Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
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 had been, 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 house which presented a narrowness of new brown stone to Fifty-third Street, she had quite justified her claim to matrimony. She was short and plump, and, as people said, had improved since her marriage; 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 have never felt like Isabel’s sister, and I am sure I never shall,” she had said to an intimate friend; a declaration which made it all the more creditable that she had been prolific in sisterly offices.
“I want to see her safely married—that’s what I want to see,” she frequently remarked 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 have against her, except that she is so original.”
“Well, I don’t like originals; I like translations,” Mr. Ludlow had more than once replied. “Isabel is 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 am afraid she will do!” cried Lilian, who thought Isabel capable of anything.
She listened with great interest to the girl’s account of Mrs. Touchett’s visit, and in the evening prepared to comply with her commands.
Of what Isabel said to her no report has remained, but her sister’s words must have prompted a remark that she made to her husband in the conjugal chamber as the two were getting ready to go to the hotel.
“I do hope immensely she will 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 is evidently just the sort of person to appreciate Isabel. She has lived so much in foreign society; she told Isabel all about it. You know you have 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?” her husband asked.
“She has offered to take her—she is 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 am sure that all we have got to do,” said Mrs. Ludlow, “is to give her a chance!”
“A chance for what?”
“A chance to develop.”
“O Jupiter!” 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 am sure I don’t care whether you do or not!” exclaimed the girl, whose voice and smile, however, were sweeter than the words she uttered.
“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 am sure there is no harm,” said the conciliatory Lily.
“Ah, but there is nothing in Mrs. Touchett’s visit to make one feel grand.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Ludlow, “she is 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 busy; busy, I mean, with her thoughts. Left to herself for the evening, she sat awhile under the lamp, with empty hands, heedless of her usual avocations. 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 excited; at moments she trembled a little. She felt that something had happened to her of which the importance 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 Isabel was in a situation which 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 to take a nap. On the contrary, it was because she felt too wide-awake, and wished to check the sense of seeing too many things at once. Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; if the door were not opened to it, 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 judgment 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 girl—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 disagreeable. It appeared to Isabel that the disagreeable 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 good fortune to have been his daughter; Isabel was even proud of her parentage. Since his death she had gathered a vague impression that he turned his brighter side to his children, and that he had not eluded discomfort quite so much in practice as in aspiration. But this only made her tenderness for him greater; it was scarcely even painful to have to think that he was too generous, too good-natured, too indifferent to sordid considerations. Many persons thought 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 admitted that the late Mr. Archer had a remarkably handsome head and a very taking manner (indeed, as one of them had said, he was always taking something), they declared that he had made 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 strange schools kept by foreigners, 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 abundant. Even when her father had left his daughters for three months at Neufchâtel with a French bonne, who 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 picturesque 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 foreign lands; a course which had whetted our heroine’s curiosity without enabling her to satisfy it. She ought to have been a partisan of her father, for among his three daughters she was quite his favourite, and 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 was 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 choregraphic circle; her sister Edith was, as every one said, so very much more popular. Edith was so striking an example of success that Isabel could have no illusions as to what constituted this advantage, or as to the moderate character of her own triumphs. Nineteen persons out of twenty (including the younger sister herself) pronounced Edith infinitely the prettier of the two; but the twentieth, besides reversing this judgment, had the entertainment of thinking all the others a parcel of fools. 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 excellent, to abstain from quotation. 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 heart 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 to which she had often gone so far as to forgive 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 the local youth had never gone the length of making her a social proscript; for the proportion of those whose hearts, as they approached her, beat only just fast enough to make it a sensible pleasure was sufficient to redeem her maidenly career from failure. She had had everything that a girl could have: kindness, admiration, flattery, bouquets, the sense of exclusion from none of the privileges of the world she lived in, abundant opportunity for dancing, the latest publications, plenty of new dresses, the London Spectator, and a glimpse of contemporary æsthetics.
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 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 Isabel, and he had lately written to her from New York. She had thought it very possible he would come in—had, indeed, all the rainy day been vaguely expecting him. Nevertheless, now that she learned he was there, she felt no eagerness to receive him. He was the finest young man she had ever seen, was, indeed, quite a magnificent young man; he filled her with a certain feeling of respect which she had never entertained for any one else. 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 traveled 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 capital. Isabel delayed for some minutes to go to him; she moved about the room with a certain feeling of embarrassment. 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 especially good looking, but his physiognomy had an air of requesting your attention, which it rewarded or not, according to the charm you found in a blue eye of remarkable fixedness and a jaw of the somewhat angular mould, which is supposed to bespeak of resolution. Isabel said to herself that it bespoke resolution to-night; but, nevertheless, an hour later, 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, however, a man to be discouraged by a defeat.