Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter II

While this exchange of pleasantries took place between the two Ralph Touchett wandered away a little, with his usual slouching gait, his hands in his pockets and his little rowdyish terrier at his heels. His face was turned toward the house, but his eyes were bent musingly on the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation to a person who had just made her appearance in the ample doorway for some moments before he perceived her. His attention was called to her by the conduct of his dog, who had suddenly darted forward with a little volley of shrill barks, in which the note of welcome, however, was more sensible than that of defiance. The person in question was a young lady, who seemed immediately to interpret the greeting of the small beast. He advanced with great rapidity and stood at her feet, looking up and barking hard; whereupon, without hesitation, she stooped and caught him in her hands, holding him face to face while he continued his quick chatter. His master now had had time to follow and to see that Bunchie’s new friend was a tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty. She was bareheaded, as if she were staying in the house — a fact which conveyed perplexity to the son of its master, conscious of that immunity from visitors which had for some time been rendered necessary by the latter’s ill-health. Meantime the two other gentlemen had also taken note of the new-comer.

“Dear me, who’s that strange woman?” Mr. Touchett had asked.

“Perhaps it’s Mrs. Touchett’s niece — the independent young lady,” Lord Warburton suggested. “I think she must be, from the way she handles the dog.”

The collie, too, had now allowed his attention to be diverted, and he trotted toward the young lady in the doorway, slowly setting his tail in motion as he went.

“But where’s my wife then?” murmured the old man.

“I suppose the young lady has left her somewhere: that’s a part of the independence.”

The girl spoke to Ralph, smiling, while she still held up the terrier. “Is this your little dog, sir?”

“He was mine a moment ago; but you’ve suddenly acquired a remarkable air of property in him.”

“Couldn’t we share him?” asked the girl. “He’s such a perfect little darling.”

Ralph looked at her a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty. “You may have him altogether,” he then replied.

The young lady seemed to have a great deal of confidence, both in herself and in others; but this abrupt generosity made her blush. “I ought to tell you that I’m probably your cousin,” she brought out, putting down the dog. “And here’s another!” she added quickly, as the collie came up.

“Probably?” the young man exclaimed, laughing. “I supposed it was quite settled! Have you arrived with my mother?”

“Yes, half an hour ago.”

“And has she deposited you and departed again?”

“No, she went straight to her room, and she told me that, if I should see you, I was to say to you that you must come to her there at a quarter to seven.”

The young man looked at his watch. “Thank you very much; I shall be punctual.” And then he looked at his cousin. “You’re very welcome here. I’m delighted to see you.”

She was looking at everything, with an eye that denoted clear perception — at her companion, at the two dogs, at the two gentlemen under the trees, at the beautiful scene that surrounded her. “I’ve never seen anything so lovely as this place. I’ve been all over the house; it’s too enchanting.”

“I’m sorry you should have been here so long without our knowing it.”

“Your mother told me that in England people arrived very quietly; so I thought it was all right. Is one of those gentlemen your father?”

“Yes, the elder one — the one sitting down,” said Ralph.

The girl gave a laugh. “I don’t suppose it’s the other. Who’s the other?”

“He’s a friend of ours — Lord Warburton.”

“Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it’s just like a novel!” And then, “Oh you adorable creature!” she suddenly cried, stooping down and picking up the small dog again.

She remained standing where they had met, making no offer to advance or to speak to Mr. Touchett, and while she lingered so near the threshold, slim and charming, her interlocutor wondered if she expected the old man to come and pay her his respects. American girls were used to a great deal of deference, and it had been intimated that this one had a high spirit. Indeed Ralph could see that in her face.

“Won’t you come and make acquaintance with my father?” he nevertheless ventured to ask. “He’s old and infirm — he doesn’t leave his chair.”

“Ah, poor man, I’m very sorry!” the girl exclaimed, immediately moving forward. “I got the impression from your mother that he was rather intensely active.”

Ralph Touchett was silent a moment. “She hasn’t seen him for a year.”

“Well, he has a lovely place to sit. Come along, little hound.”

“It’s a dear old place,” said the young man, looking sidewise at his neighbour.

“What’s his name?” she asked, her attention having again reverted to the terrier.

“My father’s name?”

“Yes,” said the young lady with amusement; “but don’t tell him I asked you.”

They had come by this time to where old Mr. Touchett was sitting, and he slowly got up from his chair to introduce himself.

“My mother has arrived,” said Ralph, “and this is Miss Archer.”

The old man placed his two hands on her shoulders, looked at her a moment with extreme benevolence and then gallantly kissed her. “It’s a great pleasure to me to see you here; but I wish you had given us a chance to receive you.”

“Oh, we were received,” said the girl. “There were about a dozen servants in the hall. And there was an old woman curtseying at the gate.”

“We can do better than that — if we have notice!” And the old man stood there smiling, rubbing his hands and slowly shaking his head at her. “But Mrs. Touchett doesn’t like receptions.”

“She went straight to her room.”

“Yes — and locked herself in. She always does that. Well, I suppose I shall see her next week.” And Mrs. Touchett’s husband slowly resumed his former posture.

“Before that,” said Miss Archer. “She’s coming down to dinner — at eight o’clock. Don’t you forget a quarter to seven,” she added, turning with a smile to Ralph.

“What’s to happen at a quarter to seven?”

“I’m to see my mother,” said Ralph.

“Ah, happy boy!” the old man commented. “You must sit down — you must have some tea,” he observed to his wife’s niece.

“They gave me some tea in my room the moment I got there,” this young lady answered. “I’m sorry you’re out of health,” she added, resting her eyes upon her venerable host.

“Oh, I’m an old man, my dear; it’s time for me to be old. But I shall be the better for having you here.”

She had been looking all round her again — at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house; and while engaged in this survey she had made room in it for her companions; a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited. She had seated herself and had put away the little dog; her white hands, in her lap, were folded upon her black dress; her head was erect, her eye lighted, her flexible figure turned itself easily this way and that, in sympathy with the alertness with which she evidently caught impressions. Her impressions were numerous, and they were all reflected in a clear, still smile. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.”

“It’s looking very well,” said Mr. Touchett. “I know the way it strikes you. I’ve been through all that. But you’re very beautiful yourself,” he added with a politeness by no means crudely jocular and with the happy consciousness that his advanced age gave him the privilege of saying such things — even to young persons who might possibly take alarm at them.

What degree of alarm this young person took need not be exactly measured; she instantly rose, however, with a blush which was not a refutation. “Oh yes, of course I’m lovely!” she returned with a quick laugh. “How old is your house? Is it Elizabethan?”

“It’s early Tudor,” said Ralph Touchett.

She turned toward him, watching his face. “Early Tudor? How very delightful! And I suppose there are a great many others.”

“There are many much better ones.”

“Don’t say that, my son!” the old man protested. “There’s nothing better than this.”

“I’ve got a very good one; I think in some respects it’s rather better,” said Lord Warburton, who as yet had not spoken, but who had kept an attentive eye upon Miss Archer. He slightly inclined himself, smiling; he had an excellent manner with women. The girl appreciated it in an instant; she had not forgotten that this was Lord Warburton. “I should like very much to show it to you,” he added.

“Don’t believe him,” cried the old man; “don’t look at it! It’s a wretched old barrack — not to be compared with this.”

“I don’t know — I can’t judge,” said the girl, smiling at Lord Warburton.

In this discussion Ralph Touchett took no interest whatever; he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking greatly as if he should like to renew his conversation with his new-found cousin.

“Are you very fond of dogs?” he enquired by way of beginning. He seemed to recognise that it was an awkward beginning for a clever man.

“Very fond of them indeed.”

“You must keep the terrier, you know,” he went on, still awkwardly.

“I’ll keep him while I’m here, with pleasure.”

“That will be for a long time, I hope.”

“You’re very kind. I hardly know. My aunt must settle that.”

“I’ll settle it with her — at a quarter to seven.” And Ralph looked at his watch again.

“I’m glad to be here at all,” said the girl.

“I don’t believe you allow things to be settled for you.”

“Oh yes; if they’re settled as I like them.”

“I shall settle this as I like it,” said Ralph. It’s most unaccountable that we should never have known you.”

“I was there — you had only to come and see me.”

“There? Where do you mean?”

“In the United States: in New York and Albany and other American places.”

“I’ve been there — all over, but I never saw you. I can’t make it out.”

Miss Archer just hesitated. “It was because there had been some disagreement between your mother and my father, after my mother’s death, which took place when I was a child. In consequence of it we never expected to see you.”

“Ah, but I don’t embrace all my mother’s quarrels — heaven forbid!” the young man cried. “You’ve lately lost your father?” he went on more gravely.

“Yes; more than a year ago. After that my aunt was very kind to me; she came to see me and proposed that I should come with her to Europe.”

“I see,” said Ralph. “She has adopted you.”

“Adopted me?” The girl stared, and her blush came back to her, together with a momentary look of pain which gave her interlocutor some alarm. He had underestimated the effect of his words. Lord Warburton, who appeared constantly desirous of a nearer view of Miss Archer, strolled toward the two cousins at the moment, and as he did so she rested her wider eyes on him.

“Oh no; she has not adopted me. I’m not a candidate for adoption.”

“I beg a thousand pardons,” Ralph murmured. “I meant — I meant —” He hardly knew what he meant.

“You meant she has taken me up. Yes; she likes to take people up. She has been very kind to me; but,” she added with a certain visible eagerness of desire to be explicit, “I’m very fond of my liberty.”

“Are you talking about Mrs. Touchett?” the old man called out from his chair. “Come here, my dear, and tell me about her. I’m always thankful for information.”

The girl hesitated again, smiling. “She’s really very benevolent,” she answered; after which she went over to her uncle, whose mirth was excited by her words.

Lord Warburton was left standing with Ralph Touchett, to whom in a moment he said: “You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman. There it is!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2p/chapter2.html

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