Portrait of a Lady

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 joyless chamber it contained. She had never opened the bolted door nor removed the green paper (renewed by other hands) from its side-lights; she had never assured herself that the vulgar street lay beyond it. A crude, cold rain fell heavily; the spring-time presented itself as a questionable improvement. Isabel, however, gave as little as possible to attention incongruities of the season; 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 philosophic history of German poetry. Suddenly she became aware of a step very different from her own intellectual pace; she listened a little, and perceived that some one was walking about in the library, which communicated with the office. It struck her first as the step of a person from whom she had reason to expect 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 water-proof mantle; she had a sharp, but not unpleasant face.

"Oh," she said, "is that where you usually sit?" And 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, and the visitor continued to look about her. "You seem to have plenty of other rooms; they are in rather better condition. But everything is 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 up-stairs; she didn't seem at all intelligent. You had better tell her it is no matter." And then, while the girl stood there, hesitating and wondering, this unexpected critic said to her, abruptly: "I suppose you are 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 am your Aunt Lydia, but I am not crazy: And which of the daughters are you?"

"I'm the youngest of the three, and my name is Isabel."

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

"I have not 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 mansion.

"How much money do you expect to get for it?" Mrs. Touchett asked the girl, who had brought her to sit in the front parlor, which she had inspected without enthusiasm.

"I have n'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. In point of fact what have you inherited?"

"I really can't tell you. You must ask Edmund and Lilian; they will be back in half an hour."

"In Florence we should call it a very bad house," said Mrs. Touchett; "but here, I suspect, 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 is of value, and they will 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," said the girl rather strangely. "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 have 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 will be very good and do everything I tell you, I will take you there," Mrs. Touchett rejoined.

The girl'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 young lady of that sort. You are 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 would 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 person. 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 disagreeable. To her imagination the term had always suggested something grotesque and inharmonious. But her aunt infused a new vividness into the idea, and gave her so many fresh impressions that it seemed to her she had overestimated the charms of conformity. She had never met any one so entertaining as the 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 European courts. There was nothing flighty about Mrs. Touchett, but she 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 they were, struck her as deeply interesting. 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," she said. "Is she accustomed to staying out for hours?"

"You have been out almost as long as she," Isabel answered; "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 to her niece.

"Perhaps she has not 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 need n't bring you. I shall see plenty of you later."

IV.

Mrs. Ludlow was the eldest of the three sisters, and was usually thought the most sensible; the classification being in general that Lilian was the practical one, Edith the beauty, and Isabel the "intellectual" one. Mrs. Keyes, the second sister, was the wife of an officer in the United States Engineers, and as our history is not further concerned with her, it will be enough to say that she was indeed very pretty, and that she formed the ornament of those various military stations, chiefly in the unfashionable West, to which, to her deep chagrin, her husband was successively relegated. Lilian had married a New York lawyer, a young man with a loud voice and an enthusiasm for his profession; the match was not brilliant, any more than Edith's had been, but Lilian had occasionally been spoken of as a young woman who might be thankful to marry at all,—she was so much plainer than her sisters. She was, however, very happy, and now, as the mother of two peremptory little boys, and the mistress of a houose which presented a narrowness of brown stone to Fifty-third Street, she had justified her claim to matrimony. She was short and plump, and as people said, had improved since her marriage; the two things in life of which she was most distinctly conscious were her husband's force in argument, and her sister Isabel's originality. "I've never felt like Isabel's sister," and I am sure I never shall," she had said to an intimate friend; a declaration which made it all the more creditable that she should be prolific in sisterly offices.

"I want to see her safely married,—that's what I want to see," she frequently remarked to her husband.

"Well, I must say I should have no particular desire to marry her," Edmund Ludlow was accustomed to answer in an extremely audible tone.

"I know you say that for argument; you always take the opposite ground. I don't see what you have against her, except that she is so original."

"Well, I don't like originals; I like translations," Mr. Ludlow had more than once replied. "Isabel is written in a foreign tongue. I can't make her out. She ought to marry an Armenian, or a Portuguese."

"That's just what I am afraid she will do!" cried Lilian, who thought Isabel capable of anything.

She listened with great interest to the girl's account of Mrs. Touchett's visit and in the evening prepared to comply with her commands.

Of what Isabel said to her no report has remained, but her sister's words must have prompted a remark that she made to her husband in the conjugal chamber as the two were making ready to go to the hotel.

"I do hope immensely she will do something handsome for Isabel; she has evidently taken a great fancy to her."

"What is it you wish her to do?" Edmund Ludlow asked; "make her a big present?"

"No indeed; nothing of the sort. But take an interest in her, -- sympathize with her. She is evidently just the sort of person to appreciate Isabel. She has lived so much in foreign society; she told Isabel all about it. You know you have always thought Isabel rather foreign."

"You want her to give her a little foreign sympathy, eh? Don't you think she gets enough at home?"

"Well, she ought to go abroad," said Mrs. Ludlow. "She's just the person to go abroad."

"And you want the old lady to take her, is that it?" her husband asked.

"She has offered to take her; she is dying to have Isabel go! But what I want her to do when she gets her there is to give her all the advantages. I am sure all we have got to do," said Mrs. Ludlow, "is to give her a chance!"

"A chance for what?"

"A chance to develop."

"Oh, Jupiter!" Edmund Ludlow exclaimed. "I hope she is n't going to develop any more!"

"If I were not sure you only said that for argument, I should feel very badly," his wife replied. "But you know you love her."

"Do you know I love you?" the young man said, jocosely, to Isabel a little later, while he brushed his hat.

"I'm sure I don't care whether you do or not!" exclaimed the girl; whose voice and smile, however, were sweeter than the words she uttered.

"Oh, she feels so grand since Mrs. Touchett's visit," said her sister.

But Isabel challenged this assertion with a good deal of seriousness.

"You must not say that, Lily. I don't feel grand at all."

"I am sure there is no harm," said the conciliatory Lily.

"Ah, but there is nothing in Mrs. Touchett's visit to make one feel grand."

"Oh," exclaimed Ludlow, "she is grander than ever!"

"Whenever I feel grand," said the girl, "it will be for a better reason!"

Whether she felt grand or no, she at any rate felt busy; busy, I mean, with her thoughts. Left to herself for the evening, she sat a while under the lamp with empty hands, heedless of her usual avocations. Then she rose and moved about the room, and from one room to another, preferring the places where the vague lamplight expired. She was restless and even excited; at moments she trembled a little. She felt that something had happened to her, which the importance was of the proportion to its appearance; there had really been a change in her life. What it would bring with it was as yet extremely indefinite; but Isabel was in a situation that gave a value to any change. She had a desire to leave the past behind her, and, as she said to herself, to begin afresh. This desire, indeed, was not a birth of the present occasion; it was as familiar as the sound of the rain upon the window, and it had led to her beginning afresh a great many times. She closed her eyes as she sat in one of the dusky corners of the quiet parlour; but it was not with a desire to take a nap. On the contrary, it was because she felt too wide-awake and wished to check the sense of seeing too many things at once. Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; if the door were not opened to it, it jumped out of the window. She was not accustomed, indeed, to keep it behind bolts; and at important moments, when she would have been thankful to make use of her judgement alone, she paid the penalty of having given undue encouragement to the faculty of seeing without judging. At present, with her sense that the note of change had been struck, came gradually a host of images of the things she was leaving behind her. The years and hours of her life came back to her, and for a long time, in a stillness broken only by the ticking of the big bronze clock, she passed them in review. It had been a very happy life and she had been a very fortunate girl,—this was the truth that seemed to emerge most vividly. She had had the best of everything, and in a world in which the circumstances of so many people made them unenviable, it was an advantage never to have known anything particularly disagreeable. It appeared to Isabel that the disagreeable had been even too absent from her knowledge, for she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was often a source of interest, and even of instruction. Her father had kept it away from her,—her handsome, much-loved father, who always had such an aversion to it. It was a good fortune to have been his daughter; Isabel was even proud in her parentage. Since his death she had gathered a vague impression that he turned his brighter side to his children, and that he had not eluded discomfort quite so much in practice as in aspiration. But this only made her tenderness for him greater; it was scarcely even painful to have to think that he was too generous, too good-natured, too indifferent to sordid considerations. Many persons thought he carried this indifference too far; especially the large number of those to whom he owed money. Of their opinions Isabel was never very definitely informed; but it may interest the reader to know that, while they admitted that the late Mr. Archer a remarkably handsome head and a very taking manner (indeed, as one of them had said, he was always taking something), they had declared that he had made a very poor use of his life. He had squandered a substantial fortune, he had been deplorably convivial, he was known to have gambled freely. A few very harsh critics went so far as to say that he had not even brought up his daughters. They had had no regular education and no permanent home; they had been at once spoiled and neglected; they had lived with nursemaids and governesses (usually very bad ones), or had been sent to strange schools kept by the foreigners, from which, at the end of a month, they had been removed in tears. This view of the matter would have excited Isabel's indignation, for to her own sense her opportunities had been abundant. Even when her father had left his daughters for three months at Neufchatel with a French bonne, who eloped with a Russian nobleman staying at the same hotel,—even in this irregular situation (an incident of the girl's thirteenth year) she had been neither frightened nor ashamed, but had thought it a picturesque episode in a liberal education. Her father had a large way of looking at life, of which his restlessness and even his occasional incoherency of conduct had been only a proof. He wished his daughters, even as children, to see as much of the world as possible; and it was for this purpose that, before Isabel was fourteen, he had transported them three times across the Atlantic, giving them on each occasion, however, but a few months' view of foreign lands; a course which had whetted our heroine's curiosity without enabling her to satisfy it. She ought to have been a partisan of her father, for among his three daughters she was quite his favorite, and in his last days his general willingness to take leave of a world in which the difficulty of doing as one liked appeared to increase as one grew older was sensibly modified by the pain of separation from his clever, his superior, his remarkable girl. Later, when the journeys to Europe ceased, he still had shown his children all sorts of indulgence, and if he had been troubled about money-matters nothing ever disturbed their irreflective consciousness of many possessions. Isabel, though she danced very well, had not the recollection of having been in New York a successful member of the choregraphic circle; her sister Edith was, as every one said, so very much more popular. Edith was so striking an example of success that Isabel would have no illusions as to what constituted this advantage, or as to the moderate character of her own. Nineteen persons out of twenty (including the younger sister herself) pronounced Edith infinitely the prettier of the two; but the twentieth, besides reversing this judgement, had the entertainment of thinking all the others a parcel of fools. Isabel had in the depths of her nature an even more unquenchable desire to please than Edith; but the depths of this young lady's nature were a very out-of-the-way place, between which and the surface communication was interrupted by a dozen capricious forces, the most important being an excitable pride and a restless conscience. She saw the young men who came in large numbers to see her sister; but as a general thing they were afraid of her; they had a belief that some special preparation was required for talking with her. Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions, and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret, and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from quotation. She had a great desire for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life, and was constantly staring and wondering. She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own heart and the agitations of the world. For this reason she was fond of seeing great crowds and large stretches of country, of reading about revolutions and wars, of looking at historical pictures,—a class of efforts as to which she had often gone so far as to forgive much bad painting for the sake of the subject. While the Civil War went on, she was still a very young girl; but she passed months of this long period in a state of almost passionate excitement, in which she felt herself at times (to her extreme confusion) stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army. Of course the reserve practiced towards her by the local youth had never gone the length of making her a social postscript; for the proportion of those whose hearts, as they approached her, beat only just faster enough to make it a sensible pleasure was sifficient to redeem her maidenly career from failure. She had had everything a girl could have: kindness, admiration, flattery, bouquets, the sense of exclusion from none of the privileges of the world she lived in, abundant opportunity for dancing, plenty of new dresses, the London Spectator, and a glimpse of contemporary aesthetics.

These things now, as memory played over them, resolved themselves into a multitude of scenes and figures. Forgotten things came back to her; many others, which she had lately thought of great moment, dropped out of sight. The result was kaleidoscopic, but the movement of the instrument was checked at last by the servant's coming in with the name of a gentleman. The name of the gentleman was Caspar Goodwood. He was a straight young man from Boston, who had known Miss Archer for the last twelvemonth, and who, thinking her the most beautiful young woman of her time, had pronounced the time, according to the rule I have hinted at, a foolish period of history. He sometimes wrote to Isabel and he had lately written to her from New York. She had thought it very possible he would come in,—had, indeed all the rainy day been vaguely expecting him. Nevertheless, now that she learned he was there, she felt no eagerness to receive him. He was the finest young man she had ever seen, was, indeed, quite a magnificant young man; he filled her with a certain feeling of which she had never entertained from anyone else. He was supposed by the world in general to wish to marry her; but this of course was between themselves. It at least may be affirmed that he had travelled from New York to Albany expressly to see her; having learned in the former city, where he was spending a few days, and where he had hoped to find her, that she was still at the capital. Isabel delayed for some minutes to go to him; she moved about the room with certain feelings of embarrasement. But at last she presented herself, and found him standing near the lamp. He was tall, strong, and somewhat stiff; he was also lean and brown. He was not especially good-looking, but his physiognomy had an air of requesting your attention, which it rewarded or not, according to the charm you found in blue eye of remarkable fixedness, and a jaw of the somewhat angular mould which is supposed to bespeak resolution. Isabel said to herself that it bespoke resolution tonight; but nevertheless, an hour later, Caspar Goodwood, who had arrived hopeful as well as resolute, took his way back to his lodging with the feeling of a man defeated. He was not, however, a man to be discouraged by a defeat.

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