Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
“If you could see none but the people I like, my dear, you would have a very small society,” Mrs. Touchett frankly admitted; “and I don’t think I like any man or woman well enough to recommend them to you. When it comes to recommending, it is a serious affair. I don’t like Miss Stackpole—I don’t like her tone. She talks too loud, and she looks at me too hard. I am sure she has lived all her life in a boarding-house, and I detest the style of manners that such a way of living produces. If you ask me if I prefer my own manners, which you doubtless think very bad, I will tell you that I prefer them immensely. Miss Stackpole knows that I detest boarding-house civilisation, and she detests me for detesting it, because she thinks it is the highest in the world. She would like Gardencourt a great deal better if it were a boarding-house. For me, I find it almost too much of one! We shall never get on together, therefore, and there is no use of trying.”
Mrs. Touchett was right in guessing that Henrietta disapproved of her, but she had not quite put her finger on the reason. A day or two after Miss Stackpole’s arrival she had made some invidious reflections on American hotels, which excited a vein of counter-argument on the part of the correspondent of the Interviewer, who in the exercise of her profession had acquired a large familiarity with the technical hospitality of her country. Henrietta expressed the opinion that American hotels were the best in the world, and Mrs. Touchett recorded a conviction that they were the worst. Ralph, with his experimental geniality, suggested, by way of healing the breach, that the truth lay between the two extremes, and that the establishments in question ought to be described as fair middling. This contribution to the discussion, however, Miss Stackpole rejected with scorn. Middling, indeed! If they were not the best in the world, they were the worst, but there was nothing middling about an American hotel.
“We judge from different points of view, evidently,” said Mrs. Touchett. “I like to be treated as an individual; you like to be treated as a ‘party’.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Henrietta replied. “I like to be treated as an American lady.”
“Poor American ladies!” cried Mrs. Touchett, with a laugh. “They are the slaves of slaves.”
“They are the companions of freemen,” Henrietta rejoined.
“They are the companions of their servants—the Irish chambermaid and the negro waiter. They share their work.”
“Do you call the domestics in an American household ‘slaves’?” Miss Stackpole inquired. “If that’s the way you desire to treat them, no wonder you don’t like America.”
“If you have not good servants, you are miserable,” Mrs. Touchett said, serenely. “They are very bad in America, but I have five perfect ones in Florence.”
“I don’t see what you want with five,” Henrietta could not help observing. “I don’t think I should like to see five persons surrounding me in that menial position.”
“I like them in that position better than in some others,” cried Mrs. Touchett, with a laugh.
“Should you like me better if I were your butler, dear?” her husband asked.
“I don’t think I should; you would make a very poor butler.”
“The companions of freemen—I like that, Miss Stackpole,” said Ralph. “It’s a beautiful description.”
“When I said freemen, I didn’t mean you, sir!”
And this was the only reward that Ralph got for his compliment. Miss Stackpole was baffled; she evidently thought there was something treasonable in Mrs. Touchett’s appreciation of a class which she privately suspected of being a mysterious survival of feudalism. It was perhaps because her mind was oppressed with this image that she suffered some days to elapse before she said to Isabel in the morning, while they were alone together,
“My dear friend, I wonder whether you are growing faithless?”
“Faithless? Faithless to you, Henrietta?”
“No, that would be a great pain; but it is not that.”
“Faithless to my country, then?”
“Ah, that I hope will never be. When I wrote to you from Liverpool, I said I had something particular to tell you. You have never asked me what it is. Is it because you have suspected?”
“Suspected what? As a rule, I don’t think I suspect,” said Isabel. “I remember now that phrase in your letter, but I confess I had forgotten it. What have you to tell me?”
Henrietta looked disappointed, and her steady gaze betrayed it.
“You don’t ask that right—as if you thought it important. You are changed—you are thinking of other things.”
“Tell me what you mean, and I think of that.”
“Will you really think of it? That is what I wish to be sure of.”
“I have not much control of my thoughts, but I will do my best,” said Isabel.
Henrietta gazed at her, in silence, for a period of time which tried Isabel’s patience, so that our heroine said at last—
“Do you mean that you are going to be married?”
“Not till I have seen Europe!” said Miss Stackpole. “What are you laughing at?” she went on. “What I mean is, that Mr. Goodwood came out in the steamer with me.”
“Ah!” Isabel exclaimed, quickly.
“You say that right. I had a good deal of talk with him; he has come after you.”
“Did he tell you so?”
“No, he told me nothing; that’s how I knew it,” said Henrietta, cleverly. “He said very little about you, but I spoke of you a good deal.”
Isabel was silent a moment. At the mention of Mr. Goodwood’s name she had coloured a little, and now her blush was slowly fading.
“I am very sorry you did that,” she observed at last.
“It was a pleasure to me, and I liked the way he listened. I could have talked a long time to such a listener; he was so quiet, so intense; he drank it all in.”
“What did you say about me?” Isabel asked.
“I said you were on the whole the finest creature I know.”
“I am very sorry for that. He thinks too well of me already; he ought not to be encouraged.”
“He is dying for a little encouragement. I see his face now, and his earnest, absorbed look, while I talked. I never saw an ugly man look so handsome!”
“He is very simple-minded,” said Isabel. “And he is not so ugly.”
“There is nothing so simple as a great passion.”
“It is not a great passion; I am very sure it is not that.”
“You don’t say that as if you were sure.”
Isabel gave rather a cold smile.
“I shall say it better to Mr. Goodwood himself!”
“He will soon give you a chance,” said Henrietta.
Isabel offered no answer to this assertion, which her companion made with an air of great confidence.
“He will find you changed,” the latter pursued. “You have been affected by your new surroundings.”
“Very likely. I am affected by everything.”
“By everything but Mr. Goodwood!” Miss Stackpole exclaimed, with a laugh.
Isabel failed even to smile in reply; and in a moment she said—
“Did he ask you to speak to me?”
“Not in so many words. But his eyes asked it—and his handshake, when he bade me good-bye.”
“Thank you for doing so.” And Isabel turned away.
“Yes, you are changed; you have got new ideas over here,” her friend continued.
“I hope so,” said Isabel; “one should get as many new ideas as possible.”
“Yes; but they shouldn’t interfere with the old ones.”
Isabel turned about again. “If you mean that I had any idea with regard to Mr. Goodwood——” And then she paused; Henrietta’s bright eyes seemed to her to grow enormous.
“My dear child, you certainly encouraged him,” said Miss Stackpole.
Isabel appeared for the moment to be on the point of denying this charge, but instead of this she presently answered—“It is very true; I did encourage him.” And then she inquired whether her companion had learned from Mr. Goodwood what he intended to do. This inquiry was a concession to curiosity, for she did not enjoy discussing the gentleman with Henrietta Stackpole, and she thought that in her treatment of the subject this faithful friend lacked delicacy.
“I asked him, and he said he meant to do nothing,” Miss Stackpole answered. “But I don’t believe that; he’s not a man to do nothing. He is a man of action. Whatever happens to him, he will always do something, and whatever he does will be right.”
“I quite believe that,” said Isabel. Henrietta might be wanting in delicacy; but it touched the girl, all the same, to hear this rich assertion made.
“Ah, you do care for him,” Henrietta murmured.
“Whatever he does will be right,” Isabel repeated. “When a man is of that supernatural mould, what does it matter to him whether one cares for him?”
“It may not matter to him, but it matters to one’s self.”
“Ah, what it matters to me, that is not what we are discussing,” said Isabel, smiling a little.
This time her companion was grave. “Well, I don’t care; you have changed,” she replied. “You are not the girl you were a few short weeks ago, and Mr. Goodwood will see it. I expect him here any day.”
“I hope he will hate me, then,” said Isabel.
“I believe that you hope it about as much as I believe that he is capable of it.”
To this observation our heroine made no rejoinder; she was absorbed in the feeling of alarm given her by Henrietta’s intimation that Caspar Goodwood would present himself at Gardencourt. Alarm is perhaps a violent term to apply to the uneasiness with which she regarded this contingency; but her uneasiness was keen, and there were various good reasons for it. She pretended to herself that she thought the event impossible, and, later, she communicated her disbelief to her friend; but for the next forty-eight hours, nevertheless, she stood prepared to hear the young man’s name announced. The feeling was oppressive; it made the air sultry, as if there were to be a change of weather; and the weather, socially speaking, had been so agreeable during Isabel’s stay at Gardencourt that any change would be for the worse. Her suspense, however, was dissipated on the second day. She had walked into the park, in company with the sociable Bunchie, and after strolling about for some time, in a manner at once listless and restless, had seated herself on a garden-bench, within sight of the house, beneath a spreading beech, where, in a white dress ornamented with black ribbons, she formed, among the flickering shadows, a very graceful and harmonious image. She entertained herself for some moments with talking to the little terrier, as to whom the proposal of an ownership divided with her cousin had been applied as impartially as possible—as impartially as Bunchie’s own somewhat fickle and inconstant sympathies would allow. But she was notified for the first time, on this occasion, of the finite character of Bunchie’s intellect; hitherto she had been mainly struck with its extent. It seemed to her at last that she would do well to take a book; formerly, when she felt heavy-hearted, she had been able, with the help of some well-chosen volume, to transfer the seat of consciousness to the organ of pure reason. Of late, however, it was not to be denied, literature had seemed a fading light, and even after she had reminded herself that her uncle’s library was provided with a complete set of those authors which no gentleman’s collection should be without, she sat motionless and empty-handed, with her eyes fixed upon the cool green turf of the lawn. Her meditations were presently interrupted by the arrival of a servant, who handed her a letter. The letter bore the London postmark, and was addressed in a hand that she knew—that she seemed to know all the better, indeed, as the writer had been present to her mind when the letter was delivered. This document proved to be short, and I may give it entire.
Isabel read Mr. Goodwood’s letter with such profound attention that she had not perceived an approaching tread on the soft grass. Looking up, however, as she mechanically folded the paper, she saw Lord Warburton standing before her.