Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
“That is very beautiful, and your playing makes it more beautiful still,” said Isabel, with all the young radiance with which she usually uttered a truthful rapture.
“You don’t think I disturbed Mr. Touchett, then?” the musician answered, as sweetly as this compliment deserved. “The house is so large, and his room so far away, that I thought I might venture—especially as I played just—just du bout des doigts.”
“She is a Frenchwoman,” Isabel said to herself; “she says that as if she were French.” And this supposition made the stranger more interesting to our speculative heroine. “I hope my uncle is doing well,” Isabel added. “I should think that to hear such lovely music as that would really make him feel better.”
The lady gave a discriminating smile.
“I am afraid there are moments in life when even Beethoven has nothing to say to us. We must admit, however, that they are our worst moments.”
“I am not in that state now,” said Isabel. “On the contrary, I should be so glad if you would play something more.”
“If it will give you pleasure—most willingly.” And this obliging person took her place again, and struck a few chords, while Isabel sat down nearer the instrument. Suddenly the stranger stopped, with her hands on the keys, half-turning and looking over her shoulder at the girl. She was forty years old, and she was not pretty; but she had a delightful expression. “Excuse me,” she said; “but are you the niece—the young American?”
“I am my aunt’s niece,” said Isabel, with naïveté.
The lady at the piano sat still a moment longer, looking over her shoulder with her charming smile.
“That’s very well,” she said, “we are compatriots.”
And then she began to play.
“Ah, then she is not French,” Isabel murmured; and as the opposite supposition had made her interesting, it might have seemed that this revelation would have diminished her effectiveness. But such was not the fact; for Isabel, as she listened to the music, found much stimulus to conjecture in the fact that an American should so strongly resemble a foreign woman.
Her companion played in the same manner as before, softly and solemnly, and while she played the shadows deepened in the room. The autumn twilight gathered in, and from her place Isabel could see the rain, which had now begun in earnest, washing the cold-looking lawn, and the wind shaking the great trees. At last, when the music had ceased, the lady got up, and, coming to her auditor, smiling, before Isabel had time to thank her again, said—
“I am very glad you have come back; I have heard a great deal about you.”
Isabel thought her a very attractive person; but she nevertheless said, with a certain abruptness, in answer to this speech—
“From whom have you heard about me?”
The stranger hesitated a single moment, and then—
“From your uncle,” she answered. “I have been here three days, and the first day he let me come and pay him a visit in his room. Then he talked constantly of you.”
“As you didn’t know me, that must have bored you.”
“It made me want to know you. All the more that since then—your aunt being so much with Mr. Touchett—I have been quite alone, and have got rather tired of my own society. I have not chosen a good moment for my visit.”
A servant had come in with lamps, and was presently followed by another, bearing the tea-tray. On the appearance of this repast Mrs. Touchett had apparently been notified, for she now arrived and addressed herself to the tea-pot. Her greeting to her niece did not differ materially from her manner of raising the lid of this receptacle in order to glance at the contents: in neither act was it becoming to make a show of avidity. Questioned about her husband, she was unable to say that he was better; but the local doctor was with him, and much light was expected from this gentleman’s consultation with Sir Matthew Hope.
“I suppose you two ladies have made acquaintance?” she said. “If you have not, I recommend you to do so; for so long as we continue—Ralph and I—to cluster about Mr. Touchett’s bed, you are not likely to have much society but each other.”
“I know nothing about you but that you are a great musician,” Isabel said to the visitor.
“There is a good deal more than that to know,” Mrs. Touchett affirmed, in her little dry tone.
“A very little of it, I am sure, will content Miss Archer!” the lady exclaimed, with a light laugh. “I am an old friend of your aunt’s—I have lived much in Florence—I am Madame Merle.”
She made this last announcement as if she were referring to a person of tolerably distinct identity.
For Isabel, however, it represented but little; she could only continue to feel that Madame Merle had a charming manner.
“She is not a foreigner, in spite of her name,” said Mrs. Touchett. “She was born—I always forget where you were born.”
“It is hardly worth while I should tell you, then.”
“On the contrary,” said Mrs. Touchett who rarely missed a logical point; “if I remembered, your telling me would be quite superfluous.”
Madame Merle glanced at Isabel with a fine, frank smile.
“I was born under the shadow of the national banner.”
“She is too fond of mystery,” said Mrs. Touchett; “that is her great fault.”
“Ah,” exclaimed Madame Merle, “I have great faults, but I don’t think that is one of them; it certainly is not the greatest. I came into the world in the Brooklyn navy-yard. My father was a high officer in the United States navy, and had a post—a post of responsibility—in that establishment at the time. I suppose I ought to love the sea, but I hate it. That’s why I don’t return to America. I love the land; the great thing is to love something.”
Isabel, as a dispassionate witness, had not been struck with the force of Mrs. Touchett’s characterisation of her visitor, who had an expressive, communicative, responsive face, by no means of the sort which, to Isabel’s mind, suggested a secretive disposition. It was a face that told of a rich nature and of quick and liberal impulses, and though it had no regular beauty was in the highest degree agreeable to contemplate.
Madame Merle was a tall, fair, plump woman; everything in her person was round and replete, though without those accumulations which minister to indolence. Her features were thick, but there was a graceful harmony among them, and her complexion had a healthy clearness. She had a small grey eye, with a great deal of light in it—an eye incapable of dulness, and, according to some people, incapable of tears; and a wide, firm mouth, which, when she smiled, drew itself upward to the left side, in a manner that most people thought very odd, some very affected, and a few very graceful. Isabel inclined to range herself in the last category. Madame Merle had thick, fair hair, which was arranged with picturesque simplicity, and a large white hand, of a perfect shape—a shape so perfect that its owner, preferring to leave it unadorned, wore no rings. Isabel had taken her at first, as we have seen, for a Frenchwoman; but extended observation led her to say to herself that Madame Merle might be a German—a German of rank, a countess, a princess. Isabel would never have supposed that she had been born in Brooklyn—though she could doubtless not have justified her assumption that the air of distinction, possessed by Madame Merle in so eminent a degree, was inconsistent with such a birth. It was true that the national banner had floated immediately over the spot of the lady’s nativity, and the breezy freedom of the stars and stripes might have shed an influence upon the attitude which she then and there took towards life. And yet Madame Merle had evidently nothing of the fluttered, flapping quality of a morsel of bunting in the wind; her deportment expressed the repose and confidence which come from a large experience. Experience, however, had not quenched her youth; it had simply made her sympathetic and supple. She was in a word a woman of ardent impulses, kept in admirable order. What an ideal combination! thought Isabel.
She made these reflections while the three ladies sat at their tea, but this ceremony was interrupted before long by the arrival of the great doctor from London, who had been immediately ushered into the drawing-room. Mrs. Touchett took him off to the library, to confer with him in private; and then Madame Merle and Isabel parted, to meet again at dinner. The idea of seeing more of this interesting woman did much to mitigate Isabel’s perception of the melancholy that now hung over Gardencourt.
When she came into the drawing-room before dinner she found the place empty; but in the course of a moment Ralph arrived. His anxiety about his father had been lightened; Sir Matthew Hope’s view of his condition was less sombre than Ralph’s had been. The doctor recommended that the nurse alone should remain with the old man for the next three or four hours; so that Ralph, his mother, and the great physician himself, were free to dine at table. Mrs. Touchett and Sir Matthew came in; Madame Merle was the last to appear.
Before she came, Isabel spoke of her to Ralph, who was standing before the fireplace.
“Pray who is Madame Merle?”
“The cleverest woman I know, not excepting yourself,” said Ralph.
“I thought she seemed very pleasant.”
“I was sure you would think her pleasant,” said Ralph.
“Is that why you invited her?”
“I didn’t invite her, and when we came back from London I didn’t know she was here. No one invited her. She is a friend of my mother’s, and just after you and I went to town, my mother got a note from her. She had arrived in England (she usually lives abroad, though she has first and last spent a good deal of time here), and she asked leave to come down for a few days. Madame Merle is a woman who can make such proposals with perfect confidence; she is so welcome wherever she goes. And with my mother there could be no question of hesitating; she is the one person in the world whom my mother very much admires. If she were not herself (which she after all much prefers), she would like to be Madame Merle. It would, indeed, be a great change.”
“Well, she is very charming,” said Isabel. “And she plays beautifully.”
“She does everything beautifully. She is complete.”
Isabel looked at her cousin a moment. “You don’t like her.”
“On the contrary, I was once in love with her.”
“And she didn’t care for you, and that’s why you don’t like her.”
“How can we have discussed such things? M. Merle was then living.”
“Is he dead now?”
“So she says.”
“Don’t you believe her?”
“Yes, because the statement agrees with the probabilities. The husband of Madame Merle would be likely to pass away.”
Isabel gazed at her cousin again. “I don’t know what you mean. You mean something—that you don’t mean. What was M. Merle?”
“The husband of Madame.”
“You are very odious. Has she any children?”
“Not the least little child—fortunately.”
“I mean fortunately for the child; she would be sure to spoil it.”
Isabel was apparently on the point of assuring her cousin for the third time that he was odious; but the discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the lady who was the topic of it. She came rustling in quickly, apologising for being late, fastening a bracelet, dressed in dark blue satin, which exposed a white bosom that was ineffectually covered by a curious silver necklace. Ralph offered her his arm with the exaggerated alertness of a man who was no longer a lover.
Even if this had still been his condition, however, Ralph had other things to think about. The great doctor spent the night at Gardencourt, and returning to London on the morrow, after another consultation with Mr. Touchett’s own medical adviser, concurred in Ralph’s desire that he should see the patient again on the day following. On the day following Sir Matthew Hope reappeared at Gardencourt, and on this occasion took a less encouraging view of the old man, who had grown worse in the twenty-four hours. His feebleness was extreme, and to his son, who constantly sat by his bedside, it often seemed that his end was a hand. The local doctor, who was a very sagacious man, and in whom Ralph had secretly more confidence than in his distinguished colleague, was constantly in attendance, and Sir Matthew Hope returned several times to Gardencourt. Mr. Touchett was much of the time unconscious; he slept a great deal; he rarely spoke. Isabel had a great desire to be useful to him, and was allowed to watch with him several times when his other attendants (of whom Mrs. Touchett was not the least regular) went to take rest. He never seemed to know her, and she always said to herself—“Suppose he should die while I am sitting here;” an idea which excited her and kept her awake. Once he opened his eyes for a while and fixed them upon her intelligently, but when she went to him, hoping he would recognise her, he closed them and relapsed into unconsciousness. The day after this, however, he revived for a longer time; but on this occasion Ralph was with him alone. The old man began to talk, much to his son’s satisfaction, who assured him that they should presently have him sitting up.
“No, my boy,” said Mr. Touchett, “not unless you bury me in a sitting posture, as some of the ancients—was it the ancients?—used to do.
“Ah, daddy, don’t talk about that,” Ralph murmured. “You must not deny that you are getting better.”
“There will be no need of my denying it if you don’t say so,” the old man answered. “Why should we prevaricate, just at the last? We never prevaricated before. I have got to die some time, and it’s better to die when one is sick than when one is well. I am very sick—as sick as I shall ever be. I hope you don’t want to prove that I shall ever be worse than this? That would be too bad. You don’t? Well then.”
Having made this excellent point he became quiet, but the next time that Ralph was with him he again addressed himself to conversation. The nurse had gone to her supper and Ralph was alone with him, having just relieved Mrs. Touchett, who had been on guard since dinner. The room was lighted only by the flickering fire, which of late had become necessary, and Ralph’s tall shadow was projected upon the wall and ceiling, with an outline constantly varying but always grotesque.
“Who is that with me—is it my son?” the old man asked.
“Yes, it’s your son, daddy.”
“And is there no one else?”
“No one else.”
Mr. Touchett said nothing for a while; and then, “I want to talk a little,” he went on.
“Won’t it tire you?” Ralph inquired.
“It won’t matter if it does. I shall have a long rest. I want to talk about you.”
Ralph had drawn nearer to the bed; he sat leaning forward, with his hand on his father’s. “You had better select a brighter topic,” he said.
“You were always bright; I used to be proud of your brightness. I should like so much to think that you would do something.”
“If you leave us,” said Ralph, “I shall do nothing but miss you.”
“That is just what I don’t want; it’s what I want to talk about. You must get a new interest.”
“I don’t want a new interest, daddy. I have more old ones than I know what to do with.”
The old man lay there looking at his son; his face was the face of the dying, but his eyes were the eyes of Daniel Touchett. He seemed to be reckoning over Ralph’s interests.
“Of course you have got your mother,” he said at last. “You will take care of her.”
“My mother will always take care of herself,” Ralph answered.
“Well,” said his father, “perhaps as she grows older she will need a little help.”
“I shall not see that. She will outlive me.”
“Very likely she will; but that’s no reason—” Mr. Touchett let his phrase die away in a helpless but not exactly querulous sigh, and remained silent again.
“Don’t trouble yourself about us,” said his son. “My mother and I get on very well together, you know.”
“You get on by always being apart; that’s not natural.”
“If you leave us, we shall probably see more of each other.”
“Well,” the old man observed, with wandering irrelevance, “it cannot be said that my death will make much difference in your mother’s life.”
“It will probably make more than you think.”
“Well, she’ll have more money,” said Mr. Touchett. “I have left her a good wife’s portion, just as if she had been a good wife.”
“She has been one, daddy, according to her own theory. She has never troubled you.”
“Ah, some troubles are pleasant,” Mr. Touchett murmured. “Those you have given me, for instance. But your mother has been less—less—what shall I call it? less out of the way since I have been ill. I presume she knows I have noticed it.”
“I shall certainly tell her so; I am so glad you mention it.”
“It won’t make any difference to her; she doesn’t do it to please me. She does it to please—to please—” And he lay a while, trying to think why she did it. “She does it to please herself. But that is not what I want to talk about,” he added. “It’s about you. You will be very well off.”
“Yes,” said Ralph, “I know that. But I hope you have not forgotten the talk we had a year ago—when I told you exactly what money I should need and begged you to make some good use of the rest.”
“Yes, yes, I remember. I made a new will—in a few days. I suppose it was the first time such a thing had happened—a young man trying to get a will made against him.”
“It is not against me,” said Ralph. “It would be against me to have a large property to take care of. It is impossible for a man in my state of health to spend much money, and enough is as good as a feast.”
“Well, you will have enough—and something over. There will be more than enough for one—there will be enough for two.”
“That’s too much,” said Ralph.
“Ah, don’t say that. The best thing you can do, when I am gone, will be to marry.”
Ralph had foreseen what his father was coming to, and this suggestion was by no means novel. It had long been Mr. Touchett’s most ingenious way of expressing the optimistic view of his son’s health. Ralph had usually treated it humorously; but present circumstances made the humorous tone impossible. He simply fell back in his chair and returned his father’s appealing gaze in silence.
“If I, with a wife who hasn’t been very fond of me, have had a very happy life,” said the old man, carrying his ingenuity further still, “what a life might you not have, if you should marry a person different from Mrs. Touchett. There are more different from her than there are like her.”
Ralph still said nothing; and after a pause his father asked softly—“What do you think of your cousin?”
At this Ralph started, meeting the question with a rather fixed smile. “Do I understand you to propose that I should marry Isabel?”
“Well, that’s what it comes to in the end. Don’t you like her?”
“Yes, very much.” And Ralph got up from his chair and wandered over to the fire. He stood before it an instant and then he stooped and stirred it, mechanically. “I like Isabel very much,” he repeated.
“Well,” said his father, “I know she likes you. She told me so.”
“Did she remark that she would like to marry me?”
“No, but she can’t have anything against you. And she is the most charming young lady I have ever seen. And she would be good to you. I have thought a great deal about it.”
“So have I,” said Ralph, coming back to the bedside again. “I don’t mind telling you that.”
“You are in love with her, then? I should think you would be. It’s as if she came over on purpose.”
“No, I am not in love with her; but I should be if—if certain things were different.”
“Ah, things are always different from what they might be,” said the old man. “If you wait for them to change, you will never do anything. I don’t know whether you know,” he went on; “but I suppose there is no harm in my alluding to it in such an hour as this: there was some one wanted to marry Isabel the other day, and she wouldn’t have him.”
“I know she refused Lord Warburton; he told me himself.”
“Well, that proves that there is a chance for somebody else.”
“Somebody else took his chance the other day in London—and got nothing by it.”
“Was it you?” Mr. Touchett asked, eagerly.
“No, it was an older friend; a poor gentleman who came over from America to see about it.”
“Well, I am sorry for him. But it only proves what I say—that the way is open to you.”
“If it is, dear father, it is all the greater pity that I am unable to tread it. I haven’t many convictions; but I have three or four that I hold strongly. One is that people, on the whole, had better not marry their cousins. Another is, that people in an advanced stage of pulmonary weakness had better not marry at all.”
The old man raised his feeble hand and moved it to and fro a little before his face.
“What do you mean by that? You look at things in a way that would make everything wrong. What sort of a cousin is a cousin that you have never seen for more than twenty years of her life? We are all each other’s cousins, and if we stopped at that the human race would die out. It is just the same with your weak lungs. You are a great deal better than you used to be. All you want is to lead a natural life. It’s a great deal more natural to marry a pretty young lady that you are in love with than it is to remain single on false principles.”
“I am not in love with Isabel,” said Ralph.
“You said just now that you would be if you didn’t think it was wrong. I want to prove to you that it isn’t wrong.”
“It will only tire you, dear daddy,” said Ralph, who marvelled at his father’s tenacity and at his finding strength to insist. “Then where shall we all be?”
“Where shall you be if I don’t provide for you? You won’t have anything to do with the bank, and you won’t have me to take care of. You say you have got so many interests; but I can’t make them out.”
Ralph leaned back in his chair, with folded arms; his eyes were fixed for some time in meditation. At last, with the air of a man fairly mustering courage—“I take a great interest in my cousin,” he said, “but not the sort of interest you desire. I shall not live many years; but I hope I shall live long enough to see what she does with herself. She is entirely independent of me; I can exercise very little influence upon her life. But I should like to do something for her.”
“What should you like to do?”
“I should like to put a little wind in her sails.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I should like to put it into her power to do some of the things she wants. She wants to see the world, for instance. I should like to put money in her purse.”
“Ah, I am glad you have thought of that,” said the old man. “But I have thought of it too. I have left her a legacy—five thousand pounds.”
“That is capital; it is very kind of you. But I should like to do a little more.”
Something of that veiled acuteness with which it had been on Daniel Touchett’s part, the habit of a lifetime to listen to a financial proposition, still lingered in the face in which the invalid had not obliterated the man of business. “I shall be happy to consider it,” he said, softly.”
“Isabel is poor, then. My mother tells me that she has but a few hundred dollars a year. I should like to make her rich.”
“What do you mean by rich?”
“I call people rich when they are able to gratify their imagination. Isabel has a great deal of imagination.”
“So have you, my son,” said Mr. Touchett, listening very attentively, but a little confusedly.
“You tell me I shall have money enough for two. What I want is that you should kindly relieve me of my superfluity and give it to Isabel. Divide my inheritance into two equal halves, and give the second half to her.”
“To do what she likes with?”
“Absolutely what she likes”
“And without an equivalent?”
“What equivalent could there be?”
“The one I have already mentioned.”
“Her marrying—some one or other? It’s just to do away with anything of that sort that I make my suggestion. If she has an easy income she will never have to marry for a support. She wishes to be free, and your bequest will make her free.”
“Well, you seem to have thought it out,” said Mr. Touchett. “But I don’t see why you appeal to me. The money will be yours, and you can easily give it to her yourself.”
Ralph started a little. “Ah, dear father, I can’t offer Isabel money!”
The old man gave a groan. “Don’t tell me you are not in love with her! Do you want me to have the credit of it?”
“Entirely. I should like it simply to be a clause in your will, without the slightest reference to me.”
“Do you want me to make a new will, then?”
“A few words will do it; you can attend to it the next time you feel a little lively.”
“You must telegraph to Mr. Hilary then. I will do nothing without my solicitor.”
“You shall see Mr. Hilary to-morrow.”
“He will think we have quarrelled, you and I,” said the old man.
“Very probably; I shall like him to think it,” said Ralph, smiling; “and to carry out the idea, I give you notice that I shall be very sharp with you.”
The humour of this appeared to touch his father; he lay a little while taking it in.
“I will do anything you like,” he said at last; “but I’m not sure it’s right. You say you want to put wind in her sails; but aren’t you afraid of putting too much?”
“I should like to see her going before the breeze!” Ralph answered.
“You speak as if it were for your entertainment.”
“So it is, a good deal.”
“Well, I don’t think I understand,” said Mr. Touchett, with a sigh. “Young men are very different from what I was. When I cared for a girl—when I was young—I wanted to do more than look at her. You have scruples that I shouldn’t have had, and you have ideas that I shouldn’t have had either. You say that Isabel wants to be free, and that her being rich will keep her from marrying for money. Do you think that she is a girl to do that?”
“By no means. But she has less money than she has ever had before; but her father gave her everything, because he used to spend his capital. She has nothing but the crumbs of that feast to live on, and she doesn’t really know how meagre they are—she has yet to learn it. My mother has told me all about it. Isabel will learn it when she is really thrown upon the world, and it would be very painful to me to think of her coming to the consciousness of a lot of wants that she should be unable to satisfy.”
“I have left her five thousand pounds. She can satisfy a good many wants with that.”
“She can indeed. But she would probably spend it in two or three years.”
“You think she would be extravagant then?”
“Most certainly,” said Ralph, smiling serenely.
Poor Mr. Touchett’s acuteness was rapidly giving place to pure confusion. “It would merely be a question of time, then, her spending the larger sum!”
“No, at first I think she would plunge into that pretty freely; she would probably make over part of it to each of her sisters. But after that she would come to her senses, remember that she had still a lifetime before her, and live within her means.”
“Well, you have worked it out,” said the old man, with a sigh. “You do take an interest in her, certainly.”
“You can’t consistently say I go too far. You wished me to go further.”
“Well, I don’t know,” the old man answered. “I don’t think I enter into your spirit. It seems to me immoral.”
“Immoral, dear daddy?”
“Well, I don’t know that it’s right to make everything so easy for a person.”
“It surely depends upon the person. When the person is good, your making things easy is all to the credit of virtue. To facilitate the execution of good impulses, what can be a nobler act?”
This was a little difficult to follow, and Mr. Touchett considered it for a while. At last he said—
“Isabel is a sweet young girl; but do you think she is as good as that?”
“She is as good as her best opportunities,” said Ralph.
“Well,” Mr. Touchett declared, “she ought to get a great many opportunities for sixty thousand pounds.”
“I have no doubt she will.”
“Of course I will do what you want,” said the old man “I only want to understand it a little.”
“Well, dear daddy, don’t you understand it now?” his son asked, caressingly. “If you don’t, we won’t take any more trouble about it; we will leave it alone.”
Mr. Touchett lay silent a long time. Ralph supposed that he had given up the attempt to understand it. But at last he began again—
“Tell me this first. Doesn’t it occur to you that a young lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?”
“She will hardly fall a victim to more than one.”
“Well, one is too many.”
“Decidedly. That’s a risk, and it has entered into my calculation. I think it’s appreciable, but I think it’s small, and I am prepared to take it.”
Poor Mr. Touchett’s acuteness had passed into perplexity, and his perplexity now passed into admiration.
“Well, you have gone into it!” he exclaimed. “But I don’t see what good you are to get of it.”
Ralph leaned over his father’s pillows and gently smoothed them; he was aware that their conversation had been prolonged to a dangerous point. “I shall get just the good that I said just now I wished to put into Isabel’s reach—that of having gratified my imagination. But it’s scandalous, the way I have taken advantage of you!”