Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
“Now, of course, you are completely your own mistress,” she said. “Excuse me; I don’t mean that you were not so before. But you are on a different footing—property erects a kind of barrier. You can do a great many things if you are rich, which would be severely criticised if you were poor. You can go and come, you can travel alone, you can have your own establishment: I mean of course if you will take a companion—some decayed gentlewoman with a darned cashmere and dyed hair, who paints on velvet. You don’t think you would like that? Of course you can do as you please; I only want you to understand that you are at liberty. You might take Miss Stackpole as your dame de compagnie; she would keep people off very well. I think, however, that it is a great deal better you should remain with me, in spite of there being no obligation. It’s better for several reasons, quite apart from your liking it. I shouldn’t think you would like it, but I recommend you to make the sacrifice. Of course whatever novelty there may have been at first in my society has quite passed away, and you see me as I am—a dull, obstinate, narrow-minded old woman.”
“I don’t think you are at all dull,” Isabel had replied to this.
“But you do think I am obstinate and narrow-minded? I told you so!” said Mrs. Touchett, with much elation at being justified.
Isabel remained for the present with her aunt, because, in spite of eccentric impulses, she had a great regard for what was usually deemed decent, and a young gentlewoman without visible relations had always struck her as a flower without foliage. It was true that Mrs. Touchett’s conversation had never again appeared so brilliant as that first afternoon in Albany, when she sat in her damp waterproof and sketched the opportunities that Europe would offer to a young person of taste. This, however, was in a great measure the girl’s own fault; she had got a glimpse of her aunt’s experience, and her imagination constantly anticipated the judgments and emotions of a woman who had very little of the same faculty. Apart from this, Mrs. Touchett had a great merit; she was as honest as a pair of compasses. There was a comfort in her stiffness and firmness; you knew exactly where to find her, and were never liable to chance encounters with her. On her own ground she was always to be found; but she was never over-inquisitive as regards the territory of her neighbour. Isabel came at last to have a kind of undemonstrable pity for her; there seemed something so dreary in the condition of a person whose nature had, as it were, so little surface—offered so limited a face to the accretions of human contact. Nothing tender, nothing sympathetic, had ever had a chance to fasten upon it—no wind-sown blossom, no familiar moss. Her passive extent, in other words, was about that of a knife-edge. Isabel had reason to believe, however, that as she advanced in life she grew more disposed to confer those sentimental favours which she was still unable to accept—to sacrifice consistency to considerations of that inferior order for which the excuse must be found in the particular case. It was not to the credit of her absolute rectitude that she should have gone the longest way round to Florence, in order to spend a few weeks with her invalid son; for in former years it had been one of her most definite convictions that when Ralph wished to see her he was at liberty to remember that the Palazzo Crescentini contained a spacious apartment which was known as the room of the signorina.
“I want to ask you something,” Isabel said to this young man, the day after her arrival at San Remo—“something that I have thought more than once of asking you by letter, but that I have hesitated on the whole to write about. Face to face, nevertheless, my question seems easy enough. Did you know that your father intended to leave me so much money?”
Ralph stretched his legs a little further than usual, and gazed a little more fixedly at the Mediterranean. “What does it matter, my dear Isabel, whether I knew? My father was very obstinate.”
“So,” said the girl, “you did know.”
“Yes; he told me. We even talked it over a little.”
“What did he do it for?” asked Isabel abruptly.
“Why, as a kind of souvenir.”
“He liked me too much,” said Isabel.
“That’s a way we all have.”
“If I believed that, I should be very unhappy. Fortunately I don’t believe it. I want to be treated with justice; I want nothing but that.”
“Very good. But you must remember that justice to a lovely being is after all a florid sort of sentiment.”
“I am not a lovely being. How can you say that, at the very moment when I am asking such odious questions? I must seem to you delicate.”
“You seem to me troubled,” said Ralph.
“I am troubled.”
For a moment she answered nothing; then she broke out—
“Do you think it good for me suddenly to be made so rich? Henrietta doesn’t.”
“Oh, hang Henrietta!” said Ralph, coarsely. “If you ask me, I am delighted at it.”
“Is that why your father did it—for your amusement?”
“I differ with Miss Stackpole,” Ralph said, more gravely. “I think it’s very good for you to have means.”
Isabel looked at him a moment with serious eyes. “I wonder whether you know what is good for me—or whether you care.”
“If I know, depend upon it I care. Shall I tell you what it is? Not to torment yourself.”
“Not to torment you, I suppose you mean.”
“You can’t do that; I am proof. Take things more easily. Don’t ask yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Don’t question your conscience so much—it will get out of tune, like a strummed piano. Keep it for great occasions. Don’t try so much to form your character—it’s like trying to pull open a rosebud. Live as you like best, and your character will form itself. Most things are good for you; the exceptions are very rare, and a comfortable income is not one of them.” Ralph paused, smiling; Isabel had listened quickly. “You have too much conscience,” Ralph added. “It’s out of all reason, the number of things you think wrong. Spread your wings; rise above the ground. It’s never wrong to do that.”
She had listened eagerly, as I say; and it was her nature to understand quickly.
“I wonder if you appreciate what you say. If you do, you take a great responsibility.”
“You frighten me a little, but I think I am right,” said Ralph, continuing to smile.
“All the same, what you say is very true,” Isabel went on. “You could say nothing more true. I am absorbed in myself—I look at life too much as a doctor’s prescription. Why, indeed, should we perpetually be thinking whether things are good for us, as if we were patients lying in a hospital? Why should I be so afraid of not doing right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do right or wrong!”
“You are a capital person to advise,” said Ralph; “you take the wind out of my sails!”
She looked at him as if she had not heard him—though she was following out the train of reflection which he himself had kindled. “I try to care more about the world than about myself—but I always come back to myself. It’s because I am afraid.” She stopped; her voice had trembled a little. “Yes, I am afraid; I can’t tell you. A large fortune means freedom, and I am afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t, one would be ashamed. And one must always be thinking—it’s a constant effort. I am not sure that it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”
“For weak people I have no doubt it’s a greater happiness. For weak people the effort not to be contemptible must be great.”
“And how do you know I am not weak?” Isabel asked.
“Ah,” Ralph answered, with a blush which the girl noticed, “if you are, I am awfully sold!”
The charm of the Mediterranean coast only deepened for our heroine on acquaintance; for it was the threshold of Italy—the gate of admirations. Italy, as yet imperfectly seen and felt, stretched before her as a land of promise, a land in which a love of the beautiful might be comforted by endless knowledge. Whenever she strolled upon the shore with her cousin—and she was the companion of his daily walk—she looked a while across the sea, with longing eyes, to where she knew that Genoa lay. She was glad to pause, however, on the edge of this larger knowledge; the stillness of these soft weeks seemed good to her. They were a peaceful interlude in a career which she had little warrant as yet for regarding as agitated, but which nevertheless she was constantly picturing to herself by the light of her hopes, her fears, her fancies, her ambitions, her predilections, and which reflected these subjective accidents in a manner sufficiently dramatic. Madame Merle had predicted to Mrs. Touchett that after Isabel had put her hand into her pocket half-a-dozen times she would be reconciled to the idea that it had been filled by a munificent uncle; and the event justified, as it had so often justified before, Madame Merle’s perspicacity. Ralph Touchett had praised his cousin for being morally inflammable; that is, for being quick to take a hint that was meant as good advice. His advice had perhaps helped the matter; at any rate before she left San Remo she had grown used to feeling rich. The consciousness found a place in rather a dense little group of ideas that she had about her herself, and often it was by no means the least agreeable. It was a perpetual implication of good intentions. She lost herself in a maze of visions; the fine things a rich, independent, generous girl, who took a large, human view of her opportunities and obligations, might do, were really innumerable. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the imagination of others is another affair, and on this point we must also touch in time. The visions I have just spoken of were intermingled with other reveries. Isabel liked better to think of the future than of the past; but at times, as she listened to the murmur of the Mediterranean waves, her glance took a backward flight. It rested upon two figures which, in spite of increasing distance, were still sufficiently salient; they were recognisable without difficulty as those of Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton. It was strange how quickly these gentlemen had fallen into the background of our young lady’s life. It was in her disposition at all times to lose faith in the reality of absent things; she could summon back her faith, in case of need, with an effort, but the effort was often painful, even when the reality had been pleasant. The past was apt to look dead, and its revival to wear the supernatural aspect of a resurrection. Isabel moreover was not prone to take for granted that she herself lived in the mind of others—she had not the fatuity to believe that she left indelible traces. She was capable of being wounded by the discovery that she had been forgotten; and yet, of all liberties, the one she herself found sweetest was the liberty to forget. She had not given her last shilling, sentimentally speaking, either to Caspar Goodwood or to Lord Warburton, and yet she did not regard them as appreciably in her debt. She had, of course, reminded herself that she was to hear from Mr. Goodwood again; but this was not to be for another year and a half, and in that time a great many things might happen. Isabel did not ay to herself that her American suitor might find some other girl more comfortable to woo; because, though it was certain that many other girls would prove so, she had not the smallest belief that this merit would attract him. But she reflected that she herself might change her humour—might weary of those things that were not Caspar (and there were so many things that were not Caspar!), and might find satisfaction in the very qualities which struck her to-day as his limitations. It was conceivable that his limitations should some day prove a sort of blessing in disguise—a clear and quiet harbour, inclosed by a fine granite breakwater. But that day could only come in its order, and she could not wait for it with folded hands. That Lord Warburton should continue to cherish her image seemed to her more than modesty should not only expect, but even desire. She had so definitely undertaken to forget him, as a lover, that a corresponding effort on his part would be eminently proper. This was not, as it may seem, merely a theory tinged with sarcasm. Isabel really believed that his lordship would, in the usual phrase, get over it. He had been deeply smitten—this she believed, and she was still capable of deriving pleasure from the belief; but it was absurd that a man so completely absolved from fidelity should stiffen himself in an attitude it would be more graceful to discontinue. Englishmen liked to be comfortable, said Isabel, and there could be little comfort for Lord Warburton, in the long run, in thinking of a self-sufficient American girl who had been but a casual acquaintance. Isabel flattered herself that should she hear, from one day to another, that he had married some young lady of his own country who had done more to deserve him, she should receive the news without an impulse of jealousy. It would have proved that he believed she was firm—which was what she wished to seem to him; and this was grateful to her pride.