Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter III

Mrs. Touchett was certainly a person of many oddities, of which her behaviour on returning to her husband’s house after many months was a noticeable specimen. She had her own way of doing all that she did, and this is the simplest description of a character which, although by no means without liberal motions, rarely succeeded in giving an impression of suavity. Mrs. Touchett might do a great deal of good, but she never pleased. This way of her own, of which she was so fond, was not intrinsically offensive — it was just unmistakeably distinguished from the ways of others. The edges of her conduct were so very clear-cut that for susceptible persons it sometimes had a knife-like effect. That hard fineness came out in her deportment during the first hours of her return from America, under circumstances in which it might have seemed that her first act would have been to exchange greetings with her husband and son. Mrs. Touchett, for reasons which she deemed excellent, always retired on such occasions into impenetrable seclusion, postponing the more sentimental ceremony until she had repaired the disorder of dress with a completeness which had the less reason to be of high importance as neither beauty nor vanity were concerned in it. She was a plain-faced old woman, without graces and without any great elegance, but with an extreme respect for her own motives. She was usually prepared to explain these — when the explanation was asked as a favour; and in such a case they proved totally different from those that had been attributed to her. She was virtually separated from her husband, but she appeared to perceive nothing irregular in the situation. It had become clear, at an early stage of their community, that they should never desire the same thing at the same moment, and this appearance had prompted her to rescue disagreement from the vulgar realm of accident. She did what she could to erect it into a law — a much more edifying aspect of it — by going to live in Florence, where she bought a house and established herself; and by leaving her husband to take care of the English branch of his bank. This arrangement greatly pleased her; it was so felicitously definite. It struck her husband in the same light, in a foggy square in London, where it was at times the most definite fact he discerned; but he would have preferred that such unnatural things should have a greater vagueness. To agree to disagree had cost him an effort; he was ready to agree to almost anything but that, and saw no reason why either assent or dissent should be so terribly consistent. Mrs. Touchett indulged in no regrets nor speculations, and usually came once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during which she apparently took pains to convince him that she had adopted the right system. She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maid-servants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art. At fixed intervals she paid a visit to her own country; but this last had been longer than any of its predecessors.

She had taken up her niece — there was little doubt of that. One wet afternoon, some four months earlier than the occurrence lately narrated, this young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say she was so occupied is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilising quality and her imagination was strong. There was at this time, however, a want of fresh taste in her situation which the arrival of an unexpected visitor did much to correct. The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard her at last walking about the adjoining room. It was in an old house at Albany, a large, square, double house, with a notice of sale in the windows of one of the lower apartments. There were two entrances, one of which had long been out of use but had never been removed. They were exactly alike — large white doors, with an arched frame and wide side-lights, perched upon little “stoops” of red stone, which descended sidewise to the brick pavement of the street. The two houses together formed a single dwelling, the party-wall having been removed and the rooms placed in communication. These rooms, above-stairs, were extremely numerous, and were painted all over exactly alike, in a yellowish white which had grown sallow with time. On the third floor there was a sort of arched passage, connecting the two sides of the house, which Isabel and her sisters used in their childhood to call the tunnel and which, though it was short and well lighted, always seemed to the girl to be strange and lonely, especially on winter afternoons. She had been in the house, at different periods, as a child; in those days her grandmother lived there. Then there had been an absence of ten years, followed by a return to Albany before her father’s death. Her grandmother, old Mrs. Archer, had exercised, chiefly within the limits of the family, a large hospitality in the early period, and the little girls often spent weeks under her roof — weeks of which Isabel had the happiest memory. The manner of life was different from that of her own home — larger, more plentiful, practically more festal; the discipline of the nursery was delightfully vague and the opportunity of listening to the conversation of one’s elders (which with Isabel was a highly-valued pleasure) almost unbounded. There was a constant coming and going; her grandmother’s sons and daughters and their children appeared to be in the enjoyment of standing invitations to arrive and remain, so that the house offered to a certain extent the appearance of a bustling provincial inn kept by a gentle old landlady who sighed a great deal and never presented a bill. Isabel of course knew nothing about bills; but even as a child she thought her grandmother’s home romantic. There was a covered piazza behind it, furnished with a swing which was a source of tremulous interest; and beyond this was a long garden, sloping down to the stable and containing peach-trees of barely credible familiarity. Isabel had stayed with her grandmother at various seasons, but somehow all her visits had a flavour of peaches. On the other side, across the street, was an old house that was called the Dutch House — a peculiar structure dating from the earliest colonial time, composed of bricks that had been painted yellow, crowned with a gable that was pointed out to strangers, defended by a rickety wooden paling and standing sidewise to the street. It was occupied by a primary school for children of both sexes, kept or rather let go, by a demonstrative lady of whom Isabel’s chief recollection was that her hair was fastened with strange bedroomy combs at the temples and that she was the widow of some one of consequence. The little girl had been offered the opportunity of laying a foundation of knowledge in this establishment; but having spent a single day in it, she had protested against its laws and had been allowed to stay at home, where, in the September days, when the windows of the Dutch House were open, she used to hear the hum of childish voices repeating the multiplication table — an incident in which the elation of liberty and the pain of exclusion were indistinguishably mingled. The foundation of her knowledge was really laid in the idleness of her grandmother’s house, where, as most of the other inmates were not reading people, she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces, which she used to climb upon a chair to take down. When she had found one to her taste — she was guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispiece — she carried it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond the library and which was called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office. Whose office it had been and at what period it had flourished, she never learned; it was enough for her that it contained an echo and a pleasant musty smell and that it was a chamber of disgrace for old pieces of furniture whose infirmities were not always apparent (so that the disgrace seemed unmerited and rendered them victims of injustice) and with which, in the manner of children, she had established relations almost human, certainly dramatic. There was an old haircloth sofa in especial, to which she had confided a hundred childish sorrows. The place owed much of its mysterious melancholy to the fact that it was properly entered from the second door of the house, the door that had been condemned, and that it was secured by bolts which a particularly slender little girl found it impossible to slide. She knew that this silent, motionless portal opened into the street; if the sidelights had not been filled with green paper she might have looked out upon the little brown stoop and the well-worn brick pavement. But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side — a place which became to the child’s imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or of terror.

It was in the “office” still that Isabel was sitting on that melancholy afternoon of early spring which I have just mentioned. At this time she might have had the whole house to choose from, and the room she had selected was the most depressed of its scenes. She had never opened the bolted door nor removed the green paper (renewed by other hands) from its sidelights; she had never assured herself that the vulgar street lay beyond. A crude, cold rain fell heavily; the spring-time was indeed an appeal — and it seemed a cynical, insincere appeal — to patience. Isabel, however, gave as little heed as possible to cosmic treacheries; she kept her eyes on her book and tried to fix her mind. It had lately occurred to her that her mind was a good deal of a vagabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in training it to a military step and teaching it to advance, to halt, to retreat, to perform even more complicated manoeuvres, at the word of command. Just now she had given it marching orders and it had been trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German Thought. Suddenly she became aware of a step very different from her own intellectual pace; she listened a little and perceived that some one was moving in the library, which communicated with the office. It struck her first as the step of a person from whom she was looking for a visit, then almost immediately announced itself as the tread of a woman and a stranger — her possible visitor being neither. It had an inquisitive, experimental quality which suggested that it would not stop short of the threshold of the office; and in fact the doorway of this apartment was presently occupied by a lady who paused there and looked very hard at our heroine. She was a plain, elderly woman, dressed in a comprehensive waterproof mantle; she had a face with a good deal of rather violent point.

“Oh,” she began, “is that where you usually sit?” She looked about at the heterogeneous chairs and tables.

“Not when I have visitors,” said Isabel, getting up to receive the intruder.

She directed their course back to the library while the visitor continued to look about her. “You seem to have plenty of other rooms; they’re in rather better condition. But everything’s immensely worn.”

“Have you come to look at the house?” Isabel asked. “The servant will show it to you.”

“Send her away; I don’t want to buy it. She has probably gone to look for you and is wandering about upstairs; she didn’t seem at all intelligent. You had better tell her it’s no matter.” And then, since the girl stood there hesitating and wondering, this unexpected critic said to her abruptly: “I suppose you’re one of the daughters?”

Isabel thought she had very strange manners. “It depends upon whose daughters you mean.”

“The late Mr. Archer’s — and my poor sister’s.”

“Ah,” said Isabel slowly, “you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!”

“Is that what your father told you to call me? I’m your Aunt Lydia, but I’m not at all crazy: I haven’t a delusion! And which of the daughters are you?”

“I’m the youngest of the three, and my name’s Isabel.”

“Yes; the others are Lilian and Edith. And are you the prettiest?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” said the girl.

“I think you must be.” And in this way the aunt and the niece made friends. The aunt had quarrelled years before with her brother-in-law, after the death of her sister, taking him to task for the manner in which he brought up his three girls. Being a high-tempered man he had requested her to mind her own business, and she had taken him at his word. For many years she held no communication with him and after his death had addressed not a word to his daughters, who had been bred in that disrespectful view of her which we have just seen Isabel betray. Mrs. Touchett’s behaviour was, as usual, perfectly deliberate. She intended to go to America to look after her investments (with which her husband, in spite of his great financial position, had nothing to do) and would take advantage of this opportunity to enquire into the condition of her nieces. There was no need of writing, for she should attach no importance to any account of them she should elicit by letter; she believed, always, in seeing for one’s self. Isabel found, however, that she knew a good deal about them, and knew about the marriage of the two elder girls; knew that their poor father had left very little money, but that the house in Albany, which had passed into his hands, was to be sold for their benefit; knew, finally, that Edmund Ludlow, Lilian’s husband, had taken upon himself to attend to this matter, in consideration of which the young couple, who had come to Albany during Mr. Archer’s illness, were remaining there for the present and, as well as Isabel herself, occupying the old place.

“How much money do you expect for it?” Mrs. Touchett asked of her companion, who had brought her to sit in the front parlour, which she had inspected without enthusiasm.

“I haven’t the least idea,” said the girl.

“That’s the second time you have said that to me,” her aunt rejoined. “And yet you don’t look at all stupid.”

“I’m not stupid; but I don’t know anything about money.”

“Yes, that’s the way you were brought up — as if you were to inherit a million. What have you in point of fact inherited?”

“I really can’t tell you. You must ask Edmund and Lilian; they’ll be back in half an hour.”

“In Florence we should call it a very bad house,” said Mrs. Touchett; “but here, I dare say, it will bring a high price. It ought to make a considerable sum for each of you. In addition to that you must have something else; it’s most extraordinary your not knowing. The position’s of value, and they’ll probably pull it down and make a row of shops. I wonder you don’t do that yourself; you might let the shops to great advantage.”

Isabel stared; the idea of letting shops was new to her. “I hope they won’t pull it down,” she said; “I’m extremely fond of it.”

“I don’t see what makes you fond of it; your father died here.”

“Yes; but I don’t dislike it for that,” the girl rather strangely returned. “I like places in which things have happened — even if they’re sad things. A great many people have died here; the place has been full of life.”

“Is that what you call being full of life?”

“I mean full of experience — of people’s feelings and sorrows. And not of their sorrows only, for I’ve been very happy here as a child.”

“You should go to Florence if you like houses in which things have happened — especially deaths. I live in an old palace in which three people have been murdered; three that were known and I don’t know how many more besides.”

“In an old palace?” Isabel repeated.

“Yes, my dear; a very different affair from this. This is very bourgeois.”

Isabel felt some emotion, for she had always thought highly of her grandmother’s house. But the emotion was of a kind which led her to say: “I should like very much to go to Florence.”

“Well, if you’ll be very good, and do everything I tell you I’ll take you there,” Mrs. Touchett declared.

Our young woman’s emotion deepened; she flushed a little and smiled at her aunt in silence. “Do everything you tell me? I don’t think I can promise that.”

“No, you don’t look like a person of that sort. You’re fond of your own way; but it’s not for me to blame you.”

“And yet, to go to Florence,” the girl exclaimed in a moment, “I’d promise almost anything!”

Edmund and Lilian were slow to return, and Mrs. Touchett had an hour’s uninterrupted talk with her niece, who found her a strange and interesting figure: a figure essentially — almost the first she had ever met. She was as eccentric as Isabel had always supposed; and hitherto, whenever the girl had heard people described as eccentric, she had thought of them as offensive or alarming. The term had always suggested to her something grotesque and even sinister. But her aunt made it a matter of high but easy irony, or comedy, and led her to ask herself if the common tone, which was all she had known, had ever been as interesting. No one certainly had on any occasion so held her as this little thin-lipped, bright-eyed, foreign-looking woman, who retrieved an insignificant appearance by a distinguished manner and, sitting there in a well-worn waterproof, talked with striking familiarity of the courts of Europe. There was nothing flighty about Mrs. Touchett, but she recognised no social superiors, and, judging the great ones of the earth in a way that spoke of this, enjoyed the consciousness of making an impression on a candid and susceptible mind. Isabel at first had answered a good many questions, and it was from her answers apparently that Mrs. Touchett derived a high opinion of her intelligence. But after this she had asked a good many, and her aunt’s answers, whatever turn they took, struck her as food for deep reflexion. Mrs. Touchett waited for the return of her other niece as long as she thought reasonable, but as at six o’clock Mrs. Ludlow had not come in she prepared to take her departure.

“Your sister must be a great gossip. Is she accustomed to staying out so many hours?”

“You’ve been out almost as long as she,” Isabel replied; “she can have left the house but a short time before you came in.”

Mrs. Touchett looked at the girl without resentment; she appeared to enjoy a bold retort and to be disposed to be gracious. “Perhaps she hasn’t had so good an excuse as I. Tell her at any rate that she must come and see me this evening at that horrid hotel. She may bring her husband if she likes, but she needn’t bring you. I shall see plenty of you later.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2p/chapter3.html

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