Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter V

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

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 his turn always came after the care of her house and her conservatory (she was extremely fond of flowers). 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 inquired scrupulously about her husband’s health and about the young man’s own, and receiving no very brilliant account of either, she 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 broken down. Ralph smiled at the idea of his mother breaking down, but made no point of reminding her that his own enfeebled condition 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 Touchett, who was a native of Rutland, in the State of Vermont, came to England as subordinate partner in a banking-house, in which some ten years later he acquired a preponderant interest. Daniel Touchett saw before him a life-long residence in his adopted country, of which, from the first, he took a simple, cheerful, and eminently practical view. But, as he said to himself, he had no intention of turning Englishman, nor had he any desire to convert his only son to the same sturdy faith. It had been for himself so very soluble a problem to live in England, and yet not be of it, that it seemed to him equally simple that after his death his lawful heir should carry on the bank in a pure American spirit. He took pains to cultivate this spirit, however, by sending the boy home for his education. Ralph spent several terms in an American school, and took a degree at an American college, after which, as he struck his father on his return as even redundantly national, 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 jocosity 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 the ocean (which he detested) permanently between himself and the old man whom he regarded as his best friend. Ralph was not only fond of his father, but 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 great fancy for the banking business, 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 old man’s effective simplicity. Daniel Touchett had been neither at Harvard nor at Oxford, and it was his own fault if he had put into 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 given evidence of this talent only up to a certain point. He had made himself thoroughly comfortable in England, but he had never attempted to pitch his thoughts in the English key. He had retained many characteristics of Rutland, Vermont; 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, especially, he was a gentle, refined, fastidious old man, who combined consummate shrewdness with a sort of fraternising good-humour, and whose feeling about his own position in the world was quite of the democratic sort. 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 never perceived, certain habits he never formed, certain mysteries he never understood. As regards these latter, on the day that he had understood them his son would have thought less well of him.

Ralph, on leaving Oxford, spent a couple of years in travelling; after which he found himself mounted 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 period, for at the end of some eighteen months he became conscious that he was seriously out of health. He had caught a violent cold, which fixed itself upon his lungs and threw them into extreme embarrassment. He had to give up work and embrace the sorry occupation known as taking care of one’s self. At first he was greatly disgusted; it appeared to him that it was not himself in the least that 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, and even undemonstrative respect, for him. Misfortune makes strange bed-fellows, and our young man, feeling that he had something at stake in the matter—it usually seemed to him to be his reputation for common sense—devoted to his unattractive protégé 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 that he might outweather a dozen winters if he would betake himself to one of those climates in which consumptives chiefly congregate. He had grown extremely fond of London, and cursed this immitigable necessity; but at the same time that he cursed, he conformed, and gradually, when he found that his sensitive organ was really grateful for such grim favours, he conferred them with a better grace. 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 snowed, almost never got up again. A certain fund of indolence that he possessed came to his aid and helped to reconcile him to doing nothing; for at the best he was too ill for anything but a passive life. As he said to himself, there was really nothing he had wanted very much to do, so that he had given up nothing. At present, however, the perfume of forbidden fruit seemed occasionally to float past him, to remind him that the finest pleasures of life are to be found in the world of action. 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 this occasion remained later than usual in England, and had been overtaken by bad weather before reaching Algiers. He reached it 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, but that it was also open to him to spend the interval as agreeably as might be consistent with such a pre-occupation. With the prospect of losing them, the simple use of his faculties became an exquisite pleasure; it seemed to him that the delights of observation had never been suspected. 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 to struggle with a good deal of native indifference. His friends at present found him much more cheerful, and attributed it to a theory, over which they shook their heads knowingly, that he would recover his health. The truth was that he had simply accepted the situation.

It was very probable this sweet-tasting property of observation to which I allude (for he found himself in these last years much more inclined to notice the pleasant things of the world than the others) that was mainly concerned in Ralph’s quickly-stirred interest in the arrival of a young lady who was evidently not insipid. If he were observantly disposed, something told him, here was occupation enough for a succession of days. It may be added, somewhat crudely, that the liberty of falling in love had a place in Ralph Touchett’s programme. This was of course a liberty to be very temperately used; for though the safest form of any sentiment is that which is conditioned upon silence, it is not always the most comfortable, and Ralph had forbidden himself the art of demonstration. But conscious observation of a lovely woman had struck him as the finest entertainment that the world now had to offer him, and if the interest should become poignant, he flattered himself that he could carry it off quietly, as he had carried other discomforts. He speedily acquired a conviction, however, that he was not destined to fall in love with his cousin.

“And now tell me about the young lady,” he said to his mother. “What do you mean to do with her?”

Mrs. Touchett hesitated a little. “I mean to ask your father to invite her to stay three or four weeks at Garden-court.”

“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 is my niece; she is 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 it’s 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, to get her some clothes.”

“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 a girl that suggests compassion. I think I envy her. Before being sure, however, give me a hint of what you duty will direct you to do.”

“It will direct me to show her four European countries—I shall leave her the choice of two of them—and to give her the opportunity of perfecting herself in French, which she already knows very well.”

Ralph frowned a little. “That sounds rather dry—even giving 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 that she is a gifted being?”

“I don’t know whether she is a gifted being, but she is a clever girl, 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 am a bore? I don’t think Isabel finds me one. Some girls might, I know; but this one is too clever for that. I think I amuse her a good deal. We get on very well, because I understand her; I know the sort of girl she is. She is very frank, and I am 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 have never surprised me but once, and that is to-day—in presenting me with a pretty cousin whose existence I had never suspected.”

“Do you think her 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 told her, she seemed very grateful for the hint. You may say I shouldn’t have told her—I should have let her alone. There is 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 is very much 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 is no more becoming ornament 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 reward. I ascertained where they were to be found, and, without any preliminaries, went and introduced myself. There are two other sisters, 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 is a genius; but in that case I have 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 sort of land of emigration, 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 account of his pretty cousin, by which his interest in her was not impaired. “Ah, if she is 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 will be wrong.”

“Warburton is wrong, then!” Ralph Touchett 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 is 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 window a little. 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 have another quarter of an hour, then; tell me some more about Isabel.”

But Mrs. Touchett declined his invitation, declaring that he must find out for himself.

“Well,” said Ralph, “she will 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 are extremely natural, and I am sure you have never troubled any one. 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 have 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 that she chooses. She gave me notice of that.”

“What you meant then, in your telegram, was that her character was independent.”

“I never know what I mean by my telegrams—especially those I send from America. Clearness is too expensive. Come down to your father.”

“It is 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 into his power, as they descended together, to stop her a moment on the middle landing of the staircase—the broad, low, wide-armed staircase of time-stained oak which was one of the most striking ornaments of Garden-court.

“You have no plan of marrying her?” he said, smiling.

“Marry her? I should be sorry to play her such a trick! But apart from that, she is 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 is a young man in Boston——”

Ralph went on; he had no desire to hear about the young man in Boston. “As my father says,” he exclaimed, “they are always engaged!”

His mother had told him that he must extract his information about his cousin from the girl herself, and it soon became evident to him that he should not want for opportunity. He had, for instance, a good deal of talk with her that same evening, when the two had been left alone 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 concluded, Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, who appeared to have exhausted each other’s conversation, 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 to have no sense of weariness. She was really tired; she knew it, and knew that she should pay for it on the morrow; but it was her habit at this period to carry fatigue to the furthest point, and confess to it only when dissimulation had become impossible. For the present it was perfectly possible; she was interested and excited. She asked Ralph to show her the pictures; there were a great many of them in the house, most of them of his own choosing. The best of them 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 been deferred till the 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 that she was eager and that she seemed so; but she could not help it. “She doesn’t take suggestions,” Ralph said to himself; but he said it without irritation; her eagerness 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 shining on the polished floor of the gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out the things he liked; Isabel, bending toward 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 gallery and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on her figure. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances; for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was thin, and light, and middling tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers, they always called her the thin one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eye, a little too keen perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting softness when she smiled. 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 answered, laughing.

“I think I have; most girls seem to me so ignorant,” said Isabel.

“You strike me as different from most girls.”

“Ah, some girls are so nice,” murmured Isabel, who preferred not to talk about herself. Then, in a moment, to change the subject, she went on, “Please tell me—isn’t there a ghost?”

“A ghost?”

“A spectre, a phantom; 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 house,” said Ralph. “You will be disappointed if you count on that. It’s dismally prosaic; there is no romance here but what you may have brought with you.”

“I have brought a great deal; but it seems to me I have 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 is not romantic. Haven’t you other people?”

“Very few.”

“I am sorry for that; I like so much to see people.”

“Oh, we will invite all the county to amuse you,” said Ralph.

“Now you are making fun of me,” the girl answered, rather gravely. “Who was the gentleman that was on the lawn when I arrived?”

“A county neighbour; he doesn’t come very often.”

“I am 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 is a dear old man.”

“I am so sorry he is ill,” said Isabel.

“You must help me to nurse him; you ought to be a good nurse.”

“I don’t think I am; I have been told I am not; I am said to be too theoretic. 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!” cried Ralph, 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 would 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, smiling.

“I told you just now I was very fond of knowledge,” the girl answered.

“Yes, of happy knowledge—of pleasant knowledge. But you haven’t suffered, and you are not made to suffer. I hope you will never see the ghost!”

Isabel 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 had struck him as rather presumptuous—indeed it was a part of her charm; and he wondered what she would say.

“I am not afraid,” she said; which seemed quite presumptuous enough.

“You are not afraid of suffering?”

“Yes, I am afraid of suffering. But I am 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 is not absolutely necessary to suffer; we were not made for that.”

“You were not, certainly.”

“I am not speaking of myself.” And she turned away 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 bed-room candle, which he had taken from a niche. “Never mind what they call you,” he said. “When you do suffer, they call you an idiot. The great point is 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.