Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Several days before she was to start for Rome a servant brought her the card of a visitor—a card with the simple superscription, “Henrietta C. Stackpole.” The Countess pressed her finger-tips to her forehead; she did not remember to have known any such Henrietta as that. The servant then remarked that the lady had requested him to say that if the Countess should not recognise her name, she would know her well enough on seeing her. By the time she appeared before her visitor she had in fact reminded herself that there was once a literary lady at Mrs. Touchett’s; the only woman of letters she had ever encountered. That is, the only modern one, since she was the daughter of a defunct poetess. She recognised Miss Stackpole immediately; the more so that Miss Stackpole seemed perfectly unchanged; and the Countess, who was thoroughly good-natured, thought it rather fine to be called on by a person of that sort of distinction. She wondered whether Miss Stackpole had come on account of her mother—whether she had heard of the American Corinne. Her mother was not at all like Isabel’s friend; the Countess could see at a glance that this lady was much more modern; and she received an impression of the improvements that were taking place—chiefly in distant countries—in the character (the professional character) of literary ladies. Her mother used to wear a Roman scarf thrown over a pair of bare shoulders, and a gold laurel-wreath set upon a multitude of glossy ringlets. She spoke softly and vaguely, with a kind of Southern accent; she sighed a great deal, and was not at all enterprising. But Henrietta, the Countess could see, was always closely buttoned and compactly braided; there was something brisk and business-like in her appearance, and her manner was almost conscientiously familiar. The Countess could not but feel that the correspondent of the Interviewer was much more efficient than the American Corinne.
Henrietta explained that she had come to see the Countess because she was the only person she knew in Florence, and that when she visited a foreign city she liked to see something more than superficial travellers. She knew Mrs. Touchett, but Mrs. Touchett was in America, and even if she had been in Florence Henrietta would not have gone to see her, for Mrs. Touchett was not one of her admirations.
“Do you mean by that that I am?” the Countess asked smiling graciously.
“Well, I like you better than I do her,” said Miss Stackpole. “I seem to remember that when I saw you before you were very interesting. I don’t know whether it was an accident, or whether it is your usual style. At any rate, I was a good deal struck with what you said. I made use of it afterwards in print.”
“Dear me!” cried the Countess, staring and half-alarmed; “I had no idea I ever said anything remarkable! I wish I had known it.”
“It was about the position of woman in this city,” Miss Stackpole remarked. “You threw a good deal of light upon it.”
“The position of woman is very uncomfortable. Is that what you mean? And you wrote it down and published it?” the Countess went on. “Ah, do let me see it!”
“I will write to them to send you the paper if you like,” Henrietta said. “I didn’t mention your name; I only said a lady of high rank. And then I quoted your views.”
The Countess threw herself hastily backward, tossing up her clasped hands.
“Do you know I am rather sorry you didn’t mention my name? I should have rather liked to see my name in the papers. I forget what my views were; I have so many! But I am not ashamed of them. I am not at all like my brother—I suppose you know my brother? He thinks it a kind of disgrace to be put into the papers; if you were to quote him he would never forgive you.”
“He needn’t be afraid; I shall never refer to him,” said Miss Stackpole, with soft dryness. “That’s another reason,” she added, “why I wanted to come and see you. You know Mr. Osmond married my dearest friend.”
“Ah, yes; you were a friend of Isabel’s. I was trying to think what I knew about you.”
“I am quite willing to be known by that,” Henrietta declared. “But that isn’t what your brother likes to know me by. He has tried to break up my relations with Isabel.”
“Don’t permit it,” said the Countess.
“That’s what I want to talk about. I am going to Rome.”
“So am I!” the Countess cried. “We will go together.”
“With great pleasure. And when I write about my journey I will mention you by name, as my companion.”
The Countess sprang from her chair and came and sat on the sofa beside her visitor.
“Ah, you must send me the paper! My husband won’t like it; but he need never see it. Besides, he doesn’t know how to read.”
Henrietta’s large eyes became immense.
“Doesn’t know how to read? May I put that into my letter?”
“Into your letter?”
“In the Interviewer. That’s my paper.”
“Oh, yes, if you like; with his name. Are you going to stay with Isabel?”
Henrietta held up her head, gazing a little in silence at her hostess.
“She has not asked me. I wrote to her I was coming, and she answered that she would engage a room for me at a pension.”
The Countess listened with extreme interest.
“That’s Osmond,” she remarked, pregnantly.
“Isabel ought to resist,” said Miss Stackpole. “I am afraid she has changed a great deal. I told her she would.”
“I am sorry to hear it; I hoped she would have her own way. Why doesn’t my brother like you?” the Countess added, ingenuously.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. He is perfectly welcome not to like me; I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did. A journalist can’t hope to do much good unless he gets a good deal hated; that’s the way he knows how his work goes on. And it’s just the same for a lady. But I didn’t expect it of Isabel.”
“Do you mean that she hates you?” the Countess inquired.
“I don’t know; I want to see. That’s what I am going to Rome for.”
“Dear me, what a tiresome errand!” the Countess exclaimed.
“She doesn’t write to me in the same way; it’s easy to see there’s a difference. If you know anything,” Miss Stackpole went on, “I should like to hear it beforehand, so as to decide on the line I shall take.”
The Countess thrust out her under lip and gave a gradual shrug.
“I know very little; I see and hear very little of Osmond. He doesn’t like me any better than he appears to like you.”
“Yet you are not a lady-correspondent,” said Henrietta, pensively.
“Oh, he has plenty of reasons. Nevertheless they have invited me—I am to stay in the house!” And the Countess smiled almost fiercely; her exultation, for the moment, took little account of Miss Stackpole’s disappointment.
This lady, however, regarded it very placidly.
“I should not have gone if she had asked me. That is, I think I should not; and I am glad I hadn’t to make up my mind. It would have been a very difficult question. I should not have liked to turn away from her, and yet I should not have been happy under her roof. A pension will suit me very well. But that is not all.”
“Rome is very good just now,” said the Countess; “there are all sorts of smart people. Did you ever hear of Lord Warburton?”
“Hear of him? I know him very well. Do you consider him very smart?” Henrietta inquired.
“I don’t know him, but I am told he is extremely grand seigneur. He is making love to Isabel.”
“Making love to her?”
“So I’m told; I don’t know the details,” said the Countess lightly. “But Isabel is pretty safe.”
Henrietta gazed earnestly at her companion; for a moment she said nothing.
“When do you go to Rome?” she inquired, abruptly.
“Not for a week, I am afraid.”
“I shall go to-morrow,” Henrietta said. “I think I had better not wait.”
“Dear me, I am sorry; I am having some dresses made. I am told Isabel receives immensely. But I shall see you there: I shall call on you at your pension.” Henrietta sat still—she was lost in thought; and suddenly the Countess cried, “Ah, but if you don’t go with me you can’t describe our journey!”
Miss Stackpole seemed unmoved by this consideration; she was thinking of something else, and she presently expressed it.
“I am not sure that I understand you about Lord Warburton.”
“Understand me? I mean he’s very nice, that’s all.”
“Do you consider it nice to make love to married women?” Henrietta inquired, softly.
The Countess stared, and then, with a little violent laugh—
“It’s certain that all the nice men do it. Get married and you’ll see!” she added.
“That idea would be enough to prevent me,” said Miss Stackpole. “I should want my own husband; I shouldn’t want any one else’s. Do you mean that Isabel is guilty—is guilty—” and she paused a little, choosing her expression.
“Do I mean she’s guilty? Oh dear no, not yet, I hope. I only mean that Osmond is very tiresome, and that Lord Warburton is, as I hear, a great deal at the house. I’m afraid you are scandalised.”
“No, I am very anxious,” Henrietta said.
“Ah, you are not very complimentary to Isabel! You should have more confidence. I tell you,” the Countess added quickly, “if it will be a comfort to you I will engage to draw him off.”
Miss Stackpole answered at first only with the deeper solemnity of her eyes.
“You don’t understand me,” she said after a while. “I haven’t the idea that you seem to suppose. I am not afraid for Isabel—in that way. I am only afraid she is unhappy—that’s what I want to get at.”
The Countess gave a dozen turns of the head; she looked impatient and sarcastic.
“That may very well be; for my part I should like to know whether Osmond is.”
Miss Stackpole had begun to bore her a little.
“If she is really changed that must be at the bottom of it,” Henrietta went on.
“You will see; she will tell you,” said the Countess.
“Ah, she may not tell me—that’s what I am afraid of!”
“Well, if Osmond isn’t enjoying himself I flatter myself I shall discover it,” the Countess rejoined.
“I don’t care for that,” said Henrietta.
“I do immensely! If Isabel is unhappy I am very sorry for her, but I can’t help it. I might tell her something that would make her worse, but I can’t tell her anything that would console her. What did she go and marry him for? If she had listened to me she would have got rid of him. I will forgive her, however, if I find she has made things hot for him! If she has simply allowed him to trample upon her I don’t know that I shall even pity her. But I don’t think that’s very likely. I count upon finding that if she is miserable she has at least made him so.”
Henrietta got up; these seemed to her, naturally, very dreadful expectations. She honestly believed that she had no desire to see Mr. Osmond unhappy; and indeed he could not be for her the subject of a flight of fancy. She was on the whole rather disappointed in the Countess, whose mind moved in a narrower circle than she had imagined.
“It will be better if they love each other,” she said gravely.
“They can’t. He can’t love any one.”
“I presumed that was the case. But it only increases my fear for Isabel. I shall positively start to-morrow.”
“Isabel certainly has devotees,” said the Countess, smiling very vividly. “I declare I don’t pity her.”
“It may be that I can’t assist her,” said Miss Stackpole, as if it were well not to have illusions.
“You can have wanted to, at any rate; that’s something. I believe that’s what you came from America for,” the Countess suddenly added.
“Yes, I wanted to look after her,” Henrietta said, serenely.
Her hostess stood there smiling at her, with her small bright eyes and her eager-looking nose; a flush had come into each of her cheeks.
“Ah, that’s very pretty—c’est bien gentil!” she said. “Isn’t that what they call friendship?”
“I don’t know what they call it. I thought I had better come.”
“She is very happy—she is very fortunate,” the Countess went on. “She has others besides.” And then she broke out, passionately. “She is more fortunate than I! I am as unhappy as she—I have a very bad husband; he is a great deal worse than Osmond. And I have no friends. I thought I had, but they are gone. No one would do for me what you have done for her.”
Henrietta was touched; there was nature in this bitter effusion. She gazed at her companion a moment, and then—
“Look here, Countess, I will do anything for you that you like. I will wait over and travel with you.”
“Never mind,” the Countess answered, with a quick change of tone; “only describe me in the newspaper!”
Henrietta, before leaving her, however, was obliged to make her understand that she could not give a fictitious representation of her journey to Rome. Miss Stackpole was a strictly veracious reporter.
On quitting the Countess she took her way to the Lung’ Arno, the sunny quay beside the yellow river, where the bright-faced hotels familiar to tourists stand all in a row. She had learned her way before this through the streets of Florence (she was very quick in such matters), and was therefore able to turn with great decision of step out of the little square which forms the approach to the bridge of the Holy Trinity. She proceeded to the left, towards the Ponte Vecchio, and stopped in front of one of the hotels which overlook that delightful structure. Here she drew forth a small pocket-book, took from it a card and a pencil, and, after meditating a moment, wrote a few words. It is our privilege to look over her shoulder, and if we exercise it we may read the brief query—“Could I see you this evening for a few moments on a very important matter?” Henrietta added that she should start on the morrow for Rome. Armed with this little document she approached the porter, who now had taken up his station in the doorway, and asked if Mr. Goodwood were at home. The porter replied, as porters always reply, that he had gone out about twenty minutes before; whereupon Henrietta presented her card and begged it might be handed to him on his return. She left the inn and took her course along the quay to the severe portico of the Uffizi, through which she presently reached the entrance of the famous gallery of paintings. Making her way in, she ascended the high staircase which leads to the upper chambers. The long corridor, glazed on one side and decorated with antique busts, which gives admission to these apartments presented an empty vista, in which the bright winter light twinkled upon the marble floor. The gallery is very cold, and during the midwinter weeks is but scantily visited. Miss Stackpole may appear more ardent in her quest of artistic beauty than she has hitherto struck us as being, but she had after all her preferences and admirations. One of the latter was the little Correggio of the Tribune—the Virgin kneeling down before the sacred infant, who lies in a litter of straw, and clapping her hands to him while he delightedly laughs and crows. Henrietta had taken a great fancy to this intimate scene—she thought it the most beautiful picture in the world. On her way, at present, from New York to Rome, she was spending but three days in Florence, but she had reminded herself that they must not elapse without her paying another visit to her favourite work of art. She had a great sense of beauty in all ways, and it involved a good many intellectual obligations. She was about to turn into the Tribune when a gentleman came out of it; whereupon she gave a little exclamation and stood before Caspar Goodwood.
“I have just been at your hotel,” she said. “I left a card for you.”
“I am very much honoured,” Caspar Goodwood answered, as if he really meant it.
“It was not to honour you I did it; I have called on you before, and I know you don’t like it. It was to talk to you a little about something.”
He looked for a moment at the buckle in her hat. “I shall be very glad to bear what you wish to say.”
“You don’t like to talk with me,” said Henrietta. “But I don’t care for that; I don’t talk for your amusement. I wrote a word to ask you to come and see me; but since I have met you here this will do as well.”
“I was just going away,” Goodwood said; “but of course I will stop.” He was civil, but he was not enthusiastic.
Henrietta, however, never looked for great professions, and she was so much in earnest that she was thankful he would listen to her on any terms. She asked him first, however, if he had seen all the pictures.
“All I want to. I have been here an hour.”
“I wonder if you have seen my Correggio,” said Henrietta. “I came up on purpose to have a look at it.” She went into the Tribune, and he slowly accompanied her.
“I suppose I have seen it, but I didn’t know it was yours. I don’t remember pictures—especially that sort.” She had pointed out her favourite work; and he asked her if it was about Correggio that she wished to talk with him.
“No,” said Henrietta, “it’s about something less harmonious!” They had the small, brilliant room, a splendid cabinet of treasures, to themselves; there was only a custode hovering about the Medicean Venus. “I want you to do me a favour,” Miss Stackpole went on.
Caspar Goodwood frowned a little, but he expressed no embarrassment at the sense of not looking eager. His face was that of a much older man than our earlier friend. “I’m sure it’s something I shan’t like,” he said, rather loud.
“No, I don’t think you will like it. If you did, it would be no favour.”
“Well, let us hear it,” he said in the tone of a man quite conscious of his own reasonableness.
“You may say there is no particular reason why you should do me a favour. Indeed, I only know of one: the fact that if you would let me I would gladly do you one.” Her soft, exact tone, in which there was no attempt at effect, had an extreme sincerity; and her companion, though he presented rather a hard surface, could not help being touched by it. When he was touched he rarely showed it, however, by the usual signs; he neither blushed, nor looked away, nor looked conscious. He only fixed his attention more directly; he seemed to consider with added firmness. Henrietta went on therefore disinterestedly, without the sense of an advantage. “I may say now, indeed—it seems a good time—that if I have ever annoyed you (and I think sometimes that I have), it is because I knew that I was willing to suffer annoyance for you. I have troubled you—doubtless. But I would take trouble for you.”
“You are taking trouble now.”
“Yes, I am, some. I want you to consider whether it is better on the whole that you should go to Rome.”
“I thought you were going to say that!” Goodwood exclaimed, rather artlessly.
“You have considered it, then?”
“Of course I have, very carefully. I have looked all round it. Otherwise I shouldn’t have come as far as this. That’s what I stayed in Paris two months for; I was thinking it over.”
“I am afraid you decided as you liked. You decided it was best, because you were so much attracted.”
“Best for whom, do you mean?” Goodwood inquired.
“Well, for yourself first. For Mrs. Osmond next.”
“Oh, it won’t do her any good! I don’t flatter myself that.”
“Won’t it do her harm?—that’s the question.”
“I don’t see what it will matter to her. I am nothing to Mrs. Osmond. But if you want to know, I do want to see her myself.”
“Yes, and that’s why you go.”
“Of course it is. Could there be a better reason?”
“How will it help you? that’s what I want to know,” said Miss Stackpole.
“That’s just what I can’t tell you; it’s just what I was thinking about in Paris.”
“It will make you more discontented.”
“Why do you say more so?” Goodwood asked, rather sternly. “How do you know I am discontented?”
“Well,” said Henrietta, hesitating a little—“you seem never to have cared for another.”
“How do you know what I care for?” he cried, with a big blush. “Just now I care to go to Rome.”
Henrietta looked at him in silence, with a sad yet luminous expression.
“Well,” she observed, at last, “I only wanted to tell you what I think; I had it on my mind. Of course you think it’s none of my business. But nothing is any one’s business, on that principle.”
“It’s very kind of you; I am greatly obliged to you for your interest,” said Caspar Goodwood. “I shall go to Rome, and I shan’t hurt Mrs. Osmond.”
“You won’t hurt her, perhaps. But will you help her?—that is the question.”
“Is she in need of help?” he asked, slowly, with a penetrating look.
“Most women always are,” said Henrietta, with conscientious evasiveness, and generalising less hopefully than usual. “If you go to Rome,” she added, “I hope you will be a true friend—not a selfish one!” And she turned away and began to look at the pictures.
Caspar Goodwood let her go, and stood watching her while she wandered round the room; then, after a moment, he rejoined her. “You have heard something about her here,” he said in a moment. “I should like to know what you have heard.”
Henrietta had never prevaricated in her life, and though on this occasion there might have been a fitness in doing so, she decided, after a moment’s hesitation, to make no superficial exception. “Yes, I have heard,” she answered; “but as I don’t want you to go to Rome I won’t tell you.”
“Just as you please. I shall see for myself,” said Goodwood. Then inconsistently—for him, “You have heard she is unhappy!” he added.
“Oh, you won’t see that!” Henrietta exclaimed.
“I hope not. When do you start?”
“To-morrow, by the evening train. And you?”
Goodwood hesitated; he had no desire to make his journey to Rome in Miss Stackpole’s company. His indifference to this advantage was not of the same character as Gilbert Osmond’s, but it had at this moment an equal distinctness. It was rather a tribute to Miss Stackpole’s virtues than a reference to her faults. He thought her very remarkable, very brilliant, and he had, in theory, no objection to the class to which she belonged. Lady correspondents appeared to him a part of the natural scheme of things in a progressive country, and though he never read their letters he supposed that they ministered somehow to social progress. But it was this very eminence of their position that made him wish that Miss Stackpole did not take so much for granted. She took for granted that he was always ready for some allusion to Mrs. Osmond; she had done so when they met in Paris, six weeks after his arrival in Europe, and she had repeated the assumption with every successive opportunity. He had no wish whatever to allude to Mrs. Osmond; he was not always thinking of her; he was perfectly sure of that. He was the most reserved, the least colloquial of men, and this inquiring authoress was constantly flashing her lantern into the quiet darkness of his soul. He wished she didn’t care so much; he even wished, though it might seem rather brutal of him, that she would leave him alone. In spite of this, however, he just now made other reflections—which show how widely different, in effect, his ill-humour was from Gilbert Osmond’s. He wished to go immediately to Rome; he would have liked to go alone, in the night-train. He hated the European railway-carriages, in which one sat for hours in a vice, knee to knee and nose to nose with a foreigner to whom one presently found one’s self objecting with all the added vehemence of one’s wish to have the window open; and if they were worse at night even than by day, at least at night one could sleep and dream of an American saloon-car. But he could not take a night-train when Miss Stackpole was starting in the morning; it seemed to him that this would be an insult to an unprotected woman. Nor could he wait until after she had gone, unless he should wait longer than he had patience for. It would not do to start the next day. She worried him; she oppressed him; the idea of spending the day in a European railway-carriage with her offered a complication of irritations. Still, she was a lady travelling alone; it was his duty to put himself out for her. There could be no two questions about that; it was a perfectly clear necessity. He looked extremely grave for some moments, and then he said, without any of the richness of gallantry, but in a tone of extreme distinctness—“Of course, if you are going to-morrow, I will go too, as I may be of assistance to you.”
“Well, Mr. Goodwood, I should hope so!” Henrietta remarked, serenely.