Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XVI

She had had no hidden motive in wishing him not to take her home; it simply struck her that for some days past she had consumed an inordinate quantity of his time, and the independent spirit of the American girl whom extravagance of aid places in an attitude that she ends by finding “affected” had made her decide that for these few hours she must suffice to herself. She had moreover a great fondness for intervals of solitude, which since her arrival in England had been but meagrely met. It was a luxury she could always command at home and she had wittingly missed it. That evening, however, an incident occurred which — had there been a critic to note it — would have taken all colour from the theory that the wish to be quite by herself had caused her to dispense with her cousin’s attendance. Seated toward nine o’clock in the dim illumination of Pratt’s Hotel and trying with the aid of two tall candles to lose herself in a volume she had brought from Gardencourt, she succeeded only to the extent of reading other words than those printed on the page — words that Ralph had spoken to her that afternoon. Suddenly the well-muffed knuckle of the waiter was applied to the door, which presently gave way to his exhibition, even as a glorious trophy, of the card of a visitor. When this memento had offered to her fixed sight the name of Mr. Caspar Goodwood she let the man stand before her without signifying her wishes.

“Shall I show the gentleman up, ma’am?” he asked with a slightly encouraging inflexion.

Isabel hesitated still and while she hesitated glanced at the mirror. “He may come in,” she said at last; and waited for him not so much smoothing her hair as girding her spirit.

Caspar Goodwood was accordingly the next moment shaking hands with her, but saying nothing till the servant had left the room. “Why didn’t you answer my letter?” he then asked in a quick, full, slightly peremptory tone — the tone of a man whose questions were habitually pointed and who was capable of much insistence.

She answered by a ready question, “How did you know I was here?”

“Miss Stackpole let me know,” said Caspar Goodwood. “She told me you would probably be at home alone this evening and would be willing to see me.”

“Where did she see you — to tell you that?”

“She didn’t see me; she wrote to me.”

Isabel was silent; neither had sat down; they stood there with an air of defiance, or at least of contention. “Henrietta never told me she was writing to you,” she said at last. “This is not kind of her.”

“Is it so disagreeable to you to see me?” asked the young man.

“I didn’t expect it. I don’t like such surprises.”

“But you knew I was in town; it was natural we should meet.”

“Do you call this meeting? I hoped I shouldn’t see you. In so big a place as London it seemed very possible.”

“It was apparently repugnant to you even to write to me,” her visitor went on.

Isabel made no reply; the sense of Henrietta Stackpole’s treachery, as she momentarily qualified it, was strong within her. “Henrietta’s certainly not a model of all the delicacies!” she exclaimed with bitterness. “It was a great liberty to take.”

“I suppose I’m not a model either — of those virtues or of any others. The fault’s mine as much as hers.”

As Isabel looked at him it seemed to her that his jaw had never been more square. This might have displeased her, but she took a different turn. “No, it’s not your fault so much as hers. What you’ve done was inevitable, I suppose, for you.”

“It was indeed!” cried Caspar Goodwood with a voluntary laugh.

“And now that I’ve come, at any rate, mayn’t I stay?”

“You may sit down, certainly.”

She went back to her chair again, while her visitor took the first place that offered, in the manner of a man accustomed to pay little thought to that sort of furtherance. “I’ve been hoping every day for an answer to my letter. You might have written me a few lines.”

“It wasn’t the trouble of writing that prevented me; I could as easily have written you four pages as one. But my silence was an intention,” Isabel said. “I thought it the best thing.”

He sat with his eyes fixed on hers while she spoke; then he lowered them and attached them to a spot in the carpet as if he were making a strong effort to say nothing but what he ought. He was a strong man in the wrong, and he was acute enough to see that an uncompromising exhibition of his strength would only throw the falsity of his position into relief. Isabel was not incapable of tasting any advantage of position over a person of this quality, and though little desirous to flaunt it in his face she could enjoy being able to say “You know you oughtn’t to have written to me yourself!” and to say it with an air of triumph.

Caspar Goodwood raised his eyes to her own again; they seemed to shine through the vizard of a helmet. He had a strong sense of justice and was ready any day in the year — over and above this — to argue the question of his rights. “You said you hoped never to hear from me again; I know that. But I never accepted any such rule as my own. I warned you that you should hear very soon.”

“I didn’t say I hoped NEVER to hear from you,” said Isabel.

“Not for five years then; for ten years; twenty years. It’s the same thing.”

“Do you find it so? It seems to me there’s a great difference. I can imagine that at the end of ten years we might have a very pleasant correspondence. I shall have matured my epistolary style.”

She looked away while she spoke these words, knowing them of so much less earnest a cast than the countenance of her listener. Her eyes, however, at last came back to him, just as he said very irrelevantly; “Are you enjoying your visit to your uncle?”

“Very much indeed.” She dropped, but then she broke out. “What good do you expect to get by insisting?”

“The good of not losing you.”

“You’ve no right to talk of losing what’s not yours. And even from your own point of view,” Isabel added, “you ought to know when to let one alone.”

“I disgust you very much,” said Caspar Goodwood gloomily; not as if to provoke her to compassion for a man conscious of this blighting fact, but as if to set it well before himself, so that he might endeavour to act with his eyes on it.

“Yes, you don’t at all delight me, you don’t fit in, not in any way, just now, and the worst is that your putting it to the proof in this manner is quite unnecessary.” It wasn’t certainly as if his nature had been soft, so that pin-pricks would draw blood from it; and from the first of her acquaintance with him, and of her having to defend herself against a certain air that he had of knowing better what was good for her than she knew herself, she had recognised the fact that perfect frankness was her best weapon. To attempt to spare his sensibility or to escape from him edgewise, as one might do from a man who had barred the way less sturdily — this, in dealing with Caspar Goodwood, who would grasp at everything of every sort that one might give him, was wasted agility. It was not that he had not susceptibilities, but his passive surface, as well as his active, was large and hard, and he might always be trusted to dress his wounds, so far as they required it, himself. She came back, even for her measure of possible pangs and aches in him, to her old sense that he was naturally plated and steeled, armed essentially for aggression.

“I can’t reconcile myself to that,” he simply said. There was a dangerous liberality about it; for she felt how open it was to him to make the point that he had not always disgusted her.

“I can’t reconcile myself to it either, and it’s not the state of things that ought to exist between us. If you’d only try to banish me from your mind for a few months we should be on good terms again.”

“I see. If I should cease to think of you at all for a prescribed time, I should find I could keep it up indefinitely.”

“Indefinitely is more than I ask. It’s more even than I should like.”

“You know that what you ask is impossible,” said the young man, taking his adjective for granted in a manner she found irritating.

“Aren’t you capable of making a calculated effort?” she demanded. “You’re strong for everything else; why shouldn’t you be strong for that?”

“An effort calculated for what?” And then as she hung fire, “I’m capable of nothing with regard to you,” he went on, “but just of being infernally in love with you. If one’s strong one loves only the more strongly.”

“There’s a good deal in that;” and indeed our young lady felt the force of it — felt it thrown off, into the vast of truth and poetry, as practically a bait to her imagination. But she promptly came round. “Think of me or not, as you find most possible; only leave me alone.”

“Until when?”

“Well, for a year or two.”

“Which do you mean? Between one year and two there’s all the difference in the world.”

“Call it two then,” said Isabel with a studied effect of eagerness.

“And what shall I gain by that?” her friend asked with no sign of wincing.

“You’ll have obliged me greatly.”

“And what will be my reward?”

“Do you need a reward for an act of generosity?”

“Yes, when it involves a great sacrifice.”

“There’s no generosity without some sacrifice. Men don’t understand such things. If you make the sacrifice you’ll have all my admiration.”

“I don’t care a cent for your admiration — not one straw, with nothing to show for it. When will you marry me? That’s the only question.”

“Never — if you go on making me feel only as I feel at present.”

“What do I gain then by not trying to make you feel otherwise?”

“You’ll gain quite as much as by worrying me to death!” Caspar Goodwood bent his eyes again and gazed a while into the crown of his hat. A deep flush overspread his face; she could see her sharpness had at last penetrated. This immediately had a value — classic, romantic, redeeming, what did she know? for her; “the strong man in pain” was one of the categories of the human appeal, little charm as he might exert in the given case. “Why do you make me say such things to you?” she cried in a trembling voice. “I only want to be gentle — to be thoroughly kind. It’s not delightful to me to feel people care for me and yet to have to try and reason them out of it. I think others also ought to be considerate; we have each to judge for ourselves. I know you’re considerate, as much as you can be; you’ve good reasons for what you do. But I really don’t want to marry, or to talk about it at all now. I shall probably never do it — no, never. I’ve a perfect right to feel that way, and it’s no kindness to a woman to press her so hard, to urge her against her will. If I give you pain I can only say I’m very sorry. It’s not my fault; I can’t marry you simply to please you. I won’t say that I shall always remain your friend, because when women say that, in these situations, it passes, I believe, for a sort of mockery. But try me some day.”

Caspar Goodwood, during this speech, had kept his eyes fixed upon the name of his hatter, and it was not until some time after she had ceased speaking that he raised them. When he did so the sight of a rosy, lovely eagerness in Isabel’s face threw some confusion into his attempt to analyse her words. “I’ll go home — I’ll go to-morrow — I’ll leave you alone,” he brought out at last. “Only,” he heavily said, “I hate to lose sight of you!”

“Never fear. I shall do no harm.”

“You’ll marry some one else, as sure as I sit here,” Caspar Goodwood declared.

“Do you think that a generous charge?”

“Why not? Plenty of men will try to make you.”

“I told you just now that I don’t wish to marry and that I almost certainly never shall.”

“I know you did, and I like your ‘almost certainly’! I put no faith in what you say.”

“Thank you very much. Do you accuse me of lying to shake you off? You say very delicate things.”

“Why should I not say that? You’ve given me no pledge of anything at all.”

“No, that’s all that would be wanting!”

“You may perhaps even believe you’re safe — from wishing to be. But you’re not,” the young man went on as if preparing himself for the worst.

“Very well then. We’ll put it that I’m not safe. Have it as you please.”

“I don’t know, however,” said Caspar Goodwood, “that my keeping you in sight would prevent it.”

“Don’t you indeed? I’m after all very much afraid of you. Do you think I’m so very easily pleased?” she asked suddenly, changing her tone.

“No — I don’t; I shall try to console myself with that. But there are a certain number of very dazzling men in the world, no doubt; and if there were only one it would be enough. The most dazzling of all will make straight for you. You’ll be sure to take no one who isn’t dazzling.”

“If you mean by dazzling brilliantly clever,” Isabel said —“and I can’t imagine what else you mean — I don’t need the aid of a clever man to teach me how to live. I can find it out for myself.”

“Find out how to live alone? I wish that, when you have, you’d teach me!”

She looked at him a moment; then with a quick smile, “Oh, you ought to marry!” she said.

He might be pardoned if for an instant this exclamation seemed to him to sound the infernal note, and it is not on record that her motive for discharging such a shaft had been of the clearest. He oughtn’t to stride about lean and hungry, however — she certainly felt THAT for him. “God forgive you!” he murmured between his teeth as he turned away.

Her accent had put her slightly in the wrong, and after a moment she felt the need to right herself. The easiest way to do it was to place him where she had been. “You do me great injustice — you say what you don’t know!” she broke out. “I shouldn’t be an easy victim — I’ve proved it.”

“Oh, to me, perfectly.”

“I’ve proved it to others as well.” And she paused a moment. “I refused a proposal of marriage last week; what they call — no doubt — a dazzling one.”

“I’m very glad to hear it,” said the young man gravely.

“It was a proposal many girls would have accepted; it had everything to recommend it.” Isabel had not proposed to herself to tell this story, but, now she had begun, the satisfaction of speaking it out and doing herself justice took possession of her. “I was offered a great position and a great fortune — by a person whom I like extremely.”

Caspar watched her with intense interest. “Is he an Englishman?”

“He’s an English nobleman,” said Isabel.

Her visitor received this announcement at first in silence, but at last said: “I’m glad he’s disappointed.”

“Well then, as you have companions in misfortune, make the best of it.”

“I don’t call him a companion,” said Casper grimly.

“Why not — since I declined his offer absolutely?”

“That doesn’t make him my companion. Besides, he’s an Englishman.”

“And pray isn’t an Englishman a human being?” Isabel asked.

“Oh, those people They’re not of my humanity, and I don’t care what becomes of them.”

“You’re very angry,” said the girl. “We’ve discussed this matter quite enough.”

“Oh yes, I’m very angry. I plead guilty to that!”

She turned away from him, walked to the open window and stood a moment looking into the dusky void of the street, where a turbid gaslight alone represented social animation. For some time neither of these young persons spoke; Caspar lingered near the chimney-piece with eyes gloomily attached. She had virtually requested him to go — he knew that; but at the risk of making himself odious he kept his ground. She was far too dear to him to be easily renounced, and he had crossed the sea all to wring from her some scrap of a vow. Presently she left the window and stood again before him. “You do me very little justice — after my telling you what I told you just now. I’m sorry I told you — since it matters so little to you.”

“Ah,” cried the young man, “if you were thinking of ME when you did it!” And then he paused with the fear that she might contradict so happy a thought.

“I was thinking of you a little,” said Isabel.

“A little? I don’t understand. If the knowledge of what I feel for you had any weight with you at all, calling it a ‘little’ is a poor account of it.”

Isabel shook her head as if to carry off a blunder. “I’ve refused a most kind, noble gentleman. Make the most of that.”

“I thank you then,” said Caspar Goodwood gravely. “I thank you immensely.”

“And now you had better go home.”

“May I not see you again?” he asked.

“I think it’s better not. You’ll be sure to talk of this, and you see it leads to nothing.”

“I promise you not to say a word that will annoy you.”

Isabel reflected and then answered: “I return in a day or two to my uncle’s, and I can’t propose to you to come there. It would be too inconsistent.”

Caspar Goodwood, on his side, considered. “You must do me justice too. I received an invitation to your uncle’s more than a week ago, and I declined it.”

She betrayed surprise. “From whom was your invitation?”

“From Mr. Ralph Touchett, whom I suppose to be your cousin. I declined it because I had not your authorisation to accept it. The suggestion that Mr. Touchett should invite me appeared to have come from Miss Stackpole.”

“It certainly never did from me. Henrietta really goes very far,” Isabel added.

“Don’t be too hard on her — that touches ME.”

“No; if you declined you did quite right, and I thank you for it.” And she gave a little shudder of dismay at the thought that Lord Warburton and Mr. Goodwood might have met at Gardencourt: it would have been so awkward for Lord Warburton.

“When you leave your uncle where do you go?” her companion asked.

“I go abroad with my aunt — to Florence and other places.”

The serenity of this announcement struck a chill to the young man’s heart; he seemed to see her whirled away into circles from which he was inexorably excluded. Nevertheless he went on quickly with his questions. “And when shall you come back to America?”

“Perhaps not for a long time. I’m very happy here.”

“Do you mean to give up your country?”

“Don’t be an infant!”

“Well, you’ll be out of my sight indeed!” said Caspar Goodwood.

“I don’t know,” she answered rather grandly. “The world — with all these places so arranged and so touching each other — comes to strike one as rather small.”

“It’s a sight too big for ME!” Caspar exclaimed with a simplicity our young lady might have found touching if her face had not been set against concessions.

This attitude was part of a system, a theory, that she had lately embraced, and to be thorough she said after a moment: “Don’t think me unkind if I say it’s just THAT— being out of your sight — that I like. If you were in the same place I should feel you were watching me, and I don’t like that — I like my liberty too much. If there’s a thing in the world I’m fond of,” she went on with a slight recurrence of grandeur, “it’s my personal independence.”

But whatever there might be of the too superior in this speech moved Caspar Goodwood’s admiration; there was nothing he winced at in the large air of it. He had never supposed she hadn’t wings and the need of beautiful free movements — he wasn’t, with his own long arms and strides, afraid of any force in her. Isabel’s words, if they had been meant to shock him, failed of the mark and only made him smile with the sense that here was common ground. “Who would wish less to curtail your liberty than I? What can give me greater pleasure than to see you perfectly independent — doing whatever you like? It’s to make you independent that I want to marry you.”

“That’s a beautiful sophism,” said the girl with a smile more beautiful still.

“An unmarried woman — a girl of your age — isn’t independent. There are all sorts of things she can’t do. She’s hampered at every step.”

“That’s as she looks at the question,” Isabel answered with much spirit. “I’m not in my first youth — I can do what I choose — I belong quite to the independent class. I’ve neither father nor mother; I’m poor and of a serious disposition; I’m not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can’t afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.” She paused a moment, but not long enough for her companion to reply. He was apparently on the point of doing so when she went on: “Let me say this to you, Mr. Goodwood. You’re so kind as to speak of being afraid of my marrying. If you should hear a rumour that I’m on the point of doing so — girls are liable to have such things said about them — remember what I have told you about my love of liberty and venture to doubt it.”

There was something passionately positive in the tone in which she gave him this advice, and he saw a shining candour in her eyes that helped him to believe her. On the whole he felt reassured, and you might have perceived it by the manner in which he said, quite eagerly: “You want simply to travel for two years? I’m quite willing to wait two years, and you may do what you like in the interval. If that’s all you want, pray say so. I don’t want you to be conventional; do I strike you as conventional myself? Do you want to improve your mind? Your mind’s quite good enough for me; but if it interests you to wander about a while and see different countries I shall be delighted to help you in any way in my power.”

“You’re very generous; that’s nothing new to me. The best way to help me will be to put as many hundred miles of sea between us as possible.”

“One would think you were going to commit some atrocity!” said Caspar Goodwood.

“Perhaps I am. I wish to be free even to do that if the fancy takes me.”

“Well then,” he said slowly, “I’ll go home.” And he put out his hand, trying to look contented and confident.

Isabel’s confidence in him, however, was greater than any he could feel in her. Not that he thought her capable of committing an atrocity; but, turn it over as he would, there was something ominous in the way she reserved her option. As she took his hand she felt a great respect for him; she knew how much he cared for her and she thought him magnanimous. They stood so for a moment, looking at each other, united by a hand-clasp which was not merely passive on her side. “That’s right,” she said very kindly, almost tenderly. “You’ll lose nothing by being a reasonable man.”

“But I’ll come back, wherever you are, two years hence,” he returned with characteristic grimness.

We have seen that our young lady was inconsequent, and at this she suddenly changed her note. “Ah, remember, I promise nothing — absolutely nothing!” Then more softly, as if to help him to leave her: “And remember too that I shall not be an easy victim!”

“You’ll get very sick of your independence.”

“Perhaps I shall; it’s even very probable. When that day comes I shall be very glad to see you.”

She had laid her hand on the knob of the door that led into her room, and she waited a moment to see whether her visitor would not take his departure. But he appeared unable to move; there was still an immense unwillingness in his attitude and a sore remonstrance in his eyes. “I must leave you now,” said Isabel; and she opened the door and passed into the other room.

This apartment was dark, but the darkness was tempered by a vague radiance sent up through the window from the court of the hotel, and Isabel could make out the masses of the furniture, the dim shining of the mirror and the looming of the big four-posted bed. She stood still a moment, listening, and at last she heard Caspar Goodwood walk out of the sitting-room and close the door behind him. She stood still a little longer, and then, by an irresistible impulse, dropped on her knees before her bed and hid her face in her arms.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2p/chapter16.html

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