Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Ralph saw nothing of her for the greater part of the two years that followed her marriage; the winter that formed the beginning of her residence in Rome he spent again at San Remo, where he was joined in the spring by his mother, who afterwards went with him to England, to see what they were doing at the bank—an operation she could not induce him to perform. Ralph had taken a lease of his house at San Remo, a small villa, which he occupied still another winter; but late in the month of April of this second year he came down to Rome. It was the first time since her marriage that he had stood face to face with Isabel; his desire to see her again was of the keenest. She had written to him from time to time, but her letters told him nothing that he wanted to know. He had asked his mother what she was making of her life, and his mother had simply answered that she supposed she was making the best of it. Mrs. Touchett had not the imagination that communes with the unseen, and she now pretended to no intimacy with her niece, whom she rarely encountered. This young woman appeared to be living in a sufficiently honourable way, but Mrs. Touchett still remained of the opinion that her marriage was a shabby affair. It gave her no pleasure to think of Isabel’s establishment, which she was sure was a very lame business. From time to time, in Florence, she rubbed against the Countess Gemini, doing her best, always, to minimise the contact; and the Countess reminded her of Osmond, who made her think of Isabel. The Countess was less talked about in these days: but Mrs. Touchett augured no good of that; it only proved how she had been talked about before. There was a more direct suggestion of Isabel in the person of Madame Merle; but Madame Merle’s relations with Mrs. Touchett had undergone a perceptible change. Isabel’s aunt had told her, without circumlocution, that she had played too ingenious a part; and Madame Merle, who never quarrelled with any one, who appeared to think no one worth it, and who had performed the miracle of living, more or less for several years with Mrs. Touchett, without a symptom of irritation—Madame Merle now took a very high tone, and declared that this was an accusation from which she could not stoop to defend herself. She added, however (without stooping), that her behaviour had been only too simple, that she had believed only what she saw, that she saw that Isabel was not eager to marry, and that Osmond was not eager to please (his repeated visits were nothing; he was boring himself to death on his hill-top, and he came merely for amusement). Isabel had kept her sentiments to herself, and her journey to Greece and Egypt had effectually thrown dust in her companion’s eyes. Madame Merle accepted the event—she was unprepared to think of it as a scandal; but that she had played any part in it, double or single, was an imputation against which she proudly protested. It was doubtless in consequence of Mrs. Touchett’s attitude and of the injury it offered to habits consecrated by many charming seasons, that Madame Merle, after this, chose to pass many months in England, where her credit was quite unimpaired. Mrs. Touchett had done her a wrong; there are some things that can’t be forgiven. But Madame Merle suffered in silence; there was always something exquisite in her dignity.
Ralph, as I say, had wished to see for himself; but while he was engaged in this pursuit he felt afresh what a fool he had been to put the girl on her guard. He had played the wrong card, and now he had lost the game. He should see nothing, he should learn nothing; for him she would always wear a mask. His true line would have been to profess delight in her marriage, so that later, when, as Ralph phrased it, the bottom should fall out of it, she might have the pleasure of saying to him that he had been a goose. He would gladly have consented to pass for a goose in order to know Isabel’s real situation. But now she neither taunted him with his fallacies nor pretended that her own confidence was justified; if she wore a mask, it completely covered her face. There was something fixed and mechanical in the serenity painted upon it; this was not an expression, Ralph said—it was a representation. She had lost her child; that was a sorrow, but it was a sorrow she scarcely spoke of; there was more to say about it than she could say to Ralph. It belonged to the past, moreover; it had occurred six months before, and she had already laid aside the tokens of mourning. She seemed to be leading the life of the world; Ralph heard her spoken of as having a “charming position.” He observed that she produced the impression of being peculiarly enviable, that it was supposed, among many people, to be a privilege even to know her. Her house was not open to every one, and she had an evening in the week, to which people were not invited as a matter of course. She lived with a certain magnificence, but you needed to be a member of her circle to perceive it; for there was nothing to gape at, nothing to criticise, nothing even to admire, in the daily proceedings of Mr. and Mrs. Osmond. Ralph, in all this, recognised the hand of the master; for he knew that Isabel had no faculty for producing calculated impressions. She struck him as having a great love of movement, of gaiety, of late hours, of long drives, of fatigue; an eagerness to be entertained, to be interested, even to be bored, to make acquaintances, to see people that were talked about, to explore the neighbourhood of Rome, to enter into relation with certain of the mustiest relics of its old society. In all this there was much less discrimination than in that desire for comprehensiveness of development on which he used to exercise his wit. There was a kind of violence in some of her impulses, of crudity in some of her experiments, which took him by surprise; it seemed to him that she even spoke faster, moved faster, than before her marriage. Certainly she had fallen into exaggerations—she who used to care so much for the pure truth; and whereas of old she had a great delight in good-humoured argument, in intellectual play (she never looked so charming as when in the genial heat of discussion she received a crushing blow full in the face and brushed it away as a feather), she appeared now to think there was nothing worth people’s either differing about or agreeing upon. Of old she had been curious, and now she was indifferent, and yet in spite of her indifference her activity was greater than ever. Slender still, but lovelier than before, she had gained no great maturity of aspect; but there was a kind of amplitude and brilliancy in her personal arrangements which gave a touch of insolence to her beauty. Poor human-hearted Isabel, what perversity had bitten her? Her light step drew a mass of drapery behind it; her intelligent head sustained a majesty of ornament. The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. “What did Isabel represent?” Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond. “Good heavens, what a function!” he exclaimed. He was lost in wonder at the mystery of things. He recognised Osmond, as I say; he recognised him at every turn. He saw how he kept all things within limits; how he adjusted, regulated, animated their manner of life. Osmond was in his element; at last he had material to work with. He always had an eye to effect; and his effects were elaborately studied. They were produced by no vulgar means, but the motive was as vulgar as the art was great. To surround his interior with a sort of invidious sanctity, to tantalise society with a sense of exclusion, to make people believe his house was different from every other, to impart to the face that he presented to the world a cold originality—this was the ingenious effort of the personage to whom Isabel had attributed a superior morality. “He works with superior material,” Ralph said to himself; “but it’s rich abundance compared with his former resources.” Ralph was a clever man; but Ralph had never—to his own sense—been so clever as when he observed, in petto, that under the guise of caring only for intrinsic values, Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master, as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it, from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose—pose so deeply calculated that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived so much in the land of calculation. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been a pose of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world’s curiosity and then declining to satisfy it. It made him feel great to play the world a trick. The thing he had done in his life most directly to please himself was his marrying Isabel Archer; though in this case indeed the gullible world was in a manner embodied in poor Isabel, who had been mystified to the top of her bent. Ralph of course found a fitness in being consistent; he had embraced a creed, and as he had suffered for it he could not in honour forsake it. I give this little sketch of its articles for what they are worth. It was certain that he was very skilful in fitting the facts to his theory—even the fact that during the month he spent in Rome at this period Gilbert Osmond appeared to regard him not in the least as an enemy. For Mr. Osmond Ralph had not now that importance. It was not that he had the importance of a friend; it was rather that he had none at all. He was Isabel’s cousin, and he was rather unpleasantly ill—it was on this basis that Osmond treated with him. He made the proper inquiries, asked about his health, about Mrs. Touchett, about his opinion of winter climates, whether he was comfortable at his hotel. He addressed him, on the few occasions of their meeting, not a word that was not necessary; but his manner had always the urbanity proper to conscious success in the presence of conscious failure. For all this, Ralph had, towards the end, an inward conviction that Osmond had made it uncomfortable for his wife that she should continue to receive her cousin. He was not jealous—he had not that excuse; no one could be jealous of Ralph. But he made Isabel pay for her old-time kindness, of which so much was still left; and as Ralph had no idea of her paying too much, when his suspicion had become sharp, he took himself off. In doing so he deprived Isabel of a very interesting occupation: she had been constantly wondering what fine principle kept him alive. She decided that it was his love of conversation; his conversation was better than ever. He had given up walking; he was no longer a humorous stroller. He sat all day in a chair—almost any chair would do, and was so dependent on what you would do for him that, had not his talk been highly contemplative, you might have thought he was blind. The reader already knows more about him than Isabel was ever to know, and the reader may therefore be given the key to the mystery. What kept Ralph alive was simply the fact that he had not yet seen enough of his cousin; he was not yet satisfied. There was more to come; he couldn’t make up his mind to lose that. He wished to see what she would make of her husband—or what he would make of her. This was only the first act of the drama, and he was determined to sit out the performance. His determination held good; it kept him going some eighteen months more, till the time of his return to Rome with Lord Warburton. It gave him indeed such an air of intending to live indefinitely that Mrs. Touchett, though more accessible to confusions of thought in the matter of this strange, unremunerative—and unremunerated—son of hers than she had even been before, had, as we have learned, not scrupled to embark for a distant land. If Ralph had been kept alive by suspense, it was with a good deal of the same emotion—the excitement of wondering in what state she should find him—that Isabel ascended to his apartment the day after Lord Warburton had notified her of his arrival in Rome.
She spent an hour with him; it was the first of several visits. Gilbert Osmond called on him punctually, and on Isabel sending a carriage for him Ralph came more than once to the Palazzo Roccanera. A fortnight elapsed, at the end of which Ralph announced to Lord Warburton that he thought after all he wouldn’t go to Sicily. The two men had been dining together after a day spent by the latter in ranging about the Campagna. They had left the table, and Warburton, before the chimney, was lighting a cigar, which he instantly removed from his lips.
“Won’t go to Sicily? Where then will you go?”
“Well, I guess I won’t go anywhere,” said Ralph, from the sofa, in a tone of jocosity.
“Do you mean that you will return to England?”
“Oh dear no; I will stay in Rome.”
“Rome won’t do for you; it’s not warm enough.”
“It will have to do; I will make it do. See how well I have been.”
Lord Warburton looked at him a while, puffing his cigar, as if he were trying to see it.
“You have been better than you were on the journey, certainly. I wonder how you lived through that. But I don’t understand your condition. I recommend you to try Sicily.”
“I can’t try,” said poor Ralph; “I can’t move further. I can’t face that journey. Fancy me between Scylla and Charybdis! I don’t want to die on the Sicilian plains—to be snatched away, like Proserpine in the same locality, to the Plutonian shades.”
“What the deuce then did you come for?” his lordship inquired.
“Because the idea took me. I see it won’t do. It really doesn’t matter where I am now. I’ve exhausted all remedies, I’ve swallowed all climates. As I’m here I’ll stay; I haven’t got any cousins in Sicily.”
“Your cousin is certainly an inducement. But what does the doctor say?”
“I haven’t asked him, and I don’t care a fig. If I die here Mrs. Osmond will bury me. But I shall not die here.”
“I hope not.” Lord Warburton continued to smoke reflectively. “Well, I must say,” he resumed, “for myself I am very glad you don’t go to Sicily. I had a horror of that journey.”
“Ah, but for you it needn’t have mattered. I had no idea of dragging you in my train.”
“I certainly didn’t mean to let you go alone.”
“My dear Warburton, I never expected you to come further than this,” Ralph cried.
“I should have gone with you and seen you settled,” said Lord Warburton.
“You are a very good fellow. You are very kind.”
“Then I should have come back here.”
“And then you would have gone to England.”
“No, no; I should have stayed.”
“Well,” said Ralph, “if that’s what we are both up to, I don’t see where Sicily comes in!”
His companion was silent; he sat staring at the fire. At last, looking up—
“I say, tell me this,” he broke out; “did you really mean to go to Sicily when we started?”
“Ah, vous m’en demandez trop! Let me put a question first. Did you come with me quite—platonically?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that. I wanted to come abroad.”
“I suspect we have each been playing our little game.”
“Speak for yourself. I made no secret whatever of my wanting to be here a while.”
“Yes, I remember you said you wished to see the Minister of Foreign Affairs.”
“I have seen him three times; he is very amusing.”
“I think you have forgotten what you came for,” said Ralph.
“Perhaps I have,” his companion answered, rather gravely.
These two gentlemen were children of a race which is not distinguished by the absence of reserve, and they had travelled together from London to Rome without an allusion to matters that were uppermost in the mind of each. There was an old subject that they had once discussed, but it had lost its recognized place in their attention, and even after their arrival in Rome, where many things led back to it, they had kept the same half-diffident, half-confident silence.
“I recommend you to get the doctor’s consent, all the same,” Lord Warburton went on, abruptly, after an interval.
“The doctor’s consent will spoil it; I never have it when I can help it!”
“What does Mrs. Osmond think?”
“I have not told her. She will probably say that Rome is too cold, and even offer to go with me to Catania. She is capable of that.”
“In your place I should like it.”
“Her husband won’t like it.”
“Ah well, I can fancy that; though it seems to me you are not bound to mind it. It’s his affair.”
“I don’t want to make any more trouble between them,” said Ralph.
“Is there so much already?”
“There’s complete preparation for it. Her going off with me would make the explosion. Osmond isn’t fond of his wife’s cousin.”
“Then of course he would make a row. But won’t he make a row if you stop here?”
“That’s what I want to see. He made one the last time I was in Rome, and then I thought it my duty to go away. Now I think it’s my duty to stop and defend her.”
“My dear Touchett, your defensive powers—” Lord Warburton began, with a smile. But he saw something in his companion’s face that checked him. “Your duty, in these premises, seems to me rather a nice question,” he said.
Ralph for a short time answered nothing.
“It is true that my defensive powers are small,” he remarked at last; “but as my aggressive ones are still smaller, Osmond may, after all, not think me worth his gunpowder. At any rate,” he added, “there are things I am curious to see.”
“You are sacrificing your health to your curiosity then?”
“I am not much interested in my health, and I am deeply interested in Mrs. Osmond.”
“So am I. But not as I once was,” Lord Warburton added quickly. This was one of the allusions he had not hitherto found occasion to make.
“Does she strike you as very happy?” Ralph inquired, emboldened by this confidence.
“Well, I don’t know; I have hardly thought. She told me the other night that she was happy.”
“Ah, she told you, of course,” Ralph exclaimed, smiling.
“I don’t know that. It seems to me I was rather the sort of person she might have complained to.”
“Complain? She will never complain. She has done it, and she knows it. She will complain to you least of all. She is very careful.”
“She needn’t be. I don’t mean to make love to her again.”
“I am delighted to hear it; there can be no doubt at least of your duty.”
“Ah no,” said Lord Warburton, gravely; “none!”
“Permit me to ask,” Ralph went on, “whether it is to bring out the fact that you don’t mean to make love to her that you are so very civil to the little girl?”
Lord Warburton gave a slight start; he got up and stood before the fire, blushing a little.
“Does that strike you as very ridiculous?”
“Ridiculous? Not in the least, if you really like her.”
“I think her a delightful little person. I don’t know when a girl of that age has pleased me more.”
“She’s a charming creature. Ah, she at least is genuine.”
“Of course there’s the difference in our ages—more than twenty years.”
“My dear Warburton,” said Ralph, “are you serious?”
“Perfectly serious—as far as I’ve got.”
“I am very glad. And, heaven help us,” cried Ralph, “how tickled Gilbert Osmond will be!”
His companion frowned.
“I say, don’t spoil it. I shan’t marry his daughter to please him.”
“He will have the perversity to be pleased all the same.”
“He’s not so fond of me as that,” said his lordship.
“As that? My dear Warburton, the drawback of your position is that people needn’t be fond of you at all to wish to be connected with you. Now, with me in such a case, I should have the happy confidence that they loved me.”
Lord Warburton seemed scarcely to be in the mood for doing justice to general axioms; he was thinking of a special case.
“Do you think she’ll be pleased?”
“The girl herself? Delighted, surely.”
“No, no; I mean Mrs. Osmond.”
Ralph looked at him a moment.
“My dear fellow, what has she to do with it?”
“Whatever she chooses. She is very fond of the girl.”
“Very true—very true.” And Ralph slowly got up. “It’s an interesting question—how far her fondness for the girl will carry her.” He stood there a moment with his hands in his pockets, with a rather sombre eye. “I hope, you know, that you are very—very sure—The deuce!” he broke off, “I don’t know how to say it.”
“Yes, you do; you know how to say everything.”
“Well, it’s awkward. I hope you are sure that among Miss Osmond’s merits her being a—so near her stepmother isn’t a leading one?”
“Good heavens, Touchett!” cried Lord Warburton, angrily, “for what do you take me?”