Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Mrs. Touchett appeared at last, just after Isabel had returned to the big uninhabited drawing-room. She looked a good deal older, but her eye was as bright as ever and her head as erect; her thin lips seemed a repository of latent meanings. She wore a little grey dress, of the most undecorated fashion, and Isabel wondered, as she had wondered the first time, whether her remarkable kinswoman resembled more a queen-regent or the matron of a gaol. Her lips felt very thin indeed as Isabel kissed her.
“I have kept you waiting because I have been sitting with Ralph,” Mrs. Touchett said. “The nurse had gone to her lunch and I had taken her place. He has a man who is supposed to look after him, but the man is good for nothing; he is always looking out of the window—as if there were anything to see! I didn’t wish to move, because Ralph seemed to be sleeping, and I was afraid the sound would disturb him. I waited till the nurse came back; I remembered that you knew the house.”
“I find I know it better even than I thought; I have been walking,” Isabel answered. And then she asked whether Ralph slept much.
“He lies with his eyes closed; he doesn’t move. But I am not sure that it’s always sleep.”
“Will he see me? Can he speak to me?”
Mrs. Touchett hesitated a moment. “You can try him,” she said. And then she offered to conduct Isabel to her room. “I thought they had taken you there; but it’s not my house, it’s Ralph’s; and I don’t know what they do. They must at least have taken your luggage; I don’t suppose you have brought much. Not that I care, however. I believe they have given you the same room you had before; when Ralph heard you were coming he said you must have that one.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“Ah, my dear, he doesn’t chatter as he used!” cried Mrs. Touchett, as she preceded her niece up the staircase.
It was the same room, and something told Isabel that it had not been slept in since she occupied it. Her luggage was there, and it was not voluminous; Mrs. Touchett sat down a moment, with her eyes upon it.
“Is there really no hope?” Isabel asked, standing before her aunt.
“None whatever. There never has been. It has not been a successful life.”
“No—it has only been a beautiful one,” Isabel found herself already contradicting her aunt; she was irritated by her dryness.
“I don’t know what you mean by that; there is no beauty without health. That is a very odd dress to travel in.”
Isabel glanced at her garment. “I left Rome at an hour’s notice; I took the first that came.”
“Your sisters, in America, wished to know how you dress. That seemed to be their principal interest. I wasn’t able to tell them—but they seemed to have the right idea; that you never wear anything less than black brocade.”
“They think I am more brilliant than I am; I am afraid to tell them the truth,” said Isabel. “Lily wrote me that you had dined with her.”
“She invited me four times and I went once. After the second time she should have let me alone. The dinner was very good; it must have been expensive. Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my visit to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.”
These were interesting items, but Mrs. Touchett soon left her niece, whom she was to meet in half-an-hour at the midday meal. At this repast the two ladies faced each other at an abbreviated table in the melancholy dining-room. Here, after a little, Isabel saw that her aunt was not so dry as she appeared, and her old pity for the poor woman’s inexpressiveness, her want to regret, of disappointment, came back to her. It seemed to her she would find it a blessing to-day to be able to indulge a regret. She wondered whether Mrs. Touchett were not trying, whether she had not a desire for the recreation of grief. On the other hand, perhaps, she was afraid; if she began to regret, it might take her too far. Isabel could perceive, however, that it had come over her that she had missed something, that she saw herself in the future as an old woman without memories. Her little sharp face looked tragical. She told her niece that Ralph as yet had not moved, but that he probably would be able to see her before dinner. And then in moment she added that he had seen Lord Warburton the day before; an announcement which startled Isabel a little, as it seemed an intimation that this personage was in the neighbourhood and that an accident might bring them together. Such an accident would not be happy; she had not come to England to converse with Lord Warburton. She presently said to her aunt that he had been very kind to Ralph; she had seen something of that in Rome.
“He has something else to think of now,” Mrs. Touchett rejoined. And she paused, with a gaze like a gimlet.
Isabel saw that she meant something, and instantly guessed what she meant. But her reply concealed her guess; her heart beat faster, and she wished to gain a moment. “Ah yes—the House of Lords, and all that.”
“He is not thinking of the Lords; he is thinking of the ladies. At least he is thinking of one of them; he told Ralph he was engaged to be married.”
“Ah, to be married!” Isabel gently exclaimed.
“Unless he breaks it off. He seemed to think Ralph would like to know. Poor Ralph can’t go to the wedding, though I believe it is to take place very soon.”
“And who is the young lady?”
“A member of the aristocracy; Lady Flora, Lady Felicia—something of that sort.”
“I am very glad,” Isabel said. “It must be a sudden decision.”
“Sudden enough, I believe; a courtship of three weeks. It has only just been made public.”
“I am very glad,” Isabel repeated, with a larger emphasis. She knew her aunt was watching her—looking for the signs of some curious emotion, and the desire to prevent her companion from seeing anything of this kind enabled her to speak in the tone of quick satisfaction—the tone, almost, of relief. Mrs. Touchett of course followed the tradition that ladies, even married ones, regard the marriage of their old lovers as an offence to themselves. Isabel’s first care therefore was to show that however that might be in general, she was not offended now. But meanwhile, as I say, her heart beat faster; and if she sat for some moments thoughtful—she presently forgot Mrs. Touchett’s observation—it was not because she had lost an admirer. Her imagination had traversed half Europe; it halted, panting, and even trembling a little, in the city of Rome. She figured herself announcing to her husband that Lord Warburton was to lead a bride to the altar, and she was of course not aware how extremely sad she looked while she made this intellectual effort. But at last she collected herself, and said to her aunt—“He was sure to do it some time or other.”
Mrs. Touchett was silent; then she gave a sharp little shake of the head. “Ah, my dear, you’re beyond me!” she cried, suddenly. They went on with their luncheon in silence; Isabel felt as if she had heard of Lord Warburton’s death. She had known him only as a suitor, and now that was all over.
He was dead for poor Pansy; by Pansy he might have lived. A servant had been hovering about; at last Mrs. Touchett requested him to leave them alone. She had finished her lunch; she sat with her hands folded on the edge of the table. “I should like to ask you three questions,” she said to Isabel, when the servant had gone.
“Three are a great many.”
“I can’t do with less; I have been thinking. They are all very good ones.”
“That’s what I am afraid of. The best questions are the worst,” Isabel answered. Mrs. Touchett had pushed back her chair, and Isabel left the table and walked, rather consciously, to one of the deep windows, while her aunt followed her with her eyes.
“Have you ever been sorry you didn’t marry Lord Warburton?” Mrs. Touchett inquired.
Isabel shook her head slowly, smiling. “No, dear aunt.”
“Good. I ought to tell you that I propose to believe what you say.”
“Your believing me is an immense temptation,” Isabel replied, smiling still.
“A temptation to lie? I don’t recommend you to do that, for when I’m misinformed I’m as dangerous as a poisoned rat. I don’t mean to crow over you.”
“It is my husband that doesn’t get on with me,” said Isabel.
“I could have told him that. I don’t call that crowing over you,” Mrs. Touchett added. “Do you still like Serena Merle?” she went on.
“Not as I once did. But it doesn’t matter, for she is going to America.”
“To America? She must have done something very bad.”
“May I ask what it is?”
“She made a convenience of me.”
“Ah,” cried Mrs. Touchett, “so she did of me! She does of every one.”
“She will make a convenience of America,” said Isabel, smiling again, and glad that her aunt’s questions were over.
It was not till the evening that she was able to see Ralph. He had been dozing all day; at least he had been lying unconscious. The doctor was there, but after a while he went away; the local doctor, who had attended his father, and whom Ralph liked. He came three or four times a day; he was deeply interested in his patient. Ralph had had Sir Matthew Hope, but he had got tired of this celebrated man, to whom he had asked his mother to send word that he was now dead, and was therefore without further need of medical advice. Mrs. Touchett had simply written to Sir Matthew that her son disliked him. On the day of Isabel’s arrival Ralph gave no sign, as I have related, for many hours; but towards evening he raised himself and said he knew that she had come. How he knew it was not apparent; inasmuch as, for fear of exciting him, no one had offered the information. Isabel came in and sat by his bed in the dim light; there was only a shaded candle in a corner of the room. She told the nurse that she might go—that she herself would sit with him for the rest of the evening. He had opened his eyes and recognised her, and had moved his hand, which lay very helpless beside him, so that she might take it. But he was unable to speak; he closed his eyes again and remained perfectly still, only keeping her hand in his own. She sat with him a long time—till the nurse came back; but he gave no further sign. He might have passed away while she looked at him; he was already the figure and pattern of death. She had thought him far gone in Rome, but this was worse; there was only one change possible now. There was a strange tranquillity in his face; it was as still as the lid of a box. With this, he was a mere lattice of bones; when he opened his eyes to greet her, it was as if she were looking into immeasurable space. It was not till midnight that the nurse came back; but the hours, to Isabel, had not seemed long; it was exactly what she had come for. If she had come simply to wait, she found ample occasion, for he lay for three days in a kind of grateful silence. He recognised her, and at moments he seemed to wish to speak; but he found no voice. Then he closed his eyes again, as if he too were waiting for something—for something that certainly would come. He was so absolutely quiet that it seemed to her what was coming had already arrived; and yet she never lost the sense that they were still together. But they were not always together; there were other hours that she passed in wandering through the empty house and listening for a voice that was not poor Ralph’s. She had a constant fear; she thought it possible her husband would write to her. But he remained silent, and she only got a letter from Florence from the Countess Gemini. Ralph, however, spoke at last, on the evening of the third day.
“I feel better to-night,” he murmured, abruptly, in the soundless dimness of her vigil; “I think I can say something.”
She sank upon her knees beside his pillow; took his thin hand in her own; begged him not to make an effort—not to tire himself.
His face was of necessity serious—it was incapable of the muscular play of a smile; but its owner apparently had not lost a perception of incongruities. “What does it matter if I am tired, when I have all eternity to rest?” he asked. “There is no harm in making an effort when it is the very last. Don’t people always feel better just before the end? I have often heard of that; it’s what I was waiting for. Ever since you have been here; I thought it would come. I tried two or three times; I was afraid you would get tired of sitting there.” He spoke slowly, with painful breaks and long pauses, his voice seemed to come from a distance. When he ceased, he lay with his face turned to Isabel, and his large unwinking eyes open into her own. “It was very good of you to come,” he went on. “I thought you would; but I wasn’t sure.”
“I was not sure either, till I came,” said Isabel.
“You have been like an angel beside my bed. You know they talk about the angel of death. It’s the most beautiful of all. You have been like that; as if you were waiting for me.”
“I was not waiting for your death; I was waiting for—for this. This is not death, dear Ralph.”
“Not for you—no. There is nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life—the sense that we remain. I have had it—even I. But now I am of no use but to give it to others. With me it’s all over.” And then he paused. Isabel bowed her head further, till it rested on the two hands that were clasped upon his own. She could not see him now; but his faraway voice was close to her ear. “Isabel,” he went on, suddenly, “I wish it were over for you.” She answered nothing; she had burst into sobs; she remained so, with her buried face. He lay silent, listening to her sobs; at last he gave a long groan. “Ah, what is it you have done for me?”
“What is it you did for me?” she cried, her now extreme agitation half smothered by her attitude. She had lost all her shame, all wish to hide things. Now he might know; she wished him to know, for it brought them supremely together, and he was beyond the reach of pain. “You did something once—you know it. Oh Ralph, you have been everything! What have I done for you—what can I do to-day? I would die if you could live. But I don’t wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you.” Her voice was as broken as his own, and full of tears and anguish.
“You won’t lose me—you will keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I have ever been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there is love. Death is good—but there is no love.”
“I never thanked you—I never spoke—I never was what I should be!” Isabel went on. She felt a passionate need to cry out and accuse herself, to let her sorrow possess her. All her troubles, for the moment, became single and melted together into this present pain. “What must you have thought of me? Yet how could I know? I never knew, and I only know to-day because there are people less stupid than I.”
“Don’t mind people,” said Ralph. “I think I am glad to leave people.”
She raised her head and her clapsed hands; she seemed for a moment to pray to him.
“Is it true—is it true?” she asked.
“True that you have been stupid? Oh no,” said Ralph, with a sensible intention of wit.
“That you made me rich—that all I have is yours?”
He turned away his head, and for some time said nothing. Then at last—
“Ah, don’t speak of that—that was not happy.” Slowly he moved his face toward her again, and they once more saw each other. “But for that—but for that—” And he paused. “I believe I ruined you,” he added softly.
She was full of the sense that he was beyond the reach of pain; he seemed already so little of this world. But even if she had not had it she would still have spoken, for nothing mattered now but the only knowledge that was not pure anguish—the knowledge that they were looking at the truth together.
“He married me for my money,” she said.
She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.
He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—
“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.
“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”
“I always understood,” said Ralph.
“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”
“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”
“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.
He listened to her a little, and then continued—
“Was he very bad about your coming?”
“He made it very hard for me. But I don’t care.”
“It is all over, then, between you?”
“Oh no; I don’t think anything is over.”
“Are you going back to him?” Ralph stammered.
“I don’t know—I can’t tell. I shall stay here as long as I may. I don’t want to think—I needn’t think. I don’t care for anything but you, and that is enough for the present. It will last a little yet. Here on my knees, with you dying in my arms, I am happier than I have been for a long time. And I want you to be happy—not to think of anything sad; only to feel that I am near you and I love you. Why should there be pain? In such hours as this what have we to do with pain? That is not the deepest thing; there is something deeper.”
Ralph evidently found, from moment to moment, greater difficulty in speaking; he had to wait longer to collect himself. At first he appeared to make no response to these last words; he let a long time elapse. Then he murmured simply—
“You must stay here.”
“I should like to stay, as long as seems right.”
“As seems right—as seems right?” He repeated her words. “Yes, you think a great deal about that.”
“Of course one must. You are very tired,” said Isabel.
“I am very tired. You said just now that pain is not the deepest thing. No—no. But it is very deep. If I could stay——”
“For me you will always be here,” she softly interrupted. It was easy to interrupt him.
But he went on, after a moment—
“It passes, after all; it’s passing now. But love remains. I don’t know why we should suffer so much. Perhaps I shall find out. There are many things in life; you are very young.”
“I feel very old,” said Isabel.
“You will grow young again. That’s how I see you. I don’t believe—I don’t believe——” And he stopped again; his strength failed him.
She begged him to be quiet now. “We needn’t speak to understand each other,” she said.
“I don’t believe that such a generous mistake as yours—can hurt you for more than a little.”
“Oh, Ralph, I am very happy now,” she cried, through her tears.
“And remember this,” he continued, “that if you have been hated, you have also been loved.”
“Ah, my brother!” she cried, with a movement of still deeper prostration.