Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter XXI

Mrs. Touchett, before arriving in Paris, had fixed the day for her departure and by the middle of February had begun to travel southward. She interrupted her journey to pay a visit to her son, who at San Remo, on the Italian shore of the Mediterranean, had been spending a dull, bright winter beneath a slow-moving white umbrella. Isabel went with her aunt as a matter of course, though Mrs. Touchett, with homely, customary logic, had laid before her a pair of alternatives.

“Now, of course, you’re completely your own mistress and are as free as the bird on the bough. I don’t mean you were not so before, but you’re at present on a different footing — property erects a kind of barrier. You can do a great many things if you’re rich which would be severely criticised if you were poor. You can go and come, you can travel alone, you can have your own establishment: I mean of course if you’ll take a companion — some decayed gentlewoman, with a darned cashmere and dyed hair, who paints on velvet. You don’t think you’d like that? Of course you can do as you please; I only want you to understand how much you’re at liberty. You might take Miss Stackpole as your dame de compagnie; she’d keep people off very well. I think, however, that it’s a great deal better you should remain with me, in spite of there being no obligation. It’s better for several reasons, quite apart from your liking it. I shouldn’t think you’d like it, but I recommend you to make the sacrifice. Of course whatever novelty there may have been at first in my society has quite passed away, and you see me as I am — a dull, obstinate, narrow-minded old woman.”

“I don’t think you’re at all dull,” Isabel had replied to this.

“But you do think I’m obstinate and narrow-minded? I told you so!” said Mrs. Touchett with much elation at being justified.

Isabel remained for the present with her aunt, because, in spite of eccentric impulses, she had a great regard for what was usually deemed decent, and a young gentlewoman without visible relations had always struck her as a flower without foliage. It was true that Mrs. Touchett’s conversation had never again appeared so brilliant as that first afternoon in Albany, when she sat in her damp waterproof and sketched the opportunities that Europe would offer to a young person of taste. This, however, was in a great measure the girl’s own fault; she had got a glimpse of her aunt’s experience, and her imagination constantly anticipated the judgements and emotions of a woman who had very little of the same faculty. Apart from this, Mrs. Touchett had a great merit; she was as honest as a pair of compasses. There was a comfort in her stiffness and firmness; you knew exactly where to find her and were never liable to chance encounters and concussions. On her own ground she was perfectly present, but was never over-inquisitive as regards the territory of her neighbour. Isabel came at last to have a kind of undemonstrable pity for her; there seemed something so dreary in the condition of a person whose nature had, as it were, so little surface — offered so limited a face to the accretions of human contact. Nothing tender, nothing sympathetic, had ever had a chance to fasten upon it — no wind-sown blossom, no familiar softening moss. Her offered, her passive extent, in other words, was about that of a knife-edge. Isabel had reason to believe none the less that as she advanced in life she made more of those concessions to the sense of something obscurely distinct from convenience — more of them than she independently exacted. She was learning to sacrifice consistency to considerations of that inferior order for which the excuse must be found in the particular case. It was not to the credit of her absolute rectitude that she should have gone the longest way round to Florence in order to spend a few weeks with her invalid son; since in former years it had been one of her most definite convictions that when Ralph wished to see her he was at liberty to remember that Palazzo Crescentini contained a large apartment known as the quarter of the signorino.

“I want to ask you something,” Isabel said to this young man the day after her arrival at San Remo —“something I’ve thought more than once of asking you by letter, but that I’ve hesitated on the whole to write about. Face to face, nevertheless, my question seems easy enough. Did you know your father intended to leave me so much money?”

Ralph stretched his legs a little further than usual and gazed a little more fixedly at the Mediterranean.

“What does it matter, my dear Isabel, whether I knew? My father was very obstinate.”

“So,” said the girl, “you did know.”

“Yes; he told me. We even talked it over a little.” “What did he do it for?” asked Isabel abruptly. “Why, as a kind of compliment.”

“A compliment on what?”

“On your so beautifully existing.”

“He liked me too much,” she presently declared.

“That’s a way we all have.”

“If I believed that I should be very unhappy. Fortunately I don’t believe it. I want to be treated with justice; I want nothing but that.”

“Very good. But you must remember that justice to a lovely being is after all a florid sort of sentiment.”

“I’m not a lovely being. How can you say that, at the very moment when I’m asking such odious questions? I must seem to you delicate!”

“You seem to me troubled,” said Ralph.

“I am troubled.”

“About what?”

For a moment she answered nothing; then she broke out: “Do you think it good for me suddenly to be made so rich? Henrietta doesn’t.”

“Oh, hang Henrietta!” said Ralph coarsely, “If you ask me I’m delighted at it.”

“Is that why your father did it — for your amusement?”

“I differ with Miss Stackpole,” Ralph went on more gravely. “I think it very good for you to have means.”

Isabel looked at him with serious eyes. “I wonder whether you know what’s good for me — or whether you care.”

“If I know depend upon it I care. Shall I tell you what it is? Not to torment yourself.”

“Not to torment you, I suppose you mean.”

“You can’t do that; I’m proof. Take things more easily. Don’t ask yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Don’t question your conscience so much — it will get out of tune like a strummed piano. Keep it for great occasions. Don’t try so much to form your character — it’s like trying to pull open a tight, tender young rose. Live as you like best, and your character will take care of itself. Most things are good for you; the exceptions are very rare, and a comfortable income’s not one of them.” Ralph paused, smiling; Isabel had listened quickly. “You’ve too much power of thought — above all too much conscience,” Ralph added. “It’s out of all reason, the number of things you think wrong. Put back your watch. Diet your fever. Spread your wings; rise above the ground. It’s never wrong to do that.”

She had listened eagerly, as I say; and it was her nature to understand quickly. “I wonder if you appreciate what you say. If you do, you take a great responsibility.”

“You frighten me a little, but I think I’m right,” said Ralph, persisting in cheer.

“All the same what you say is very true,” Isabel pursued. “You could say nothing more true. I’m absorbed in myself — I look at life too much as a doctor’s prescription. Why indeed should we perpetually be thinking whether things are good for us, as if we were patients lying in a hospital? Why should I be so afraid of not doing right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do right or wrong!”

“You’re a capital person to advise,” said Ralph; “you take the wind out of my sails!”

She looked at him as if she had not heard him — though she was following out the train of reflexion which he himself had kindled. “I try to care more about the world than about myself — but I always come back to myself. It’s because I’m afraid.” She stopped; her voice had trembled a little. “Yes, I’m afraid; I can’t tell you. A large fortune means freedom, and I’m afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it’s a constant effort. I’m not sure it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”

“For weak people I’ve no doubt it’s a greater happiness. For weak people the effort not to be contemptible must be great.”

“And how do you know I’m not weak?” Isabel asked.

“Ah,” Ralph answered with a flush that the girl noticed, “if you are I’m awfully sold!”

The charm of the Mediterranean coast only deepened for our heroine on acquaintance, for it was the threshold of Italy, the gate of admirations. Italy, as yet imperfectly seen and felt, stretched before her as a land of promise, a land in which a love of the beautiful might be comforted by endless knowledge. Whenever she strolled upon the shore with her cousin — and she was the companion of his daily walk — she looked across the sea, with longing eyes, to where she knew that Genoa lay. She was glad to pause, however, on the edge of this larger adventure; there was such a thrill even in the preliminary hovering. It affected her moreover as a peaceful interlude, as a hush of the drum and fife in a career which she had little warrant as yet for regarding as agitated, but which nevertheless she was constantly picturing to herself by the light of her hopes, her fears, her fancies, her ambitions, her predilections, and which reflected these subjective accidents in a manner sufficiently dramatic. Madame Merle had predicted to Mrs. Touchett that after their young friend had put her hand into her pocket half a dozen times she would be reconciled to the idea that it had been filled by a munificent uncle; and the event justified, as it had so often justified before, that lady’s perspicacity. Ralph Touchett had praised his cousin for being morally inflammable, that is for being quick to take a hint that was meant as good advice. His advice had perhaps helped the matter; she had at any rate before leaving San Remo grown used to feeling rich. The consciousness in question found a proper place in rather a dense little group of ideas that she had about herself, and often it was by no means the least agreeable. It took perpetually for granted a thousand good intentions. She lost herself in a maze of visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent, generous girl who took a large human view of occasions and obligations were sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the imagination of others is another affair, and on this point we must also touch in time. The visions I have just spoken of were mixed with other debates. Isabel liked better to think of the future than of the past; but at times, as she listened to the murmur of the Mediterranean waves, her glance took a backward flight. It rested upon two figures which, in spite of increasing distance, were still sufficiently salient; they were recognisable without difficulty as those of Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton. It was strange how quickly these images of energy had fallen into the background of our young lady’s life. It was in her disposition at all times to lose faith in the reality of absent things; she could summon back her faith, in case of need, with an effort, but the effort was often painful even when the reality had been pleasant. The past was apt to look dead and its revival rather to show the livid light of a judgement-day. The girl moreover was not prone to take for granted that she herself lived in the mind of others — she had not the fatuity to believe she left indelible traces. She was capable of being wounded by the discovery that she had been forgotten; but of all liberties the one she herself found sweetest was the liberty to forget. She had not given her last shilling, sentimentally speaking, either to Caspar Goodwood or to Lord Warburton, and yet couldn’t but feel them appreciably in debt to her. She had of course reminded herself that she was to hear from Mr. Goodwood again; but this was not to be for another year and a half, and in that time a great many things might happen. She had indeed failed to say to herself that her American suitor might find some other girl more comfortable to woo; because, though it was certain many other girls would prove so, she had not the smallest belief that this merit would attract him. But she reflected that she herself might know the humiliation of change, might really, for that matter, come to the end of the things that were not Caspar (even though there appeared so many of them), and find rest in those very elements of his presence which struck her now as impediments to the finer respiration. It was conceivable that these impediments should some day prove a sort of blessing in disguise — a clear and quiet harbour enclosed by a brave granite breakwater. But that day could only come in its order, and she couldn’t wait for it with folded hands. That Lord Warburton should continue to cherish her image seemed to her more than a noble humility or an enlightened pride ought to wish to reckon with. She had so definitely undertaken to preserve no record of what had passed between them that a corresponding effort on his own part would be eminently just. This was not, as it may seem, merely a theory tinged with sarcasm. Isabel candidly believed that his lordship would, in the usual phrase, get over his disappointment. He had been deeply affected — this she believed, and she was still capable of deriving pleasure from the belief; but it was absurd that a man both so intelligent and so honourably dealt with should cultivate a scar out of proportion to any wound. Englishmen liked moreover to be comfortable, said Isabel, and there could be little comfort for Lord Warburton, in the long run, in brooding over a self-sufficient American girl who had been but a casual acquaintance. She flattered herself that, should she hear from one day to another that he had married some young woman of his own country who had done more to deserve him, she should receive the news without a pang even of surprise. It would have proved that he believed she was firm — which was what she wished to seem to him. That alone was grateful to her pride.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2p/chapter21.html

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