Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XX

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

Chapter XX

SOME fortnight after this incident Madame Merle drove up in a hansom cab to the house in Winchester Square. As she descended from her vehicle she observed, suspended between the dining-room windows, a large, neat, wooden tablet, on whose fresh black ground were inscribed in white paint the words—“This noble freehold mansion to be sold;” with the name of the agent to whom application should be made. “They certainly lose no time,” said the visitor, as, after sounding the big brass knocker, she waited to be admitted; “it’s a practical country!” And within the house, as she ascended to the drawing room, she perceived numerous signs of abdication; pictures removed from the walls and placed upon sofas, windows undraped and floors laid bare. Mrs. Touchett presently received her, and intimated in a few words that condolences might be taken for granted.

“I know what you are going to say—he was a very good man. But I know it better than any one, because I gave him more chance to show it. In that I think I was a good wife.” Mrs. Touchett added that at the end her husband apparently recognised this fact. “He has treated me liberally,” she said; “I won’t say more liberally than I expected, because I didn’t expect. You know that as a general thing I don’t expect. But he chose, I presume, to recognise the fact that though I lived much abroad, and mingled—you may say freely—in foreign life, I never exhibited the smallest preference for any one else.”

“For any one but yourself,” Madame Merle mentally observed; but the reflection was perfectly inaudible.

“I never sacrificed my husband to another,” Mrs. Touchett continued, with her stout curtness.

“Oh no,” thought Madame Merle; “you never did anything for another!”

There was a certain cynicism in these mute comments which demands an explanation; the more so as they are not in accord either with the view—somewhat superficial perhaps—that we have hitherto enjoyed of Madame Merle’s character, or with the literal facts of Mrs. Touchett’s history; the more so, too, as Madame Merle had a well-founded conviction that her friend’s last remark was not in the least to be construed as a side-thrust at herself. The truth is, that the moment she had crossed the threshold she received a subtle impression that Mr. Touchett’s death had had consequences, and that these consequences had been profitable to a little circle of persons among whom she was not numbered. Of course it was an event which would naturally have consequences; her imagination had more than once rested upon this fact during her stay at Gardencourt. But it had been one thing to foresee it mentally, and it was another to behold it actually. The idea of a distribution of property—she would almost have said of spoils—just now pressed upon her senses and irritated her with a sense of exclusion. I am far from wishing to say that Madame Merle was one of the hungry ones of the world; but we have already perceived that she had desires which had never been satisfied. If she had been questioned, she would of course have admitted—with a most becoming smile—that she had not the faintest claim to a share in Mr. Touchett’s relics. “There was never anything in the world between us,” she would have said. “There was never that, poor man!”—with a fillip of her thumb and her third finger. I hasten to add, moreover, that if her private attitude at the present moment was somewhat incongruously invidious, she was very careful not to betray herself. She had, after all, as much sympathy for Mrs. Touchett’s gains as for her losses.

“He has left me this house,” the newly-made widow said; “but of course I shall not live in it; I have a much better house in Florence. The will was opened only three days since, but I have already offered the house for sale. I have also a share in the bank; but I don’t yet understand whether I am obliged to leave it there. If not; I shall certainly take it out. Ralph, of course, has Gardencourt; but I am not sure that he will have means to keep up the place. He is of course left very well off, but his father has given away an immense deal of money; there are bequests to a string of third cousins in Vermont. Ralph, however, is very fond of Gardencourt, and would be quite capable of living there—in summer—with a maid-of-all-work and a gardener’s boy. There is one remarkable clause in my husband’s will,” Mrs. Touchett added. “He has left my niece a fortune.”

“A fortune!” Madame Merle repeated softly.

“Isabel steps into something like seventy thousand pounds.”

Madame Merle’s hands were clasped in her lap; at this she raised them, still clasped, and held them a moment against her bosom, while her eyes, a little dilated, fixed themselves on those of her friend. “Ah,” she cried, “the clever creature!”

Mrs. Touchett gave her a quick look. “What do you mean by that?”

For an instant Madame Merle’s colour rose, and she dropped her eyes. “It certainly is clever to achieve such results—without an effort!”

“There certainly was no effort; don’t call it an achievement.”

Madame Merle was rarely guilty of the awkwardness of retracting what she had said; her wisdom was shown rather in maintaining it and placing it in a favourable light. “My dear friend, Isabel would certainly not have had seventy thousand pounds left her if she had not been the most charming girl in the world. Her charm includes great cleverness.”

“She never dreamed, I am sure, of my husband’s doing anything for her; and I never dreamed of it either, for he never spoke to me of his intention,” Mrs. Touchett said. “She had no claim upon him whatever; it was no great recommendation to him that she was my niece. Whatever she achieved she achieved unconsciously.”

“Ah,” rejoined Madame Merle, “those are the greatest strokes!”

Mrs. Touchett gave a shrug. “The girl is fortunate; I don’t deny that. But for the present she is simply stupefied.”

“Do you mean that she doesn’t know what to do with the money?”

“That, I think she has hardly considered. She doesn’t know what to think about the matter at all. It has been as if a big gun were suddenly fired off behind her; she is feeling herself, to see if she be hurt. It is but three days since she received a visit from the principal executor who came in person, very gallantly, to notify her. He told me afterwards that when he had made his little speech she suddenly burst into tears. The money is to remain in the bank, and she is to draw the interest.”

Madame Merle shook her head, with a wise, and now quite benignant smile. “After she has done that two or three times she will get used to it.” Then after a silence—“What does your son think of it?” she abruptly asked.

“He left England just before it came out—used up by his fatigue and anxiety, and hurrying off to the south. He is on his way to the Riviera, and I have not yet heard from him. But it is not likely he will ever object to anything done by his father.”

“Didn’t you say his own share had been cut down?”

“Only at his wish. I know that he urged his father to do something for the people in America. He is not in the least addicted to looking after number one.”

“It depends upon whom he regards as number one!” said Madame Merle. And she remained thoughtful a moment, with her eyes bent upon the floor. “Am I not to see your happy niece?” she asked at last, looking up.

“You may see her; but you will not be struck with her being happy. She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue Madonna!” And Mrs. Touchett rang for a servant.

Isabel came in shortly after the footman had been sent to call her; and Madame Merle thought, as she appeared, that Mrs. Touchett’s comparison had its force. The girl was pale and grave—an effect not mitigated by her deeper mourning; but the smile of her brightest moments came into her face as she saw Madame Merle, who went forward, laid her hand on our heroine’s shoulder, and after looking at her a moment, kissed her as if she were returning the kiss that she had received from Isabel at Gardencourt. This was the only allusion that Madame Merle, in her great good taste, made for the present to her young friend’s inheritance.

Mrs. Touchett did not remain in London until she had sold her house. After selecting from among its furniture those objects which she wished to transport to her Florentine residence, she left the rest of its contents to be disposed of by the auctioneer, and took her departure for the Continent. She was, of course, accompanied on this journey by her niece, who now had plenty of leisure to contemplate the windfall on which Madame Merle had covertly congratulated her. Isabel thought of it very often and looked at it in a dozen different lights; but we shall not at present attempt to enter into her meditations or to explain why it was that some of them were of a rather pessimistic cast. The pessimism of this young lady was transient; she ultimately made up her mind that to be rich was a virtue, because it was to be able to do, and to do was sweet. It was the contrary of weakness. To be weak was, for a young lady, rather graceful, but, after all, as Isabel said to herself, there was a larger grace than that. Just now, it is true, there was not much to do—once she had sent off a cheque to Lily and another to poor Edith; but she was thankful for the quiet months which her mourning robes and her aunt’s fresh widowhood compelled the two ladies to spend. The acquisition of power made her serious; she scrutinised her power with a kind of tender ferocity, but she was not eager to exercise it. She began to do so indeed during a stay of some weeks which she presently made with her aunt in Paris, but in ways that will probably be thought rather vulgar. They were the ways that most naturally presented themselves in a city in which the shops are the admiration of the world, especially under the guidance of Mrs. Touchett, who took a rigidly practical view of the transformation of her niece from a poor girl to a rich one. “Now that you are a young woman of fortune you must know how to play the part—I mean to play it well,” she said to Isabel, once for all; and she added that the girl’s first duty was to have everything handsome. “You don’t know how to take care of your things, but you must learn,” she went on; this was Isabel’s second duty. Isabel submitted, but for the present her imagination was not kindled; she longed for opportunities, but these were not the opportunities she meant.

Mrs. Touchett rarely changed her plans, and having intended before her husband’s death to spend a part of the winter in Paris she saw no reason to deprive herself—still less to deprive her companion—of this advantage. Though they would live in great retirement, she might still present her niece, informally, to the little circle of her fellow-countrymen dwelling upon the skirts of the Champs Elysées. With many of these amiable colonists Mrs. Touchett was intimate; she shared their expatriation, their convictions, their pastimes, their ennui. Isabel saw them come with a good deal of assiduity to her aunt’s hotel, and judged them with a trenchancy which is doubtless to be accounted for by the temporary exaltation of her sense of human duty. She made up her mind that their manner of life was superficial, and incurred some disfavour by expressing this view on bright Sunday afternoons, when the American absentees were engaged in calling upon each other. Though her listeners were the most good-natured people in the world, two or three of them thought her cleverness, which was generally admitted, only a dangerous variation of impertinence.

“You all live here this way, but what does it all lead to?” she was pleased to ask. “It doesn’t seem to lead to anything, and I should think you would get very tired of it.”

Mrs. Touchett thought the question worthy of Henrietta Stackpole. The two ladies had found Henrietta in Paris, and Isabel constantly saw her; so that Mrs. Touchett had some reason for saying to herself that if her niece were not clever enough to originate almost anything, she might be suspected of having borrowed that style of remark from her journalistic friend. The first occasion on which Isabel had spoken was that of a visit paid by the two ladies to Mrs. Luce, an old friend of Mrs. Touchett’s, and the only person in Paris she now went to see. Mrs. Luce had been living in Paris since the days of Louis Philippe; she used to say jocosely that she was one of the generation of 1830—a joke of which the point was not always taken. When it failed Mrs. Luce used always to explain—“Oh yes, I am one of the romantics;” her French had never become very perfect. She was always at home on Sunday afternoons, and surrounded by sympathetic compatriots, usually the same. In fact she was at home at all times, and led in her well-cushioned little corner of the brilliant city as quiet and domestic a life as she might have led in her native Baltimore. The existence of Mr. Luce, her worthy husband, was some-what more inscrutable. Superficially indeed, there was no mystery about it; the mystery lay deeper, and resided in the wonder of his supporting existence at all. He was the most unoccupied man in Europe, for he not only had no duties, but he had no pleasures. Habits certainly he had, but they were few in number, and had been worn threadbare by forty years of use. Mr. Luce was a tall, lean, grizzled, well-brushed gentleman, who wore a gold eyeglass and carried his hat a little too much on the back of his head. He went every day to the American banker’s, where there was a post-office which was almost as sociable and colloquial an institution as that of an American country town. He passed an hour (in fine weather) in a chair in the Champs Elysées, and he dined uncommonly well at his own table, seated above a waxed floor, which it was Mrs. Luce’s happiness to believe had a finer polish than any other in Paris. Occasionally he dined with a friend or two at the Café Anglais, where his talent for ordering a dinner was a source of felicity to his companions and an object of admiration even to the head-waiter of the establishment. These were his only known avocations, but they had beguiled his hours for upwards of half a century, and they doubtless justified his frequent declaration that there was no place like Paris. In no other place, on these terms, could Mr. Luce flatter himself that he was enjoying life. There was nothing like Paris, but it must be confessed that Mr. Luce thought less highly of the French capital than in earlier days. In the list of his occupations his political reveries should not be omitted, for they were doubtless the animating principle of many hours that superficially seemed vacant. Like many of his fellow colonists, Mr. Luce was a high—or rather a deep—conservative, and gave no countenance to the government recently established in France. He had no faith in its duration, and would assure you from year to year that its end was close at hand. “They want to be kept down, sir, to be kept down; nothing but the strong hand—the iron heel—will do for them,” he would frequently say of the French people; and his ideal of a fine government was that of the lately-abolished Empire. “Paris is much less attractive than in the days of the Emperor; he knew how to make a city pleasant,” Mr. Luce had often remarked to Mrs. Touchett, who was quite of his own way of thinking, and wished to know what one had crossed that odious Atlantic for but to get away from republics.

“Why, madam, sitting in the Champs Elysées, opposite to the Palace of Industry, I have seen the court-carriages from the Tuileries pass up and down as many as seven times a day. I remember one occasion when they went as high as nine times. What do you see now? It’s no use talking, the style’s all gone. Napoleon knew what the French people want, and there’ll be a cloud over Paris till they get the Empire back again.”

Among Mrs. Luce’s visitors on Sunday afternoons was a young man with whom Isabel had had a good deal of conversation, and whom she found full of valuable knowledge. Mr. Edward Rosier—Ned Rosier, as he was called—was a native of New York, and had been brought up in Paris, living there under the eye of his father, who, as it happened, had been an old and intimate friend of the late Mr. Archer. Edward Rosier remembered Isabel as a little girl; it had been his father who came to the rescue of the little Archers at the inn at Neufchâtel (he was travelling that way with the boy, and stopped at the hotel by chance), after their bonne had gone off with the Russian prince and when Mr. Archer’s whereabouts remained for some days a mystery. Isabel remembered perfectly the neat little male child, whose hair smelt of a delicious cosmetic, and who had a bonne of his own, warranted to lose sight of him under no provocation. Isabel took a walk with the pair beside the lake, and thought little Edward as pretty as an angel—a comparison by no means conventional in her mind, for she had a very definite conception of a type of features which she supposed to be angelic, and which her new friend perfectly illustrated. A small pink face, surmounted by a blue velvet bonnet and set off by a stiff embroidered collar, became the countenance of her childish dreams; and she firmly believed for some time afterwards that the heavenly hosts conversed among themselves in a queer little dialect of French-English, expressing the properest sentiments, as when Edward told her that he was “defended” by his bonne to go near the edge of the lake, and that one must always obey to one’s bonne. Ned Rosier’s English had improved; at least it exhibited in a less degree the French variation. His father was dead and his bonne was dismissed, but the young man still conformed to the spirit of their teaching—he never went to the edge of the lake. There was still something agreeable to the nostril about him, and something not offensive to nobler organs. He was a very gentle and gracious youth, with what are called cultivated tastes—an acquaintance with old china, with good wine, with the bindings of books, with the Almanach de Gotha, with the best shops, the best hotels, the hours of railway-trains. He could order a dinner almost as well as Mr. Luce, and it was probable that as his experience accumulated he would be a worthy successor to that gentleman, whose rather grim politics he also advocated, in a soft and innocent voice. He had some charming rooms in Paris, decorated with old Spanish altar-lace, the envy of his female friends, who declared that his chimney-piece was better draped than many a duchess. He usually, however, spent a part of every winter at Pau, and had once passed a couple of months in the United States.

He took a great interest in Isabel, and remembered perfectly the walk at Neufchâtel, when she would persist in going so near the edge. He seemed to recognise this same tendency in the subversive inquiry that I quoted a moment ago, and set himself to answer our heroine’s question with greater urbanity than it perhaps deserved. “What does it lead to, Miss Archer? Why Paris leads everywhere. You can’t go anywhere unless you come here first. Every one that comes to Europe has got to pass through. You don’t mean it in that sense so much? You mean what good it does you? Well, how can you penetrate futurity? How can you tell what lies ahead? If it’s a pleasant road I don’t care where it leads. I like the road, Miss Archer; I like the dear old asphalte. You can’t get tired of it—you can’t if you try. You think you would, but you wouldn’t; there’s always something new and fresh. Take the Hôtel Drouot, now; they sometimes have three and four sales a week. Where can you get such things as you can here? In spite of all they say, I maintain they are cheaper too, if you know the right places. I know plenty of places, but I keep them to myself. I’ll tell you, if you like, as a particular favour; only you must not tell any one else. Don’t you go anywhere without asking me first; I want you to promise me that. As a general thing avoid the Boulevards; there is very little to be done on the Boulevards. Speaking conscientiously—sans blague—I don’t believe any one knows Paris better than I. You and Mrs. Touchett must come and breakfast with me some day, and I’ll show you my things; je ne vous dis que ca! There has been a great deal of talk about London of late; it’s the fashion to cry up London. But there is nothing in it—you can’t do anything in London. No Louis Quinze—nothing of the First Empire; nothing but their eternal Queen Anne. It’s good for one’s bed-room, Queen Anne—for one’s washing-room; but it isn’t proper for a salon. Do I spend my life at the auctioneer’s?” Mr. Rosier pursued, in answer to another question of Isabel’s. “Oh, no; I haven’t the means. I wish I had. You think I’m a mere trifler; I can tell by the expression of your face—you have got a wonderfully expressive face. I hope you don’t mind my saying that; I mean it as a kind of warning. You think I ought to do something, and so do I, so long as you leave it vague. But when you come to the point, you see you have to stop. I can’t go home and be a shopkeeper. You think I am very well fitted? Ah, Miss Archer, you overrate me. I can buy very well, but I can’t sell; you should see when I sometimes try to get rid of my things. It takes much more ability to make other people buy than to buy yourself. When I think how clever they must be, the people who make me buy! Ah, no; I couldn’t be a shopkeeper. I can’t be a doctor, it’s a repulsive business. I can’t be a clergyman, I haven’t got convictions. And then I can’t pronounce the names right in the Bible. They are very difficult, in the Old Testament particularly. I can’t be a lawyer; I don’t understand—how do you call it?—the American procédure. Is there anything else? There is nothing for a gentleman to do in America. I should like to be a diplomatist; but American diplomacy—that is not for gentlemen either. I am sure if you had seen the last min——”

Henrietta Stackpole, who was often with her friend when Mr. Rosier, coming to pay his compliments, late in the afternoon, expressed himself after the fashion I have sketched, usually interrupted the young man at this point and read him a lecture on the duties of the American citizen. She thought him most unnatural; he was worse than Mr. Ralph Touchett. Henrietta, however, was at this time more than ever addicted to fine criticism, for her conscience had been freshly alarmed as regards Isabel. She had not congratulated this young lady on her accession of fortune, and begged to be excused from doing so.

“If Mr. Touchett had consulted me about leaving you the money,” she frankly said, “I would have said to him, ’Never.’”

“I see,” Isabel had answered. “You think it will prove a curse in disguise. Perhaps it will.”

“Leave it to some one you care less for—that’s what I should have said.”

“To yourself, for instance?” Isabel suggested, jocosely, And then—“Do you really believe it will ruin me?” she asked, in quite another tone.

“I hope it won’t ruin you; but it will certainly confirm your dangerous tendencies.”

“Do you mean the love of luxury—of extravagance?”

“No, no,” said Henrietta; “I mean your moral tendencies. I approve of luxury; I think we ought to be as elegant as possible. Look at the luxury of our western cities; I have seen nothing over here to compare with it. I hope you will never become sensual; but I am not afraid of that. The peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams—you are not enough in contact with reality—with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even say sinning, world that surrounds you. You are too fastidious; you have too many graceful illusions. Your newly-acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people, who will be interested in keeping up those illusions.”

Isabel’s eyes expanded as she gazed upon this vivid but dusky picture of her future. “What are my illusions?” she asked. “I try so hard not to have any.”

“Well,” said Henrietta, “you think that you can lead a romantic life, that you can live by pleasing yourself and pleasing others. You will find you are mistaken. Whatever life you lead, you must put your soul into it—to make any sort of success of it; and from the moment you do that it ceases to be romance, I assure you; it becomes reality! And you can’t always please yourself; you must sometimes please other people. That, I admit, you are very ready to do; but there is another thing that is still more important—you must often displease others. You must always be ready for that—you must never shrink from it. That doesn’t suit you at all—you are too fond of admiration, you like to be thought well of. You think we can escape disagreeable duties by taking romantic views—that is your great illusion, my dear. But we can’t. You must be prepared on many occasions in life to please no one at all—not even yourself.”

Isabel shook her head sadly; she looked troubled and frightened. “This, for you, Henrietta,” she said, “must be one of those occasions!”

It was certainly true that Miss Stackpole, during her visit to Paris, which had been professionally more remunerative than her English sojourn, had not been living in the world of dreams. Mr. Bantling, who had now returned to England, was her companion for the first four weeks of her stay; and about Mr. Bantling there was nothing dreamy. Isabel learned from her friend that the two had led a life of great intimacy, and that this had been a peculiar advantage to Henrietta, owing to the gentleman’s remarkable knowledge of Paris. He had explained everything, shown her everything, been her constant guide and interpreter. They had breakfasted together, dined together, gone to the theatre together, supped together, really in a manner quite lived together. He was a true friend, Henrietta more than once assured our heroine; and she had never supposed that she could like any Englishman so well. Isabel could not have told you why, but she found something that ministered to mirth in the alliance the correspondent of the Interviewer had struck with Lady Pensil’s brother; and her amusement subsisted in the face of the fact that she thought it a credit to each of them. Isabel could not rid herself of a suspicion that they were playing, somehow, at cross-purposes—that the simplicity of each of them had been entrapped. But this simplicity was none the less honourable on either side; it was as graceful on Henrietta’s part to believe that Mr. Bantling took an interest in the diffusion of lively journalism, and in consolidating the position of lady-correspondents, as it was on the part of her companion to suppose that the cause of the Interviewer—a periodical of which he never formed a very definite conception—was, if subtly analysed (a task to which Mr. Bantling felt himself quite equal), but the cause of Miss Stackpole’s coquetry. Each of these harmless confederates supplied at any rate a want of which the other was somewhat eagerly conscious. Mr. Bantling, who was of a rather slow and discursive habit, relished a prompt, keen, positive woman, who charmed him with the spectacle of a brilliant eye and a kind of bandbox neatness, and who kindled a perception of raciness in a mind to which the usual fare of life seemed unsalted. Henrietta, on the other hand, enjoyed the society of a fresh-looking, professionless gentleman, whose leisured state, though generally indefensible, was a decided advantage to Miss Stackpole, and who was furnished with an easy, traditional, though by no means exhaustive, answer to almost any social or practical question that could come up. She often found Mr. Bantling’s answers very convenient, and in the press of catching the American post would make use of them in her correspondence. It was to be feared that she was indeed drifting toward those mysterious shallows as to which Isabel, wishing for a good-humoured retort, had warned her. There might be danger in store for Isabel; but it was scarcely to be hoped that Miss Stackpole, on her side, would find permanent safety in the adoption of second-hand views. Isabel continued to warn her, good-humouredly; Lady Pensil’s obliging brother was sometimes, on our heroine’s lips, an object of irreverent and facetious allusion. Nothing, however, could exceed Henrietta’s amiability on this point; she used to abound in the sense of Isabel’s irony, and to enumerate with elation the hours she had spent with the good Mr. Bantling. Then, a few moments later, she would forget that they had been talking jocosely, and would mention with impulsive earnestness some expedition she had made in the company of the gallant ex-guardsman. She would say—“Oh, I know all about Versailles; I went there with Mr. Bantling. I was bound to see it thoroughly—I warned him when we went out there that I was thorough; so we spent three days at the hotel and wandered all over the place. It was lovely weather—a kind of Indian summer, only not so good. We just lived in that park. Oh yes; you can’t tell me anything about Versailles.” Henrietta appeared to have made arrangements to meet Mr. Bantling in the spring, in Italy.