Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
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 that she had a book is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilising quality and her imagination was strong. There was at this time, however, a want of lightness in her situation, which the arrival of an unexpected visitor did much to dispel. The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard her at last walking about the adjoining room. It was an old house at Albany—a large, square, double house, with a notice of sale in the windows of the parlour. 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 sidelights, 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, more sociable; 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 highly-valued pleasure) almost unbounded. There was a constant coming and going; her grandmother’s sons and daughters, and their children, appeared to be in the enjoyment of standing invitations to stay with her, 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 dwelling picturesque. 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 certain capital peach-trees. Isabel had stayed with her grandmother at various seasons; but, somehow, all her visits had a flavour of peaches. On the other side, opposite, 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 in a amateurish manner by a demonstrative lady, of whom Isabel’s chief recollection was that her hair was puffed out very much 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 expressed great disgust with the place, 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 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, or 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 was fastened 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 joyless chamber it contained. She had never opened the bolted door nor removed the green paper (renewed by other hands) from its side-lights; she had never assured herself that the vulgar street lay beyond it. A crude, cold rain was falling heavily; the spring-time presented itself as a questionable improvement. Isabel, however gave as little attention as possible to the incongruities of the season; she kept her eyes on her book and 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 manœuvres, 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 walking about the library, which communicated with the office. It struck her first as the step of a person from whom she had reason to expect 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 sharp, but not an unpleasant, face.
“Oh,” she said, “is that where you usually sit?” And 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, and the visitor continued to look about her. “You seem to have plenty of other rooms; they are in rather better condition. But everything is 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 is no matter.” And then, while the girl stood there, hesitating and wondering, this unexpected critic said to her abruptly, “I suppose you are one of the daughters?”
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 you father told you to call me? I am your Aunt Lydia, but I am not crazy. And which of the daughters are you?”
“I am the youngest of the three, and my name is Isabel.”
“Yes; the others are Lilian and Edith. And are you the prettiest?”
“I have not 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 quarreled, years before, with her brother-in-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 she 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 inquire into the condition of her nieces. There was no need of writing, for she should attach no importance to any account of them that 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 during Mr. Archer’s illness, were remaining there for the present, and, as well as Isabel herself, occupying the mansion.
“How much money do you expect to get for it?” Mrs. Touchett asked of the girl, 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 am 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. In point of fact, what have you inherited?”
“I really can’t tell you. You must ask Edmund and Lilian; they will be back in half-an-hour.”
“In Florence we should call it a very bad house,” said Mrs. Touchett; “but here, I suspect, 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 is of value, and they will 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 am 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,” said the girl, rather strangely. “I like places in which things have happened—even if they are 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 have 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 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 will be very good, and do everything I tell you, I will take you there,” Mrs. Touchett rejoined.
The girl’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 young lady of that sort. You are 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 would 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 person. 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 disagreeable. To her imagination the term had always suggested something grotesque and inharmonious. But her aunt infused a new vividness into the idea, and gave her so many fresh impressions that it seemed to her she had over-estimated the charms of conformity. She had never met any one so entertaining 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 European courts. There was nothing flighty about Mrs. Touchett, but she was fond of social grandeur, and she 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 they were, struck her as deeply interesting. 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,” she said. “Is she accustomed to staying out for hours?”
“You have been out almost as long as she,” Isabel answered; “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 to her niece.
“Perhaps she has not 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.”