Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
That love of liberty of which she had given Caspar Goodwood so bold a sketch was as yet almost exclusively theoretic; she had not been able to indulge it on a large scale. But it seemed to her that she had done something; she had tasted of the delight, if not of battle, at least of victory; she had done what she preferred. In the midst of this agreeable sensation the image of Mr. Goodwood taking his sad walk homeward through the dingy town presented itself with a certain reproachful force; so that, as at the same moment the door of the room was opened, she rose quickly with an apprehension that he had come back. But it was only Henrietta Stackpole returning from her dinner.
Miss Stackpole immediately saw that something had happened to Isabel, and indeed the discovery demanded no great penetration. Henrietta went straight up to her friend, who received her without a greeting. Isabel’s elation in having sent Caspar Goodwood back to America pre-supposed her being glad that he had come to see her; but at the same time she perfectly remembered that Henrietta had had no right to set a trap for her.
“Has he been here, dear?” Miss Stackpole inquired, softly.
Isabel turned away, and for some moments answered nothing.
“You acted very wrongly,” she said at last.
“I acted for the best, dear. I only hope you acted as well.”
“You are not the judge. I can’t trust you,” said Isabel.
This declaration was unflattering, but Henrietta was much too unselfish to heed the charge it conveyed; she cared only for what it intimated with regard to her friend.
“Isabel Archer,” she declared, with equal abruptness and solemnity, “if you marry one of these people, I will never speak to you again!”
“Before making so terrible a threat, you had better wait till I am asked,” Isabel replied. Never having said a word to Miss Stackpole about Lord Warburton’s overtures, she had now no impulse whatever to justify herself to Henrietta by telling her that she had refused that nobleman.
“Oh, you’ll be asked quick enough, once you get off on the continent. Annie Climber was asked three times in Italy—poor plain little Annie.”
“Well, if Annie Climber was not captured, why should I be?”
“I don’t believe Annie was pressed; but you’ll be.”
“That’s a flattering conviction,” said Isabel, with a laugh.
“I don’t flatter you, Isabel, I tell you the truth!” cried her friend. “I hope you don’t mean to tell me that you didn’t give Mr. Goodwood some hope.”
“I don’t see why I should tell you anything; as I said to you just now, I can’t trust you. But since you are so much interested in Mr. Goodwood, I won’t conceal from you that he returns immediately to America.”
“You don’t mean to say you have sent him off?” Henrietta broke out in dismay.
“I asked him to leave me alone; and I ask you the same, Henrietta.”
Miss Stackpole stood there with expanded eyes, and then she went to the mirror over the chimney-piece and took off her bonnet.
“I hope you have enjoyed your dinner,” Isabel remarked lightly, as she did so.
But Miss Stackpole was not to be diverted by frivolous propositions, nor bribed by the offer of autobiographic opportunities.
“Do you know where you are going, Isabel Archer?”
“Just now I am going to bed,” said Isabel, with persistent frivolity.
“Do you know where you are drifting?” Henrietta went on holding out her bonnet delicately.
“No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see—that’s my idea of happiness.”
“Mr. Goodwood certainly didn’t teach you to say such things as that—like the heroine of an immoral novel,” said Miss Stackpole. “You are drifting to some great mistake.”
Isabel was irritated by her friend’s interference, but even in the midst of her irritation she tried to think what truth this declaration could represent. She could think of nothing that diverted her from saying—“You must be very fond of me, Henrietta, to be willing to be so disagreeable to me.”
“I love you, Isabel,” said Miss Stackpole, with feeling.
“Well, if you love me, let me alone. I asked that of Mr. Goodwood, and I must also ask it of you.”
“Take care you are not let alone too much.”
“That is what Mr. Goodwood said to me. I told him I must take the risks.”
“You are a creature of risks—you make me shudder!” cried Henrietta. “When does Mr. Goodwood return to America?”
“I don’t know—he didn’t tell me.”
“Perhaps you didn’t inquire,” said Henrietta, with the note of righteous irony.
“I gave him too little satisfaction to have the right to ask questions of him.”
This assertion seemed to Miss Stackpole for a moment to bid defiance to comment; but at last she exclaimed—“Well, Isabel, if I didn’t know you, I might think you were heartless!”
“Take care,” said Isabel; “you are spoiling me.”
“I am afraid I have done that already. I hope, at least,” Miss Stackpole added, “that he may cross with Annie Climber!”
Isabel learned from her the next morning that she had determined not to return to Gardencourt (where old Mr. Touchett had promised her a renewed welcome), but to await in London the arrival of the invitation that Mr. Bantling had promised her from his sister, Lady Pensil. Miss Stackpole related very freely her conversation with Ralph Touchett’s sociable friend, and declared to Isabel that she really believed she had now got hold of something that would lead to something. On the receipt of Lady Pensil’s letter—Mr. Bantling had virtually guaranteed the arrival of this document—she would immediately depart for Bedfordshire, and if Isabel cared to look out for her impressions in the Interviewer, she would certainly find them. Henrietta was evidently going to see something of the inner life this time.
“Do you know where you are drifting, Henrietta Stackpole?” Isabel asked, imitating the tone in which her friend had spoken the night before.
“I am drifting to a big position—that of queen of American journalism. If my next letter isn’t copied all over the West, I’ll swallow my pen-wiper!”
She had arranged with her friend Miss Annie Climber, the young lady of the continental offers, that they should go together to make those purchases which were to constitute Miss Climber’s farewell to a hemisphere in which she at least had been appreciated; and she presently repaired to Jermyn Street to pick up her companion. Shortly after her departure Ralph Touchett was announced, and as soon as he came in Isabel saw that he had something on his mind. He very soon took his cousin into his confidence. He had received a telegram from his mother, telling him that his father had had a sharp attack of his old malady, that she was much alarmed, and that she begged Ralph would instantly return to Gardencourt. On this occasion, at least, Mrs. Touchett’s devotion to the electric wire had nothing incongruous.
“I have judged it best to see the great doctor, Sir Matthew Hope, first,” Ralph said; “by great good luck he’s in town. He is to see me at half-past twelve, and I shall make sure of his coming down to Gardencourt—which he will do the more readily as he has already seen my father several times, both there and in London. There is an express at two-forty-five, which I shall take, and you will come back with me, or remain here a few days longer, exactly as you prefer.”
“I will go with you!” Isabel exclaimed. “I don’t suppose I can be of any use to my uncle, but if he is ill I should like to be near him.”
“I think you like him,” said Ralph, with a certain shy pleasure in his eye. “You appreciate him, which all the world hasn’t done. The quality is too fine.”
“I think I love him,” said Isabel, simply.
“That’s very well. After his son, he is your greatest admirer.”
Isabel welcomed this assurance, but she gave secretly a little sigh of relief at the thought that Mr. Touchett was one of those admirers who could not propose to marry her. This, however, was not what she said; she went on to inform Ralph that there were other reasons why she should not remain in London. She was tired of it and wished to leave it; and then Henrietta was going away—going to stay in Bedfordshire.”
“In Bedfordshire?” Ralph exclaimed, with surprise.
“With Lady Pensil, the sister of Mr. Bantling, who has answered for an invitation.”
Ralph was feeling anxious, but at this he broke into a laugh. Suddenly, however, he looked grave again. “Bantling is a man of courage. But if the invitation should get lost on the way?”
“I thought the British post-office was impeccable.”
“The good Homer sometimes nods,” said Ralph. “However,” he went on, more brightly, “the good Bantling never does, and, whatever happens, he will take care of Henrietta.”
Ralph went to keep his appointment with Sir Matthew Hope, and Isabel made her arrangements for quitting Pratt’s Hotel. Her uncle’s danger touched her nearly, and while she stood before her open trunk, looking about her vaguely for what she should put into it, the tears suddenly rushed into her eyes. It was perhaps for this reason that when Ralph came back at two o’clock to take her to the station she was not yet ready.
He found Miss Stackpole, however, in the sitting-room, where she had just risen from the lunch-table, and this lady immediately expressed her regret at his father’s illness.
“He is a grand old man,” she said; “he is faithful to the last. If it is really to be the last—excuse my alluding to it, but you must often have thought of the possibility—I am sorry that I shall not be at Gardencourt.”
“You will amuse yourself much more in Bedfordshire.”
“I shall be sorry to amuse myself at such a time,” said Henrietta, with much propriety. But she immediately added—“I should like so to commemorate the closing scene.”
“My father may live a long time,” said Ralph, simply. Then, adverting to topics more cheerful, he interrogated Miss Stackpole as to her own future.
Now that Ralph was in trouble, she addressed him in a tone of larger allowance, and told him that she was much indebted to him for having made her acquainted with Mr. Bantling. “He has told me just the things I want to know,” she said; “all the society-items and all about the royal family. I can’t make out that what he tells me about the royal family is much to their credit; but he says that’s only my peculiar way of looking at it. Well, all I want is that he should give me the facts; I can put them together quick enough, once I’ve got them.” And she added that Mr. Bantling had been so good as to promise to come and take her out in the afternoon.
“To take you where?” Ralph ventured to inquire.
“To Buckingham Palace. He is going to show me over it, so that I may get some idea how they live.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “we leave you in good hands. The first thing we shall hear is that you are invited to Windsor Castle.”
“If they ask me, I shall certainly go. Once I get started I am not afraid. But for all that,” Henrietta added in a moment, “I am not satisfied; I am not satisfied about Isabel.”
“What is her last misdemeanour?”
“Well, I have told you before, and I suppose there is no harm in my going on, I always finish a subject that I take up. Mr. Goodwood was here last night.”
Ralph opened his eyes; he even blushed a little—his blush being the sign of an emotion somewhat acute. He remembered that Isabel, in separating from him in Winchester Square, had repudiated his suggestion that her motive in doing so was the expectation of a visitor at Pratt’s Hotel, and it was a novel sensation to him to have to suspect her of duplicity. On the other hand, he quickly said to himself, what concern was it of his that she should have made an appointment with a lover? Had it not been thought graceful in every age that young ladies should make a mystery of such appointments? Ralph made Miss Stackpole a diplomatic answer. “I should have thought that, with the views you expressed to me the other day, that would satisfy you perfectly.”
“That he should come to see her? That was very well, as far as it went. It was a little plot of mine; I let him know that we were in London, and when it had been arranged that I should spend the evening out, I just sent him a word—a word to the wise. I hoped he would find her alone; I won’t pretend I didn’t hope that you would be out of the way. He came to see her; but he might as well have stayed away.”
“Isabel was cruel?” Ralph inquired, smiling, and relieved at learning that his cousin had not deceived him.
“I don’t exactly know what passed between them. But she gave him no satisfaction—she sent him back to America.”
“Poor Mr. Goodwood!” Ralph exclaimed.
“Her only idea seems to be to get rid of him,” Henrietta went on.
“Poor Mr. Goodwood!” repeated Ralph. The exclamation, it must be confessed, was somewhat mechanical. It failed exactly to express his thoughts, which were taking another line.
“You don’t say that as if you felt it; I don’t believe you care.”
“Ah,” said Ralph, “you must remember that I don’t know this interesting young man—that I have never seen him.”
“Well, I shall see him, and I shall tell him not to give up. If I didn’t believe Isabel would come round,” said Miss Stackpole—“well, I’d give her up myself!”