Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Isabel did not show this letter to her uncle; but she acquainted him with its purport, and, as she expected, he begged her instantly to assure Miss Stackpole, in his name, that he should be delighted to receive her at Gardencourt. “Though she is a literary lady,” he said, “I suppose that, being an American, she won’t reproduce me, as that other one did. She has seen others like me.”
“She has seen no other so delightful!” Isabel answered; but she was not altogether at ease about Henrietta’s reproductive instincts, which belonged to that side of her friend’s character which she regarded with least complacency. She wrote to Miss Stackpole, however, that she would be very welcome under Mr. Touchett’s roof; and this enterprising young woman lost no time in signifying her intention of arriving. She had gone up to London, and it was from the metropolis that she took the train for the station nearest to Gardencourt, where Isabel and Ralph were in waiting to receive the visitor.
“Shall I love her, or shall I hate her?” asked Ralph, while they stood on the platform, before the advent of the train.
“Whichever you do will matter very little to her,” said Isabel. “She doesn’t care a straw what men think of her.”
“As a man I am bound to dislike her, then. She must be a kind of monster. Is she very ugly?”
“No, she is decidedly pretty.”
“A female interviewer—a reporter in petticoats? I am very curious to see her,” Ralph declared.
“It is very easy to laugh at her, but it is not easy to be as brave as she.”
“I should think not; interviewing requires bravery. Do you suppose she will interview me?”
“Never in the world. She will not think you of enough importance.”
“You will see,” said Ralph. “She will send a description of us all, including Bunchie, to her newspaper.”
“I shall ask her not to,” Isabel answered.
“You think she is capable of it, then.”
“And yet you have made her your bosom-friend?”
“I have not made her my bosom-friend; but I like her, in spite of her faults.”
“Ah, well,” said Ralph, “I am afraid I shall dislike her, in spite of her merits.”
“You will probably fall in love with her at the end of three days.”
“And have my love-letters published in the Interviewer? Never!” cried the young man.
The train presently arrived, and Miss Stackpole, promptly descending, proved to be, as Isabel had said, decidedly pretty. She was a fair, plump person, of medium stature, with a round face, a small mouth, a delicate complexion, a bunch of light brown ringlets at the back of her head, and a peculiarly open, surprised-looking eye. The most striking point in her appearance was the remarkable fixedness of this organ, which rested without impudence or defiance, but as if in conscientious exercise of a natural right, upon every object it happened to encounter. It rested in this manner upon Ralph himself, who was somewhat disconcerted by Miss Stackpole’s gracious and comfortable aspect, which seemed to indicate that it would not be so easy as he had assumed to disapprove of her. She was very well dressed, in fresh dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was scrupulously, fastidiously neat. From top to toe she carried not an ink-stain. She spoke in a clear, high voice—a voice not rich, but loud, though after she had taken her place, with her companions, in Mr. Touchett’s carriage, she struck him, rather to his surprise, as not an abundant talker. She answered the inquiries made of her by Isabel, however, and in which the young man ventured to join, with a great deal of precision and distinctness; and later, in the library at Gardencourt, when she had made the acquaintance of Mr. Touchett (his wife not having thought it necessary to appear), did more to give the measure of her conversational powers.
“Well, I should like to know whether you consider yourselves American or English,” she said. “If once I knew, I could talk to you accordingly.”
“Talk to us anyhow, and we shall be thankful,” Ralph answered, liberally.
She fixed her eyes upon him, and there was something in their character that reminded him of large polished buttons; he seemed to see the reflection of surrounding objects upon the pupil. The expression of a button is not usually deemed human, but there was something in Miss Stackpole’s gaze that made him, as he was a very modest man, feel vaguely embarrassed and uncomfortable. This sensation, it must be added, after he had spent a day or two in her company, sensibly diminished, though it never wholly disappeared. “I don’t suppose that you are going to undertake to persuade me that you are an American,” she said.
“To please you, I will be an Englishman, I will be a Turk!”
“Well, if you can change about that way, you are very welcome,” Miss Stackpole rejoined.
“I am sure you understand everything, and that differences of nationality are no barrier to you,” Ralph went on.
Miss Stackpole gazed at him still. “Do you mean the foreign languages?”
“The languages are nothing. I mean the spirit—the genius.”
“I am not sure that I understand you,” said the correspondent of the Interviewer; “but I expect I shall before I leave.”
“He is what is called a cosmopolitan,” Isabel suggested.
“That means he’s a little of everything and not much of any. I must say I think patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.”
“Ah, but where does home begin, Miss Stackpole?” Ralph inquired.
“I don’t know where it begins, but I know where it ends. It ended a long time before I got here.”
“Don’t you like it over here?” asked Mr. Touchett, with his mild, wise, aged, innocent voice.
“Well, sir, I haven’t quite made up my mind what ground I shall take. I feel a good deal cramped. I felt it on the journey from Liverpool to London.”
“Perhaps you were in a crowded carriage,” Ralph suggested.
“Yes, but it was crowded with friends—a party of Americans whose acquaintance I had made upon the steamer; a most lovely group, from Little Rock, Arkansas. In spite of that I felt cramped—I felt something pressing upon me; I couldn’t tell what it was. I felt at the very commencement as if I were not going to sympathise with the atmosphere. But I suppose I shall make my own atmosphere. Your surroundings seem very attractive.”
“Ah, we too are a lovely group!” said Ralph. “Wait a little and you will see.”
Miss Stackpole showed every disposition to wait, and evidently was prepared to make a considerable stay at Garden-court. She occupied herself in the mornings with literary labour; but in spite of this Isabel spent many hours with her friend, who, once her daily task performed, was of an eminently social tendency. Isabel speedily found occasion to request her to desist from celebrating the charms of their common sojourn in print, having discovered, on the second morning of Miss Stackpole’s visit, that she was engaged upon a letter to the Interviewer, of which the title, in her exquisitely neat and legible hand (exactly that of the copy-books which our heroine remembered at school), was “Americans and Tudors—Glimpses of Gardencourt.” Miss Stackpole, with the best conscience in the world, offered to read her letter to Isabel, who immediately put in her protest.
“I don’t think you ought to do that. I don’t think you ought to describe the place.”
Henrietta gazed at her, as usual. “Why, it’s just what the people want, and it’s a lovely place.”
“It’s too lovely to be put in the newspapers, and it’s not what my uncle wants.”
“Don’t you believe that!” cried Henrietta. “They are always delighted, afterwards.”
“My uncle won’t be delighted—nor my cousin, either. They will consider it a breach of hospitality.”
Miss Stackpole showed no sense of confusion; she simply wiped her pen, very neatly, upon an elegant little implement which she kept for the purpose, and put away her manuscript. “Of course if you don’t approve, I won’t do it; but I sacrifice a beautiful subject.”
“There are plenty of other subjects, there are subjects all round you. We will take some drives, and I will show you some charming scenery.”
“Scenery is not my department; I always need a human interest. You know I am deeply human, Isabel; I always was,” Miss Stackpole rejoined. “I was going to bring in your cousin—the alienated American. There is a great demand just now for the alienated American, and your cousin is a beautiful specimen. I should have handled him severely.”
“He would have died of it!” Isabel exclaimed. “Not of the severity, but of the publicity.”
“Well, I should have liked to kill him a little. And I should have delighted to do your uncle, who seems to me a much nobler type—the American faithful still. He is a grand old man; I don’t see how he can object to my paying him honour.”
Isabel looked at her companion in much wonderment; it appeared to her so strange that a nature in which she found so much to esteem should exhibit such extraordinary disparities. “My poor Henrietta,” she said, “you have no sense of privacy.”
Henrietta coloured deeply, and for a moment her brilliant eyes were suffused; while Isabel marvelled more than ever at her inconsistency. “You do me great injustice,” said Miss Stackpole, with dignity. “I have never written a word about myself!”
“I am very sure of that; but it seems to me one should be modest for others also!”
“Ah, that is very good!” cried Henrietta, seizing her pen again. “Just let me make a note of it, and I will put it in a letter.” She was a thoroughly good-natured woman, and half an hour later she was in as cheerful a mood as should have been looked for in a newspaper-correspondent in want of material.
“I have promised to do the social side,” she said to Isabel; “and how can I do it unless I get ideas? If I can’t describe this place, don’t you know some place I can describe?” Isabel promised she would bethink herself, and the next day, in conversation with her friend, she happened to mention her visit to Lord Warburton’s ancient house. “Ah, you must take me there—that is just the place for me!” Miss Stackpole exclaimed. “I must get a glimpse of the nobility.”
“I can’t take you,” said Isabel; “but Lord Warburton is coming here, and you will have a chance to see him and observe him. Only if you intend to repeat his conversation, I shall certainly give him warning.”
“Don’t do that,” her companion begged; “I want him to be natural.”
“An Englishman is never so natural as when he is holding his tongue,” Isabel rejoined.
It was not apparent, at the end of three days, that his cousin had fallen in love with their visitor, though he had spent a good deal of time in her society. They strolled about the park together, and sat under the trees, and in the afternoon, when it was delightful to float along the Thames, Miss Stackpole occupied a place in the boat in which hitherto Ralph had had but a single companion. Her society had a less insoluble quality than Ralph had expected in the natural perturbation of his sense of the perfect adequacy of that of his cousin; for the correspondent of the Interviewer made him laugh a good deal, and he had long since decided that abundant laughter should be the embellishment of the remainder of his days. Henrietta, on her side, did not quite justify Isabel’s declaration with regard to her indifference to masculine opinion; for poor Ralph appeared to have presented himself to her as an irritating problem, which it would be superficial on her part not to solve.
“What does he do for a living?” she asked of Isabel, the evening of her arrival. “Does he go round all day with his hands in his pockets?”
“He does nothing,” said Isabel, smiling; “he’s a gentleman of leisure.”
“Well, I call that a shame—when I have to work like a cotton-mill,” Miss Stackpole replied. “I should like to show him up.”
“He is in wretched health; he is quite unfit for work,” Isabel urged.
“Pshaw! don’t you believe it. I work when I am sick,” cried her friend. Later, when she stepped into the boat, on joining the water-party, she remarked to Ralph that she supposed he hated her—he would like to drown her.
“Ah, no,” said Ralph, “I keep my victims for a slower torture. And you would be such an interesting one!”
“Well, you do torture me, I may say that. But I shock all your prejudices; that’s one comfort.”
“My prejudices? I haven’t a prejudice to bless myself with. There’s intellectual poverty for you.”
“The more shame to you; I have some delicious prejudices. Of course I spoil your flirtation, or whatever it is you call it, with your cousin; but I don’t care for that, for I render your cousin the service of drawing you out. She will see how thin you are.”
“Ah, do draw me out!” Ralph exclaimed. “So few people will take the trouble.”
Miss Stackpole, in this undertaking, appeared to shrink from no trouble; resorting largely, whenever the opportunity offered, to the natural expedient of interrogation. On the following day the weather was bad, and in the afternoon the young man, by way of providing in-door amusement, offered to show her the pictures. Henrietta strolled through the long gallery in his society, while he pointed out its principal ornaments and mentioned the painters and subjects. Miss Stackpole looked at the pictures in perfect silence, committing herself to no opinion, and Ralph was gratified by the fact that she delivered herself of none of the little ready-made ejaculations of delight of which the visitors to Gardencourt were so frequently lavish. This young lady, indeed, to do her justice, was but little addicted to the use of conventional phrases; there was something earnest and inventive in her tone, which at times, in its brilliant deliberation, suggested a person of high culture speaking a foreign language. Ralph Touchett subsequently learned that she had at one time officiated as art-critic to a Transatlantic journal; but she appeared, in spite of this fact, to carry in her pocket none of the small change of admiration. Suddenly, just after he had called her attention to a charming Constable, she turned and looked at him as if he himself had been a picture.
“Do you always spend your time like this?” she demanded.
“I seldom spend it so agreeably,” said Ralph.
“Well, you know what I mean—without any regular occupation.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “I am the idlest man living.”
Miss Stackpole turned her gaze to the Constable again, and Ralph bespoke her attention for a small Watteau hanging near it, which represented a gentleman in a pink doublet and hose and a ruff, leaning against the pedestal of the statue of a nymph in a garden, and playing the guitar to two ladies seated on the grass.
“That’s my ideal of a regular occupation,” he said.
Miss Stackpole turned to him again and though her eyes had rested upon the picture, he saw that she had not apprehended the subject. She was thinking of something much more serious.
“I don’t see how you can reconcile it to your conscience,” she said.
“My dear lady, I have no conscience!”
“Well, I advise you to cultivate one. You will need it the next time you go to America.”
“I shall probably never go again.”
“Are you ashamed to show yourself?”
Ralph meditated, with a gentle smile.
“I suppose that, if one has no conscience, one has no shame.”
“Well, you have got plenty of assurance,” Henrietta declared. “Do you consider it right to give up your country?”
“Ah, one doesn’t give up one’s country any more than one gives up one’s grandmother. It’s antecedent to choice.”
“I suppose that means that you would give it up if you could? What do they think of you over here?”
“They delight in me.”
“That’s because you truckle to them.”
“Ah, set it down a little to my natural charm!” Ralph urged.
“I don’t know anything about your natural charm. If you have got any charm, it’s quite unnatural. It’s wholly acquired—or at least you have tried hard to acquire it, living over here. I don’t say you have succeeded. It’s a charm that I don’t appreciate, any way. Make yourself useful in some way, and then we will talk about it.”
“Well now, tell me what I shall do,” said Ralph.
“Go right home, to begin with.”
“Yes, I see. And then?”
“Take right hold of something.”
“Well, now, what sort of thing?”
“Anything you please, so long as you take hold. Some new idea, some big work.”
“Is it very difficult to take hold?” Ralph inquired.
“Not if you put your heart into it.”
“Ah, my heart,” said Ralph. “If it depends upon my heart——”
“Haven’t you got any?”
“I had one a few days ago, but I have lost it since.”
“You are not serious,” Miss Stackpole remarked; “that’s what’s the matter with you.” But for all this, in a day or two she again permitted him to fix her attention, and on this occasion assigned a different cause to her mysterious perversity. “I know what’s the matter with you, Mr. Touchett,” she said. “You think you are too good to get married.”
“I thought so till I knew you, Miss Stackpole,” Ralph answered; “and then I suddenly changed my mind.”
“Oh, pshaw!” Henrietta exclaimed impatiently.
“Then it seemed to me,” said Ralph, “that I was not good enough.”
“It would improve you. Besides, it’s your duty.”
“Ah,” cried the young man, “one has so many duties! Is that a duty too?”
“Of course it is—did you never know that before? It’s every one’s duty to get married.”
Ralph meditated a moment; he was disappointed. There was something in Miss Stackpole he had begun to like; it seemed to him that if she was not a charming woman she was at least a very good fellow. She was wanting in distinction, but, as Isabel had said, she was brave, and there is always something fine about that. He had not supposed her to be capable of vulgar arts; but these last words struck him as a false note. When a marriageable young woman urges matrimony upon an unencumbered young man, the most obvious explanation of her conduct is not the altruistic impulse.
“Ah, well now, there is a good deal to be said about that,” Ralph rejoined.
“There may be, but that is the principal thing. I must say I think it looks very exclusive, going round all alone, as if you thought no woman was good enough for you. Do you think you are better than any one else in the world? In America it’s usual for people to marry.”
“If it’s my duty,” Ralph asked, “is it not, by analogy, yours as well?”
Miss Stackpole’s brilliant eyes expanded still further.
“Have you the fond hope of finding a flaw in my reasoning? Of course I have got as good a right to marry as any one else.”
“Well then,” said Ralph, “I won’t say it vexes me to see you single. It delights me rather.”
“You are not serious yet. You never will be.”
“Shall you not believe me to be so on the day that I tell you I desire to give up the practice of going round alone?”
Miss Stackpole looked at him for a moment in a manner which seemed to announce a reply that might technically be called encouraging. But to his great surprise this expression suddenly resolved itself into an appearance of alarm, and even of resentment.
“No, not even then,” she answered, dryly. After which she walked away.
“I have not fallen in love with your friend,” Ralph said that evening to Isabel, “though we talked some time this morning about it.”
“And you said something she didn’t like,” the girl replied. Ralph stared. “Has she complained of me?”
“She told me she thinks there is something very low in the tone of Europeans towards women.”
“Does she call me a European?”
“One of the worst. She told me you had said to her something that an American never would have said. But she didn’t repeat it.”
Ralph treated himself to a burst of resounding laughter.
“She is an extraordinary combination. Did she think I was making love to her?”
“No; I believe even Americans do that. But she apparently thought you mistook the intention of something she had said, and put an unkind construction on it.”
“I thought she was proposing marriage to me, and I accepted her. Was that unkind?”
Isabel smiled. “It was unkind to me. I don’t want you to marry.”
“My dear cousin, what is one to do among you all?” Ralph demanded. “Miss Stackpole tells me it’s my bounden duty, and that it’s hers to see I do mine!”
“She has a great sense of duty,” said Isabel gravely. “She has, indeed, and it’s the motive of everything she says. That’s what I like her for. She thinks it’s very frivolous for you to be single; that’s what she meant to express to you. If you thought she was trying to—to attract you, you were very wrong.”
“It is true it was an odd way; but I did think she was trying to attract me. Excuse my superficiality.”
“You are very conceited. She had no interested views, and never supposed you would think she had.”
“One must be very modest, then, to talk with such women,” Ralph said, humbly. “But it’s is a very strange type. She is too personal—considering that she expects other people not to be. She walks in without knocking at the door.”
“Yes,” Isabel admitted, “she doesn’t sufficiently recognize the existence of knockers; and indeed I am not sure that she doesn’t think them a rather pretentious ornament. She thinks one’s door should stand ajar. But I persist in liking her.”
“I persist in thinking her too familiar,” Ralph rejoined, naturally somewhat uncomfortable under the sense of having been doubly deceived in Miss Stackpole.
“Well,” said Isabel, smiling, “I am afraid it is because she is rather vulgar that I like her.”
“She would be flattered by your reason!”
“If I should tell her, I would not express it in that way. I should say it is because there is something of the ‘people’ in her.”
“What do you know about the people? and what does she, for that matter?”
“She knows a great deal, and I know enough to feel that she is a kind of emanation of the great democracy—of the continent, the country, the nation. I don’t say that she sums it all up, that would be too much to ask of her. But she suggests it, she reminds me of it.”
“You like her then for patriotic reasons. I am afraid it is on those very grounds that I object to her.”
“Ah,” said Isabel, with a kind of joyous sigh, “I like so many things! If a thing strikes me in a certain way, I like it. I don’t want to boast, but I suppose I am rather versatile. I like people to be totally different from Henrietta—in the style of Lord Warburton’s sisters, for instance. So long as I look at the Misses Molyneux, they seem to me to answer a kind of ideal. Then Henrietta presents herself, and I am immensely struck with her; not so much for herself as what stands behind her.”
“Ah, you mean the back view of her,” Ralph suggested.
“What she says is true,” his cousin answered; “you will never be serious. I like the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and across the prairies, blooming and smiling and spreading, till it stops at the blue Pacific! A strong, sweet, fresh odour seems to rise from it, and Henrietta—excuse my simile—has something of that odour in her garments.”
Isabel blushed a little as she concluded this speech, and the blush, together with the momentary ardour she had thrown into it, was so becoming to her that Ralph stood smiling at her for a moment after she had ceased speaking.
“I am not sure the Pacific is blue,” he said; ”but you are a woman of imagination. Henrietta, however, is fragrant—Henrietta is decidedly fragrant!”