Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter VII

The two amused themselves, time and again, with talking of the attitude of the British public as if the young lady had been in a position to appeal to it; but in fact the British public remained for the present profoundly indifferent to Miss Isabel Archer, whose fortune had dropped her, as her cousin said, into the dullest house in England. Her gouty uncle received very little company, and Mrs. Touchett, not having cultivated relations with her husband’s neighbours, was not warranted in expecting visits from them. She had, however, a peculiar taste; she liked to receive cards. For what is usually called social intercourse she had very little relish; but nothing pleased her more than to find her hall-table whitened with oblong morsels of symbolic pasteboard. She flattered herself that she was a very just woman, and had mastered the sovereign truth that nothing in this world is got for nothing. She had played no social part as mistress of Gardencourt, and it was not to be supposed that, in the surrounding country, a minute account should be kept of her comings and goings. But it is by no means certain that she did not feel it to be wrong that so little notice was taken of them and that her failure (really very gratuitous) to make herself important in the neighbourhood had not much to do with the acrimony of her allusions to her husband’s adopted country. Isabel presently found herself in the singular situation of defending the British constitution against her aunt; Mrs. Touchett having formed the habit of sticking pins into this venerable instrument. Isabel always felt an impulse to pull out the pins; not that she imagined they inflicted any damage on the tough old parchment, but because it seemed to her her aunt might make better use of her sharpness. She was very critical herself — it was incidental to her age, her sex and her nationality; but she was very sentimental as well, and there was something in Mrs. Touchett’s dryness that set her own moral fountains flowing.

“Now what’s your point of view?” she asked of her aunt. “When you criticise everything here you should have a point of view. Yours doesn’t seem to be American — you thought everything over there so disagreeable. When I criticise I have mine; it’s thoroughly American!”

“My dear young lady,” said Mrs. Touchett, “there are as many points of view in the world as there are people of sense to take them. You may say that doesn’t make them very numerous! American? Never in the world; that’s shockingly narrow. My point of view, thank God, is personal!”

Isabel thought this a better answer than she admitted; it was a tolerable description of her own manner of judging, but it would not have sounded well for her to say so. On the lips of a person less advanced in life and less enlightened by experience than Mrs. Touchett such a declaration would savour of immodesty, even of arrogance. She risked it nevertheless in talking with Ralph, with whom she talked a great deal and with whom her conversation was of a sort that gave a large licence to extravagance. Her cousin used, as the phrase is, to chaff her; he very soon established with her a reputation for treating everything as a joke, and he was not a man to neglect the privileges such a reputation conferred. She accused him of an odious want of seriousness, of laughing at all things, beginning with himself. Such slender faculty of reverence as he possessed centred wholly upon his father; for the rest, he exercised his wit indifferently upon his father’s son, this gentleman’s weak lungs, his useless life, his fantastic mother, his friends (Lord Warburton in especial), his adopted, and his native country, his charming new-found cousin. “I keep a band of music in my ante-room,” he said once to her. “It has orders to play without stopping; it renders me two excellent services. It keeps the sounds of the world from reaching the private apartments, and it makes the world think that dancing’s going on within.” It was dance-music indeed that you usually heard when you came within ear-shot of Ralph’s band; the liveliest waltzes seemed to float upon the air. Isabel often found herself irritated by this perpetual fiddling; she would have liked to pass through the ante-room, as her cousin called it, and enter the private apartments. It mattered little that he had assured her they were a very dismal place; she would have been glad to undertake to sweep them and set them in order. It was but half-hospitality to let her remain outside; to punish him for which Isabel administered innumerable taps with the ferule of her straight young wit. It must be said that her wit was exercised to a large extent in self-defence, for her cousin amused himself with calling her “Columbia” and accusing her of a patriotism so heated that it scorched. He drew a caricature of her in which she was represented as a very pretty young woman dressed, on the lines of the prevailing fashion, in the folds of the national banner. Isabel’s chief dread in life at this period of her development was that she should appear narrow-minded; what she feared next afterwards was that she should really be so. But she nevertheless made no scruple of abounding in her cousin’s sense and pretending to sigh for the charms of her native land. She would be as American as it pleased him to regard her, and if he chose to laugh at her she would give him plenty of occupation. She defended England against his mother, but when Ralph sang its praises on purpose, as she said, to work her up, she found herself able to differ from him on a variety of points. In fact, the quality of this small ripe country seemed as sweet to her as the taste of an October pear; and her satisfaction was at the root of the good spirits which enabled her to take her cousin’s chaff and return it in kind. If her good-humour flagged at moments it was not because she thought herself ill-used, but because she suddenly felt sorry for Ralph. It seemed to her he was talking as a blind and had little heart in what he said. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” she observed to him once; “but I suspect you’re a great humbug.”

“That’s your privilege,” Ralph answered, who had not been used to being so crudely addressed.

“I don’t know what you care for; I don’t think you care for anything. You don’t really care for England when you praise it; you don’t care for America even when you pretend to abuse it.”

“I care for nothing but you, dear cousin,” said Ralph.

“If I could believe even that, I should be very glad.”

“Ah well, I should hope so!” the young man exclaimed.

Isabel might have believed it and not have been far from the truth. He thought a great deal about her; she was constantly present to his mind. At a time when his thoughts had been a good deal of a burden to him her sudden arrival, which promised nothing and was an open-handed gift of fate, had refreshed and quickened them, given them wings and something to fly for. Poor Ralph had been for many weeks steeped in melancholy; his outlook, habitually sombre, lay under the shadow of a deeper cloud. He had grown anxious about his father, whose gout, hitherto confined to his legs, had begun to ascend into regions more vital. The old man had been gravely ill in the spring, and the doctors had whispered to Ralph that another attack would be less easy to deal with. Just now he appeared disburdened of pain, but Ralph could not rid himself of a suspicion that this was a subterfuge of the enemy, who was waiting to take him off his guard. If the manoeuvre should succeed there would be little hope of any great resistance. Ralph had always taken for granted that his father would survive him — that his own name would be the first grimly called. The father and son had been close companions, and the idea of being left alone with the remnant of a tasteless life on his hands was not gratifying to the young man, who had always and tacitly counted upon his elder’s help in making the best of a poor business. At the prospect of losing his great motive Ralph lost indeed his one inspiration. If they might die at the same time it would be all very well; but without the encouragement of his father’s society he should barely have patience to await his own turn. He had not the incentive of feeling that he was indispensable to his mother; it was a rule with his mother to have no regrets. He bethought himself of course that it had been a small kindness to his father to wish that, of the two, the active rather than the passive party should know the felt wound; he remembered that the old man had always treated his own forecast of an early end as a clever fallacy, which he should be delighted to discredit so far as he might by dying first. But of the two triumphs, that of refuting a sophistical son and that of holding on a while longer to a state of being which, with all abatements, he enjoyed, Ralph deemed it no sin to hope the latter might be vouchsafed to Mr. Touchett.

These were nice questions, but Isabel’s arrival put a stop to his puzzling over them. It even suggested there might be a compensation for the intolerable ennui of surviving his genial sire. He wondered whether he were harbouring “love” for this spontaneous young woman from Albany; but he judged that on the whole he was not. After he had known her for a week he quite made up his mind to this, and every day he felt a little more sure. Lord Warburton had been right about her; she was a really interesting little figure. Ralph wondered how their neighbour had found it out so soon; and then he said it was only another proof of his friend’s high abilities, which he had always greatly admired. If his cousin were to be nothing more than an entertainment to him, Ralph was conscious she was an entertainment of a high order. “A character like that,” he said to himself — “a real little passionate force to see at play is the finest thing in nature. It’s finer than the finest work of art — than a Greek bas-relief, than a great Titian, than a Gothic cathedral. It’s very pleasant to be so well treated where one had least looked for it. I had never been more blue, more bored, than for a week before she came; I had never expected less that anything pleasant would happen. Suddenly I receive a Titian, by the post, to hang on my wall — a Greek bas-relief to stick over my chimney-piece. The key of a beautiful edifice is thrust into my hand, and I’m told to walk in and admire. My poor boy, you’ve been sadly ungrateful, and now you had better keep very quiet and never grumble again.” The sentiment of these reflexions was very just; but it was not exactly true that Ralph Touchett had had a key put into his hand. His cousin was a very brilliant girl, who would take, as he said, a good deal of knowing; but she needed the knowing, and his attitude with regard to her, though it was contemplative and critical, was not judicial. He surveyed the edifice from the outside and admired it greatly; he looked in at the windows and received an impression of proportions equally fair. But he felt that he saw it only by glimpses and that he had not yet stood under the roof. The door was fastened, and though he had keys in his pocket he had a conviction that none of them would fit. She was intelligent and generous; it was a fine free nature; but what was she going to do with herself? This question was irregular, for with most women one had no occasion to ask it. Most women did with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel’s originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own. “Whenever she executes them,” said Ralph, “may I be there to see!”

It devolved upon him of course to do the honours of the place. Mr. Touchett was confined to his chair, and his wife’s position was that of rather a grim visitor; so that in the line of conduct that opened itself to Ralph duty and inclination were harmoniously mixed. He was not a great walker, but he strolled about the grounds with his cousin — a pastime for which the weather remained favourable with a persistency not allowed for in Isabel’s somewhat lugubrious prevision of the climate; and in the long afternoons, of which the length was but the measure of her gratified eagerness, they took a boat on the river, the dear little river, as Isabel called it, where the opposite shore seemed still a part of the foreground of the landscape; or drove over the country in a phaeton — a low, capacious, thick-wheeled phaeton formerly much used by Mr. Touchett, but which he had now ceased to enjoy. Isabel enjoyed it largely and, handling the reins in a manner which approved itself to the groom as “knowing,” was never weary of driving her uncle’s capital horses through winding lanes and byways full of the rural incidents she had confidently expected to find; past cottages thatched and timbered, past ale-houses latticed and sanded, past patches of ancient common and glimpses of empty parks, between hedgerows made thick by midsummer. When they reached home they usually found tea had been served on the lawn and that Mrs. Touchett had not shrunk from the extremity of handing her husband his cup. But the two for the most part sat silent; the old man with his head back and his eyes closed, his wife occupied with her knitting and wearing that appearance of rare profundity with which some ladies consider the movement of their needles.

One day, however, a visitor had arrived. The two young persons, after spending an hour on the river, strolled back to the house and perceived Lord Warburton sitting under the trees and engaged in conversation, of which even at a distance the desultory character was appreciable, with Mrs. Touchett. He had driven over from his own place with a portmanteau and had asked, as the father and son often invited him to do, for a dinner and a lodging. Isabel, seeing him for half an hour on the day of her arrival, had discovered in this brief space that she liked him; he had indeed rather sharply registered himself on her fine sense and she had thought of him several times. She had hoped she should see him again — hoped too that she should see a few others. Gardencourt was not dull; the place itself was sovereign, her uncle was more and more a sort of golden grandfather, and Ralph was unlike any cousin she had ever encountered — her idea of cousins having tended to gloom. Then her impressions were still so fresh and so quickly renewed that there was as yet hardly a hint of vacancy in the view. But Isabel had need to remind herself that she was interested in human nature and that her foremost hope in coming abroad had been that she should see a great many people. When Ralph said to her, as he had done several times, “I wonder you find this endurable; you ought to see some of the neighbours and some of our friends, because we have really got a few, though you would never suppose it”— when he offered to invite what he called a “lot of people” and make her acquainted with English society, she encouraged the hospitable impulse and promised in advance to hurl herself into the fray. Little, however, for the present, had come of his offers, and it may be confided to the reader that if the young man delayed to carry them out it was because he found the labour of providing for his companion by no means so severe as to require extraneous help. Isabel had spoken to him very often about “specimens;” it was a word that played a considerable part in her vocabulary; she had given him to understand that she wished to see English society illustrated by eminent cases.

“Well now, there’s a specimen,” he said to her as they walked up from the riverside and he recognised Lord Warburton.

“A specimen of what?” asked the girl.

“A specimen of an English gentleman.”

“Do you mean they’re all like him?”

“Oh no; they’re not all like him.”

“He’s a favourable specimen then,” said Isabel; “because I’m sure he’s nice.”

“Yes, he’s very nice. And he’s very fortunate.”

The fortunate Lord Warburton exchanged a handshake with our heroine and hoped she was very well. “But I needn’t ask that,” he said, “since you’ve been handling the oars.”

“I’ve been rowing a little,” Isabel answered; “but how should you know it?”

“Oh, I know he doesn’t row; he’s too lazy,” said his lordship, indicating Ralph Touchett with a laugh.

“He has a good excuse for his laziness,” Isabel rejoined, lowering her voice a little.

“Ah, he has a good excuse for everything!” cried Lord Warburton, still with his sonorous mirth.

“My excuse for not rowing is that my cousin rows so well,” said Ralph. “She does everything well. She touches nothing that she doesn’t adorn!”

“It makes one want to be touched, Miss Archer,” Lord Warburton declared.

“Be touched in the right sense and you’ll never look the worse for it,” said Isabel, who, if it pleased her to hear it said that her accomplishments were numerous, was happily able to reflect that such complacency was not the indication of a feeble mind, inasmuch as there were several things in which she excelled. Her desire to think well of herself had at least the element of humility that it always needed to be supported by proof.

Lord Warburton not only spent the night at Gardencourt, but he was persuaded to remain over the second day; and when the second day was ended he determined to postpone his departure till the morrow. During this period he addressed many of his remarks to Isabel, who accepted this evidence of his esteem with a very good grace. She found herself liking him extremely; the first impression he had made on her had had weight, but at the end of an evening spent in his society she scarce fell short of seeing him — though quite without luridity — as a hero of romance. She retired to rest with a sense of good fortune, with a quickened consciousness of possible felicities. “It’s very nice to know two such charming people as those,” she said, meaning by “those” her cousin and her cousin’s friend. It must be added moreover that an incident had occurred which might have seemed to put her good-humour to the test. Mr. Touchett went to bed at half-past nine o’clock, but his wife remained in the drawing-room with the other members of the party. She prolonged her vigil for something less than an hour, and then, rising, observed to Isabel that it was time they should bid the gentlemen good-night. Isabel had as yet no desire to go to bed; the occasion wore, to her sense, a festive character, and feasts were not in the habit of terminating so early. So, without further thought, she replied, very simply —

“Need I go, dear aunt? I’ll come up in half an hour.”

“It’s impossible I should wait for you,” Mrs. Touchett answered.

“Ah, you needn’t wait! Ralph will light my candle,” Isabel gaily engaged.

“I’ll light your candle; do let me light your candle, Miss Archer!” Lord Warburton exclaimed. “Only I beg it shall not be before midnight.”

Mrs. Touchett fixed her bright little eyes upon him a moment and transferred them coldly to her niece. “You can’t stay alone with the gentlemen. You’re not — you’re not at your blest Albany, my dear.”

Isabel rose, blushing. “I wish I were,” she said.

“Oh, I say, mother!” Ralph broke out.

“My dear Mrs. Touchett!” Lord Warburton murmured.

“I didn’t make your country, my lord,” Mrs. Touchett said majestically. “I must take it as I find it.”

“Can’t I stay with my own cousin?” Isabel enquired.

“I’m not aware that Lord Warburton is your cousin.”

“Perhaps I had better go to bed!” the visitor suggested. “That will arrange it.”

Mrs. Touchett gave a little look of despair and sat down again. “Oh, if it’s necessary I’ll stay up till midnight.”

Ralph meanwhile handed Isabel her candlestick. He had been watching her; it had seemed to him her temper was involved — an accident that might be interesting. But if he had expected anything of a flare he was disappointed, for the girl simply laughed a little, nodded good-night and withdrew accompanied by her aunt. For himself he was annoyed at his mother, though he thought she was right. Above-stairs the two ladies separated at Mrs. Touchett’s door. Isabel had said nothing on her way up.

“Of course you’re vexed at my interfering with you,” said Mrs. Touchett.

Isabel considered. “I’m not vexed, but I’m surprised — and a good deal mystified. Wasn’t it proper I should remain in the drawing-room?”

“Not in the least. Young girls here — in decent houses — don’t sit alone with the gentlemen late at night.”

“You were very right to tell me then,” said Isabel. “I don’t understand it, but I’m very glad to know it.

“I shall always tell you,” her aunt answered, “whenever I see you taking what seems to me too much liberty.”

“Pray do; but I don’t say I shall always think your remonstrance just.”

“Very likely not. You’re too fond of your own ways.”

“Yes, I think I’m very fond of them. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”

“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.

“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

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