Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XI

He took a resolve after this not to misinterpret her words even when Miss Stackpole appeared to strike the personal note most strongly. He bethought himself that persons, in her view, were simple and homogeneous organisms, and that he, for his own part, was too perverted a representative of the nature of man to have a right to deal with her in strict reciprocity. He carried out his resolve with a great deal of tact, and the young lady found in renewed contact with him no obstacle to the exercise of her genius for unshrinking enquiry, the general application of her confidence. Her situation at Gardencourt therefore, appreciated as we have seen her to be by Isabel and full of appreciation herself of that free play of intelligence which, to her sense, rendered Isabel’s character a sister-spirit, and of the easy venerableness of Mr. Touchett, whose noble tone, as she said, met with her full approval — her situation at Gardencourt would have been perfectly comfortable had she not conceived an irresistible mistrust of the little lady for whom she had at first supposed herself obliged to “allow” as mistress of the house. She presently discovered, in truth, that this obligation was of the lightest and that Mrs. Touchett cared very little how Miss Stackpole behaved. Mrs. Touchett had defined her to Isabel as both an adventuress and a bore — adventuresses usually giving one more of a thrill; she had expressed some surprise at her niece’s having selected such a friend, yet had immediately added that she knew Isabel’s friends were her own affair and that she had never undertaken to like them all or to restrict the girl to those she liked.

“If you could see none but the people I like, my dear, you’d have a very small society,” Mrs. Touchett frankly admitted; “and I don’t think I like any man or woman well enough to recommend them to you. When it comes to recommending it’s a serious affair. I don’t like Miss Stackpole — everything about her displeases me; she talks so much too loud and looks at one as if one wanted to look at her — which one doesn’t. I’m sure she has lived all her life in a boarding-house, and I detest the manners and the liberties of such places. If you ask me if I prefer my own manners, which you doubtless think very bad, I’ll tell you that I prefer them immensely. Miss Stackpole knows I detest boarding-house civilisation, and she detests me for detesting it, because she thinks it the highest in the world. She’d like Gardencourt a great deal better if it were a boarding-house. For me, I find it almost too much of one! We shall never get on together therefore, and there’s no use trying.”

Mrs. Touchett was right in guessing that Henrietta disapproved of her, but she had not quite put her finger on the reason. A day or two after Miss Stackpole’s arrival she had made some invidious reflexions on American hotels, which excited a vein of counter-argument on the part of the correspondent of the Interviewer, who in the exercise of her profession had acquainted herself, in the western world, with every form of caravansary. Henrietta expressed the opinion that American hotels were the best in the world, and Mrs. Touchett, fresh from a renewed struggle with them, recorded a conviction that they were the worst. Ralph, with his experimental geniality, suggested, by way of healing the breach, that the truth lay between the two extremes and that the establishments in question ought to be described as fair middling. This contribution to the discussion, however, Miss Stackpole rejected with scorn. Middling indeed! If they were not the best in the world they were the worst, but there was nothing middling about an American hotel.

“We judge from different points of view, evidently,” said Mrs. Touchett. “I like to be treated as an individual; you like to be treated as a ‘party.’”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Henrietta replied. “I like to be treated as an American lady.”

“Poor American ladies!” cried Mrs. Touchett with a laugh. “They’re the slaves of slaves.”

“They’re the companions of freemen,” Henrietta retorted.

“They’re the companions of their servants — the Irish chambermaid and the negro waiter. They share their work.”

“Do you call the domestics in an American household ‘slaves’?” Miss Stackpole enquired. “If that’s the way you desire to treat them, no wonder you don’t like America.”

“If you’ve not good servants you’re miserable,” Mrs. Touchett serenely said. “They’re very bad in America, but I’ve five perfect ones in Florence.”

“I don’t see what you want with five,” Henrietta couldn’t help observing. “I don’t think I should like to see five persons surrounding me in that menial position.”

“I like them in that position better than in some others,” proclaimed Mrs. Touchett with much meaning.

“Should you like me better if I were your butler, dear?” her husband asked.

“I don’t think I should: you wouldn’t at all have the tenue.”

“The companions of freemen — I like that, Miss Stackpole,” said Ralph. “It’s a beautiful description.”

“When I said freemen I didn’t mean you, sir!”

And this was the only reward that Ralph got for his compliment. Miss Stackpole was baffled; she evidently thought there was something treasonable in Mrs. Touchett’s appreciation of a class which she privately judged to be a mysterious survival of feudalism. It was perhaps because her mind was oppressed with this image that she suffered some days to elapse before she took occasion to say to Isabel: “My dear friend, I wonder if you’re growing faithless.”

“Faithless? Faithless to you, Henrietta?”

“No, that would be a great pain; but it’s not that.”

“Faithless to my country then?”

“Ah, that I hope will never be. When I wrote to you from Liverpool I said I had something particular to tell you. You’ve never asked me what it is. Is it because you’ve suspected?”

“Suspected what? As a rule I don’t think I suspect,” said Isabel.

“I remember now that phrase in your letter, but I confess I had forgotten it. What have you to tell me?”

Henrietta looked disappointed, and her steady gaze betrayed it. “You don’t ask that right — as if you thought it important. You’re changed — you’re thinking of other things.”

“Tell me what you mean, and I’ll think of that.”

“Will you really think of it? That’s what I wish to be sure of.”

“I’ve not much control of my thoughts, but I’ll do my best,” said Isabel. Henrietta gazed at her, in silence, for a period which tried Isabel’s patience, so that our heroine added at last: “Do you mean that you’re going to be married?”

“Not till I’ve seen Europe!” said Miss Stackpole. “What are you laughing at?” she went on. “What I mean is that Mr. Goodwood came out in the steamer with me.”

“Ah!” Isabel responded.

“You say that right. I had a good deal of talk with him; he has come after you.”

“Did he tell you so?”

“No, he told me nothing; that’s how I knew it,” said Henrietta cleverly. “He said very little about you, but I spoke of you a good deal.”

Isabel waited. At the mention of Mr. Goodwood’s name she had turned a little pale. “I’m very sorry you did that,” she observed at last.

“It was a pleasure to me, and I liked the way he listened. I could have talked a long time to such a listener; he was so quiet, so intense; he drank it all in.”

“What did you say about me?” Isabel asked.

“I said you were on the whole the finest creature I know.”

“I’m very sorry for that. He thinks too well of me already; he oughtn’t to be encouraged.”

“He’s dying for a little encouragement. I see his face now, and his earnest absorbed look while I talked. I never saw an ugly man look so handsome.”

“He’s very simple-minded,” said Isabel. “And he’s not so ugly.”

“There’s nothing so simplifying as a grand passion.”

“It’s not a grand passion; I’m very sure it’s not that.”

“You don’t say that as if you were sure.”

Isabel gave rather a cold smile. “I shall say it better to Mr. Goodwood himself.”

“He’ll soon give you a chance,” said Henrietta. Isabel offered no answer to this assertion, which her companion made with an air of great confidence. “He’ll find you changed,” the latter pursued. “You’ve been affected by your new surroundings.”

“Very likely. I’m affected by everything.”

“By everything but Mr. Goodwood!” Miss Stackpole exclaimed with a slightly harsh hilarity.

Isabel failed even to smile back and in a moment she said: “Did he ask you to speak to me?”

“Not in so many words. But his eyes asked it — and his handshake, when he bade me good-bye.”

“Thank you for doing so.” And Isabel turned away.

“Yes, you’re changed; you’ve got new ideas over here,” her friend continued.

“I hope so,” said Isabel; “one should get as many new ideas as possible.”

“Yes; but they shouldn’t interfere with the old ones when the old ones have been the right ones.”

Isabel turned about again. “If you mean that I had any idea with regard to Mr. Goodwood —!” But she faltered before her friend’s implacable glitter.

“My dear child, you certainly encouraged him.”

Isabel made for the moment as if to deny this charge; instead of which, however, she presently answered: “It’s very true. I did encourage him.” And then she asked if her companion had learned from Mr. Goodwood what he intended to do. It was a concession to her curiosity, for she disliked discussing the subject and found Henrietta wanting in delicacy.

“I asked him, and he said he meant to do nothing,” Miss Stackpole answered. “But I don’t believe that; he’s not a man to do nothing. He is a man of high, bold action. Whatever happens to him he’ll always do something, and whatever he does will always be right.”

“I quite believe that.” Henrietta might be wanting in delicacy, but it touched the girl, all the same, to hear this declaration.

“Ah, you do care for him!” her visitor rang out.

“Whatever he does will always be right,” Isabel repeated. “When a man’s of that infallible mould what does it matter to him what one feels?”

“It may not matter to him, but it matters to one’s self.”

“Ah, what it matters to me — that’s not what we’re discussing,” said Isabel with a cold smile.

This time her companion was grave. “Well, I don’t care; you have changed. You’re not the girl you were a few short weeks ago, and Mr. Goodwood will see it. I expect him here any day.”

“I hope he’ll hate me then,” said Isabel.

“I believe you hope it about as much as I believe him capable of it.”

To this observation our heroine made no return; she was absorbed in the alarm given her by Henrietta’s intimation that Caspar Goodwood would present himself at Gardencourt. She pretended to herself, however, that she thought the event impossible, and, later, she communicated her disbelief to her friend. For the next forty-eight hours, nevertheless, she stood prepared to hear the young man’s name announced. The feeling pressed upon her; it made the air sultry, as if there were to be a change of weather; and the weather, socially speaking, had been so agreeable during Isabel’s stay at Gardencourt that any change would be for the worse. Her suspense indeed was dissipated the second day. She had walked into the park in company with the sociable Bunchie, and after strolling about for some time, in a manner at once listless and restless, had seated herself on a garden-bench, within sight of the house, beneath a spreading beech, where, in a white dress ornamented with black ribbons, she formed among the flickering shadows a graceful and harmonious image. She entertained herself for some moments with talking to the little terrier, as to whom the proposal of an ownership divided with her cousin had been applied as impartially as possible — as impartially as Bunchie’s own somewhat fickle and inconstant sympathies would allow. But she was notified for the first time, on this occasion, of the finite character of Bunchie’s intellect; hitherto she had been mainly struck with its extent. It seemed to her at last that she would do well to take a book; formerly, when heavy-hearted, she had been able, with the help of some well-chosen volume, to transfer the seat of consciousness to the organ of pure reason. Of late, it was not to be denied, literature had seemed a fading light, and even after she had reminded herself that her uncle’s library was provided with a complete set of those authors which no gentleman’s collection should be without, she sat motionless and empty-handed, her eyes bent on the cool green turf of the lawn. Her meditations were presently interrupted by the arrival of a servant who handed her a letter. The letter bore the London postmark and was addressed in a hand she knew — that came into her vision, already so held by him, with the vividness of the writer’s voice or his face. This document proved short and may be given entire.

MY DEAR MISS ARCHER— I don’t know whether you will have heard of my coming to England, but even if you have not it will scarcely be a surprise to you. You will remember that when you gave me my dismissal at Albany, three months ago, I did not accept it. I protested against it. You in fact appeared to accept my protest and to admit that I had the right on my side. I had come to see you with the hope that you would let me bring you over to my conviction; my reasons for entertaining this hope had been of the best. But you disappointed it; I found you changed, and you were able to give me no reason for the change. You admitted that you were unreasonable, and it was the only concession you would make; but it was a very cheap one, because that’s not your character. No, you are not, and you never will be, arbitrary or capricious. Therefore it is that I believe you will let me see you again. You told me that I’m not disagreeable to you, and I believe it; for I don’t see why that should be. I shall always think of you; I shall never think of any one else. I came to England simply because you are here; I couldn’t stay at home after you had gone: I hated the country because you were not in it. If I like this country at present it is only because it holds you. I have been to England before, but have never enjoyed it much. May I not come and see you for half an hour? This at present is the dearest wish of yours faithfully

CASPAR GOODWOOD.

Isabel read this missive with such deep attention that she had not perceived an approaching tread on the soft grass. Looking up, however, as she mechanically folded it she saw Lord Warburton standing before her.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38