Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
When it came to the point she never wrote to him; it seemed to her that, considering his grievance, the least she could do was to let him alone. Nevertheless she would have been glad to be in some way nearer to him. It was not that it ever occurred to her that she might have married him; even after the consequences of her marriage became vivid to her, that particular reflection, though she indulged in so many, had not the assurance to present itself. But when she found herself in trouble he became a member of that circle of things with which she wished to set herself right. I have related how passionately she desired to feel that her unhappiness should not have come to her through her own fault. She had no near prospect of dying, and yet she wished to make her peace with the world—to put her spiritual affairs in order. It came back to her from time to time that there was an account still to be settled with Caspar Goodwood: it seemed to her that she would settle it to-day on terms easy for him. Still, when she learned that he was coming to Rome she felt afraid; it would be more disagreeable for him than for any one else to learn that she was unhappy. Deep in her breast she believed that he had invested all his in her happiness, while the others had invested only a part. He was one more person from whom she should have to conceal her misery. She was reassured, however, after he arrived in Rome, for he spent several days without coming to see her.
Henrietta Stackpole, it may well be imagined, was much more punctual, and Isabel was largely favoured with the society of her friend. She threw herself into it, for now that she had made such a point of keeping her conscience clear, that was one way of proving that she had not been superficial—the more so that the years, in their flight, had rather enriched than blighted those peculiarities which had been humorously criticised by persons less interested than Isabel and were striking enough to give friendship a spice of heroism. Henrietta was as keen and quick and fresh as ever, and as neat and bright and fair. Her eye had lost none of its serenity, her toilet none of its crispness, her opinions none of their national flavour. She was by no means quite unchanged, however; it seemed to Isabel that she had grown restless. Of old she had never been restless; though she was perpetually in motion it was impossible to be more deliberate. She had a reason for everything she did; she fairly bristled with motives. Formerly, when she came to Europe it was because she wished to see it, but now, having already seen it she had no such excuse. She did not for a moment pretend that the desire to examine decaying civilisations had anything to do with her present enterprise; her journey was rather an expression of her independence of the old world than of a sense of further obligations to it. “It’s nothing to come to Europe,” she said to Isabel; “it doesn’t seem to me one needs so many reasons for that. It is something to stay at home; this is much more important.” It was not therefore with a sense of doing anything very important that she treated herself to another pilgrimage to Rome; she had seen the place before and carefully inspected it; the actual episode was simply a sign of familiarity, of one’s knowing all about it, of one’s having as good a right as any one else to be there. This was all very well, and Henrietta was restless; she had a perfect right to be restless, too, if one came to that. But she had after all a better reason for coming to Rome than that she cared for it so little. Isabel easily recognized it, and with it the worth of her friend’s fidelity. She had crossed the stormy ocean in midwinter because she guessed that Isabel was sad. Henrietta guessed a great deal, but she had never guessed so happily as that. Isabel’s satisfactions just now were few, but even if they had been more numerous, there would still have been something of individual joy in her sense of being justified in having always thought highly of Henrietta. She had made large concessions with regard to her, but she had insisted that, with all abatements, she was very valuable. It was not her own triumph, however, that Isabel found good; it was simply the relief of confessing to Henrietta, the first person to whom she had owned it, that she was not contented. Henrietta had herself approached this point with the smallest possible delay, and had accused her to her face of being miserable. She was a woman, she was a sister; she was not Ralph, nor Lord Warburton, nor Caspar Goodwood, and Isabel could speak.
“Yes, I am miserable,” she said, very gently. She hated to hear herself say it; she tried to say it as judicially as possible.
“What does he do to you?” Henrietta asked, frowning as if she were inquiring into the operations of a quack doctor.
“He does nothing. But he doesn’t like me.”
“He’s very difficult!” cried Miss Stackpole. “Why don’t you leave him?”
“I can’t change, that way,” Isabel said.
“Why not, I should like to know? You won’t confess that you have made a mistake. You are too proud.”
“I don’t know whether I am too proud. But I can’t publish my mistake. I don’t think that’s decent. I would much rather die.”
“You won’t think so always,” said Henrietta.
“I don’t know what great unhappiness might bring me to; but it seems to me I shall always be ashamed. One must accept one’s deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change, that way,” Isabel repeated.
“You have changed, in spite of the impossibility. I hope you don’t mean to say that you like him.”
Isabel hesitated a moment. “No, I don’t like him. I can tell you, because I am weary of my secret. But that’s enough; I can’t tell all the world.”
Henrietta gave a rich laugh. “Don’t you think you are rather too considerate?”
“It’s not of him that I am considerate—it’s of myself!” Isabel answered.
It was not surprising that Gilbert Osmond should not have taken comfort in Miss Stackpole; his instinct had naturally set him in opposition to a young lady capable of advising his wife to withdraw from the conjugal mansion. When she arrived in Rome he said to Isabel that he hoped she would leave her friend the interviewer, alone; and Isabel answered that he at least had nothing to fear from her. She said to Henrietta that as Osmond didn’t like her she could not invite her to dine; but they could easily see each other in other ways. Isabel received Miss Stackpole freely in her own sitting-room, and took her repeatedly to drive, face to face with Pansy, who, bending a little forward, on the opposite seat of the carriage, gazed at the celebrated authoress with a respectful attention which Henrietta occasionally found irritating. She complained to Isabel that Miss Osmond had a little look as if she should remember everything one said. “I don’t want to be remembered that way,” Miss Stackpole declared; “I consider that my conversation refers only to the moment, like the morning papers. Your step-daughter, as she sits there, looks as if she kept all the back numbers and would bring them out some day against me.” She could not bring herself to think favourably of Pansy, whose absence of initiative, of conversation, of personal claims, seemed to her, in a girl of twenty, unnatural and even sinister. Isabel presently saw that Osmond would have liked her to urge a little the cause of her friend, insist a little upon his receiving her, so that he might appear to suffer for good manners’ sake. Her immediate acceptance of his objections put him too much in the wrong—it being in effect one of the disadvantages of expressing contempt, that you cannot enjoy at the same time the credit of expressing sympathy. Osmond held to his credit, and yet he held to his objections—all of which were elements difficult to reconcile. The right thing would have been that Miss Stackpole should come to dine at the Palazzo Roccanera once or twice, so that (in spite of his superficial civility, always so great) she might judge for herself how little pleasure it gave him. From the moment, however, that both the ladies were so unaccommodating, there was nothing for Osmond but to wish that Henrietta would take herself off. It was surprising how little satisfaction he got from his wife’s friends; he took occasion to call Isabel’s attention to it.
“You are certainly not fortunate in your intimates; I wish you might make a new collection,” he said to her one morning, in reference to nothing visible at the moment, but in a tone of ripe reflection which deprived the remark of all brutal abruptness. “It’s as if you had taken the trouble to pick out the people in the world that I have least in common with. Your cousin I have always thought a conceited ass—besides his being the most ill-favoured animal I know. Then it’s insufferably tiresome that one can’t tell him so; one must spare him on account of his health. His health seems to me the best part of him; it gives him privileges enjoyed by no one else. If he is so desperately ill there is only one way to prove it; but he seems to have no mind for that. I can’t say much more for the great Warburton. When one really thinks of it, the cool insolence of that performance was something rare! He comes and looks at one’s daughter as if she were a suite of apartments; he tries the door-handles and looks out of the windows, raps on the walls and almost thinks he will take the place. Will you be so good as to draw up a lease? Then, on the whole, he decides that the rooms are too small; he doesn’t think he could live on a third floor; he must look out for a piano nobile. And he goes away, after having got a month’s lodging in the poor little apartment for nothing. Miss Stackpole, however, is your most wonderful invention. She strikes me as a kind of monster. One hasn’t a nerve in one’s body that she doesn’t set quivering. You know I never have admitted that she is a woman. Do you know what she reminds me of? Of a new steel pen—the most odious thing in nature. She talks as a steel pen writes; aren’t her letters, by the way, on ruled paper? She thinks and moves, and walks and looks, exactly as she talks. You may say that she doesn’t hurt me, inasmuch as I don’t see her. I don’t see her, but I hear her; I hear her all day long. Her voice is in my ears; I can’t get rid of it. I know exactly what she says, and every inflection of the tone in which says it. She says charming things about me, and they give you great comfort. I don’t like at all to think she talks about me—I feel as I should feel if I knew the footman were wearing my hat!”
Henrietta talked about Gilbert Osmond, as his wife assured him, rather less than he suspected. She had plenty of other subjects, in two of which the reader may be supposed to be especially interested. She let Isabel know that Caspar Goodwood had discovered for himself that she was unhappy, though indeed her ingenuity was unable to suggest what comfort he hoped to give her by coming to Rome and yet not calling on her. They met him twice in the street, but he had no appearance of seeing them; they were driving, and he had a habit of looking straight in front of him, as if he proposed to contemplate but one object at a time. Isabel could have fancied she had seen him the day before; it must have been with just that face and step that he walked out of Mrs. Touchett’s door at the close of their last interview. He was dressed just as he had been dressed on that day; Isabel remembered the colour of his cravat; and yet in spite of this familiar look there was a strangeness in his figure too; something that made her feel afresh that it was rather terrible he should have come to Rome. He looked bigger and more over-topping than of old, and in those days he certainly was lofty enough. She noticed that the people whom he passed looked back after him; but he went straight forward, lifting above them a face like a February sky.
Miss Stackpole’s other topic was very different; she gave Isabel the latest news about Mr. Bantling. He had been out in the United States the year before, and she was happy to say she had been able to show him considerable attention. She didn’t know how much he had enjoyed it, but she would undertake to say it had done him good; he wasn’t the same man when he left that he was when he came. It had opened his eyes and shown him that England was not everything. He was very much liked over there, and thought extremely simple—more simple than the English were commonly supposed to be. There were some people thought him affected, she didn’t know whether they meant that his simplicity was an affectation. Some of his questions were too discouraging; he thought all the chamber-maids were farmers’ daughters—or all the farmers’ daughters were chamber-maids—she couldn’t exactly remember which. He hadn’t seemed able to grasp the school-system; it seemed really too much for him. On the whole he had appeared as if there were too much—as if he could only take a small part. The part he had chosen was the hotel-system, and the river-navigation. He seemed really fascinated with the hotels; he had a photograph of every one he had visited. But the river-steamers were his principal interest; he wanted to do nothing but sail on the big boats. They had travelled together from New York to Milwaukee, stopping at the most interesting cities on the route; and whenever they started afresh he had wanted to know if they could go by the steamer. He seemed to have no idea of geography—had an impression that Baltimore was a western city, and was perpetually expecting to arrive at the Mississippi. He appeared never to have heard of any river in America but the Mississippi, and was unprepared to recognise the existence of the Hudson, though he was obliged to confess at last that it was fully equal to the Rhine. They had spent some pleasant hours in the palace-cars; he was always ordering ice-cream from the coloured man. He could never get used to that idea—that you could get ice-cream in the cars. Of course you couldn’t, nor fans, nor candy, nor anything in the English cars! He found the heat quite overwhelming, and she had told him that she expected it was the greatest he had ever experienced. He was now in England, hunting—“hunting round,” Henrietta called it. These amusements were those of the American red men; we had left that behind long ago, the pleasures of the chase. It seemed to be generally believed in England that we wore tomahawks and feathers; but such a costume was more in keeping with English habits. Mr. Bantling would not have time to join her in Italy, but when she should go to Paris again he expected to come over. He wanted very much to see Versailles again; he was very fond of the ancient régime. They didn’t agree about that, but that was what she liked Versailles for, that you could see the ancient régime had been swept away. There were no dukes and marquises there now; on the contrary, she remembered one day when there were five American families, all walking round. Mr. Bantling was very anxious that she take up the subject of England again, and he thought she might get on better with it now; England had changed a good deal within two or three years. He was determined that if she went there he should go to see his sister, Lady Pensil, and that this time the invitation should come to her straight. The mystery of that other one had never been explained.
Caspar Goodwood came at last to the Palazzo Roccanera; he had written Isabel a note beforehand, to ask leave. This was promptly granted; she would be at home at six o’clock that afternoon. She spent the day wondering what he was coming for—what good he expected to get of it. He had presented himself hitherto as a person destitute of the faculty of compromise, who would take what he had asked for or nothing. Isabel’s hospitality, however, asked no questions, and she found no great difficulty in appearing happy enough to deceive him. It was her conviction, at least, that she deceived him, and made him say to himself that he had been misinformed. But she also saw, so she believed, that he was not disappointed, as some other men, she was sure, would have been; he had not come to Rome to look for an opportunity. She never found out what he had come for; he offered her no explanation; there could be none but the very simple one that he wanted to see her. In other words, he had come for his amusement. Isabel followed up this induction with a good deal of eagerness, and was delighted to have found a formula that would lay the ghost of this gentleman’s ancient grievance. If he had come to Rome for his amusement this was exactly what she wanted; for if he cared for amusement he had got over his heartache. If he had got over his heartache everything was as it should be, and her responsibilities were at an end. It was true that he took his recreation a little stiffly, but he had never been demonstrative, and Isabel had every reason to believe that he was satisfied with what he saw. Henrietta was not in his confidence, though he was in hers, and Isabel consequently received no side-light upon his state of mind. He had little conversation upon general topics; it came back to her that she had said of him once, years before—“Mr. Goodwood speaks a good deal, but he doesn’t talk.” He spoke a good deal in Rome, but he talked, perhaps, as little as ever; considering, that is, how much there was to talk about. His arrival was not calculated to simplify her relations with her husband, for if Mr. Osmond didn’t like her friends, Mr. Goodwood had no claim upon his attention save having been one of the first of them. There was nothing for her to say of him but that he was an old friend; this rather meagre synthesis exhausted the facts. She had been obliged to introduce him to Osmond; it was impossible she should not ask him to dinner, to her Thursday evenings, of which she had grown very weary, but to which her husband still held for the sake not so much of inviting people as of not inviting them. To the Thursdays Mr. Goodwood came regularly, solemnly, rather early; he appeared to regard them with a good deal of gravity. Isabel every now and then had a moment of anger; there was something so literal about him; she thought he might know that she didn’t know what to do with him. But she couldn’t call him stupid; he was not that in the least; he was only extraordinarily honest. To be as honest as that made a man very different from most people; one had to be almost equally honest with him. Isabel made this latter reflection at the very time she was flattering herself that she had persuaded him that she was the most light-hearted of women. He never threw any doubt on this point, never asked her any personal questions. He got on much better with Osmond than had seemed probable. Osmond had a great dislike to being counted upon; in such a case he had an irresistible need of disappointing you. It was in virtue of this principle that he gave himself the entertainment of taking a fancy to a perpendicular Bostonian whom he had been depended upon to treat with coldness. He asked Isabel if Mr. Goodwood also had wanted to marry her, and expressed surprise at her not having accepted him. It would have been an excellent thing, like living under a tall belfry which would strike all the hours and make a queer vibration in the upper air. He declared he liked to talk with the great Goodwood; it wasn’t easy at first, you had to climb up an interminable steep staircase up to the top of the tower; but when you got there you had a big view and felt a little fresh breeze. Osmond, as we know, had delightful qualities, and he gave Caspar Goodwood the benefit of them all. Isabel could see that Mr. Goodwood thought better of her husband than he had ever wished to; he had given her the impression that morning in Florence of being inaccessible to a good impression. Osmond asked him repeatedly to dinner, and Goodwood smoked a cigar with him afterwards, and even desired to be shown his collections. Osmond said to Isabel that he was very original; he was as strong as an English portmanteau. Caspar Goodwood took to riding on the Campagna, and devoted much time to this exercise; it was therefore mainly in the evening that Isabel saw him. She bethought herself of saying to him one day that if he were willing he could render her a service. And then she added smiling—
“I don’t know, however, what right I have to ask a service of you.”
“You are the person in the world who has most right,” he answered. “I have given you assurances that I have never given any one else.”
The service was that he should go and see her cousin Ralph, who was ill at the Hôtel de Paris, alone, and he be as kind to him as possible. Mr. Goodwood had never seen him, but he would know who the poor fellow was; if she was not mistaken, Ralph had once invited him to Gardencourt. Caspar remember the invitation perfectly, and, though he was not supposed to be a man of imagination, had enough to put himself in the place of a poor gentleman who lay dying at a Roman inn. He called at the Hôtel de Paris, and on being shown into the presence of the master of Gardencourt, found Miss Stackpole sitting beside his sofa. A singular change had, in fact, occurred in this lady’s relations with Ralph Touchett. She had not been asked by Isabel to go and see him, but on hearing that he was too ill to come out had immediately gone of her own motion. After this she had paid him a daily visit—always under the conviction that they were great enemies “Oh yes, we are intimate enemies,” Ralph used to say; and he accused her freely—as freely as the humour of it would allow—of coming to worry him to death. In reality they became excellent friends, and Henrietta wondered that she should never have liked him before. Ralph liked her exactly as much as he had always done; he had never doubted for a moment that she was an excellent fellow. They talked about everything, and always differed; about everything, that is, but Isabel—a topic as to which Ralph always had a thin forefinger on his lips. On the other hand, Mr. Bantling was a great resource; Ralph was capable of discussing Mr. Bantling with Henrietta for hours. Discussion was stimulated of course by their inevitable difference of view—Ralph having amused himself with taking the ground that the genial ex-guardsman was a regular Machiavelli. Caspar Goodwood could contribute nothing to such a debate; but after he had been left alone with Touchett, he found there were various other matters they could talk about. It must be admitted that the lady who had just gone out was not one of these; Caspar granted all Miss Stackpole’s merits in advance, but had no further remark to make about her. Neither, after the first allusions, did the two men expatiate upon Mrs. Osmond—a theme in which Goodwood perceived as many dangers as his host. He felt very sorry for Ralph; he couldn’t bear to see a pleasant man so helpless. There was help in Goodwood, when once the fountain had been tapped; and he repeated several times his visit to the Hôtel de Paris. It seemed to Isabel that she had been very clever; she had disposed of the superfluous Caspar. She had given him an occupation; she had converted him into a care-taker of Ralph. She had a plan of making him travel northward with her cousin as soon as the first mild weather should allow it. Lord Warburton had brought Ralph to Rome, and Mr. Goodwood should take him away. There seemed a happy symmetry in this, and she was now intensely eager that Ralph should leave Rome. She had a constant fear that he would die there, and a horror of this event occurring at an inn, at her door, which she had so rarely entered. Ralph must sink to his last rest in his own dear house, in one of those deep, dim chambers of Gardencourt, where the dark ivy would cluster round the edges of the glimmering window. There seemed to Isabel in these days something sacred about Gardencourt; no chapter of the past was more perfectly irrecoverable. When she thought of the months she had spent there the tears rose to her eyes. She flattered herself, as I say, upon her ingenuity, but she had need of all she could muster; for several events occurred which seemed to confront and defy her. The Countess Gemini arrived from Florence—arrived with her trunks, her dresses, her chatter, her little fibs, her frivolity, the strange memory of her lovers. Edward Rosier, who had been away somewhere—no one, not even Pansy, knew where—reappeared in Rome and began to write her long letters, which she never answered. Madame Merle returned from Naples and said to her with a strange smile—“What on earth did you do with Lord Warburton?” As if it were any business of hers!