Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XVI

Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter XVI

ISABEL had had no hidden motive in wishing her cousin not to take her home; it simply seemed to her that for some days past she had consumed an inordinate quantity of his time, and the independent spirit of the American girl who ends by regarding perpetual assistance as a sort of derogation to her sanity, had made her decide that for these few hours she must suffice to herself. She had moreover a great fondness for intervals of solitude, and since her arrival in England it had been but scantily gratified. It was a luxury she could always command at home, and she had missed it. That evening, however, an incident occurred which—had there been a critic to note it—would have taken all colour from the theory that the love of solitude had caused her to dispense with Ralph’s attendance. She was sitting, towards nine o’clock, in the dim illumination of Pratt’s Hotel, trying with the aid of two tall candles to lose herself in a volume she had brought from Gardencourt, but succeeding only to the extent of reading other words on the page than those that were printed there—words that Ralph had spoken to her in the afternoon.

Suddenly the well-muffled knuckle of the waiter was applied to the door, which presently admitted him, bearing the card of a visitor. This card, duly considered, offered to Isabel’s startled vision the name of Mr. Caspar Goodwood. She let the servant stand before her inquiringly for some instants, without signifying her wishes.

“Shall I show the gentleman up, ma’am?” he asked at last, with a slightly encouraging inflection.

Isabel hesitated still, and while she hesitated she glanced at the mirror.

“He may come in,” she said at last; and waited for him with some emotion.

Caspar Goodwood came in and shook hands with her. He said nothing till the servant had left the room again, then he said—

“Why didn’t you answer my letter?”

He spoke in a quick, full, slightly peremptory tone—the tone of a man whose questions were usually pointed, and who was capable of much insistence.

Isabel answered him by a question.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Miss Stackpole let me know,” said Caspar Goodwood. “She told me that you would probably be at home alone this evening, and would be willing to see me.”

“Where did she see you—to tell you that?”

“She didn’t see me; she wrote to me.”

Isabel was silent; neither of them had seated themselves; they stood there with a certain air of defiance, or at least of contention.

“Henrietta never told me that she was writing to you,” Isabel said at last. “This is not kind of her.”

“Is it so disagreeable to you to see me?” asked the young man.

“I didn’t expect it. I don’t like such surprises.”

“But you knew I was in town; it was natural we should meet.”

“Do you call this meeting? I hoped I should not see you. In so large a place as London it seemed to me very possible.”

“Apparently it was disagreeable to you even to write to me,” said Mr. Goodwood.

Isabel made no answer to this; the sense of Henrietta Stackpole’s treachery, as she momentarily qualified it, was strong within her.

“Henrietta is not delicate!” she exclaimed with a certain bitterness. “It was a great liberty to take.”

“I suppose I am not delicate either. The fault is mine as much as hers.”

As Isabel looked at him it seemed to her that his jaw had never been more square. This might have displeased her; nevertheless she rejoined inconsequently—

“No, it is not your fault so much as hers. What you have done is very natural.”

“It is indeed!” cried Caspar Goodwood, with a voluntary laugh. “And now that I have come, at any rate, may I not stay?”

“You may sit down, certainly.”

And Isabel went back to her chair again, while her visitor took the first place that offered, in the manner of a man accustomed to pay little thought to the sort of chair he sat in.

“I have been hoping every day for an answer to my letter,” he said. “You might have written me a few lines.”

“It was not the trouble of writing that prevented me; I could as easily have written you four pages as one. But my silence was deliberate; I thought it best.”

He sat with his eyes fixed on hers while she said this; then he lowered them and attached them to a spot in the carpet, as if he were making a strong effort to say nothing but what he ought to say. He was a strong man in the wrong, and he was acute enough to see that an uncompromising exhibition of his strength would only throw the falsity of his position into relief. Isabel was not incapable of finding it agreeable to have an advantage of position over a person of this quality, and though she was not a girl to flaunt her advantage in his face, she was woman enough to enjoy being able to say “You know you ought not to have written to me yourself!” and to say it with a certain air of triumph.

Caspar Goodwood raised his eyes to hers again; they wore an expression of ardent remonstrance. He had a strong sense of justice, and he was ready any day in the year—over and above this—to argue the question of his rights.

“You said you hoped never to hear from me again; I know that. But I never accepted the prohibition. I promised you that you should hear very soon.”

“I did not say that I hoped never to hear from you,” said Isabel.

“Not for five years, then; for ten years. It is the same thing.”

“Do you find it so? It seems to me there is a great difference. I can imagine that at the end of ten years we might have a very pleasant correspondence. I shall have matured my epistolary style.”

Isabel looked away while she spoke these words, for she knew they were of a much less earnest cast than the countenance of her listener. Her eyes, however, at last came back to him, just as he said, very irrelevantly—

“Are you enjoying your visit to your uncle?”

“Very much indeed.” She hesitated, and then she broke out with even greater irrelevance, “What good do you expect to get by insisting?”

“The good of not losing you.”

“You have no right to talk about losing what is not yours. And even from your own point of view,” Isabel added, “you ought to know when to let one alone.”

“I displease you very much,” said Caspar Goodwood gloomily; not as if to provoke her to compassion for a man conscious of this blighting fact, but as if to set it well before himself, so that he might endeavour to act with his eyes upon it.”

“Yes, you displease me very much, and the worst is that it is needless.”

Isabel knew that his was not a soft nature, from which pin-pricks would draw blood; and from the first of her acquaintance with him and of her having to defend herself against a certain air that he had of knowing better what was good for her than she knew herself, she had recognised the fact that perfect frankness was her best weapon. To attempt to spare his sensibility or to escape from him edgewise, as one might do from a man who had barred the way less sturdily—this, in dealing with Caspar Goodwood, who would take everything of every sort that one might give him, was wasted agility. It was not that he had not susceptibilities, but his passive surface, as well as his active, was large and firm, and he might always be trusted to dress his wounds himself. In measuring the effect of his suffering, one might always reflect that he had a sound constitution.

“I can’t reconcile myself to that,” he said.

There was a dangerous liberality about this; for Isabel felt that it was quite open to him to say that he had not always displeased her.

“I can’t reconcile myself to it, either, and it is not the state of things that ought to exist between us. If you would only try and banish me from your mind for a few months we should be on good terms again.”

“I see. If I should cease to think of you for a few months I should find I could keep it up indefinitely.”

“Indefinitely is more than I ask. It is more even than I should like.”

“you know that what you ask is impossible,” said the young man, taking his adjective for granted in a manner that Isabel found irritating.

“Are you not capable of making an effort?” she demanded. “You are strong for everything else; why shouldn’t you be strong for that?”

“Because I am in love with you,” said Caspar Goodwood simply. “If one is strong, one loves only the more strongly.”

“There is a good deal in that;” and indeed our young lady felt the force of it. “Think of me or not, as you find most possible; only leave me alone.”

“Until when?”

“Well, for a year or two.”

“Which do you mean? Between one year and two there is a great difference.”

“Call it two, then,” said Isabel, wondering whether a little cynicism might not be effective.

“And what shall I gain by that?” Mr. Goodwood asked, giving no sign of wincing.

“You will have obliged me greatly.”

“But what will be my reward?”

“Do you need a reward for an act of generosity?”

“Yes, when it involves a great sacrifice.”

“There is no generosity without sacrifice. Men don’t understand such things. If you make this sacrifice I shall admire you greatly.”

“I don’t care a straw for your admiration. Will you marry me? That is the question.”

“Assuredly not, if I feel as I feel at present.”

“Then I ask again, what I shall gain?”

“You will gain quite as much as by worrying me to death!”

Caspar Goodwood bent his eyes again and gazed for a while into the crown of his hat. A deep flush overspread his face, and Isabel could perceive that this dart at last had struck home. To see a strong man in pain had something terrible for her, and she immediately felt very sorry for her visitor.

“Why do you make me say such things to you?” she cried in a trembling voice. “I only want to be gentle—to be kind. It is not delightful to me to feel that people care for me, and yet to have to try and reason them out of it. I think others also ought to be considerate; we have each to judge for ourselves. I know you are considerate, as much as you can be; you have good reasons for what you do. But I don’t want to marry. I shall probably never marry. I have a perfect right to feel that way, and it is no kindness to a woman to urge her—to persuade her against her will. If I give you pain I can only say I am very sorry. It is not my fault; I can’t marry you simply to please you. I won’t say that I shall always remain your friend, because when women say that, in these circumstances, it is supposed, I believe, to be a sort of mockery. But try me some day.”

Caspar Goodwood, during this speech, had kept his eyes fixed upon the name of his hatter, and it was not until some time after she had ceased speaking that he raised them. When he did so, the sight of a certain rosy, lovely eagerness in Isabel’s face threw some confusion into his attempt to analyse what she had said. “I will go home—I will go to-morrow—I will leave you alone,” he murmured at last. “Only,” he added in a louder tone—“I hate to lose sight of you!”

“Never fear. I will do no harm.”

“You will marry some one else,” said Caspar Goodwood.

“Do you think that is a generous charge?”

“Why not? Plenty of men will ask you.”

“I told you just now that I don’t wish to marry, and that I shall probably never do so.”

“I know you did; but I don’t believe it.”

“Thank you very much. You appear to think I am attempting to deceive you; you say very delicate things.”

“Why should I not say that? You have given me no promise that you will not marry.”

“No, that is all that would be wanting!” cried Isabel, with a bitter laugh.

“You think you won’t, but you will,” her visitor went on, as if he were preparing himself for the worst.

“Very well, I will them. Have it as you please.”

“I don’t know, however,” said Caspar Goodwood, “that my keeping you in sight would prevent it.”

“Don’t you indeed? I am, after all, very much afraid of you. Do you think I am so very easily pleased?” she asked suddenly, changing her tone.

“No, I don’t; I shall try and console myself with that. But there are a certain number of very clever men in the world; if there were only one, it would be enough. You will be sure to take no one who is not.”

“I don’t need the aid of a clever man to teach me how to live,” said Isabel. “I can find it out for myself.”

“To live alone, do you mean? I wish that when you have found that out, you would teach me.”

Isabel glanced at him a moment; then, with a quick smile—“Oh, you ought to marry!” she said.

Poor Caspar may be pardoned if for an instant this exclamation seemed to him to have the infernal note, and I cannot take upon myself to say that Isabel uttered it in obedience to an impulse strictly celestial. It is a fact, however, that it had always seemed to her that Caspar Goodwood, of all men, ought to enjoy the whole devotion of some tender woman. “God forgive you!” he murmured between his teeth, turning away.

Her exclamation had put her slightly in the wrong, and after a moment she felt the need to right herself. The easiest way to do it was to put her suitor in the wrong. “You do me great injustice—you say what you don’t know!” she broke out. “I should not be an easy victim—I have proved it.”

“Oh, to me, perfectly.”

“I have proved it to others as well.” And she paused a moment. “I refused a proposal of marriage last week—what they call a brilliant one.”

“I am very glad to hear it,” said the young man, gravely.

“It was a proposal that many girls would have accepted; it had everything to recommend it.” Isabel had hesitated to tell this story, but now she had begun, the satisfaction of speaking it out and doing herself justice took possession of her. “I was offered a great position and a great fortune—by a person whom I like extremely.”

Caspar gazed at her with great interest. “Is he an Englishman?”

“He is an English nobleman,” said Isabel.

Mr. Goodwood received this announcement in silence; then, at last, he said.

“I am glad he is disappointed.”

“Well, then, as you have companions in misfortune, make the best of it.”

“I don’t call him a companion,” said Caspar, grimly.

“Why not—since I declined his offer absolutely?”

“That doesn’t make him my companion. Besides, he’s an Englishman.”

“And pray is not an Englishman a human being?” Isabel inquired.

“Oh, no; he’s superhuman.”

“You are angry,” said the girl. “We have discussed this matter quite enough.”

“Oh, yes, I am angry. I plead guilty to that!”

Isabel turned away from him, walked to the open window, and stood a moment looking into the dusky vacancy of the street, where a turbid gaslight alone represented social animation. For some time neither of these young persons spoke; Caspar lingered near the chimney-piece, with his eyes gloomily fixed upon our heroine. She had virtually requested him to withdraw—he knew that; but at the risk of making himself odious to her he kept his ground. She was far too dear to him to be easily forfeited, and he had sailed across the Atlantic to extract some pledge from her. Presently she left the window and stood before him again.

“You do me very little justice,” she said—“after my telling you what I told you just now. I am sorry I told you—since it matters so little to you.”

“Ah,” cried the young man, “if you were thinking of me when you did it!” And then he paused, with the fear that she might contradict so happy a thought.

“I was thinking of you a little,” said Isabel.

“A little? I don’t understand. If the knowledge that I love you had any weight with you at all, it must have had a good deal.”

Isabel shook her head impatiently, as if to carry off a blush. “I have refused a noble gentleman. Make the most of that.”

“I thank you, then,” said Caspar Goodwood, gravely. “I thank you immensely.”

“And now you had better go home.”

“May I not see you again?” he asked.

“I think it is better not. You will be sure to talk of this, and you see it leads to nothing.”

“I promise you not to say a word that will annoy you.”

Isabel reflected a little, and then she said—“I return in a day or two to my uncle’s, and I can’t propose to you to come there; it would be very inconsistent.”

Caspar Goodwood, on his side, debated within himself. “You must do me justice too. I received an invitation to your uncle’s more than a week ago, and I declined it.”

“From whom was your invitation?” Isabel asked, surprised.

“From Mr. Ralph Touchett, whom I suppose to be your cousin. I declined it because I had not your authorisation to accept it. The suggestion that Mr. Touchett should invite me appeared to have come from Miss Stackpole.”

“It certainly did not come from me. Henrietta certainly goes very far,” Isabel added.

“Don’t be too hard on her—that touches me.”

“No; if you declined, that was very proper of you, and I thank you for it.” And Isabel gave a little shudder of dismay at the thought that Lord Warburton and Mr. Goodwood might have met at Gardencourt: it would have been so awkward for Lord Warburton!

“When you leave your uncle, where are you going?” Caspar asked.

“I shall go abroad with my aunt—to Florence and other places.”

The serenity of this announcement struck a chill to the young man’s heart; he seemed to see her whirled away into circles from which he was inexorably excluded. Nevertheless he went on quickly with his questions. “And when shall you come back to America?”

“Perhaps not for a long time; I am very happy here.”

“Do you mean to give up your country?”

“Don’t be an infant.”

“Well, you will be out of my sight indeed!” said Caspar Goodwood.

“I don’t know,” she answered, rather grandly. “The world strikes me as small.”

“It is too large for me!” Caspar exclaimed, with a simplicity which our young lady might have found touching if her face had not been set against concessions.

This attitude was part of a system, a theory, that she had lately embraced, and to be thorough she said after a moment—“Don’t think me unkind if I say that it’s just that—being out of your sight—that I like. If you were in the same place as I, I should feel as if you were watching me, and I don’t like that. I like my liberty too much. If there is a thing in the world that I am fond of,” Isabel went on, with a slight recurrence of the grandeur that had shown itself a moment before—“it is my personal independence.”

But whatever there was of grandeur in this speech moved Caspar Goodwood’s admiration; there was nothing that displeased him in the sort of feeling it expressed. This feeling not only did no violence to his way of looking at the girl he wished to make his wife, but seemed a grace the more in so ardent a spirit. To his mind she had always had wings, and this was but the flutter of those stainless pinions. He was not afraid of having a wife with a certain largeness of movement; he was a man of long steps himself. Isabel’s words, if they had been meant to shock him, failed of the mark, and only made him smile with the sense that here was common ground. “Who would wish less to curtail your liberty than I?” he asked. “What can give me greater pleasure than to see you perfectly independent—doing whatever you like? It is to make you independent that I want to marry you.”

“That’s a beautiful sophism,” said the girl, with a smile more beautiful still.

“An unmarried woman—a girl of your age—is not independent. There are all sorts of things she can’t do. She is hampered at every step.”

“That’s as she looks at the question,” Isabel answered, with much spirit. “I am not in my first youth—I can do what I choose—I belong quite to the independent class. I have neither father nor mother; I am poor; I am of a serious disposition, and not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can’t afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.” She paused a moment, but not long enough for her companion to reply. He was apparently on the point of doing so, when she went on—“Let me say this to you, Mr. Goodwood. You are so kind as to speak of being afraid of my marrying. If you should hear a rumour that I am on the point of doing so—girls are liable to have such things said about them—remember what I have told you about my love of liberty, and venture to doubt it.”

There was something almost passionately positive in the tone in which Isabel gave him this advice, and he saw a shining candour in her eyes which helped him to believe her. On the whole he felt reassured, and you might have perceived it by the manner in which he said, quite eagerly—“ You want simply to travel for two years? I am quite willing to wait two years, and you may do what you like in the interval. If that is all you want, pray say so. I don’t want you to be conventional; do I strike you as conventional myself? Do you want to improve your mind? Your mind is quite good enough for me; but if it interests you to wander about a while and see different countries, I shall be delighted to help you, in any way in my power.”

“You are very generous; that is nothing new to me. The best way to help me will be to put as many hundred miles of sea between us as possible.”

“One would think you were going to commit a crime!” said Caspar Goodwood.

“Perhaps I am. I wish to be free even to do that, if the fancy takes me.”

“Well then,” he said, slowly, “I will go home.” And he put out his hand, trying to look contented and confident.

Isabel’s confidence in him, however, was greater than any he could feel in her. Not that he thought her capable of committing a crime; but, turn it over as he would, there was something ominous in the way she reserved her option. As Isabel took his hand, she felt a great respect for him; she knew how much he cared for her, and she thought him magnanimous. They stood so for a moment, looking at each other, united by a handclasp which was not merely passive on her side. “That’s right,” she said, very kindly, almost tenderly. “You will lose nothing by being a reasonable man.”

“But I will come back, wherever you are, two years hence,” he returned, with characteristic grimness.

We have seen that our young lady was inconsequent, and at this she suddenly changed her note. “Ah, remember, I promise nothing—absolutely nothing!” Then more softly, as if to help him to leave her, she added—“And remember, too, that I shall not be an easy victim!”

“You will get very sick of your independence.”

“Perhaps I shall; it is even very probable. When that day comes I shall be very glad to see you.”

She had laid her hand on the knob of the door that led into her room, and she waited a moment to see whether her visitor would not take his departure. But he appeared unable to move; there was still an immense unwillingness in his attitude—a deep remonstrance in his eyes.

“I must leave you now,” said Isabel; and she opened the door, and passed into the other room.

This apartment was dark, but the darkness was tempered by a vague radiance sent up through the window from the court of the hotel, and Isabel could make out the masses of the furniture, the dim shining of the mirror, and the looming of the big four-posted bed. She stood still a moment, listening, and at last she heard Caspar Goodwood walk out of the sitting-room and close the door behind him. She stood still a moment longer, and then, by an irresistible impulse, she dropped on her knees before her bed, and hid her face in her arms.