Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter LIV

Isabel’s arrival at Gardencourt on this second occasion was even quieter than it had been on the first. Ralph Touchett kept but a small household, and to the new servants Mrs. Osmond was a stranger; so that instead of being conducted to her own apartment she was coldly shown into the drawing-room and left to wait while her name was carried up to her aunt. She waited a long time; Mrs. Touchett appeared in no hurry to come to her. She grew impatient at last; she grew nervous and scared — as scared as if the objects about her had begun to show for conscious things, watching her trouble with grotesque grimaces. The day was dark and cold; the dusk was thick in the corners of the wide brown rooms. The house was perfectly still — with a stillness that Isabel remembered; it had filled all the place for days before the death of her uncle. She left the drawing-room and wandered about — strolled into the library and along the gallery of pictures, where, in the deep silence, her footstep made an echo. Nothing was changed; she recognised everything she had seen years before; it might have been only yesterday she had stood there. She envied the security of valuable “pieces” which change by no hair’s breadth, only grow in value, while their owners lose inch by inch youth, happiness, beauty; and she became aware that she was walking about as her aunt had done on the day she had come to see her in Albany. She was changed enough since then — that had been the beginning. It suddenly struck her that if her Aunt Lydia had not come that day in just that way and found her alone, everything might have been different. She might have had another life and she might have been a woman more blest. She stopped in the gallery in front of a small picture — a charming and precious Bonington — upon which her eyes rested a long time. But she was not looking at the picture; she was wondering whether if her aunt had not come that day in Albany she would have married Caspar Goodwood.

Mrs. Touchett appeared at last, just after Isabel had returned to the big uninhabited drawing-room. She looked a good deal older, but her eye was as bright as ever and her head as erect; her thin lips seemed a repository of latent meanings. She wore a little grey dress of the most undecorated fashion, and Isabel wondered, as she had wondered the first time, if her remarkable kinswoman resembled more a queen-regent or the matron of a gaol. Her lips felt very thin indeed on Isabel’s hot cheek.

“I’ve kept you waiting because I’ve been sitting with Ralph,” Mrs. Touchett said. “The nurse had gone to luncheon and I had taken her place. He has a man who’s supposed to look after him, but the man’s good for nothing; he’s always looking out of the window — as if there were anything to see! I didn’t wish to move, because Ralph seemed to be sleeping and I was afraid the sound would disturb him. I waited till the nurse came back. I remembered you knew the house.”

“I find I know it better even than I thought; I’ve been walking everywhere,” Isabel answered. And then she asked if Ralph slept much.

“He lies with his eyes closed; he doesn’t move. But I’m not sure that it’s always sleep.”

“Will he see me? Can he speak to me?”

Mrs. Touchett declined the office of saying. “You can try him,” was the limit of her extravagance. And then she offered to conduct Isabel to her room. “I thought they had taken you there; but it’s not my house, it’s Ralph’s; and I don’t know what they do. They must at least have taken your luggage; I don’t suppose you’ve brought much. Not that I care, however. I believe they’ve given you the same room you had before; when Ralph heard you were coming he said you must have that one.”

“Did he say anything else?”

“Ah, my dear, he doesn’t chatter as he used!” cried Mrs. Touchett as she preceded her niece up the staircase.

It was the same room, and something told Isabel it had not been slept in since she occupied it. Her luggage was there and was not voluminous; Mrs. Touchett sat down a moment with her eyes upon it. “Is there really no hope?” our young woman asked as she stood before her.

“None whatever. There never has been. It has not been a successful life.”

“No — it has only been a beautiful one.” Isabel found herself already contradicting her aunt; she was irritated by her dryness.

“I don’t know what you mean by that; there’s no beauty without health. That is a very odd dress to travel in.”

Isabel glanced at her garment. “I left Rome at an hour’s notice; I took the first that came.”

“Your sisters, in America, wished to know how you dress. That seemed to be their principal interest. I wasn’t able to tell them — but they seemed to have the right idea: that you never wear anything less than black brocade.”

“They think I’m more brilliant than I am; I’m afraid to tell them the truth,” said Isabel. “Lily wrote me you had dined with her.”

“She invited me four times, and I went once. After the second time she should have let me alone. The dinner was very good; it must have been expensive. Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my visit to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.”

These were interesting items, but Mrs. Touchett soon left her niece, whom she was to meet in half an hour at the midday meal. For this repast the two ladies faced each other at an abbreviated table in the melancholy dining-room. Here, after a little, Isabel saw her aunt not to be so dry as she appeared, and her old pity for the poor woman’s inexpressiveness, her want of regret, of disappointment, came back to her. Unmistakeably she would have found it a blessing to-day to be able to feel a defeat, a mistake, even a shame or two. She wondered if she were not even missing those enrichments of consciousness and privately trying — reaching out for some aftertaste of life, dregs of the banquet; the testimony of pain or the cold recreation of remorse. On the other hand perhaps she was afraid; if she should begin to know remorse at all it might take her too far. Isabel could perceive, however, how it had come over her dimly that she had failed of something, that she saw herself in the future as an old woman without memories. Her little sharp face looked tragical. She told her niece that Ralph had as yet not moved, but that he probably would be able to see her before dinner. And then in a moment she added that he had seen Lord Warburton the day before; an announcement which startled Isabel a little, as it seemed an intimation that this personage was in the neighbourhood and that an accident might bring them together. Such an accident would not be happy; she had not come to England to struggle again with Lord Warburton. She none the less presently said to her aunt that he had been very kind to Ralph; she had seen something of that in Rome.

“He has something else to think of now,” Mrs. Touchett returned. And she paused with a gaze like a gimlet.

Isabel saw she meant something, and instantly guessed what she meant. But her reply concealed her guess; her heart beat faster and she wished to gain a moment. “Ah yes — the House of Lords and all that.”

“He’s not thinking of the Lords; he’s thinking of the ladies. At least he’s thinking of one of them; he told Ralph he’s engaged to be married.”

“Ah, to be married!” Isabel mildly exclaimed.

“Unless he breaks it off. He seemed to think Ralph would like to know. Poor Ralph can’t go to the wedding, though I believe it’s to take place very soon.

“And who’s the young lady?”

“A member of the aristocracy; Lady Flora, Lady Felicia — something of that sort.”

“I’m very glad,” Isabel said. “It must be a sudden decision.”

“Sudden enough, I believe; a courtship of three weeks. It has only just been made public.”

“I’m very glad,” Isabel repeated with a larger emphasis. She knew her aunt was watching her — looking for the signs of some imputed soreness, and the desire to prevent her companion from seeing anything of this kind enabled her to speak in the tone of quick satisfaction, the tone almost of relief. Mrs. Touchett of course followed the tradition that ladies, even married ones, regard the marriage of their old lovers as an offence to themselves. Isabel’s first care therefore was to show that however that might be in general she was not offended now. But meanwhile, as I say, her heart beat faster; and if she sat for some moments thoughtful — she presently forgot Mrs. Touchett’s observation — it was not because she had lost an admirer. Her imagination had traversed half Europe; it halted, panting, and even trembling a little, in the city of Rome. She figured herself announcing to her husband that Lord Warburton was to lead a bride to the altar, and she was of course not aware how extremely wan she must have looked while she made this intellectual effort. But at last she collected herself and said to her aunt: “He was sure to do it some time or other.”

Mrs. Touchett was silent; then she gave a sharp little shake of the head. “Ah, my dear, you’re beyond me!” she cried suddenly. They went on with their luncheon in silence; Isabel felt as if she had heard of Lord Warburton’s death. She had known him only as a suitor, and now that was all over. He was dead for poor Pansy; by Pansy he might have lived. A servant had been hovering about; at last Mrs. Touchett requested him to leave them alone. She had finished her meal; she sat with her hands folded on the edge of the table. “I should like to ask you three questions,” she observed when the servant had gone.

“Three are a great many.”

“I can’t do with less; I’ve been thinking. They’re all very good ones.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. The best questions are the worst,” Isabel answered. Mrs. Touchett had pushed back her chair, and as her niece left the table and walked, rather consciously, to one of the deep windows, she felt herself followed by her eyes.

“Have you ever been sorry you didn’t marry Lord Warburton?” Mrs. Touchett enquired.

Isabel shook her head slowly, but not heavily. “No, dear aunt.”

“Good. I ought to tell you that I propose to believe what you say.”

“Your believing me’s an immense temptation,” she declared, smiling still.

“A temptation to lie? I don’t recommend you to do that, for when I’m misinformed I’m as dangerous as a poisoned rat. I don’t mean to crow over you.”

“It’s my husband who doesn’t get on with me,” said Isabel.

“I could have told him he wouldn’t. I don’t call that crowing over YOU,” Mrs. Touchett added. “Do you still like Serena Merle?” she went on.

“Not as I once did. But it doesn’t matter, for she’s going to America.”

“To America? She must have done something very bad.”

“Yes — very bad.”

“May I ask what it is?”

“She made a convenience of me.”

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Touchett, “so she did of me! She does of every one.”

“She’ll make a convenience of America,” said Isabel, smiling again and glad that her aunt’s questions were over.

It was not till the evening that she was able to see Ralph. He had been dozing all day; at least he had been lying unconscious. The doctor was there, but after a while went away — the local doctor, who had attended his father and whom Ralph liked. He came three or four times a day; he was deeply interested in his patient. Ralph had had Sir Matthew Hope, but he had got tired of this celebrated man, to whom he had asked his mother to send word he was now dead and was therefore without further need of medical advice. Mrs. Touchett had simply written to Sir Matthew that her son disliked him. On the day of Isabel’s arrival Ralph gave no sign, as I have related, for many hours; but toward evening he raised himself and said he knew that she had come.

How he knew was not apparent, inasmuch as for fear of exciting him no one had offered the information. Isabel came in and sat by his bed in the dim light; there was only a shaded candle in a corner of the room. She told the nurse she might go — she herself would sit with him for the rest of the evening. He had opened his eyes and recognised her, and had moved his hand, which lay helpless beside him, so that she might take it. But he was unable to speak; he closed his eyes again and remained perfectly still, only keeping her hand in his own. She sat with him a long time — till the nurse came back; but he gave no further sign. He might have passed away while she looked at him; he was already the figure and pattern of death. She had thought him far gone in Rome, and this was worse; there was but one change possible now. There was a strange tranquillity in his face; it was as still as the lid of a box. With this he was a mere lattice of bones; when he opened his eyes to greet her it was as if she were looking into immeasurable space. It was not till midnight that the nurse came back; but the hours, to Isabel, had not seemed long; it was exactly what she had come for. If she had come simply to wait she found ample occasion, for he lay three days in a kind of grateful silence. He recognised her and at moments seemed to wish to speak; but he found no voice. Then he closed his eyes again, as if he too were waiting for something — for something that certainly would come. He was so absolutely quiet that it seemed to her what was coming had already arrived; and yet she never lost the sense that they were still together. But they were not always together; there were other hours that she passed in wandering through the empty house and listening for a voice that was not poor Ralph’s. She had a constant fear; she thought it possible her husband would write to her. But he remained silent, and she only got a letter from Florence and from the Countess Gemini. Ralph, however, spoke at last — on the evening of the third day.

“I feel better to-night,” he murmured, abruptly, in the soundless dimness of her vigil; “I think I can say something.” She sank upon her knees beside his pillow; took his thin hand in her own; begged him not to make an effort — not to tire himself. His face was of necessity serious — it was incapable of the muscular play of a smile; but its owner apparently had not lost a perception of incongruities. “What does it matter if I’m tired when I’ve all eternity to rest? There’s no harm in making an effort when it’s the very last of all. Don’t people always feel better just before the end? I’ve often heard of that; it’s what I was waiting for. Ever since you’ve been here I thought it would come. I tried two or three times; I was afraid you’d get tired of sitting there.” He spoke slowly, with painful breaks and long pauses; his voice seemed to come from a distance. When he ceased he lay with his face turned to Isabel and his large unwinking eyes open into her own. “It was very good of you to come,” he went on. “I thought you would; but I wasn’t sure.”

“I was not sure either till I came,” said Isabel.

“You’ve been like an angel beside my bed. You know they talk about the angel of death. It’s the most beautiful of all. You’ve been like that; as if you were waiting for me.”

“I was not waiting for your death; I was waiting for — for this. This is not death, dear Ralph.”

“Not for you — no. There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life — the sense that we remain. I’ve had it — even I. But now I’m of no use but to give it to others. With me it’s all over.” And then he paused. Isabel bowed her head further, till it rested on the two hands that were clasped upon his own. She couldn’t see him now; but his far-away voice was close to her ear. “Isabel,” he went on suddenly, “I wish it were over for you.” She answered nothing; she had burst into sobs; she remained so, with her buried face. He lay silent, listening to her sobs; at last he gave a long groan. “Ah, what is it you have done for me?”

“What is it you did for me?” she cried, her now extreme agitation half smothered by her attitude. She had lost all her shame, all wish to hide things. Now he must know; she wished him to know, for it brought them supremely together, and he was beyond the reach of pain. “You did something once — you know it. O Ralph, you’ve been everything! What have I done for you — what can I do to-day? I would die if you could live. But I don’t wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you.” Her voice was as broken as his own and full of tears and anguish.

“You won’t lose me — you’ll keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I’ve ever been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there’s love. Death is good — but there’s no love.”

“I never thanked you — I never spoke — I never was what I should be!” Isabel went on. She felt a passionate need to cry out and accuse herself, to let her sorrow possess her. All her troubles, for the moment, became single and melted together into this present pain. “What must you have thought of me? Yet how could I know? I never knew, and I only know to-day because there are people less stupid than I.”

“Don’t mind people,” said Ralph. “I think I’m glad to leave people.”

She raised her head and her clasped hands; she seemed for a moment to pray to him. “Is it true — is it true?” she asked.

“True that you’ve been stupid? Oh no,” said Ralph with a sensible intention of wit.

“That you made me rich — that all I have is yours?”

He turned away his head, and for some time said nothing. Then at last: “Ah, don’t speak of that — that was not happy.” Slowly he moved his face toward her again, and they once more saw each other. “But for that — but for that —!” And he paused. “I believe I ruined you,” he wailed.

She was full of the sense that he was beyond the reach of pain; he seemed already so little of this world. But even if she had not had it she would still have spoken, for nothing mattered now but the only knowledge that was not pure anguish — the knowledge that they were looking at the truth together.

“He married me for the money,” she said. She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so. He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then, “He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he wouldn’t have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me — you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange — so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself — but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I’ve been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

He listened to her a little, and then continued: “Was he very bad about your coming?”

“He made it very hard for me. But I don’t care.”

“It is all over then between you?”

“Oh no; I don’t think anything’s over.”

“Are you going back to him?” Ralph gasped.

“I don’t know — I can’t tell. I shall stay here as long as I may. I don’t want to think — I needn’t think. I don’t care for anything but you, and that’s enough for the present. It will last a little yet. Here on my knees, with you dying in my arms, I’m happier than I have been for a long time. And I want you to be happy — not to think of anything sad; only to feel that I’m near you and I love you. Why should there be pain —? In such hours as this what have we to do with pain? That’s not the deepest thing; there’s something deeper.”

Ralph evidently found from moment to moment greater difficulty in speaking; he had to wait longer to collect himself. At first he appeared to make no response to these last words; he let a long time elapse. Then he murmured simply: “You must stay here.”

“I should like to stay — as long as seems right.”

“As seems right — as seems right?” He repeated her words. “Yes, you think a great deal about that.”

“Of course one must. You’re very tired,” said Isabel.

“I’m very tired. You said just now that pain’s not the deepest thing. No — no. But it’s very deep. If I could stay —”

“For me you’ll always be here,” she softly interrupted. It was easy to interrupt him.

But he went on, after a moment: “It passes, after all; it’s passing now. But love remains. I don’t know why we should suffer so much. Perhaps I shall find out. There are many things in life. You’re very young.”

“I feel very old,” said Isabel.

“You’ll grow young again. That’s how I see you. I don’t believe — I don’t believe —” But he stopped again; his strength failed him.

She begged him to be quiet now. “We needn’t speak to understand each other,” she said.

“I don’t believe that such a generous mistake as yours can hurt you for more than a little.”

“Oh Ralph, I’m very happy now,” she cried through her tears.

“And remember this,” he continued, “that if you’ve been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel — ADORED!” he just audibly and lingeringly breathed.

“Oh my brother!” she cried with a movement of still deeper prostration.

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