Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XVII

She was not praying; she was trembling — trembling all over. Vibration was easy to her, was in fact too constant with her, and she found herself now humming like a smitten harp. She only asked, however, to put on the cover, to case herself again in brown holland, but she wished to resist her excitement, and the attitude of devotion, which she kept for some time, seemed to help her to be still. She intensely rejoiced that Caspar Goodwood was gone; there was something in having thus got rid of him that was like the payment, for a stamped receipt, of some debt too long on her mind. As she felt the glad relief she bowed her head a little lower; the sense was there, throbbing in her heart; it was part of her emotion, but it was a thing to be ashamed of — it was profane and out of place. It was not for some ten minutes that she rose from her knees, and even when she came back to the sitting-room her tremor had not quite subsided. It had had, verily, two causes: part of it was to be accounted for by her long discussion with Mr. Goodwood, but it might be feared that the rest was simply the enjoyment she found in the exercise of her power. She sat down in the same chair again and took up her book, but without going through the form of opening the volume. She leaned back, with that low, soft, aspiring murmur with which she often uttered her response to accidents of which the brighter side was not superficially obvious, and yielded to the satisfaction of having refused two ardent suitors in a fortnight. That love of liberty of which she had given Caspar Goodwood so bold a sketch was as yet almost exclusively theoretic; she had not been able to indulge it on a large scale. But it appeared to her she had done something; she had tasted of the delight, if not of battle, at least of victory; she had done what was truest to her plan. In the glow of this consciousness the image of Mr. Goodwood taking his sad walk homeward through the dingy town presented itself with a certain reproachful force; so that, as at the same moment the door of the room was opened, she rose with an apprehension that he had come back. But it was only Henrietta Stackpole returning from her dinner.

Miss Stackpole immediately saw that our young lady had been “through” something, and indeed the discovery demanded no great penetration. She went straight up to her friend, who received her without a greeting. Isabel’s elation in having sent Caspar Goodwood back to America presupposed her being in a manner glad he had come to see her; but at the same time she perfectly remembered Henrietta had had no right to set a trap for her. “Has he been here, dear?” the latter yearningly asked.

Isabel turned away and for some moments answered nothing. “You acted very wrongly,” she declared at last.

“I acted for the best. I only hope you acted as well.”

“You’re not the judge. I can’t trust you,” said Isabel.

This declaration was unflattering, but Henrietta was much too unselfish to heed the charge it conveyed; she cared only for what it intimated with regard to her friend. “Isabel Archer,” she observed with equal abruptness and solemnity, “if you marry one of these people I’ll never speak to you again!”

“Before making so terrible a threat you had better wait till I’m asked,” Isabel replied. Never having said a word to Miss Stackpole about Lord Warburton’s overtures, she had now no impulse whatever to justify herself to Henrietta by telling her that she had refused that nobleman.

“Oh, you’ll be asked quick enough, once you get off on the Continent. Annie Climber was asked three times in Italy — poor plain little Annie.”

“Well, if Annie Climber wasn’t captured why should I be?”

“I don’t believe Annie was pressed; but you’ll be.”

“That’s a flattering conviction,” said Isabel without alarm.

“I don’t flatter you, Isabel, I tell you the truth!” cried her friend. “I hope you don’t mean to tell me that you didn’t give Mr. Goodwood some hope.”

“I don’t see why I should tell you anything; as I said to you just now, I can’t trust you. But since you’re so much interested in Mr. Goodwood I won’t conceal from you that he returns immediately to America.”

“You don’t mean to say you’ve sent him off?” Henrietta almost shrieked.

“I asked him to leave me alone; and I ask you the same, Henrietta.” Miss Stackpole glittered for an instant with dismay, and then passed to the mirror over the chimney-piece and took off her bonnet. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your dinner,” Isabel went on.

But her companion was not to be diverted by frivolous propositions. “Do you know where you’re going, Isabel Archer?”

“Just now I’m going to bed,” said Isabel with persistent frivolity.

“Do you know where you’re drifting?” Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.

“No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see — that’s my idea of happiness.”

“Mr. Goodwood certainly didn’t teach you to say such things as that — like the heroine of an immoral novel,” said Miss Stackpole. “You’re drifting to some great mistake.”

Isabel was irritated by her friend’s interference, yet she still tried to think what truth this declaration could represent. She could think of nothing that diverted her from saying: “You must be very fond of me, Henrietta, to be willing to be so aggressive.”

“I love you intensely, Isabel,” said Miss Stackpole with feeling,

“Well, if you love me intensely let me as intensely alone. I asked that of Mr. Goodwood, and I must also ask it of you.”

“Take care you’re not let alone too much.”

“That’s what Mr. Goodwood said to me. I told him I must take the risks.”

“You’re a creature of risks — you make me shudder!” cried Henrietta. “When does Mr. Goodwood return to America?”

“I don’t know — he didn’t tell me.”

“Perhaps you didn’t enquire,” said Henrietta with the note of righteous irony.

“I gave him too little satisfaction to have the right to ask questions of him.”

This assertion seemed to Miss Stackpole for a moment to bid defiance to comment; but at last she exclaimed: “Well, Isabel, if I didn’t know you I might think you were heartless!”

“Take care,” said Isabel; “you’re spoiling me.”

“I’m afraid I’ve done that already. I hope, at least,” Miss Stackpole added, “that he may cross with Annie Climber!”

Isabel learned from her the next morning that she had determined not to return to Gardencourt (where old Mr. Touchett had promised her a renewed welcome), but to await in London the arrival of the invitation that Mr. Bantling had promised her from his sister Lady Pensil. Miss Stackpole related very freely her conversation with Ralph Touchett’s sociable friend and declared to Isabel that she really believed she had now got hold of something that would lead to something. On the receipt of Lady Pensil’s letter — Mr. Bantling had virtually guaranteed the arrival of this document — she would immediately depart for Bedfordshire, and if Isabel cared to look out for her impressions in the Interviewer she would certainly find them. Henrietta was evidently going to see something of the inner life this time.

“Do you know where you’re drifting, Henrietta Stackpole?” Isabel asked, imitating the tone in which her friend had spoken the night before.

“I’m drifting to a big position — that of the Queen of American Journalism. If my next letter isn’t copied all over the West I’ll swallow my penwiper!”

She had arranged with her friend Miss Annie Climber, the young lady of the continental offers, that they should go together to make those purchases which were to constitute Miss Climber’s farewell to a hemisphere in which she at least had been appreciated; and she presently repaired to Jermyn Street to pick up her companion. Shortly after her departure Ralph Touchett was announced, and as soon as he came in Isabel saw he had something on his mind. He very soon took his cousin into his confidence. He had received from his mother a telegram to the effect that his father had had a sharp attack of his old malady, that she was much alarmed and that she begged he would instantly return to Gardencourt. On this occasion at least Mrs. Touchett’s devotion to the electric wire was not open to criticism.

“I’ve judged it best to see the great doctor, Sir Matthew Hope, first,” Ralph said; “by great good luck he’s in town. He’s to see me at half-past twelve, and I shall make sure of his coming down to Gardencourt — which he will do the more readily as he has already seen my father several times, both there and in London. There’s an express at two-forty-five, which I shall take; and you’ll come back with me or remain here a few days longer, exactly as you prefer.”

“I shall certainly go with you,” Isabel returned. “I don’t suppose I can be of any use to my uncle, but if he’s ill I shall like to be near him.”

“I think you’re fond of him,” said Ralph with a certain shy pleasure in his face. “You appreciate him, which all the world hasn’t done. The quality’s too fine.”

“I quite adore him,” Isabel after a moment said.

“That’s very well. After his son he’s your greatest admirer.” She welcomed this assurance, but she gave secretly a small sigh of relief at the thought that Mr. Touchett was one of those admirers who couldn’t propose to marry her. This, however, was not what she spoke; she went on to inform Ralph that there were other reasons for her not remaining in London. She was tired of it and wished to leave it; and then Henrietta was going away — going to stay in Bedfordshire.

“In Bedfordshire?”

“With Lady Pensil, the sister of Mr. Bantling, who has answered for an invitation.”

Ralph was feeling anxious, but at this he broke into a laugh. Suddenly, none the less, his gravity returned. “Bantling’s a man of courage. But if the invitation should get lost on the way?”

“I thought the British post-office was impeccable.”

“The good Homer sometimes nods,” said Ralph. “However,” he went on more brightly, “the good Bantling never does, and, whatever happens, he’ll take care of Henrietta.”

Ralph went to keep his appointment with Sir Matthew Hope, and Isabel made her arrangements for quitting Pratt’s Hotel. Her uncle’s danger touched her nearly, and while she stood before her open trunk, looking about her vaguely for what she should put into it, the tears suddenly rose to her eyes. It was perhaps for this reason that when Ralph came back at two o’clock to take her to the station she was not yet ready. He found Miss Stackpole, however, in the sitting-room, where she had just risen from her luncheon, and this lady immediately expressed her regret at his father’s illness.

“He’s a grand old man,” she said; “he’s faithful to the last. If it’s really to be the last — pardon my alluding to it, but you must often have thought of the possibility — I’m sorry that I shall not be at Gardencourt.”

“You’ll amuse yourself much more in Bedfordshire.”

“I shall be sorry to amuse myself at such a time,” said Henrietta with much propriety. But she immediately added: “I should like so to commemorate the closing scene.”

“My father may live a long time,” said Ralph simply. Then, adverting to topics more cheerful, he interrogated Miss Stackpole as to her own future.

Now that Ralph was in trouble she addressed him in a tone of larger allowance and told him that she was much indebted to him for having made her acquainted with Mr. Bantling. “He has told me just the things I want to know,” she said; “all the society items and all about the royal family. I can’t make out that what he tells me about the royal family is much to their credit; but he says that’s only my peculiar way of looking at it. Well, all I want is that he should give me the facts; I can put them together quick enough, once I’ve got them.” And she added that Mr. Bantling had been so good as to promise to come and take her out that afternoon.

“To take you where?” Ralph ventured to enquire.

“To Buckingham Palace. He’s going to show me over it, so that I may get some idea how they live.”

“Ah,” said Ralph, “we leave you in good hands. The first thing we shall hear is that you’re invited to Windsor Castle.”

“If they ask me, I shall certainly go. Once I get started I’m not afraid. But for all that,” Henrietta added in a moment, “I’m not satisfied; I’m not at peace about Isabel.”

“What is her last misdemeanour?”

“Well, I’ve told you before, and I suppose there’s no harm in my going on. I always finish a subject that I take up. Mr. Goodwood was here last night.”

Ralph opened his eyes; he even blushed a little — his blush being the sign of an emotion somewhat acute. He remembered that Isabel, in separating from him in Winchester Square, had repudiated his suggestion that her motive in doing so was the expectation of a visitor at Pratt’s Hotel, and it was a new pang to him to have to suspect her of duplicity. On the other hand, he quickly said to himself, what concern was it of his that she should have made an appointment with a lover? Had it not been thought graceful in every age that young ladies should make a mystery of such appointments? Ralph gave Miss Stackpole a diplomatic answer. “I should have thought that, with the views you expressed to me the other day, this would satisfy you perfectly.”

“That he should come to see her? That was very well, as far as it went. It was a little plot of mine; I let him know that we were in London, and when it had been arranged that I should spend the evening out I sent him a word — the word we just utter to the ‘wise.’ I hoped he would find her alone; I won’t pretend I didn’t hope that you’d be out of the way. He came to see her, but he might as well have stayed away.”

“Isabel was cruel?”— and Ralph’s face lighted with the relief of his cousin’s not having shown duplicity.

“I don’t exactly know what passed between them. But she gave him no satisfaction — she sent him back to America.”

“Poor Mr. Goodwood!” Ralph sighed.

“Her only idea seems to be to get rid of him,” Henrietta went on.

“Poor Mr. Goodwood!” Ralph repeated. The exclamation, it must be confessed, was automatic; it failed exactly to express his thoughts, which were taking another line.

“You don’t say that as if you felt it. I don’t believe you care.”

“Ah,” said Ralph, “you must remember that I don’t know this interesting young man — that I’ve never seen him.”

“Well, I shall see him, and I shall tell him not to give up. If I didn’t believe Isabel would come round,” Miss Stackpole added — “well, I’d give up myself. I mean I’d give HER up!”

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