Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XII

She put the letter into her pocket and offered her visitor a smile of welcome, exhibiting no trace of discomposure and half surprised at her coolness.

“They told me you were out here,” said Lord Warburton; “and as there was no one in the drawing-room and it’s really you that I wish to see, I came out with no more ado.”

Isabel had got up; she felt a wish, for the moment, that he should not sit down beside her. “I was just going indoors.”

“Please don’t do that; it’s much jollier here; I’ve ridden over from Lockleigh; it’s a lovely day.” His smile was peculiarly friendly and pleasing, and his whole person seemed to emit that radiance of good-feeling and good fare which had formed the charm of the girl’s first impression of him. It surrounded him like a zone of fine June weather.

“We’ll walk about a little then,” said Isabel, who could not divest herself of the sense of an intention on the part of her visitor and who wished both to elude the intention and to satisfy her curiosity about it. It had flashed upon her vision once before, and it had given her on that occasion, as we know, a certain alarm. This alarm was composed of several elements, not all of which were disagreeable; she had indeed spent some days in analysing them and had succeeded in separating the pleasant part of the idea of Lord Warburton’s “making up” to her from the painful. It may appear to some readers that the young lady was both precipitate and unduly fastidious; but the latter of these facts, if the charge be true, may serve to exonerate her from the discredit of the former. She was not eager to convince herself that a territorial magnate, as she had heard Lord Warburton called, was smitten with her charms; the fact of a declaration from such a source carrying with it really more questions than it would answer. She had received a strong impression of his being a “personage,” and she had occupied herself in examining the image so conveyed. At the risk of adding to the evidence of her self-sufficiency it must be said that there had been moments when this possibility of admiration by a personage represented to her an aggression almost to the degree of an affront, quite to the degree of an inconvenience. She had never yet known a personage; there had been no personages, in this sense, in her life; there were probably none such at all in her native land. When she had thought of individual eminence she had thought of it on the basis of character and wit — of what one might like in a gentleman’s mind and in his talk. She herself was a character — she couldn’t help being aware of that; and hitherto her visions of a completed consciousness had concerned themselves largely with moral images — things as to which the question would be whether they pleased her sublime soul. Lord Warburton loomed up before her, largely and brightly, as a collection of attributes and powers which were not to be measured by this simple rule, but which demanded a different sort of appreciation — an appreciation that the girl, with her habit of judging quickly and freely, felt she lacked patience to bestow. He appeared to demand of her something that no one else, as it were, had presumed to do. What she felt was that a territorial, a political, a social magnate had conceived the design of drawing her into the system in which he rather invidiously lived and moved. A certain instinct, not imperious, but persuasive, told her to resist — murmured to her that virtually she had a system and an orbit of her own. It told her other things besides — things which both contradicted and confirmed each other; that a girl might do much worse than trust herself to such a man and that it would be very interesting to see something of his system from his own point of view; that on the other hand, however, there was evidently a great deal of it which she should regard only as a complication of every hour, and that even in the whole there was something stiff and stupid which would make it a burden. Furthermore there was a young man lately come from America who had no system at all, but who had a character of which it was useless for her to try to persuade herself that the impression on her mind had been light. The letter she carried in her pocket all sufficiently reminded her of the contrary. Smile not, however, I venture to repeat, at this simple young woman from Albany who debated whether she should accept an English peer before he had offered himself and who was disposed to believe that on the whole she could do better. She was a person of great good faith, and if there was a great deal of folly in her wisdom those who judge her severely may have the satisfaction of finding that, later, she became consistently wise only at the cost of an amount of folly which will constitute almost a direct appeal to charity.

Lord Warburton seemed quite ready to walk, to sit or to do anything that Isabel should propose, and he gave her this assurance with his usual air of being particularly pleased to exercise a social virtue. But he was, nevertheless, not in command of his emotions, and as he strolled beside her for a moment, in silence, looking at her without letting her know it, there was something embarrassed in his glance and his misdirected laughter. Yes, assuredly — as we have touched on the point, we may return to it for a moment again — the English are the most romantic people in the world and Lord Warburton was about to give an example of it. He was about to take a step which would astonish all his friends and displease a great many of them, and which had superficially nothing to recommend it. The young lady who trod the turf beside him had come from a queer country across the sea which he knew a good deal about; her antecedents, her associations were very vague to his mind except in so far as they were generic, and in this sense they showed as distinct and unimportant. Miss Archer had neither a fortune nor the sort of beauty that justifies a man to the multitude, and he calculated that he had spent about twenty-six hours in her company. He had summed up all this — the perversity of the impulse, which had declined to avail itself of the most liberal opportunities to subside, and the judgement of mankind, as exemplified particularly in the more quickly-judging half of it: he had looked these things well in the face and then had dismissed them from his thoughts. He cared no more for them than for the rosebud in his buttonhole. It is the good fortune of a man who for the greater part of a lifetime has abstained without effort from making himself disagreeable to his friends, that when the need comes for such a course it is not discredited by irritating associations.

“I hope you had a pleasant ride,” said Isabel, who observed her companion’s hesitancy.

“It would have been pleasant if for nothing else than that it brought me here.”

“Are you so fond of Gardencourt?” the girl asked, more and more sure that he meant to make some appeal to her; wishing not to challenge him if he hesitated, and yet to keep all the quietness of her reason if he proceeded. It suddenly came upon her that her situation was one which a few weeks ago she would have deemed deeply romantic: the park of an old English country-house, with the foreground embellished by a “great” (as she supposed) nobleman in the act of making love to a young lady who, on careful inspection, should be found to present remarkable analogies with herself. But if she was now the heroine of the situation she succeeded scarcely the less in looking at it from the outside.

“I care nothing for Gardencourt,” said her companion. “I care only for you.”

“You’ve known me too short a time to have a right to say that, and I can’t believe you’re serious.”

These words of Isabel’s were not perfectly sincere, for she had no doubt whatever that he himself was. They were simply a tribute to the fact, of which she was perfectly aware, that those he had just uttered would have excited surprise on the part of a vulgar world. And, moreover, if anything beside the sense she had already acquired that Lord Warburton was not a loose thinker had been needed to convince her, the tone in which he replied would quite have served the purpose.

“One’s right in such a matter is not measured by the time, Miss Archer; it’s measured by the feeling itself. If I were to wait three months it would make no difference; I shall not be more sure of what I mean than I am to-day. Of course I’ve seen you very little, but my impression dates from the very first hour we met. I lost no time, I fell in love with you then. It was at first sight, as the novels say; I know now that’s not a fancy-phrase, and I shall think better of novels for evermore. Those two days I spent here settled it; I don’t know whether you suspected I was doing so, but I paid-mentally speaking I mean — the greatest possible attention to you. Nothing you said, nothing you did, was lost upon me. When you came to Lockleigh the other day — or rather when you went away — I was perfectly sure. Nevertheless I made up my mind to think it over and to question myself narrowly. I’ve done so; all these days I’ve done nothing else. I don’t make mistakes about such things; I’m a very judicious animal. I don’t go off easily, but when I’m touched, it’s for life. It’s for life, Miss Archer, it’s for life,” Lord Warburton repeated in the kindest, tenderest, pleasantest voice Isabel had ever heard, and looking at her with eyes charged with the light of a passion that had sifted itself clear of the baser parts of emotion — the heat, the violence, the unreason — and that burned as steadily as a lamp in a windless place.

By tacit consent, as he talked, they had walked more and more slowly, and at last they stopped and he took her hand. “Ah, Lord Warburton, how little you know me!” Isabel said very gently. Gently too she drew her hand away.

“Don’t taunt me with that; that I don’t know you better makes me unhappy enough already; it’s all my loss. But that’s what I want, and it seems to me I’m taking the best way. If you’ll be my wife, then I shall know you, and when I tell you all the good I think of you you’ll not be able to say it’s from ignorance.”

“If you know me little I know you even less,” said Isabel.

“You mean that, unlike yourself, I may not improve on acquaintance? Ah, of course that’s very possible. But think, to speak to you as I do, how determined I must be to try and give satisfaction! You do like me rather, don’t you?”

“I like you very much, Lord Warburton,” she answered; and at this moment she liked him immensely.

“I thank you for saying that; it shows you don’t regard me as a stranger. I really believe I’ve filled all the other relations of life very creditably, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t fill this one — in which I offer myself to you — seeing that I care so much more about it. Ask the people who know me well; I’ve friends who’ll speak for me.”

“I don’t need the recommendation of your friends,” said Isabel.

“Ah now, that’s delightful of you. You believe in me yourself.”

“Completely,” Isabel declared. She quite glowed there, inwardly, with the pleasure of feeling she did.

The light in her companion’s eyes turned into a smile, and he gave a long exhalation of joy. “If you’re mistaken, Miss Archer, let me lose all I possess!”

She wondered whether he meant this for a reminder that he was rich, and, on the instant, felt sure that he didn’t. He was thinking that, as he would have said himself; and indeed he might safely leave it to the memory of any interlocutor, especially of one to whom he was offering his hand. Isabel had prayed that she might not be agitated, and her mind was tranquil enough, even while she listened and asked herself what it was best she should say, to indulge in this incidental criticism. What she should say, had she asked herself? Her foremost wish was to say something if possible not less kind than what he had said to her. His words had carried perfect conviction with them; she felt she did, all so mysteriously, matter to him. “I thank you more than I can say for your offer,” she returned at last. “It does me great honour.”

“Ah, don’t say that!” he broke out. “I was afraid you’d say something like that. I don’t see what you’ve to do with that sort of thing. I don’t see why you should thank me — it’s I who ought to thank you for listening to me: a man you know so little coming down on you with such a thumper! Of course it’s a great question; I must tell you that I’d rather ask it than have it to answer myself. But the way you’ve listened — or at least your having listened at all — gives me some hope.”

“Don’t hope too much,” Isabel said.

“Oh Miss Archer!” her companion murmured, smiling again, in his seriousness, as if such a warning might perhaps be taken but as the play of high spirits, the exuberance of elation.

“Should you be greatly surprised if I were to beg you not to hope at all?” Isabel asked.

“Surprised? I don’t know what you mean by surprise. It wouldn’t be that; it would be a feeling very much worse.”

Isabel walked on again; she was silent for some minutes. “I’m very sure that, highly as I already think of you, my opinion of you, if I should know you well, would only rise. But I’m by no means sure that you wouldn’t be disappointed. And I say that not in the least out of conventional modesty; it’s perfectly sincere.”

“I’m willing to risk it, Miss Archer,” her companion replied.

“It’s a great question, as you say. It’s a very difficult question.”

“I don’t expect you of course to answer it outright. Think it over as long as may be necessary. If I can gain by waiting I’ll gladly wait a long time. Only remember that in the end my dearest happiness depends on your answer.”

“I should be very sorry to keep you in suspense,” said Isabel.

“Oh, don’t mind. I’d much rather have a good answer six months hence than a bad one to-day.”

“But it’s very probable that even six months hence I shouldn’t be able to give you one that you’d think good.”

“Why not, since you really like me?”

“Ah, you must never doubt that,” said Isabel.

“Well then, I don’t see what more you ask!”

“It’s not what I ask; it’s what I can give. I don’t think I should suit you; I really don’t think I should.”

“You needn’t worry about that. That’s my affair. You needn’t be a better royalist than the king.”

“It’s not only that,” said Isabel; “but I’m not sure I wish to marry any one.”

“Very likely you don’t. I’ve no doubt a great many women begin that way,” said his lordship, who, be it averred, did not in the least believe in the axiom he thus beguiled his anxiety by uttering. “But they’re frequently persuaded.”

“Ah, that’s because they want to be!” And Isabel lightly laughed. Her suitor’s countenance fell, and he looked at her for a while in silence. “I’m afraid it’s my being an Englishman that makes you hesitate,” he said presently. “I know your uncle thinks you ought to marry in your own country.”

Isabel listened to this assertion with some interest; it had never occurred to her that Mr. Touchett was likely to discuss her matrimonial prospects with Lord Warburton. “Has he told you that?”

“I remember his making the remark. He spoke perhaps of Americans generally.”

“He appears himself to have found it very pleasant to live in England.” Isabel spoke in a manner that might have seemed a little perverse, but which expressed both her constant perception of her uncle’s outward felicity and her general disposition to elude any obligation to take a restricted view.

It gave her companion hope, and he immediately cried with warmth: “Ah, my dear Miss Archer, old England’s a very good sort of country, you know! And it will be still better when we’ve furbished it up a little.”

“Oh, don’t furbish it, Lord Warburton — leave it alone. I like it this way.”

“Well then, if you like it, I’m more and more unable to see your objection to what I propose.”

“I’m afraid I can’t make you understand.”

“You ought at least to try. I’ve a fair intelligence. Are you afraid — afraid of the climate? We can easily live elsewhere, you know. You can pick out your climate, the whole world over.”

These words were uttered with a breadth of candour that was like the embrace of strong arms — that was like the fragrance straight in her face, and by his clean, breathing lips, of she knew not what strange gardens, what charged airs. She would have given her little finger at that moment to feel strongly and simply the impulse to answer: “Lord Warburton, it’s impossible for me to do better in this wonderful world, I think, than commit myself, very gratefully, to your loyalty.” But though she was lost in admiration of her opportunity she managed to move back into the deepest shade of it, even as some wild, caught creature in a vast cage. The “splendid” security so offered her was not the greatest she could conceive. What she finally bethought herself of saying was something very different — something that deferred the need of really facing her crisis. “Don’t think me unkind if I ask you to say no more about this to-day.”

“Certainly, certainly!” her companion cried. “I wouldn’t bore you for the world.”

“You’ve given me a great deal to think about, and I promise you to do it justice.”

“That’s all I ask of you, of course — and that you’ll remember how absolutely my happiness is in your hands.”

Isabel listened with extreme respect to this admonition, but she said after a minute: “I must tell you that what I shall think about is some way of letting you know that what you ask is impossible — letting you know it without making you miserable.”

“There’s no way to do that, Miss Archer. I won’t say that if you refuse me you’ll kill me; I shall not die of it. But I shall do worse; I shall live to no purpose.”

“You’ll live to marry a better woman than I.”

“Don’t say that, please,” said Lord Warburton very gravely. “That’s fair to neither of us.”

“To marry a worse one then.”

“If there are better women than you I prefer the bad ones. That’s all I can say,” he went on with the same earnestness. “There’s no accounting for tastes.”

His gravity made her feel equally grave, and she showed it by again requesting him to drop the subject for the present. “I’ll speak to you myself — very soon. Perhaps I shall write to you.”

“At your convenience, yes,” he replied. “Whatever time you take, it must seem to me long, and I suppose I must make the best of that.”

“I shall not keep you in suspense; I only want to collect my mind a little.”

He gave a melancholy sigh and stood looking at her a moment, with his hands behind him, giving short nervous shakes to his hunting-crop. “Do you know I’m very much afraid of it — of that remarkable mind of yours?”

Our heroine’s biographer can scarcely tell why, but the question made her start and brought a conscious blush to her cheek. She returned his look a moment, and then with a note in her voice that might almost have appealed to his compassion, “So am I, my lord!” she oddly exclaimed.

His compassion was not stirred, however; all he possessed of the faculty of pity was needed at home. “Ah! be merciful, be merciful,” he murmured.

“I think you had better go,” said Isabel. “I’ll write to you.”

“Very good; but whatever you write I’ll come and see you, you know.” And then he stood reflecting, his eyes fixed on the observant countenance of Bunchie, who had the air of having understood all that had been said and of pretending to carry off the indiscretion by a simulated fit of curiosity as to the roots of an ancient oak. “There’s one thing more,” he went on. “You know, if you don’t like Lockleigh — if you think it’s damp or anything of that sort — you need never go within fifty miles of it. It’s not damp, by the way; I’ve had the house thoroughly examined; it’s perfectly safe and right. But if you shouldn’t fancy it you needn’t dream of living in it. There’s no difficulty whatever about that; there are plenty of houses. I thought I’d just mention it; some people don’t like a moat, you know. Good-bye.”

“I adore a moat,” said Isabel. “Good-bye.”

He held out his hand, and she gave him hers a moment — a moment long enough for him to bend his handsome bared head and kiss it. Then, still agitating, in his mastered emotion, his implement of the chase, he walked rapidly away. He was evidently much upset.

Isabel herself was upset, but she had not been affected as she would have imagined. What she felt was not a great responsibility, a great difficulty of choice; it appeared to her there had been no choice in the question. She couldn’t marry Lord Warburton; the idea failed to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she had hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining. She must write this to him, she must convince him, and that duty was comparatively simple. But what disturbed her, in the sense that it struck her with wonderment, was this very fact that it cost her so little to refuse a magnificent “chance.” With whatever qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great opportunity; the situation might have discomforts, might contain oppressive, might contain narrowing elements, might prove really but a stupefying anodyne; but she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang. Why then upon her also should it not irresistibly impose itself? Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large these fabulous occasions? If she wouldn’t do such a thing as that then she must do great things, she must do something greater. Poor Isabel found ground to remind herself from time to time that she must not be too proud, and nothing could be more sincere than her prayer to be delivered from such a danger: the isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a desert place. If it had been pride that interfered with her accepting Lord Warburton such a betise was singularly misplaced; and she was so conscious of liking him that she ventured to assure herself it was the very softness, and the fine intelligence, of sympathy. She liked him too much to marry him, that was the truth; something assured her there was a fallacy somewhere in the glowing logic of the proposition — as he saw it — even though she mightn’t put her very finest finger-point on it; and to inflict upon a man who offered so much a wife with a tendency to criticise would be a peculiarly discreditable act. She had promised him she would consider his question, and when, after he had left her, she wandered back to the bench where he had found her and lost herself in meditation, it might have seemed that she was keeping her vow. But this was not the case; she was wondering if she were not a cold, hard, priggish person, and, on her at last getting up and going rather quickly back to the house, felt, as she had said to her friend, really frightened at herself.

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