had only done
good in the wrong way. One must certainly draw the line, but while
one was about it one should draw it straight: it was a very crooked
chalk-mark that would exclude the Countess Gemini. In that case
Mrs. Touchett had better shut up her house; this perhaps would be
the best course so long as she remained in Florence. One must be
fair and not make arbitrary differences: the Countess had doubtless
been imprudent, she had not been so clever as other women. She
was a good creature, not clever at all; but since when had that been
a ground of exclusion from the best society? For ever so long now
one had heard nothing about her, and there could be no better proof
of her having renounced the error of her ways than her desire to
become a member of Mrs. Touchett’s circle. Isabel could contribute
nothing to this interesting dispute, not even a patient attention; she
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contented herself with having given a friendly welcome to the unfortunate lady, who, whatever her defects, had at least the merit of
being Mr. Osmond’s sister. As she liked the brother Isabel thought
it proper to try and like the sister: in spite of the growing complexity of things she was still capable of these primitive sequences. She
had not received the happiest impression of the Countess on meeting her at the villa, but was thankful for an opportunity to repair
the accident. Had not Mr. Osmond remarked that she was a respectable person? To have proceeded from Gilbert Osmond this was
a crude proposition, but Madame Merle bestowed upon it a certain
improving polish. She told Isabel more about the poor Countess
than Mr. Osmond had done, and related the history of her marriage and its consequences. The Count was a member of an ancient
Tuscan family, but of such small estate that he had been glad to
accept Amy Osmond, in spite of the questionable beauty which
had yet not hampered her career, with the modest dowry her mother
was able to offer—a sum about equivalent to that which had already formed her brother’s share of their patrimony. Count Gemini
since then, however, had inherited money, and now they were well
enough off, as Italians went, though Amy was horribly extravagant.
The Count was a low-lived brute; he had given his wife every pretext. She had no children; she had lost three within a year of their
birth. Her mother, who had bristled with pretensions to elegant
learning and published descriptive poems and corresponded on Italian subjects with the English weekly journals, her mother had died
three years after the Countess’s marriage, the father, lost in the grey
American dawn of the situation, but reputed originally rich and
wild, having died much earlier. One could see this in Gilbert
Osmond, Madame Merle held—see that he had been brought up
by a woman; though, to do him justice, one would suppose it had
been by a more sensible woman than the American Corinne, as
Mrs. Osmond had liked to be called. She had brought her children
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to Italy after her husband’s death, and Mrs. Touchett remembered
her during the year that followed her arrival. She thought her a
horrible snob; but this was an irregularity of judgement on Mrs.
Touchett’s part, for she, like Mrs. Osmond, approved of political
marriages. The Countess was very good company and not really the
featherhead she seemed; all one had to do with her was to observe
the simple condition of not believing a word she said. Madame Merle
had always made the best of her for her brother’s sake; he appreciated any kindness shown to Amy, because (if it had to be confessed
for him) he rather felt she let down their common name. Naturally
he couldn’t like her style, her shrillness, her egotism, her violations
of taste and above all of truth: she acted badly on his nerves, she was
not his sort of woman. What was his sort of woman? Oh, the very
opposite of the Countess, a woman to whom the truth should be
habitually sacred. Isabel was unable to estimate the number of times
her visitor had, in half an hour, profaned it: the Countess indeed
had given her an impression of rather silly sincerity. She had talked
almost exclusively about herself; how much she should like to know
Miss Archer; how thankful she should be for a real friend; how base
the people in Florence were; how tired she was of the place; how
much she should like to live somewhere else—in Paris, in London,
in Washington; how impossible it was to get anything nice to wear
in Italy except a little old lace; how dear the world was growing
everywhere; what a life of suffering and privation she had led. Madame Merle listened with interest to Isabel’s account of this passage,
but she had not needed it to feel exempt from anxiety. On the whole
she was not afraid of the Countess, and she could afford to do what
was altogether best—not to appear so.
Isabel had meanwhile another visitor, whom it was not, even behind her back, so easy a matter to patronise. Henrietta Stackpole,
who had left Paris after Mrs. Touchett’s departure for San Remo
and had worked her way down, as she said, through the cities of
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North Italy, reached the banks of the Arno about the middle of
May. Madame Merle surveyed her with a single glance, took her in
from head to foot, and after a pang of despair determined to endure
her. She determined indeed to delight in her. She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle. Madame Merle
genially squeezed her into insignificance, and Isabel felt that in foreseeing this liberality she had done justice to her friend’s intelligence.
Henrietta’s arrival had been announced by Mr. Bantling, who, coming down from Nice while she was at Venice, and expecting to find
her in Florence, which she had not yet reached, called at Palazzo
Crescentini to express his disappointment. Henrietta’s own advent
occurred two days later and produced in Mr. Bantling an emotion
amply accounted for by the fact that he had not seen her since the
termination of the episode at Versailles. The humorous view of his
situation was generally taken, but it was uttered only by Ralph
Touchett, who, in the privacy of his own apartment, when Bantling
smoked a cigar there, indulged in goodness knew what strong comedy on the subject of the all-judging one and her British backer.
This gentleman took the joke in perfectly good part and candidly
confessed that he regarded the affair as a positive intellectual adventure. He liked Miss Stackpole extremely; he thought she had a wonderful head on her shoulders, and found great comfort in the society of a woman who was not perpetually thinking about what would
be said and how what she did, how what they did—and they had
done things!—would look. Miss Stackpole never cared how anything looked, and, if she didn’t care, pray why should he? But his
curiosity had been roused; he wanted awfully to see if she ever would
care. He was prepared to go as far as she—he didn’t see why he
should break down first.
Henrietta showed no signs of breaking down. Her prospects had
brightened on her leaving England, and she was now in the full
enjoyment of her copious resources. She had indeed been obliged
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to sacrifice her hopes with regard to the inner life; the social question, on the Continent, bristled with difficulties even more numerous than those she had encountered in England. But on the Continent there was the outer life, which was palpable and visible at every
turn, and more easily convertible to literary uses than the customs
of those opaque islanders. Out of doors in foreign lands, as she
ingeniously remarked, one seemed to see the right side of the tapestry; out of doors in England one seemed to see the wrong side,
which gave one no notion of the figure. The admission costs her
historian a pang, but Henrietta, despairing of more occult things,
was now paying much attention to the outer life. She had been
studying it for two months at Venice, from which city she sent to
the Interviewer a conscientious account of the gondolas, the Piazza,
the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons and the young boatman who chanted
Tasso. The Interviewer was perhaps disappointed, but Henrietta was
at least seeing Europe. Her present purpose was to get down to Rome
before the malaria should come on—she apparently supposed that
it began on a fixed day; and with this design she was to spend at
present but few days in Florence. Mr. Bantling was to go with her to
Rome, and she pointed out to Isabel that as he had been there before, as he was a military man and as he had had a classical education—he had been bred at Eton, where they study nothing but Latin
and Whyte-Melville, said Miss Stackpole—he would be a most useful companion in the city of the Caesars. At this juncture Ralph had
the happy idea of proposing to Isabel that she also, under his own
escort, should make a pilgrimage to Rome. She expected to pass a
portion of the next winter there—that was very well; but meantime
there was no harm in surveying the field. There were ten days left of
the beautiful month of May—the most precious month of all to the
true Rome-lover. Isabel would become a Rome-lover; that was a
foregone conclusion. She was provided with a trusty companion of
her own sex, whose society, thanks to the fact of other calls on this
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lady’s attention, would probably not be oppressive. Madame Merle
would remain with Mrs. Touchett; she had left Rome for the summer and wouldn’t care to return. She professed herself delighted to
be left at peace in Florence; she had locked up her apartment and
sent her cook home to Palestrina. She urged Isabel, however, to assent to Ralph’s proposal, and assured her that a good introduction
to Rome was not a thing to be despised. Isabel in truth needed no
urgjng, and the party of four arranged its little journey. Mrs. Touchett,
on this occasion, had resigned herself to the absence of a duenna;
we have seen that she now inclined to the belief that her niece should
stand alone. One of Isabel’s preparations consisted of her seeing
Gilbert Osmond before she started and mentioning her intention
to him.
“I should like to be in Rome with you,” he commented. “I should
like to see you on that wonderful ground.”
She scarcely faltered. “You might come then.”
“But you’ll have a lot of people with you.”
“Ah,” Isabel admitted, “of course I shall not be alone.”
For a moment he said nothing more. “You’ll like it,” he went on
at last. “They’ve spoiled it, but you’ll rave about it.”
“Ought I to dislike it because, poor old dear—the Niobe of Nations, you know—it has been spoiled?” she asked.
“No, I think not. It has been spoiled so often,” he smiled. “If I
were to go, what should I do with my little girl?”
“Can’t you leave her at the villa?”
“I don’t know that I like that—though there’s a very good old
woman who looks after her. I can’t afford a governess.”
“Bring her with you then,” said Isabel promptly.
Mr. Osmond looked grave. “She has been in Rome all winter, at
her convent; and she’s too young to make journeys of pleasure.”
“You don’t like bringing her forward?” Isabel enquired.
“No, I think young girls should be kept out of the world.”
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“I was brought up on a different system.”
“You? Oh, with you it succeeded, because you—you were exceptional.”
“I don’t see why,” said Isabel, who, however, was not sure there
was not some truth in the speech.
Mr. Osmond didn’t explain; he simply went on: “If I thought it
would make her resemble you to join a social group in Rome I’d
take her there to-morrow.”
“Don’t make her resemble me,” said Isabel. “Keep her like herself.”
“I might send her to my sister,” Mr. Osmond observed. He had
almost the air of asking advice; he seemed to like to talk over his
domestic matters with Miss Archer.
“Yes,” she concurred; “I think that wouldn’t do much towards
making her resemble me!”
After she had left Florence Gilbert Osmond met Madame Merle
at the Countess Gemini’s. There were other people present; the
Countess’s drawing-room was usually well filled, and the talk had
been general, but after a while Osmond left his place and came and
sat on an ottoman half-behind, half-beside Madame Merle’s chair.
“She wants me to go to Rome with her,” he remarked in a low voice.
“To go with her?”
“To be there while she’s there. She proposed it.
“I suppose you mean that you proposed it and she assented.”
“Of course I gave her a chance. But she’s encouraging—she’s very
encouraging.”
“I rejoice to hear it—but don’t cry victory too soon. Of course
you’ll go to Rome.”
“Ah,” said Osmond, “it makes one work, this idea of yours!”
“Don’t pretend you don’t enjoy it—you’re very ungrateful. You’ve
not been so well occupied these many years.”
“The way you take it’s beautiful,” said Osmond. “I ought to be
grateful for that.”
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“Not too much so, however,” Madame Merle answered. She talked
with her usual smile, leaning back in her chair and looking round
the room. “You’ve made a very good impression, and I’ve seen for
myself that you’ve received one. You’ve not come to Mrs. Touchett’s
seven times to oblige me.”
“The girl’s not disagreeable,” Osmond quietly conceded.
Madame Merle dropped her eye on him a moment, during which
her lips closed with a certain firmness. “Is that all you can find to
say about that fine creature?”
“All? Isn’t it enough? Of how many people have you heard me say
more?”
She made no answer to this, but still presented her talkative grace
to the room. “You’re unfathomable,” she murmured at last. “I’m
frightened at the abyss into which I shall have cast her.”
He took it almost gaily. “You can’t draw back—you’ve gone too
far.”
“Very good; but you must do the rest yourself.”
“I shall do it,” said Gilbert Osmond.
Madame Merle remained silent and he changed his place again;
but when she rose to go he also took leave. Mrs. Touchett’s victoria
was awaiting her guest in the court, and after he had helped his
friend into it he stood there detaining her. “You’re very indiscreet,”
she said rather wearily; “you shouldn’t have moved when I did.”
He had taken off his hat; he passed his hand over his forehead. “I
always forget; I’m out of the habit.”
“You’re quite unfathomable,” she repeated, glancing up at the
windows of the house, a modern structure in the new part of the
town.
He paid no heed to this remark, but spoke in his own sense. “She’s
really very charming. I’ve scarcely known any one more graceful.”
“It does me good to hear you say that. The better you like her the
better for me.”
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“I like her very much. She’s all you described her, and into the
bargain capable, I feel, of great devotion. She has only one fault.”
“What’s that?”
“Too many ideas.”
“I warned you she was clever.”
“Fortunately they’re very bad ones,” said Osmond.
“Why is that fortunate?”
“Dame, if they must be sacrificed!”
Madame Merle leaned back, looking straight before her; then she
spoke to the coachman. But her friend again detained her. “If I go
to Rome what shall I do with Pansy?”
“I’ll go and see her,” said Madame Merle.
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CHAPTER XXVII
I MAY NOT ATTEMPT to report in its fulness our young woman’s response to the deep appeal of Rome, to analyse her feelings as she
trod the pavement of the Forum or to number her pulsations as she
crossed the threshold of Saint Peter’s. It is enough to say that her
impression was such as might have been expected of a person of her
freshness and her eagerness. She had always been fond of history,
and here was history in the stones of the street and the atoms of the
sunshine. She had an imagination that kindled at the mention of
great deeds, and wherever she turned some great deed had been
acted. These things strongly moved her, but moved her all inwardly.
It seemed to her companions that she talked less than usual, and
Ralph Touchett, when he appeared to be looking listlessly and awkwardly over her head, was really dropping on her an intensity of
observation. By her own measure she was very happy; she would
even have been willing to take these hours for the happiest she was
ever to know. The sense of the terrible human past was heavy to her,
but that of something altogether contemporary would suddenly give
it wings that it could wave in the blue. Her consciousness was so
mixed that she scarcely knew where the different parts of it would
lead her, and she went about in a repressed ecstasy of contemplation, seeing often in the things she looked at a great deal more than
was there, and yet not seeing many of the items enumerated in her
Murray. Rome, as Ralph said, confessed to the psychological moment. The herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the
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solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of
blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost
its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright
streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone
one afternoon—it was the third of their stay—to look at the latest
excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time
previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern
street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered
with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each.
Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had
been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy
between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and
the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and
the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across
the field of ruin. Henrietta wandered away with Mr. Bantling, whom
it was apparently delightful to her to hear speak of Julius Caesar as a
“cheeky old boy,” and Ralph addressed such elucidations as he was
prepared to offer to the attentive ear of our heroine. One of the
humble archeologists who hover about the place had put himself at
the disposal of the two, and repeated his lesson with a fluency which
the decline of the season had done nothing to impair. A process of
digging was on view in a remote corner of the Forum, and he presently remarked that if it should please the signori to go and watch it
a little they might see something of interest. The proposal commended itself more to Ralph than to Isabel, weary with much wandering; so that she admonished her companion to satisfy his curiosity while she patiently awaited his return. The hour and the place
were much to her taste—she should enjoy being briefly alone. Ralph
accordingly went off with the cicerone while Isabel sat down on a
prostrate column near the foundations of the Capitol. She wanted a
short solitude, but she was not long to enjoy it. Keen as was her
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interest in the rugged relics of the Roman past that lay scattered
about her and in which the corrosion of centuries had still left so
much of individual life, her thoughts, after resting a while on these
things, had wandered, by a concatenation of stages it might require
some subtlety to trace, to regions and objects charged with a more
active appeal. From the Roman past to Isabel Archer’s future was a
long stride, but her imagination had taken it in a single flight and
now hovered in slow circles over the nearer and richer field. She was
so absorbed in her thoughts, as she bent her eyes upon a row of
cracked but not dislocated slabs covering the ground at her feet,
that she had not heard the sound of approaching footsteps before a
shadow was thrown across the line of her vision. She looked up and
saw a gentleman—a gentleman who was not Ralph come back to
say that the excavations were a bore. This personage was startled as
she was startled; he stood there baring his head to her perceptibly
pale surprise.
“Lord Warburton!” Isabel exclaimed as she rose.
“I had no idea it was you. I turned that corner and came upon
you.”
She looked about her to explain. “I’m alone, but my companions
have just left me. My cousin’s gone to look at the work over there.”
“Ah yes; I see.” And Lord Warburton’s eyes wandered vaguely in
the direction she had indicated. He stood firmly before her now; he
had recovered his balance and seemed to wish to show it, though
very kindly. “Don’t let me disturb you,” he went on, looking at her
dejected pillar. “I’m afraid you’re tired.”
“Yes, I’m rather tired.” She hesitated a moment, but sat down
again. “Don’t let me interrupt you,” she added.
“Oh dear, I’m quite alone, I’ve nothing on earth to do. I had no
idea you were in Rome. I’ve just come from the East. I’m only passing through.”
“You’ve been making a long journey,” said Isabel, who had learned
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from Ralph that Lord Warburton was absent from England.
“Yes, I came abroad for six months—soon after I saw you last. I’ve
been in Turkey and Asia Minor; I came the other day from Athens.”
He managed not to be awkward, but he wasn’t easy, and after a
longer look at the girl he came down to nature. “Do you wish me to
leave you, or will you let me stay a little?”
She took it all humanely. “I don’t wish you to leave me, Lord
Warburton; I’m very glad to see you.”
“Thank you for saying that. May I sit down?”
The fluted shaft on which she had taken her seat would have afforded
a resting-place to several persons, and there was plenty of room even for
a highly-developed Englishman. This fine specimen of that great class
seated himself near our young lady, and in the course of five minutes he
had asked her several questions, taken rather at random and to which,
as he put some of them twice over, he apparently somewhat missed
catching the answer; had given her too some information about himself
which was not wasted upon her calmer feminine sense. He repeated
more than once that he had not expected to meet her, and it was evident that the encounter touched him in a way that would have made
preparation advisable. He began abruptly to pass from the impunity of
things to their solemnity, and from their being delightful to their being
impossible. He was splendidly sunburnt; even his multitudinous beard
had been burnished by the fire of Asia. He was dressed in the loosefitting, heterogeneous garments in which the English traveller in foreign lands is wont to consult his comfort and affirm his nationality; and
with his pleasant steady eyes, his bronzed complexion, fresh beneath its
seasoning, his manly figure, his minimising manner and his general air
of being a gentleman and an explorer, he was such a representative of
the British race as need not in any clime have been disavowed by those
who have a kindness for it. Isabel noted these things and was glad she
had always liked him. He had kept, evidently in spite of shocks, every
one of his merits—properties these partaking of the essence of great
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decent houses, as one might put it; resembling their innermost fixtures
and ornaments, not subject to vulgar shifting and removable only by
some whole break-up. They talked of the matters naturally in order; her
uncle’s death, Ralph’s state of health, the way she had passed her winter,
her visit to Rome, her return to Florence, her plans for the summer, the
hotel she was staying at; and then of Lord Warburton’s own adventures,
movements, intentions, impressions and present domicile. At last there
was a silence, and it said so much more than either had said that it
scarce needed his final words. “I’ve written to you several times.”
“Written to me? I’ve never had your letters.”
“I never sent them. I burned them up.”
“Ah,” laughed Isabel, “it was better that you should do that than I!”
“I thought you wouldn’t care for them,” he went on with a simplicity that touched her. “It seemed to me that after all I had no
right to trouble you with letters.”
“I should have been very glad to have news of you. You know how
I hoped that—that—” But she stopped; there would be such a flatness in the utterance of her thought.
“I know what you’re going to say. You hoped we should always
remain good friends.” This formula, as Lord Warburton uttered it,
was certainly flat enough; but then he was interested in making it
appear so.
She found herself reduced simply to “Please don’t talk of all that”;
a speech which hardly struck her as improvement on the other.
“It’s a small consolation to allow me!” her companion exclaimed
with force.
“I can’t pretend to console you,” said the girl, who, all still as she
sat there, threw herself back with a sort of inward triumph on the
answer that had satisfied him so little six months before. He was
pleasant, he was powerful, he was gallant; there was no better man
than he. But her answer remained.
“It’s very well you don’t try to console me; it wouldn’t be in your
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power,” she heard him say through the medium of her strange elation.
“I hoped we should meet again, because I had no fear you would
attempt to make me feel I had wronged you. But when you do
that—the pain’s greater than the pleasure.” And she got up with a
small conscious majesty, looking for her companions.
“I don’t want to make you feel that; of course I can’t say that. I
only just want you to know one or two things—in fairness to myself, as it were. I won’t return to the subject again. I felt very strongly
what I expressed to you last year; I couldn’t think of anything else. I
tried to forget—energetically, systematically. I tried to take an interest in somebody else. I tell you this because I want you to know I
did my duty. I didn’t succeed. It was for the same purpose I went
abroad—as far away as possible. They say travelling distracts the
mind, but it didn’t distract mine. I’ve thought of you perpetually,
ever since I last saw you. I’m exactly the same. I love you just as
much, and everything I said to you then is just as true. This instant
at which I speak to you shows me again exactly how, to my great
misfortune, you just insuperably charm me. There—I can’t say less.
I don’t mean, however, to insist; it’s only for a moment. I may add
that when I came upon you a few minutes since, without the smallest idea of seeing you, I was, upon my honour, in the very act of
wishing I knew where you were.” He had recovered his self-control,
and while he spoke it became complete. He might have been addressing a small committee—making all quietly and clearly a statement of importance; aided by an occasional look at a paper of notes
concealed in his hat, which he had not again put on. And the committee, assuredly, would have felt the point proved.
“I’ve often thought of you, Lord Warburton,” Isabel answered.
“You may be sure I shall always do that.” And she added in a tone of
which she tried to keep up the kindness and keep down the meaning: “There’s no harm in that on either side.”
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They walked along together, and she was prompt to ask about his
sisters and request him to let them know she had done so. He made
for the moment no further reference to their great question, but
dipped again into shallower and safer waters. But he wished to know
when she was to leave Rome, and on her mentioning the limit of
her stay declared he was glad it was still so distant.
“Why do you say that if you yourself are only passing through?”
she enquired with some anxiety.
“Ah, when I said I was passing through I didn’t mean that one
would treat Rome as if it were Clapham Junction. To pass through
Rome is to stop a week or two.”
“Say frankly that you mean to stay as long as I do!”
His flushed smile, for a little, seemed to sound her. “You won’t
like that. You’re afraid you’ll see too much of me.”
“It doesn’t matter what I like. I certainly can’t expect you to leave
this delightful place on my account. But I confess I’m afraid of you.”
“Afraid I’ll begin again? I promise to be very careful.”
They had gradually stopped and they stood a moment face to
face. “Poor Lord Warburton!” she said with a compassion intended
to be good for both of them.
“Poor Lord Warburton indeed! But I’ll be careful.”
“You may be unhappy, but you shall not make ME so. That I can’t
allow.”
“If I believed I could make you unhappy I think I should try it.”
At this she walked in advance and he also proceeded. “I’ll never say
a word to displease you.”
“Very good. If you do, our friendship’s at an end.”
“Perhaps some day—after a while—you’ll give me leave.”
“Give you leave to make me unhappy?”
He hesitated. “To tell you again—” But he checked himself. “I’ll
keep it down. I’ll keep it down always.”
Ralph Touchett had been joined in his visit to the excavation by
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Miss Stackpole and her attendant, and these three now emerged
from among the mounds of earth and stone collected round the
aperture and came into sight of Isabel and her companion. Poor
Ralph hailed his friend with joy qualified by wonder, and Henrietta
exclaimed in a high voice “Gracious, there’s that lord!” Ralph and
his English neighbour greeted with the austerity with which, after
long separations, English neighbours greet, and Miss Stackpole rested
her large intellectual gaze upon the sunburnt traveller. But she soon
established her relation to the crisis. “I don’t suppose you remember
me, sir.”
“Indeed I do remember you,” said Lord Warburton. “I asked you
to come and see me, and you never came.”
“I don’t go everywhere I’m asked,” Miss Stackpole answered coldly.
“Ah well, I won’t ask you again,” laughed the master of Lockleigh.
“If you do I’ll go; so be sure!”
Lord Warburton, for all his hilarity, seemed sure enough. Mr.
Bantling had stood by without claiming a recognition, but he now
took occasion to nod to his lordship, who answered him with a
friendly “Oh, you here, Bantling?” and a hand-shake.
“Well,” said Henrietta, “I didn’t know you knew him!”
“I guess you don’t know every one I know,” Mr. Bantling rejoined
facetiously.
“I thought that when an Englishman knew a lord he always told
you.”
“Ah, I’m afraid Bantling was ashamed of me,” Lord Warburton
laughed again. Isabel took pleasure in that note; she gave a small
sigh of relief as they kept their course homeward.
The next day was Sunday; she spent her morning over two long
letters—one to her sister Lily, the other to Madame Merle; but in
neither of these epistles did she mention the fact that a rejected
suitor had threatened her with another appeal. Of a Sunday afternoon all good Romans (and the best Romans are often the northern
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barbarians) follow the custom of going to vespers at Saint Peter’s;
and it had been agreed among our friends that they would drive
together to the great church. After lunch, an hour before the carriage came, Lord Warburton presented himself at the Hotel de Paris
and paid a visit to the two ladies, Ralph Touchett and Mr. Bantling
having gone out together. The visitor seemed to have wished to give
Isabel a proof of his intention to keep the promise made her the
evening before; he was both discreet and frank—not even dumbly
importunate or remotely intense. He thus left her to judge what a
mere good friend he could be. He talked about his travels, about
Persia, about Turkey, and when Miss Stackpole asked him whether
it would “pay” for her to visit those countries assured her they offered a great field to female enterprise. Isabel did him justice, but
she wondered what his purpose was and what he expected to gain
even by proving the superior strain of his sincerity. If he expected to
melt her by showing what a good fellow he was, he might spare
himself the trouble. She knew the superior strain of everything about
him, and nothing he could now do was required to light the view.
Moreover his being in Rome at all affected her as a complication of
the wrong sort—she liked so complications of the right. Nevertheless, when, on bringing his call to a close, he said he too should be at
Saint Peter’s and should look out for her and her friends, she was
obliged to reply that he must follow his convenience.
In the church, as she strolled over its tesselated acres, he was the
first person she encountered. She had not been one of the superior
tourists who are “disappointed” in Saint Peter’s and find it smaller
than its fame; the first time she passed beneath the huge leathern
curtain that strains and bangs at the entrance, the first time she
found herself beneath the far-arching dome and saw the light drizzle
down through the air thickened with incense and with the reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze, her conception of
greatness rose and dizzily rose. After this it never lacked space to
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soar. She gazed and wondered like a child or a peasant, she paid her
silent tribute to the seated sublime. Lord Warburton walked beside
her and talked of Saint Sophia of Constantinople; she feared for
instance that he would end by calling attention to his exemplary
conduct. The service had not yet begun, but at Saint Peter’s there is
much to observe, and as there is something almost profane in the
vastness of the place, which seems meant as much for physical as for
spiritual exercise, the different figures and groups, the mingled worshippers and spectators, may follow their various intentions without conflict or scandal. In that splendid immensity individual indiscretion carries but a short distance. Isabel and her companions,
however, were guilty of none; for though Henrietta was obliged in
candour to declare that Michael Angelo’s dome suffered by comparison with that of the Capitol at Washington, she addressed her
protest chiefly to Mr. Bantling’s ear and reserved it in its more accentuated form for the columns of the Interviewer. Isabel made the
circuit of the church with his lordship, and as they drew near the
choir on the left of the entrance the voices of the Pope’s singers were
borne to them over the heads of the large number of persons clustered outside the doors. They paused a while on the skirts of this
crowd, composed in equal measure of Roman cockneys and inquisitive strangers, and while they stood there the sacred concert went
forward. Ralph, with Henrietta and Mr. Bantling, was apparently
within, where Isabel, looking beyond the dense group in front of
her, saw the afternoon light, silvered by clouds of incense that seemed
to mingle with the splendid chant, slope through the embossed recesses of high windows. After a while the singing stopped and then
Lord Warburton seemed disposed to move off with her. Isabel could
only accompany him; whereupon she found herself confronted with
Gilbert Osmond, who appeared to have been standing at a short
distance behind her. He now approached with all the forms —he
appeared to have multiplied them on this occasion to suit the place.
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“So you decided to come?” she said as she put out her hand.
“Yes, I came last night and called this afternoon at your hotel.
They told me you had come here, and I looked about for you.”
“The others are inside,” she decided to say.
“I didn’t come for the others,” he promptly returned.
She looked away; Lord Warburton was watching them; perhaps
he had heard this. Suddenly she remembered it to be just what he
had said to her the morning he came to Gardencourt to ask her to
marry him. Mr. Osmond’s words had brought the colour to her
cheek, and this reminiscence had not the effect of dispelling it. She
repaired any betrayal by mentioning to each companion the name
of the other, and fortunately at this moment Mr. Bantling emerged
from the choir, cleaving the crowd with British valour and followed
by Miss Stackpole and Ralph Touchett. I say fortunately, but this is
perhaps a superficial view of the matter; since on perceiving the
gentleman from Florence Ralph Touchett appeared to take the case
as not committing him to joy. He didn’t hang back, however, from
civility, and presently observed to Isabel, with due benevolence, that
she would soon have all her friends about her. Miss Stackpole had
met Mr. Osmond in Florence, but she had already found occasion
to say to Isabel that she liked him no better than her other admirers—than Mr. Touchett and Lord Warburton, and even than little
Mr. Rosier in Paris. “I don’t know what it’s in you,” she had been
pleased to remark, “but for a nice girl you do attract the most unnatural people. Mr. Goodwood’s the only one I’ve any respect for,
and he’s just the one you don’t appreciate.”
“What’s your opinion of Saint Peter’s?” Mr. Osmond was meanwhile enquiring of our young lady.
“It’s very large and very bright,” she contented herself with replying.
“It’s too large; it makes one feel like an atom.”
“Isn’t that the right way to feel in the greatest of human temples?”
she asked with rather a liking for her phrase.
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“I suppose it’s the right way to feel everywhere, when one is nobody. But I like it in a church as little as anywhere else.”
“You ought indeed to be a Pope!” Isabel exclaimed, remembering
something he had referred to in Florence.
“Ah, I should have enjoyed that!” said Gilbert Osmond.
Lord Warburton meanwhile had joined Ralph Touchett, and the
two strolled away together. “Who’s the fellow speaking to Miss Archer?” his lordship demanded.
“His name’s Gilbert Osmond—he lives in Florence,” Ralph said.
“What is he besides?”
“Nothing at all. Oh yes, he’s an American; but one forgets that—
he’s so little of one.”
“Has he known Miss Archer long?”
“Three or four weeks.”
“Does she like him?”
“She’s trying to find out.”
“And will she?”
“Find out—?” Ralph asked.
“Will she like him?”
“Do you mean will she accept him?”
“Yes,” said Lord Warburton after an instant; “I suppose that’s what
I horribly mean.”
“Perhaps not if one does nothing to prevent it,” Ralph replied.
His lordship stared a moment, but apprehended. “Then we must
be perfectly quiet?”
“As quiet as the grave. And only on the chance!” Ralph added.
“The chance she may?”
“The chance she may not?”
Lord Warburton took this at first in silence, but he spoke again.
“Is he awfully clever?”
“Awfully,” said Ralph.
His companion thought. “And what else?”
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“What more do you want?” Ralph groaned.
“Do you mean what more does she?”
Ralph took him by the arm to turn him: they had to rejoin the
others. “She wants nothing that we can give her.”
“Ah well, if she won’t have You—!” said his lordship handsomely
as they went.
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CHAPTER XXVIII
ON THE MORROW, in the evening, Lord Warburton went again to see
his friends at their hotel, and at this establishment he learned that
they had gone to the opera. He drove to the opera with the idea of
paying them a visit in their box after the easy Italian fashion; and
when he had obtained his admittance—it was one of the secondary
theatres—looked about the large, bare, ill-lighted house. An act had
just terminated and he was at liberty to pursue his quest. After scanning two or three tiers of boxes he perceived in one of the largest of
these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognised. Miss Archer was
seated facing the stage and partly screened by the curtain of the box;
and beside her, leaning back in his chair, was Mr. Gilbert Osmond.
They appeared to have the place to themselves, and Warburton supposed their companions had taken advantage of the recess to enjoy
the relative coolness of the lobby. He stood a while with his eyes on
the interesting pair; he asked himself if he should go up and interrupt the harmony. At last he judged that Isabel had seen him, and
this accident determined him. There should be no marked holding
off. He took his way to the upper regions and on the staircase met
Ralph Touchett slowly descending, his hat at the inclination of ennui and his hands where they usually were.
“I saw you below a moment since and was going down to you. I
feel lonely and want company,” was Ralph’s greeting.
“You’ve some that’s very good which you’ve yet deserted.”
“Do you mean my cousin? Oh, she has a visitor and doesn’t want
me. Then Miss Stackpole and Bantling have gone out to a cafe to
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eat an ice—Miss Stackpole delights in an ice. I didn’t think they
wanted me either. The opera’s very bad; the women look like laundresses and sing like peacocks. I feel very low.”
“You had better go home,” Lord Warburton said without affectation.
“And leave my young lady in this sad place? Ah no, I must watch
over her.”
“She seems to have plenty of friends.”
“Yes, that’s why I must watch,” said Ralph with the same large
mock-melancholy.
“If she doesn’t want you it’s probable she doesn’t want me.”
“No, you’re different. Go to the box and stay there while I walk
about.”
Lord Warburton went to the box, where Isabel’s welcome was as to
a friend so honourably old that he vaguely asked himself what queer
temporal province she was annexing. He exchanged greetings with
Mr. Osmond, to whom he had been introduced the day before and
who, after he came in, sat blandly apart and silent, as if repudiating
competence in the subjects of allusion now probable. It struck her
second visitor that Miss Archer had, in operatic conditions, a radiance, even a slight exaltation; as she was, however, at all times a keenlyglancing, quickly-moving, completely animated young woman, he
may have been mistaken on this point. Her talk with him moreover
pointed to presence of mind; it expressed a kindness so ingenious and
deliberate as to indicate that she was in undisturbed possession of her
faculties. Poor Lord Warburton had moments of bewilderment. She
had discouraged him, formally, as much as a woman could; what
business had she then with such arts and such felicities, above all with
such tones of reparation—preparation? Her voice had tricks of sweetness, but why play them on HIM? The others came back; the bare,
familiar, trivial opera began again. The box was large, and there was
room for him to remain if he would sit a little behind and in the dark.
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He did so for half an hour, while Mr. Osmond remained in front,
leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, just behind Isabel. Lord
Warburton heard nothing, and from his gloomy corner saw nothing
but the clear profile of this young lady defined against the dim illumination of the house. When there was another interval no one moved.
Mr. Osmond talked to Isabel, and Lord Warburton kept his corner.
He did so but for a short time, however; after which he got up and
bade good-night to the ladies. Isabel said nothing to detain him, but
it didn’t prevent his being puzzled again. Why should she mark so
one of his values—quite the wrong one—when she would have nothing to do with another, which was quite the right? He was angry with
himself for being puzzled, and then angry for being angry. Verdi’s
music did little to comfort him, and he left the theatre and walked
homeward, without knowing his way, through the tortuous, tragic
streets of Rome, where heavier sorrows than his had been carried under the stars.
“What’s the character of that gentleman?” Osmond asked of Isabel
after he had retired.
“Irreproachable—don’t you see it?”
“He owns about half England; that’s his character,” Henrietta remarked. “That’s what they call a free country!”
“Ah, he’s a great proprietor? Happy man!” said Gilbert Osmond.
“Do you call that happiness—the ownership of wretched human
beings?” cried Miss Stackpole. “He owns his tenants and has thousands of them. It’s pleasant to own something, but inanimate objects are enough for me. I don’t insist on flesh and blood and minds
and consciences.”
“It seems to me you own a human being or two,” Mr. Bantling
suggested jocosely. “I wonder if Warburton orders his tenants about
as you do me.”
“Lord Warburton’s a great radical,” Isabel said. “He has very advanced opinions.”
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“He has very advanced stone walls. His park’s enclosed by a gigantic iron fence, some thirty miles round,” Henrietta announced
for the information of Mr. Osmond. “I should like him to converse
with a few of our Boston radicals.”
“Don’t they approve of iron fences?” asked Mr. Bantling.
“Only to shut up wicked conservatives. I always feel as if I were
talking to YOU over something with a neat top-finish of broken glass.”
“Do you know him well, this unreformed reformer?” Osmond
went on, questioning Isabel.
“Well enough for all the use I have for him.”
“And how much of a use is that?”
“Well, I like to like him.”
“‘Liking to like’—why, it makes a passion!” said Osmond.
“No”—she considered—”keep that for liking to DISlike.”
“Do you wish to provoke me then,” Osmond laughed, “to a passion for him?”
She said nothing for a moment, but then met the light question
with a disproportionate gravity. “No, Mr. Osmond; I don’t think I
should ever dare to provoke you. Lord Warburton, at any rate,” she
more easily added, “is a very nice man.”
“Of great ability?” her friend enquired.
“Of excellent ability, and as good as he looks.”
“As good as he’s good-looking do you mean? He’s very good-looking. How detestably fortunate!—to be a great English magnate, to
be clever and handsome into the bargain, and, by way of finishing
off, to enjoy your high favour! That’s a man I could envy.”
Isabel considered him with interest. “You seem to me to be always
envying some one. Yesterday it was the Pope; to-day it’s poor Lord
Warburton.”
“My envy’s not dangerous; it wouldn’t hurt a mouse. I don’t want
to destroy the people—I only want to BE them. You see it would
destroy only myself.”
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“You’d like to be the Pope?” said Isabel.
“I should love it—but I should have gone in for it earlier. But
why”—Osmond reverted—”do you speak of your friend as poor?”
“Women—when they are very, very good sometimes pity men
after they’ve hurt them; that’s their great way of showing kindness,”
said Ralph, joining in the conversation for the first time and with a
cynicism so transparently ingenious as to be virtually innocent.
“Pray, have I hurt Lord Warburton?” Isabel asked, raising her eyebrows as if the idea were perfectly fresh.
“It serves him right if you have,” said Henrietta while the curtain
rose for the ballet.
Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next twentyfour hours, but on the second day after the visit to the opera she
encountered him in the gallery of the Capitol, where he stood before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying Gladiator.
She had come in with her companions, among whom, on this occasion again, Gilbert Osmond had his place, and the party, having
ascended the staircase, entered the first and finest of the rooms.
Lord Warburton addressed her alertly enough, but said in a moment that he was leaving the gallery. “And I’m leaving Rome,” he
added. “I must bid you goodbye.” Isabel, inconsequently enough,
was now sorry to hear it. This was perhaps because she had ceased
to be afraid of his renewing his suit; she was thinking of something
else. She was on the point of naming her regret, but she checked
herself and simply wished him a happy journey; which made him
look at her rather unlightedly. “I’m afraid you’ll think me very ‘volatile.’ I told you the other day I wanted so much to stop.”
“Oh no; you could easily change your mind.”
“That’s what I have done.”
“Bon voyage then.”
“You’re in a great hurry to get rid of me,” said his lordship quite
dismally.
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“Not in the least. But I hate partings.”
“You don’t care what I do,” he went on pitifully.
Isabel looked at him a moment. “Ah,” she said, “you’re not keeping your promise!”
He coloured like a boy of fifteen. “If I’m not, then it’s because I
can’t; and that’s why I’m going.”
“Good-bye then.”
“Good-bye.” He lingered still, however. “When shall I see you
again?”
Isabel hesitated, but soon, as if she had had a happy inspiration:
“Some day after you’re married.”
“That will never be. It will be after you are.”
“That will do as well,” she smiled.
“Yes, quite as well. Good-bye.”
They shook hands, and he left her alone in the glorious room,
among the shining antique marbles. She sat down in the centre of
the circle of these presences, regarding them vaguely, resting her
eyes on their beautiful blank faces; listening, as it were, to their
eternal silence. It is impossible, in Rome at least, to look long at a
great company of Greek sculptures without feeling the effect of their
noble quietude; which, as with a high door closed for the ceremony,
slowly drops on the spirit the large white mantle of peace. I say in
Rome especially, because the Roman air is an exquisite medium for
such impressions. The golden sunshine mingles with them, the deep
stillness of the past, so vivid yet, though it is nothing but a void full
of names, seems to throw a solemn spell upon them. The blinds
were partly closed in the windows of the Capitol, and a clear, warm
shadow rested on the figures and made them more mildly human.
Isabel sat there a long time, under the charm of their motionless
grace, wondering to what, of their experience, their absent eyes were
open, and how, to our ears, their alien lips would sound. The dark
red walls of the room threw them into relief; the polished marble
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floor reflected their beauty. She had seen them all before, but her
enjoyment repeated itself, and it was all the greater because she was
glad again, for the time, to be alone. At last, however, her attention
lapsed, drawn off by a deeper tide of life. An occasional tourist came
in, stopped and stared a moment at the Dying Gladiator, and then
passed out of the other door, creaking over the smooth pavement.
At the end of half an hour Gilbert Osmond reappeared, apparently
in advance of his companions. He strolled toward her slowly, with
his hands behind him and his usual enquiring, yet not quite appealing smile. “I’m surprised to find you alone, I thought you had company.
“So I have—the best.” And she glanced at the Antinous and the
Faun.
“Do you call them better company than an English peer?”
“Ah, my English peer left me some time ago.” She got up, speaking with intention a little dryly.
Mr. Osmond noted her dryness, which contributed for him to
the interest of his question. “I’m afraid that what I heard the other
evening is true: you’re rather cruel to that nobleman.”
Isabel looked a moment at the vanquished Gladiator. “It’s not
true. I’m scrupulously kind.”
“That’s exactly what I mean!” Gilbert Osmond returned, and with
such happy hilarity that his joke needs to be explained. We know
that he was fond of originals, of rarities, of the superior and the
exquisite; and now that he had seen Lord Warburton, whom he
thought a very fine example of his race and order, he perceived a
new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who
had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by
declining so noble a hand. Gilbert Osmond had a high appreciation of this particular patriciate; not so much for its distinction,
which he thought easily surpassable, as for its solid actuality. He
had never forgiven his star for not appointing him to an English
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dukedom, and he could measure the unexpectedness of such conduct as Isabel’s. It would be proper that the woman he might marry
should have done something of that sort.
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CHAPTER XXIX
RALPH TOUCHETT, in talk with his excellent friend, had rather markedly qualified, as we know, his recognition of Gilbert Osmond’s
personal merits; but he might really have felt himself illiberal in the
light of that gentleman’s conduct during the rest of the visit to Rome.
Osmond spent a portion of each day with Isabel and her companions, and ended by affecting them as the easiest of men to live with.
Who wouldn’t have seen that he could command, as it were, both
tact and gaiety?—which perhaps was exactly why Ralph had made
his old-time look of superficial sociability a reproach to him. Even
Isabel’s invidious kinsman was obliged to admit that he was just
now a delightful associate. His good humour was imperturbable,
his knowledge of the right fact, his production of the right word, as
convenient as the friendly flicker of a match for your cigarette. Clearly
he was amused—as amused as a man could be who was so little ever
surprised, and that made him almost applausive. It was not that his
spirits were visibly high—he would never, in the concert of pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle: he had a mortal
dislike to the high, ragged note, to what he called random ravings.
He thought Miss Archer sometimes of too precipitate a readiness. It
was pity she had that fault, because if she had not had it she would
really have had none; she would have been as smooth to his general
need of her as handled ivory to the palm. If he was not personally
loud, however, he was deep, and during these closing days of the
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Roman May he knew a complacency that matched with slow irregular walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, among the small
sweet meadow-flowers and the mossy marbles. He was pleased with
everything; he had never before been pleased with so many things
at once. Old impressions, old enjoyments, renewed themselves; one
evening, going home to his room at the inn, he wrote down a little
sonnet to which he prefixed the title of “Rome Revisited.” A day or
two later he showed this piece of correct and ingenious verse to
Isabel, explaining to her that it was an Italian fashion to commemorate the occasions of life by a tribute to the muse.
He took his pleasures in general singly; he was too often—he would
have admitted that—too sorely aware of something wrong, something ugly; the fertilising dew of a conceivable felicity too seldom
descended on his spirit. But at present he was happy—happier than
he had perhaps ever been in his life, and the feeling had a large
foundation. This was simply the sense of success—the most agreeable emotion of the human heart. Osmond had never had too much
of it; in this respect he had the irritation of satiety, as he knew perfectly well and often reminded himself. “Ah no, I’ve not been spoiled;
certainly I’ve not been spoiled,” he used inwardly to repeat. “If I do
succeed before I die I shall thoroughly have earned it.” He was too
apt to reason as if “earning” this boon consisted above all of covertly
aching for it and might be confined to that exercise. Absolutely void
of it, also, his career had not been; he might indeed have suggested
to a spectator here and there that he was resting on vague laurels.
But his triumphs were, some of them, now too old; others had been
too easy. The present one had been less arduous than might have
been expected, but had been easy—that is had been rapid—only
because he had made an altogether exceptional effort, a greater effort than he had believed it in him to make. The desire to have
something or other to show for his “parts”—to show somehow or
other—had been the dream of his youth; but as the years went on
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the conditions attached to any marked proof of rarity had affected
him more and more as gross and detestable; like the swallowing of
mugs of beer to advertise what one could “stand.” If an anonymous
drawing on a museum wall had been conscious and watchful it might
have known this peculiar pleasure of being at last and all of a sudden identified—as from the hand of a great master—by the so high
and so unnoticed fact of style. His “style” was what the girl had
discovered with a little help; and now, beside herself enjoying it, she
should publish it to the world without his having any of the trouble.
She should do the thing for him, and he would not have waited in
vain.
Shortly before the time fixed in advance for her departure this
young lady received from Mrs. Touchett a telegram running as follows: “Leave Florence 4th June for Bellaggio, and take you if you
have not other views. But can’t wait if you dawdle in Rome.” The
dawdling in Rome was very pleasant, but Isabel had different views,
and she let her aunt know she would immediately join her. She told
Gilbert Osmond that she had done so, and he replied that, spending many of his summers as well as his winters in Italy, he himself
would loiter a little longer in the cool shadow of Saint Peter’s. He
would not return to Florence for ten days more, and in that time
she would have started for Bellaggio. It might be months in this
case before he should see her again. This exchange took place in the
large decorated sitting-room occupied by our friends at the hotel; it
was late in the evening, and Ralph Touchett was to take his cousin
back to 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
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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 Ampere, 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. Ampere. “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. “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.”
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“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 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.”
“It wouldn’t be remarkable if you did think it ridiculous that I
should have the means to travel when you’ve not; for you know
everything and I know nothing.”
“The more reason why you should travel and learn,” smiled
Osmond. “Besides,” he added as if it were a point to be made, “I
don’t know everything.”
Isabel was not struck with the oddity of his saying this gravely;
she was thinking that the pleasantest incident of her life—so it pleased
her to qualify these too few days in Rome, which she might musingly have likened to the figure of some small princess of one of the
ages of dress overmuffled in a mantle of state and dragging a train
that it took pages or historians to hold up—that this felicity was
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coming to an end. That most of the interest of the time had been
owing to Mr. Osmond was a reflexion she was not just now at pains
to make; she had already done the point abundant justice. But she
said to herself that if there were a danger they should never meet
again, perhaps after all it would be as well. Happy things don’t repeat themselves, and her adventure wore already the changed, the
seaward face of some romantic island from which, after feasting on
purple grapes, she was putting off while the breeze rose. She might
come back to Italy and find him different—this strange man who
pleased her just as he was; and it would be better not to come than
run the risk of that. But if she was not to come the greater the pity
that the chapter was closed; she felt for a moment a pang that touched
the source of tears. The sensation kept her silent, and Gilbert
Osmond was silent too; he was looking at her. “Go everywhere,” he
said at last, in a low, kind voice; “do everything; get everything out
of life. Be happy,—be triumphant.”
“What do you mean by being triumphant?”
“Well, doing what you like.”
“To triumph, then, it seems to me, is to fail! Doing all the vain
things one likes is often very tiresome.”
“Exactly,” said Osmond with his quiet quickness. “As I intimated
just now, you’ll be tired some day.” He paused a moment and then
he went on: “I don’t know whether I had better not wait till then for
something I want to say to you.”
“Ah, I can’t advise you without knowing what it is. But I’m horrid
when I’m tired,” Isabel added with due inconsequence.
“I don’t believe that. You’re angry, sometimes—that I can believe,
though I’ve never seen it. But I’m sure you’re never ‘cross.’”
“Not even when I lose my temper?”
“You don’t lose it—you find it, and that must be beautiful.”
Osmond spoke with a noble earnestness. “They must be great moments to see.”
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“If I could only find it now!” Isabel nervously cried.
“I’m not afraid; I should fold my arms and admire you. I’m speaking very seriously.” He leaned forward, a hand on each knee; for
some moments he bent his eyes on the floor. “What I wish to say to
you,” he went on at last, looking up, “is that I find I’m in love with
you.”
She instantly rose. “Ah, keep that till I am tired!”
“Tired of hearing it from others?” He sat there raising his eyes to
her. “No, you may heed it now or never, as you please. But after all
I must say it now.” She had turned away, but in the movement she
had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him. The two remained a while in this situation, exchanging a long look —the large,
conscious look of the critical hours of life. Then he got up and came
near her, deeply respectful, as if he were afraid he had been too
familiar. “I’m absolutely in love with you.”
He had repeated the announcement in a tone of almost impersonal discretion, like a man who expected very little from it but
who spoke for his own needed relief. The tears came into her eyes:
this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to
her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt—backward, forward, she
couldn’t have said which. The words he had uttered made him, as
he stood there, beautiful and generous, invested him as with the
golden air of early autumn; but, morally speaking, she retreated
before them—facing him still—as she had retreated in the other
cases before a like encounter. “Oh don’t say that, please,” she answered with an intensity that expressed the dread of having, in this
case too, to choose and decide. What made her dread great was
precisely the force which, as it would seem, ought to have banished
all dread—the sense of something within herself, deep down, that
she supposed to be inspired and trustful passion. It was there like a
large sum stored in a bank—which there was a terror in having to
begin to spend. If she touched it, it would all come out.
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“I haven’t the idea that it will matter much to you,” said Osmond.
“I’ve too little to offer you. What I have—it’s enough for me; but it’s
not enough for you. I’ve neither fortune, nor fame, nor extrinsic
advantages of any kind. So I offer nothing. I only tell you because I
think it can’t offend you, and some day or other it may give you
pleasure. It gives me pleasure, I assure you,” he went on, standing
there before her, considerately inclined to her, turning his hat, which
he had taken up, slowly round with a movement which had all the
decent tremor of awkwardness and none of its oddity, and presenting to her his firm, refined, slightly ravaged face. “It gives me no
pain, because it’s perfectly simple. For me you’ll always be the most
important woman in the world.”
Isabel looked at herself in this character—looked intently, thinking she filled it with a certain grace. But what she said was not an
expression of any such complacency. “You don’t offend me; but you
ought to remember that, without being offended, one may be incommoded, troubled.” “Incommoded,” she heard herself saying that,
and it struck her as a ridiculous word. But it was what stupidly
came to her.
“I remember perfectly. Of course you’re surprised and startled.
But if it’s nothing but that, it will pass away. And it will perhaps
leave something that I may not be ashamed of.”
“I don’t know what it may leave. You see at all events that I’m not
overwhelmed,” said Isabel with rather a pale smile. “I’m not too
troubled to think. And I think that I’m glad I leave Rome to-morrow.”
“Of course I don’t agree with you there.”
“I don’t at all knw you,” she added abruptly; and then she coloured
as she heard herself saying what she had said almost a year before to
Lord Warburton.
“If you were not going away you’d know me better.”
“I shall do that some other time.”
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“I hope so. I’m very easy to know.”
“No, no,” she emphatically answered—”there you’re not sincere.
You’re not easy to know; no one could be less so.”
“Well,” he laughed, “I said that because I know myself. It may be
a boast, but I do.”
“Very likely; but you’re very wise.”
“So are you, Miss Archer!” Osmond exclaimed.
“I don’t feel so just now. Still, I’m wise enough to think you had
better go. Good-night.”
“God bless you!” said Gilbert Osmond, taking the hand which
she failed to surrender. After which he added: “If we meet again
you’ll find me as you leave me. If we don’t I shall be so all the same.”
“Thank you very much. Good-bye.”
There was something quietly firm about Isabel’s visitor; he might
go of his own movement, but wouldn’t be dismissed. “There’s one
thing more. I haven’t asked anything of you—not even a thought in
the future; you must do me that justice. But there’s a little service I
should like to ask. I shall not return home for several days; Rome’s
delightful, and it’s a good place for a man in my state of mind. Oh,
I know you’re sorry to leave it; but you’re right to do what your aunt
wishes.”
“She doesn’t even wish it!” Isabel broke out strangely.
Osmond was apparently on the point of saying something that
would match these words, but he changed his mind and rejoined
simply: “Ah well, it’s proper you should go with her, very proper.
Do everything that’s proper; I go in for that. Excuse my being so
patronising. You say you don’t know me, but when you do you’ll
discover what a worship I have for propriety.”
“You’re not conventional?” Isabel gravely asked.
“I like the way you utter that word! No, I’m not conventional: I’m
convention itself. You don’t understand that?” And he paused a
moment, smiling. “I should like to explain it.” Then with a sudden,
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quick, bright naturalness, “Do come back again,” he pleaded. “There
are so many things we might talk about.”
She stood there with lowered eyes. “What service did you speak
of just now?”
“Go and see my little daughter before you leave Florence. She’s
alone at the villa; I decided not to send her to my sister, who hasn’t
at all my ideas. Tell her she must love her poor father very much,”
said Gilbert Osmond gently.
“It will be a great pleasure to me to go,” Isabel answered. “I’ll tell
her what you say. Once more good-bye.”
On this he took a rapid, respectful leave. When he had gone she
stood a moment looking about her and seated herself slowly and
with an air of deliberation. She sat there till her companions came
back, with folded hands, gazing at the ugly carpet. Her agitation—
for it had not diminished—was very still, very deep. What had happened was something that for a week past her imagination had been
going forward to meet; but here, when it came, she stopped—that
sublime principle somehow broke down. The working of this young
lady’s spirit was strange, and I can only give it to you as I see it, not
hoping to make it seem altogether natural. Her imagination, as I
say, now hung back: there was a last vague space it couldn’t cross—
a dusky, uncertain tract which looked ambiguous and even slightly
treacherous, like a moorland seen in the winter twilight. But she
was to cross it yet.
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CHAPTER XXX
SHE RETURNED on the morrow to Florence, under her cousin’s escort, and Ralph Touchett, though usually restive under railway discipline, thought very well of the successive hours passed in the train
that hurried his companion away from the city now distinguished
by Gilbert Osmond’s preference—hours that were to form the first
stage in a larger scheme of travel. Miss Stackpole had remained behind; she was planning a little trip to Naples, to be carried out with
Mr. Bantling’s aid. Isabel was to have three days in Florence before
the 4th of June, the date of Mrs. Touchett’s departure, and she determined to devote the last of these to her promise to call on Pansy
Osmond. Her plan, however, seemed for a moment likely to modify
itself in deference to an idea of Madame Merle’s. This lady was still
at Casa Touchett; but she too was on the point of leaving Florence,
her next station being an ancient castle in the mountains of Tuscany,
the residence of a noble family of that country, whose acquaintance
(she had known them, as she said, “forever”) seemed to Isabel, in
the light of certain photographs of their immense crenellated dwelling which her friend was able to show her, a precious privilege. She
mentioned to this fortunate woman that Mr. Osmond had asked
her to take a look at his daughter, but didn’t mention that he had
also made her a declaration of love.
“Ah, comme cela se trouve!” Madame Merle exclaimed. “I myself
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have been thinking it would be a kindness to pay the child a little
visit before I go off.”
“We can go together then,” Isabel reasonably said: “reasonably”
because the proposal was not uttered in the spirit of enthusiasm.
She had prefigured her small pilgrimage as made in solitude; she
should like it better so. She was nevertheless prepared to sacrifice
this mystic sentiment to her great consideration for her friend.
That personage finely meditated. “After all, why should we both
go; having, each of us, so much to do during these last hours?”
“Very good; I can easily go alone.”
“I don’t know about your going alone—to the house of a handsome
bachelor. He has been married—but so long ago!”
Isabel stared. “When Mr. Osmond’s away what does it matter?”
“They don’t know he’s away, you see.”
“They? Whom do you mean?”
“Every one. But perhaps it doesn’t signify.”
“If you were going why shouldn’t I?” Isabel asked.
“Because I’m an old frump and you’re a beautiful young woman.”
“Granting all that, you’ve not promised.”
“How much you think of your promises!” said the elder woman
in mild mockery.
“I think a great deal of my promises. Does that surprise you?”
“You’re right,” Madame Merle audibly reflected. “I really think
you wish to be kind to the child.”
“I wish very much to be kind to her.”
“Go and see her then; no one will be the wiser. And tell her I’d
have come if you hadn’t. Or rather,” Madame Merle added, “Don’t
tell her. She won’t care.”
As Isabel drove, in the publicity of an open vehicle, along the
winding way which led to Mr. Osmond’s hill-top, she wondered
what her friend had meant by no one’s being the wiser. Once in a
while, at large intervals, this lady, whose voyaging discretion, as a
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general thing, was rather of the open sea than of the risky channel,
dropped a remark of ambiguous quality, struck a note that sounded
false. What cared Isabel Archer for the vulgar judgements of obscure people? and did Madame Merle suppose that she was capable
of doing a thing at all if it had to be sneakingly done? Of course not:
she must have meant something else—something which in the press
of the hours that preceded her departure she had not had time to
explain. Isabel would return to this some day; there were sorts of
things as to which she liked to be clear. She heard Pansy strumming
at the piano in another place as she herself was ushered into Mr.
Osmond’s drawing-room; the little girl was “practising,” and Isabel
was pleased to think she performed this duty with rigour. She immediately came in, smoothing down her frock, and did the honours
of her father’s house with a wide-eyed earnestness of courtesy. Isabel
sat there half an hour, and Pansy rose to the occasion as the small,
winged fairy in the pantomime soars by the aid of the dissimulated
wire —not chattering, but conversing, and showing the same respectful interest in Isabel’s affairs that Isabel was so good as to take
in hers. Isabel wondered at her; she had never had so directly presented to her nose the white flower of cultivated sweetness. How
well the child had been taught, said our admiring young woman;
how prettily she had been directed and fashioned; and yet how
simple, how natural, how innocent she had been kept! Isabel was
fond, ever, of the question of character and quality, of sounding, as
who should say, the deep personal mystery, and it had pleased her,
up to this time, to be in doubt as to whether this tender slip were
not really all-knowing. Was the extremity of her candour but the
perfection of self-consciousness? Was it put on to please her father’s
visitor, or was it the direct expression of an unspotted nature? The
hour that Isabel spent in Mr. Osmond’s beautiful empty, dusky
rooms—the windows had been half-darkened, to keep out the heat,
and here and there, through an easy crevice, the splendid summer
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day peeped in, lighting a gleam of faded colour or tarnished gilt in
the rich gloom—her interview with the daughter of the house, I
say, effectually settled this question. Pansy was really a blank page, a
pure white surface, successfully kept so; she had neither art, nor
guile, nor temper, nor talent—only two or three small exquisite instincts: for knowing a friend, for avoiding a mistake, for taking care
of an old toy or a new frock. Yet to be so tender was to be touching
withal, and she could be felt as an easy victim of fate. She would
have no will, no power to resist, no sense of her own importance;
she would easily be mystified, easily crushed: her force would be all
in knowing when and where to cling. She moved about the place
with her visitor, who had asked leave to walk through the other
rooms again, where Pansy gave her judgement on several works of
art. She spoke of her prospects, her occupations, her father’s intentions; she was not egotistical, but felt the propriety of supplying the
information so distinguished a guest would naturally expect.
“Please tell me,” she said, “did papa, in Rome, go to see Madame
Catherine? He told me he would if he had time. Perhaps he had not
time. Papa likes a great deal of time. He wished to speak about my
education; it isn’t finished yet, you know. I don’t know what they
can do with me more; but it appears it’s far from finished. Papa told
me one day he thought he would finish it himself; for the last year
or two, at the convent, the masters that teach the tall girls are so
very dear. Papa’s not rich, and I should be very sorry if he were to
pay much money for me, because I don’t think I’m worth it. I don’t
learn quickly enough, and I have no memory. For what I’m told,
yes—especially when it’s pleasant; but not for what I learn in a book.
There was a young girl who was my best friend, and they took her
away from the convent, when she was fourteen, to make—how do
you say it in English?—to make a dot. You don’t say it in English? I
hope it isn’t wrong; I only mean they wished to keep the money to
marry her. I don’t know whether it is for that that papa wishes to
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keep the money—to marry me. It costs so much to marry!” Pansy
went on with a sigh; “I think papa might make that economy. At
any rate I’m too young to think about it yet, and I don’t care for any
gentleman; I mean for any but him. If he were not my papa I should
like to marry him; I would rather be his daughter than the wife of—
of some strange person. I miss him very much, but not so much as
you might think, for I’ve been so much away from him. Papa has
always been principally for holidays. I miss Madame Catherine almost more; but you must not tell him that. You shall not see him
again? I’m very sorry, and he’ll be sorry too. Of everyone who comes
here I like you the best. That’s not a great compliment, for there are
not many people. It was very kind of you to come to-day—so far
from your house; for I’m really as yet only a child. Oh, yes, I’ve only
the occupations of a child. When did YOU give them up, the occupations of a child? I should like to know how old you are, but I
don’t know whether it’s right to ask. At the convent they told us that
we must never ask the age. I don’t like to do anything that’s not
expected; it looks as if one had not been properly taught. I myself—
I should never like to be taken by surprise. Papa left directions for
everything. I go to bed very early. When the sun goes off that side I
go into the garden. Papa left strict orders that I was not to get
scorched. I always enjoy the view; the mountains are so graceful. In
Rome, from the convent, we saw nothing but roofs and bell-towers.
I practise three hours. I don’t play very well. You play yourself? I
wish very much you’d play something for me; papa has the idea that
I should hear good music. Madame Merle has played for me several
times; that’s what I like best about Madame Merle; she has great
facility. I shall never have facility. And I’ve no voice—just a small
sound like the squeak of a slate-pencil making flourishes.”
Isabel gratified this respectful wish, drew off her gloves and sat
down to the piano, while Pansy, standing beside her, watched her
white hands move quickly over the keys. When she stopped she
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kissed the child good-bye, held her close, looked at her long. “Be
very good,” she said; “give pleasure to your father.”
“I think that’s what I live for,” Pansy answered. “He has not much
pleasure; he’s rather a sad man.”
Isabel listened to this assertion with an interest which she felt it
almost a torment to be obliged to conceal. It was her pride that
obliged her, and a certain sense of decency; there were still other
things in her head which she felt a strong impulse, instantly checked,
to say to Pansy about her father; there were things it would have
given her pleasure to hear the child, to make the child, say. But she
no sooner became conscious of these things than her imagination
was hushed with horror at the idea of taking advantage of the little
girl—it was of this she would have accused herself—and of exhaling into that air where he might still have a subtle sense for it any
breath of her charmed state. She had come—she had come; but she
had stayed only an hour. She rose quickly from the music-stool;
even then, however, she lingered a moment, still holding her small
companion, drawing the child’s sweet slimness closer and looking
down at her almost in envy. She was obliged to confess it to herself—she would have taken a passionate pleasure in talking of Gilbert Osmond to this innocent, diminutive creature who was so near
him. But she said no other word; she only kissed Pansy once again.
They went together through the vestibule, to the door that opened
on the court; and there her young hostess stopped, looking rather
wistfully beyond. “I may go no further. I’ve promised papa not to
pass this door.”
“You’re right to obey him; he’ll never ask you anything unreasonable.”
“I shall always obey him. But when will you come again?”
“Not for a long time, I’m afraid.”
“As soon as you can, I hope. I’m only a little girl,” said Pansy, “but
I shall always expect you.” And the small figure stood in the high,
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dark doorway, watching Isabel cross the clear, grey court and disappear into the brightness beyond the big portone, which gave a wider
dazzle as it opened.
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CHAPTER XXXI
ISABEL CAME BACK to Florence, but only after several months; an
interval sufficiently replete with incident. It is not, however, during
this interval that we are closely concerned with her; our attention is
engaged again on a certain day in the late spring-time, shortly after
her return to Palazzo Crescentini and a year from the date of the
incidents just narrated. She was alone on this occasion, in one of
the smaller of the numerous rooms devoted by Mrs. Touchett to
social uses, and there was that in her expression and attitude which
would have suggested that she was expecting a visitor. The tall window was open, and though its green shutters were partly drawn the
bright air of the garden had come in through a broad interstice and
filled the room with warmth and perfume. Our young woman stood
near it for some time, her hands clasped behind her; she gazed abroad
with the vagueness of unrest. Too troubled for attention she moved
in a vain circle. Yet it could not be in her thought to catch a glimpse
of her visitor before he should pass into the house, since the entrance to the palace was not through the garden, in which stillness
and privacy always reigned. She wished rather to forestall his arrival
by a process of conjecture, and to judge by the expression of her
face this attempt gave her plenty to do. Grave she found herself, and
positively more weighted, as by the experience of the lapse of the
year she had spent in seeing the world. She had ranged, she would
have said, through space and surveyed much of mankind, and was
therefore now, in her own eyes, a very different person from the
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frivolous young woman from Albany who had begun to take the
measure of Europe on the lawn at Gardencourt a couple of years
before. She flattered herself she had harvested wisdom and learned
a great deal more of life than this light-minded creature had even
suspected. If her thoughts just now had inclined themselves to retrospect, instead of fluttering their wings nervously about the present,
they would have evoked a multitude of interesting pictures. These
pictures would have been both landscapes and figure-pieces; the
latter, however, would have been the more numerous. With several
of the images that might have been projected on such a field we are
already acquainted. There would be for instance the conciliatory
Lily, our heroine’s sister and Edmund Ludlow’s wife, who had come
out from New York to spend five months with her relative. She had
left her husband behind her, but had brought her children, to whom
Isabel now played with equal munificence and tenderness the part
of maiden-aunt. Mr. Ludlow, toward the last, had been able to snatch
a few weeks from his forensic triumphs and, crossing the ocean with
extreme rapidity, had spent a month with the two ladies in Paris
before taking his wife home. The little Ludlows had not yet, even
from the American point of view, reached the proper tourist-age; so
that while her sister was with her Isabel had confined her movements to a narrow circle. Lily and the babies had joined her in Switzerland in the month of July, and they had spent a summer of fine
weather in an Alpine valley where the flowers were thick in the
meadows and the shade of great chestnuts made a resting-place for
such upward wanderings as might be undertaken by ladies and children on warm afternoons. They had afterwards reached the French
capital, which was worshipped, and with costly ceremonies, by Lily,
but thought of as noisily vacant by Isabel, who in these days made
use of her memory of Rome as she might have done, in a hot and
crowded room, of a phial of something pungent hidden in her handkerchief.
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Mrs. Ludlow sacrificed, as I say, to Paris, yet had doubts and wonderments not allayed at that altar; and after her husband had joined
her found further chagrin in his failure to throw himself into these
speculations. They all had Isabel for subject; but Edmund Ludlow,
as he had always done before, declined to be surprised, or distressed,
or mystified, or elated, at anything his sister-in-law might have done
or have failed to do. Mrs. Ludlow’s mental motions were sufficiently
various. At one moment she thought it would be so natural for that
young woman to come home and take a house in New York—the
Rossiters’, for instance, which had an elegant conservatory and was
just round the corner from her own; at another she couldn’t conceal
her surprise at the girl’s not marrying some member of one of the
great aristocracies. On the whole, as I have said, she had fallen from
high communion with the probabilities. She had taken more satisfaction in Isabel’s accession of fortune than if the money had been
left to herself; it had seemed to her to offer just the proper setting
for her sister’s slightly meagre, but scarce the less eminent figure.
Isabel had developed less, however, than Lily had thought likely—
development, to Lily’s understanding, being somehow mysteriously
connected with morning-calls and evening-parties. Intellectually,
doubtless, she had made immense strides; but she appeared to have
achieved few of those social conquests of which Mrs. Ludlow had
expected to admire the trophies. Lily’s conception of such achievements was extremely vague; but this was exactly what she had expected of Isabel—to give it form and body. Isabel could have done
as well as she had done in New York; and Mrs. Ludlow appealed to
her husband to know whether there was any privilege she enjoyed
in Europe which the society of that city might not offer her. We
know ourselves that Isabel had made conquests—whether inferior
or not to those she might have effected in her native land it would
be a delicate matter to decide; and it is not altogether with a feeling
of complacency that I again mention that she had not rendered
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these honourable victories public. She had not told her sister the
history of Lord Warburton, nor had she given her a hint of Mr.
Osmond’s state of mind; and she had had no better reason for her
silence than that she didn’t wish to speak. It was more romantic to
say nothing, and, drinking deep, in secret, of romance, she was as
little disposed to ask poor Lily’s advice as she would have been to
close that rare volume forever. But Lily knew nothing of these discriminations, and could only pronounce her sister’s career a strange
anti-climax—an impression confirmed by the fact that Isabel’s silence about Mr. Osmond, for instance, was in direct proportion to
the frequency with which he occupied her thoughts. As this happened very often it sometimes appeared to Mrs. Ludlow that she
had lost her courage. So uncanny a result of so exhilarating an incident as inheriting a fortune was of course perplexing to the cheerful
Lily; it added to her general sense that Isabel was not at all like other
people.
Our young lady’s courage, however, might have been taken as
reaching its height after her relations had gone home. She could
imagine braver things than spending the winter in Paris—Paris had
sides by which it so resembled New York, Paris was like smart, neat
prose—and her close correspondence with Madame Merle did much
to stimulate such flights. She had never had a keener sense of freedom, of the absolute boldness and wantonness of liberty, than when
she turned away from the platform at the Euston Station on one of
the last days of November, after the departure of the train that was
to convey poor Lily, her husband and her children to their ship at
Liverpool. It had been good for her to regale; she was very conscious
of that; she was very observant, as we know, of what was good for
her, and her effort was constantly to find something that was good
enough. To profit by the present advantage till the latest moment
she had made the journey from Paris with the unenvied travellers.
She would have accompanied them to Liverpool as well, only
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Edmund Ludlow had asked her, as a favour, not to do so; it made
Lily so fidgety and she asked such impossible questions. Isabel
watched the train move away; she kissed her hand to the elder of
her small nephews, a demonstrative child who leaned dangerously
far out of the window of the carriage and made separation an occasion of violent hilarity, and then she walked back into the foggy
London street. The world lay before her—she could do whatever
she chose. There was a deep thrill in it all, but for the present her
choice was tolerably discreet; she chose simply to walk back from
Euston Square to her hotel. The early dusk of a November afternoon had already closed in; the street-lamps, in the thick, brown
air, looked weak and red; our heroine was unattended and Euston
Square was a long way from Piccadilly. But Isabel performed the
journey with a positive enjoyment of its dangers and lost her way
almost on purpose, in order to get more sensations, so that she was
disappointed when an obliging policeman easily set her right again.
She was so fond of the spectacle of human life that she enjoyed even
the aspect of gathering dusk in the London streets—the moving
crowds, the hurrying cabs, the lighted shops, the flaring stalls, the
dark, shining dampness of everything. That evening, at her hotel,
she wrote to Madame Merle that she should start in a day or two for
Rome. She made her way down to Rome without touching at Florence—having gone first to Venice and then proceeded southward
by Ancona. She accomplished this journey without other assistance
than that of her servant, for her natural protectors were not now on
the ground. Ralph Touchett was spending the winter at Corfu, and
Miss Stackpole, in the September previous, had been recalled to
America by a telegram from the Interviewer. This journal offered its
brilliant correspondent a fresher field for her genius than the
mouldering cities of Europe, and Henrietta was cheered on her way
by a promise from Mr. Bantling that he would soon come over to
see her. Isabel wrote to Mrs. Touchett to apologise for not present391
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ing herself just yet in Florence, and her aunt replied characteristically enough. Apologies, Mrs. Touchett intimated, were of no more
use to her than bubbles, and she herself never dealt in such articles.
One either did the thing or one didn’t, and what one “would” have
done belonged to the sphere of the irrelevant, like the idea of a
future life or of the origin of things. Her letter was frank, but (a rare
case with Mrs. Touchett) not so frank as it pretended. She easily
forgave her niece for not stopping at Florence, because she took it
for a sign that Gilbert Osmond was less in question there than formerly. She watched of course to see if he would now find a pretext
for going to Rome, and derived some comfort from learning that he
had not been guilty of an absence. Isabel, on her side, had not been
a fortnight in Rome before she proposed to Madame Merle that
they should make a little pilgrimage to the East. Madame Merle
remarked that her friend was restless, but she added that she herself
had always been consumed with the desire to visit Athens and
Constantinople. The two ladies accordingly embarked on this expedition, and spent three months in Greece, in Turkey, in Egypt. Isabel
found much to interest her in these countries, though Madame Merle
continued to remark that even among the most classic sites, the
scenes most calculated to suggest repose and reflexion, a certain incoherence prevailed in her. Isabel travelled rapidly and recklessly;
she was like a thirsty person draining cup after cup. Madame Merle
meanwhile, as lady-in-waiting to a princess circulating incognita,
panted a little in her rear. It was on Isabel’s invitation she had come,
and she imparted all due dignity to the girl’s uncountenanced state.
She played her part with the tact that might have been expected of
her, effacing herself and accepting the position of a companion whose
expenses were profusely paid. The situation, however, had no hardships, and people who met this reserved though striking pair on
their travels would not have been able to tell you which was patroness and which client. To say that Madame Merle improved on ac392
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quaintance states meagrely the impression she made on her friend,
who had found her from the first so ample and so easy. At the end
of an intimacy of three months Isabel felt she knew her better; her
character had revealed itself, and the admirable woman had also at
last redeemed her promise of relating her history from her own point
of view—a consummation the more desirable as Isabel had already
heard it related from the point of view of others. This history was so
sad a one (in so far as it concerned the late M. Merle, a positive
adventurer, she might say, though originally so plausible, who had
taken advantage, years before, of her youth and of an inexperience
in which doubtless those who knew her only now would find it
difficult to believe); it abounded so in startling and lamentable incidents that her companion wondered a person so eprouvee could
have kept so much of her freshness, her interest in life. Into this
freshness of Madame Merle’s she obtained a considerable insight;
she seemed to see it as professional, as slightly mechanical, carried
about in its case like the fiddle of the virtuoso, or blanketed and
bridled like the “favourite” of the jockey. She liked her as much as
ever, but there was a corner of the curtain that never was lifted; it
was as if she had remained after all something of a public performer,
condemned to emerge only in character and in costume. She had
once said that she came from a distance, that she belonged to the
“old, old” world, and Isabel never lost the impression that she was
the product of a different moral or social clime from her own, that
she had grown up under other stars.
She believed then that at bottom she had a different morality. Of
course the morality of civilised persons has always much in common; but our young woman had a sense in her of values gone wrong
or, as they said at the shops, marked down. She considered, with the
presumption of youth, that a morality differing from her own must
be inferior to it; and this conviction was an aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty, an occasional lapse from candour, in the con393
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versation of a person who had raised delicate kindness to an art and
whose pride was too high for the narrow ways of deception. Her
conception of human motives might, in certain lights, have been
acquired at the court of some kingdom in decadence, and there
were several in her list of which our heroine had not even heard. She
had not heard of everything, that was very plain; and there were
evidently things in the world of which it was not advantageous to
hear. She had once or twice had a positive scare; since it so affected
her to have to exclaim, of her friend, “Heaven forgive her, she doesn’t
understand me!” Absurd as it may seem this discovery operated as a
shock, left her with a vague dismay in which there was even an
element of foreboding. The dismay of course subsided, in the light
of some sudden proof of Madame Merle’s remarkable intelligence;
but it stood for a high-water-mark in the ebb and flow of confidence. Madame Merle had once declared her belief that when a
friendship ceases to grow it immediately begins to decline—there
being no point of equilibrium between liking more and liking less.
A stationary affection, in other words, was impossible—it must move
one way or the other. However that might be, the girl had in these
days a thousand uses for her sense of the romantic, which was more
active than it had ever been. I do not allude to the impulse it received as she gazed at the Pyramids in the course of an excursion
from Cairo, or as she stood among the broken columns of the
Acropolis and fixed her eyes upon the point designated to her as the
Strait of Salamis; deep and memorable as these emotions had remained. She came back by the last of March from Egypt and Greece
and made another stay in Rome. A few days after her arrival Gilbert
Osmond descended from Florence and remained three weeks, during which the fact of her being with his old friend Madame Merle,
in whose house she had gone to lodge, made it virtually inevitable
that he should see her every day. When the last of April came she
wrote to Mrs. Touchett that she should now rejoice to accept an
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invitation given long before, and went to pay a visit at Palazzo
Crescentini, Madame Merle on this occasion remaining in Rome.
She found her aunt alone; her cousin was still at Corfu. Ralph, however, was expected in Florence from day to day, and Isabel, who had
not seen him for upwards of a year, was prepared to give him the
most affectionate welcome.
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CHAPTER XXXII
IT WAS NOT OF HIM, nevertheless, that she was thinking while she
stood at the window near which we found her a while ago, and it
was not of any of the matters I have rapidly sketched. She was not
turned to the past, but to the immediate, impending hour. She had
reason to expect a scene, and she was not fond of scenes. She was
not asking herself what she should say to her visitor; this question
had already been answered. What he would say to her—that was
the interesting issue. It could be nothing in the least soothing—she
had warrant for this, and the conviction doubtless showed in the
cloud on her brow. For the rest, however, all clearness reigned in
her; she had put away her mourning and she walked in no small
shimmering splendour. She only, felt older—ever so much, and as if
she were “worth more” for it, like some curious piece in an antiquary’s
collection. She was not at any rate left indefinitely to her apprehensions, for a servant at last stood before her with a card on his tray.
“Let the gentleman come in,” she said, and continued to gaze out of
the window after the footman had retired. It was only when she had
heard the door close behind the person who presently entered that
she looked round.
Caspar Goodwood stood there—stood and received a moment,
from head to foot, the bright, dry gaze with which she rather withheld than offered a greeting. Whether his sense of maturity had
kept pace with Isabel’s we shall perhaps presently ascertain; let me
say meanwhile that to her critical glance he showed nothing of the
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injury of time. Straight, strong and hard, there was nothing in his
appearance that spoke positively either of youth or of age; if he had
neither innocence nor weakness, so he had no practical philosophy.
His jaw showed the same voluntary cast as in earlier days; but a
crisis like the present had in it of course something grim. He had
the air of a man who had travelled hard; he said nothing at first, as
if he had been out of breath. This gave Isabel time to make a reflexion:
“Poor fellow, what great things he’s capable of, and what a pity he
should waste so dreadfully his splendid force! What a pity too that
one can’t satisfy everybody!” It gave her time to do more to say at
the end of a minute: “I can’t tell you how I hoped you wouldn’t
come!”
“I’ve no doubt of that.” And he looked about him for a seat. Not
only had he come, but he meant to settle.
“You must be very tired,” said Isabel, seating herself, and generously,
as she thought, to give him his opportunity.
“No, I’m not at all tired. Did you ever know me to be tired?”
“Never; I wish I had! When did you arrive?”
“Last night, very late; in a kind of snail-train they call the express.
These Italian trains go at about the rate of an American funeral.”
“That’s in keeping—you must have felt as if you were coming to
bury me!” And she forced a smile of encouragement to an easy view
of their situation. She had reasoned the matter well out, making it
perfectly clear that she broke no faith and falsified no contract; but
for all this she was afraid of her visitor. She was ashamed of her fear;
but she was devoutly thankful there was nothing else to be ashamed
of. He looked at her with his stiff insistence, an insistence in which
there was such a want of tact; especially when the dull dark beam in
his eye rested on her as a physical weight.
“No, I didn’t feel that; I couldn’t think of you as dead. I wish I
could!” he candidly declared.
“I thank you immensely.”
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“I’d rather think of you as dead than as married to another man.”
“That’s very selfish of you!” she returned with the ardour of a real
conviction. “If you’re not happy yourself others have yet a right to be.”
“Very likely it’s selfish; but I don’t in the least mind your saying
so. I don’t mind anything you can say now—I don’t feel it. The
cruellest things you could think of would be mere pin-pricks. After
what you’ve done I shall never feel anything—I mean anything but
that. That I shall feel all my life.”
Mr. Goodwood made these detached assertions with dry deliberateness, in his hard, slow American tone, which flung no atmospheric colour over propositions intrinsically crude. The tone made
Isabel angry rather than touched her; but her anger perhaps was
fortunate, inasmuch as it gave her a further reason for controlling
herself. It was under the pressure of this control that she became,
after a little, irrelevant. “When did you leave New York?”
He threw up his head as if calculating. “Seventeen days ago.”
“You must have travelled fast in spite of your slow trains.”
“I came as fast as I could. I’d have come five days ago if I had been
able.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference, Mr. Goodwood,” she coldly
smiled.
“Not to you—no. But to me.”
“You gain nothing that I see.”
“That’s for me to judge!”
“Of course. To me it seems that you only torment yourself.” And
then, to change the subject, she asked him if he had seen Henrietta
Stackpole. He looked as if he had not come from Boston to Florence to talk of Henrietta Stackpole; but he answered, distinctly
enough, that this young lady had been with him just before he left
America. “She came to see you?” Isabel then demanded.
“Yes, she was in Boston, and she called at my office. It was the day
I had got your letter.”
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“Did you tell her?” Isabel asked with a certain anxiety.
“Oh no,” said Caspar Goodwood simply; “I didn’t want to do
that. She’ll hear it quick enough; she hears everything.”
“I shall write to her, and then she’ll write to me and scold me,”
Isabel declared, trying to smile again.
Caspar, however, remained sternly grave. “I guess she’ll come right
out,” he said.
“On purpose to scold me?”
“I don’t know. She seemed to think she had not seen Europe thoroughly.”
“I’m glad you tell me that,” Isabel said. “I must prepare for her.”
Mr. Goodwood fixed his eyes for a moment on the floor; then at
last, raising them, “Does she know Mr. Osmond?” he enquired.
“A little. And she doesn’t like him. But of course I don’t marry to
please Henrietta,” she added. It would have been better for poor
Caspar if she had tried a little more to gratify Miss Stackpole; but he
didn’t say so; he only asked, presently, when her marriage would
take place. To which she made answer that she didn’t know yet. “I
can only say it will be soon. I’ve told no one but yourself and one
other person—an old friend of Mr. Osmond’s.”
“Is it a marriage your friends won’t like?” he demanded.
“I really haven’t an idea. As I say, I don’t marry for my friends.”
He went on, making no exclamation, no comment, only asking
questions, doing it quite without delicacy. “Who and what then is
Mr. Gilbert Osmond?”
“Who and what? Nobody and nothing but a very good and very
honourable man. He’s not in business,” said Isabel. “He’s not rich;
he’s not known for anything in particular.”
She disliked Mr. Goodwood’s questions, but she said to herself
that she owed it to him to satisfy him as far as possible. The satisfaction poor Caspar exhibited was, however, small; he sat very upright,
gazing at her. “Where does he come from? Where does he belong?”
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She had never been so little pleased with the way he said “belawng.”
“He comes from nowhere. He has spent most of his life in Italy.”
“You said in your letter he was American. Hasn’t he a native place?”
“Yes, but he has forgotten it. He left it as a small boy.”
“Has he never gone back?”
“Why should he go back?” Isabel asked, flushing all defensively.
“He has no profession.”
“He might have gone back for his pleasure. Doesn’t he like the
United States?”
“He doesn’t know them. Then he’s very quiet and very simple—
he contents himself with Italy.”
“With Italy and with you,” said Mr. Goodwood with gloomy plainness and no appearance of trying to make an epigram. “What has
he ever done?” he added abruptly.
“That I should marry him? Nothing at all,” Isabel replied while
her patience helped itself by turning a little to hardness. “If he had
done great things would you forgive me any better? Give me up,
Mr. Goodwood; I’m marrying a perfect nonentity. Don’t try to take
an interest in him. You can’t.”
“I can’t appreciate him; that’s what you mean. And you don’t mean
in the least that he’s a perfect nonentity. You think he’s grand, you
think he’s great, though no one else thinks so.”
Isabel’s colour deepened; she felt this really acute of her companion, and it was certainly a proof of the aid that passion might render
perceptions she had never taken for fine. “Why do you always comeback to what others think? I can’t discuss Mr. Osmond with you.”
“Of course not,” said Caspar reasonably. And he sat there with his
air of stiff helplessness, as if not only this were true, but there were
nothing else that they might discuss.
“You see how little you gain,” she accordingly broke out—”how
little comfort or satisfaction I can give you.”
“I didn’t expect you to give me much.”
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“I don’t understand then why you came.”
“I came because I wanted to see you once more—even just as you
are.”
“I appreciate that; but if you had waited a while, sooner or later
we should have been sure to meet, and our meeting would have
been pleasanter for each of us than this.”
“Waited till after you’re married? That’s just what I didn’t want to
do. You’ll be different then.”
“Not very. I shall still be a great friend of yours. You’ll see.”
“That will make it all the worse,” said Mr. Goodwood grimly.
“Ah, you’re unaccommodating! I can’t promise to dislike you in
order to help you to resign yourself.”
“I shouldn’t care if you did!”
Isabel got up with a movement of repressed impatience and walked
to the window, where she remained a moment looking out. When
she turned round her visitor was still motionless in his place. She
came toward him again and stopped, resting her hand on the back
of the chair she had just quitted. “Do you mean you came simply to
look at me? That’s better for you perhaps than for me.”
“I wished to hear the sound of your voice,” he said.
“You’ve heard it, and you see it says nothing very sweet.”
“It gives me pleasure, all the same.” And with this he got up. She
had felt pain and displeasure on receiving early that day the news he
was in Florence and by her leave would come within an hour to see
her. She had been vexed and distressed, though she had sent back
word by his messenger that he might come when he would. She had
not been better pleased when she saw him; his being there at all was
so full of heavy implications. It implied things she could never assent to—rights, reproaches, remonstrance, rebuke, the expectation
of making her change her purpose. These things, however, if implied, had not been expressed; and now our young lady, strangely
enough, began to resent her visitor’s remarkable self-control. There
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was a dumb misery about him that irritated her; there was a manly
staying of his hand that made her heart beat faster. She felt her
agitation rising, and she said to herself that she was angry in the way
a woman is angry when she has been in the wrong. She was not in
the wrong; she had fortunately not that bitterness to swallow; but,
all the same, she wished he would denounce her a little. She had
wished his visit would be short; it had no purpose, no propriety; yet
now that he seemed to be turning away she felt a sudden horror of
his leaving her without uttering a word that would give her an opportunity to defend herself more than she had done in writing to him a
month before, in a few carefully chosen words, to announce her engagement. If she were not in the wrong, however, why should she
desire to defend herself? It was an excess of generosity on Isabel’s part
to desire that Mr. Goodwood should be angry. And if he had not
meanwhile held himself hard it might have made him so to hear the
tone in which she suddenly exclaimed, as if she were accusing him of
having accused her: “I’ve not deceived you! I was perfectly free!”
“Yes, I know that,” said Caspar.
“I gave you full warning that I’d do as I chose.”
“You said you’d probably never marry, and you said it with such a
manner that I pretty well believed it.”
She considered this an instant. “No one can be more surprised
than myself at my present intention.”
“You told me that if I heard you were engaged I was not to believe
it,” Caspar went on. “I heard it twenty days ago from yourself, but
I remembered what you had said. I thought there might be some
mistake, and that’s partly why I came.”
“If you wish me to repeat it by word of mouth, that’s soon done.
There’s no mistake whatever.”
“I saw that as soon as I came into the room.”
“What good would it do you that I shouldn’t marry?” she asked
with a certain fierceness.
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“I should like it better than this.”
“You’re very selfish, as I said before.”
“I know that. I’m selfish as iron.”
“Even iron sometimes melts! If you’ll be reasonable I’ll see you
again.”
“Don’t you call me reasonable now?”
“I don’t know what to say to you,” she answered with sudden
humility.
“I shan’t trouble you for a long time,” the young man went on.
He made a step towards the door, but he stopped. “Another reason
why I came was that I wanted to hear what you would say in explanation of your having changed your mind.”
Her humbleness as suddenly deserted her. “In explanation? Do
you think I’m bound to explain?”
He gave her one of his long dumb looks. “You were very positive.
I did believe it.”
“So did I. Do you think I could explain if I would?”
“No, I suppose not. Well,” he added, “I’ve done what I wished.
I’ve seen you.”
“How little you make of these terrible journeys,” she felt the poverty of her presently replying.
“If you’re afraid I’m knocked up—in any such way as that—you
may he at your ease about it.” He turned away, this time in earnest,
and no hand-shake, no sign of parting, was exchanged between them.
At the door he stopped with his hand on the knob. “I shall leave
Florence to-morrow,” he said without a quaver.
“I’m delighted to hear it!” she answered passionately. Five minutes after he had gone out she burst into tears.
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CHAPTER XXXIII
HER FIT OF WEEPING, however, was soon smothered, and the signs of
it had vanished when, an hour later, she broke the news to her aunt.
I use this expression because she had been sure Mrs. Touchett would
not be pleased; Isabel had only waited to tell her till she had seen
Mr. Goodwood. She had an odd impression that it would not be
honourable to make the fact public before she should have heard
what Mr. Goodwood would say about it. He had said rather less
than she expected, and she now had a somewhat angry sense of
having lost time. But she would lose no more; she waited till Mrs.
Touchett came into the drawing-room before the mid-day breakfast, and then she began. “Aunt Lydia, I’ve something to tell you.”
Mrs. Touchett gave a little jump and looked at her almost fiercely.
“You needn’t tell me; I know what it is.”
“I don’t know how you know.”
“The same way that I know when the window’s open—by feeling
a draught. You’re going to marry that man.”
“What man do you mean?” Isabel enquired with great dignity.
“Madame Merle’s friend—Mr. Osmond.”
“I don’t know why you call him Madame Merle’s friend. Is that
the principal thing he’s known by?”
“If he’s not her friend he ought to be—after what she has done for
him!” cried Mrs. Touchett. “I shouldn’t have expected it of her; I’m
disappointed.”
“If you mean that Madame Merle has had anything to do with
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my engagement you’re greatly mistaken,” Isabel declared with a sort
of ardent coldness.
“You mean that your attractions were sufficient, without the
gentleman’s having had to be lashed up? You’re quite right. They’re
immense, your attractions, and he would never have presumed to
think of you if she hadn’t put him up to it. He has a very good
opinion of himself, but he was not a man to take trouble. Madame
Merle took the trouble for him.”
“He has taken a great deal for himself!” cried Isabel with a voluntary laugh.
Mrs. Touchett gave a sharp nod. “I think he must, after all, to
have made you like him so much.”
“I thought he even pleased you.”
“He did, at one time; and that’s why I’m angry with him.”
“Be angry with me, not with him,” said the girl.
“Oh, I’m always angry with you; that’s no satisfaction! Was it for
this that you refused Lord Warburton?”
“Please don’t go back to that. Why shouldn’t I like Mr. Osmond,
since others have done so?”
“Others, at their wildest moments, never wanted to marry him.
There’s nothing OF him,” Mrs. Touchett explained.
“Then he can’t hurt me,” said Isabel.
“Do you think you’re going to be happy? No one’s happy, in such
doings, you should know.”
“I shall set the fashion then. What does one marry for?”
“What you will marry for, heaven only knows. People usually marry
as they go into partnership—to set up a house. But in your partnership you’ll bring everything.”
“Is it that Mr. Osmond isn’t rich? Is that what you’re talking about?”
Isabel asked.
“He has no money; he has no name; he has no importance. I
value such things and I have the courage to say it; I think they’re
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very precious. Many other people think the same, and they show it.
But they give some other reason.”
Isabel hesitated a little. “I think I value everything that’s valuable.
I care very much for money, and that’s why I wish Mr. Osmond to
have a little.”
“Give it to him then; but marry some one else.”
“His name’s good enough for me,” the girl went on. “It’s a very
pretty name. Have I such a fine one myself?”
“All the more reason you should improve on it. There are only a
dozen American names. Do you marry him out of charity?”
“It was my duty to tell you, Aunt Lydia, but I don’t think it’s my
duty to explain to you. Even if it were I shouldn’t be able. So please
don’t remonstrate; in talking about it you have me at a disadvantage. I can’t talk about it.”
“I don’t remonstrate, I simply answer you: I must give some sign
of intelligence. I saw it coming, and I said nothing. I never meddle.”
“You never do, and I’m greatly obliged to you. You’ve been very
considerate.”
“It was not considerate—it was convenient,” said Mrs. Touchett.
“But I shall talk to Madame Merle.”
“I don’t see why you keep bringing her in. She has been a very
good friend to me.”
“Possibly; but she has been a poor one to me.”
“What has she done to you?”
“She has deceived me. She had as good as promised me to prevent
your engagement.”
“She couldn’t have prevented it.”
“She can do anything; that’s what I’ve always liked her for. I knew
she could play any part; but I understood that she played them one
by one. I didn’t understand that she would play two at the same
time.”
“I don’t know what part she may have played to you,” Isabel said;
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“that’s between yourselves. To me she has been honest and kind and
devoted.”
“Devoted, of course; she wished you to marry her candidate. She
told me she was watching you only in order to interpose.”
“She said that to please you,” the girl answered; conscious, however, of the inadequacy of the explanation.
“To please me by deceiving me? She knows me better. Am I pleased
to-day?”
“I don’t think you’re ever much pleased,” Isabel was obliged to
reply. “If Madame Merle knew you would learn the truth what had
she to gain by insincerity?”
“She gained time, as you see. While I waited for her to interfere
you were marching away, and she was really beating the drum.”
“That’s very well. But by your own admission you saw I was marching, and even if she had given the alarm you wouldn’t have tried to
stop me.”
“No, but some one else would.”
“Whom do you mean?” Isabel asked, looking very hard at her
aunt. Mrs. Touchett’s little bright eyes, active as they usually were,
sustained her gaze rather than returned it. “Would you have listened to Ralph?”
“Not if he had abused Mr. Osmond.”
“Ralph doesn’t abuse people; you know that perfectly. He cares
very much for you.”
“I know he does,” said Isabel; “and I shall feel the value of it now, for
he knows that whatever I do I do with reason.”
“He never believed you would do this. I told him you were capable of it, and he argued the other way.”
“He did it for the sake of argument,” the girl smiled. “You don’t
accuse him of having deceived you; why should you accuse Madame Merle?”
“He never pretended he’d prevent it.”
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“I’m glad of that!” cried Isabel gaily. “I wish very much,” she presently added, “that when he comes you’d tell him first of my engagement.”
“Of course I’ll mention it,” said Mrs. Touchett. “I shall say nothing more to you about it, but I give you notice I shall talk to others.”
“That’s as you please. I only meant that it’s rather better the announcement should come from you than from me.”
“I quite agree with you; it’s much more proper!” And on this the
aunt and the niece went to breakfast, where Mrs. Touchett, as good
as her word, made no allusion to Gilbert Osmond. After an interval
of silence, however, she asked her companion from whom she had
received a visit an hour before.
“From an old friend—an American gentleman,” Isabel said with
a colour in her cheek.
“An American gentleman of course. It’s only an American gentleman who calls at ten o’clock in the morning.”
“It was half-past ten; he was in a great hurry; he goes away this
evening.”
“Couldn’t he have come yesterday, at the usual time?”
“He only arrived last night.”
“He spends but twenty-four hours in Florence?” Mrs. Touchett
cried. “He’s an American gentleman truly.”
“He is indeed,” said Isabel, thinking with perverse admiration of
what Caspar Goodwood had done for her.
Two days afterward Ralph arrived; but though Isabel was sure
that Mrs. Touchett had lost no time in imparting to him the great
fact, he showed at first no open knowledge of it. Their prompted
talk was naturally of his health; Isabel had many questions to ask
about Corfu. She had been shocked by his appearance when he
came into the room; she had forgotten how ill he looked. In spite of
Corfu he looked very ill to-day, and she wondered if he were really
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worse or if she were simply disaccustomed to living with an invalid.
Poor Ralph made no nearer approach to conventional beauty as he
advanced in life, and the now apparently complete loss of his health
had done little to mitigate the natural oddity of his person. Blighted
and battered, but still responsive and still ironic, his face was like a
lighted lantern patched with paper and unsteadily held; his thin
whisker languished upon a lean cheek; the exorbitant curve of his
nose defined itself more sharply. Lean he was altogether, lean and
long and loose-jointed; an accidental cohesion of relaxed angles.
His brown velvet jacket had become perennial; his hands had fixed
themselves in his pockets; he shambled and stumbled and shuffled
in a manner that denoted great physical helplessness. It was perhaps
this whimsical gait that helped to mark his character more than ever
as that of the humorous invalid—the invalid for whom even his
own disabilities are part of the general joke. They might well indeed
with Ralph have been the chief cause of the want of seriousness
marking his view of a world in which the reason for his own continued presence was past finding out. Isabel had grown fond of his
ugliness; his awkwardness had become dear to her. They had been
sweetened by association; they struck her as the very terms on which
it had been given him to be charming. He was so charming that her
sense of his being ill had hitherto had a sort of comfort in it; the
state of his health had seemed not a limitation, but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official
emotions and left him the luxury of being exclusively personal. The
personality so resulting was delightful; he had remained proof against
the staleness of disease; he had had to consent to be deplorably ill,
yet had somehow escaped being formally sick. Such had been the
girl’s impression of her cousin; and when she had pitied him it was
only on reflection. As she reflected a good deal she had allowed him
a certain amount of compassion; but she always had a dread of wasting that essence—a precious article, worth more to the giver than to
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any one else. Now, however, it took no great sensibility to feel that
poor Ralph’s tenure of life was less elastic than it should be. He was
a bright, free, generous spirit, he had all the illumination of wisdom
and none of its pedantry, and yet he was distressfully dying.
Isabel noted afresh that life was certainly hard for some people,
and she felt a delicate glow of shame as she thought how easy it now
promised to become for herself. She was prepared to learn that Ralph
was not pleased with her engagement; but she was not prepared, in
spite of her affection for him, to let this fact spoil the situation. She
was not even prepared, or so she thought, to resent his want of
sympathy; for it would be his privilege—it would be indeed his
natural line—to find fault with any step she might take toward
marriage. One’s cousin always pretended to hate one’s husband; that
was traditional, classical; it was a part of one’s cousin’s always pretending to adore one. Ralph was nothing if not critical; and though
she would certainly, other things being equal, have been as glad to
marry to please him as to please any one, it would be absurd to
regard as important that her choice should square with his views.
What were his views after all? He had pretended to believe she had
better have married Lord Warburton; but this was only because she
had refused that excellent man. If she had accepted him Ralph would
certainly have taken another tone; he always took the opposite. You
could criticise any marriage; it was the essence of a marriage to be
open to criticism. How well she herself, should she only give her
mind to it, might criticise this union of her own! She had other
employment, however, and Ralph was welcome to relieve her of the
care. Isabel was prepared to be most patient and most indulgent.
He must have seen that, and this made it the more odd he should
say nothing. After three days had elapsed without his speaking our
young woman wearied of waiting; dislike it as he would, he might
at least go through the form. We, who know more about poor Ralph
than his cousin, may easily believe that during the hours that fol410
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lowed his arrival at Palazzo Crescentini he had privately gone through
many forms. His mother had literally greeted him with the great
news, which had been even more sensibly chilling than Mrs.
Touchett’s maternal kiss. Ralph was shocked and humiliated; his
calculations had been false and the person in the world in whom he
was most interested was lost. He drifted about the house like a rudderless vessel in a rocky stream, or sat in the garden of the palace on
a great cane chair, his long legs extended, his head thrown back and
his hat pulled over his eyes. He felt cold about the heart; he had
never liked anything less. What could he do, what could he say? If
the girl were irreclaimable could he pretend to like it? To attempt to
reclaim her was permissible only if the attempt should succeed. To
try to persuade her of anything sordid or sinister in the man to
whose deep art she had succumbed would be decently discreet only
in the event of her being persuaded. Otherwise he should simply
have damned himself. It cost him an equal effort to speak his thought
and to dissemble; he could neither assent with sincerity nor protest
with hope. Meanwhile he knew—or rather he supposed—that the
affianced pair were daily renewing their mutual vows. Osmond at
this moment showed himself little at Palazzo Crescentini; but Isabel
met him every day elsewhere, as she was free to do after their engagement had been made public. She had taken a carriage by the
month, so as not to be indebted to her aunt for the means of pursuing a course of which Mrs. Touchett disapproved, and she drove in
the morning to the Cascine. This suburban wilderness, during the
early hours, was void of all intruders, and our young lady, joined by
her lover in its quietest part, strolled with him a while through the
grey Italian shade and listened to the nightingales.
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CHAPTER XXIV
ONE MORNING, on her return from her drive, some half-hour before
luncheon, she quitted her vehicle in the court of the palace and,
instead of ascending the great staircase, crossed the court, passed
beneath another archway and entered the garden. A sweeter spot at
this moment could not have been imagined. The stillness of noontide hung over it, and the warm shade, enclosed and still, made
bowers like spacious caves. Ralph was sitting there in the clear gloom,
at the base of a statue of Terpsichore—a dancing nymph with taper
fingers and inflated draperies in the manner of Bernini; the extreme
relaxation of his attitude suggested at first to Isabel that he was asleep.
Her light footstep on the grass had not roused him, and before turning away she stood for a moment looking at him. During this instant he opened his eyes; upon which she sat down on a rustic chair
that matched with his own. Though in her irritation she had accused him of indifference she was not blind to the fact that he had
visibly had something to brood over. But she had explained his air
of absence partly by the languor of his increased weakness, partly by
worries connected with the property inherited from his father—the
fruit of eccentric arrangements of which Mrs. Touchett disapproved
and which, as she had told Isabel, now encountered opposition from
the other partners in the bank. He ought to have gone to England,
his mother said, instead of coming to Florence; he had not been
there for months, and took no more interest in the bank than in the
state of Patagonia.
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“I’m sorry I waked you,” Isabel said; “you look too tired.”
“I feel too tired. But I was not asleep. I was thinking of you.”
“Are you tired of that?”
“Very much so. It leads to nothing. The road’s long and I never
arrive.”
“What do you wish to arrive at?” she put to him, closing her parasol.
“At the point of expressing to myself properly what I think of
your engagement.”
“Don’t think too much of it,” she lightly returned.
“Do you mean that it’s none of my business?”
“Beyond a certain point, yes.”
“That’s the point I want to fix. I had an idea you may have found
me wanting in good manners. I’ve never congratulated you.”
“Of course I’ve noticed that. I wondered why you were silent.”
“There have been a good many reasons. I’ll tell you now,” Ralph
said. He pulled off his hat and laid it on the ground; then he sat
looking at her. He leaned back under the protection of Bernini, his
head against his marble pedestal, his arms dropped on either side of
him, his hands laid upon the rests of his wide chair. He looked
awkward, uncomfortable; he hesitated long. Isabel said nothing;
when people were embarrassed she was usually sorry for them, but
she was determined not to help Ralph to utter a word that should
not be to the honour of her high decision. “I think I’ve hardly got
over my surprise,” he went on at last. “You were the last person I
expected to see caught.”
“I don’t know why you call it caught.”
“Because you’re going to be put into a cage.”
“If I like my cage, that needn’t trouble you,” she answered.
“That’s what I wonder at; that’s what I’ve been thinking of.”
“If you’ve been thinking you may imagine how I’ve thought! I’m
satisfied that I’m doing well.”
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“You must have changed immensely. A year ago you valued your
liberty beyond everything. You wanted only to see life.”
“I’ve seen it,” said Isabel. “It doesn’t look to me now, I admit, such
an inviting expanse.”
“I don’t pretend it is; only I had an idea that you took a genial
view of it and wanted to survey the whole field.”
“I’ve seen that one can’t do anything so general. One must choose
a corner and cultivate that.”
“That’s what I think. And one must choose as good a corner as
possible. I had no idea, all winter, while I read your delightful letters, that you were choosing. You said nothing about it, and your
silence put me off my guard.”
“It was not a matter I was likely to write to you about. Besides, I
knew nothing of the future. It has all come lately. If you had been
on your guard, however,” Isabel asked, “what would you have done?”
“I should have said ‘Wait a little longer.’”
“Wait for what?”
“Well, for a little more light,” said Ralph with rather an absurd
smile, while his hands found their way into his pockets.
“Where should my light have come from? From you?”
“I might have struck a spark or two.”
Isabel had drawn off her gloves; she smoothed them out as they
lay upon her knee. The mildness of this movement was accidental,
for her expression was not conciliatory. “You’re beating about the
bush, Ralph. You wish to say you don’t like Mr. Osmond, and yet
you’re afraid.”
“Willing to wound and yet afraid to strike? I’m willing to wound
HIM, yes—but not to wound you. I’m afraid of you, not of him. If
you marry him it won’t be a fortunate way for me to have spoken.”
“IF I marry him! Have you had any expectation of dissuading
me?”
“Of course that seems to you too fatuous.”
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“No,” said Isabel after a little; “it seems to me too touching.”
“That’s the same thing. It makes me so ridiculous that you pity
me.”
She stroked out her long gloves again. “I know you’ve a great affection for me. I can’t get rid of that.”
“For heaven’s sake don’t try. Keep that well in sight. It will convince you how intensely I want you to do well.”
“And how little you trust me!”
There was a moment’s silence; the warm noontide seemed to listen. “I trust you, but I don’t trust him,” said Ralph.
She raised her eyes and gave him a wide, deep look. “You’ve said it
now, and I’m glad you’ve made it so clear. But you’ll suffer by it.”
“Not if you’re just.”
“I’m very just,” said Isabel. “What better proof of it can there be
than that I’m not angry with you? I don’t know what’s the matter
with me, but I’m not. I was when you began, but it has passed away.
Perhaps I ought to be angry, but Mr. Osmond wouldn’t think so.
He wants me to know everything; that’s what I like him for. You’ve
nothing to gain, I know that. I’ve never been so nice to you, as a
girl, that you should have much reason for wishing me to remain
one. You give very good advice; you’ve often done so. No, I’m very
quiet; I’ve always believed in your wisdom,” she went on, boasting
of her quietness, yet speaking with a kind of contained exaltation. It
was her passionate desire to be just; it touched Ralph to the heart,
affected him like a caress from a creature he had injured. He wished
to interrupt, to reassure her; for a moment he was absurdly inconsistent; he would have retracted what he had said. But she gave him
no chance; she went on, having caught a glimpse, as she thought, of
the heroic line and desiring to advance in that direction. “I see you’ve
some special idea; I should like very much to hear it. I’m sure it’s
disinterested; I feel that. It seems a strange thing to argue about,
and of course I ought to tell you definitely that if you expect to
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dissuade me you may give it up. You’ll not move me an inch; it’s too
late. As you say, I’m caught. Certainly it won’t be pleasant for you to
remember this, but your pain will be in your own thoughts. I shall
never reproach you.”
“I don’t think you ever will,” said Ralph. “It’s not in the least the
sort of marriage I thought you’d make.”
“What sort of marriage was that, pray?”
“Well, I can hardly say. I hadn’t exactly a positive view of it, but I
had a negative. I didn’t think you’d decide for—well, for that type.”
“What’s the matter with Mr. Osmond’s type, if it be one? His
being so independent, so individual, is what I most see in him,” the
girl declared. “What do you know against him? You know him
scarcely at all.”
“Yes,” Ralph said, “I know him very little, and I confess I haven’t
facts and items to prove him a villain. But all the same I can’t help
feeling that you’re running a grave risk.”
“Marriage is always a grave risk, and his risk’s as grave as mine.”
“That’s his affair! If he’s afraid, let him back out. I wish to God he
would.”
Isabel reclined in her chair, folding her arms and gazing a while at
her cousin. “I don’t think I understand you,” she said at last coldly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I believed you’d marry a man of more importance.”
Cold, I say, her tone had been, but at this a colour like a flame
leaped into her face. “Of more importance to whom? It seems to me
enough that one’s husband should be of importance to one’s self!”
Ralph blushed as well; his attitude embarrassed him. Physically
speaking he proceeded to change it; he straightened himself, then
leaned forward, resting a hand on each knee. He fixed his eyes on
the ground; he had an air of the most respectful deliberation.
“I’ll tell you in a moment what I mean,” he presently said. He felt
agitated, intensely eager; now that he had opened the discussion he
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wished to discharge his mind. But he wished also to be superlatively
gentle.
Isabel waited a little—then she went on with majesty. “In everything that makes one care for people Mr. Osmond is pre-eminent.
There may be nobler natures, but I’ve never had the pleasure of
meeting one. Mr. Osmond’s is the finest I know; he’s good enough
for me, and interesting enough, and clever enough. I’m far more
struck with what he has and what he represents than with what he
may lack.”
“I had treated myself to a charming vision of your future,” Ralph
observed without answering this; “I had amused myself with planning out a high destiny for you. There was to be nothing of this sort
in it. You were not to come down so easily or so soon.”
“Come down, you say?”
“Well, that renders my sense of what has happened to you. You
seemed to me to be soaring far up in the blue—to be, sailing in the
bright light, over the heads of men. Suddenly some one tosses up a
faded rosebud—a missile that should never have reached you—and
straight you drop to the ground. It hurts me,” said Ralph audaciously, “hurts me as if I had fallen myself!”
The look of pain and bewilderment deepened in his companion’s
face. “I don’t understand you in the least,” she repeated. “You say you
amused yourself with a project for my career—I don’t understand that.
Don’t amuse yourself too much, or I shall think you’re doing it at my
expense.”
Ralph shook his head. “I’m not afraid of your not believing that
I’ve had great ideas for you.”
“What do you mean by my soaring and sailing?” she pursued.
“I’ve never moved on a higher plane than I’m moving on now.
There’s nothing higher for a girl than to marry a—a person she
likes,” said poor Isabel, wandering into the didactic.
“It’s your liking the person we speak of that I venture to criticise,
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my dear cousin. I should have said that the man for you would have
been a more active, larger, freer sort of nature.” Ralph hesitated,
then added: “I can’t get over the sense that Osmond is somehow—
well, small.” He had uttered the last word with no great assurance;
he was afraid she would flash out again. But to his surprise she was
quiet; she had the air of considering.
“Small?” She made it sound immense.
“I think he’s narrow, selfish. He takes himself so seriously!”
“He has a great respect for himself; I don’t blame him for that,”
said Isabel. “It makes one more sure to respect others.”
Ralph for a moment felt almost reassured by her reasonable tone.
“Yes, but everything is relative; one ought to feel one’s relation to
things—to others. I don’t think Mr. Osmond does that.”
“I’ve chiefly to do with his relation to me. In that he’s excellent.”
“He’s the incarnation of taste,” Ralph went on, thinking hard how
he could best express Gilbert Osmond’s sinister attributes without
putting himself in the wrong by seeming to describe him coarsely.
He wished to describe him impersonally, scientifically. “He judges
and measures, approves and condemns, altogether by that.”
“It’s a happy thing then that his taste should be exquisite.”
“It’s exquisite, indeed, since it has led him to select you as his
bride. But have you ever seen such a taste—a really exquisite one—
ruffled?”
“I hope it may never be my fortune to fail to gratify my husband’s.”
At these words a sudden passion leaped to Ralph’s lips. “Ah, that’s
wilful, that’s unworthy of you! You were not meant to be measured
in that way—you were meant for something better than to keep
guard over the sensibilities of a sterile dilettante!”
Isabel rose quickly and he did the same, so that they stood for a
moment looking at each other as if he had flung down a defiance or
an insult. But “You go too far,” she simply breathed.
“I’ve said what I had on my mind—and I’ve said it because I love you!”
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Isabel turned pale: was he too on that tiresome list? She had a
sudden wish to strike him off. “Ah then, you’re not disinterested!”
“I love you, but I love without hope,” said Ralph quickly, forcing
a smile and feeling that in that last declaration he had expressed
more than he intended.
Isabel moved away and stood looking into the sunny stillness of
the garden; but after a little she turned back to him. “I’m afraid
your talk then is the wildness of despair! I don’t understand it —but
it doesn’t matter. I’m not arguing with you; it’s impossible I should;
I’ve only tried to listen to you. I’m much obliged to you for attempting to explain,” she said gently, as if the anger with which she
had just sprung up had already subsided. “It’s very good of you to
try to warn me, if you’re really alarmed; but I won’t promise to think
of what you’ve said: I shall forget it as soon as possible. Try and
forget it yourself; you’ve done your duty, and no man can do more.
I can’t explain to you what I feel, what I believe, and I wouldn’t if I
could.” She paused a moment and then went on with an inconsequence that Ralph observed even in the midst of his eagerness to
discover some symptom of concession. “I can’t enter into your idea
of Mr. Osmond; I can’t do it justice, because I see him in quite
another way. He’s not important—no, he’s not important; he’s a
man to whom importance is supremely indifferent. If that’s what
you mean when you call him ‘small,’ then he’s as small as you please.
I call that l large—it’s the largest thing I know. I won’t pretend to
argue with you about a person I’m going to marry,” Isabel repeated.
“I’m not in the least concerned to defend Mr. Osmond; he’s not so
weak as to need my defence. I should think it would seem strange
even to yourself that I should talk of him so quietly and coldly, as if
he were any one else. I wouldn’t talk of him at all to any one but
you; and you, after what you’ve said—I may just answer you once
for all. Pray, would you wish me to make a mercenary marriage—
what they call a marriage of ambition? I’ve only one ambition—to
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be free to follow out a good feeling. I had others once, but they’ve
passed away. Do you complain of Mr. Osmond because he’s not
rich? That’s just what I like him for. I’ve fortunately money enough;
I’ve never felt so thankful for it as to-day. There have been moments
when I should like to go and kneel down by your father’s grave: he
did perhaps a better thing than he knew when he put it into my
power to marry a poor man—a man who has borne his poverty
with such dignity, with such indifference. Mr. Osmond has never
scrambled nor struggled—he has cared for no worldly prize. If that’s
to be narrow, if that’s to be selfish, then it’s very well. I’m not frightened by such words, I’m not even displeased; I’m only sorry that
you should make a mistake. Others might have done so, but I’m
surprised that you should. You might know a gentleman when you
see one—you might know a fine mind. Mr. Osmond makes no
mistakes! He knows everything, he understands everything, he has
the kindest, gentlest, highest spirit. You’ve got hold of some false
idea. It’s a pity, but I can’t help it; it regards you more than me.”
Isabel paused a moment, looking at her cousin with an eye illumined by a sentiment which contradicted the careful calmness of
her manner—a mingled sentiment, to which the angry pain excited
by his words and the wounded pride of having needed to justify a
choice of which she felt only the nobleness and purity, equally contributed. Though she paused Ralph said nothing; he saw she had
more to say. She was grand, but she was highly solicitous; she was
indifferent, but she was all in a passion. “What sort of a person
should you have liked me to marry?” she asked suddenly. “You talk
about one’s soaring and sailing, but if one marries at all one touches
the earth. One has human feelings and needs, one has a heart in
one’s bosom, and one must marry a particular individual. Your
mother has never forgiven me for not having come to a better understanding with Lord Warburton, and she’s horrified at my contenting myself with a person who has none of his great advantages—
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no property, no title, no honours, no houses, nor lands, nor position, nor reputation, nor brilliant belongings of any sort. It’s the
total absence of all these things that pleases me. Mr. Osmond’s simply a very lonely, a very cultivated and a very honest man—he’s not
a prodigious proprietor.”
Ralph had listened with great attention, as if everything she said
merited deep consideration; but in truth he was only half thinking
of the things she said, he was for the rest simply accommodating
himself to the weight of his total impression—the impression of her
ardent good faith. She was wrong, but she believed; she was deluded, but she was dismally consistent. It was wonderfully characteristic of her that, having invented a fine theory, about Gilbert
Osmond, she loved him not for what he really possessed, but for his
very poverties dressed out as honours. Ralph remembered what he
had said to his father about wishing to put it into her power to meet
the requirements of her imagination. He had done so, and the girl
had taken full advantage of the luxury. Poor Ralph felt sick; he felt
ashamed. Isabel had uttered her last words with a low solemnity of
conviction which virtually terminated the discussion, and she closed
it formally by turning away and walking back to the house. Ralph
walked beside her, and they passed into the court together and
reached the big staircase. Here he stopped and Isabel paused, turning on him a face of elation—absolutely and perversely of gratitude. His opposition had made her own conception of her conduct
clearer to her. “Shall you not come up to breakfast?” she asked.
“No; I want no breakfast; I’m not hungry.”
“You ought to eat,” said the girl; “you live on air.”
“I do, very much, and I shall go back into the garden and take
another mouthful. I came thus far simply to say this. I told you last
year that if you were to get into trouble I should feel terribly sold.
That’s how I feel to-day.”
“Do you think I’m in trouble?”
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“One’s in trouble when one’s in error.”
“Very well,” said Isabel; “I shall never complain of my trouble to
you!” And she moved up the staircase.
Ralph, standing there with his hands in his pockets, followed her
with his eyes; then the lurking chill of the high-walled court struck
him and made him shiver, so that he returned to the garden to
breakfast on the Florentine sunshine.
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CHAPTER XXXV
ISABEL, WHEN SHE STROLLED in the Cascine with her lover, felt no
impulse to tell him how little he was approved at Palazzo Crescentini.
The discreet opposition offered to her marriage by her aunt and her
cousin made on the whole no great impression upon her; the moral
of it was simply that they disliked Gilbert Osmond. This dislike was
not alarming to Isabel; she scarcely even regretted it; for it served
mainly to throw into higher relief the fact, in every way so
honourable, that she married to please herself. One did other things
to please other people; one did this for a more personal satisfaction;
and Isabel’s satisfaction was confirmed by her lover’s admirable good
conduct. Gilbert Osmond was in love, and he had never deserved
less than during these still, bright days, each of them numbered,
which preceded the fulfilment of his hopes, the harsh criticism passed
upon him by Ralph Touchett. The chief impression produced on
Isabel’s spirit by this criticism was that the passion of love separated
its victim terribly from every one but the loved object. She felt herself disjoined from every one she had ever known before—from her
two sisters, who wrote to express a dutiful hope that she would be
happy, and a surprise, somewhat more vague, at her not having chosen a consort who was the hero of a richer accumulation of anecdote; from Henrietta, who, she was sure, would come out, too late,
on purpose to remonstrate; from Lord Warburton, who would certainly console himself, and from Caspar Goodwood, who perhaps
would not; from her aunt, who had cold, shallow ideas about mar423
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riage, for which she was not sorry to display her contempt; and
from Ralph, whose talk about having great views for her was surely
but a whimsical cover for a personal sappointment. Ralph apparently wished her not to marry at all—that was what it really meant—
because he was amused with the spectacle of her adventures as a
single woman. His disappointment made him say angry things about
the man she had preferred even to him: Isabel flattered herself that
she believed Ralph had been angry. It was the more easy for her to
believe this because, as I say, she had now little free or unemployed
emotion for minor needs, and accepted as an incident, in fact quite
as an ornament, of her lot the idea that to prefer Gilbert Osmond as
she preferred him was perforce to break all other ties. She tasted of
the sweets of this preference, and they made her conscious, almost
with awe, of the invidious and remorseless tide of the charmed and
possessed condition, great as was the traditional honour and imputed virtue of being in love. It was the tragic part of happiness;
one’s right was always made of the wrong of some one else.
The elation of success, which surely now flamed high in Osmond,
emitted meanwhile very little smoke for so brilliant a blaze. Contentment, on his part, took no vulgar form; excitement, in the most
self-conscious of men, was a kind of ecstasy of self-control. This
disposition, however, made him an admirable lover; it gave him a
constant view of the smitten and dedicated state. He never forgot
himself, as I say; and so he never forgot to be graceful and tender, to
wear the appearance—which presented indeed no difficulty—of
stirred senses and deep intentions. He was immensely pleased with
his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. What could be a finer thing to live with than a high
spirit attuned to softness? For would not the softness be all for one’s
self, and the strenuousness for society, which admired the air of
superiority? What could be a happier gift in a companion than a
quick, fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s
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thought on a polished, elegant surface? Osmond hated to see his
thought reproduced literally—that made it look stale and stupid;
he preferred it to be freshened in the reproduction even as “words”
by music. His egotism had never taken the crude form of desiring a
dull wife; this lady’s intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen
one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it
would give a decorative value, so that talk might become for him a
sort of served dessert. He found the silver quality in this perfection
in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckle and make
it ring. He knew perfectly, though he had not been told, that their
union enjoyed little favour with the girl’s relations; but he had always treated her so completely as an independent person that it
hardly seemed necessary to express regret for the attitude of her
family. Nevertheless, one morning, he made an abrupt allusion to
it. “It’s the difference in our fortune they don’t like,” he said. “They
think I’m in love with your money.”
“Are you speaking of my aunt—of my cousin?” Isabel asked. “How
do you know what they think?”
“You’ve not told me they’re pleased, and when I wrote to Mrs.
Touchett the other day she never answered my note. If they had
been delighted I should have had some sign of it, and the fact of my
being poor and you rich is the most obvious explanation of their
reserve. But of course when a poor man marries a rich girl he must
be prepared for imputations. I don’t mind them; I only care for one
thing—for your not having the shadow of a doubt. I don’t care
what people of whom I ask nothing think—I’m not even capable
perhaps of wanting to know. I’ve never so concerned myself, God
forgive me, and why should I begin to-day, when I have taken to
myself a compensation for everything? I won’t pretend I’m sorry
you’re rich; I’m delighted. I delight in everything that’s yours—
whether it be money or virtue. Money’s a horrid thing to follow, but
a charming thing to meet. It seems to me, however, that I’ve suffi425
The Portrait of a Lady
ciently proved the limits of my itch for it: I never in my life tried to
earn a penny, and I ought to be less subject to suspicion than most
of the people one sees grubbing and grabbing. I suppose it’s their
business to suspect—that of your family; it’s proper on the whole
they should. They’ll like me better some day; so will you, for that
matter. Meanwhile my business is not to make myself bad blood,
but simply to be thankful for life and love.” “It has made me better,
loving you,” he said on another occasion; “it has made me wiser and
easier and—I won’t pretend to deny—brighter and nicer and even
stronger. I used to want a great many things before and to be angry
I didn’t have them. Theoretically I was satisfied, as I once told you.
I flattered myself I had limited my wants. But I was subject to irritation; I used to have morbid, sterile, hateful fits of hunger, of desire. Now I’m really satisfied, because I can’t think of anything better. It’s just as when one has been trying to spell out a book in the
twilight and suddenly the lamp comes in. I had been putting out
my eyes over the book of life and finding nothing to reward me for
my pains; but now that I can read it properly I see it’s a delightful
story. My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there
before us—what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter
half of an Italian day —with a golden haze, and the shadows just
lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life and which you love to-day.
Upon my honour, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get on. We’ve got
what we like—to say nothing of having each other. We’ve the faculty of admiration and several capital convictions. We’re not stupid,
we’re not mean, we’re not under bonds to any kind of ignorance or
dreariness. You’re remarkably fresh, and I’m remarkably well-seasoned. We’ve my poor child to amuse us; we’ll try and make up
some little life for her. It’s all soft and mellow—it has the Italian
colouring.”
They made a good many plans, but they left themselves also a
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good deal of latitude; it was a matter of course, however, that they
should live for the present in Italy. It was in Italy that they had met,
Italy had been a party to their first impressions of each other, and
Italy should be a party to their happiness. Osmond had the attachment of old acquaintance and Isabel the stimulus of new, which
seemed to assure her a future at a high level of consciousness of the
beautiful. The desire for unlimited expansion had been succeeded
in her soul by the sense that life was vacant without some private
duty that might gather one’s energies to a point. She had told Ralph
she had “seen life” in a year or two and that she was already tired,
not of the act of living, but of that of observing. What had become
of all her ardours, her aspirations, her theories, her high estimate of
her independence and her incipient conviction that she should never
marry? These things had been absorbed in a more primitive need—
a need the answer to which brushed away numberless questions, yet
gratified infinite desires. It simplified the situation at a stroke, it
came down from above like the light of the stars, and it needed no
explanation. There was explanation enough in the fact that he was
her lover, her own, and that she should be able to be of use to him.
She could surrender to him with a kind of humility, she could marry
him with a kind of pride; she was not only taking, she was giving.
He brought Pansy with him two or three times to the Cascine—
Pansy who was very little taller than a year before, and not much
older. That she would always be a child was the conviction expressed
by her father, who held her by the hand when she was in her sixteenth year and told her to go and play while he sat down a little
with the pretty lady. Pansy wore a short dress and a long coat; her
hat always seemed too big for her. She found pleasure in walking
off, with quick, short steps, to the end of the alley, and then in
walking back with a smile that seemed an appeal for approbation.
Isabel approved in abundance, and the abundance had the personal
touch that the child’s affectionate nature craved. She watched her
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indications as if for herself also much depended on them—Pansy
already so represented part of the service she could render, part of
the responsibility she could face. Her father took so the childish
view of her that he had not yet explained to her the new relation in
which he stood to the elegant Miss Archer. “She doesn’t know,” he
said to Isabel; “she doesn’t guess; she thinks it perfectly natural that
you and I should come and walk here together simply as good friends.
There seems to me something enchantingly innocent in that; it’s the
way I like her to be. No, I’m not a failure, as I used to think; I’ve
succeeded in two things. I’m to marry the woman I adore, and I’ve
brought up my child, as I wished, in the old way.”
He was very fond, in all things, of the “old way”; that had struck
Isabel as one of his fine, quiet, sincere notes. “It occurs to me that
you’ll not know whether you’ve succeeded until you’ve told her,”
she said. “You must see how she takes your news, She may be horrified—she may be jealous.”
“I’m not afraid of that; she’s too fond of you on her own account.
I should like to leave her in the dark a little longer —to see if it will
come into her head that if we’re not engaged we ought to be.”
Isabel was impressed by Osmond’s artistic, the plastic view, as it
somehow appeared, of Pansy’s innocence—her own appreciation of
it being more anxiously moral. She was perhaps not the less pleased
when he told her a few days later that he had communicated the
fact to his daughter, who had made such a pretty little speech—
”Oh, then I shall have a beautiful sister!” She was neither surprised
nor alarmed; she had not cried, as he expected.
“Perhaps she had guessed it,” said Isabel.
“Don’t say that; I should be disgusted if I believed that. I thought
it would be just a little shock; but the way she took it proves that her
good manners are paramount. That’s also what I wished. You shall
see for yourself; to-morrow she shall make you her congratulations
in person.”
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The meeting, on the morrow, took place at the Countess Gemini’s,
whither Pansy had been conducted by her father, who knew that
Isabel was to come in the afternoon to return a visit made her by the
Countess on learning that they were to become sisters-in-law. Calling at Casa Touchett the visitor had not found Isabel at home; but
after our young woman had been ushered into the Countess’s drawing-room Pansy arrived to say that her aunt would presently appear.
Pansy was spending the day with that lady, who thought her of an
age to begin to learn how to carry herself in company. It was Isabel’s
view that the little girl might have given lessons in deportment to
her relative, and nothing could have justified this conviction more
than the manner in which Pansy acquitted herself while they waited
together for the Countess. Her father’s decision, the year before,
had finally been to send her back to the convent to receive the last
graces, and Madame Catherine had evidently carried out her theory
that Pansy was to be fitted for the great world.
“Papa has told me that you’ve kindly consented to marry him,”
said this excellent woman’s pupil. “It’s very delightful; I think you’ll
suit very well.”
“You think I shall suit you?”
“You’ll suit me beautifully; but what I mean is that you and papa
will suit each other. You’re both so quiet and so serious. You’re not
so quiet as he—or even as Madame Merle; but you’re more quiet
than many others. He should not for instance have a wife like my
aunt. She’s always in motion, in agitation—to-day especially; you’ll
see when she comes in. They told us at the convent it was wrong to
judge our elders, but I suppose there’s no harm if we judge them
favourably. You’ll be a delightful companion for papa.”
“For you too, I hope,” Isabel said.
“I speak first of him on purpose. I’ve told you already what I myself
think of you; I liked you from the first. I admire you so much that I
think it will be a good fortune to have you always before me. You’ll be
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my model; I shall try to imitate you though I’m afraid it will be very
feeble. I’m very glad for papa—he needed something more than me.
Without you I don’t see how he could have got it. You’ll be my stepmother, but we mustn’t use that word. They’re always said to be cruel;
but I don’t think you’ll ever so much as pinch or even push me. I’m
not afraid at all.”
“My good little Pansy,” said Isabel gently, “I shall be ever so kind
to you.” A vague, inconsequent vision of her coming in some odd
way to need it had intervened with the effect of a chill.
“Very well then, I’ve nothing to fear,” the child returned with her
note of prepared promptitude. What teaching she had had, it seemed
to suggest—or what penalties for non-performance she dreaded!
Her description of her aunt had not been incorrect; the Countess
Gemini was further than ever from having folded her wings. She
entered the room with a flutter through the air and kissed Isabel
first on the forehead and then on each cheek as if according to some
ancient prescribed rite. She drew the visitor to a sofa and, looking at
her with a variety of turns of the head, began to talk very much as if,
seated brush in hand before an easel, she were applying a series of
considered touches to a composition of figures already sketched in.
“If you expect me to congratulate you I must beg you to excuse me.
I don’t suppose you care if I do or not; I believe you’re supposed not
to care—through being so clever—for all sorts of ordinary things.
But I care myself if I tell fibs; I never tell them unless there’s something rather good to be gained. I don’t see what’s to be gained with
you—especially as you wouldn’t believe me. I don’t make professions any more than I make paper flowers or flouncey lampshades—
I don’t know how. My lampshades would be sure to take fire, my
roses and my fibs to be larger than life. I’m very glad for my own
sake that you’re to marry Osmond; but I won’t pretend I’m glad for
yours. You’re very brilliant—you know that’s the way you’re always
spoken of; you’re an heiress and very good-looking and original, not
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banal; so it’s a good thing to have you in the family. Our family’s
very good, you know; Osmond will have told you that; and my
mother was rather distinguished—she was called the American
Corinne. But we’re dreadfully fallen, I think, and perhaps you’ll
pick us up. I’ve great confidence in you; there are ever so many
things I want to talk to you about. I never congratulate any girl on
marrying; I think they ought to make it somehow not quite so awful a steel trap. I suppose Pansy oughtn’t to hear all this; but that’s
what she has come to me for —to acquire the tone of society. There’s
no harm in her knowing what horrors she may be in for. When first
I got an idea that my brother had designs on you I thought of writing to you, to recommend you, in the strongest terms, not to listen
to him. Then I thought it would be disloyal, and I hate anything of
that kind. Besides, as I say, I was enchanted for myself; and after all
I’m very selfish. By the way, you won’t respect me, not one little
mite, and we shall never be intimate. I should like it, but you won’t.
Some day, all the same, we shall be better friends than you will
believe at first. My husband will come and see you, though, as you
probably know, he’s on no sort of terms with Osmond. He’s very
fond of going to see pretty women, but I’m not afraid of you. In the
first place I don’t care what he does. In the second, you won’t care a
straw for him; he won’t be a bit, at any time, your affair, and, stupid
as he is, he’ll see you’re not his. Some day, if you can stand it, I’ll tell
you all about him. Do you think my niece ought to go out of the
room? Pansy, go and practise a little in my boudoir.”
“Let her stay, please,” said Isabel. “I would rather hear nothing
that Pansy may not!”
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CHAPTER XXXVI
ONE AFTERNOON of the autumn of 1876, toward dusk, a young man
of pleasing appearance rang at the door of a small apartment on the
third floor of an old Roman house. On its being opened he enquired for Madame Merle; whereupon the servant, a neat, plain
woman, with a French face and a lady’s maid’s manner, ushered him
into a diminutive drawing-room and requested the favour of his
name. “Mr. Edward Rosier,” said the young man, who sat down to
wait till his hostess should appear.
The reader will perhaps not have forgotten that Mr. Rosier was an
ornament of the American circle in Paris, but it may also be remembered that he sometimes vanished from its horizon. He had spent a
portion of several winters at Pau, and as he was a gentleman of
constituted habits he might have continued for years to pay his annual visit to this charming resort. In the summer of 1876, however,
an incident befell him which changed the current not only of his
thoughts, but of his customary sequences. He passed a month in
the Upper Engadine and encountered at Saint Moritz a charming
young girl. To this little person he began to pay, on the spot, particular attention: she struck him as exactly the household angel he
had long been looking for. He was never precipitate, he was nothing if not discreet, so he forbore for the present to declare his passion; but it seemed to him when they parted—the young lady to go
down into Italy and her admirer to proceed to Geneva, where he
was under bonds to join other friends—that he should be romanti432
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cally wretched if he were not to see her again. The simplest way to
do so was to go in the autumn to Rome, where Miss Osmond was
domiciled with her family. Mr. Rosier started on his pilgrimage to
the Italian capital and reached it on the first of November. It was a
pleasant thing to do, but for the young man there was a strain of the
heroic in the enterprise. He might expose himself, unseasoned, to
the poison of the Roman air, which in November lay, notoriously,
much in wait. Fortune, however, favours the brave; and this adventurer, who took three grains of quinine a day, had at the end of a
month no cause to deplore his temerity. He had made to a certain
extent good use of his time; he had devoted it in vain to finding a
flaw in Pansy Osmond’s composition. She was admirably finished;
she had had the last touch; she was really a consummate piece. He
thought of her in amorous meditation a good deal as he might have
thought of a Dresden-china shepherdess. Miss Osmond, indeed, in
the bloom of her juvenility, had a hint of the rococo which Rosier,
whose taste was predominantly for that manner, could not fail to
appreciate. That he esteemed the productions of comparatively frivolous periods would have been apparent from the attention he bestowed upon Madame Merle’s drawing-room, which, although furnished with specimens of every style, was especially rich in articles
of the last two centuries. He had immediately put a glass into one
eye and looked round; and then “By Jove, she has some jolly good
things!” he had yearningly murmured. The room was small and
densely filled with furniture; it gave an impression of faded silk and
little statuettes which might totter if one moved. Rosier got up and
wandered about with his careful tread, bending over the tables
charged with knick-knacks and the cushions embossed with princely
arms. When Madame Merle came in she found him standing before the fireplace with his nose very close to the great lace flounce
attached to the damask cover of the mantel. He had lifted it delicately, as if he were smelling it.
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“It’s old Venetian,” she said; “it’s rather good.”
“It’s too good for this; you ought to wear it.”
“They tell me you have some better in Paris, in the same situation.”
“Ah, but I can’t wear mine,” smiled the visitor.
“I don’t see why you shouldn’t! I’ve better lace than that to wear.”
His eyes wandered, lingeringly, round the room again. “You’ve
some very good things.”
“Yes, but I hate them.”
“Do you want to get rid of them?” the young man quickly asked.
“No, it’s good to have something to hate: one works it off!”
“I love my things,” said Mr. Rosier as he sat there flushed with all
his recognitions. “But it’s not about them, nor about yours, that I
came to talk to you.” He paused a moment and then, with greater
softness: “I care more for Miss Osmond than for all the bibelots in
Europe!”
Madame Merle opened wide eyes. “Did you come to tell me that?”
“I came to ask your advice.”
She looked at him with a friendly frown, stroking her chin with
her large white hand. “A man in love, you know, doesn’t ask advice.”
“Why not, if he’s in a difficult position? That’s often the case with
a man in love. I’ve been in love before, and I know. But never so
much as this time—really never so much. I should like particularly
to know what you think of my prospects. I’m afraid that for Mr.
Osmond I’m not—well, a real collector’s piece.”
“Do you wish me to intercede?” Madame Merle asked with her
fine arms folded and her handsome mouth drawn up to the left.
“If you could say a good word for me I should be greatly obliged. There
will be no use in my troubling Miss Osmond unless I have good reason to
believe her father will consent.”
“You’re very considerate; that’s in your favour. But you assume in
rather an off-hand way that I think you a prize.”
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“You’ve been very kind to me,” said the young man. “That’s why
I came.”
“I’m always kind to people who have good Louis Quatorze. It’s
very rare now, and there’s no telling what one may get by it.” With
which the left-hand corner of Madame Merle’s mouth gave expression to the joke.
But he looked, in spite of it, literally apprehensive and consistently strenuous. “Ah, I thought you liked me for myself!”
“I like you very much; but, if you please, we won’t analyse. Pardon me if I seem patronising, but I think you a perfect little gentleman. I must tell you, however, that I’ve not the marrying of Pansy
Osmond.”
“I didn’t suppose that. But you’ve seemed to me intimate with her
family, and I thought you might have influence.”
Madame Merle considered. “Whom do you call her family?”
“Why, her father; and—how do you say it in English?—her bellemere.”
“Mr. Osmond’s her father, certainly; but his wife can scarcely be
termed a member of her family. Mrs. Osmond has nothing to do
with marrying her.”
“I’m sorry for that,” said Rosier with an amiable sigh of good
faith. “I think Mrs. Osmond would favour me.”
“Very likely—if her husband doesn’t.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Does she take the opposite line from
him?”
“In everything. They think quite differently.”
“Well,” said Rosier, “I’m sorry for that; but it’s none of my business. She’s very fond of Pansy.”
“Yes, she’s very fond of Pansy.”
“And Pansy has a great affection for her. She has told me how she
loves her as if she were her own mother.”
“You must, after all, have had some very intimate talk with the
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poor child,” said Madame Merle. “Have you declared your sentiments?”
“Never!” cried Rosier, lifting his neatly-gloved hand. “Never till
I’ve assured myself of those of the parents.”
“You always wait for that? You’ve excellent principles; you observe
the proprieties.”
“I think you’re laughing at me,” the young man murmured, dropping back in his chair and feeling his small moustache. “I didn’t
expect that of you, Madame Merle.”
She shook her head calmly, like a person who saw things as she
saw them. “You don’t do me justice. I think your conduct in excellent taste and the best you could adopt. Yes, that’s what I think.”
“I wouldn’t agitate her—only to agitate her; I love her too much
for that,” said Ned Rosier.
“I’m glad, after all, that you’ve told me,” Madame Merle went on.
“Leave it to me a little; I think I can help you.”
“I said you were the person to come to!” her visitor cried with
prompt elation.
“You were very clever,” Madame Merle returned more dryly.
“When I say I can help you I mean once assuming your cause to be
good. Let us think a little if it is.”
“I’m awfully decent, you know,” said Rosier earnestly. “I won’t say
I’ve no faults, but I’ll say I’ve no vices.”
“All that’s negative, and it always depends, also, on what people
call vices. What’s the positive side? What’s the virtuous? What have
you got besides your Spanish lace and your Dresden teacups?”
“I’ve a comfortable little fortune—about forty thousand francs a
year. With the talent I have for arranging, we can live beautifully on
such an income.”
“Beautifully, no. Sufficiently, yes. Even that depends on where
you live.”
“Well, in Paris. I would undertake it in Paris.”
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Madame Merle’s mouth rose to the left. “It wouldn’t be famous;
you’d have to make use of the teacups, and they’d get broken.”
“We don’t want to be famous. If Miss Osmond should have everything pretty it would be enough. When one’s as pretty as she one
can afford—well, quite cheap faience. She ought never to wear anything but muslin—without the sprig,” said Rosier reflectively.
“Wouldn’t you even allow her the sprig? She’d be much obliged to
you at any rate for that theory.”
“It’s the correct one, I assure you; and I’m sure she’d enter into it.
She understands all that; that’s why I love her.”
“She’s a very good little girl, and most tidy—also extremely graceful. But her father, to the best of my belief, can give her nothing.”
Rosier scarce demurred. “I don’t in the least desire that he should.
But I may remark, all the same, that he lives like a rich man.”
“The money’s his wife’s; she brought him a large fortune.”
“Mrs. Osmond then is very fond of her stepdaughter; she may do
something.”
“For a love-sick swain you have your eyes about you! “Madame
Merle exclaimed with a laugh.
“I esteem a dot very much. I can do without it, but I esteem it.”
“Mrs. Osmond,” Madame Merle went on, “will probably prefer
to keep her money for her own children.”
“Her own children? Surely she has none.”
“She may have yet. She had a poor little boy, who died two years
ago, six months after his birth. Others therefore may come.”
“I hope they will, if it will make her happy. She’s a splendid
woman.”
Madame Merle failed to burst into speech. “Ah, about her there’s
much to be said. Splendid as you like! We’ve not exactly made out
that you’re a parti. The absence of vices is hardly a source of income.
“Pardon me, I think it may be,” said Rosier quite lucidly.
“You’ll be a touching couple, living on your innocence!”
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“I think you underrate me.”
“You’re not so innocent as that? Seriously,” said Madame Merle,
“of course forty thousand francs a year and a nice character are a
combination to be considered. I don’t say it’s to be jumped at, but
there might be a worse offer. Mr. Osmond, however, will probably
incline to believe he can do better.”
“He can do so perhaps; but what can his daughter do? She can’t do
better than marry the man she loves. For she does, you know,” Rosier
added eagerly.
“She does—I know it.”
“Ah,” cried the young man, “I said you were the person to come
to.”
“But I don’t know how you know it, if you haven’t asked her,”
Madame Merle went on.
“In such a case there’s no need of asking and telling; as you say,
we’re an innocent couple. How did you know it?”
“I who am not innocent? By being very crafty. Leave it to me; I’ll
find out for you.”
Rosier got up and stood smoothing his hat. “You say that rather
coldly. Don’t simply find out how it is, but try to make it as it should
be.”
“I’ll do my best. I’ll try to make the most of your advantages.”
“Thank you so very much. Meanwhile then I’ll say a word to
Mrs. Osmond.”
“Gardez-vous-en bien!” And Madame Merle was on her feet.
“Don’t set her going, or you’ll spoil everything.”
Rosier gazed into his hat; he wondered whether his hostess had
been after all the right person to come to. “I don’t think I understand you. I’m an old friend of Mrs. Osmond, and I think she would
like me to succeed.”
“Be an old friend as much as you like; the more old friends she
has the better, for she doesn’t get on very well with some of her new.
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But don’t for the present try to make her take up the cudgels for
you. Her husband may have other views, and, as a person who wishes
her well, I advise you not to multiply points of difference between
them.”
Poor Rosier’s face assumed an expression of alarm; a suit for the
hand of Pansy Osmond was even a more complicated business than
his taste for proper transitions had allowed. But the extreme good
sense which he concealed under a surface suggesting that of a careful owner’s “best set” came to his assistance. “I don’t see that I’m
bound to consider Mr. Osmond so very much!” he exclaimed. “No,
but you should consider her. You say you’re an old friend. Would
you make her suffer?”
“Not for the world.”
“Then be very careful, and let the matter alone till I’ve taken a few
soundings.”
“Let the matter alone, dear Madame Merle? Remember that I’m
in love.”
“Oh, you won’t burn up! Why did you come to me, if you’re not
to heed what I say?”
“You’re very kind; I’ll be very good,” the young man promised.
“But I’m afraid Mr. Osmond’s pretty hard,” he added in his mild
voice as he went to the door.
Madame Merle gave a short laugh. “It has been said before. But
his wife isn’t easy either.”
“Ah, she’s a splendid woman!” Ned Rosier repeated, for departure. He resolved that his conduct should be worthy of an aspirant
who was already a model of discretion; but he saw nothing in any
pledge he had given Madame Merle that made it improper he should
keep himself in spirits by an occasional visit to Miss Osmond’s home.
He reflected constantly on what his adviser had said to him, and
turned over in his mind the impression of her rather circumspect
tone. He had gone to her de confiance, as they put it in Paris; but it
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was possible he had been precipitate. He found difficulty in thinking of himself as rash—he had incurred this reproach so rarely; but
it certainly was true that he had known Madame Merle only for the
last month, and that his thinking her a delightful woman was not,
when one came to look into it, a reason for assuming that she would
be eager to push Pansy Osmond into his arms, gracefully arranged
as these members might be to receive her. She had indeed shown
him benevolence, and she was a person of consideration among the
girl’s people, where she had a rather striking appearance (Rosier had
more than once wondered how she managed it) of being intimate
without being familiar. But possibly he had exaggerated these advantages. There was no particular reason why she should take trouble
for him; a charming woman was charming to every one, and Rosier
felt rather a fool when he thought of his having appealed to her on the
ground that she had distinguished him. Very likely—though she had
appeared to say it in joke—she was really only thinking of his bibelots. Had it come into her head that he might offer her two or three of
the gems of his collection? If she would only help him to marry Miss
Osmond he would present her with his whole museum. He could
hardly say so to her outright; it would seem too gross a bribe. But he
should like her to believe it.
It was with these thoughts that he went again to Mrs. Osmond’s,
Mrs. Osmond having an “evening”—she had taken the Thursday
of each week—when his presence could be accounted for on general principles of civility. The object of Mr. Rosier’s well-regulated
affection dwelt in a high house in the very heart of Rome; a dark
and massive structure overlooking a sunny piazzetta in the
neighbourhood of the Farnese Palace. In a palace, too, little Pansy
lived—a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor Rosier’s
apprehensive mind. It seemed to him of evil omen that the young
lady he wished to marry, and whose fastidious father he doubted of
his ability to conciliate, should be immured in a kind of domestic
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fortress, a pile which bore a stern old Roman name, which smelt of
historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence, which was mentioned in “Murray” and visited by tourists who looked, on a vague
survey, disappointed and depressed, and which had frescoes by
Caravaggio in the piano nobile and a row of mutilated statues and
dusty urns in the wide, nobly-arched loggia overhanging the damp
court where a fountain gushed out of a mossy niche. In a less preoccupied frame of mind he could have done justice to the Palazzo
Roccanera; he could have entered into the sentiment of Mrs.
Osmond, who had once told him that on settling themselves in
Rome she and her husband had chosen this habitation for the love
of local colour. It had local colour enough, and though he knew less
about architecture than about Limoges enamels he could see that
the proportions of the windows and even the details of the cornice
had quite the grand air. But Rosier was haunted by the conviction
that at picturesque periods young girls had been shut up there to
keep them from their true loves, and hen, under the threat of being
thrown into convents, had been forced into unholy marriages. There
was one point, however, to which he always did justice when once
he found himself in Mrs. Osmond’s warm, rich-looking receptionrooms, which were on the second floor. He acknowledged that these
people were very strong in “good things.” It was a taste of Osmond’s
own—not at all of hers; this she had told him the first time he came
to the house, when, after asking himself for a quarter of an hour
whether they had even better “French” than he in Paris, he was
obliged on the spot to admit that they had, very much, and vanquished his envy, as a gentleman should, to the point of expressing
to his hostess his pure admiration of her treasures. He learned from
Mrs. Osmond that her husband had made a large collection before
their marriage and that, though he had annexed a number of fine
pieces within the last three years, he had achieved his greatest finds
at a time when he had not the advantage of her advice. Rosier inter441
The Portrait of a Lady
preted this information according to principles of his own. For “advice” read “cash,” he said to himself; and the fact that Gilbert
Osmond had landed his highest prizes during his impecunious season confirmed his most cherished doctrine—the doctrine that a
collector may freely be poor if he be only patient. In general, when
Rosier presented himself on a Thursday evening, his first recognition was for the walls of the saloon; there were three or four objects
his eyes really yearned for. But after his talk with Madame Merle he
felt the extreme seriousness of his position; and now, when he came
in, he looked about for the daughter of the house with such eagerness as might be permitted a gentleman whose smile, as he crossed a
threshold, always took everything comfortable for granted.
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Henry James
CHAPTER XXXVII
Pansy was not in the first of the rooms, a large apartment with a
concave ceiling and walls covered with old red damask; it was here
Mrs. Osmond usually sat—though she was not in her most customary place to-night—and that a circle of more especial intimates
gathered about the fire. The room was flushed with subdued, diffused brightness; it contained the larger things and—almost always—
an odour of flowers. Pansy on this occasion was presumably in the
next of the series, the resort of younger visitors, where tea was served.
Osmond stood before the chimney, leaning back with his hands
behind him; he had one foot up and was warming the sole. Half a
dozen persons, scattered near him, were talking together; but he
was not in the conversation; his eyes had an expression, frequent
with them, that seemed to represent them as engaged with objects
more worth their while than the appearances actually thrust upon
them. Rosier, coming in unannounced, failed to attract his attention; but the young man, who was very punctilious, though he was
even exceptionally conscious that it was the wife, not the husband,
he had come to see, went up to shake hands with him. Osmond put
out his left hand, without changing his attitude.
“How d’ye do? My wife’s somewhere about.”
“Never fear; I shall find her,” said Rosier cheerfully.
Osmond, however, took him in; he had never in his life felt himself so efficiently looked at. “Madame Merle has told him, and he
doesn’t like it,” he privately reasoned. He had hoped Madame Merle
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would be there, but she was not in sight; perhaps she was in one of
the other rooms or would come later. He had never especially delighted in Gilbert Osmond, having a fancy he gave himself airs. But
Rosier was not quickly resentful, and where politeness was concerned
had ever a strong need of being quite in the right. He looked round
him and smiled, all without help, and then in a moment, “I saw a
jolly good piece of Capo di Monte to-day,” he said.
Osmond answered nothing at first; but presently, while he warmed
his boot-sole, “I don’t care a fig for Capo di Monte!” he returned.
“I hope you’re not losing your interest?”
“In old pots and plates? Yes, I’m losing my interest.”
Rosier for an instant forgot the delicacy of his position. “You’re
not thinking of parting with a—a piece or two?”
“No, I’m not thinking of parting with anything at all, Mr. Rosier,”
said Osmond, with his eyes still on the eyes of his visitor.
“Ah, you want to keep, but not to add,” Rosier remarked brightly.
“Exactly. I’ve nothing I wish to match.”
Poor Rosier was aware he had blushed; he was distressed at his
want of assurance. “Ah, well, I have!” was all he could murmur; and
he knew his murmur was partly lost as he turned away. He took his
course to the adjoining room and met Mrs. Osmond coming out of
the deep doorway. She was dressed in black velvet; she looked high
and splendid, as he had said, and yet oh so radiantly gentle! We
know what Mr. Rosier thought of her and the terms in which, to
Madame Merle, he had expressed his admiration. Like his appreciation of her dear little stepdaughter it was based partly on his eye for
decorative character, his instinct for authenticity; but also on a sense
for uncatalogued values, for that secret of a “lustre” beyond any
recorded losing or rediscovering, which his devotion to brittle wares
had still not disqualified him to recognise. Mrs. Osmond, at present,
might well have gratified such tastes. The years had touched her
only to enrich her; the flower of her youth had not faded, it only
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hung more quietly on its stem. She had lost something of that quick
eagerness to which her husband had privately taken exception—she
had more the air of being able to wait. Now, at all events, framed in
the gilded doorway, she struck our young man as the picture of a
gracious lady. “You see I’m very regular,” he said. “But who should
be if I’m not?”
“Yes, I’ve known you longer than any one here. But we mustn’t
indulge in tender reminiscences. I want to introduce you to a young
lady.”
“Ah, please, what young lady?” Rosier was immensely obliging;
but this was not what he had come for.
“She sits there by the fire in pink and has no one to speak to.”
Rosier hesitated a moment. “Can’t Mr. Osmond speak to her? He’s
within six feet of her.”
Mrs. Osmond also hesitated. “She’s not very lively, and he doesn’t
like dull people.”
“But she’s good enough for me? Ah now, that’s hard!”
“I only mean that you’ve ideas for two. And then you’re so obliging.”
“No, he’s not—to me.” And Mrs. Osmond vaguely smiled.
“That’s a sign he should be doubly so to other women.
“So I tell him,” she said, still smiling.
“You see I want some tea,” Rosier went on, looking wistfully beyond.
“That’s perfect. Go and give some to my young lady.”
“Very good; but after that I’ll abandon her to her fate. The simple
truth is I’m dying to have a little talk with Miss Osmond.”
“Ah,” said Isabel, turning away, “I can’t help you there!”
Five minutes later, while he handed a tea-cup to the damsel in
pink, whom he had conducted into the other room, he wondered
whether, in making to Mrs. Osmond the profession I have just
quoted, he had broken the spirit of his promise to Madame Merle.
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Such a question was capable of occupying this young man’s mind
for a considerable time. At last, however, he became—comparatively speaking—reckless; he cared little what promises he might
break. The fate to which he had threatened to abandon the damsel
in pink proved to be none so terrible; for Pansy Osmond, who had
given him the tea for his companion—Pansy was as fond as ever of
making tea—presently came and talked to her. Into this mild colloquy Edward Rosier entered little; he sat by moodily, watching his
small sweetheart. If we look at her now through his eyes we shall at
first not see much to remind us of the obedient little girl who, at
Florence, three years before, was sent to walk short distances in the
Cascine while her father and Miss Archer talked together of matters
sacred to elder people. But after a moment we shall perceive that if
at nineteen Pansy has become a young lady she doesn’t really fill out
the part; that if she has grown very pretty she lacks in a deplorable
degree the quality known and esteemed in the appearance of females as style; and that if she is dressed with great freshness she
wears her smart attire with an undisguised appearance of saving
it—very much as if it were lent her for the occasion. Edward Rosier,
it would seem, would have been just the man to note these defects;
and in point of fact there was not a quality of this young lady, of any
sort, that he had not noted. Only he called her qualities by names of
his own—some of which indeed were happy enough. “No, she’s
unique—she’s absolutely unique,” he used to say to himself; and
you may be sure that not for an instant would he have admitted to
you that she was wanting in style. Style? Why, she had the style of a
little princess; if you couldn’t see it you had no eye. It was not modern, it was not conscious, it would produce no impression in Broadway; the small, serious damsel, in her stiff little dress, only looked
like an Infanta of Velasquez. This was enough for Edward Rosier,
who thought her delightfully old-fashioned. Her anxious eyes, her
charming lips, her slip of a figure, were as touching as a childish
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prayer. He had now an acute desire to know just to what point she
liked him—a desire which made him fidget as he sat in his chair. It
made him feel hot, so that he had to pat his forehead with his handkerchief; he had never been so uncomfortable. She was such a perfect jeune fille, and one couldn’t make of a jeune fille the enquiry
requisite for throwing light on such a point. A jeune fille was what
Rosier had always dreamed of—a jeune fille who should yet not be
French, for he had felt that this nationality would complicate the
question. He was sure Pansy had never looked at a newspaper and
that, in the way of novels, if she had read Sir Walter Scott it was the
very most. An American jeune fille—what could be better than that?
She would be frank and gay, and yet would not have walked alone,
nor have received letters from men, nor have been taken to the theatre to see the comedy of manners. Rosier could not deny that, as
the matter stood, it would be a breach of hospitality to appeal directly to this unsophisticated creature; but he was now in imminent
danger of asking himself if hospitality were the most sacred thing in
the world. Was not the sentiment that he entertained for Miss
Osmond of infinitely greater importance? Of greater importance to
him—yes; but not probably to the master of the house. There was
one comfort; even if this gentleman had been placed on his guard
by Madame Merle he would not have extended the warning to Pansy;
it would not have been part of his policy to let her know that a
prepossessing young man was in love with her. But he WAS in love
with her, the prepossessing young man; and all these restrictions of
circumstance had ended by irritating him. What had Gilbert
Osmond meant by giving him two fingers of his left hand? If
Osmond was rude, surely he himself might be bold. He felt extremely bold after the dull girl in so vain a disguise of rose-colour
had responded to the call of her mother, who came in to say, with a
significant simper at Rosier, that she must carry her off to other
triumphs. The mother and daughter departed together, and now it
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depended only upon him that he should be virtually alone with
Pansy. He had never been alone with her before; he had never been
alone with a jeune fille. It was a great moment; poor Rosier began to
pat his forehead again. There was another room beyond the one in
which they stood—a small room that had been thrown open and
lighted, but that, the company not being numerous, had remained
empty all the evening. It was empty yet; it was upholstered in pale
yellow; there were several lamps; through the open door it looked
the very temple of authorised love. Rosier gazed a moment through
this aperture; he was afraid that Pansy would run away, and felt
almost capable of stretching out a hand to detain her. But she lingered where the other maiden had left them, making no motion to
join a knot of visitors on the far side of the room. For a little it
occurred to him that she was frightened—too frightened perhaps to
move; but a second glance assured him she was not, and he then
reflected that she was too innocent indeed for that. After a supreme
hesitation he asked her if he might go and look at the yellow room,
which seemed so attractive yet so virginal. He had been there already with Osmond, to inspect the furniture, which was of the First
French Empire, and especially to admire the clock (which he didn’t
really admire), an immense classic structure of that period. He therefore felt that he had now begun to manoeuvre.
“Certainly, you may go,” said Pansy; “and if you like I’ll show
you.” She was not in the least frightened.
“That’s just what I hoped you’d say; you’re so very kind,” Rosier
murmured.
They went in together; Rosier really thought the room very ugly,
and it seemed cold. The same idea appeared to have struck Pansy.
“It’s not for winter evenings; it’s more for summer,” she said. “It’s
papa’s taste; he has so much.”
He had a good deal, Rosier thought; but some of it was very bad.
He looked about him; he hardly knew what to say in such a situa448
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tion. “Doesn’t Mrs. Osmond care how her rooms are done? Has she
no taste?” he asked.
“Oh yes, a great deal; but it’s more for literature,” said Pansy —
”and for conversation. But papa cares also for those things. I think
he knows everything.”
Rosier was silent a little. “There’s one thing I’m sure he knows!”
he broke out presently. “He knows that when I come here it’s, with
all respect to him, with all respect to Mrs. Osmond, who’s so charming—it’s really,” said the young man, “to see you!”
“To see me?” And Pansy raised her vaguely troubled eyes.
“To see you; that’s what I come for,” Rosier repeated, feeling the
intoxication of a rupture with authority.
Pansy stood looking at him, simply, intently, openly; a blush was
not needed to make her face more modest. “I thought it was for
that.”
“And it was not disagreeable to you?”
“I couldn’t tell; I didn’t know. You never told me,” said Pansy.
“I was afraid of offending you.”
“You don’t offend me,” the young girl murmured, smiling as if an
angel had kissed her.
“You like me then, Pansy?” Rosier asked very gently, feeling very
happy.
“Yes—I like you.”
They had walked to the chimney-piece where the big cold Empire clock was perched; they were well within the room and beyond
observation from without. The tone in which she had said these
four words seemed to him the very breath of nature, and his only
answer could be to take her hand and hold it a moment. Then he
raised it to his lips. She submitted, still with her pure, trusting smile,
in which there was something ineffably passive. She liked him—she
had liked him all the while; now anything might happen! She was
ready—she had been ready always, waiting for him to speak. If he
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had not spoken she would have waited for ever; but when the word
came she dropped like the peach from the shaken tree. Rosier felt
that if he should draw her toward him and hold her to his heart she
would submit without a murmur, would rest there without a question. It was true that this would be a rash experiment in a yellow
Empire salottino. She had known it was for her he came, and yet
like what a perfect little lady she had carried it off!
“You’re very dear to me,” he murmured, trying to believe that
there was after all such a thing as hospitality.
She looked a moment at her hand, where he had kissed it. “Did
you say papa knows?”
“You told me just now he knows everything.”
“I think you must make sure,” said Pansy.
“Ah, my dear, when once I’m sure of you!” Rosier murmured in
her ear; whereupon she turned back to the other rooms with a little
air of consistency which seemed to imply that their appeal should
be immediate.
The other rooms meanwhile had become conscious of the arrival
of Madame Merle, who, wherever she went, produced an impression when she entered. How she did it the most attentive spectator
could not have told you, for she neither spoke loud, nor laughed
profusely, nor moved rapidly, nor dressed with splendour, nor appealed in any appreciable manner to the audience. Large, fair, smiling, serene, there was something in her very tranquillity that diffused itself, and when people looked round it was because of a sudden quiet. On this occasion she had done the quietest thing she
could do; after embracing Mrs. Osmond, which was more striking,
she had sat down on a small sofa to commune with the master of
the house. There was a brief exchange of commonplaces between
these two—they always paid, in public, a certain formal tribute to
the commonplace—and then Madame Merle, whose eyes had been
wandering, asked if little Mr. Rosier had come this evening.
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“He came nearly an hour ago—but he has disappeared,” Osmond
said.
“And where’s Pansy?”
“In the other room. There are several people there.”
“He’s probably among them,” said Madame Merle.
“Do you wish to see him?” Osmond asked in a provokingly pointless tone.
Madame Merle looked at him a moment; she knew each of his
tones to the eighth of a note. “Yes, I should like to say to him that
I’ve told you what he wants, and that it interests you but feebly.”
“Don’t tell him that. He’ll try to interest me more—which is exactly what I don’t want. Tell him I hate his proposal.”
“But you don’t hate it.”
“It doesn’t signify; I don’t love it. I let him see that, myself, this
evening; I was rude to him on purpose. That sort of thing’s a great
bore. There’s no hurry.”
“I’ll tell him that you’ll take time and think it over.”
“No, don’t do that. He’ll hang on.”
“If I discourage him he’ll do the same.”
“Yes, but in the one case he’ll try to talk and explain—which would
be exceedingly tiresome. In the other he’ll probably hold his tongue
and go in for some deeper game. That will leave me quiet. I hate
talking with a donkey.”
“Is that what you call poor Mr. Rosier?”
“Oh, he’s a nuisance—with his eternal majolica.”
Madame Merle dropped her eyes; she had a faint smile. “He’s a
gentleman, he has a charming temper; and, after all, an income of
forty thousand francs!”
“It’s misery—’genteel’ misery,” Osmond broke in. “It’s not what
I’ve dreamed of for Pansy.”
“Very good then. He has promised me not to speak to her.”
“Do you believe him?” Osmond asked absentmindedly.
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“Perfectly. Pansy has thought a great deal about him; but I don’t
suppose you consider that that matters.”
“I don’t consider it matters at all; but neither do I believe she has
thought of him.”
“That opinion’s more convenient,” said Madame Merle quietly.
“Has she told you she’s in love with him?”
“For what do you take her? And for what do you take me?” Madame Merle added in a moment.
Osmond had raised his foot and was resting his slim ankle on the
other knee; he clasped his ankle in his hand familiarly—his long,
fine forefinger and thumb could make a ring for it—and gazed a
while before him. “This kind of thing doesn’t find me unprepared.
It’s what I educated her for. It was all for this—that when such a
case should come up she should do what I prefer.”
“I’m not afraid that she’ll not do it.”
“Well then, where’s the hitch?”
“I don’t see any. But, all the same, I recommend you not to get rid
of Mr. Rosier. Keep him on hand; he may be useful.”
“I can’t keep him. Keep him yourself.”
“Very good; I’ll put him into a corner and allow him so much a day.”
Madame Merle had, for the most part, while they talked, been glancing about
her; it was her habit in this situation, just as it was her habit to interpose a good
many blank-looking pauses. A long drop followed the last words I have quoted;
and before it had ended she saw Pansy come out of the adjoining room,
followed by Edward Rosier. The girl advanced a few steps and then stopped
and stood looking at Madame Merle and at her father.
“He has spoken to her,” Madame Merle went on to Osmond.
Her companion never turned his head. “So much for your belief
in his promises. He ought to be horsewhipped.”
“He intends to confess, poor little man!”
Osmond got up; he had now taken a sharp look at his daughter.
“It doesn’t matter,” he murmured, turning away.
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Pansy after a moment came up to Madame Merle with her little
manner of unfamiliar politeness. This lady’s reception of her was
not more intimate; she simply, as she rose from the sofa, gave her a
friendly smile.
“You’re very late,” the young creature gently said.
“My dear child, I’m never later than I intend to be.”
Madame Merle had not got up to be gracious to Pansy; she moved
toward Edward Rosier. He came to meet her and, very quickly, as if
to get it off his mind, “I’ve spoken to her!” he whispered.
“I know it, Mr. Rosier.”
“Did she tell you?”
“Yes, she told me. Behave properly for the rest of the evening, and
come and see me to-morrow at a quarter past five.” She was severe,
and in the manner in which she turned her back to him there was a
degree of contempt which caused him to mutter a decent imprecation.
He had no intention of speaking to Osmond; it was neither the
time nor the place. But he instinctively wandered toward Isabel,
who sat talking with an old lady. He sat down on the other side of
her; the old lady was Italian, and Rosier took for granted she understood no English. “You said just now you wouldn’t help me,” he
began to Mrs. Osmond. “Perhaps you’ll feel differently when you
know—when you know—!”
Isabel met his hesitation. “When I know what?”
“That she’s all right.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, that we’ve come to an understanding.”
“She’s all wrong,” said Isabel. “It won’t do.”
Poor Rosier gazed at her half-pleadingly, half-angrily; a sudden
flush testified to his sense of injury. “I’ve never been treated so,” he
said. “What is there against me, after all? That’s not the way I’m
usually considered. I could have married twenty times.”
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“It’s a pity you didn’t. I don’t mean twenty times, but once, comfortably,” Isabel added, smiling kindly. “You’re not rich enough for
Pansy.”
“She doesn’t care a straw for one’s money.”
“No, but her father does.”
“Ah yes, he has proved that!” cried the young man.
Isabel got up, turning away from him, leaving her old lady without ceremony; and he occupied himself for the next ten minutes in
pretending to look at Gilbert Osmond’s collection of miniatures,
which were neatly arranged on a series of small velvet screens. But
he looked without seeing; his cheek burned; he was too full of his
sense of injury. It was certain that he had never been treated that
way before; he was not used to being thought not good enough. He
knew how good he was, and if such a fallacy had not been so pernicious he could have laughed at it. He searched again for Pansy, but
she had disappeared, and his main desire was now to get out of the
house. Before doing so he spoke once more to Isabel; it was not
agreeable to him to reflect that he had just said a rude thing to
her—the only point that would now justify a low view of him.
“I referred to Mr. Osmond as I shouldn’t have done, a while ago,”
he began. “But you must remem ber my situation.”
“I don’t remember what you said,” she answered coldly.
“Ah, you’re offended, and now you’ll never help me.”
She was silent an instant, and then with a change of tone: “It’s not
that I won’t; I simply can’t!” Her manner was almost passionate.
“If you could, just a little, I’d never again speak of your husband
save as an angel.”
“The inducement’s great,” said Isabel gravely—inscrutably, as he
afterwards, to himself, called it; and she gave him, straight in the
eyes, a look which was also inscrutable. It made him remember somehow that he had known her as a child; and yet it was keener than he
liked, and he took himself off.
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CHAPTER XXXVIII
HE WENT TO SEE Madame Merle on the morrow, and to his surprise
she let him off rather easily. But she made him promise that he
would stop there till something should have been decided. Mr.
Osmond had had higher expectations; it was very true that as he
had no intention of giving his daughter a portion such expectations
were open to criticism or even, if one would, to ridicule. But she
would advise Mr. Rosier not to take that tone; if he would possess
his soul in patience he might arrive at his felicity. Mr. Osmond was
not favourable to his suit, but it wouldn’t be a miracle if he should
gradually come round. Pansy would never defy her father, he might
depend on that; so nothing was to be gained by precipitation. Mr.
Osmond needed to accustom his mind to an offer of a sort that he
had not hitherto entertained, and this result must come of itself—it
was useless to try to force it. Rosier remarked that his own situation
would be in the meanwhile the most uncomfortable in the world,
and Madame Merle assured him that she felt for him. But, as she
justly declared, one couldn’t have everything one wanted; she had
learned that lesson for herself. There would be no use in his writing
to Gilbert Osmond, who had charged her to tell him as much. He
wished the matter dropped for a few weeks and would himself write
when he should have anything to communicate that it might please
Mr. Rosier to hear.
“He doesn’t like your having spoken to Pansy, Ah, he doesn’t like
it at all,” said Madame Merle.
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“I’m perfectly willing to give him a chance to tell me so!”
“If you do that he’ll tell you more than you care to hear. Go to the
house, for the next month, as little as possible, and leave the rest to me.”
“As little as possible? Who’s to measure the possibility?”
“Let me measure it. Go on Thursday evenings with the rest of the
world, but don’t go at all at odd times, and don’t fret about Pansy.
I’ll see that she understands everything. She’s a calm little nature;
she’ll take it quietly.”
Edward Rosier fretted about Pansy a good deal, but he did as he
was advised, and awaited another Thursday evening before returning to Palazzo Roccanera. There had been a party at dinner, so that
though he went early the company was already tolerably numerous.
Osmond, as usual, was in the first room, near the fire, staring straight
at the door, so that, not to be distinctly uncivil, Rosier had to go
and speak to him.
“I’m glad that you can take a hint,” Pansy’s father said, slightly
closing his keen, conscious eyes.
“I take no hints. But I took a message, as I supposed it to be.”
“You took it? Where did you take it?”
It seemed to poor Rosier he was being insulted, and he waited a
moment, asking himself how much a true lover ought to submit to.
“Madame Merle gave me, as I understood it, a message from you—
to the effect that you declined to give me the opportunity I desire,
the opportunity to explain my wishes to you.” And he flattered himself he spoke rather sternly.
“I don’t see what Madame Merle has to do with it. Why did you
apply to Madame Merle?”
“I asked her for an opinion—for nothing more. I did so because
she had seemed to me to know you very well.”
“She doesn’t know me so well as she thinks,” said Osmond.
“I’m sorry for that, because she has given me some little ground
for hope.”
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Osmond stared into the fire a moment. “I set a great price on my
daughter.”
“You can’t set a higher one than I do. Don’t I prove it by wishing
to marry her?”
“I wish to marry her very well,” Osmond went on with a dry
impertinence which, in another mood, poor Rosier would have admired.
“Of course I pretend she’d marry well in marrying me. She couldn’t
marry a man who loves her more—or whom, I may venture to add,
she loves more.”
“I’m not bound to accept your theories as to whom my daughter
loves”—and Osmond looked up with a quick, cold smile.
“I’m not theorising. Your daughter has spoken.”
“Not to me,” Osmond continued, now bending forward a little
and dropping his eyes to his boot-toes.
“I have her promise, sir!” cried Rosier with the sharpness of exasperation.
As their voices had been pitched very low before, such a note
attracted some attention from the company. Osmond waited till
this little movement had subsided; then he said, all undisturbed: “I
think she has no recollection of having given it.”
They had been standing with their faces to the fire, and after he
had uttered these last words the master of the house turned round
again to the room. Before Rosier had time to reply he perceived that
a gentleman—a stranger—had just come in, unannounced, according to the Roman custom, and was about to present himself to his
host. The latter smiled blandly, but somewhat blankly; the visitor
had a handsome face and a large, fair beard, and was evidently an
Englishman.
“You apparently don’t recognise me,” he said with a smile that
expressed more than Osmond’s.
“Ah yes, now I do. I expected so little to see you.”
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Rosier departed and went in direct pursuit of Pansy. He sought
her, as usual, in the neighbouring room, but he again encountered
Mrs. Osmond in his path. He gave his hostess no greeting—he was
too righteously indignant, but said to her crudely: “Your husband’s
awfully cold-blooded.”
She gave the same mystical smile he had noticed before. “You
can’t expect every one to be as hot as yourself.”
“I don’t pretend to be cold, but I’m cool. What has he been doing
to his daughter?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Don’t you take any interest?” Rosier demanded with his sense
that she too was irritating.
For a moment she answered nothing; then, “No!” she said abruptly
and with a quickened light in her eyes which directly contradicted
the word.
“Pardon me if I don’t believe that. Where’s Miss Osmond?”
“In the corner, making tea. Please leave her there.”
Rosier instantly discovered his friend, who had been hidden by
intervening groups. He watched her, but her own attention was
entirely given to her occupation. “What on earth has he done to
her?” he asked again imploringly. “He declares to me she has given
me up.”
“She has not given you up,” Isabel said in a low tone and without
looking at him.
“Ah, thank you for that! Now I’ll leave her alone as long as you
think proper!”
He had hardly spoken when he saw her change colour, and became aware that Osmond was coming toward her accompanied by
the gentleman who had just entered. He judged the latter, in spite
of the advantage of good looks and evident social experience, a little
embarrassed. “Isabel,” said her husband, “I bring you an old friend.”
Mrs. Osmond’s face, though it wore a smile, was, like her old friend’s,
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not perfectly confident. “I’m very happy to see Lord Warburton,” she
said. Rosier turned away and, now that his talk with her had been interrupted, felt absolved from the little pledge he had just taken. He had a
quick impression that Mrs. Osmond wouldn’t notice what he did.
Isabel in fact, to do him justice, for some time quite ceased to
observe him. She had been startled; she hardly knew if she felt a
pleasure or a pain. Lord Warburton, however, now that he was face
to face with her, was plainly quite sure of his own sense of the matter; though his grey eyes had still their fine original property of
keeping recognition and attestation strictly sincere. He was “heavier”
than of yore and looked older; he stood there very solidly and sensibly.
“I suppose you didn’t expect to see me,” he said; “I’ve but just
arrived. Literally, I only got here this evening. You see I’ve lost no
time in coming to pay you my respects. I knew you were at home
on Thursdays.”
“You see the fame of your Thursdays has spread to England,”
Osmond remarked to his wife.
“It’s very kind of Lord Warburton to come so soon; we’re greatly
flattered,” Isabel said.
“Ah well, it’s better than stopping in one of those horrible inns,”
Osmond went on.
“The hotel seems very good; I think it’s the same at which I saw
you four years since. You know it was here in Rome that we first
met; it’s a long time ago. Do you remember where I bade you goodbye?” his lordship asked of his hostess. “It was in the Capitol, in the
first room.”
“I remember that myself,” said Osmond. “I was there at the time.”
“Yes, I remember you there. I was very sorry to leave Rome—so
sorry that, somehow or other, it became almost a dismal memory,
and I’ve never cared to come back till to-day. But I knew you were
living here,” her old friend went on to Isabel, “and I assure you I’ve
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often thought of you. It must be a charming place to live in,” he
added with a look, round him, at her established home, in which
she might have caught the dim ghost of his old ruefulness.
“We should have been glad to see you at any time,” Osmond
observed with propriety.
“Thank you very much. I haven’t been out of England since then.
Till a month ago I really supposed my travels over.”
“I’ve heard of you from time to time,” said Isabel, who had already, with her rare capacity for such inward feats, taken the measure of what meeting him again meant for her.
“I hope you’ve heard no harm. My life has been a remarkably
complete blank.”
“Like the good reigns in history,” Osmond suggested. He appeared
to think his duties as a host now terminated—he had performed
them so conscientiously. Nothing could have been more adequate,
more nicely measured, than his courtesy to his wife’s old friend. It
was punctilious, it was explicit, it was everything but natural—a
deficiency which Lord Warburton, who, himself, had on the whole
a good deal of nature, may be supposed to have perceived. “I’ll leave
you and Mrs. Osmond together,” he added. “You have reminiscences into which I don’t enter.”
“I’m afraid you lose a good deal!” Lord Warburton called after
him, as he moved away, in a tone which perhaps betrayed overmuch
an appreciation of his generosity. Then the visitor turned on Isabel
the deeper, the deepest, consciousness of his look, which gradually
became more serious. “I’m really very glad to see you.”
“It’s very pleasant. You’re very kind.”
“Do you know that you’re changed—a little?”
She just hesitated. “Yes—a good deal.”
“I don’t mean for the worse, of course; and yet how can I say for
the better?”
“I think I shall have no scruple in saying that to you,” she bravely returned.
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“Ah well, for me—it’s a long time. It would be a pity there shouldn’t
be something to show for it.” They sat down and she asked him about
his sisters, with other enquiries of a somewhat perfunctory kind. He
answered her questions as if they interested him, and in a few moments she saw—or believed she saw—that he would press with less of
his whole weight than of yore. Time had breathed upon his heart and,
without chilling it, given it a relieved sense of having taken the air.
Isabel felt her usual esteem for Time rise at a bound. Her friend’s
manner was certainly that of a contented man, one who would rather
like people, or like her at least, to know him for such. “There’s something I must tell you without more delay,” he resumed. “I’ve brought
Ralph Touchett with me.”
“Brought him with you?” Isabel’s surprise was great.
“He’s at the hotel; he was too tired to come out and has gone to
bed.”
“I’ll go to see him,” she immediately said.
“That’s exactly what I hoped you’d do. I had an idea you hadn’t
seen much of him since your marriage, that in fact your relations
were a—a little more formal. That’s why I hesitated—like an awkward Briton.”
“I’m as fond of Ralph as ever,” Isabel answered. “But why has he
come to Rome?” The declaration was very gentle, the question a
little sharp.
“Because he’s very far gone, Mrs. Osmond.”
“Rome then is no place for him. I heard from him that he had
determined to give up his custom of wintering abroad and to remain in England, indoors, in what he called an artificial climate.”
“Poor fellow, he doesn’t succeed with the artificial! I went to see
him three weeks ago, at Gardencourt, and found him thoroughly
ill. He has been getting worse every year, and now he has no strength
left. He smokes no more cigarettes! He had got up an artificial climate indeed; the house was as hot as Calcutta. Nevertheless he had
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suddenly taken it into his head to start for Sicily. I didn’t believe in
it—neither did the doctors, nor any of his friends. His mother, as I
suppose you know, is in America, so there was no one to prevent
him. He stuck to his idea that it would be the saving of him to
spend the winter at Catania. He said he could take servants and
furniture, could make himself comfortable, but in point of fact he
hasn’t brought anything. I wanted him at least to go by sea, to save
fatigue; but he said he hated the sea and wished to stop at Rome.
After that, though I thought it all rubbish, I made up my mind to
come with him. I’m acting as—what do you call it in America?—as
a kind of moderator. Poor Ralph’s very moderate now. We left England a fortnight ago, and he has been very bad on the way. He can’t
keep warm, and the further south we come the more he feels the
cold. He has got rather a good man, but I’m afraid he’s beyond
human help. I wanted him to take with him some clever fellow—I
mean some sharp young doctor; but he wouldn’t hear of it. If you
don’t mind my saying so, I think it was a most extraordinary time
for Mrs. Touchett to decide on going to America.”
Isabel had listened eagerly; her face was full of pain and wonder.
“My aunt does that at fixed periods and lets nothing turn her aside.
When the date comes round she starts; I think she’d have started if
Ralph had been dying.”
“I sometimes think he is dying,” Lord Warburton said.
Isabel sprang up. “I’ll go to him then now.”
He checked her; he was a little disconcerted at the quick effect of
his words. “I don’t mean I thought so to-night. On the contrary, today, in the train, he seemed particularly well; the idea of our reaching Rome—he’s very fond of Rome, you know—gave him strength.
An hour ago, when I bade him goodnight, he told me he was very
tired, but very happy. Go to him in the morning; that’s all I mean. I
didn’t tell him I was coming here; I didn’t decide to till after we had
separated. Then I remembered he had told me you had an evening,
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and that it was this very Thursday. It occurred to me to come in and
tell you he’s here, and let you know you had perhaps better not wait
for him to call. I think he said he hadn’t written to you.” There was
no need of Isabel’s declaring that she would act upon Lord
Warburton’s information; she looked, as she sat there, like a winged
creature held back. “Let alone that I wanted to see you for myself,”
her visitor gallantly added.
“I don’t understand Ralph’s plan; it seems to me very wild,” she
said. “I was glad to think of him between those thick walls at
Gardencourt.”
“He was completely alone there; the thick walls were his only
company.”
“You went to see him; you’ve been extremely kind.”
“Oh dear, I had nothing to do,” said Lord Warburton.
“We hear, on the contrary, that you’re doing great things. Every
one speaks of you as a great statesman, and I’m perpetually seeing
your name in the Times, which, by the way, doesn’t appear to hold
it in reverence. You’re apparently as wild a radical as ever.”
“I don’t feel nearly so wild; you know the world has come round
to me. Touchett and I have kept up a sort of parliamentary debate
all the way from London. I tell him he’s the last of the Tories, and he
calls me the King of the Goths—says I have, down to the details of
my personal appearance, every sign of the brute. So you see there’s
life in him yet.”
Isabel had many questions to ask about Ralph, but she abstained
from asking them all. She would see for herself on the morrow. She
perceived that after a little Lord Warburton would tire of that subject—he had a conception of other possible topics. She was more and
more able to say to herself that he had recovered, and, what is more to
the point, she was able to say it without bitterness. He had been for
her, of old, such an image of urgency, of insistence, of something to
be resisted and reasoned with, that his reappearance at first menaced
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her with a new trouble. But she was now reassured; she could see he
only wished to live with her on good terms, that she was to understand he had forgiven her and was incapable of the bad taste of making pointed allusions. This was not a form of revenge, of course; she
had no suspicion of his wishing to punish her by an exhibition of
disillusionment; she did him the justice to believe it had simply occurred to him that she would now take a good-natured interest in
knowing he was resigned. It was the resignation of a healthy, manly
nature, in which sentimental wounds could never fester. British politics had cured him; she had known they would. She gave an envious
thought to the happier lot of men, who are always free to plunge into
the healing waters of action. Lord Warburton of course spoke of the
past, but he spoke of it without implications; he even went so far as to
allude to their former meeting in Rome as a very jolly time. And he
told her he had been immensely interested in hearing of her marriage
and that it was a great pleasure for him to make Mr. Osmond’s acquaintance—since he could hardly be said to have made it on the
other occasion. He had not written to her at the time of that passage
in her history, but he didn’t apologise to her for this. The only thing
he implied was that they were old friends, intimate friends. It was
very much as an intimate friend that he said to her, suddenly, after a
short pause which he had occupied in smiling, as he looked about
him, like a person amused, at a provincial entertainment, by some
innocent game of guesses—
“Well now, I suppose you’re very happy and all that sort of thing?”
Isabel answered with a quick laugh; the tone of his remark struck
her almost as the accent of comedy. “Do you suppose if I were not
I’d tell you?”
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t see why not.”
“I do then. Fortunately, however, I’m very happy.”
“You’ve got an awfully good house.”
“Yes, it’s very pleasant. But that’s not my merit—it’s my husband’s.”
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“You mean he has arranged it?”
“Yes, it was nothing when we came.”
“He must be very clever.”
“He has a genius for upholstery,” said Isabel.
“There’s a great rage for that sort of thing now. But you must have
a taste of your own.”
“I enjoy things when they’re done, but I’ve no ideas. I can never
propose anything.”
“Do you mean you accept what others propose?”
“Very willingly, for the most part.”
“That’s a good thing to know. I shall propose to you something.”
“It will be very kind. I must say, however, that I’ve in a few small
ways a certain initiative. I should like for instance to introduce you
to some of these people.”
“Oh, please don’t; I prefer sitting here. Unless it be to that young
lady in the blue dress. She has a charming face.”
“The one talking to the rosy young man? That’s my husband’s
daughter.”
“Lucky man, your husband. What a dear little maid!”
“You must make her acquaintance.”
“In a moment—with pleasure. I like looking at her from here.”
He ceased to look at her, however, very soon; his eyes constantly
reverted to Mrs. Osmond. “Do you know I was wrong just now in
saying you had changed?” he presently went on. “You seem to me,
after all, very much the same.”
“And yet I find it a great change to be married,” said Isabel with
mild gaiety.
“It affects most people more than it has affected you. You see I
haven’t gone in for that.”
“It rather surprises me.”
“You ought to understand it, Mrs. Osmond. But I do want to
marry,” he added more simply.
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“It ought to be very easy,” Isabel said, rising—after which she
reflected, with a pang perhaps too visible, that she was hardly the
person to say this. It was perhaps because Lord Warburton divined
the pang that he generously forbore to call her attention to her not
having contributed then to the facility.
Edward Rosier had meanwhile seated himself on an ottoman beside Pansy’s tea-table. He pretended at first to talk to her about trifles,
and she asked him who was the new gentleman conversing with her
stepmother.
“He’s an English lord,” said Rosier. “I don’t know more.”
“I wonder if he’ll have some tea. The English are so fond of tea.”
“Never mind that; I’ve something particular to say to you.”
“Don’t speak so loud every one will hear,” said Pansy.
“They won’t hear if you continue to look that way: as if your only
thought in life was the wish the kettle would boil.”
“It has just been filled; the servants never know!”—and she sighed
with the weight of her responsibility.
“Do you know what your father said to me just now? That you
didn’t mean what you said a week ago.”
“I don’t mean everything I say. How can a young girl do that? But
I mean what I say to you.”
“He told me you had forgotten me.”
“Ah no, I don’t forget,” said Pansy, showing her pretty teeth in a
fixed smile.
“Then everything’s just the very same?”
“Ah no, not the very same. Papa has been terribly severe.”
“What has he done to you?”
“He asked me what you had done to me, and I told him everything. Then he forbade me to marry you.”
“You needn’t mind that.”
“Oh yes, I must indeed. I can’t disobey papa.”
“Not for one who loves you as I do, and whom you pretend to love?”
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She raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths. “I love
you just as much.”
“What good will that do me?”
“Ah,” said Pansy, raising her sweet, vague eyes, “I don’t know that.”
“You disappoint me,” groaned poor Rosier.
She was silent a little; she handed a tea-cup to a servant. “Please
don’t talk any more.”
“Is this to be all my satisfaction?”
“Papa said I was not to talk with you.”
“Do you sacrifice me like that? Ah, it’s too much!”
“I wish you’d wait a little,” said the girl in a voice just distinct
enough to betray a quaver.
“Of course I’ll wait if you’ll give me hope. But you take my life
away.”
“I’ll not give you up—oh no!” Pansy went on.
“He’ll try and make you marry some one else.”
“I’ll never do that.”
“What then are we to wait for?”
She hesitated again. “I’ll speak to Mrs. Osmond and she’ll help
us.” It was in this manner that she for the most part designated her
stepmother.
“She won’t help us much. She’s afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Of your father, I suppose.”
Pansy shook her little head. “She’s not afraid of any one. We must
have patience.”
“Ah, that’s an awful word,” Rosier groaned; he was deeply disconcerted. Oblivious of the customs of good society, he dropped his
head into his hands and, supporting it with a melancholy grace, sat
staring at the carpet. Presently he became aware of a good deal of
movement about him and, as he looked up, saw Pansy making a
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curtsey—it was still her little curtsey of the convent—to the English lord whom Mrs. Osmond had introduced.
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CHAPTER XXXIX
IT WILL PROBABLY NOT surprise the reflective reader that Ralph
Touchett should have seen less of his cousin since her marriage than
he had done before that event—an event of which he took such a
view as could hardly prove a confirmation of intimacy. He had uttered his thought, as we know, and after this had held his peace,
Isabel not having invited him to resume a discussion which marked
an era in their relations. That discussion had made a difference—
the difference he feared rather than the one he hoped. It had not
chilled the girl’s zeal in carrying out her engagement, but it had
come dangerously near to spoiling a friendship. No reference was
ever again made between them to Ralph’s opinion of Gilbert
Osmond, and by surrounding this topic with a sacred silence they
managed to preserve a semblance of reciprocal frankness. But there
was a difference, as Ralph often said to himself—there was a difference. She had not forgiven him, she never would forgive him: that
was all he had gained. She thought she had forgiven him; she believed she didn’t care; and as she was both very generous and very
proud these convictions represented a certain reality. But whether
or no the event should justify him he would virtually have done her
a wrong, and the wrong was of the sort that women remember best.
As Osmond’s wife she could never again be his friend. If in this
character she should enjoy the felicity she expected, she would have
nothing but contempt for the man who had attempted, in advance,
to undermine a blessing so dear; and if on the other hand his warn469
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ing should be justified the vow she had taken that he should never
know it would lay upon her spirit such a burden as to make her hate
him. So dismal had been, during the year that followed his cousin’s
marriage, Ralph’s prevision of the future; and if his meditations appear morbid we must remember he was not in the bloom of health.
He consoled himself as he might by behaving (as he deemed) beautifully, and was present at the ceremony by which Isabel was united
to Mr. Osmond, and which was performed in Florence in the month
of June. He learned from his mother that Isabel at first had thought
of celebrating her nuptials in her native land, but that as simplicity
was what she chiefly desired to secure she had finally decided, in
spite of Osmond’s professed willingness to make a journey of any
length, that this characteristic would be best embodied in their being married by the nearest clergyman in the shortest time. The thing
was done therefore at the little American chapel, on a very hot day,
in the presence only of Mrs. Touchett and her son, of Pansy Osmond
and the Countess Gemini. That severity in the proceedings of which
I just spoke was in part the result of the absence of two persons who
might have been looked for on the occasion and who would have
lent it a certain richness. Madame Merle had been invited, but
Madame Merle, who was unable to leave Rome, had written a gracious letter of excuses. Henrietta Stackpole had not been invited, as
her departure from America, announced to Isabel by Mr. Goodwood,
was in fact frustrated by the duties of her profession; but she had
sent a letter, less gracious than Madame Merle’s, intimating that,
had she been able to cross the Atlantic, she would have been present
not only as a witness but as a critic. Her return to Europe had taken
place somewhat later, and she had effected a meeting with Isabel in
the autumn, in Paris, when she had indulged—perhaps a trifle too
freely—her critical genius. Poor Osmond, who was chiefly the subject of it, had protested so sharply that Henrietta was obliged to
declare to Isabel that she had taken a step which put a barrier be470
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tween them. “It isn’t in the least that you’ve married—it is that you
have married him,” she had deemed it her duty to remark; agreeing,
it will be seen, much more with Ralph Touchett than she suspected,
though she had few of his hesitations and compunctions. Henrietta’s
second visit to Europe, however, was not apparently to have been
made in vain; for just at the moment when Osmond had declared
to Isabel that he really must object to that newspaper-woman, and
Isabel had answered that it seemed to her he took Henrietta too
hard, the good Mr. Bantling had appeared upon the scene and proposed that they should take a run down to Spain. Henrietta’s letters
from Spain had proved the most acceptable she had yet published,
and there had been one in especial, dated from the Alhambra and
entitled ‘Moors and Moonlight,’ which generally passed for her
masterpiece. Isabel had been secretly disappointed at her husband’s
not seeing his way simply to take the poor girl for funny. She even
wondered if his sense of fun, or of the funny—which would be his
sense of humour, wouldn’t it?—were by chance defective. Of course
she herself looked at the matter as a person whose present happiness
had nothing to grudge to Henrietta’s violated conscience. Osmond
had thought their alliance a kind of monstrosity; he couldn’t imagine what they had in common. For him, Mr. Bantling’s fellow tourist was simply the most vulgar of women, and he had also pronounced her the most abandoned. Against this latter clause of the
verdict Isabel had appealed with an ardour that had made him wonder afresh at the oddity of some of his wife’s tastes. Isabel could
explain it only by saying that she liked to know people who were as
different as possible from herself. “Why then don’t you make the
acquaintance of your washerwoman?” Osmond had enquired; to
which Isabel had answered that she was afraid her washerwoman
wouldn’t care for her. Now Henrietta cared so much.
Ralph had seen nothing of her for the greater part of the two years
that had followed her marriage; the winter that formed the begin471
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ning of her residence in Rome he had spent again at San Remo,
where he had been joined in the spring by his mother, who afterwards had gone with him to England, to see what they were doing
at the bank—an operation she couldn’t induce him to perform. Ralph
had taken a lease of his house at San Remo, a small villa which he
had occupied still another winter; but late in the month of April of
this second year he had come down to Rome. It was the first time
since her marriage that he had stood face to face with Isabel; his
desire to see her again was then of the keenest. She had written to
him from time to time, but her letters told him nothing he wanted
to know. He had asked his mother what she was making of her life,
and his mother had simply answered that she supposed she was
making the best of it. Mrs. Touchett had not the imagination that
communes with the unseen, and she now pretended to no intimacy
with her niece, whom she rarely encountered. This young woman
appeared to be living in a sufficiently honourable way, but Mrs.
Touchett still remained of the opinion that her marriage had been a
shabby affair. It had given her no pleasure to think of Isabel’s establishment, which she was sure was a very lame business. From time
to time, in Florence, she rubbed against the Countess Gemini, doing her best always to minimise the contact; and the Countess reminded her of Osmond, who made her think of Isabel. The Countess was less talked of in these days; but Mrs. Touchett augured no
good of that: it only proved how she had been talked of before.
There was a more direct suggestion of Isabel in the person of Madame Merle; but Madame Merle’s relations with Mrs. Touchett had
undergone a perceptible change. Isabel’s aunt had told her, without
circumlocution, that she had played too ingenious a part; and Madame Merle, who never quarrelled with any one, who appeared to
think no one worth it, and who had performed the miracle of living, more or less, for several years with Mrs. Touchett and showing
no symptom of irritation—Madame Merle now took a very high
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tone and declared that this was an accusation from which she couldn’t
stoop to defend herself. She added, however (without stooping), that
her behaviour had been only too simple, that she had believed only
what she saw, that she saw Isabel was not eager to marry and Osmond
not eager to please (his repeated visits had been nothing; he was boring himself to death on his hill-top and he came merely for amusement). Isabel had kept her sentiments to herself, and her journey to
Greece and Egypt had effectually thrown dust in her companion’s
eyes. Madame Merle accepted the event—she was unprepared to think
of it as a scandal; but that she had played any part in it, double or
single, was an imputation against which she proudly protested. It was
doubtless in consequence of Mrs. Touchett’s attitude, and of the injury it offered to habits consecrated by many charming seasons, that
Madame Merle had, after this, chosen to pass many months in England, where her credit was quite unimpaired. Mrs. Touchett had
done her a wrong; there are some things that can’t be forgiven. But
Madame Merle suffered in silence; there was always something exquisite in her dignity.
Ralph, as I say, had wished to see for himself; but while engaged
in this pursuit he had yet felt afresh what a fool he had been to put
the girl on her guard. He had played the wrong card, and now he
had lost the game. He should see nothing, he should learn nothing;
for him she would always wear a mask. His true line would have
been to profess delight in her union, so that later, when, as Ralph
phrased it, the bottom should fall out of it, she might have the
pleasure of saying to him that he had been a goose. He would gladly
have consented to pass for a goose in order to know Isabel’s real
situation. At present, however, she neither taunted him with his
fallacies nor pretended that her own confidence was justified; if she
wore a mask it completely covered her face. There was something
fixed and mechanical in the serenity painted on it; this was not an
expression, Ralph said—it was a representation, it was even an ad473
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vertisement. She had lost her child; that was a sorrow, but it was a
sorrow she scarcely spoke of; there was more to say about it than she
could say to Ralph. It belonged to the past, moreover; it had occurred six months before and she had already laid aside the tokens
of mourning. She appeared to be leading the life of the world; Ralph
heard her spoken of as having a “charming position.” He observed
that she produced the impression of being peculiarly enviable, that
it was supposed, among many people, to be a privilege even to know
her. Her house was not open to every one, and she had an evening
in the week to which people were not invited as a matter of course.
She lived with a certain magnificence, but you needed to be a member of her circle to perceive it; for there was nothing to gape at,
nothing to criticise, nothing even to admire, in the daily proceedings of Mr. and Mrs. Osmond. Ralph, in all this, recognised the
hand of the master; for he knew that Isabel had no faculty for producing studied impressions. She struck him as having a great love of
movement, of gaiety, of late hours, of long rides, of fatigue; an eagerness to be entertained, to be interested, even to be bored, to make
acquaintances, to see people who were talked about, to explore the
neighbourhood of Rome, to enter into relation with certain of the
mustiest relics of its old society. In all this there was much less discrimination than in that desire for comprehensiveness of development on which he had been used to exercise his wit. There was a
kind of violence in some of her impulses, of crudity in some of her
experiments, which took him by surprise: it seemed to him that she
even spoke faster, moved faster, breathed faster, than before her
marriage. Certainly she had fallen into exaggerations—she who used
to care so much for the pure truth; and whereas of old she had a
great delight in good-humoured argument, in intellectual play (she
never looked so charming as when in the genial heat of discussion
she received a crushing blow full in the face and brushed it away as
a feather), she appeared now to think there was nothing worth
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people’s either differing about or agreeing upon. Of old she had
been curious, and now she was indifferent, and yet in spite of her
indifference her activity was greater than ever. Slender still, but lovelier than before, she had gained no great maturity of aspect; yet
there was an amplitude and a brilliancy in her personal arrangements that gave a touch of insolence to her beauty. Poor humanhearted Isabel, what perversity had bitten her? Her light step drew a
mass of drapery behind it; her intelligent head sustained a majesty
of ornament. The free, keen girl had become quite another person;
what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could
only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond. “Good
heavens, what a function!” he then woefully exclaimed. He was lost
in wonder at the mystery of things.
He recognised Osmond, as I say; he recognised him at every turn.
He saw how he kept all things within limits; how he adjusted, regulated, animated their manner of life. Osmond was in his element; at
last he had material to work with. He always had an eye to effect,
and his effects were deeply calculated. They were produced by no
vulgar means, but the motive was as vulgar as the art was great. To
surround his interior with a sort of invidious sanctity, to tantalise
society with a sense of exclusion, to make people believe his house
was different from every other, to impart to the face that he presented to the world a cold originality—this was the ingenious effort
of the personage to whom Isabel had attributed a superior morality.
“He works with superior material,” Ralph said to himself; “it’s rich
abundance compared with his former resources.” Ralph was a clever
man; but Ralph had never—to his own sense—been so clever as
when he observed, in petto, that under the guise of caring only for
intrinsic values Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from
being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success.
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He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world
was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was
pose—pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout
one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived
so much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his
accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on
his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His
solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his
bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly
present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His
ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It had made
him feel great, ever, to play the world a trick. The thing he had done
in his life most directly to please himself was his marrying Miss Archer; though in this case indeed the gullible world was in a manner
embodied in poor Isabel, who had been mystified to the top of her
bent. Ralph of course found a fitness in being consistent; he had embraced a creed, and as he had suffered for it he could not in honour
forsake it. I give this little sketch of its articles for what they may at
the time have been worth. It was certain that he was very skilful in
fitting the facts to his theory—even the fact that during the month he
spent in Rome at this period the husband of the woman he loved
appeared to regard him not in the least as an enemy.
For Gilbert Osmond Ralph had not now that importance. It was
not that he had the importance of a friend; it was rather that he had
none at all. He was Isabel’s cousin and he was rather unpleasantly
ill—it was on this basis that Osmond treated with him. He made
the proper enquiries, asked about his health, about Mrs. Touchett,
about his opinion of winter climates, whether he were comfortable
at his hotel. He addressed him, on the few occasions of their meeting, not a word that was not necessary; but his manner had always
the urbanity proper to conscious success in the presence of con476
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scious failure. For all this, Ralph had had, toward the end, a sharp
inward vision of Osmond’s making it of small ease to his wife that
she should continue to receive Mr. Touchett. He was not jealous—
he had not that excuse; no one could be jealous of Ralph. But he
made Isabel pay for her old-time kindness, of which so much was
still left; and as Ralph had no idea of her paying too much, so when
his suspicion had become sharp, he had taken himself off. In doing
so he had deprived Isabel of a very interesting occupation: she had
been constantly wondering what fine principle was keeping him
alive. She had decided that it was his love of conversation; his conversation had been better than ever. He had given up walking; be
was no longer a humorous stroller. He sat all day in a chair —almost any chair would serve, and was so dependent on what you
would do for him that, had not his talk been highly contemplative,
you might have thought he was blind. The reader already knows
more about him than Isabel was ever to know, and the reader may
therefore be given the key to the mystery. What kept Ralph alive
was simply the fact that he had not yet seen enough of the person in
the world in whom he was most interested: he was not yet satisfied.
There was more to come; he couldn’t make up his mind to lose that.
He wanted to see what she would make of her husband—or what
her husband would make of her. This was only the first act of the
drama, and he was determined to sit out the performance. His determination had held good; it had kept him going some eighteen
months more, till the time of his return to Rome with Lord
Warburton. It had given him indeed such an air of intending to live
indefinitely that Mrs. Touchett, though more accessible to confusions of thought in the matter of this strange, unremunerative—
and unremunerated—son of hers than she had ever been before,
had, as we have learned, not scrupled to embark for a distant land.
If Ralph had been kept alive by suspense it was with a good deal of
the same emotion—the excitement of wondering in what state she
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should find him—that Isabel mounted to his apartment the day
after Lord Warburton had notified her of his arrival in Rome.
She spent an hour with him; it was the first of several visits. Gilbert Osmond called on him punctually, and on their sending their
carriage for him Ralph came more than once to Palazzo Roccanera.
A fortnight elapsed, at the end of which Ralph announced to Lord
Warburton that he thought after all he wouldn’t go to Sicily. The
two men had been dining together after a day spent by the latter in
ranging about the Campagna. They had left the table, and
Warburton, before the chimney, was lighting a cigar, which he instantly removed from his lips.
“Won’t go to Sicily? Where then will you go?”
“Well, I guess I won’t go anywhere,” said Ralph, from the sofa, all
shamelessly.
“Do you mean you’ll return to England?”
“Oh dear no; I’ll stay in Rome.”
“Rome won’t do for you. Rome’s not warm enough.”
“It will have to do. I’ll make it do. See how well I’ve been.”
Lord Warburton looked at him a while, puffing a cigar and as if
trying to see it. “You’ve been better than you were on the journey,
certainly. I wonder how you lived through that. But I don’t understand your condition. I recommend you to try Sicily.”
“I can’t try,” said poor Ralph. “I’ve done trying. I can’t move further. I can’t face that journey. Fancy me between Scylla and
Charybdis! I don’t want to die on the Sicilian plains—to be snatched
away, like Proserpine in the same locality, to the Plutonian shades.”
“What the deuce then did you come for?” his lordship enquired.
“Because the idea took me. I see it won’t do. It really doesn’t matter
where I am now. I’ve exhausted all remedies, I’ve swallowed all climates. As I’m here I’ll stay. I haven’t a single cousin in Sicily—much
less a married one.”
“Your cousin’s certainly an inducement. But what does the doctor say?”
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“I haven’t asked him, and I don’t care a fig. If I die here Mrs.
Osmond will bury me. But I shall not die here.”
“I hope not.” Lord Warburton continued to smoke reflectively.
“Well, I must say,” he resumed, “for myself I’m very glad you don’t
insist on Sicily. I had a horror of that journey.”
“Ah, but for you it needn’t have mattered. I had no idea of dragging you in my train.”
“I certainly didn’t mean to let you go alone.”
“My dear Warburton, I never expected you to come further than
this,” Ralph cried.
“I should have gone with you and seen you settled,” said Lord
Warburton.
“You’re a very good Christian. You’re a very kind man.”
“Then I should have come back here.”
“And then you’d have gone to England.”
“No, no; I should have stayed.”
“Well,” said Ralph, “if that’s what we are both up to, I don’t see
where Sicily comes in!”
His companion was silent; he sat staring at the fire. At last, looking up, “I say, tell me this,” he broke out; “did you really mean to go
to Sicily when we started?”
“Ah, vous m’en demandez trop! Let me put a question first. Did
you come with me quite—platonically?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that. I wanted to come abroad.”
“I suspect we’ve each been playing our little game.”
“Speak for yourself. I made no secret whatever of my desiring to
be here a while.”
“Yes, I remember you said you wished to see the Minister of Foreign Affairs.”
“I’ve seen him three times. He’s very amusing.”
“I think you’ve forgotten what you came for,” said Ralph.
“Perhaps I have,” his companion answered rather gravely.
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These two were gentlemen of a race which is not distinguished by
the absence of reserve, and they had travelled together from London to Rome without an allusion to matters that were uppermost in
the mind of each. There was an old subject they had once discussed,
but it had lost its recognised place in their attention, and even after
their arrival in Rome, where many things led back to it, they had
kept the same half-diffident, half-confident silence.
“I recommend you to get the doctor’s consent, all the same,” Lord
Warburton went on, abruptly, after an interval.
“The doctor’s consent will spoil it. I never have it when I can help
it.”
“What then does Mrs. Osmond think?” Ralph’s friend demanded.
I’ve not told her. She’ll probably say that Rome’s too cold and even
offer to go with me to Catania. She’s capable of that.”
“In your place I should like it.”
“Her husband won’t like it.”
“Ah well, I can fancy that; though it seems to me you’re not bound
to mind his likings. They’re his affair.”
“I don’t want to make any more trouble between them,” said Ralph.
“Is there so much already?”
“There’s complete preparation for it. Her going off with me would
make the explosion. Osmond isn’t fond of his wife’s cousin.”
“Then of course he’d make a row. But won’t he make a row if you
stop here?”
“That’s what I want to see. He made one the last time I was in
Rome, and then I thought it my duty to disappear. Now I think it’s
my duty to stop and defend her.”
“My dear Touchett, your defensive powers—!” Lord Warburton
began with a smile. But he saw something in his companion’s face
that checked him. “Your duty, in these premises, seems to me rather
a nice question,” he observed instead.
Ralph for a short time answered nothing. “It’s true that my defen480
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sive powers are small,” he returned at last; “but as my aggressive ones
are still smaller Osmond may after all not think me worth his gunpowder. At any rate,” he added, “there are things I’m curious to see.”
“You’re sacrificing your health to your curiosity then?”
“I’m not much interested in my health, and I’m deeply interested
in Mrs. Osmond.”
“So am I. But not as I once was,” Lord Warburton added quickly.
This was one of the allusions he had not hitherto found occasion to
make.
“Does she strike you as very happy?” Ralph enquired, emboldened
by this confidence.
“Well, I don’t know; I’ve hardly thought. She told me the other
night she was happy.”
“Ah, she told you, of course,” Ralph exclaimed, smiling.
“I don’t know that. It seems to me I was rather the sort of person
she might have complained to.”
“Complained? She’ll never complain. She has done it—what she
has done—and she knows it. She’ll complain to you least of all.
She’s very careful.”
“She needn’t be. I don’t mean to make love to her again.”
“I’m delighted to hear it. There can be no doubt at least of your
duty.”
“Ah no,” said Lord Warburton gravely; “none!”
“Permit me to ask,” Ralph went on, “whether it’s to bring out the
fact that you don’t mean to make love to her that you’re so very civil
to the little girl?”
Lord Warburton gave a slight start; he got up and stood before
the fire, looking at it hard. “Does that strike you as very ridiculous?”
“Ridiculous? Not in the least, if you really like her.”
“I think her a delightful little person. I don’t know when a girl of
that age has pleased me more.”
“She’s a charming creature. Ah, she at least is genuine.”
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“Of course there’s the difference in our ages—more than twenty
years.”
“My dear Warburton,” said Ralph, “are you serious?”
“Perfectly serious—as far as I’ve got.”
“I’m very glad. And, heaven help us,” cried Ralph, “how cheeredup old Osmond will be!”
His companion frowned. “I say, don’t spoil it. I shouldn’t propose
for his daughter to please him.”
“He’ll have the perversity to be pleased all the same.”
“He’s not so fond of me as that,” said his lordship.
“As that? My dear Warburton, the drawback of your position is
that people needn’t be fond of you at all to wish to be connected
with you. Now, with me in such a case, I should have the happy
confidence that they loved me.”
Lord Warburton seemed scarcely in the mood for doing justice to
general axioms—he was thinking of a special case. “Do you judge
she’ll be pleased?”
“The girl herself? Delighted, surely.”
“No, no; I mean Mrs. Osmond.”
Ralph looked at him a moment. “My dear fellow, what has she to
do with it?”
“Whatever she chooses. She’s very fond of Pansy.”
“Very true—very true.” And Ralph slowly got up. “It’s an interesting question—how far her fondness for Pansy will carry her.” He
stood there a moment with his hands in his pockets and rather a
clouded brow. “I hope, you know, that you’re very—very sure. The
deuce!” he broke off. “I don’t know how to say it.”
“Yes, you do; you know how to say everything.”
“Well, it’s awkward. I hope you’re sure that among Miss Osmond’s
merits her being—a—so near her stepmother isn’t a leading one?”
“Good heavens, Touchett!” cried Lord Warburton angrily, “for
what do you take me?”
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CHAPTER XL
ISABEL HAD NOT SEEN much of Madame Merle since her marriage,
this lady having indulged in frequent absences from Rome. At one
time she had spent six months in England; at another she had passed
a portion of a winter in Paris. She had made numerous visits to
distant friends and gave countenance to the idea that for the future
she should be a less inveterate Roman than in the past. As she had
been inveterate in the past only in the sense of constantly having an
apartment in one of the sunniest niches of the Pincian—an apartment which often stood empty—this suggested a prospect of almost constant absence; a danger which Isabel at one period had
been much inclined to deplore. Familiarity had modified in some
degree her first impression of Madame Merle, but it had not essentially altered it; there was still much wonder of admiration in it.
That personage was armed at all points; it was a pleasure to see a
character so completely equipped for the social battle. She carried
her flag discreetly, but her weapons were polished steel, and she
used them with a skill which struck Isabel as more and more that of
a veteran. She was never weary, never overcome with disgust; she
never appeared to need rest or consolation. She had her own ideas;
she had of old exposed a great many of them to Isabel, who knew
also that under an appearance of extreme self-control her highlycultivated friend concealed a rich sensibility. But her will was mistress of her life; there was something gallant in the way she kept
going. It was as if she had learned the secret of it—as if the art of life
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were some clever trick she had guessed. Isabel, as she herself grew
older, became acquainted with revulsions, with disgusts; there were
days when the world looked black and she asked herself with some
sharpness what it was that she was pretending to live for. Her old
habit had been to live by enthusiasm, to fall in love with suddenlyperceived possibilities, with the idea of some new adventure. As a
younger person she had been used to proceed from one little exaltation to the other: there were scarcely any dull places between. But
Madame Merle had suppressed enthusiasm; she fell in love now-adays with nothing; she lived entirely by reason and by wisdom. There
were hours when Isabel would have given anything for lessons in
this art; if her brilliant friend had been near she would have made
an appeal to her. She had become aware more than before of the
advantage of being like that —of having made one’s self a firm surface, a sort of corselet of silver.
But, as I say, it was not till the winter during which we lately
renewed acquaintance with our heroine that the personage in question made again a continuous stay in Rome. Isabel now saw more of
her than she had done since her marriage; but by this time Isabel’s
needs and inclinations had considerably changed. It was not at
present to Madame Merle that she would have applied for instruction; she had lost the desire to know this lady’s clever trick. If she
had troubles she must keep them to herself, and if life was difficult
it would not make it easier to confess herself beaten. Madame Merle
was doubtless of great use to herself and an ornament to any circle;
but was she—would she be —of use to others in periods of refined
embarrassment? The best way to profit by her friend—this indeed
Isabel had always thought—was to imitate her, to be as firm and
bright as she. She recognised no embarrassments, and Isabel, considering this fact, determined for the fiftieth time to brush aside her
own. It seemed to her too, on the renewal of an intercourse which
had virtually been interrupted, that her old ally was different, was
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almost detached—pushing to the extreme a certain rather artificial
fear of being indiscreet. Ralph Touchett, we know, had been of the
opinion that she was prone to exaggeration, to forcing the note—
was apt, in the vulgar phrase, to overdo it. Isabel had never admitted this charge—had never indeed quite understood it; Madame
Merle’s conduct, to her perception, always bore the stamp of good
taste, was always “quiet.” But in this matter of not wishing to intrude upon the inner life of the Osmond family it at last occurred to
our young woman that she overdid a little. That of course was not
the best taste; that was rather violent. She remembered too much
that Isabel was married; that she had now other interests; that though
she, Madame Merle, had known Gilbert Osmond and his little Pansy
very well, better almost than any one, she was not after all of the
inner circle. She was on her guard; she never spoke of their affairs
till she was asked, even pressed—as when her opinion was wanted;
she had a dread of seeming to meddle. Madame Merle was as candid as we know, and one day she candidly expressed this dread to
Isabel.
“I must be on my guard,” she said; “I might so easily, without
suspecting it, offend you. You would be right to be offended, even if
my intention should have been of the purest. I must not forget that
I knew your husband long before you did; I must not let that betray
me. If you were a silly woman you might be jealous. You’re not a
silly woman; I know that perfectly. But neither am I; therefore I’m
determined not to get into trouble. A little harm’s very soon done; a
mistake’s made before one knows it. Of course if I had wished to
make love to your husband I had ten years to do it in, and nothing
to prevent; so it isn’t likely I shall begin to-day, when I’m so much
less attractive than I was. But if I were to annoy you by seeming to
take a place that doesn’t belong to me, you wouldn’t make that reflection; you’d simply say I was forgetting certain differences. I’m
determined not to forget them. Certainly a good friend isn’t always
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thinking of that; one doesn’t suspect one’s friends of injustice. I don’t
suspect you, my dear, in the least; but I suspect human nature. Don’t
think I make myself uncomfortable; I’m not always watching myself. I think I sufficiently prove it in talking to you as I do now. All
I wish to say is, however, that if you were to be jealous—that’s the
form it would take—I should be sure to think it was a little my
fault. It certainly wouldn’t be your husband’s.”
Isabel had had three years to think over Mrs. Touchett’s theory
that Madame Merle had made Gilbert Osmond’s marriage. We know
how she had at first received it. Madame Merle might have made
Gilbert Osmond’s marriage, but she certainly had not made Isabel
Archer’s. That was the work of—Isabel scarcely knew what: of nature, providence, fortune, of the eternal mystery of things. It was
true her aunt’s complaint had been not so much of Madame Merle’s
activity as of her duplicity: she had brought about the strange event
and then she had denied her guilt. Such guilt would not have been
great, to Isabel’s mind; she couldn’t make a crime of Madame Merle’s
having been the producing cause of the most important friendship
she had ever formed. This had occurred to her just before her marriage, after her little discussion with her aunt and at a time when she
was still capable of that large inward reference, the tone almost of
the philosophic historian, to her scant young annals. If Madame
Merle had desired her change of state she could only say it had been
a very happy thought. With her, moreover, she had been perfectly
straightforward; she had never concealed her high opinion of Gilbert Osmond. After their union Isabel discovered that her husband
took a less convenient view of the matter; he seldom consented to
finger, in talk, this roundest and smoothest bead of their social rosary. “Don’t you like Madame Merle?” Isabel had once said to him.
“She thinks a great deal of you.”
“I’ll tell you once for all,” Osmond had answered. “I liked her once
better than I do to-day. I’m tired of her, and I’m rather ashamed of it.
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She’s so almost unnaturally good! I’m glad she’s not in Italy; it makes
for relaxation—for a sort of moral detente. Don’t talk of her too much;
it seems to bring her back. She’ll come back in plenty of time.”
Madame Merle, in fact, had come back before it was too late—
too late, I mean, to recover whatever advantage she might have lost.
But meantime, if, as I have said, she was sensibly different, Isabel’s
feelings were also not quite the same. Her consciousness of the situation was as acute as of old, but it was much less satisfying. A dissatisfied mind, whatever else it may miss, is rarely in want of reasons;
they bloom as thick as buttercups in June. The fact of Madame
Merle’s having had a hand in Gilbert Osmond’s marriage ceased to
be one of her titles to consideration; it might have been written,
after all, that there was not so much to thank her for. As time went
on there was less and less, and Isabel once said to herself that perhaps without her these things would not have been. That reflection
indeed was instantly stifled; she knew an immediate horror at having made it. “Whatever happens to me let me not be unjust,” she
said; “let me bear my burdens myself and not shift them upon others!” This disposition was tested, eventually, by that ingenious apology for her present conduct which Madame Merle saw fit to make
and of which I have given a sketch; for there was something irritating—there was almost an air of mockery—in her neat discriminations and clear convictions. In Isabel’s mind to-day there was nothing clear; there was a confusion of regrets, a complication of fears.
She felt helpless as she turned away from her friend, who had just
made the statements I have quoted: Madame Merle knew so little
what she was thinking of! She was herself moreover so unable to
explain. Jealous of her—jealous of her with Gilbert? The idea just
then suggested no near reality. She almost wished jealousy had been
possible; it would have made in a manner for refreshment. Wasn’t it
in a manner one of the symptoms of happiness? Madame Merle,
however, was wise, so wise that she might have been pretending to
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know Isabel better than Isabel knew herself. This young woman
had always been fertile in resolutions —any of them of an elevated
character; but at no period had they flourished (in the privacy of
her heart) more richly than to-day. It is true that they all had a
family likeness; they might have been summed up in the determination that if she was to be unhappy it should not be by a fault of
her own. Her poor winged spirit had always had a great desire to
do its best, and it had not as yet been seriously discouraged. It
wished, therefore, to hold fast to justice—not to pay itself by petty
revenges. To associate Madame Merle with its disappointment
would be a petty revenge—especially as the pleasure to be derived
from that would be perfectly insincere. It might feed her sense of
bitterness, but it would not loosen her bonds. It was impossible to
pretend that she had not acted with her eyes open; if ever a girl
was a free agent she had been. A girl in love was doubtless not a
free agent; but the sole source of her mistake had been within
herself. There had been no plot, no snare; she had looked and
considered and chosen. When a woman had made such a mistake,
there was only one way to repair it—just immensely (oh, with the
highest grandeur!) to accept it. One folly was enough, especially
when it was to last for ever; a second one would not much set it
off. In this vow of reticence there was a certain nobleness which
kept Isabel going; but Madame Merle had been right, for all that,
in taking her precautions.
One day about a month after Ralph Touchett’s arrival in Rome
Isabel came back from a walk with Pansy. It was not only a part of
her general determination to be just that she was at present very
thankful for Pansy—it was also a part of her tenderness for things
that were pure and weak. Pansy was dear to her, and there was nothing else in her life that had the rightness of the young creature’s
attachment or the sweetness of her own clearness about it. It was
like a soft presence—like a small hand in her own; on Pansy’s part it
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was more than an affection—it was a kind of ardent coercive faith.
On her own side her sense of the girl’s dependence was more than a
pleasure; it operated as a definite reason when motives threatened
to fail her. She had said to herself that we must take our duty where
we find it, and that we must look for it as much as possible. Pansy’s
sympathy was a direct admonition; it seemed to say that here was
an opportunity, not eminent perhaps, but unmistakeable. Yet an
opportunity for what Isabel could hardly have said; in general, to be
more for the child than the child was able to be for herself. Isabel
could have smiled, in these days, to remember that her little companion had once been ambiguous, for she now perceived that Pansy’s
ambiguities were simply her own grossness of vision. She had been
unable to believe any one could care so much—so extraordinarily
much—to please. But since then she had seen this delicate faculty
in operation, and now she knew what to think of it. It was the
whole creature—it was a sort of genius. Pansy had no pride to interfere with it, and though she was constantly extending her conquests
she took no credit for them. The two were constantly together; Mrs.
Osmond was rarely seen without her stepdaughter. Isabel liked her
company; it had the effect of one’s carrying a nosegay composed all
of the same flower. And then not to neglect Pansy, not under any
provocation to neglect her—this she had made an article of religion. The young girl had every appearance of being happier in Isabel’s
society than in that of any one save her father,—whom she admired
with an intensity justified by the fact that, as paternity was an exquisite pleasure to Gilbert Osmond, he had always been luxuriously
mild. Isabel knew how Pansy liked to be with her and how she
studied the means of pleasing her. She had decided that the best
way of pleasing her was negative, and consisted in not giving her
trouble—a conviction which certainly could have had no reference
to trouble already existing. She was therefore ingeniously passive
and almost imaginatively docile; she was careful even to moderate
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the eagerness with which she assented to Isabel’s propositions and
which might have implied that she could have thought otherwise.
She never interrupted, never asked social questions, and though she
delighted in approbation, to the point of turning pale when it came
to her, never held out her hand for it. She only looked toward it
wistfully—an attitude which, as she grew older, made her eyes the
prettiest in the world. When during the second winter at Palazzo
Roccanera she began to go to parties, to dances, she always, at a
reasonable hour, lest Mrs. Osmond should be tired, was the first to
propose departure. Isabel appreciated the sacrifice of the late dances,
for she knew her little companion had a passionate pleasure in this
exercise, taking her steps to the music like a conscientious fairy.
Society, moreover, had no drawbacks for her; she liked even the
tiresome parts—the heat of ball-rooms, the dulness of dinners, the
crush at the door, the awkward waiting for the carriage. During the
day, in this vehicle, beside her stepmother, she sat in a small fixed,
appreciative posture, bending forward and faintly smiling, as if she
had been taken to drive for the first time.
On the day I speak of they had been driven out of one of the gates
of the city and at the end of half an hour had left the carriage to await
them by the roadside while they walked away over the short grass of
the Campagna, which even in the winter months is sprinkled with
delicate flowers. This was almost a daily habit with Isabel, who was
fond of a walk and had a swift length of step, though not so swift a
one as on her first coming to Europe. It was not the form of exercise
that Pansy loved best, but she liked it, because she liked everything;
and she moved with a shorter undulation beside her father’s wife,
who afterwards, on their return to Rome, paid a tribute to her preferences by making the circuit of the Pincian or the Villa Borghese. She
had gathered a handful of flowers in a sunny hollow, far from the
walls of Rome, and on reaching Palazzo Roccanera she went straight
to her room, to put them into water. Isabel passed into the drawing490
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room, the one she herself usually occupied, the second in order from
the large ante-chamber which was entered from the staircase and in
which even Gilbert Osmond’s rich devices had not been able to correct a look of rather grand nudity. Just beyond the threshold of the
drawing-room she stopped short, the reason for her doing so being
that she had received an impression. The impression had, in strictness, nothing unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and
the soundlessness of her step gave her time to take in the scene before
she interrupted it. Madame Merle was there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware she
had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she
had not seen, or at least had not noticed, was that their colloquy had
for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from
which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them.
Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire;
Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her
head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent on his. What struck
Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there
was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they
had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were
musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes
exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in
this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.
But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it. Madame Merle
had seen her and had welcomed her without moving; her husband,
on the other hand, had instantly jumped up. He presently murmured
something about wanting a walk and, after having asked their visitor
to excuse him, left the room.
“I came to see you, thinking you would have come in; and as you
hadn’t I waited for you,” Madame Merle said.
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“Didn’t he ask you to sit down?” Isabel asked with a smile.
Madame Merle looked about her. “Ah, it’s very true; I was going
away.”
“You must stay now.”
“Certainly. I came for a reason; I’ve something on my mind.”
“I’ve told you that before,” Isabel said—”that it takes something
extraordinary to bring you to this house.”
“And you know what I’ve told you; that whether I come or whether
I stay away, I’ve always the same motive—the affection I bear you.”
“Yes, you’ve told me that.”
“You look just now as if you didn’t believe it,” said Madame Merle.
“Ah,” Isabel answered, “the profundity of your motives, that’s the
last thing I doubt!”
“You doubt sooner of the sincerity of my words.”
Isabel shook her head gravely. “I know you’ve always been kind to me.”
“As often as you would let me. You don’t always take it; then one
has to let you alone. It’s not to do you a kindness, however, that I’ve
come to-day; it’s quite another affair. I’ve come to get rid of a trouble
of my own—to make it over to you. I’ve been talking to your husband about it.”
“I’m surprised at that; he doesn’t like troubles.”
“Especially other people’s; I know very well. But neither do you, I
suppose. At any rate, whether you do or not, you must help me. It’s
about poor Mr. Rosier.”
“Ah,” said Isabel reflectively, “it’s his trouble then, not yours.”
“He has succeeded in saddling me with it. He comes to see me ten
times a week, to talk about Pansy.”
“Yes, he wants to marry her. I know all about it.”
Madame Merle hesitated. “I gathered from your husband that
perhaps you didn’t.”
“How should he know what I know? He has never spoken to me
of the matter.”
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“It’s probably because he doesn’t know how to speak of it.”
“It’s nevertheless the sort of question in which he’s rarely at fault.”
“Yes, because as a general thing he knows perfectly well what to
think. To-day he doesn’t.”
“Haven’t you been telling him?” Isabel asked.
Madame Merle gave a bright, voluntary smile. “Do you know
you’re a little dry?”
“Yes; I can’t help it. Mr. Rosier has also talked to me.”
“In that there’s some reason. You’re so near the child.”
“Ah,” said Isabel, “for all the comfort I’ve given him! If you think
me dry, I wonder what HE thinks.”
“I believe he thinks you can do more than you have done.”
“I can do nothing.”
“You can do more at least than I. I don’t know what mysterious
connection he may have discovered between me and Pansy; but he
came to me from the first, as if I held his fortune in my hand. Now
he keeps coming back, to spur me up, to know what hope there is,
to pour out his feelings.”
“He’s very much in love,” said Isabel.
“Very much—for him.”
“Very much for Pansy, you might say as well.”
Madame Merle dropped her eyes a moment. “Don’t you think
she’s attractive?”
“The dearest little person possible—but very limited.”
“She ought to be all the easier for Mr. Rosier to love. Mr. Rosier’s
not unlimited.”
“No,” said Isabel, “he has about the extent of one’s pocket-handkerchief—the small ones with lace borders.” Her humour had lately
turned a good deal to sarcasm, but in a moment she was ashamed of
exercising it on so innocent an object as Pansy’s suitor. “He’s very
kind, very honest,” she presently added; “and he’s not such a fool as
he seems.”
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“He assures me that she delights in him,” said Madame Merle.
“I don’t know; I’ve not asked her.”
“You’ve never sounded her a little?”
“It’s not my place; it’s her father’s.”
“Ah, you’re too literal!” said Madame Merle.
“I must judge for myself.”
Madame Merle gave her smile again. “It isn’t easy to help you.”
“To help me?” said Isabel very seriously. “What do you mean?”
“It’s easy to displease you. Don’t you see how wise I am to be
careful? I notify you, at any rate, as I notified Osmond, that I wash
my hands of the love-affairs of Miss Pansy and Mr. Edward Rosier.
Je n’y peux rien, moi! I can’t talk to Pansy about him. Especially,”
added Madame Merle, “as I don’t think him a paragon of husbands.”
Isabel reflected a little; after which, with a smile, “You don’t wash
your hands then!” she said. After which again she added in another
tone: “You can’t—you’re too much interested.”
Madame Merle slowly rose; she had given Isabel a look as rapid as
the intimation that had gleamed before our heroine a few moments
before. Only this time the latter saw nothing. “Ask him the next
time, and you’ll see.”
“I can’t ask him; he has ceased to come to the house. Gilbert has
let him know that he’s not welcome.”
“Ah yes,” said Madame Merle, “I forgot that—though it’s the
burden of his lamentation. He says Osmond has insulted him. All
the same,” she went on, “Osmond doesn’t dislike him so much as
he thinks.” She had got up as if to close the conversation, but she
lingered, looking about her, and had evidently more to say. Isabel
perceived this and even saw the point she had in view; but Isabel
also had her own reasons for not opening the way.
“That must have pleased him, if you’ve told him,” she answered,
smiling.
“Certainly I’ve told him; as far as that goes I’ve encouraged him.
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I’ve preached patience, have said that his case isn’t desperate if he’ll
only hold his tongue and be quiet. Unfortunately he has taken it into
his head to be jealous.”
“Jealous?”
“Jealous of Lord Warburton, who, he says, is always here.”
Isabel, who was tired, had remained sitting; but at this she also
rose. “Ah!” she exclaimed simply, moving slowly to the fireplace.
Madame Merle observed her as she passed and while she stood a
moment before the mantel-glass and pushed into its place a wandering tress of hair.
“Poor Mr. Rosier keeps saying there’s nothing impossible in Lord
Warburton’s falling in love with Pansy,” Madame Merle went on.
Isabel was silent a little; she turned away from the glass. “It’s true—
there’s nothing impossible,” she returned at last, gravely and more
gently.
“So I’ve had to admit to Mr. Rosier. So, too, your husband thinks.”
“That I don’t know.”
“Ask him and you’ll see.”
“I shall not ask him,” said Isabel.
“Pardon me; I forgot you had pointed that out. Of course,” Madame Merle added, “syou’ve had infinitely more observation of Lord
Warburton’s behaviour than I.”
“I see no reason why I shouldn’t tell you that he likes my stepdaughter very much.”
Madame Merle gave one of her quick looks again. “Likes her, you
mean—as Mr. Rosier means?”
“I don’t know how Mr. Rosier means; but Lord Warburton has let
me know that he’s charmed with Pansy.”
“And you’ve never told Osmond?” This observation was immediate, precipitate; it almost burst from Madame Merle’s lips.
Isabel’s eyes rested on her. “I suppose he’ll know in time; Lord
Warburton has a tongue and knows how to express himself.”
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Madame Merle instantly became conscious that she had spoken
more quickly than usual, and the reflection brought the colour to
her cheek. She gave the treacherous impulse time to subside and
then said as if she had been thinking it over a little: “That would be
better than marrying poor Mr. Rosier.”
“Much better, I think.”
“It would be very delightful; it would be a great marriage. It’s
really very kind of him.”
“Very kind of him?”
“To drop his eyes on a simple little girl.”
“I don’t see that.”
“It’s very good of you. But after all, Pansy Osmond—”
“After all, Pansy Osmond’s the most attractive person he has ever
known!” Isabel exclaimed.
Madame Merle stared, and indeed she was justly bewildered. “Ah,
a moment ago I thought you seemed rather to disparage her.”
“I said she was limited. And so she is. And so’s Lord Warburton.”
“So are we all, if you come to that. If it’s no more than Pansy
deserves, all the better. But if she fixes her affections on Mr. Rosier
I won’t admit that she deserves it. That will be too perverse.”
“Mr. Rosier’s a nuisance!” Isabel cried abruptly.
“I quite agree with you, and I’m delighted to know that I’m not
expected to feed his flame. For the future, when he calls on me, my
door shall be closed to him.” And gathering her mantle together
Madame Merle prepared to depart. She was checked, however, on
her progress to the door, by an inconsequent request from Isabel.
“All the same, you know, be kind to him.”
She lifted her shoulders and eyebrows and stood looking at her
friend. “I don’t understand your contradictions! Decidedly I shan’t
be kind to him, for it will be a false kindness. I want to see her
married to Lord Warburton.”
“You had better wait till he asks her.”
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“If what you say’s true, he’ll ask her. Especially,” said Madame
Merle in a moment, “if you make him.”
“If I make him?”
“It’s quite in your power. You’ve great influence with him.”
Isabel frowned a little. “Where did you learn that?”
“Mrs. Touchett told me. Not you—never!” said Madame Merle,
smiling.
“I certainly never told you anything of the sort.”
“You might have done so—so far as opportunity went—when we
were by way of being confidential with each other. But you really
told me very little; I’ve often thought so since.”
Isabel had thought so too, and sometimes with a certain satisfaction. But she didn’t admit it now—perhaps because she wished not
to appear to exult in it. “You seem to have had an excellent informant in my aunt,” she simply returned.
“She let me know you had declined an offer of marriage from
Lord Warburton, because she was greatly vexed and was full of the
subject. Of course I think you’ve done better in doing as you did.
But if you wouldn’t marry Lord Warburton yourself, make him the
reparation of helping him to marry some one else.”
Isabel listened to this with a face that persisted in not reflecting
the bright expressiveness of Madame Merle’s. But in a moment she
said, reasonably and gently enough: “I should be very glad indeed
if, as regards Pansy, it could be arranged.” Upon which her companion, who seemed to regard this as a speech of good omen, embraced
her more tenderly than might have been expected and triumphantly
withdrew.
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CHAPTER XLI
OSMOND TOUCHED on this matter that evening for the first time;
coming very late into the drawing-room, where she was sitting alone.
They had spent the evening at home, and Pansy had gone to bed;
he himself had been sitting since dinner in a small apartment in
which he had arranged his books and which he called his study. At
ten o’clock Lord Warburton had come in, as he always did when he
knew from Isabel that she was to be at home; he was going somewhere else and he sat for half an hour. Isabel, after asking him for
news of Ralph, said very little to him, on purpose; she wished him
to talk with her stepdaughter. She pretended to read; she even went
after a little to the piano; she asked herself if she mightn’t leave the
room. She had come little by little to think well of the idea of Pansy’s
becoming the wife of the master of beautiful Lockleigh, though at
first it had not presented itself in a manner to excite her enthusiasm.
Madame Merle, that afternoon, had applied the match to an accumulation of inflammable material. When Isabel was unhappy she
always looked about her—partly from impulse and partly by
theory—for some form of positive exertion. She could never rid
herself of the sense that unhappiness was a state of disease—of suffering as opposed to doing. To “do”—it hardly mattered what—
would therefore be an escape, perhaps in some degree a remedy.
Besides, she wished to convince herself that she had done everything possible to content her husband; she was determined not to
be haunted by visions of his wife’s limpness under appeal. It would
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please him greatly to see Pansy married to an English nobleman,
and justly please him, since this nobleman was so sound a character.
It seemed to Isabel that if she could make it her duty to bring about
such an event she should play the part of a good wife. She wanted to
be that; she wanted to be able to believe sincerely, and with proof of
it, that she had been that. Then such an undertaking had other
recommendations. It would occupy her, and she desired occupation. It would even amuse her, and if she could really amuse herself
she perhaps might be saved. Lastly, it would be a service to Lord
Warburton, who evidently pleased himself greatly with the charming girl. It was a little “weird” he should—being what he was; but
there was no accounting for such impressions. Pansy might captivate any one—any one at least but Lord Warburton. Isabel would
have thought her too small, too slight, perhaps even too artificial
for that. There was always a little of the doll about her, and that was
not what he had been looking for. Still, who could say what men
ever were looking for? They looked for what they found; they knew
what pleased them only when they saw it. No theory was valid in
such matters, and nothing was more unaccountable or more natural than anything else. If he had cared for her it might seem odd he
should care for Pansy, who was so different; but he had not cared
for her so much as he had supposed. Or if he had, he had completely got over it, and it was natural that, as that affair had failed,
he should think something of quite another sort might succeed.
Enthusiasm, as I say, had not come at first to Isabel, but it came today and made her feel almost happy. It was astonishing what happiness she could still find in the idea of procuring a pleasure for her
husband. It was a pity, however, that Edward Rosier had crossed
their path!
At this reflection the light that had suddenly gleamed upon that
path lost something of its brightness. Isabel was unfortunately as
sure that Pansy thought Mr. Rosier the nicest of all the young men—
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as sure as if she had held an interview with her on the subject. It was
very tiresome she should be so sure, when she had carefully abstained from informing herself; almost as tiresome as that poor Mr.
Rosier should have taken it into his own head. He was certainly
very inferior to Lord Warburton. It was not the difference in fortune so much as the difference in the men; the young American was
really so light a weight. He was much more of the type of the useless
fine gentleman than the English nobleman. It was true that there
was no particular reason why Pansy should marry a statesman; still,
if a statesman admired her, that was his affair, and she would make
a perfect little pearl of a peeress.
It may seem to the reader that Mrs. Osmond had grown of a sudden strangely cynical, for she ended by saying to herself that this difficulty could probably be arranged. An impediment that was embodied in poor Rosier could not anyhow present itself as a dangerous one;
there were always means of levelling secondary obstacles. Isabel was
perfectly aware that she had not taken the measure of Pansy’s tenacity,
which might prove to be inconveniently great; but she inclined to see
her as rather letting go, under suggestion, than as clutching under
deprecation —since she had certainly the faculty of assent developed
in a very much higher degree than that of protest. She would cling,
yes, she would cling; but it really mattered to her very little what she
clung to. Lord Warburton would do as well as Mr. Rosier —especially as she seemed quite to like him; she had expressed this sentiment to Isabel without a single reservation; she had said she thought
his conversation most interesting—he had told her all about India.
His manner to Pansy had been of the rightest and easiest—Isabel
noticed that for herself, as she also observed that he talked to her not
in the least in a patronising way, reminding himself of her youth and
simplicity, but quite as if she understood his subjects with that sufficiency with which she followed those of the fashionable operas. This
went far enough for attention to the music and the barytone. He was
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careful only to be kind—he was as kind as he had been to another
fluttered young chit at Gardencourt. A girl might well be touched by
that; she remembered how she herself had been touched, and said to
herself that if she had been as simple as Pansy the impression would
have been deeper still. She had not been simple when she refused
him; that operation had been as complicated as, later, her acceptance
of Osmond had been. Pansy, however, in spite of her simplicity, really
did understand, and was glad that Lord Warburton should talk to
her, not about her partners and bouquets, but about the state of Italy,
the condition of the peasantry, the famous grist-tax, the pellagra, his
impressions of Roman society. She looked at him, as she drew her
needle through her tapestry, with sweet submissive eyes, and when
she lowered them she gave little quiet oblique glances at his person,
his hands, his feet, his clothes, as if she were considering him. Even
his person, Isabel might have reminded her, was better than Mr.
Rosier’s. But Isabel contented herself at such moments with wondering where this gentleman was; he came no more at all to Palazzo
Roccanera. It was surprising, as I say, the hold it had taken of her—
the idea of assisting her husband to be pleased.
It was surprising for a variety of reasons which I shall presently
touch upon. On the evening I speak of, while Lord Warburton sat
there, she had been on the point of taking the great step of going
out of the room and leaving her companions alone. I say the great
step, because it was in this light that Gilbert Osmond would have
regarded it, and Isabel was trying as much as possible to take her
husband’s view. She succeeded after a fashion, but she fell short of
the point I mention. After all she couldn’t rise to it; something held
her and made this impossible. It was not exactly that it would be
base or insidious; for women as a general thing practise such
manoeuvres with a perfectly good conscience, and Isabel was instinctively much more true than false to the common genius of her
sex. There was a vague doubt that interposed—a sense that she was
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not quite sure. So she remained in the drawing-room, and after a
while Lord Warburton went off to his party, of which he promised
to give Pansy a full account on the morrow. After he had gone she
wondered if she had prevented something which would have happened if she had absented herself for a quarter of an hour; and then
she pronounced—always mentally—that when their distinguished
visitor should wish her to go away he would easily find means to let
her know it. Pansy said nothing whatever about him after he had
gone, and Isabel studiously said nothing, as she had taken a vow of
reserve until after he should have declared himself. He was a little
longer in coming to this than might seem to accord with the description he had given Isabel of his feelings. Pansy went to bed, and
Isabel had to admit that she could not now guess what her stepdaughter was thinking of. Her transparent little companion was for
the moment not to be seen through.
She remained alone, looking at the fire, until, at the end of half an
hour, her husband came in. He moved about a while in silence and
then sat down; he looked at the fire like herself. But she now had
transferred her eyes from the flickering flame in the chimney to
Osmond’s face, and she watched him while he kept his silence. Covert observation had become a habit with her; an instinct, of which
it is not an exaggeration to say that it was allied to that of selfdefence, had made it habitual. She wished as much as possible to
know his thoughts, to know what he would say, beforehand, so that
she might prepare her answer. Preparing answers had not been her
strong point of old; she had rarely in this respect got further than
thinking afterwards of clever things she might have said. But she
had learned caution—learned it in a measure from her husband’s
very countenance. It was the same face she had looked into with
eyes equally earnest perhaps, but less penetrating, on the terrace of a
Florentine villa; except that Osmond had grown slightly stouter since
his marriage. He still, however, might strike one as very distinguished.
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“Has Lord Warburton been here?” he presently asked.
“Yes, he stayed half an hour.”
“Did he see Pansy?”
“Yes; he sat on the sofa beside her.”
“Did he talk with her much?”
“He talked almost only to her.”
“It seems to me he’s attentive. Isn’t that what you call it?”
“I don’t call it anything,” said Isabel; “I’ve waited for you to give it
a name.”
“That’s a consideration you don’t always show,” Osmond answered
after a moment.
“I’ve determined, this time, to try and act as you’d like. I’ve so
often failed of that.”
Osmond turned his head slowly, looking at her. “Are you trying
to quarrel with me?”
“No, I’m trying to live at peace.”
“Nothing’s more easy; you know I don’t quarrel myself.”
“What do you call it when you try to make me angry?” Isabel
asked.
“I don’t try; if I’ve done so it has been the most natural thing in
the world. Moreover I’m not in the least trying now.”
Isabel smiled. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve determined never to be angry again.”
“That’s an excellent resolve. Your temper isn’t good.”
“No—it’s not good.” She pushed away the book she had been
reading and took up the band of tapestry Pansy had left on the
table.
“That’s partly why I’ve not spoken to you about this business of
my daughter’s,” Osmond said, designating Pansy in the manner that
was most frequent with him. “I was afraid I should encounter opposition—that you too would have views on the subject. I’ve sent
little Rosier about his business.”
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“You were afraid I’d plead for Mr. Rosier? Haven’t you noticed
that I’ve never spoken to you of him?”
“I’ve never given you a chance. We’ve so little conversation in
these days. I know he was an old friend of yours.”
“Yes; he’s an old friend of mine.” Isabel cared little more for him
than for the tapestry that she held in her hand; but it was true that
he was an old friend and that with her husband she felt a desire not
to extenuate such ties. He had a way of expressing contempt for
them which fortified her loyalty to them, even when, as in the present
case, they were in themselves insignificant. She sometimes felt a
sort of passion of tenderness for memories which had no other merit
than that they belonged to her unmarried life. “But as regards Pansy,”
she added in a moment, “I’ve given him no encouragement.”
“That’s fortunate,” Osmond observed.
“Fortunate for me, I suppose you mean. For him it matters little.”
“There’s no use talking of him,” Osmond said. “As I tell you, I’ve
turned him out.”
“Yes; but a lover outside’s always a lover. He’s sometimes even
more of one. Mr. Rosier still has hope.”
“He’s welcome to the comfort of it! My daughter has only to sit
perfectly quiet to become Lady Warburton.”
“Should you like that?” Isabel asked with a simplicity which was
not so affected as it may appear. She was resolved to assume nothing, for Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her assumptions against her. The intensity with which he would like his daughter to become Lady Warburton had been the very basis of her own
recent reflections. But that was for herself; she would recognise nothing until Osmond should have put it into words; she would not
take for granted with him that he thought Lord Warburton a prize
worth an amount of effort that was unusual among the Osmonds.
It was Gilbert’s constant intimation that for him nothing in life was
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guished people in the world, and that his daughter had only to look
about her to pick out a prince. It cost him therefore a lapse from
consistency to say explicitly that he yearned for Lord Warburton
and that if this nobleman should escape his equivalent might not be
found; with which moreover it was another of his customary implications that he was never inconsistent. He would have liked his wife
to glide over the point. But strangely enough, now that she was face
to face with him and although an hour before she had almost invented a scheme for pleasing him, Isabel was not accommodating,
would not glide. And yet she knew exactly the effect on his mind of
her question: it would operate as an humiliation. Never mind; he
was terribly capable of humiliating her—all the more so that he was
also capable of waiting for great opportunities and of showing sometimes an almost unaccountable indifference to small ones. Isabel
perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed
herself of a great one.
Osmond at present acquitted himself very honourably. “I should
like it extremely; it would be a great marriage. And then Lord
Warburton has another advantage: he’s an old friend of yours. It
would be pleasant for him to come into the family. It’s very odd
Pansy’s admirers should all be your old friends.”
“It’s natural that they should come to see me. In coming to see me
they see Pansy. Seeing her it’s natural they should fall in love with her.”
“So I think. But you’re not bound to do so.”
“If she should marry Lord Warburton I should be very glad,” Isabel
went on frankly. “He’s an excellent man. You say, however, that she
has only to sit perfectly still. Perhaps she won’t sit perfectly still. If
she loses Mr. Rosier she may jump up!”
Osmond appeared to give no heed to this; he sat gazing at the fire.
“Pansy would like to be a great lady,” he remarked in a moment
with a certain tenderness of tone. “She wishes above all to please,”
he added.
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“To please Mr. Rosier, perhaps.”
“No, to please me.”
“Me too a little, I think,” said Isabel.
“Yes, she has a great opinion of you. But she’ll do what I like.”
“If you’re sure of that, it’s very well,” she went on.
“Meantime,” said Osmond, “I should like our distinguished visitor to speak.”
“He has spoken—to me. He has told me it would be a great pleasure to him to believe she could care for him.”
Osmond turned his head quickly, but at first he said nothing.
Then, “Why didn’t you tell me that?” he asked sharply.
“There was no opportunity. You know how we live. I’ve taken the
first chance that has offered.”
“Did you speak to him of Rosier?”
“Oh yes, a little.”
“That was hardly necessary.”
“I thought it best he should know, so that, so that—” And Isabel
paused.
“So that what?”
“So that he might act accordingly.”
“So that he might back out, do you mean?”
“No, so that he might advance while there’s yet time.”
“That’s not the effect it seems to have had.”
“You should have patience,” said Isabel. “You know Englishmen
are shy.”
“This one’s not. He was not when he made love to you.”
She had been afraid Osmond would speak of that; it was disagreeable to her. “I beg your pardon; he was extremely so,” she returned.
He answered nothing for some time; he took up a book and fingered
the pages while she sat silent and occupied herself with Pansy’s tapestry.
“You must have a great deal of influence with him,” Osmond went on
at last. “The moment you really wish it you can bring him to the point.”
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This was more offensive still; but she felt the great naturalness of
his saying it, and it was after all extremely like what she had said to
herself. “Why should I have influence?” she asked. “What have I
ever done to put him under an obligation to me?”
“You refused to marry him,” said Osmond with his eyes on his
book.
“I must not presume too much on that,” she replied.
He threw down the book presently and got up, standing before
the fire with his hands behind him. “Well, I hold that it lies in your
hands. I shall leave it there. With a little good-will you may manage
it. Think that over and remember how much I count on you.” He
waited a little, to give her time to answer; but she answered nothing, and he presently strolled out of the room.
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CHAPTER XLII
SHE HAD ANSWERED nothing because his words had put the situation
before her and she was absorbed in looking at it. There was something in them that suddenly made vibrations deep, so that she had
been afraid to trust herself to speak. After he had gone she leaned
back in her chair and closed her eyes; and for a long time, far into
the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given
up to her meditation. A servant came in to attend to the fire, and
she bade him bring fresh candles and then go to bed. Osmond had
told her to think of what he had said; and she did so indeed, and of
many other things. The suggestion from another that she had a
definite influence on Lord Warburton—this had given her the start
that accompanies unexpected recognition. Was it true that there
was something still between them that might be a handle to make
him declare himself to Pansy—a susceptibility, on his part, to approval, a desire to do what would please her? Isabel had hitherto not
asked herself the question, because she had not been forced; but
now that it was directly presented to her she saw the answer, and the
answer frightened her. Yes, there was something—something on Lord
Warburton’s part. When he had first come to Rome she believed the
link that united them to be completely snapped; but little by little
she had been reminded that it had yet a palpable existence. It was as
thin as a hair, but there were moments when she seemed to hear it
vibrate. For herself nothing was changed; what she once thought of
him she always thought; it was needless this feeling should change;
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it seemed to her in fact a better feeling than ever. But he? had he still
the idea that she might be more to him than other women? Had he
the wish to profit by the memory of the few moments of intimacy
through which they had once passed? Isabel knew she had read some
of the signs of such a disposition. But what were his hopes, his pretensions, and in what strange way were they mingled with his evidently very sincere appreciation of poor Pansy? Was he in love with
Gilbert Osmond’s wife, and if so what comfort did he expect to
derive from it? If he was in love with Pansy he was not in love with
her stepmother, and if he was in love with her stepmother he was
not in love with Pansy. Was she to cultivate the advantage she possessed in order to make him commit himself to Pansy, knowing he
would do so for her sake and not for the small creature’s own—was
this the service her husband had asked of her? This at any rate was
the duty with which she found herself confronted—from the moment she admitted to herself that her old friend had still an
uneradicated predilection for her society. It was not an agreeable
task; it was in fact a repulsive one. She asked herself with dismay
whether Lord Warburton were pretending to be in love with Pansy
in order to cultivate another satisfaction and what might be called
other chances. Of this refinement of duplicity she presently acquitted him; she preferred to believe him in perfect good faith. But if his
admiration for Pansy were a delusion this was scarcely better than
its being an affectation. Isabel wandered among these ugly possibilities until she had completely lost her way; some of them, as she
suddenly encountered them, seemed ugly enough. Then she broke
out of the labyrinth, rubbing her eyes, and declared that her imagination surely did her little honour and that her husband’s did him
even less. Lord Warburton was as disinterested as he need be, and
she was no more to him than she need wish. She would rest upon
this till the contrary should be proved; proved more effectually than
by a cynical intimation of Osmond’s.
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Such a resolution, however, brought her this evening but little
peace, for her soul was haunted with terrors which crowded to the
foreground of thought as quickly as a place was made for them.
What had suddenly set them into livelier motion she hardly knew,
unless it were the strange impression she had received in the afternoon of her husband’s being in more direct communication with
Madame Merle than she suspected. That impression came back to
her from time to time, and now she wondered it had never come
before. Besides this, her short interview with Osmond half an hour
ago was a striking example of his faculty for making everything wither
that he touched, spoiling everything for her that he looked at. It was
very well to undertake to give him a proof of loyalty; the real fact
was that the knowledge of his expecting a thing raised a presumption against it. It was as if he had had the evil eye; as if his presence
were a blight and his favour a misfortune. Was the fault in himself,
or only in the deep mistrust she had conceived for him? This mistrust was now the clearest result of their short married life; a gulf
had opened between them over which they looked at each other
with eyes that were on either side a declaration of the deception
suffered. It was a strange opposition, of the like of which she had
never dreamed—an opposition in which the vital principle of the
one was a thing of contempt to the other. It was not her fault—she
had practised no deception; she had only admired and believed. She
had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she
had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a
dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end. Instead of leading to
the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to
lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather
downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression
where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from
above, and where it served to deepen the feeling of failure. It was
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her deep distrust of her husband—this was what darkened the world.
That is a sentiment easily indicated, but not so easily explained, and
so composite in its character that much time and still more suffering had been needed to bring it to its actual perfection. Suffering,
with Isabel, was an active condition; it was not a chill, a stupor, a
despair; it was a passion of thought, of speculation, of response to
every pressure. She flattered herself that she had kept her failing
faith to herself, however,—that no one suspected it but Osmond.
Oh, he knew it, and there were times when she thought he enjoyed
it. It had come gradually—it was not till the first year of their life
together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken
the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if
Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out
one by one. The dusk at first was vague and thin, and she could still
see her way in it. But it steadily deepened, and if now and again it
had occasionally lifted there were certain corners of her prospect
that were impenetrably black. These shadows were not an emanation from her own mind: she was very sure of that; she had done her
best to be just and temperate, to see only the truth. They were a
part, they were a kind of creation and consequence, of her husband’s
very presence. They were not his misdeeds, his turpitudes; she accused him of nothing —that is but of one thing, which was not a
crime. She knew of no wrong he had done; he was not violent, he
was not cruel: she simply believed he hated her. That was all she
accused him of, and the miserable part of it was precisely that it was
not a crime, for against a crime she might have found redress. He
had discovered that she was so different, that she was not what he
had believed she would prove to be. He had thought at first he
could change her, and she had done her best to be what he would
like. But she was, after all, herself—she couldn’t help that; and now
there was no use pretending, wearing a mask or a dress, for he knew
her and had made up his mind. She was not afraid of him; she had
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no apprehension he would hurt her; for the ill-will he bore her was
not of that sort. He would if possible never give her a pretext, never
put himself in the wrong. Isabel, scanning the future with dry, fixed
eyes, saw that he would have the better of her there. She would give
him many pretexts, she would often put herself in the wrong. There
were times when she almost pitied him; for if she had not deceived
him in intention she understood how completely she must have
done so in fact. She had effaced herself when he first knew her; she
had made herself small, pretending there was less of her than there
really was. It was because she had been under the extraordinary charm
that he, on his side, had taken pains to put forth. He was not changed;
he had not disguised himself, during the year of his courtship, any
more than she. But she had seen only half his nature then, as one
saw the disk of the moon when it was partly masked by the shadow
of the earth. She saw the full moon now—she saw the whole man.
She had kept still, as it were, so that he should have a free field, and
yet in spite of this she had mistaken a part for the whole.
Ah, she had been immensely under the charm! It had not passed
away; it was there still: she still knew perfectly what it was that
made Osmond delightful when he chose to be. He had wished to be
when he made love to her, and as she had wished to be charmed it
was not wonderful he had succeeded. He had succeeded because he
had been sincere; it never occurred to her now to deny him that. He
admired her—he had told her why: because she was the most imaginative woman he had known. It might very well have been true; for
during those months she had imagined a world of things that had
no substance. She had had a more wondrous vision of him, fed
through charmed senses and oh such a stirred fancy!—she had not
read him right. A certain combination of features had touched her,
and in them she had seen the most striking of figures. That he was
poor and lonely and yet that somehow he was noble—that was what
had interested her and seemed to give her her opportunity. There
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had been an indefinable beauty about him—in his situation, in his
mind, in his face. She had felt at the same time that he was helpless
and ineffectual, but the feeling had taken the form of a tenderness
which was the very flower of respect. He was like a sceptical voyager
strolling on the beach while he waited for the tide, looking seaward
yet not putting to sea. It was in all this she had found her occasion.
She would launch his boat for him; she would be his providence; it
would be a good thing to love him. And she had loved him, she had
so anxiously and yet so ardently given herself—a good deal for what
she found in him, but a good deal also for what she brought him
and what might enrich the gift. As she looked back at the passion of
those full weeks she perceived in it a kind of maternal strain—the
happiness of a woman who felt that she was a contributor, that she
came with charged hands. But for her money, as she saw to-day, she
would never have done it. And then her mind wandered off to poor
Mr. Touchett, sleeping under English turf, the beneficent author of
infinite woe! For this was the fantastic fact. At bottom her money
had been a burden, had been on her mind, which was filled with
the desire to transfer the weight of it to some other conscience, to
some more prepared receptacle. What would lighten her own conscience more effectually than to make it over to the man with the
best taste in the world? Unless she should have given it to a hospital
there would have been nothing better she could do with it; and
there was no charitable institution in which she had been as much
interested as in Gilbert Osmond. He would use her fortune in a
way that would make her think better of it and rub off a certain
grossness attaching to the good luck of an unexpected inheritance.
There had been nothing very delicate in inheriting seventy thousand pounds; the delicacy had been all in Mr. Touchett’s leaving
them to her. But to marry Gilbert Osmond and bring him such a
portion—in that there would be delicacy for her as well. There would
be less for him—that was true; but that was his affair, and if he
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loved her he wouldn’t object to her being rich. Had he not had the
courage to say he was glad she was rich?
Isabel’s cheek burned when she asked herself if she had really
married on a factitious theory, in order to do something finely appreciable with her money. But she was able to answer quickly enough
that this was only half the story. It was because a certain ardour took
possession of her—a sense of the earnestness of his affection and a
delight in his personal qualities. He was better than any one else.
This supreme conviction had filled her life for months, and enough
of it still remained to prove to her that she could not have done
otherwise. The finest—in the sense of being the subtlest—manly
organism she had ever known had become her property, and the
recognition of her having but to put out her hands and take it had
been originally a sort of act of devotion. She had not been mistaken
about the beauty of his mind; she knew that organ perfectly now.
She had lived with it, she had lived IN it almost—it appeared to
have become her habitation. If she had been captured it had taken a
firm hand to seize her; that reflection perhaps had some worth. A
mind more ingenious, more pliant, more cultivated, more trained
to admirable exercises, she had not encountered; and it was this
exquisite instrument she had now to reckon with. She lost herself in
infinite dismay when she thought of the magnitude of his deception. It was a wonder, perhaps, in view of this, that he didn’t hate
her more. She remembered perfectly the first sign he had given of
it—it had been like the bell that was to ring up the curtain upon the
real drama of their life. He said to her one day that she had too
many ideas and that she must get rid of them. He had told her that
already, before their marriage; but then she had not noticed it: it
had come back to her only afterwards. This time she might well
have noticed it, because he had really meant it. The words had been
nothing superficially; but when in the light of deepening experience she had looked into them they had then appeared portentous.
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He had really meant it—he would have liked her to have nothing of
her own but her pretty appearance. She had known she had too
many ideas; she had more even than he had supposed, many more
than she had expressed to him when he had asked her to marry him.
Yes, she had been hypocritical; she had liked him so much. She had
too many ideas for herself; but that was just what one married for,
to share them with some one else. One couldn’t pluck them up by
the roots, though of course one might suppress them, be careful not
to utter them. It had not been this, however, his objecting to her
opinions; this had been nothing. She had no opinions—none that
she would not have been eager to sacrifice in the satisfaction of feeling herself loved for it. What he had meant had been the whole
thing—her character, the way she felt, the way she judged. This was
what she had kept in reserve; this was what he had not known until
he had found himself—with the door closed behind, as it were—set
down face to face with it. She had a certain way of looking at life
which he took as a personal offence. Heaven knew that now at least
it was a very humble, accommodating way! The strange thing was
that she should not have suspected from the first that his own had
been so different. She had thought it so large, so enlightened, so
perfectly that of an honest man and a gentleman. Hadn’t he assured
her that he had no superstitions, no dull limitations, no prejudices
that had lost their freshness? Hadn’t he all the appearance of a man
living in the open air of the world, indifferent to small considerations, caring only for truth and knowledge and believing that two
intelligent people ought to look for them together and, whether
they found them or not, find at least some happiness in the search?
He had told her he loved the conventional; but there was a sense in
which this seemed a noble declaration. In that sense, that of the
love of harmony and order and decency and of all the stately offices
of life, she went with him freely, and his warning had contained
nothing ominous. But when, as the months had elapsed, she had
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followed him further and he had led her into the mansion of his
own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was.
She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she
had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls
she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her
life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house
of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor
air; Osmond’s beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a
small high window and mock at her. Of course it had not been
physical suffering; for physical suffering there might have been a
remedy. She could come and go; she had her liberty; her husband
was perfectly polite. He took himself so seriously; it was something
appalling. Under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under
his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay
hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers. She had taken him seriously, but she had not taken him so seriously as that. How could
she—especially when she had known him better? She was to think
of him as he thought of himself—as the first gentleman in Europe.
So it was that she had thought of him at first, and that indeed was
the reason she had married him. But when she began to see what it
implied she drew back; there was more in the bond than she had
meant to put her name to. It implied a sovereign contempt for every
one but some three or four very exalted people whom he envied,
and for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.
That was very well; she would have gone with him even there a long
distance; for he pointed out to her so much of the baseness and
shabbiness of life, opened her eyes so wide to the stupidity, the depravity, the ignorance of mankind, that she had been properly impressed with the infinite vulgarity of things and of the virtue of
keeping one’s self unspotted by it. But this base, if noble world, it
appeared, was after all what one was to live for; one was to keep it
forever in one’s eye, in order not to enlighten or convert or redeem
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it, but to extract from it some recognition of one’s own superiority.
On the one hand it was despicable, but on the other it afforded a
standard. Osmond had talked to Isabel about his renunciation, his
indifference, the ease with which he dispensed with the usual aids to
success; and all this had seemed to her admirable. She had thought it
a grand indifference, an exquisite independence. But indifference was
really the last of his qualities; she had never seen any one who thought
so much of others. For herself, avowedly, the world had always interested her and the study of her fellow creatures been her constant passion. She would have been willing, however, to renounce all her curiosities and sympathies for the sake of a personal life, if the person
concerned had only been able to make her believe it was a gain! This
at least was her present conviction; and the thing certainly would
have been easier than to care for society as Osmond cared for it.
He was unable to live without it, and she saw that he had never
really done so; he had looked at it out of his window even when he
appeared to be most detached from it. He had his ideal, just as she
had tried to have hers; only it was strange that people should seek
for justice in such different quarters. His ideal was a conception of
high prosperity and propriety, of the aristocratic life, which she now
saw that he deemed himself always, in essence at least, to have led.
He had never lapsed from it for an hour; he would never have recovered from the shame of doing so. That again was very well; here
too she would have agreed; but they attached such different ideas,
such different associations and desires, to the same formulas. Her
notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge with great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of
duty and the liberty a sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was
altogether a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude. He was
fond of the old, the consecrated, the transmitted; so was she, but
she pretended to do what she chose with it. He had an immense
esteem for tradition; he had told her once that the best thing in the
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world was to have it, but that if one was so unfortunate as not to
have it one must immediately proceed to make it. She knew that he
meant by this that she hadn’t it, but that he was better off; though
from what source he had derived his traditions she never learned.
He had a very large collection of them, however; that was very certain, and after a little she began to see. The great thing was to act in
accordance with them; the great thing not only for him but for her.
Isabel had an undefined conviction that to serve for another person
than their proprietor traditions must be of a thoroughly superior
kind; but she nevertheless assented to this intimation that she too
must march to the stately music that floated down from unknown
periods in her husband’s past; she who of old had been so free of
step, so desultory, so devious, so much the reverse of processional.
There were certain things they must do, a certain posture they must
take, certain people they must know and not know. When she saw
this rigid system close about her, draped though it was in pictured
tapestries, that sense of darkness and suffocation of which I have
spoken took possession of her; she seemed shut up with an odour of
mould and decay. She had resisted of course; at first very humorously, ironically, tenderly; then, as the situation grew more serious,
eagerly, passionately, pleadingly. She had pleaded the cause of freedom, of doing as they chose, of not caring for the aspect and denomination of their life—the cause of other instincts and longings,
of quite another ideal.
Then it was that her husband’s personality, touched as it never
had been, stepped forth and stood erect. The things she had said
were answered only by his scorn, and she could see he was ineffably
ashamed of her. What did he think of her—that she was base, vulgar, ignoble? He at least knew now that she had no traditions! It
had not been in hsis prevision of things that she should reveal such
flatness; her sentiments were worthy of a radical newspaper or a
Unitarian preacher. The real offence, as she ultimately perceived,
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was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—
attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would
rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds
and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching. He didn’t wish her to be
stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she had
pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether
in his favour, and so far from desiring her mind to be a blank he had
flattered himself that it would be richly receptive. He had expected
his wife to feel with him and for him, to enter into his opinions, his
ambitions, his preferences; and Isabel was obliged to confess that
this was no great insolence on the part of a man so accomplished
and a husband originally at least so tender. But there were certain
things she could never take in. To begin with, they were hideously
unclean. She was not a daughter of the Puritans, but for all that she
believed in such a thing as chastity and even as decency. It would
appear that Osmond was far from doing anything of the sort; some
of his traditions made her push back her skirts. Did all women have
lovers? Did they all lie and even the best have their price? Were there
only three or four that didn’t deceive their husbands? When Isabel
heard such things she felt a greater scorn for them than for the gossip of a village parlour—a scorn that kept its freshness in a very
tainted air. There was the taint of her sister-in-law: did her husband
judge only by the Countess Gemini? This lady very often lied, and
she had practised deceptions that were not simply verbal. It was
enough to find these facts assumed among Osmond’s traditions—it
was enough without giving them such a general extension. It was
her scorn of his assumptions, it was this that made him draw himself up. He had plenty of contempt, and it was proper his wife should
be as well furnished; but that she should turn the hot light of her
disdain upon his own conception of things—this was a danger he
had not allowed for. He believed he should have regulated her emo519
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tions before she came to it; and Isabel could easily imagine how his
ears had scorched on his discovering he had been too confident.
When one had a wife who gave one that sensation there was nothing left but to hate her.
She was morally certain now that this feeling of hatred, which at
first had been a refuge and a refreshment, had become the occupation and comfort of his life. The feeling was deep, because it was
sincere; he had had the revelation that she could after all dispense
with him. If to herself the idea was startling, if it presented itself at
first as a kind of infidelity, a capacity for pollution, what infinite
effect might it not be expected to have had upon HIM? It was very
simple; he despised her; she had no traditions and the moral horizon of a Unitarian minister. Poor Isabel, who had never been able to
understand Unitarianism! This was the certitude she had been living with now for a time that she had ceased to measure. What was
coming—what was before them? That was her constant question.
What would he do—what ought SHE to do? When a man hated
his wife what did it lead to? She didn’t hate him, that she was sure
of, for every little while she felt a passionate wish to give him a
pleasant surprise. Very often, however, she felt afraid, and it used to
come over her, as I have intimated, that she had deceived him at the
very first. They were strangely married, at all events, and it was a
horrible life. Until that morning he had scarcely spoken to her for a
week; his manner was as dry as a burned-out fire. She knew there
was a special reason; he was displeased at Ralph Touchett’s staying
on in Rome. He thought she saw too much of her cousin—he had
told her a week before it was indecent she should go to him at his
hotel. He would have said more than this if Ralph’s invalid state had
not appeared to make it brutal to denounce him; but having had to
contain himself had only deepened his disgust. Isabel read all this as
she would have read the hour on the clock-face; she was as perfectly
aware that the sight of her interest in her cousin stirred her husband’s
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rage as if Osmond had locked her into her room—which she was
sure was what he wanted to do. It was her honest belief that on the
whole she was not defiant, but she certainly couldn’t pretend to be
indifferent to Ralph. She believed he was dying at last and that she
should never see him again, and this gave her a tenderness for him
that she had never known before. Nothing was a pleasure to her
now; how could anything be a pleasure to a woman who knew that
she had thrown away her life? There was an everlasting weight on
her heart—there was a livid light on everything. But Ralph’s little
visit was a lamp in the darkness; for the hour that she sat with him
her ache for herself became somehow her ache for HIM. She felt today as if he had been her brother. She had never had a brother, but
if she had and she were in trouble and he were dying, he would be
dear to her as Ralph was. Ah yes, if Gilbert was jealous of her there
was perhaps some reason; it didn’t make Gilbert look better to sit
for half an hour with Ralph. It was not that they talked of him—it
was not that she complained. His name was never uttered between
them. It was simply that Ralph was generous and that her husband
was not. There was something in Ralph’s talk, in his smile, in the
mere fact of his being in Rome, that made the blasted circle round
which she walked more spacious. He made her feel the good of the
world; he made her feel what might have been. He was after all as
intelligent as Osmond—quite apart from his being better. And thus
it seemed to her an act of devotion to conceal her misery from him.
She concealed it elaborately; she was perpetually, in their talk, hanging out curtains and before her again—it lived before her again,—it
had never had time to die—that morning in the garden at Florence
when he had warned her against Osmond. She had only to close her
eyes to see the place, to hear his voice, to feel the warm, sweet air.
How could he have known? What a mystery, what a wonder of
wisdom! As intelligent as Gilbert? He was much more intelligent—
to arrive at such a judgement as that. Gilbert had never been so
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deep, so just. She had told him then that from her at least he should
never know if he was right; and this was what she was taking care of
now. It gave her plenty to do; there was passion, exaltation, religion
in it. Women find their religion sometimes in strange exercises, and
Isabel at present, in playing a part before her cousin, had an idea
that she was doing him a kindness. It would have been a kindness
perhaps if he had been for a single instant a dupe. As it was, the
kindness consisted mainly in trying to make him believe that he
had once wounded her greatly and that the event had put him to
shame, but that, as she was very generous and he was so ill, she bore
him no grudge and even considerately forbore to flaunt her happiness in his face. Ralph smiled to himself, as he lay on his sofa, at this
extraordinary form of consideration; but he forgave her for having
forgiven him. She didn’t wish him to have the pain of knowing she
was unhappy: that was the great thing, and it didn’t matter that
such knowledge would rather have righted him.
For herself, she lingered in the soundless saloon long after the fire
had gone out. There was no danger of her feeling the cold; she was
in a fever. She heard the small hours strike, and then the great ones,
but her vigil took no heed of time. Her mind, assailed by visions,
was in a state of extraordinary activity, and her visions might as well
come to her there, where she sat up to meet them, as on her pillow,
to make a mockery of rest. As I have said, she believed she was not
defiant, and what could be a better proof of it than that she should
linger there half the night, trying to persuade herself that there was
no reason why Pansy shouldn’t be married as you would put a letter
in the post-office? When the clock struck four she got up; she was
going to bed at last, for the lamp had long since gone out and the
candles burned down to their sockets. But even then she stopped
again in the middle of the room and stood there gazing at a remembered vision—that of her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously
and familiarly associated.
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CHAPTER XLIII
Three nights after this she took Pansy to a great party, to which
Osmond, who never went to dances, did not accompany them. Pansy
was as ready for a dance as ever; she was not of a generalising turn and
had not extended to other pleasures the interdict she had seen placed
on those of love. If she was biding her time or hoping to circumvent
her father she must have had a prevision of success. Isabel thought
this unlikely; it was much more likely that Pansy had simply determined to be a good girl. She had never had such a chance, and she
had a proper esteem for chances. She carried herself no less attentively
than usual and kept no less anxious an eye upon her vaporous skirts;
she held her bouquet very tight and counted over the flowers for the
twentieth time. She made Isabel feel old; it seemed so long since she
had been in a flutter about a ball. Pansy, who was greatly admired,
was never in want of partners, and very soon after their arrival she
gave Isabel, who was not dancing, her bouquet to hold. Isabel had
rendered her this service for some minutes when she became aware of
the near presence of Edward Rosier. He stood before her; he had lost
his affable smile and wore a look of almost military resolution. The
change in his appearance would have made Isabel smile if she had not
felt his case to be at bottom a hard one: he had always smelt so much
more of heliotrope than of gunpowder. He looked at her a moment
somewhat fiercely, as if to notify her he was dangerous, and then
dropped his eyes on her bouquet. After he had inspected it his glance
softened and he said quickly: “It’s all pansies; it must be hers!”
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Isabel smiled kindly. “Yes, it’s hers; she gave it to me to hold.”
“May I hold it a little, Mrs. Osmond?” the poor young man asked.
“No, I can’t trust you; I’m afraid you wouldn’t give it back.”
“I’m not sure that I should; I should leave the house with it instantly. But may I not at least have a single flower?”
Isabel hesitated a moment, and then, smiling still, held out the
bouquet. “Choose one yourself. It’s frightful what I’m doing for
you.”
“Ah, if you do no more than this, Mrs. Osmond!” Rosier exclaimed
with his glass in one eye, carefully choosing his flower.
“Don’t put it into your button-hole,” she said. “Don’t for the
world!”
“I should like her to see it. She has refused to dance with me, but
I wish to show her that I believe in her still.”
“It’s very well to show it to her, but it’s out of place to show it to
others. Her father has told her not to dance with you.”
“And is that all you can do for me? I expected more from you,
Mrs. Osmond,” said the young man in a tone of fine general reference. “You know our acquaintance goes back very far—quite into
the days of our innocent childhood.”
“Don’t make me out too old,” Isabel patiently answered. “You
come back to that very often, and I’ve never denied it. But I must
tell you that, old friends as we are, if you had done me the honour
to ask me to marry you I should have refused you on the spot.”
“Ah, you don’t esteem me then. Say at once that you think me a
mere Parisian trifler!”
“I esteem you very much, but I’m not in love with you. What I
mean by that, of course, is that I’m not in love with you for Pansy.”
“Very good; I see. You pity me—that’s all.” And Edward Rosier
looked all round, inconsequently, with his single glass. It was a revelation to him that people shouldn’t be more pleased; but he was at
least too proud to show that the deficiency struck him as general.
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Isabel for a moment said nothing. His manner and appearance had
not the dignity of the deepest tragedy; his little glass, among other
things, was against that. But she suddenly felt touched; her own unhappiness, after all, had something in common with his, and it came
over her, more than before, that here, in recognisable, if not in romantic form, was the most affecting thing in the world—young love
struggling with adversity. “Would you really be very kind to her?” she
finally asked in a low tone.
He dropped his eyes devoutly and raised the little flower that he
held in his fingers to his lips. Then he looked at her. “You pity me;
but don’t you pity her a little?”
“I don’t know; I’m not sure. She’ll always enjoy life.”
“It will depend on what you call life!” Mr. Rosier effectively said.
“She won’t enjoy being tortured.”
“There’ll be nothing of that.”
“I’m glad to hear it. She knows what she’s about. You’ll see.”
“I think she does, and she’ll never disobey her father. But she’s
coming back to me,” Isabel added, “and I must beg you to go away.”
Rosier lingered a moment till Pansy came in sight on the arm of
her cavalier; he stood just long enough to look her in the face. Then
he walked away, holding up his head; and the manner in which he
achieved this sacrifice to expediency convinced Isabel he was very
much in love.
Pansy, who seldom got disarranged in dancing, looking perfectly
fresh and cool after this exercise, waited a moment and then took
back her bouquet. Isabel watched her and saw she was counting the
flowers; whereupon she said to herself that decidedly there were
deeper forces at play than she had recognised. Pansy had seen Rosier
turn away, but she said nothing to Isabel about him; she talked only
of her partner, after he had made his bow and retired; of the music,
the floor, the rare misfortune of having already torn her dress. Isabel
was sure, however, she had discovered her lover to have abstracted a
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flower; though this knowledge was not needed to account for the
dutiful grace with which she responded to the appeal of her next
partner. That perfect amenity under acute constraint was part of a
larger system. She was again led forth by a flushed young man, this
time carrying her bouquet; and she had not been absent many minutes when Isabel saw Lord Warburton advancing through the crowd.
He presently drew near and bade her good-evening; she had not
seen him since the day before. He looked about him, and then
“Where’s the little maid?” he asked. It was in this manner that he
had formed the harmless habit of alluding to Miss Osmond.
“She’s dancing,” said Isabel. “You’ll see her somewhere.”
He looked among the dancers and at last caught Pansy’s eye. “She
sees me, but she won’t notice me,” he then remarked. “Are you not
dancing?”
“As you see, I’m a wall-flower.”
“Won’t you dance with me?”
“Thank you; I’d rather you should dance with the little maid.”
“One needn’t prevent the other—especially as she’s engaged.”
“She’s not engaged for everything, and you can reserve yourself.
She dances very hard, and you’ll be the fresher.”
“She dances beautifully,” said Lord Warburton, following her with
his eyes. “Ah, at last,” he added, “she has given me a smile.” He stood
there with his handsome, easy, important physiognomy; and as Isabel
observed him it came over her, as it had done before, that it was
strange a man of his mettle should take an interest in a little maid. It
struck her as a great incongruity; neither Pansy’s small fascinations,
nor his own kindness, his good-nature, not even his need for amusement, which was extreme and constant, were sufficient to account for
it. “I should like to dance with you,” he went on in a moment, turning back to Isabel; “but I think I like even better to talk with you.”
“Yes, it’s better, and it’s more worthy of your dignity. Great statesmen oughtn’t to waltz.”
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“Don’t be cruel. Why did you recommend me then to dance with
Miss Osmond?”
“Ah, that’s different. If you danced with her it would look simply
like a piece of kindness—as if you were doing it for her amusement.
If you dance with me you’ll look as if you were doing it for your
own.”
“And pray haven’t I a right to amuse myself?”
“No, not with the affairs of the British Empire on your hands.”
“The British Empire be hanged! You’re always laughing at it.”
“Amuse yourself with talking to me,” said Isabel.
“I’m not sure it’s really a recreation. You’re too pointed; I’ve always to be defending myself. And you strike me as more than usually dangerous to-night. Will you absolutely not dance?”
“I can’t leave my place. Pansy must find me here.”
He was silent a little. “You’re wonderfully good to her,” he said
suddenly.
Isabel stared a little and smiled. “Can you imagine one’s not being?”
“No indeed. I know how one is charmed with her. But you must
have done a great deal for her.”
“I’ve taken her out with me,” said Isabel, smiling still. “And I’ve
seen that she has proper clothes.”
“Your society must have been a great benefit to her. You’ve talked
to her, advised her, helped her to develop.”
“Ah yes, if she isn’t the rose she has lived near it.”
She laughed, and her companion did as much; but there was a
certain visible preoccupation in his face which interfered with complete hilarity. “We all try to live as near it as we can,” he said after a
moment’s hesitation.
Isabel turned away; Pansy was about to be restored to her, and she
welcomed the diversion. We know how much she liked Lord
Warburton; she thought him pleasanter even than the sum of his
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merits warranted; there was something in his friendship that appeared a kind of resource in case of indefinite need; it was like having a large balance at the bank. She felt happier when he was in the
room; there was something reassuring in his approach; the sound of
his voice reminded her of the beneficence of nature. Yet for all that
it didn’t suit her that he should be too near her, that he should take
too much of her good-will for granted. She was afraid of that; she
averted herself from it; she wished he wouldn’t. She felt that if he
should come too near, as it were, it might be in her to flash out and
bid him keep his distance. Pansy came back to Isabel with another
rent in her skirt, which was the inevitable consequence of the first
and which she displayed to Isabel with serious eyes. There were too
many gentlemen in uniform; they wore those dreadful spurs, which
were fatal to the dresses of little maids. It hereupon became apparent that the resources of women are innumerable. Isabel devoted
herself to Pansy’s desecrated drapery; she fumbled for a pin and
repaired the injury; she smiled and listened to her account of her
adventures. Her attention, her sympathy were immediate and active; and they were in direct proportion to a sentiment with which
they were in no way connected—a lively conjecture as to whether
Lord Warburton might be trying to make love to her. It was not
simply his words just then; it was others as well; it was the reference
and the continuity. This was what she thought about while she
pinned up Pansy’s dress. If it were so, as she feared, he was of course
unwitting; he himself had not taken account of his intention. But
this made it none the more auspicious, made the situation none less
impossible. The sooner he should get back into right relations with
things the better. He immediately began to talk to Pansy—on whom
it was certainly mystifying to see that he dropped a smile of chastened devotion. Pansy replied, as usual, with a little air of conscientious aspiration; he had to bend toward her a good deal in
onversation, and her eyes, as usual, wandered up and down his ro528
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bust person as if he had offered it to her for exhibition. She always
seemed a little frightened; yet her fright was not of the painful character that suggests dislike; on the contrary, she looked as if she knew
that he knew she liked him. Isabel left them together a little and
wandered toward a friend whom she saw near and with whom she
talked till the music of the following dance began, for which she
knew Pansy to be also engaged. The girl joined her presently, with a
little fluttered flush, and Isabel, who scrupulously took Osmond’s
view of his daughter’s complete dependence, consigned her, as a
precious and momentary loan, to her appointed partner. About all
this matter she had her own imaginations, her own reserves; there
were moments when Pansy’s extreme adhesiveness made each of
them, to her sense, look foolish. But Osmond had given her a sort
of tableau of her position as his daughter’s duenna, which consisted
of gracious alternations of concession and contraction; and there
were directions of his which she liked to think she obeyed to the
letter. Perhaps, as regards some of them, it was because her doing so
appeared to reduce them to the absurd.
After Pansy had been led away, she found Lord Warburton drawing near her again. She rested her eyes on him steadily; she wished
she could sound his thoughts. But he had no appearance of confusion. “She has promised to dance with me later,” he said.
“I’m glad of that. I suppose you’ve engaged her for the cotillion.”
At this he looked a little awkward. “No, I didn’t ask her for that.
It’s a quadrille.”
“Ah, you’re not clever!” said Isabel almost angrily. “I told her to
keep the cotillion in case you should ask for it.”
“Poor little maid, fancy that!” And Lord Warburton laughed
frankly. “Of course I will if you like.”
“If I like? Oh, if you dance with her only because I like it—!”
“I’m afraid I bore her. She seems to have a lot of young fellows on
her book.”
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Isabel dropped her eyes, reflecting rapidly; Lord Warburton stood
there looking at her and she felt his eyes on her face. She felt much
inclined to ask him to remove them. She didn’t do so, however; she
only said to him, after a minute, with her own raised: “Please let me
understand.”
“Understand what?”
“You told me ten days ago that you’d like to marry my stepdaughter. You’ve not forgotten it!”
“Forgotten it? I wrote to Mr. Osmond about it this morning.”
“Ah,” said Isabel, “he didn’t mention to me that he had heard
from you.”
Lord Warburton stammered a little. “I—I didn’t send my letter.”
“Perhaps you forgot that.”
“No, I wasn’t satisfied with it. It’s an awkward sort of letter to
write, you know. But I shall send it to-night.”
“At three o’clock in the morning?”
“I mean later, in the course of the day.”
“Very good. You still wish then to marry her?”
“Very much indeed.”
“Aren’t you afraid that you’ll bore her?” And as her companion
stared at this enquiry Isabel added: “If she can’t dance with you for
half an hour how will she be able to dance with you for life?”
“Ah,” said Lord Warburton readily, “I’ll let her dance with other
people! About the cotillion, the fact is I thought that you—that
you—”
“That I would do it with you? I told you I’d do nothing.”
“Exactly; so that while it’s going on I might find some quiet corner where we may sit down and talk.”
“Oh,” said Isabel gravely, “you’re much too considerate of me.”
When the cotillion came Pansy was found to have engaged herself, thinking, in perfect humility, that Lord Warburton had no intentions. Isabel recommended him to seek another partner, but he
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assured her that he would dance with no one but herself. As, however, she had, in spite of the remonstrances of her hostess, declined
other invitations on the ground that she was not dancing at all, it
was not possible for her to make an exception in Lord Warburton’s
favour.
“After all I don’t care to dance,” he said; “it’s a barbarous amusement: I’d much rather talk.” And he intimated that he had discovered exactly the corner he had been looking for—a quiet nook in
one of the smaller rooms, where the music would come to them
faintly and not interfere with conversation. Isabel had decided to let
him carry out his idea; she wished to be satisfied. She wandered
away from the ball-room with him, though she knew her husband
desired she should not lose sight of his daughter. It was with his
daughter’s pretendant, however; that would make it right for
Osmond. On her way out of the ball-room she came upon Edward
Rosier, who was standing in a doorway, with folded arms, looking
at the dance in the attitude of a young man without illusions. She
stopped a moment and asked him if he were not dancing.
“Certainly not, if I can’t dance with her!” he answered.
“You had better go away then,” said Isabel with the manner of
good counsel.
“I shall not go till she does!” And he let Lord Warburton pass
without giving him a look.
This nobleman, however, had noticed the melancholy youth, and
he asked Isabel who her dismal friend was, remarking that he had
seen him somewhere before.
“It’s the young man I’ve told you about, who’s in love with Pansy.”
“Ah yes, I remember. He looks rather bad.”
“He has reason. My husband won’t listen to him.”
“What’s the matter with him?” Lord Warburton enquired. “He
seems very harmless.”
“He hasn’t money enough, and he isn’t very clever.”
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Lord Warburton listened with interest; he seemed struck with this
account of Edward Rosier. “Dear me; he looked a well-set-up young
fellow.”
“So he is, but my husband’s very particular.”
“Oh, I see.” And Lord Warburton paused a moment. “How much
money has he got?” he then ventured to ask.
“Some forty thousand francs a year.”
“Sixteen hundred pounds? Ah, but that’s very good, you know.”
“So I think. My husband, however, has larger ideas.”
“Yes; I’ve noticed that your husband has very large ideas. Is he
really an idiot, the young man?”
“An idiot? Not in the least; he’s charming. When he was twelve
years old I myself was in love with him.”
“He doesn’t look much more than twelve to-day,” Lord Warburton
rejoined vaguely, looking about him. Then with more point, “Don’t
you think we might sit here?” he asked.
“Wherever you please.” The room was a sort of boudoir, pervaded
by a subdued, rose-coloured light; a lady and gentleman moved out
of it as our friends came in. “It’s very kind of you to take such an
interest in Mr. Rosier,” Isabel said.
“He seems to me rather ill-treated. He had a face a yard long. I
wondered what ailed him.”
“You’re a just man,” said Isabel. “You’ve a kind thought even for a
rival.”
Lord Warburton suddenly turned with a stare. “A rival! Do you
call him my rival?”
“Surely—if you both wish to marry the same person.”
“Yes—but since he has no chance!”
“I like you, however that may be, for putting your self in his place.
It shows imagination.”
“You like me for it?” And Lord Warburton looked at her with an
uncertain eye. “I think you mean you’re laughing at me for it.”
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“Yes, I’m laughing at you a little. But I like you as somebody to
laugh at.”
“Ah well, then, let me enter into his situation a little more. What
do you suppose one could do for him?”
“Since I have been praising your imagination I’ll leave you to imagine that yourself,” Isabel said. “Pansy too would like you for that.”
“Miss Osmond? Ah, she, I flatter myself, likes me already.”
“Very much, I think.”
He waited a little; he was still questioning her face. “Well then, I
don’t understand you. You don’t mean that she cares for him?”
A quick blush sprang to his brow. “You told me she would have
no wish apart from her father’s, and as I’ve gathered that he would
favour me—!” He paused a little and then suggested “Don’t you
see?” through his blush.
“Yes, I told you she has an immense wish to please her father, and
that it would probably take her very far.”
“That seems to me a very proper feeling,” said Lord Warburton.
“Certainly; it’s a very proper feeling.” Isabel remained silent for
some moments; the room continued empty; the sound of the music
reached them with its richness softened by the interposing apartments. Then at last she said: “But it hardly strikes me as the sort of
feeling to which a man would wish to be indebted for a wife.”
“I don’t know; if the wife’s a good one and he thinks she does
well!”
“Yes, of course you must think that.”
“I do; I can’t help it. You call that very British, of course.”
“No, I don’t. I think Pansy would do wonderfully well to marry
you, and I don’t know who should know it better than you. But
you’re not in love.”
“Ah, yes I am, Mrs. Osmond!”
Isabel shook her head. “You like to think you are while you sit
here with me. But that’s not how you strike me.”
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“I’m not like the young man in the doorway. I admit that. But
what makes it so unnatural? Could any one in the world be more
loveable than Miss Osmond?”
“No one, possibly. But love has nothing to do with good reasons.”
“I don’t agree with you. I’m delighted to have good reasons.”
“Of course you are. If you were really in love you wouldn’t care a
straw for them.”
“Ah, really in love—really in love!” Lord Warburton exclaimed,
folding his arms, leaning back his head and stretching himself a
little. “You must remember that I’m forty-two years old. I won’t
pretend I’m as I once was.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” said Isabel, “it’s all right.”
He answered nothing; he sat there, with his head back, looking
before him. Abruptly, however, he changed his position; he turned
quickly to his friend. “Why are you so unwilling, so sceptical?” She
met his eyes, and for a moment they looked straight at each other. If
she wished to be satisfied she saw something that satisfied her; she
saw in his expression the gleam of an idea that she was uneasy on
her own account—that she was perhaps even in fear. It showed a
suspicion, not a hope, but such as it was it told her what she wanted
to know. Not for an instant should he suspect her of detecting in his
proposal of marrying her step-daughter an implication of increased
nearness to herself, or of thinking it, on such a betrayal, ominous.
In that brief, extremely personal gaze, however, deeper meanings
passed between them than they were conscious of at the moment.
“My dear Lord Warburton,” she said, smiling, “you may do, so far
as I’m concerned, whatever comes into your head.”
And with this she got up and wandered into the adjoining room,
where, within her companion’s view, she was immediately addressed
by a pair of gentlemen, high personages in the Roman world, who
met her as if they had been looking for her. While she talked with
them she found herself regretting she had moved; it looked a little
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like running away—all the more as Lord Warburton didn’t follow
her. She was glad of this, however, and at any rate she was satisfied.
She was so well satisfied that when, in passing back into the ballroom, she found Edward Rosier still planted in the doorway, she
stopped and spoke to him again. “You did right not to go away. I’ve
some comfort for you.”
“I need it,” the young man softly wailed, “when I see you so awfully thick with him!”
“Don’t speak of him; I’ll do what I can for you. I’m afraid it won’t
be much, but what I can I’ll do.”
He looked at her with gloomy obliqueness. “What has suddenly
brought you round?”
“The sense that you are an inconvenience in doorways!” she answered, smiling as she passed him. Half an hour later she took leave,
with Pansy, and at the foot of the staircase the two ladies, with many
other departing guests, waited a while for their carriage. Just as it
approached Lord Warburton came out of the house and assisted
them to reach their vehicle. He stood a moment at the door, asking
Pansy if she had amused herself; and she, having answered him, fell
back with a little air of fatigue. Then Isabel, at the window, detaining him by a movement of her finger, murmured gently: “Don’t
forget to send your letter to her father!”
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CHAPTER XLIV
The Countess Gemini was often extremely bored—bored, in her
own phrase, to extinction. She had not been extinguished, however,
and she struggled bravely enough with her destiny, which had been
to marry an unaccommodating Florentine who insisted upon living
in his native town, where he enjoyed such consideration as might
attach to a gentleman whose talent for losing at cards had not the
merit of being incidental to an obliging disposition. The Count
Gemini was not liked even by those who won from him; and he
bore a name which, having a measurable value in Florence, was, like
the local coin of the old Italian states, without currency in other
parts of the peninsula. In Rome he was simply a very dull Florentine,
and it is not remarkable that he should not have cared to pay frequent visits to a place where, to carry it off, his dulness needed more
explanation than was convenient. The Countess lived with her eyes
upon Rome, and it was the constant grievance of her life that she
had not an habitation there. She was ashamed to say how seldom
she had been allowed to visit that city; it scarcely made the matter
better that there were other members of the Florentine nobility who
never had been there at all. She went whenever she could; that was
all she could say. Or rather not all, but all she said she could say. In
fact she had much more to say about it, and had often set forth the
reasons why she hated Florence and wished to end her days in the
shadow of Saint Peter’s. They are reasons, however, that do not closely
concern us, and were usually summed up in the declaration that
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Rome, in short, was the Eternal City and that Florence was simply
a pretty little place like any other. The Countess apparently needed
to connect the idea of eternity with her amusements. She was convinced that society was infinitely more interesting in Rome, where
you met celebrities all winter at evening parties. At Florence there
were no celebrities; none at least that one had heard of. Since her
brother’s marriage her impatience had greatly increased; she was so
sure his wife had a more brilliant life than herself. She was not so
intellectual as Isabel, but she was intellectual enough to do justice
to Rome—not to the ruins and the catacombs, not even perhaps to
the monuments and museums, the church ceremonies and the scenery; but certainly to all the rest. She heard a great deal about her
sister-in-law and knew perfectly that Isabel was having a beautiful
time. She had indeed seen it for herself on the only occasion on
which she had enjoyed the hospitality of Palazzo Roccanera. She
had spent a week there during the first winter of her brother’s marriage, but she had not been encouraged to renew this satisfaction.
Osmond didn’t want her—that she was perfectly aware of; but she
would have gone all the same, for after all she didn’t care two straws
about Osmond. It was her husband who wouldn’t let her, and the
money question was always a trouble. Isabel had been very nice; the
Countess, who had liked her sister-in-law from the first, had not
been blinded by envy to Isabel’s personal merits. She had always
observed that she got on better with clever women than with silly
ones like herself; the silly ones could never understand her wisdom,
whereas the clever ones—the really clever ones—always understood
her silliness. It appeared to her that, different as they were in appearance and general style, Isabel and she had somewhere a patch of
common ground that they would set their feet upon at last. It was
not very large, but it was firm, and they should both know it when
once they had really touched it. And then she lived, with Mrs.
Osmond, under the influence of a pleasant surprise; she was con537
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stantly expecting that Isabel would “look down” on her, and she as
constantly saw this operation postponed. She asked herself when it
would begin, like fire-works, or Lent, or the opera season; not that
she cared much, but she wondered what kept it in abeyance. Her
sister-in-law regarded her with none but level glances and expressed
for the poor Countess as little contempt as admiration. In reality
Isabel would as soon have thought of despising her as of passing a
moral judgement on a grasshopper. She was not indifferent to her
husband’s sister, however; she was rather a little afraid of her. She
wondered at her; she thought her very extraordinary. The Countess
seemed to her to have no soul; she was like a bright rare shell, with
a polished surface and a remarkably pink lip, in which something
would rattle when you shook it. This rattle was apparently the
Countess’s spiritual principle, a little loose nut that tumbled about
inside of her. She was too odd for disdain, too anomalous for comparisons. Isabel would have invited her again (there was no question of inviting the Count); but Osmond, after his marriage, had
not scrupled to say frankly that Amy was a fool of the worst species
—a fool whose folly had the irrepressibility of genius. He said at
another time that she had no heart; and he added in a moment that
she had given it all away—in small pieces, like a frosted weddingcake. The fact of not having been asked was of course another obstacle to the Countess’s going again to Rome; but at the period with
which this history has now to deal she was in receipt of an invitation to spend several weeks at Palazzo Roccanera. The proposal had
come from Osmond himself, who wrote to his sister that she must
be prepared to be very quiet. Whether or no she found in this phrase
all the meaning he had put into it I am unable to say; but she accepted the invitation on any terms. She was curious, moreover; for
one of the impressions of her former visit had been that her brother
had found his match. Before the marriage she had been sorry for
Isabel, so sorry as to have had serious thoughts—if any of the Countess’s
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thoughts were serious—of putting her on her guard. But she had let
that pass, and after a little she was reassured. Osmond was as lofty as
ever, but his wife would not be an easy victim. The Countess was not
very exact at measurements, but it seemed to her that if Isabel should
draw herself up she would be the taller spirit of the two. What she
wanted to learn now was whether Isabel had drawn herself up; it
would give her immense pleasure to see Osmond overtopped.
Several days before she was to start for Rome a servant brought
her the card of a visitor—a card with the simple superscription
“Henrietta C. Stackpole.” The Countess pressed her finger-tips to
her forehead; she didn’t remember to have known any such Henrietta
as that. The servant then remarked that the lady had requested him
to say that if the Countess should not recognise her name she would
know her well enough on seeing her. By the time she appeared before her visitor she had in fact reminded herself that there was once
a literary lady at Mrs. Touchett’s; the only woman of letters she had
ever encountered—that is the only modern one, since she was the
daughter of a defunct poetess. She recognised Miss Stackpole immediately, the more so that Miss Stackpole seemed perfectly unchanged; and the Countess, who was thoroughly good-natured,
thought it rather fine to be called on by a person of that sort of
distinction. She wondered if Miss Stackpole had come on account
of her mother—whether she had heard of the American Corinne.
Her mother was not at all like Isabel’s friend; the Countess could
see at a glance that this lady was much more contemporary; and she
received an impression of the improvements that were taking place—
chiefly in distant countries—in the character (the professional character) of literary ladies. Her mother had been used to wear a Roman
scarf thrown over a pair of shoulders timorously bared of their tight
black velvet (oh the old clothes!) and a gold laurel-wreath set upon
a multitude of glossy ringlets. She had spoken softly and vaguely,
with the accent of her “Creole” ancestors, as she always confessed;
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she sighed a great deal and was not at all enterprising. But Henrietta,
the Countess could see, was always closely buttoned and compactly
braided; there was something brisk and business-like in her appearance; her manner was almost conscientiously familiar. It was as impossible to imagine her ever vaguely sighing as to imagine a letter
posted without its address. The Countess could not but feel that the
correspondent of the Interviewer was much more in the movement
than the American Corinne. She explained that she had called on
the Countess because she was the only person she knew in Florence,
and that when she visited a foreign city she liked to see something
more than superficial travellers. She knew Mrs. Touchett, but Mrs.
Touchett was in America, and even if she had been in Florence
Henrietta would not have put herself out for her, since Mrs. Touchett
was not one of her admirations.
“Do you mean by that that I am?” the Countess graciously asked.
“Well, I like you better than I do her,” said Miss Stackpole. “I
seem to remember that when I saw you before you were very interesting. I don’t know whether it was an accident or whether it’s your
usual style. At any rate I was a good deal struck with what you said.
I made use of it afterwards in print.”
“Dear me!” cried the Countess, staring and half-alarmed; “I had
no idea I ever said anything remarkable! I wish I had known it at the
time.”
“It was about the position of woman in this city,” Miss Stackpole remarked. “You threw a good deal of light upon it.”
“The position of woman’s very uncomfortable. Is that what you
mean? And you wrote it down and published it?” the Countess went
on. “Ah, do let me see it!”
“I’ll write to them to send you the paper if you like,” Henrietta
said. “I didn’t mention your name; I only said a lady of high rank.
And then I quoted your views.”
The Countess threw herself hastily backward, tossing up her
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clasped hands. “Do you know I’m rather sorry you didn’t mention
my name? I should have rather liked to see my name in the papers.
I forget what my views were; I have so many! But I’m not ashamed
of them. I’m not at all like my brother—I suppose you know my
brother? He thinks it a kind of scandal to be put in the papers; if
you were to quote him he’d never forgive you.”
“He needn’t be afraid; I shall never refer to him,” said Miss
Stackpole with bland dryness. “That’s another reason,” she added,
“why I wanted to come to see you. You know Mr. Osmond married
my dearest friend.”
“Ah, yes; you were a friend of Isabel’s. I was trying to think what I
knew about you.”
“I’m quite willing to be known by that,” Henrietta declared. “But
that isn’t what your brother likes to know me by. He has tried to
break up my relations with Isabel.”
“Don’t permit it,” said the Countess.
“That’s what I want to talk about. I’m going to Rome.”
“So am I!” the Countess cried. “We’ll go together.”
“With great pleasure. And when I write about my journey I’ll
mention you by name as my companion.”
The Countess sprang from her chair and came and sat on the sofa
beside her visitor. “Ah, you must send me the paper! My husband
won’t like it, but he need never see it. Besides, he doesn’t know how
to read.”
Henrietta’s large eyes became immense. “Doesn’t know how to
read? May I put that into my letter?”
“Into your letter?”
“In the Interviewer. That’s my paper.”
“Oh yes, if you like; with his name. Are you going to stay with
Isabel?”
Henrietta held up her head, gazing a little in silence at her hostess.
“She has not asked me. I wrote to her I was coming, and she an541
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swered that she would engage a room for me at a pension. She gave
no reason.”
The Countess listened with extreme interest. “The reason’s
Osmond,” she pregnantly remarked.
“Isabel ought to make a stand,” said Miss Stackpole. “I’m afraid
she has changed a great deal. I told her she would.”
“I’m sorry to hear it; I hoped she would have her own way. Why
doesn’t my brother like you?” the Countess ingenuously added.
“I don’t know and I don’t care. He’s perfectly welcome not to like
me; I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself
if some people did. A journalist can’t hope to do much good unless
he gets a good deal hated; that’s the way he knows how his work
goes on. And it’s just the same for a lady. But I didn’t expect it of
Isabel.”
“Do you mean that she hates you?” the Countess enquired.
“I don’t know; I want to see. That’s what I’m going to Rome for.”
“Dear me, what a tiresome errand!” the Countess exclaimed.
“She doesn’t write to me in the same way; it’s easy to see there’s a
difference. If you know anything,” Miss Stackpole went on, “I should
like to hear it beforehand, so as to decide on the line I shall take.”
The Countess thrust out her under lip and gave a gradual shrug.
“I know very little; I see and hear very little of Osmond. He doesn’t
like me any better than he appears to like you.”
“Yet you’re not a lady correspondent,” said Henrietta pensively.
“Oh, he has plenty of reasons. Nevertheless they’ve invited me—
I’m to stay in the house!” And the Countess smiled almost fiercely;
her exultation, for the moment, took little account of Miss Stackpole’s
disappointment.
This lady, however, regarded it very placidly. “I shouldn’t have
gone if she had asked me. That is I think I shouldn’t; and I’m glad I
hadn’t to make up my mind. It would have been a very difficult
question. I shouldn’t have liked to turn away from her, and yet I
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shouldn’t have been happy under her roof. A pension will suit me
very well. But that’s not all.”
“Rome’s very good just now,” said the Countess; “there are all
sorts of brilliant people. Did you ever hear of Lord Warburton?”
“Hear of him? I know him very well. Do you consider him very
brilliant?” Henrietta enquired.
“I don’t know him, but I’m told he’s extremely grand seigneur.
He’s making love to Isabel.”
“Making love to her?”
“So I’m told; I don’t know the details,” said the Countess lightly.
“But Isabel’s pretty safe.”
Henrietta gazed earnestly at her companion; for a moment she
said nothing. “When do you go to Rome?” she enquired abruptly.
“Not for a week, I’m afraid.”
“I shall go to-morrow,” Henrietta said. “I think I had better not wait.”
“Dear me, I’m sorry; I ‘m having some dresses made. I’m told
Isabel receives immensely. But I shall see you there; I shall call on
you at your pension.” Henrietta sat still—she was lost in thought;
and suddenly the Countess cried: “Ah, but if you don’t go with me
you can’t describe our journey!”
Miss Stackpole seemed unmoved by this consideration; she was
thinking of something else and presently expressed it. “I’m not sure
that I understand you about Lord Warburton.”
“Understand me? I mean he’s very nice, that’s all.”
“Do you consider it nice to make love to married women?”
Henrietta enquired with unprecedented distinctness.
The Countess stared, and then with a little violent laugh: “It’s
certain all the nice men do it. Get married and you’ll see!” she added.
“That idea would be enough to prevent me,” said Miss Stackpole.
“I should want my own husband; I shouldn’t want any one else’s.
Do you mean that Isabel’s guilty—guilty—?” And she paused a little,
choosing her expression.
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“Do I mean she’s guilty? Oh dear no, not yet, I hope. I only mean
that Osmond’s very tiresome and that Lord Warburton, as I hear, is
a great deal at the house. I’m afraid you’re scandalised.”
“No, I’m just anxious,” Henrietta said.
“Ah, you’re not very complimentary to Isabel! You should have
more confidence. I’ll tell you,” the Countess added quickly: “if it
will be a comfort to you I engage to draw him off.”
Miss Stackpole answered at first only with the deeper solemnity
of her gaze. “You don’t understand me,” she said after a while. “I
haven’t the idea you seem to suppose. I’m not afraid for Isabel—in
that way. I’m only afraid she’s unhappy—that’s what I want to get
at.”
The Countess gave a dozen turns of the head; she looked impatient and sarcastic. “That may very well be; for my part I should like
to know whether Osmond is.” Miss Stackpole had begun a little to
bore her.
“If she’s really changed that must be at the bottom of it,” Henrietta
went on.
“You’ll see; she’ll tell you,” said the Countess.
“Ah, she may not tell me—that’s what I’m afraid of!”
“Well, if Osmond isn’t amusing himself—in his own old way—I
flatter myself I shall discover it,” the Countess rejoined.
“I don’t care for that,” said Henrietta.
“I do immensely! If Isabel’s unhappy I’m very sorry for her, but I
can’t help it. I might tell her something that would make her worse,
but I can’t tell her anything that would console her. What did she go
and marry him for? If she had listened to me she’d have got rid of
him. I’ll forgive her, however, if I find she has made things hot for
him! If she has simply allowed him to trample upon her I don’t know
that I shall even pity her. But I don’t think that’s very likely. I count
upon finding that if she’s miserable she has at least made him so.”
Henrietta got up; these seemed to her, naturally, very dreadful
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expectations. She honestly believed she had no desire to see Mr.
Osmond unhappy; and indeed he could not be for her the subject
of a flight of fancy. She was on the whole rather disappointed in the
Countess, whose mind moved in a narrower circle than she had
imagined, though with a capacity for coarseness even there. “It will
be better if they love each other,” she said for edification.
“They can’t. He can’t love any one.”
“I presumed that was the case. But it only aggravates my fear for
Isabel. I shall positively start to-morrow.”
“Isabel certainly has devotees,” said the Countess, smiling very
vividly. “I declare I don’t pity her.”
“It may be I can’t assist her,” Miss Stackpole pursued, as if it were
well not to have illusions.
“You can have wanted to, at any rate; that’s something. I believe
that’s what you came from America for,” the Countess suddenly
added.
“Yes, I wanted to look after her,” Henrietta said serenely.
Her hostess stood there smiling at her with small bright eyes and
an eager-looking nose; with cheeks into each of which a flush had
come. “Ah, that’s very pretty c’est bien gentil! Isn’t it what they call
friendship?”
“I don’t know what they call it. I thought I had better come.”
“She’s very happy—she’s very fortunate,” the Countess went on.
“She has others besides.” And then she broke out passionately. “She’s
more fortunate than I! I’m as unhappy as she—I’ve a very bad husband; he’s a great deal worse than Osmond. And I’ve no friends. I
thought I had, but they’re gone. No one, man or woman, would do
for me what you’ve done for her.”
Henrietta was touched; there was nature in this bitter effusion.
She gazed at her companion a moment, and then: “Look here,
Countess, I’ll do anything for you that you like. I’ll wait over and
travel with you.”
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“Never mind,” the Countess answered with a quick change of
tone: “only describe me in the newspaper!”
Henrietta, before leaving her, however, was obliged to make her
understand that she could give no fictitious representation of her
journey to Rome. Miss Stackpole was a strictly veracious reporter.
On quitting her she took the way to the Lung’ Arno, the sunny
quay beside the yellow river where the bright-faced inns familiar to
tourists stand all in a row. She had learned her way before this through
the streets of Florence (she was very quick in such matters), and was
therefore able to turn with great decision of step out of the little
square which forms the approach to the bridge of the Holy Trinity.
She proceeded to the left, toward the Ponte Vecchio, and stopped in
front of one of the hotels which overlook that delightful structure.
Here she drew forth a small pocket-book, took from it a card and a
pencil and, after meditating a moment, wrote a few words. It is our
privilege to look over her shoulder, and if we exercise it we may read
the brief query: “Could I see you this evening for a few moments on
a very important matter?” Henrietta added that she should start on
the morrow for Rome. Armed with this little document she approached the porter, who now had taken up his station in the doorway, and asked if Mr. Goodwood were at home. The porter replied,
as porters always reply, that he had gone out about twenty minutes
before; whereupon Henrietta presented her card and begged it might
be handed him on his return. She left the inn and pursued her course
along the quay to the severe portico of the Uffizi, through which
she presently reached the entrance of the famous gallery of paintings. Making her way in, she ascended the high staircase which leads
to the upper chambers. The long corridor, glazed on one side and
decorated with antique busts, which gives admission to these apartments, presented an empty vista in which the bright winter light
twinkled upon the marble floor. The gallery is very cold and during
the midwinter weeks but scantily visited. Miss Stackpole may ap546
Henry James
pear more ardent in her quest of artistic beauty than she has hitherto struck us as being, but she had after all her preferences and
admirations. One of the latter was the little Correggio of the Tribune—the Virgin kneeling down before the sacred infant, who lies
in a litter of straw, and clapping her hands to him while he delightedly laughs and crows. Henrietta had a special devotion to this intimate scene—she thought it the most beautiful picture in the world.
On her way, at present, from New York to Rome, she was spending
but three days in Florence, and yet reminded herself that they must
not elapse without her paying another visit to her favourite work of
art. She had a great sense of beauty in all ways, and it involved a
good many intellectual obligations. She was about to turn into the
Tribune when a gentleman came out of it; whereupon she gave a
little exclamation and stood before Caspar Goodwood.
“I’ve just been at your hotel,” she said. “I left a card for you.”
“I’m very much honoured,” Caspar Goodwood answered as if he
really meant it.
“It was not to honour you I did it; I’ve called on you before and I
know you don’t like it. It was to talk to you a little about something.”
He looked for a moment at the buckle in her hat. “I shall be very
glad to hear what you wish to say.”
“You don’t like to talk with me,” said Henrietta. “But I don’t care
for that; I don’t talk for your amusement. I wrote a word to ask you
to come and see me; but since I’ve met you here this will do as well.”
“I was just going away,” Goodwood stated; “but of course I’ll stop.”
He was civil, but not enthusiastic.
Henrietta, however, never looked for great professions, and she
was so much in earnest that she was thankful he would listen to her
on any terms. She asked him first, none the less, if he had seen all
the pictures.
“All I want to. I’ve been here an hour.”
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“I wonder if you’ve seen my Correggio,” said Henrietta. “I came
up on purpose to have a look at it.” She went into the Tribune and
he slowly accompanied her.
“I suppose I’ve seen it, but I didn’t know it was yours. I don’t
remember pictures—especially that sort.” She had pointed out her
favourite work, and he asked her if it was about Correggio she wished
to talk with him.
“No,” said Henrietta, “it’s about something less harmonious!” They
had the small, brilliant room, a splendid cabinet of treasures, to
themselves; there was only a custode hovering about the Medicean
Venus. “I want you to do me a favour,” Miss Stackpole went on.
Caspar Goodwood frowned a little, but he expressed no embarrassment at the sense of not looking eager. His face was that of a
much older man than our earlier friend. “I’m sure it’s something I
shan’t like,” he said rather loudly.
“No, I don’t think you’ll like it. If you did it would be no favour.”
“Well, let’s hear it,” he went on in the tone of a man quite conscious of his patience.
“You may say there’s no particular reason why you should do me
a favour. Indeed I only know of one: the fact that if you’d let me I’d
gladly do you one.” Her soft, exact tone, in which there was no
attempt at effect, had an extreme sincerity; and her companion,
though he presented rather a hard surface, couldn’t help being
touched by it. When he was touched he rarely showed it, however,
by the usual signs; he neither blushed, nor looked away, nor looked
conscious. He only fixed his attention more directly; he seemed to
consider with added firmness. Henrietta continued therefore disinterestedly, without the sense of an advantage. “I may say now, indeed—it seems a good time—that if I’ve ever annoyed you (and I
think sometimes I have) it’s because I knew I was willing to suffer
annoyance for you. I’ve troubled you—doubtless. But Is’d take
trouble for you.”
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Goodwood hesitated. “You’re taking trouble now.”
“Yes, I am—some. I want you to consider whether it’s better on
the whole that you should go to Rome.”
“I thought you were going to say that!” he answered rather artlessly.
“You have considered it then?”
“Of course I have, very carefully. I’ve looked all round it. Otherwise I shouldn’t have come so far as this. That’s what I stayed in
Paris two months for. I was thinking it over.”
“I’m afraid you decided as you liked. You decided it was best because you were so much attracted.”
“Best for whom, do you mean?” Goodwood demanded.
“Well, for yourself first. For Mrs. Osmond next.”
“Oh, it won’t do her any good! I don’t flatter myself that.”
“Won’t it do her some harm?—that’s the question.”
“I don’t see what it will matter to her. I’m nothing to Mrs. Osmond.
But if you want to know, I do want to see her myself.”
“Yes, and that’s why you go.”
“Of course it is. Could there be a better reason?”
“How will it help you?—that’s what I want to know,” said Miss
Stackpole.
“That’s just what I can’t tell you. It’s just what I was thinking
about in Paris.”
“It will make you more discontented.”
“Why do you say ‘more’ so?” Goodwood asked rather sternly. “How
do you know I’m discontented?”
“Well,” said Henrietta, hesitating a little, “you seem never to have
cared for another.”
“How do you know what I care for?” he cried with a big blush.
“Just now I care to go to Rome.”
Henrietta looked at him in silence, with a sad yet luminous expression. “Well,” she observed at last, “I only wanted to tell you
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what I think; I had it on my mind. Of course you think it’s none of
my business. But nothing is any one’s business, on that principle.”
“It’s very kind of you; I’m greatly obliged to you for your interest,” said Caspar Goodwood. “I shall go to Rome and I shan’t hurt
Mrs. Osmond.”
“You won’t hurt her, perhaps. But will you help her?—that’s the
real issue.”
“Is she in need of help?” he asked slowly, with a penetrating look.
“Most women always are,” said Henrietta, with conscientious evasiveness and generalising less hopefully than usual. “If you go to
Rome,” she added, “I hope you’ll be a true friend—snot a selfish
one!” And she turned off and began to look at the pictures.
Caspar Goodwood let her go and stood watching her while she
wandered round the room; but after a moment he rejoined her.
“You’ve heard something about her here,” he then resumed. “I should
like to know what you’ve heard.”
Henrietta had never p