Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter LI

Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter LI

THE COUNTESS was not banished, but she felt the insecurity of her tenure of her brother’s hospitality. A week after this incident Isabel received a telegram from England, dated from Gardencourt, and bearing the stamp of Mrs. Touchett’s authorship. “Ralph cannot last many days,” it ran, “and if convenient would like to see you. Wishes me to say that you must come only if you have not other duties. Say, for myself, that you used to talk a good deal about your duty and to wonder what it was; shall be curious to see whether you have found it out. Ralph is dying, and there is no other company.” Isabel was prepared for this news, having received from Henrietta Stackpole a detailed account of her journey to England with her appreciative patient.

Ralph had arrived more dead than alive, but she had managed to convey him to Gardencourt, where he had taken to his bed, which, as Miss Stackpole wrote, he evidently would never leave again. “I like him much better sick than when he used to be well,” said Henrietta, who, it will be remembered, had taken a few years before a sceptical view of Ralph’s disabilities. She added that she had really had two patients on her hands instead of one, for that Mr. Goodwood, who had been of no earthly use, was quite as sick, in a different way, as Mr. Touchett. Afterwards she wrote that she had been obliged to surrender the field to Mrs. Touchett, who had just returned from America, and had promptly given her to understand that she didn’t wish any interviewing at Gardencourt. Isabel had written to her aunt shortly after Ralph came to Rome, letting her know of his critical condition, and suggesting that she should lose no time in returning to Europe. Mrs. Touchett had telegraphed an acknowledgment of this admonition, and the only further news Isabel received from her was the second telegram which I have just quoted.

Isabel stood a moment looking at the latter missive, then, thrusting it into her pocket, she went straight to the door of her husband’s study. Here she again paused an instant, after which she opened the door and went in. Osmond was seated at the table near the window with a folio volume before him, propped against a pile of books. This volume was open at a page of small coloured plates, and Isabel presently saw that he had been copying from it the drawing of an antique coin. A box of water-colours and fine brushes lay before him, and he had already transferred to a sheet of immaculate paper the delicate, finely-tinted disk. His back was turned toward the door, but without looking round he recognised his wife.

“Excuse me for disturbing you,” she said.

“When I come to your room I always knock,” he answered, going on with his work.

“I forgot; I had something else to think of. My cousin is dying.”

“Ah, I don’t believe that,” said Osmond, looking at his drawing through a magnifying glass. “He was dying when we married; he will outlive us all.”

Isabel gave herself no time, no thought, to appreciate the careful cynicism of this declaration; she simply went on quickly, full of her own intention—

“My aunt has telegraphed for me; I must go to Gardencourt.”

“Why must you go to Gardencourt?” Osmond asked, in the tone of impartial curiosity.

“To see Ralph before he dies.”

To this, for some time, Osmond made no rejoinder; he continued to give his chief attention to his work, which was of a sort that would brook no negligence.

“I don’t see the need of it,” he said at last. “He came to see you here. I didn’t like that; I thought his being in Rome a great mistake. But I tolerated it, because it was to be the last time you should see him. Now you tell me it is not to have been the last. Ah, you are not grateful!”

“What am I to be grateful for?”

Gilbert Osmond laid down his little implements, blew a speck of dust from his drawing, slowly got up, and for the first time looked at his wife.

“For my not having interfered while he was here.”

“Oh yes, I am. I remember perfectly how distinctly you let me know you didn’t like it. I was very glad when he went away.”

“Leave him alone then. Don’t run after him.”

Isabel turned her eyes away from him; they rested upon his little drawing.

“I must go to England,” she said, with a full consciousness that her tone might strike an irritable man of taste as stupidly obstinate.

“I shall not like it if you do,” Osmond remarked.

“Why should I mind that? You won’t like it if I don’t. You like nothing I do or don’t do. You pretend to think I lie.”

Osmond turned slightly pale; he gave a cold smile.

“That’s why you must go then? Not to see your cousin, but to take a revenge on me.”

“I know nothing about revenge.”

“I do,” said Osmond. “Don’t give me an occasion.”

“You are only too eager to take one. You wish immensely that I would commit some folly.”

“I shall be gratified then if you disobey me.”

“If I disobey you?” said Isabel, in a low tone, which had the effect of gentleness.

“Let it be clear. If you leave Rome to-day it will be a piece of the most deliberate, the most calculated, opposition.”

“How can you call it calculated? I received my aunt’s telegram but three minutes ago.”

“You calculate rapidly; it’s a great accomplishment. I don’t see why we should prolong our discussion; you know my wish.” And he stood there as if he expected to see her withdraw.

But she never moved; she couldn’t move, strange as it may seem; she still wished to justify herself; he had the power, in an extraordinary degree, of making her feel this need. There was something in her imagination that he could always appeal to against her judgment.

“You have no reason for such a wish,” said Isabel, “and I have every reason for going. I can’t tell you how unjust you seem to me. But I think you know. It is your own opposition that is calculated. It is malignant.”

She had never uttered her worst thought to her husband before, and the sensation of hearing it was evidently new to Osmond. But he showed no surprise, and his coolness was apparently a proof that he had believed his wife would in fact be unable to resist for ever his ingenious endeavour to draw her out.

“It is all the more intense, then,” he answered. And he added, almost as if he were giving her a friendly counsel—“This is a very important matter.” She recognised this; she was fully conscious of the weight of the occasion; she knew that between them they had arrived at a crisis. Its gravity made her careful; she said nothing, and he went on. “You say I have no reason? I have the very best. I dislike, from the bottom of my soul, what you intend to do. It’s dishonourable; it’s indelicate; it’s indecent. Your cousin is nothing whatever to me, and I am under no obligation to make concessions to him. I have already made the very handsomest. Your relations with him, while he was here, kept me on pins and needles; but I let that pass, because from week to week I expected him to go. I have never liked him and he has never liked me. That’s why you like him—because he hates me,” said Osmond, with a quick, barely audible tremor in his voice. “I have an ideal of what my wife should do and should not do. She should not travel across Europe alone, in defiance of my deepest desire, to sit at the bedside of other men. Your cousin is nothing to you; he is nothing to us. You smile most expressively when I talk about us; but I assure you that we, we, is all that I know. I take our marriage seriously; you appear to have found a way of not doing so. I am not aware that we are divorced or separated; for me we are indissolubly united. you are nearer to me than any human creature, and I am nearer to you. It may be a disagreeable proximity; it’s one, at any rate, of our own deliberate making. You don’t like to be reminded of that, I know; but I am perfectly willing, because—because—” And Osmond paused a moment, looking as if he had something to say which would be very much to the point. “Because I think we should accept the consequences of our actions, and what I value most in life is the honour of a thing!”

He spoke gravely and almost gently; the accent of sarcasm had dropped out of his tone. It had a gravity which checked his wife’s quick emotion; the resolution with which she had entered the room found itself caught in a mesh of fine threads. His last words were not a command, they constituted a kind of appeal; and though she felt that any expression of respect on Osmond’s part could only be a refinement of egotism, they represented something transcendent and absolute, like the sign of the cross or the flag of one’s country. He spoke in the name of something sacred and precious—the observance of a magnificent form. They were as perfectly apart in feeling as two disillusioned lovers had ever been; but they had never yet separated in act. Isabel had not changed; her old passion for justice still abode within her; and now, in the very thick of her sense of her husband’s blasphemous sophistry, it began to throb to a tune which for a moment promised him the victory. It came over her that in his wish to preserve appearances he was after all sincere, and that this, as far as it went, was a merit. Ten minutes before, she had felt all the joy of irreflective action—a joy to which she had so long been a stranger; but action had been suddenly changed to slow renunciation, transformed by the blight of her husband’s touch. If she must renounce, however, she would let him know that she was a victim rather than a dupe. “I know you are a master of the art of mockery,” she said. “How can you speak of an indissoluble union—how can you speak of your being contented? Where is our union when you accuse me of falsity? Where is your contentment when you have nothing but hideous suspicion in your heart?”

“It is in our living decently together, in spite of such drawbacks.”

“We don’t live decently together!” Isabel cried.

“Indeed we don’t, if you go to England.”

“That’s very little; that’s nothing. I might do much more.”

Osmond raised his eyebrows and even his shoulders a little; he had lived long enough in Italy to catch this trick. “Ah, if you have come to threaten me, I prefer my drawing,” he said, walking back to his table, where he took up the sheet of paper on which he had been working and stood a moment examining his work.

“I suppose that if I go you will not expect me to come back,” said Isabel.

He turned quickly round, and she could see that this movement at least was not studied. He looked at her a little, and then—” Are you out of your mind?” he inquired.

“How can it be anything but a rupture?” she went on; “especially if all you say is true?” She was unable to see how it could be anything but a rupture; she sincerely wished to know what else it might be.

Osmond sat down before his table. “I really can’t argue with you on the hypothesis of your defying me,” he said. And he took up one of his little brushes again.

Isabel lingered but a moment longer; long enough to embrace with her eye his whole deliberately indifferent, yet most expressive, figure; after which she quickly left the room. Her faculties, her energy, her passion, were all dispersed again; she felt as if a cold, dark mist had suddenly encompassed her. Osmond possessed in a supreme degree the art of eliciting one’s weakness.

On her way back to her room she found the Countess Gemini standing in the open doorway of a little parlour in which a small collection of heterogeneous books had been arranged. The Countess had an open volume in her hand; she appeared to have been glancing down a page which failed to strike her as interesting. At the sound of Isabel’s step she raised her head.

“Ah my dear,” she said, “you, who are so literary, do tell me some amusing book to read! Everything here is so fearfully edifying. Do you think this would do me any good?”

Isabel glanced at the title of the volume she held out, but without reading or understanding it. “I am afraid I can’t advise you. I have had bad news. My cousin, Ralph Touchett, is dying.”

The Countess threw down her book. “Ah, he was so nice! I am sorry for you,” she said.

“You would be sorrier still if you knew.”

“What is there to know? You look very badly,” the Countess added. “You must have been with Osmond.”

Half-an-hour before, Isabel would have listened very coldly to an intimation that she should ever feel a desire for the sympathy of her sister-in-law, and there can be no better proof of her present embarrassment than the fact that she almost clutched at this lady’s fluttering attention. “I have been with Osmond,” she said, while the Countess’s bright eyes glittered at her.

“I am sure he has been odious!” the Countess cried. “Did he say he was glad poor Mr. Touchett is dying?”

“He said it is impossible I should go to England.”

The Countess’s mind, when her interests were concerned, was agile; she already foresaw the extinction of any further brightness in her visit to Rome. Ralph Touchett would die, Isabel would go into mourning, and then there would be no more dinner-parties. Such a prospect produced for a moment in her countenance an expressive grimace; but this rapid, picturesque play of feature was her only tribute to disappointment. After all, she reflected, the game was almost played out; she had already overstayed her invitation. And she cared enough for Isabel’s trouble to forget her own, and she saw that Isabel’s trouble was deep. It seemed deeper than the mere death of a cousin, and the Countess had no hesitation in connecting her exasperating brother with the expression of her sister-in-law’s eyes. Her heart beat with an almost joyous expectation; for if she had wished to see Osmond overtopped, the conditions looked favourable now. Of course, if Isabel should go to England, she herself would immediately leave the Palazzo Roccanera; nothing would induce her to remain there with Osmond. Nevertheless she felt an immense desire to hear that Isabel would go to England. “Nothing is impossible for you, my dear,” she said, caressingly. “Why else are you rich and clever and good?”

“Why indeed? I feel stupidly weak.”

“Why does Osmond say it’s impossible?” the Countess asked, in a tone which sufficiently declared that she couldn’t imagine.

From the moment that she began to question her however, Isabel drew back; she disengaged her hand, which the Countess had affectionately taken. But she answered this inquiry with frank bitterness. “Because we are so happy together that we cannot separate even for a fortnight.”

“Ah,” cried the Countess, while Isabel turned away; “when I want to make a journey my husband simply tells me I can have no money!”

Isabel went to her room, where she walked up and down for an hour. It may seem to some readers that she took things very hard, and it is certain that for a woman of a high spirit she had allowed herself easily to be arrested. It seemed to her that only now she fully measured the great undertaking of matrimony. Marriage meant that in such a case as this, when one had to choose, one chose as a matter of course for one’s husband. “I am afraid—yes, I am afraid,” she said to herself more than once, stopping short in her walk. But what she was afraid of was not her husband—his displeasure, his hatred, his revenge; it was not even her own later judgment of her conduct—a consideration which had often held her in check; it was simply the violence there would be in going when Osmond wished her to remain. A gulf of difference had opened between them, but nevertheless it was his desire that she should stay, it was a horror to him that she should go. She knew the nervous fineness with which he could feel an objection. What he thought of her she knew; what he was capable of saying to her she had felt; yet they were married, for all that, and marriage meant that a woman should abide with her husband. She sank down on her sofa at last, and buried her head in a pile of cushions.

When she raised her head again, the Countess Gemini stood before her. She had come in noiselessly, unperceived; she had a strange smile on her thin lips, and a still stranger glitter in her small dark eyes.

“I knocked,” she said, “but you didn’t answer me. So I ventured in. I have been looking at you for the last five minutes. You are very unhappy.”

“Yes; but I don’t think you can comfort me.”

“Will you give me leave to try?” And the Countess sat down on the sofa beside her. She continued to smile, and there was something communicative and exultant in her expression. She appeared to have something to say, and it occurred to Isabel for the first time that her sister-in-law might say something important. She fixed her brilliant eyes upon Isabel, who found at last a disagreeable fascination in her gaze. “After all,” the Countess went on, “I must tell you, to begin with, that I don’t understand your state of mind. You seem to have so many scruples, so many reasons, so many ties. When I discovered, ten years ago, that my husband’s dearest wish was to make me miserable—of late he has simply let me alone—ah, it was a wonderful simplification! My poor Isabel, you are not simple enough.”

“No, I am not simple enough,” said Isabel.

“There is something I want you to know,” the Countess declared—“because I think you ought to know it. Perhaps you do; perhaps you have guessed it. But if you have, all I can say is that I understand still less why you shouldn’t do as you like.”

“When do you wish me to know?” Isabel felt a foreboding which made her heart beat. The Countess was about to justify herself, and this alone was portentous.

But the Countess seemed disposed to play a little with her subject. “In your place I should have guessed it ages ago. Have you never really suspected?”

“I have guessed nothing. What should I have suspected? I don’t know what you mean.”

“That’s because you have got such a pure mind. I never saw a woman with such a pure mind!” cried the Countess.

Isabel slowly got up. “You are going to tell me something horrible.”

“You can call it by whatever name you will!” And the Countess rose also, while the sharp animation of her bright, capricious face emitted a kind of flash. She stood a moment looking at Isabel, and then she said—“My first sister-in-law had no children!”

Isabel stared back at her; the announcement was an anticlimax. “Your first sister-in-law?” she murmured.

I suppose you know that Osmond has been married before? I have never spoken to you of his wife; I didn’t suppose it was proper. But others, less particular, must have done so. The poor little woman lived but two years and died childless. It was after her death that Pansy made her appearance.”

Isabel’s brow had gathered itself into a frown; her lips were parted in pale, vague wonder. She was trying to follow; there seemed to be more to follow than she could see. “Pansy is not my husband’s child, then?”

“Your husband’s—in perfection! But no one else’s husband’s. Some one else’s wife’s. Ah, my good Isabel,” cried the Countess, “with you one must dot one’s i’s!”

“I don’t understand; whose wife’s?” said Isabel.

“The wife of a horrid little Swiss, who died twelve years ago. He never recognised Miss Pansy, and there was no reason he should. Osmond did, and that was better.”

Isabel stayed the name which rose in a sudden question to her lips; she sank down on her seat again, hanging her head. “Why have you told me this?” she asked, in a voice which the Countess hardly recognised.

“Because I was so tired of your not knowing! I was tired of not having told you. It seemed to me so dull. It’s not a lie, you know; it’s exactly as I say.”

“I never knew,” said Isabel, looking up at her, simply.

“So I believed—though it was hard to believe. Has it never occurred to you that he has been her lover?”

“I don’t know. Something has occurred to me. Perhaps it was that.”

“She has been wonderfully clever about Pansy!” cried the Countess.

“That thing has never occurred to me,” said Isabel. “And as it is—I don’t understand.”

She spoke in a low, thoughtful tone, and the poor Countess was equally surprised and disappointed at the effect of her revelation. She had expected to kindle a conflagration, and as yet she had barely extracted a spark. Isabel seemed more awe-stricken than anything else.

“Don’t you perceive that the child could never pass for her husband’s?” the Countess asked. “They have been separated too long for that, and M. Merle had gone to some far country; I think to South America. If she had ever had children—which I am not sure of—she had lost them. On the other hand, circumstances made it convenient enough for Osmond to acknowledge the little girl. His wife was dead—very true; but she had only been dead a year, and what was more natural than that she should have left behind a pledge of their affection? With the aid of a change of residence—he had been living at Naples, and he left it for ever—the little fable was easily set going. My poor sister-in-law, who was in her grave, couldn’t help herself, and the real mother, to save her reputation, renounced all visible property in the child.”

“Ah, poor creature!” cried Isabel, bursting into tears. It was a long time since she had shed any; she had suffered a reaction from weeping. But now they gushed with an abundance in which the Countess Gemini found only another discomfiture.

“It’s very kind of you to pity her!” she cried with a discordant laugh. “Yes, indeed, you have a pure mind!”

“He must have been false to his wife,” said Isabel, suddenly controlling herself.

“That’s all that’s wanting—that you should take up her cause!” the Countess went on.

“But to me—to me—” And Isabel hesitated, though there was a question in her eyes.

“To you he has been faithful? It depends upon what you call faithful. When he married you, he was no longer the lover of another woman. That state of things had passed away; the lady had repented; and she had a worship of appearances so intense that even Osmond himself got tired of it. You may therefore imagine what it was! But the whole past was between them.”

“Yes,” said Isabel, “the whole past is between them.”

“Ah, this later past is nothing. But for five years they were very intimate.”

“Why then did she want him to marry me?”

“Ah, my dear, that’s her superiority! Because you had money; and because she thought you would be good to Pansy.”

“Poor woman—and Pansy who doesn’t like her!” cried Isabel.

“That’s the reason she wanted some one whom Pansy would like. She knows it; she knows everything.”

“Will she know that you have told me this?”

“That will depend upon whether you tell her. She is prepared for it, and do you know what she counts upon for her defence? On your thinking that I lie. Perhaps you do; don’t make yourself uncomfortable to hide it. Only, as it happens this time, I don’t. I have told little fibs; but they have never hurt any one by myself.”

Isabel sat staring at her companion’s story as at a bale of fantastic wares that some strolling gipsy might have unpacked on the carpet at her feet. “Why did Osmond never marry her?” she asked, at last.

“Because she had no money.” The Countess had an answer for everything, and if she lied she lied well. “No one knows, no one has ever known, what she lives on, or how she has got all those beautiful things. I don’t believe Osmond himself knows. Besides, she wouldn’t have married him.”

“How can she have loved him then?”

“She doesn’t love him, in that way. She did at first, and then, I suppose, she would have married him; but at that time her husband was living. By the time M. Merle had rejoined—I won’t say his ancestors, because he never had any—her relations with Osmond had changed, and she had grown more ambitious. She hoped she might marry a great man; that has always been her idea. She has waited and watched and plotted and prayed; but she has never succeeded. I don’t call Madame Merle a success, you know. I don’t know what she may accomplish yet, but at present she has very little to show. The only tangible result she has ever achieved—except, of course, getting to know every one and staying with them free of expense—has been her bringing you and Osmond together. Oh, she did that, my dear; you needn’t look as if you doubted it. I have watched them for years; I know everything—everything. I am thought a great scatterbrain, but I have had enough application of mind to follow up those two. She hates me, and her way of showing it is to pretend to be for ever defending me. When people say I have had fifteen lovers, she looks horrified, and declares that quite half of them were never proved. She has been afraid of me for years, and she has taken great comfort in the vile, false things that people have said about me. She has been afraid I would expose her, and she threatened me one day, when Osmond began to pay his court to you. It was at his house in Florence; do you remember that afternoon when she brought you there and we had tea in the garden? She let me know then that if I should tell tales, two could play at that game. She pretends there is a good deal more to tell about me than about her. It would be an interesting comparison! I don’t care a fig what she may say, simply because I know you don’t care a fig. You can’t trouble your head about me less than you do already. So she may take her revenge as she chooses; I don’t think she will frighten you very much. Her great idea has been to be tremendously irreproachable—a kind of full-blown lily—the incarnation of propriety. She has always worshipped that god. There should be no scandal about Cæsar’s wife, you know; and, as I say, she has always hoped to marry Cæsar. That was one reason she wouldn’t marry Osmond; the fear that on seeing her with Pansy people would put things together—would even see a resemblance. She has had a terror lest the mother should betray herself. She has been awfully careful; the mother has never done so.”

“Yes, yes, the mother has done so,” said Isabel, who had listened to all this with a face of deepening dreariness. “She betrayed herself to me the other day, though I didn’t recognise her. There appeared to have been a chance of Pansy’s making a great marriage, and in her disappointment at its not coming off she almost dropped the mask.”

“Ah, that’s where she would stumble!” cried the Countess. “She has failed so dreadfully herself that she is determined her daughter shall make it up.”

Isabel started at the words “her daughter,” which the Countess threw off so familiarly. “It seems very wonderful,” she murmured; and in this bewildering impression she had almost lost her sense of being personally touched by the story.

“Now don’t go and turn against the poor innocent child!” the Countess went on. “She is very nice, in spite of her lamentable parentage. I have liked Pansy, not because she was hers—but because she had become yours.”

“Yes, she has become mine. And how the poor woman must have suffered at seeing me——!” Isabel exclaimed, flushing quickly at the thought.

“I don’t believe she has suffered; on the contrary, she has enjoyed. Osmond’s marriage has given Pansy a great life. Before that she lived in a hole. And do you know what the mother thought? That you might take such a fancy to the child that you would do something for her. Osmond, of course could never give her a portion. Osmond was really extremely poor; but of course you know all about that.—Ah, my dear,” cried the Countess, “why did you ever inherit money?” She stopped a moment, as if she saw something singular in Isabel’s face. “Don’t tell me now that you will give her a dowry. You are capable of that, but I shouldn’t believe it. Don’t try to be too good. Be a little wicked, feel a little wicked, for once in your life!”

“It’s very strange. I suppose I ought to know, but I am sorry,” Isabel said. “I am much obliged to you.”

“Yes, you seem to be!” cried the Countess, with a mocking laugh. “Perhaps you are—perhaps you are not. You don’t take it as I should have thought.”

“How should I take it?” Isabel asked.

“Well, I should say as a woman who has been made use of.” Isabel made no answer to this; she only listened, and the Countess went on. “They have always been bound to each other; they remained so even after she became proper. But he has always been more for her than she has been for him. When their little carnival was over they made a bargain that each should give the other complete liberty, but that each should also do everything possible to help the other on. You may ask me how I know such a thing as that. I know it by the way they have behaved. Now see how much better women are than men! She has found a wife for Osmond, but Osmond has never lifted a little finger for her. She has worked for him, plotted for him, suffered for him; she has even more than once found money for him; and the end of it is that he is tired of her. She is an old habit; there are moments when he needs her; but on the whole he wouldn’t miss her if she were removed. And, what’s more, to-day she knows it. So you needn’t be jealous!” the Countess added, humorously.

Isabel rose from her sofa again; she felt bruised and short of breath; her head was humming with new knowledge. “I am much obliged to you,” she repeated. And then she added, abruptly, in quite a different tone—“How do you know all this?”

This inquiry appeared to ruffle the Countess more than Isabel’s expression of gratitude pleased her. She gave her companion a bold stare, with which—“Let us assume that I have invented it!” she cried. She too, however, suddenly changed her tone, and, laying her hand on Isabel’s arm, said softly, with her sharp, bright smile—“Now will you give up your journey?”

Isabel started a little; she turned away. But she felt weak and in a moment had to lay her arm upon the mantel-shelf for support. She stood a minute so, and then upon her arm she dropped her dizzy head, with closed eyes and pale lips.

“I have done wrong to speak—I have made you ill!” the Countess cried.

“Ah, I must see Ralph!” Isabel murmured; not in resentment, not in the quick passion her companion had looked for; but in a tone of exquisite far-reaching sadness.