Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter LIII

It was not with surprise, it was with a feeling which in other circumstances would have had much of the effect of joy, that as Isabel descended from the Paris Mail at Charing Cross she stepped into the arms, as it were — or at any rate into the hands — of Henrietta Stackpole. She had telegraphed to her friend from Turin, and though she had not definitely said to herself that Henrietta would meet her, she had felt her telegram would produce some helpful result. On her long journey from Rome her mind had been given up to vagueness; she was unable to question the future. She performed this journey with sightless eyes and took little pleasure in the countries she traversed, decked out though they were in the richest freshness of spring. Her thoughts followed their course through other countries — strange-looking, dimly-lighted, pathless lands, in which there was no change of seasons, but only, as it seemed, a perpetual dreariness of winter. She had plenty to think about; but it was neither reflexion nor conscious purpose that filled her mind. Disconnected visions passed through it, and sudden dull gleams of memory, of expectation. The past and the future came and went at their will, but she saw them only in fitful images, which rose and fell by a logic of their own. It was extraordinary the things she remembered. Now that she was in the secret, now that she knew something that so much concerned her and the eclipse of which had made life resemble an attempt to play whist with an imperfect pack of cards, the truth of things, their mutual relations, their meaning, and for the most part their horror, rose before her with a kind of architectural vastness. She remembered a thousand trifles; they started to life with the spontaneity of a shiver. She had thought them trifles at the time; now she saw that they had been weighted with lead. Yet even now they were trifles after all, for of what use was it to her to understand them? Nothing seemed of use to her to-day. All purpose, all intention, was suspended; all desire too save the single desire to reach her much-embracing refuge. Gardencourt had been her starting-point, and to those muffled chambers it was at least a temporary solution to return. She had gone forth in her strength; she would come back in her weakness, and if the place had been a rest to her before, it would be a sanctuary now. She envied Ralph his dying, for if one were thinking of rest that was the most perfect of all. To cease utterly, to give it all up and not know anything more — this idea was as sweet as the vision of a cool bath in a marble tank, in a darkened chamber, in a hot land.

She had moments indeed in her journey from Rome which were almost as good as being dead. She sat in her corner, so motionless, so passive, simply with the sense of being carried, so detached from hope and regret, that she recalled to herself one of those Etruscan figures couched upon the receptacle of their ashes. There was nothing to regret now — that was all over. Not only the time of her folly, but the time of her repentance was far. The only thing to regret was that Madame Merle had been so — well, so unimaginable. Just here her intelligence dropped, from literal inability to say what it was that Madame Merle had been. Whatever it was it was for Madame Merle herself to regret it; and doubtless she would do so in America, where she had announced she was going. It concerned Isabel no more; she only had an impression that she should never again see Madame Merle. This impression carried her into the future, of which from time to time she had a mutilated glimpse. She saw herself, in the distant years, still in the attitude of a woman who had her life to live, and these intimations contradicted the spirit of the present hour. It might be desirable to get quite away, really away, further away than little grey-green England, but this privilege was evidently to be denied her. Deep in her soul — deeper than any appetite for renunciation — was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost enlivening, in the conviction. It was a proof of strength — it was a proof she should some day be happy again. It couldn’t be she was to live only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet. To live only to suffer — only to feel the injury of life repeated and enlarged — it seemed to her she was too valuable, too capable, for that. Then she wondered if it were vain and stupid to think so well of herself. When had it even been a guarantee to be valuable? Wasn’t all history full of the destruction of precious things? Wasn’t it much more probable that if one were fine one would suffer? It involved then perhaps an admission that one had a certain grossness; but Isabel recognised, as it passed before her eyes, the quick vague shadow of a long future. She should never escape; she should last to the end. Then the middle years wrapped her about again and the grey curtain of her indifference closed her in.

Henrietta kissed her, as Henrietta usually kissed, as if she were afraid she should be caught doing it; and then Isabel stood there in the crowd, looking about her, looking for her servant. She asked nothing; she wished to wait. She had a sudden perception that she should be helped. She rejoiced Henrietta had come; there was something terrible in an arrival in London. The dusky, smoky, far-arching vault of the station, the strange, livid light, the dense, dark, pushing crowd, filled her with a nervous fear and made her put her arm into her friend’s. She remembered she had once liked these things; they seemed part of a mighty spectacle in which there was something that touched her. She remembered how she walked away from Euston, in the winter dusk, in the crowded streets, five years before. She could not have done that to-day, and the incident came before her as the deed of another person.

“It’s too beautiful that you should have come,” said Henrietta, looking at her as if she thought Isabel might be prepared to challenge the proposition. “If you hadn’t — if you hadn’t; well, I don’t know,” remarked Miss Stackpole, hinting ominously at her powers of disapproval.

Isabel looked about without seeing her maid. Her eyes rested on another figure, however, which she felt she had seen before; and in a moment she recognised the genial countenance of Mr. Bantling. He stood a little apart, and it was not in the power of the multitude that pressed about him to make him yield an inch of the ground he had taken — that of abstracting himself discreetly while the two ladies performed their embraces.

“There’s Mr. Bantling,” said Isabel, gently, irrelevantly, scarcely caring much now whether she should find her maid or not.

“Oh yes, he goes everywhere with me. Come here, Mr. Bantling!” Henrietta exclaimed. Whereupon the gallant bachelor advanced with a smile — a smile tempered, however, by the gravity of the occasion. “Isn’t it lovely she has come?” Henrietta asked. “He knows all about it,” she added; “we had quite a discussion. He said you wouldn’t, I said you would.”

“I thought you always agreed,” Isabel smiled in return. She felt she could smile now; she had seen in an instant, in Mr. Bantling’s brave eyes, that he had good news for her. They seemed to say he wished her to remember he was an old friend of her cousin — that he understood, that it was all right. Isabel gave him her hand; she thought of him, extravagantly, as a beautiful blameless knight.

“Oh, I always agree,” said Mr. Bantling. “But she doesn’t, you know.”

“Didn’t I tell you that a maid was a nuisance?” Henrietta enquired. “Your young lady has probably remained at Calais.”

“I don’t care,” said Isabel, looking at Mr. Bantling, whom she had never found so interesting.

“Stay with her while I go and see,” Henrietta commanded, leaving the two for a moment together.

They stood there at first in silence, and then Mr. Bantling asked Isabel how it had been on the Channel.

“Very fine. No, I believe it was very rough,” she said, to her companion’s obvious surprise. After which she added: “You’ve been to Gardencourt, I know.”

“Now how do you know that?”

“I can’t tell you — except that you look like a person who has been to Gardencourt.”

“Do you think I look awfully sad? It’s awfully sad there, you know.”

“I don’t believe you ever look awfully sad. You look awfully kind,” said Isabel with a breadth that cost her no effort. It seemed to her she should never again feel a superficial embarrassment.

Poor Mr. Bantling, however, was still in this inferior stage. He blushed a good deal and laughed, he assured her that he was often very blue, and that when he was blue he was awfully fierce. “You can ask Miss Stackpole, you know. I was at Gardencourt two days ago.”

“Did you see my cousin?”

“Only for a little. But he had been seeing people; Warburton had been there the day before. Ralph was just the same as usual, except that he was in bed and that he looks tremendously ill and that he can’t speak,” Mr. Bantling pursued. “He was awfully jolly and funny all the same. He was just as clever as ever. It’s awfully wretched.”

Even in the crowded, noisy station this simple picture was vivid. “Was that late in the day?”

“Yes; I went on purpose. We thought you’d like to know.”

“I’m greatly obliged to you. Can I go down tonight?”

“Ah, I don’t think SHE’LL let you go,” said Mr. Bantling. “She wants you to stop with her. I made Touchett’s man promise to telegraph me to-day, and I found the telegram an hour ago at my club. ‘Quiet and easy,’ that’s what it says, and it’s dated two o’clock. So you see you can wait till to-morrow. You must be awfully tired.”

“Yes, I’m awfully tired. And I thank you again.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Bantling, “We were certain you would like the last news.” On which Isabel vaguely noted that he and Henrietta seemed after all to agree. Miss Stackpole came back with Isabel’s maid, whom she had caught in the act of proving her utility. This excellent person, instead of losing herself in the crowd, had simply attended to her mistress’s luggage, so that the latter was now at liberty to leave the station. “You know you’re not to think of going to the country to-night,” Henrietta remarked to her. “It doesn’t matter whether there’s a train or not. You’re to come straight to me in Wimpole Street. There isn’t a corner to be had in London, but I’ve got you one all the same. It isn’t a Roman palace, but it will do for a night.”

“I’ll do whatever you wish,” Isabel said.

“You’ll come and answer a few questions; that’s what I wish.”

“She doesn’t say anything about dinner, does she, Mrs. Osmond?” Mr. Bantling enquired jocosely.

Henrietta fixed him a moment with her speculative gaze. “I see you’re in a great hurry to get your own. You’ll be at the Paddington Station to-morrow morning at ten.”

“Don’t come for my sake, Mr. Bantling,” said Isabel.

“He’ll come for mine,” Henrietta declared as she ushered her friend into a cab. And later, in a large dusky parlour in Wimpole Street — to do her justice there had been dinner enough — she asked those questions to which she had alluded at the station. “Did your husband make you a scene about your coming?” That was Miss Stackpole’s first enquiry.

“No; I can’t say he made a scene.”

“He didn’t object then?”

“Yes, he objected very much. But it was not what you’d call a scene.”

“What was it then?”

“It was a very quiet conversation.”

Henrietta for a moment regarded her guest. “It must have been hellish,” she then remarked. And Isabel didn’t deny that it had been hellish. But she confined herself to answering Henrietta’s questions, which was easy, as they were tolerably definite. For the present she offered her no new information. “Well,” said Miss Stackpole at last, “I’ve only one criticism to make. I don’t see why you promised little Miss Osmond to go back.”

“I’m not sure I myself see now,” Isabel replied. “But I did then.”

“If you’ve forgotten your reason perhaps you won’t return.”

Isabel waited a moment. “Perhaps I shall find another.”

“You’ll certainly never find a good one.”

“In default of a better my having promised will do,” Isabel suggested.

“Yes; that’s why I hate it.”

“Don’t speak of it now. I’ve a little time. Coming away was a complication, but what will going back be?”

“You must remember, after all, that he won’t make you a scene!” said Henrietta with much intention.

“He will, though,” Isabel answered gravely. “It won’t be the scene of a moment; it will be a scene of the rest of my life.”

For some minutes the two women sat and considered this remainder, and then Miss Stackpole, to change the subject, as Isabel had requested, announced abruptly: “I’ve been to stay with Lady Pensil!”

“Ah, the invitation came at last!”

“Yes; it took five years. But this time she wanted to see me.”

“Naturally enough.”

“It was more natural than I think you know,” said Henrietta, who fixed her eyes on a distant point. And then she added, turning suddenly: “Isabel Archer, I beg your pardon. You don’t know why? Because I criticised you, and yet I’ve gone further than you. Mr. Osmond, at least, was born on the other side!”

It was a moment before Isabel grasped her meaning; this sense was so modestly, or at least so ingeniously, veiled. Isabel’s mind was not possessed at present with the comicality of things; but she greeted with a quick laugh the image that her companion had raised. She immediately recovered herself, however, and with the right excess of intensity, “Henrietta Stackpole,” she asked, “are you going to give up your country?”

“Yes, my poor Isabel, I am. I won’t pretend to deny it; I look the fact: in the face. I’m going to marry Mr. Bantling and locate right here in London.”

“It seems very strange,” said Isabel, smiling now.

“Well yes, I suppose it does. I’ve come to it little by little. I think I know what I’m doing; but I don’t know as I can explain.”

“One can’t explain one’s marriage,” Isabel answered. “And yours doesn’t need to be explained. Mr. Bantling isn’t a riddle.”

“No, he isn’t a bad pun — or even a high flight of American humour. He has a beautiful nature,” Henrietta went on. “I’ve studied him for many years and I see right through him. He’s as clear as the style of a good prospectus. He’s not intellectual, but he appreciates intellect. On the other hand he doesn’t exaggerate its claims. I sometimes think we do in the United States.”

“Ah,” said Isabel, “you’re changed indeed! It’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say anything against your native land.”

“I only say that we’re too infatuated with mere brain-power; that, after all, isn’t a vulgar fault. But I AM changed; a woman has to change a good deal to marry.”

“I hope you’ll be very happy. You will at last — over here — see something of the inner life.”

Henrietta gave a little significant sigh. “That’s the key to the mystery, I believe. I couldn’t endure to be kept off. Now I’ve as good a right as any one!” she added with artless elation. Isabel was duly diverted, but there was a certain melancholy in her view. Henrietta, after all, had confessed herself human and feminine, Henrietta whom she had hitherto regarded as a light keen flame, a disembodied voice. It was a disappointment to find she had personal susceptibilities, that she was subject to common passions, and that her intimacy with Mr. Bantling had not been completely original. There was a want of originality in her marrying him — there was even a kind of stupidity; and for a moment, to Isabel’s sense, the dreariness of the world took on a deeper tinge. A little later indeed she reflected that Mr. Bantling himself at least was original. But she didn’t see how Henrietta could give up her country. She herself had relaxed her hold of it, but it had never been her country as it had been Henrietta’s. She presently asked her if she had enjoyed her visit to Lady Pensil.

“Oh yes,” said Henrietta, “she didn’t know what to make of me.”

“And was that very enjoyable?”

“Very much so, because she’s supposed to be a master mind. She thinks she knows everything; but she doesn’t understand a woman of my modern type. It would be so much easier for her if I were only a little better or a little worse. She’s so puzzled; I believe she thinks it’s my duty to go and do something immoral. She thinks it’s immoral that I should marry her brother; but, after all, that isn’t immoral enough. And she’ll never understand my mixture — never!”

“She’s not so intelligent as her brother then,” said Isabel. “He appears to have understood.”

“Oh no, he hasn’t!” cried Miss Stackpole with decision. “I really believe that’s what he wants to marry me for — just to find out the mystery and the proportions of it. That’s a fixed idea — a kind of fascination.”

“It’s very good in you to humour it.”

“Oh well,” said Henrietta, “I’ve something to find out too!” And Isabel saw that she had not renounced an allegiance, but planned an attack. She was at last about to grapple in earnest with England.

Isabel also perceived, however, on the morrow, at the Paddington Station, where she found herself, at ten o’clock, in the company both of Miss Stackpole and Mr. Bantling, that the gentleman bore his perplexities lightly. If he had not found out everything he had found out at least the great point — that Miss Stackpole would not be wanting in initiative. It was evident that in the selection of a wife he had been on his guard against this deficiency.

“Henrietta has told me, and I’m very glad,” Isabel said as she gave him her hand.

“I dare say you think it awfully odd,” Mr. Bantling replied, resting on his neat umbrella.

“Yes, I think it awfully odd.”

“You can’t think it so awfully odd as I do. But I’ve always rather liked striking out a line,” said Mr. Bantling serenely.

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