Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XIV

Miss Stackpole would have prepared to start immediately; but Isabel, as we have seen, had been notified that Lord Warburton would come again to Gardencourt, and she believed it her duty to remain there and see him. For four or five days he had made no response to her letter; then he had written, very briefly, to say he would come to luncheon two days later. There was something in these delays and postponements that touched the girl and renewed her sense of his desire to be considerate and patient, not to appear to urge her too grossly; a consideration the more studied that she was so sure he “really liked” her. Isabel told her uncle she had written to him, mentioning also his intention of coming; and the old man, in consequence, left his room earlier than usual and made his appearance at the two o’clock repast. This was by no means an act of vigilance on his part, but the fruit of a benevolent belief that his being of the company might help to cover any conjoined straying away in case Isabel should give their noble visitor another hearing. That personage drove over from Lockleigh and brought the elder of his sisters with him, a measure presumably dictated by reflexions of the same order as Mr. Touchett’s. The two visitors were introduced to Miss Stackpole, who, at luncheon, occupied a seat adjoining Lord Warburton’s. Isabel, who was nervous and had no relish for the prospect of again arguing the question he had so prematurely opened, could not help admiring his good-humoured self-possession, which quite disguised the symptoms of that preoccupation with her presence it was natural she should suppose him to feel. He neither looked at her nor spoke to her, and the only sign of his emotion was that he avoided meeting her eyes. He had plenty of talk for the others, however, and he appeared to eat his luncheon with discrimination and appetite. Miss Molyneux, who had a smooth, nun-like forehead and wore a large silver cross suspended from her neck, was evidently preoccupied with Henrietta Stackpole, upon whom her eyes constantly rested in a manner suggesting a conflict between deep alienation and yearning wonder. Of the two ladies from Lockleigh she was the one Isabel had liked best; there was such a world of hereditary quiet in her. Isabel was sure moreover that her mild forehead and silver cross referred to some weird Anglican mystery — some delightful reinstitution perhaps of the quaint office of the canoness. She wondered what Miss Molyneux would think of her if she knew Miss Archer had refused her brother; and then she felt sure that Miss Molyneux would never know — that Lord Warburton never told her such things. He was fond of her and kind to her, but on the whole he told her little. Such, at least, was Isabel’s theory; when, at table, she was not occupied in conversation she was usually occupied in forming theories about her neighbours. According to Isabel, if Miss Molyneux should ever learn what had passed between Miss Archer and Lord Warburton she would probably be shocked at such a girl’s failure to rise; or no, rather (this was our heroine’s last position) she would impute to the young American but a due consciousness of inequality.

Whatever Isabel might have made of her opportunities, at all events, Henrietta Stackpole was by no means disposed to neglect those in which she now found herself immersed. “Do you know you’re the first lord I’ve ever seen?” she said very promptly to her neighbour. “I suppose you think I’m awfully benighted.”

“You’ve escaped seeing some very ugly men,” Lord Warburton answered, looking a trifle absently about the table.

“Are they very ugly? They try to make us believe in America that they’re all handsome and magnificent and that they wear wonderful robes and crowns.”

“Ah, the robes and crowns are gone out of fashion,” said Lord Warburton, “like your tomahawks and revolvers.”

“I’m sorry for that; I think an aristocracy ought to be splendid,” Henrietta declared. “If it’s not that, what is it?”

“Oh, you know, it isn’t much, at the best,” her neighbour allowed. “Won’t you have a potato?”

“I don’t care much for these European potatoes. I shouldn’t know you from an ordinary American gentleman.”

“Do talk to me as if I were one,” said Lord Warburton. “I don’t see how you manage to get on without potatoes; you must find so few things to eat over here.”

Henrietta was silent a little; there was a chance he was not sincere. “I’ve had hardly any appetite since I’ve been here,” she went on at last; “so it doesn’t much matter. I don’t approve of you, you know; I feel as if I ought to tell you that.”

“Don’t approve of me?”

“Yes; I don’t suppose any one ever said such a thing to you before, did they? I don’t approve of lords as an institution. I think the world has got beyond them — far beyond.”

“Oh, so do I. I don’t approve of myself in the least. Sometimes it comes over me — how I should object to myself if I were not myself, don’t you know? But that’s rather good, by the way — not to be vainglorious.”

“Why don’t you give it up then?” Miss Stackpole enquired.

“Give up — a —?” asked Lord Warburton, meeting her harsh inflexion with a very mellow one.

“Give up being a lord.”

“Oh, I’m so little of one! One would really forget all about it if you wretched Americans were not constantly reminding one. However, I do think of giving it up, the little there is left of it, one of these days.”

“I should like to see you do it!” Henrietta exclaimed rather grimly.

“I’ll invite you to the ceremony; we’ll have a supper and a dance.”

“Well,” said Miss Stackpole, “I like to see all sides. I don’t approve of a privileged class, but I like to hear what they have to say for themselves.”

“Mighty little, as you see!”

“I should like to draw you out a little more,” Henrietta continued. “But you’re always looking away. You’re afraid of meeting my eye. I see you want to escape me.”

“No, I’m only looking for those despised potatoes.”

“Please explain about that young lady — your sister — then. I don’t understand about her. Is she a Lady?”

“She’s a capital good girl.”

“I don’t like the way you say that — as if you wanted to change the subject. Is her position inferior to yours?”

“We neither of us have any position to speak of; but she’s better off than I, because she has none of the bother.”

“Yes, she doesn’t look as if she had much bother. I wish I had as little bother as that. You do produce quiet people over here, whatever else you may do.”

“Ah, you see one takes life easily, on the whole,” said Lord Warburton. “And then you know we’re very dull. Ah, we can be dull when we try!”

“I should advise you to try something else. I shouldn’t know what to talk to your sister about; she looks so different. Is that silver cross a badge?”

“A badge?”

“A sign of rank.”

Lord Warburton’s glance had wandered a good deal, but at this it met the gaze of his neighbour. “Oh yes,” he answered in a moment; “the women go in for those things. The silver cross is worn by the eldest daughters of Viscounts.” Which was his harmless revenge for having occasionally had his credulity too easily engaged in America. After luncheon he proposed to Isabel to come into the gallery and look at the pictures; and though she knew he had seen the pictures twenty times she complied without criticising this pretext. Her conscience now was very easy; ever since she sent him her letter she had felt particularly light of spirit. He walked slowly to the end of the gallery, staring at its contents and saying nothing; and then he suddenly broke out: “I hoped you wouldn’t write to me that way.”

“It was the only way, Lord Warburton,” said the girl. “Do try and believe that.”

“If I could believe it of course I should let you alone. But we can’t believe by willing it; and I confess I don’t understand. I could understand your disliking me; that I could understand well. But that you should admit you do —”

“What have I admitted?” Isabel interrupted, turning slightly pale.

“That you think me a good fellow; isn’t that it?” She said nothing, and he went on: “You don’t seem to have any reason, and that gives me a sense of injustice.”

“I have a reason, Lord Warburton.” She said it in a tone that made his heart contract.

“I should like very much to know it.”

“I’ll tell you some day when there’s more to show for it.”

“Excuse my saying that in the mean time I must doubt of it.”

“You make me very unhappy,” said Isabel.

“I’m not sorry for that; it may help you to know how I feel. Will you kindly answer me a question?” Isabel made no audible assent, but he apparently saw in her eyes something that gave him courage to go on. “Do you prefer some one else?”

“That’s a question I’d rather not answer.”

“Ah, you do then!” her suitor murmured with bitterness.

The bitterness touched her, and she cried out: “You’re mistaken! I don’t.”

He sat down on a bench, unceremoniously, doggedly, like a man in trouble; leaning his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor. “I can’t even be glad of that,” he said at last, throwing himself back against the wall; “for that would be an excuse.”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “An excuse? Must I excuse myself?”

He paid, however, no answer to the question. Another idea had come into his head. “Is it my political opinions? Do you think I go too far?”

“I can’t object to your political opinions, because I don’t understand them.”

“You don’t care what I think!” he cried, getting up. “It’s all the same to you.”

Isabel walked to the other side of the gallery and stood there showing him her charming back, her light slim figure, the length of her white neck as she bent her head, and the density of her dark braids. She stopped in front of a small picture as if for the purpose of examining it; and there was something so young and free in her movement that her very pliancy seemed to mock at him. Her eyes, however, saw nothing; they had suddenly been suffused with tears. In a moment he followed her, and by this time she had brushed her tears away; but when she turned round her face was pale and the expression of her eyes strange. “That reason that I wouldn’t tell you — I’ll tell it you after all. It’s that I can’t escape my fate.”

“Your fate?”

“I should try to escape it if I were to marry you.”

“I don’t understand. Why should not that be your fate as well as anything else?”

“Because it’s not,” said Isabel femininely. “I know it’s not. It’s not my fate to give up — I know it can’t be.”

Poor Lord Warburton stared, an interrogative point in either eye. “Do you call marrying me giving up?”

“Not in the usual sense. It’s getting — getting — getting a great deal. But it’s giving up other chances.”

“Other chances for what?”

“I don’t mean chances to marry,” said Isabel, her colour quickly coming back to her. And then she stopped, looking down with a deep frown, as if it were hopeless to attempt to make her meaning clear.

“I don’t think it presumptuous in me to suggest that you’ll gain more than you’ll lose,” her companion observed.

“I can’t escape unhappiness,” said Isabel. “In marrying you I shall be trying to.”

“I don’t know whether you’d try to, but you certainly would: that I must in candour admit!” he exclaimed with an anxious laugh.

“I mustn’t — I can’t!” cried the girl.

“Well, if you’re bent on being miserable I don’t see why you should make me so. Whatever charms a life of misery may have for you, it has none for me.”

“I’m not bent on a life of misery,” said Isabel. “I’ve always been intensely determined to be happy, and I’ve often believed I should be. I’ve told people that; you can ask them. But it comes over me every now and then that I can never be happy in any extraordinary way; not by turning away, by separating myself.”

“By separating yourself from what?”

“From life. From the usual chances and dangers, from what most people know and suffer.”

Lord Warburton broke into a smile that almost denoted hope. “Why, my dear Miss Archer,” he began to explain with the most considerate eagerness, “I don’t offer you any exoneration from life or from any chances or dangers whatever. I wish I could; depend upon it I would! For what do you take me, pray? Heaven help me, I’m not the Emperor of China! All I offer you is the chance of taking the common lot in a comfortable sort of way. The common lot? Why, I’m devoted to the common lot! Strike an alliance with me, and I promise you that you shall have plenty of it. You shall separate from nothing whatever — not even from your friend Miss Stackpole.”

“She’d never approve of it,” said Isabel, trying to smile and take advantage of this side-issue; despising herself too, not a little, for doing so.

“Are we speaking of Miss Stackpole?” his lordship asked impatiently. “I never saw a person judge things on such theoretic grounds.”

“Now I suppose you’re speaking of me,” said Isabel with humility; and she turned away again, for she saw Miss Molyneux enter the gallery, accompanied by Henrietta and by Ralph.

Lord Warburton’s sister addressed him with a certain timidity and reminded him she ought to return home in time for tea, as she was expecting company to partake of it. He made no answer — apparently not having heard her; he was preoccupied, and with good reason. Miss Molyneux — as if he had been Royalty — stood like a lady-in-waiting.

“Well, I never, Miss Molyneux!” said Henrietta Stackpole. “If I wanted to go he’d have to go. If I wanted my brother to do a thing he’d have to do it.”

“Oh, Warburton does everything one wants,” Miss Molyneux answered with a quick, shy laugh. “How very many pictures you have!” she went on, turning to Ralph.

“They look a good many, because they’re all put together,” said Ralph. “But it’s really a bad way.”

“Oh, I think it’s so nice. I wish we had a gallery at Lockleigh. I’m so very fond of pictures,” Miss Molyneux went on, persistently, to Ralph, as if she were afraid Miss Stackpole would address her again. Henrietta appeared at once to fascinate and to frighten her.

“Ah yes, pictures are very convenient,” said Ralph, who appeared to know better what style of reflexion was acceptable to her.

“They’re so very pleasant when it rains,” the young lady continued. “It has rained of late so very often.”

“I’m sorry you’re going away, Lord Warburton,” said Henrietta. “I wanted to get a great deal more out of you.”

“I’m not going away,” Lord Warburton answered.

“Your sister says you must. In America the gentlemen obey the ladies.”

“I’m afraid we have some people to tea,” said Miss Molyneux, looking at her brother.

“Very good, my dear. We’ll go.”

“I hoped you would resist!” Henrietta exclaimed. “I wanted to see what Miss Molyneux would do.”

“I never do anything,” said this young lady.

“I suppose in your position it’s sufficient for you to exist!” Miss Stackpole returned. “I should like very much to see you at home.”

“You must come to Lockleigh again,” said Miss Molyneux, very sweetly, to Isabel, ignoring this remark of Isabel’s friend. Isabel looked into her quiet eyes a moment, and for that moment seemed to see in their grey depths the reflexion of everything she had rejected in rejecting Lord Warburton — the peace, the kindness, the honour, the possessions, a deep security and a great exclusion. She kissed Miss Molyneux and then she said: “I’m afraid I can never come again.”

“Never again?”

“I’m afraid I’m going away.”

“Oh, I’m so very sorry,” said Miss Molyneux. “I think that’s so very wrong of you.”

Lord Warburton watched this little passage; then he turned away and stared at a picture. Ralph, leaning against the rail before the picture with his hands in his pockets, had for the moment been watching him.

“I should like to see you at home,” said Henrietta, whom Lord Warburton found beside him. “I should like an hour’s talk with you; there are a great many questions I wish to ask you.”

“I shall be delighted to see you,” the proprietor of Lockleigh answered; “but I’m certain not to be able to answer many of your questions. When will you come?”

“Whenever Miss Archer will take me. We’re thinking of going to London, but we’ll go and see you first. I’m determined to get some satisfaction out of you.”

“If it depends upon Miss Archer I’m afraid you won’t get much. She won’t come to Lockleigh; she doesn’t like the place.”

“She told me it was lovely!” said Henrietta.

Lord Warburton hesitated. “She won’t come, all the same. You had better come alone,” he added.

Henrietta straightened herself, and her large eyes expanded. “Would you make that remark to an English lady?” she enquired with soft asperity.

Lord Warburton stared. “Yes, if I liked her enough.”

“You’d be careful not to like her enough. If Miss Archer won’t visit your place again it’s because she doesn’t want to take me. I know what she thinks of me, and I suppose you think the same — that I oughtn’t to bring in individuals.” Lord Warburton was at a loss; he had not been made acquainted with Miss Stackpole’s professional character and failed to catch her allusion. “Miss Archer has been warning you!” she therefore went on.

“Warning me?”

“Isn’t that why she came off alone with you here — to put you on your guard?”

“Oh dear, no,” said Lord Warburton brazenly; “our talk had no such solemn character as that.”

“Well, you’ve been on your guard — intensely. I suppose it’s natural to you; that’s just what I wanted to observe. And so, too, Miss Molyneux — she wouldn’t commit herself. You have been warned, anyway,” Henrietta continued, addressing this young lady; “but for you it wasn’t necessary.”

“I hope not,” said Miss Molyneux vaguely.

“Miss Stackpole takes notes,” Ralph soothingly explained. “She’s a great satirist; she sees through us all and she works us up.”

“Well, I must say I never have had such a collection of bad material!” Henrietta declared, looking from Isabel to Lord Warburton and from this nobleman to his sister and to Ralph. “There’s something the matter with you all; you’re as dismal as if you had got a bad cable.”

“You do see through us, Miss Stackpole,” said Ralph in a low tone, giving her a little intelligent nod as he led the party out of the gallery. “There’s something the matter with us all.”

Isabel came behind these two; Miss Molyneux, who decidedly liked her immensely, had taken her arm, to walk beside her over the polished floor. Lord Warburton strolled on the other side with his hands behind him and his eyes lowered. For some moments he said nothing; and then, “Is it true you’re going to London?” he asked.

“I believe it has been arranged.”

“And when shall you come back?”

“In a few days; but probably for a very short time. I’m going to Paris with my aunt.”

“When, then, shall I see you again?”

“Not for a good while,” said Isabel. “But some day or other, I hope.”

“Do you really hope it?”

“Very much.”

He went a few steps in silence; then he stopped and put out his hand. “Good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” said Isabel.

Miss Molyneux kissed her again, and she let the two depart. After it, without rejoining Henrietta and Ralph, she retreated to her own room; in which apartment, before dinner, she was found by Mrs. Touchett, who had stopped on her way to the salon. “I may as well tell you,” said that lady, “that your uncle has informed me of your relations with Lord Warburton.”

Isabel considered. “Relations? They’re hardly relations. That’s the strange part of it: he has seen me but three or four times.”

“Why did you tell your uncle rather than me?” Mrs. Touchett dispassionately asked.

Again the girl hesitated. “Because he knows Lord Warburton better.”

“Yes, but I know you better.”

“I’m not sure of that,” said Isabel, smiling.

“Neither am I, after all; especially when you give me that rather conceited look. One would think you were awfully pleased with yourself and had carried off a prize! I suppose that when you refuse an offer like Lord Warburton’s it’s because you expect to do something better.”

“Ah, my uncle didn’t say that!” cried Isabel, smiling still.

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