Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter IX

The two Misses Molyneux, this nobleman’s sisters, came presently to call upon her, and Isabel took a fancy to the young ladies, who appeared to her to show a most original stamp. It is true that when she described them to her cousin by that term he declared that no epithet could be less applicable than this to the two Misses Molyneux, since there were fifty thousand young women in England who exactly resembled them. Deprived of this advantage, however, Isabel’s visitors retained that of an extreme sweetness and shyness of demeanour, and of having, as she thought, eyes like the balanced basins, the circles of “ornamental water,” set, in parterres, among the geraniums.

“They’re not morbid, at any rate, whatever they are,” our heroine said to herself; and she deemed this a great charm, for two or three of the friends of her girlhood had been regrettably open to the charge (they would have been so nice without it), to say nothing of Isabel’s having occasionally suspected it as a tendency of her own. The Misses Molyneux were not in their first youth, but they had bright, fresh complexions and something of the smile of childhood. Yes, their eyes, which Isabel admired, were round, quiet and contented, and their figures, also of a generous roundness, were encased in sealskin jackets. Their friendliness was great, so great that they were almost embarrassed to show it; they seemed somewhat afraid of the young lady from the other side of the world and rather looked than spoke their good wishes. But they made it clear to her that they hoped she would come to luncheon at Lockleigh, where they lived with their brother, and then they might see her very, very often. They wondered if she wouldn’t come over some day, and sleep: they were expecting some people on the twenty-ninth, so perhaps she would come while the people were there.

“I’m afraid it isn’t any one very remarkable,” said the elder sister; “but I dare say you’ll take us as you find us.”

“I shall find you delightful; I think you’re enchanting just as you are,” replied Isabel, who often praised profusely.

Her visitors flushed, and her cousin told her, after they were gone, that if she said such things to those poor girls they would think she was in some wild, free manner practising on them: he was sure it was the first time they had been called enchanting.

“I can’t help it,” Isabel answered. “I think it’s lovely to be so quiet and reasonable and satisfied. I should like to be like that.”

“Heaven forbid!” cried Ralph with ardour.

“I mean to try and imitate them,” said Isabel. “I want very much to see them at home.”

She had this pleasure a few days later, when, with Ralph and his mother, she drove over to Lockleigh. She found the Misses Molyneux sitting in a vast drawing-room (she perceived afterwards it was one of several) in a wilderness of faded chintz; they were dressed on this occasion in black velveteen. Isabel liked them even better at home than she had done at Gardencourt, and was more than ever struck with the fact that they were not morbid. It had seemed to her before that if they had a fault it was a want of play of mind; but she presently saw they were capable of deep emotion. Before luncheon she was alone with them for some time, on one side of the room, while Lord Warburton, at a distance, talked to Mrs. Touchett.

“Is it true your brother’s such a great radical?” Isabel asked. She knew it was true, but we have seen that her interest in human nature was keen, and she had a desire to draw the Misses Molyneux out.

“Oh dear, yes; he’s immensely advanced,” said Mildred, the younger sister.

“At the same time Warburton’s very reasonable,” Miss Molyneux observed.

Isabel watched him a moment at the other side of the room; he was clearly trying hard to make himself agreeable to Mrs. Touchett. Ralph had met the frank advances of one of the dogs before the fire that the temperature of an English August, in the ancient expanses, had not made an impertinence. “Do you suppose your brother’s sincere?” Isabel enquired with a smile.

“Oh, he must be, you know!” Mildred exclaimed quickly, while the elder sister gazed at our heroine in silence.

“Do you think he would stand the test?”

“The test?”

“I mean for instance having to give up all this.”

“Having to give up Lockleigh?” said Miss Molyneux, finding her voice.

“Yes, and the other places; what are they called?”

The two sisters exchanged an almost frightened glance. “Do you mean — do you mean on account of the expense?” the younger one asked.

“I dare say he might let one or two of his houses,” said the other.

“Let them for nothing?” Isabel demanded.

“I can’t fancy his giving up his property,” said Miss Molyneux.

“Ah, I’m afraid he is an impostor!” Isabel returned. “Don’t you think it’s a false position?”

Her companions, evidently, had lost themselves. “My brother’s position?” Miss Molyneux enquired.

“It’s thought a very good position,” said the younger sister. “It’s the first position in this part of the county.”

“I dare say you think me very irreverent,” Isabel took occasion to remark. “I suppose you revere your brother and are rather afraid of him.”

“Of course one looks up to one’s brother,” said Miss Molyneux simply.

“If you do that he must be very good — because you, evidently, are beautifully good.”

“He’s most kind. It will never be known, the good he does.”

“His ability is known,” Mildred added; “every one thinks it’s immense.”

“Oh, I can see that,” said Isabel. “But if I were he I should wish to fight to the death: I mean for the heritage of the past. I should hold it tight.”

“I think one ought to be liberal,” Mildred argued gently. “We’ve always been so, even from the earliest times.”

“Ah well,” said Isabel, “you’ve made a great success of it; I don’t wonder you like it. I see you’re very fond of crewels.”

When Lord Warburton showed her the house, after luncheon, it seemed to her a matter of course that it should be a noble picture. Within, it had been a good deal modernised — some of its best points had lost their purity; but as they saw it from the gardens, a stout grey pile, of the softest, deepest, most weather-fretted hue, rising from a broad, still moat, it affected the young visitor as a castle in a legend. The day was cool and rather lustreless; the first note of autumn had been struck, and the watery sunshine rested on the walls in blurred and desultory gleams, washing them, as it were, in places tenderly chosen, where the ache of antiquity was keenest. Her host’s brother, the Vicar, had come to luncheon, and Isabel had had five minutes’ talk with him — time enough to institute a search for a rich ecclesiasticism and give it up as vain. The marks of the Vicar of Lockleigh were a big, athletic figure, a candid, natural countenance, a capacious appetite and a tendency to indiscriminate laughter. Isabel learned afterwards from her cousin that before taking orders he had been a mighty wrestler and that he was still, on occasion — in the privacy of the family circle as it were — quite capable of flooring his man. Isabel liked him — she was in the mood for liking everything; but her imagination was a good deal taxed to think of him as a source of spiritual aid. The whole party, on leaving lunch, went to walk in the grounds; but Lord Warburton exercised some ingenuity in engaging his least familiar guest in a stroll apart from the others.

“I wish you to see the place properly, seriously,” he said. “You can’t do so if your attention is distracted by irrelevant gossip.” His own conversation (though he told Isabel a good deal about the house, which had a very curious history) was not purely archaeological; he reverted at intervals to matters more personal — matters personal to the young lady as well as to himself. But at last, after a pause of some duration, returning for a moment to their ostensible theme, “Ah, well,” he said, “I’m very glad indeed you like the old barrack. I wish you could see more of it — that you could stay here a while. My sisters have taken an immense fancy to you — if that would be any inducement.”

“There’s no want of inducements,” Isabel answered; “but I’m afraid I can’t make engagements. I’m quite in my aunt’s hands.”

“Ah, pardon me if I say I don’t exactly believe that. I’m pretty sure you can do whatever you want.”

“I’m sorry if I make that impression on you; I don’t think it’s a nice impression to make.”

“It has the merit of permitting me to hope.” And Lord Warburton paused a moment.

“To hope what?”

“That in future I may see you often.”

“Ah,” said Isabel, “to enjoy that pleasure I needn’t be so terribly emancipated.”

“Doubtless not; and yet, at the same time, I don’t think your uncle likes me.”

“You’re very much mistaken. I’ve heard him speak very highly of you.”

“I’m glad you have talked about me,” said Lord Warburton. “But, I nevertheless don’t think he’d like me to keep coming to Gardencourt.”

“I can’t answer for my uncle’s tastes,” the girl rejoined, “though I ought as far as possible to take them into account. But for myself I shall be very glad to see you.”

“Now that’s what I like to hear you say. I’m charmed when you say that.”

“You’re easily charmed, my lord,” said Isabel.

“No, I’m not easily charmed!” And then he stopped a moment. “But you’ve charmed me, Miss Archer.”

These words were uttered with an indefinable sound which startled the girl; it struck her as the prelude to something grave: she had heard the sound before and she recognised it. She had no wish, however, that for the moment such a prelude should have a sequel, and she said as gaily as possible and as quickly as an appreciable degree of agitation would allow her: “I’m afraid there’s no prospect of my being able to come here again.”

“Never?” said Lord Warburton.

“I won’t say ‘never’; I should feel very melodramatic.”

“May I come and see you then some day next week?”

“Most assuredly. What is there to prevent it?”

“Nothing tangible. But with you I never feel safe. I’ve a sort of sense that you’re always summing people up.”

“You don’t of necessity lose by that.”

“It’s very kind of you to say so; but, even if I gain, stern justice is not what I most love. Is Mrs. Touchett going to take you abroad?”

“I hope so.”

“Is England not good enough for you?”

“That’s a very Machiavellian speech; it doesn’t deserve an answer. I want to see as many countries as I can.”

“Then you’ll go on judging, I suppose.”

“Enjoying, I hope, too.”

“Yes, that’s what you enjoy most; I can’t make out what you’re up to,” said Lord Warburton. “You strike me as having mysterious purposes — vast designs.”

“You’re so good as to have a theory about me which I don’t at all fill out. Is there anything mysterious in a purpose entertained and executed every year, in the most public manner, by fifty thousand of my fellow-countrymen — the purpose of improving one’s mind by foreign travel?”

“You can’t improve your mind, Miss Archer,” her companion declared. “It’s already a most formidable instrument. It looks down on us all; it despises us.”

“Despises you? You’re making fun of me,” said Isabel seriously.

“Well, you think us ‘quaint’— that’s the same thing. I won’t be thought ‘quaint,’ to begin with; I’m not so in the least. I protest.”

“That protest is one of the quaintest things I’ve ever heard,” Isabel answered with a smile.

Lord Warburton was briefly silent. “You judge only from the outside — you don’t care,” he said presently. “You only care to amuse yourself.” The note she had heard in his voice a moment before reappeared, and mixed with it now was an audible strain of bitterness — a bitterness so abrupt and inconsequent that the girl was afraid she had hurt him. She had often heard that the English are a highly eccentric people, and she had even read in some ingenious author that they are at bottom the most romantic of races. Was Lord Warburton suddenly turning romantic — was he going to make her a scene, in his own house, only the third time they had met? She was reassured quickly enough by her sense of his great good manners, which was not impaired by the fact that he had already touched the furthest limit of good taste in expressing his admiration of a young lady who had confided in his hospitality. She was right in trusting to his good manners, for he presently went on, laughing a little and without a trace of the accent that had discomposed her: “I don’t mean of course that you amuse yourself with trifles. You select great materials; the foibles, the afflictions of human nature, the peculiarities of nations!”

“As regards that,” said Isabel, “I should find in my own nation entertainment for a lifetime. But we’ve a long drive, and my aunt will soon wish to start.” She turned back toward the others and Lord Warburton walked beside her in silence. But before they reached the others, “I shall come and see you next week,” he said.

She had received an appreciable shock, but as it died away she felt that she couldn’t pretend to herself that it was altogether a painful one. Nevertheless she made answer to his declaration, coldly enough, “Just as you please.” And her coldness was not the calculation of her effect — a game she played in a much smaller degree than would have seemed probable to many critics. It came from a certain fear.

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