Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
“I judge more than I used to,” she said to Isabel; “but it seems to me that I have earned the right. One can’t judge till one is forty; before that we are too eager, too hard, too cruel, and in addition too ignorant. I am sorry for you; it will be a long time before you are forty. But every gain is a loss of some kind; I often think that after forty one can’t really feel. The freshness, the quickness have certainly gone. You will keep them longer than most people; it will be a great satisfaction to me to see you some years hence. I want to see what life makes of you. One thing is certain—it can’t spoil you. It may pull you about horribly; but I defy it to break you up.”
Isabel received this assurance as a young soldier, still panting from a slight skirmish in which he has come off with honour, might receive a pat on the shoulder from his colonel. Like such a recognition of merit, it seemed to come with authority. How could the lightest word do less, of a person who was prepared to say, of almost everything Isabel told her—“Oh, I have been in that, my dear; it passes, like everything else.” Upon many of her interlocutors, Madame Merle might have produced an irritating effect; it was so difficult to surprise her. But Isabel, though by no means incapable of desiring to be effective, had not at present this motive. She was too sincere, too interested in her judicious companion. And then, moreover, Madame Merle never said such things in the tone of triumph or of boastfulness; they dropped from her like grave confessions.
A period of bad weather had settled down upon Gardencourt; the days grew shorter, and there was an end to the pretty tea-parties on the lawn. But Isabel had long in-door conversations with her fellow-visitor, and in spite of the rain the two ladies often sallied forth for a walk, equipped with the defensive apparatus which the English climate and the English genius have between them brought to such perfection. Madame Merle was very appreciative; she liked almost everything, including the English rain. “There is always a little of it and never too much at once,” she said; “and it never wets you, and it always smells good. She declared that in England the pleasures of smell were great—that in this inimitable island there was a certain mixture of fog and beer and soot which, however odd it might sound, was the national aroma, and was most agreeable to the nostril; and she used to lift the sleeve of her British overcoat and bury her nose in it, to inhale the clear, fine odour of the wool. Poor Ralph Touchett, as soon as the autumn had begun to define itself, became almost a prisoner; in bad weather he was unable to step out of the house, and he used sometimes to stand at one of the windows, with his hands in his pockets, and, with a countenance half rueful, half critical, watch Isabel and Madame Merle as they walked down the avenue under a pair of umbrellas. The roads about Gardencourt were so firm, even in the worst weather, that the two ladies always came back with a healthy glow in their cheeks, looking at the soles of their neat, stout boots, and declaring that their walk had done them inexpressible good. Before lunch Madame Merle was always engaged; Isabel admired the inveteracy with which she occupied herself. Our heroine had always passed for a person of resources and had taken a certain pride in being one; but she envied the talents, the accomplishments, the aptitudes, of Madame Merle. She found herself desiring to emulate them, and in this and other ways Madame Merle presented herself as a model. “I should like to be like that!” Isabel secretly exclaimed, more than once, as one of her friend’s numerous facets suddenly caught the light, and before long she knew that she had learned a lesson from this exemplary woman. It took no very long time, indeed, for Isabel to feel that she was, as the phrase is, under an influence. “What is the harm,” she asked herself, “so long as it is a good one? The more one is under a good influence the better. The only thing is to see our steps as we take them—to understand them as we go. That I think I shall always do. I needn’t be afraid of becoming too pliable; it is my fault that I am not pliable enough.” It is said that imitation is the sincerest flattery; and if Isabel was tempted to reproduce in her deportment some of the most graceful features of that of her friend, it was not so much because she desired herself to shine as because she wished to hold up the lamp for Madame Merle. She liked her extremely; but she admired her even more than she liked her. She sometimes wondered what Henrietta Stackpole would say to her thinking so much of this brilliant fugitive from Brooklyn; and had a conviction that Henrietta would not approve of it. Henrietta would not like Madame Merle; for reasons that she could not have defined, this truth came home to Isabel. On the other hand she was equally sure that should the occasion offer, her new friend would accommodate herself perfectly to her old; Madame Merle was too humorous, too observant, not to do justice to Henrietta, and on becoming acquainted with her would probably give the measure of a tact which Miss Stackpole could not hope to emulate. She appeared to have, in her experience, a touchstone for everything, and somewhere in the capacious pocket of her genial memory she would find the key to Henrietta’s virtues. “That is the great thing,” Isabel reflected; “that is the supreme good fortune: to be in a better position for appreciating people than they are for appreciating you.” And she added that this, when one considered it, was simply the essence of the aristocratic situation. In this light, if in none other, one should aim at the aristocratic situation.
I cannot enumerate all the links in the chain which led Isabel to think of Madame Merle’s situation as aristocratic—a view of it never expressed in any reference made to it by that lady herself. She had known great things and great people, but she had never played a great part. She was one of the small ones of the earth; she had not been born to honours; she knew the world too well to be guilty of any fatuous illusions on the subject of her own place in it. She had known a good many of the fortunate few, and was perfectly aware of those points at which their fortune differed from hers. But if by her own measure she was nothing of a personage, she had yet, to Isabel’s imagination, a sort of greatness. To be so graceful, so gracious, so wise, so good, and to make so light of it all—that was really to be a great lady; especially when one looked so much like one. If Madame Merle, however, made light of her advantages as regards the world, it was not because she had not, for her own entertainment, taken them, as I have intimated, as seriously as possible. Her natural talents, for instance; these she had zealously cultivated. After breakfast she wrote a succession of letters; her correspondence was a source of surprise to Isabel when they sometimes walked together to the village post-office, to deposit Madame Merle’s contribution to the mail. She knew a multitude of people, and, as she told Isabel, something was always turning up to be written about. Of painting she was devotedly fond, and made no more of taking a sketch than of pulling off her gloves. At Gardencourt she was perpetually taking advantage of an hour’s sunshine to go out with a camp-stool and a box of water-colours. That she was a brilliant musician we have already perceived, and it was evidence of the fact that when she seated herself at the piano, as she always did in the evening, her listeners resigned themselves without a murmur to losing the entertainment of her talk. Isabel, since she had known Madame Merle, felt ashamed of her own playing, which she now looked upon as meagre and artless; and indeed, though she had been thought to play very well, the loss to society when, in taking her place upon the music-stool, she turned her back to the room, was usually deemed greater than the gain. When Madame Merle was neither writing, nor painting, nor touching the piano, she was usually employed upon wonderful morsels of picturesque embroidery, cushions, curtains, decorations for the chimney-piece; a sort of work in which her bold, free invention was as remarkable as the agility of her needle. She was never idle, for when she was engaged in none of the ways I have mentioned, she was either reading (she appeared to Isabel to read everything important), or walking out, or playing patience with the cards, or talking with her fellow inmates. And with all this, she always had the social quality; she never was preoccupied, she never pressed too hard. She laid down her pastimes as easily as she took them up; she worked and talked at the same time, and she appeared to attach no importance to anything she did. She gave away her sketches and tapestries; she rose from the piano, or remained there, according to the convenience of her auditors, which she always unerringly divined. She was, in short, a most comfortable, profitable, agreeable person to live with. If for Isabel she had a fault, it was that she was not natural; by which the girl meant, not that she was affected or pretentious; for from these vulgar vices no woman could have been more exempt; but that her nature had been too much over-laid by custom and her angles too much smoothed. She had become too flexible, too supple; she was too finished, too civilised. She was, in a word, too perfectly the social animal that man and woman are supposed to have been intended to be; and she had rid herself of every remnant of that tonic wildness which we may assume to have belonged even to the most amiable persons in the ages before country-house life was the fashion. Isabel found it difficult to think of Madame Merle as an isolated figure; she existed only in her relations with her fellow-mortals. Isabel often wondered what her relations might be with her own soul. She always ended, however, by feeling that having a charming surface does not necessarily prove that one is superficial; this was an illusion in which, in her youth, she had only just sufficiently escaped being nourished. Madame Merle was not superficial—not she. She was deep; and her nature spoke none the less in her behaviour because it spoke a conventional language. “What is language at all but a convention?” said Isabel. “She has the good taste not to pretend, like some people I have met, to express herself by original signs.”
“I am afraid you have suffered much,” Isabel once found occasion to say to her, in response to some allusion that she had dropped.
“What makes you think that?” Madame Merle asked, with a picturesque smile. “I hope I have not the pose of a martyr.”
“No; but you sometimes say things that I think people who have always been happy would not have found out.”
“I have not always been happy,” said Madame Merle, smiling still, but with a mock gravity, as if she were telling a child a secret. “What a wonderful thing!”
“A great many people give me the impression of never having felt anything very much,” Isabel answered.
“It’s very true; there are more iron pots, I think, than porcelain ones. But you may depend upon it that every one has something; even the hardest iron pots have a little bruise, a little hole, somewhere. I flatter myself that I am rather stout porcelain; but if I must tell you the truth I have been chipped and cracked! I do very well for service yet, because I have been cleverly mended; and I try to remain in the cupboard—the quiet, dusky cupboard, where there is an odour of stale spices—as much as I can. But when I have to come out, and into a strong light, then, my dear, I am a horror!”
I know not whether it was on this occasion or some other, that when the conversation had taken the turn I have just indicated, she said to Isabel that some day she would relate her history. Isabel assured her that she should delight to listen to it, and reminded her more than once of this engagement. Madame Merle, however, appeared to desire a postponement, and at last frankly told the young girl that she must wait till they knew each other better. This would certainly happen; a long friendship lay before them. Isabel assented, but at the same time asked Madame Merle if she could not trust her—if she feared a betrayal of confidence.
“It is not that I am afraid of your repeating what I say,” the elder lady answered; “I am afraid, on the contrary, of your taking it too much to yourself. You would judge me too harshly; you are of the cruel age.” She preferred for the present to talk to Isabel about Isabel, and exhibited the greatest interest in our heroine’s history, her sentiments, opinions, prospects. She made her chatter, and listened to her chatter with inexhaustible sympathy and good nature. In all this there was something flattering to the girl, who knew that Madame Merle knew a great many distinguished people, and had lived, as Mrs. Touchett said, in the best company in Europe. Isabel thought the better of herself for enjoying the favour of a person who had so large a field of comparison; and it was perhaps partly to gratify this sense of profiting by comparison that she often begged her friend to tell her about the people she knew. Madame Merle had been a dweller in many lands, and had social ties in a dozen different countries. “I don’t pretend to be learned,” she would say, “but I think I know my Europe;” and she spoke one day of going to Sweden to stay with an old friend, and another of going to Wallachia to follow up a new acquaintance. With England, where she had often stayed, she was thoroughly familiar; and for Isabel’s benefit threw a great deal of light upon the customs of the country and the character of the people, who “after all,” as she was fond of saying, were the finest people in the world.
“You must not think it strange, her staying in the house at such a time as this, when Mr. Touchett is passing away,” Mrs. Touchett remarked to Isabel. “She is incapable of doing anything indiscreet; she is the best-bred woman I know. It’s a favour to me that she stays; she is putting off a lot of visits at great houses,” said Mrs. Touchett, who never forgot that when she herself was in England her social value sank two or three degrees in the scale. “She has her pick of places; she is not in want of a shelter. But I have asked her to stay because I wish you to know her. I think it will be a good thing for you. Serena Merle has no faults.”
“If I didn’t already like her very much that description might alarm me,” Isabel said.
“She never does anything wrong. I have brought you out here, and I wish to do the best for you. Your sister Lily told me that she hoped I would give you plenty of opportunities. I give you one in securing Madame Merle. She is one of the most brilliant women in Europe.”
“I like her better than I like your description of her,” Isabel persisted in saying.
“Do you flatter yourself that you will find a fault in her? I hope you will let me know when you do.”
“That will be cruel—to you,” said Isabel.
“You needn’t mind me. You never will find one.”
“Perhaps not; but I think I shall not miss it.”
“She is always up to the mark!” said Mrs. Touchett.
Isabel after this said to Madame Merle that she hoped she knew Mrs. Touchett believed she had not a fault.
“I am obliged to you, but I am afraid your aunt has no perception of spiritual things,” Madame Merle answered.
“Do you mean by that that you have spiritual faults?”
“Ah no; I mean nothing so flat? I mean that having no faults, for your aunt, means that one is never late for dinner—that is, for her dinner. I was not late, by the way, the other day, when you came back from London; the clock was just at eight when I came into the drawing-room; it was the rest of you that were before the time. It means that one answers a letter the day one gets it, and that when one comes to stay with her one doesn’t bring too much luggage, and is careful not to be taken ill. For Mrs. Touchett those things constitute virtue; it’s a blessing to be able to reduce it to its elements.”
Madame Merle’s conversation, it will be perceived, was enriched with bold, free touches of criticism, which, even when they had a restrictive effect, never struck Isabel as ill-natured. It never occurred to the girl, for instance, that Mrs. Touchett’s accomplished guest was abusing her; and this for very good reasons. In the first place Isabel agreed with her; in the second Madame Merle implied that there was a great deal more to say; and in the third, to speak to one without ceremony of one’s near relations was an agreeable sign of intimacy. These signs of intimacy multiplied as the days elapsed, and there was none of which Isabel was more sensible than of her companion’s preference for making Miss Archer herself a topic. Though she alluded frequently to the incidents of her own life, she never lingered upon them; she was as little of an egotist as she was of a gossip.
“I am old, and stale, and faded,” she said more than once; “I am of no more interest than last week’s newspaper. You are young and fresh, and of to-day; you have the great thing—you have actuality. I once had it—we all have it for an hour. You, however, will have it for longer. Let us talk about you, then, you can say nothing that I shall not care to hear. It is a sign that I am growing old—that I like to talk with younger people. I think it’s a very pretty compensation. If we can’t have youth within us we can have it outside of us, and I really think we see it and feel it better that way. Of course we must be in sympathy with it—that I shall always be. I don’t know that I shall ever be ill-natured with old people—I hope not; there are certainly some old people that I adore. But I shall never be ill-natured with the young; they touch me too much. I give you carte blanche, then; you can even be impertinent if you like; I shall let it pass. I talk as if I were a hundred years old, you say? Well, I am, if you please; I was born before the French Revolution. Ah, my dear je viens de loin; I belong to the old world. But it is not of that I wish to talk; I wish to talk about the new. You must tell me more about America; you never tell me enough. Here I have been since I was brought here as a helpless child, and it is ridiculous, or rather it’s scandalous, how little I know about the land of my birth. There are a great many of us like that, over here; and I must say I think we are a wretched set of people. You should live in your own country; whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we are not good Americans we are certainly poor Europeans; we have no natural place here. We are mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our feet in the soil. At least one can know it, and not have illusions. A woman, perhaps, can get on; a woman, it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl. You protest, my dear? you are horrified? you declare you will never crawl? It is very true that I don’t see you crawling; you stand more upright than a good many poor creatures. Very good; on the whole, I don’t think you will crawl. But the men, the Americans; je vous demande un peu, what do they make of it over here? I don’t envy them, trying to arrange themselves. Look at poor Ralph Touchett; what sort of a figure do you call that? Fortunately he has got a consumption; I say fortunately, because it gives him something to do. His consumption is his career; it’s a kind of position. You can say, ‘Oh, Mr. Touchett, he takes care of his lungs, he knows a great deal about climates.’ But without that, who would he be, what would he represent? ‘Mr. Ralph Touchett, an American who lives in Europe.’ That signifies absolutely nothing—it’s impossible that anything should signify less. ‘He is very cultivated,’ they say; ‘he has got a very pretty collection of old snuff-boxes.’ The collection is all that is wanted to make it pitiful. I am tired of the sound of the word; I think it’s grotesque. With the poor old father it’s different; he has his identity, and it is rather a massive one. He represents a great financial house, and that, in our day, is as good as anything else. For an American, at any rate, that will do very well. But I persist in thinking your cousin is very lucky to have a chronic malady; so long as he doesn’t die of it. It’s much better than the snuff-boxes. If he were not ill, you say, he would do something?—he would take his father’s place in the house. My poor child, I doubt it; I don’t think he is at all fond of the house. However, you know him better than I, though I used to know him rather well, and he may have the benefit of the doubt. The worst case, I think, is a friend of mine, a countryman of ours, who lives in Italy (where he also was brought before he knew better), and who is one of the most delightful men I know. Some day you must know him. I will bring you together, and then you will see what I mean. He is Gilbert Osmond—he lives in Italy; that is all one can say about him. He is exceedingly clever, a man made to be distinguished; but, as I say, you exhaust the description when you say that he is Mr. Osmond, who lives in Italy. No career, no name, no position, no fortune, no past, no future, no anything. Oh yes, he paints, if you please—paints in water-colours, like me, only better than I. His painting is pretty bad; on the whole I am rather glad of that. Fortunately he is very indolent, so indolent that it amounts to a sort of position. He can say, ‘Oh, I do nothing; I am too deadly lazy. You can do nothing to-day unless you get up at five o’clock in the morning.’ In that way he becomes a sort of exception; you feel that he might do something if he would only rise early. He never speaks of his painting—to people at large; he is too clever for that. But he has a little girl—a dear little girl; he does speak of her. He is devoted to her, and if it were a career to be an excellent father he would be very distinguished. But I am afraid that is no better than the snuff-boxes; perhaps not even so good. Tell me what they do in America,” pursued Madame Merle, who, it must be observed, parenthetically, did not deliver herself all at once of these reflections, which are presented in a cluster for the convenience of the reader. She talked of Florence, where Mr. Osmond lived, and where Mrs. Touchett occupied a mediæval palace; she talked of Rome, where she herself had a little pied-à-terre, with some rather good old damask. She talked of places, of people, and even, as the phrase is, of “subjects”; and from time to time she talked of their kind old host and of the prospect of his recovery. From the first she had thought this prospect small, and Isabel had been struck with the positive, discriminating, competent way which she took of the measure of his remainder of life. One evening she announced definitely that he would not live.
“Sir Matthew Hope told me so, as plainly as was proper,” she said; “standing there, near the fire, before dinner. He makes himself very agreeable, the great doctor. I don’t mean that his saying that has anything to do with it. But he says such things with great tact. I had said to him that I felt ill at my ease, staying here at such a time; it seemed to me so indiscreet—it was not as if I could nurse. ‘You must remain, you must remain,’ he answered; ‘your office will come later.’ Was not that a very delicate way both of saying that poor Mr. Touchett would go, and that I might be of some use as a consoler? In fact, however, I shall not be of the slightest use. Your aunt will console herself; she, and she alone, knows just how much consolation she will require. It would be a very delicate matter for another person to undertake to administer the dose. With your cousin it will be different; he will miss his father sadly. But I should never presume to condole with Mr. Ralph; we are not on those terms.”
Madame Merle had alluded more than once to some undefined incongruity in her relations with Ralph Touchett; so Isabel took this occasion of asking her if they were not good friends.
“Perfectly, but he doesn’t like me.”
“What have you done to him?”
“Nothing whatever. But one has no need of a reason for that.”
“For not liking you? I think one has need of a very good reason.”
“You are very kind. Be sure you have one ready for the day when you begin.”
“Begin to dislike you? I shall never begin.”
“I hope not; because if you do, you will never end. That is the way with your cousin; he doesn’t get over it. It’s an antipathy of nature—if I can call it that when it is all on his side. I have nothing whatever against him, and don’t bear him the least little grudge for not doing me justice. Justice is all I want. However, one feels that he is a gentleman, and would never say anything underhand about one. Cartes sur table,” Madame Merle subjoined in a moment, “I am not afraid of him.”
“I hope not, indeed,” said Isabel, who added something about his being the kindest fellow living. She remembered, however, that on her first asking him about Madame Merle he had answered her in a manner which this lady might have thought injurious without being explicit. There was something between them, Isabel said to herself, but she said nothing more than this. If it were something of importance, it should inspire respect; if it were not, it was not worth her curiosity. With all her love of knowledge, Isabel had a natural shrinking from raising curtains and looking into unlighted corners. The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with a still tender love of ignorance.
But Madame Merle sometimes said things that startled her, made her raise her clear eyebrows at the time, and think of the words afterwards.
“I would give a great deal to be your age again,” she broke out once, with a bitterness which, though diluted in her customary smile, was by no means disguised by it. “If I could only begin again—if I could have my life before me!”
“Your life is before you yet,” Isabel answered gently, for she was vaguely awe-struck.
“No; the best part is gone, and gone for nothing.”
“Surely, not for nothing,” said Isabel.
“Why not—what have I got? Neither husband, nor child, nor fortune, nor position, nor the traces of a beauty which I never had.”
“You have friends, dear lady.”
“I am not so sure!” cried Madame Merle.
“Ah, you are wrong. You have memories, talents——”
Madame Merle interrupted her.
“What have my talents brought me? Nothing but the need of using them still, to get through the hours, the years, to cheat myself with some pretence of action. As for my memories, the less said about them the better. You will be my friend till you find a better use for your friendship.”
“It will be for you to see that I don’t then,” said Isabel.
“Yes; I would make an effort to keep you,” Madame Merle rejoined, looking at her gravely. “When I say I should like to be your age,” she went on, “I mean with your qualities—frank, generous, sincere, like you. In that case I should have made something better of my life.”
“What should you have liked to do that you have not done?”
Madame Merle took a sheet of music—she was seated at the piano, and had abruptly wheeled about on the stool when she first spoke—and mechanically turned the leaves. At last she said—
“I am very ambitious!”
“And your ambitions have not been satisfied? They must have been great.”
“They were great. I should make myself ridiculous by talking of them.”
Isabel wondered what they could have been—whether Madame Merle had aspired to wear a crown. “I don’t know what your idea of success may be, but you seem to me to have been successful. To me, indeed, you are an image of success.”
Madame Merle tossed away the music with a smile.
“What is your idea of success?”
“You evidently think it must be very tame,” said Isabel. “It is to see some dream of one’s youth come true.”
“Ah,” Madame Merle exclaimed, “that I have never seen! But my dreams were so great—so preposterous. Heaven forgive me, I am dreaming now.” And she turned back to the piano and began to play with energy.
On the morrow she said to Isabel that her definition of success had been very pretty, but frightfully sad. Measured in that way, who had succeeded? The dreams of one’s youth, why they were enchanting, they were divine! Who had ever seen such things come to pass?
“I myself—a few of them,” Isabel ventured to answer.
“Already? They must have been dreams of yesterday.”
“I began to dream very young,” said Isabel, smiling.
“Ah, if you mean the aspirations of your childhood—that of having a pink sash and a doll that could close her eyes.”
“No, I don’t mean that.”
“Or a young man with a moustache going down on his knees to you.”
“No, nor that either,” Isabel declared, blushing.
Madame Merle gave a glance at her blush which caused it to deepen.
“I suspect that is what you do mean. We have all had the young man with the moustache. He is the inevitable young man; he doesn’t count.”
Isabel was silent for a moment, and then, with extreme and characteristic inconsequence—
“Why shouldn’t he count? There are young men and young men.”
“And yours was a paragon—is that what you mean?” cried her friend with a laugh. “If you have had the identical young man you dreamed of, then that was success, and I congratulate you. Only, in that case, why didn’t you fly with him to his castle in the Apennines?”
“He has no castle in the Apennines.”
“What has he? An ugly brick house in Fortieth Street? Don’t tell me that; I refuse to recognise that as an ideal.”
“I don’t care anything about his house,” said Isabel.
“That is very crude of you. When you have lived as long as I, you will see that every human being has his shell, and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There is no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we are each of us made up of a cluster of appurtenances. What do you call one’s self? Where does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. I know that a large part of myself is in the dresses I choose to wear. I have a great respect for things! One’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s clothes, the book one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive.”
This was very metaphysical; not more so, however, than several observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was found of metaphysics, but she was unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of the human personality.
“I don’t agree with you,” she said. “I think just the other way. I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; on the contrary, it’s a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly, the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don’t express me; and heaven forbid they should!”
“You dress very well,” interposed Madame Merle, skilfully.
“Possibly; but I don’t care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don’t express me. To begin with, it’s not my own choice that I wear them; they are imposed upon me by society.”
“Should you prefer to go without them?” Madame Merle inquired, in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.
I am bound to confess, though it may cast some discredit upon the sketch I have given of the youthful loyalty which our heroine practised towards this accomplished woman, that Isabel had said nothing whatever to her about Lord Warburton, and had been equally reticent on the subject of Caspar Goodwood. Isabel had not concealed from her, however, that she had had opportunities of marrying, and had even let her know that they were of a highly advantageous kind. Lord Warburton had left Lockleigh, and was gone to Scotland, taking his sisters with him; and though he had written to Ralph more than once, to ask about Mr. Touchett’s health, the girl was not liable to the embarrassment of such inquiries as, had he still been in the neighbourhood, he would probably have felt bound to make in person. He had admirable self-control, but she felt sure that if he had come to Gardencourt he would have seen Madame Merle, and that if he had seen her he would have liked her, and betrayed to her that he was in love with her young friend.
It so happened that during Madame Merle’s previous visits to Gardencourt—each of them much shorter than the present one—he had either not been at Lockleigh or had not called at Mr. Touchett’s. Therefore, though she knew him by name as the great man of that county, she had no cause to suspect him of being a suitor of Mrs. Touchett’s freshly-imported niece.
“You have plenty of time,” she had said to Isabel, in return for the mutilated confidences which Isabel made her, and which did not pretend to be perfect, though we have seen that at moments the girl had compunctions at having said so much. “I am glad you have done nothing yet—that you have it still to do. It is a very good thing for a girl to have refused a few good offers—so long, of course, as they are not the best she is likely to have. Excuse me if my tone seems horribly worldly; one must take that view sometimes. Only don’t keep on refusing for the sake of refusing. It’s a pleasant exercise of power; but accepting is after all an exercise of power as well. There is always the danger of refusing once too often. It was not the one I fell into—I didn’t refuse often enough. You are an exquisite creature, and I should like to see you married to a prime minister. But speaking strictly, you know you are not what is technically called a parti. You are extremely good looking, and extremely clever; in yourself you are quite exceptional. You appear to have the vaguest ideas about your earthly possessions; but from what I can make out, you are not embarrassed with an income. I wish you had a little money.”
“I wish I had!” said Isabel, simply, apparently forgetting for the moment that her poverty had been a venial fault for two gallant gentlemen.
In spite of Sir Matthew Hope’s benevolent recommendation, Madame Merle did not remain to the end, as the issue of poor Mr. Touchett’s malady had now come frankly to be designated. She was under pledges to other people which had at last to be redeemed, and she left Gardencourt with the understanding that she should in any event see Mrs. Touchett there again, or in town, before quitting England. Her parting with Isabel was even more like the beginning of a friendship than their meeting had been.
“I am going to six places in succession,” she said, “but I shall see no one I like so well as you. They will all be old friends, however; one doesn’t make new friends at my age. I have made a great exception for you. You must remember that, and you must think well of me. You must reward me by believing in me.”
By way of answer, Isabel kissed her, and though some women kiss with facility, there are kisses and kisses, and this embrace was satisfactory to Madame Merle.
Isabel, after this, was much alone; she saw her aunt and cousin only at meals, and discovered that of the hours that Mrs. Touchett was invisible, only a minor portion was now devoted to nursing her husband. She spent the rest in her own apartments, to which access was not allowed even to her niece, in mysterious and inscrutable exercises. At table she was grave and silent; but her solemnity was not an attitude—Isabel could see that it was a conviction. She wondered whether her aunt repented of having taken her own way so much; but there was no visible evidence of this—no tears, no sighs, no exaggeration of a zeal which had always deemed itself sufficient. Mrs. Touchett seemed simply to feel the need of thinking things over and summing them up; she had a little moral account-book—with columns unerringly ruled, and a sharp steel clasp—which she kept with exemplary neatness.
“If I had foreseen this I would not have proposed your coming abroad now,” she said to Isabel after Madame Merle had left the house. “I would have waited and sent for you next year.”
Her remarks had usually a practical ring.
“So that perhaps I should never have known my uncle? It’s a great happiness to me to have come now.”
“That’s very well. But it was not that you might know your uncle that I brought you to Europe.” A perfectly veracious speech; but, as Isabel thought, not as perfectly timed.
She had leisure to think of this and other matters. She took a solitary walk every day, and spent much time in turning over the books in the library. Among the subjects that engaged her attention were the adventures of her friend Miss Stackpole, with whom she was in regular correspondence. Isabel liked her friend’s private epistolary style better than her public; that is, she thought her public letters would have been excellent if they had not been printed. Henrietta’s career, however, was not so successful as might have been wished even in the interest of her private felicity; that view of the inner life of Great Britain which she was so eager to take appeared to dance before her like an ignis fatuus. The invitation from Lady Pensil, for mysterious reasons, had never arrived; and poor Mr. Bantling himself, with all his friendly ingenuity, had been unable to explain so grave a dereliction on the part of a missive that had obviously been sent. Mr. Bantling, however, had evidently taken Henrietta’s affairs much to heart, and believed that he owed her a set-off to this illusory visit to Bedfordshire. “He says he should think I would go to the Continent,” Henrietta wrote; “and as he thinks of going there himself, I suppose his advice is sincere. He wants to know why I don’t take a view of French life; and it is a fact that I want very much to see the new Republic. Mr. Bantling doesn’t care much about the Republic, but he thinks of going over to Paris any way. I must say he is quite as attentive as I could wish, and at any rate I shall have seen one polite Englishman. I keep telling Mr. Bantling that he ought to have been an American; and you ought to see how it pleases him. Whenever I say so, he always breaks out with the same exclamation—‘Ah, but really, come now!’” A few days later she wrote that she had decided to go to Paris at the end of the week, and that Mr. Bantling had promised to see her off—perhaps even he would go as far as Dover with her. She would wait in Paris till Isabel should arrive, Henrietta added; speaking quite as if Isabel were to start on her Continental journey alone, and making no allusion to Mrs. Touchett. Bearing in mind his interest in their late companion, our heroine communicated several passages from Miss Stackpole’s letters to Ralph, who followed with an emotion akin to suspense the career of the correspondent of the Interviewer.
“It seems to me that she is doing very well,” he said, “going over to Paris with an ex-guardsman! If she wants something to write about, she has only to describe that episode.”
“It is not conventional, certainly,” Isabel answered; “but if you mean that—as far as Henrietta is concerned—it is not perfectly innocent, you are very much mistaken. You will never understand Henrietta.”
“Excuse me; I understand her perfectly. I didn’t at all at first; but now I have got the point of view. I am afraid, however, that Bantling has not; he may have some surprises. Oh, I understand Henrietta as well as if I had made her!”
Isabel was by no means sure of this; but she abstained from expressing further doubt, for she was disposed in these days to extend a great charity to her cousin. One afternoon, less than a week after Madame Merle’s departure, she was seated in the library with a volume to which her attention was not fastened. She had placed herself in a deep window-bench, from which she looked out into the dull, damp park; and as the library stood at right angles to the entrance-front of the house, she could see the doctor’s dog-cart, which had been waiting for the last two hours before the door. She was struck with the doctor’s remaining so long; but at last she saw him appear in the portico, stand a moment, slowly drawing on his gloves and looking at the knees of his horse, and then get into the vehicle and drive away. Isabel kept her place for half-an-hour; there was a great stillness in the house. It was so great that when she at last heard a soft, slow step on the deep carpet of the room, she was almost startled by the sound. She turned quickly away from the window, and saw Ralph Touchett standing there, with his hands still in his pockets, but with a face absolutely void of its usual latent smile. She got up, and her movement and glance were a question.
“It’s all over,” said Ralph.
“Do you mean that my uncle——?” And Isabel stopped.
“My father died an hour ago.”
“Ah, my poor Ralph!” the girl murmured, putting out her hand to him.