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Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

Mrs. Touchett, before arriving in Paris, had fixed the day for
her departure and by the middle of February had begun to travel
southward. She interrupted her journey to pay a visit to her son,
who at San Remo, on the Italian shore of the Mediterranean, had
been spending a dull, bright winter beneath a slow-moving white
umbrella. Isabel went with her aunt as a matter of course, though
Mrs. Touchett, with homely, customary logic, had laid before her
a pair of alternatives.

"Now, of course, you're completely your own mistress and are as
free as the bird on the bough. I don't mean you were not so
before, but you're at present on a different footing--property
erects a kind of barrier. You can do a great many things if
you're rich which would be severely criticised if you were poor.
You can go and come, you can travel alone, you can have your own
establishment: I mean of course if you'll take a companion--some
decayed gentlewoman, with a darned cashmere and dyed hair, who
paints on velvet. You don't think you'd like that? Of course you
can do as you please; I only want you to understand how much
you're at liberty. You might take Miss Stackpole as your dame de
compagnie; she'd keep people off very well. I think, however, that
it's a great deal better you should remain with me, in spite of
there being no obligation. It's better for several reasons, quite
apart from your liking it. I shouldn't think you'd like it, but I
recommend you to make the sacrifice. Of course whatever novelty
there may have been at first in my society has quite passed away,
and you see me as I am--a dull, obstinate, narrow-minded old woman."

"I don't think you're at all dull," Isabel had replied to this.

"But you do think I'm obstinate and narrow-minded? I told you so!"
said Mrs. Touchett with much elation at being justified.

Isabel remained for the present with her aunt, because, in spite
of eccentric impulses, she had a great regard for what was usually
deemed decent, and a young gentlewoman without visible relations
had always struck her as a flower without foliage. It was true
that Mrs. Touchett's conversation had never again appeared so
brilliant as that first afternoon in Albany, when she sat in her
damp waterproof and sketched the opportunities that Europe would
offer to a young person of taste. This, however, was in a great
measure the girl's own fault; she had got a glimpse of her aunt's
experience, and her imagination constantly anticipated the
judgements and emotions of a woman who had very little of the same
faculty. Apart from this, Mrs. Touchett had a great merit; she was
as honest as a pair of compasses. There was a comfort in her
stiffness and firmness; you knew exactly where to find her and
were never liable to chance encounters and concussions. On her own
ground she was perfectly present, but was never over-inquisitive as
regards the territory of her neighbour. Isabel came at last to
have a kind of undemonstrable pity for her; there seemed
something so dreary in the condition of a person whose nature
had, as it were, so little surface--offered so limited a face to
the accretions of human contact. Nothing tender, nothing
sympathetic, had ever had a chance to fasten upon it--no
wind-sown blossom, no familiar softening moss. Her offered, her
passive extent, in other words, was about that of a knife-edge.
Isabel had reason to believe none the less that as she advanced in
life she made more of those concessions to the sense of something
obscurely distinct from convenience--more of them than she
independently exacted. She was learning to sacrifice consistency
to considerations of that inferior order for which the excuse must
be found in the particular case. It was not to the credit of her
absolute rectitude that she should have gone the longest way round
to Florence in order to spend a few weeks with her invalid son;
since in former years it had been one of her most definite
convictions that when Ralph wished to see her he was at liberty to
remember that Palazzo Crescentini contained a large apartment
known as the quarter of the signorino.

"I want to ask you something," Isabel said to this young man the
day after her arrival at San Remo--"something I've thought more
than once of asking you by letter, but that I've hesitated on the
whole to write about. Face to face, nevertheless, my question
seems easy enough. Did you know your father intended to leave me
so much money?"

Ralph stretched his legs a little further than usual and gazed a
little more fixedly at the Mediterranean.

"What does it matter, my dear Isabel, whether I knew? My father
was very obstinate."

"So," said the girl, "you did know."

"Yes; he told me. We even talked it over a little." "What did he
do it for?" asked Isabel abruptly. "Why, as a kind of compliment."

"A compliment on what?"

"On your so beautifully existing."

"He liked me too much," she presently declared.

"That's a way we all have."

"If I believed that I should be very unhappy. Fortunately I don't
believe it. I want to be treated with justice; I want nothing but
that."

"Very good. But you must remember that justice to a lovely being is
after all a florid sort of sentiment."

"I'm not a lovely being. How can you say that, at the very moment
when I'm asking such odious questions? I must seem to you
delicate!"

"You seem to me troubled," said Ralph.

"I am troubled."

"About what?"

For a moment she answered nothing; then she broke out: "Do you
think it good for me suddenly to be made so rich? Henrietta
doesn't."

"Oh, hang Henrietta!" said Ralph coarsely, "If you ask me I'm
delighted at it."

"Is that why your father did it--for your amusement?"

"I differ with Miss Stackpole," Ralph went on more gravely. "I
think it very good for you to have means."

Isabel looked at him with serious eyes. "I wonder whether you know
what's good for me--or whether you care."

"If I know depend upon it I care. Shall I tell you what it is?
Not to torment yourself."

"Not to torment you, I suppose you mean."

"You can't do that; I'm proof. Take things more easily. Don't ask
yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Don't
question your conscience so much--it will get out of tune like a
strummed piano. Keep it for great occasions. Don't try so much
to form your character--it's like trying to pull open a tight,
tender young rose. Live as you like best, and your character will
take care of itself. Most things are good for you; the exceptions
are very rare, and a comfortable income's not one of them." Ralph
paused, smiling; Isabel had listened quickly. "You've too much power
of thought--above all too much conscience," Ralph added. "It's out
of all reason, the number of things you think wrong. Put back
your watch. Diet your fever. Spread your wings; rise above the
ground. It's never wrong to do that."

She had listened eagerly, as I say; and it was her nature to
understand quickly. "I wonder if you appreciate what you say. If
you do, you take a great responsibility."

"You frighten me a little, but I think I'm right," said Ralph,
persisting in cheer.

"All the same what you say is very true," Isabel pursued. "You
could say nothing more true. I'm absorbed in myself--I look at life
too much as a doctor's prescription. Why indeed should we
perpetually be thinking whether things are good for us, as if we
were patients lying in a hospital? Why should I be so afraid of
not doing right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do
right or wrong!"

"You're a capital person to advise," said Ralph; "you take the
wind out of my sails!"

She looked at him as if she had not heard him--though she was
following out the train of reflexion which he himself had kindled.
"I try to care more about the world than about myself--but I
always come back to myself. It's because I'm afraid." She stopped;
her voice had trembled a little. "Yes, I'm afraid; I can't tell
you. A large fortune means freedom, and I'm afraid of that. It's
such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If
one shouldn't one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking;
it's a constant effort. I'm not sure it's not a greater happiness
to be powerless."

"For weak people I've no doubt it's a greater happiness. For weak
people the effort not to be contemptible must be great."

"And how do you know I'm not weak?" Isabel asked.

"Ah," Ralph answered with a flush that the girl noticed, "if you
are I'm awfully sold!"

The charm of the Mediterranean coast only deepened for our heroine
on acquaintance, for it was the threshold of Italy, the gate of
admirations. Italy, as yet imperfectly seen and felt, stretched
before her as a land of promise, a land in which a love of the
beautiful might be comforted by endless knowledge. Whenever she
strolled upon the shore with her cousin--and she was the companion
of his daily walk--she looked across the sea, with longing eyes,
to where she knew that Genoa lay. She was glad to pause, however,
on the edge of this larger adventure; there was such a thrill even
in the preliminary hovering. It affected her moreover as a peaceful
interlude, as a hush of the drum and fife in a career which she
had little warrant as yet for regarding as agitated, but which
nevertheless she was constantly picturing to herself by the light
of her hopes, her fears, her fancies, her ambitions, her
predilections, and which reflected these subjective accidents in a
manner sufficiently dramatic. Madame Merle had predicted to Mrs.
Touchett that after their young friend had put her hand into her
pocket half a dozen times she would be reconciled to the idea that
it had been filled by a munificent uncle; and the event justified,
as it had so often justified before, that lady's perspicacity.
Ralph Touchett had praised his cousin for being morally
inflammable, that is for being quick to take a hint that was meant
as good advice. His advice had perhaps helped the matter; she had
at any rate before leaving San Remo grown used to feeling rich. The
consciousness in question found a proper place in rather a dense
little group of ideas that she had about herself, and often it
was by no means the least agreeable. It took perpetually for
granted a thousand good intentions. She lost herself in a maze
of visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent,
generous girl who took a large human view of occasions and
obligations were sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became
to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave
her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it
did for her in the imagination of others is another affair, and
on this point we must also touch in time. The visions I have just
spoken of were mixed with other debates. Isabel liked better to
think of the future than of the past; but at times, as she
listened to the murmur of the Mediterranean waves, her glance
took a backward flight. It rested upon two figures which, in
spite of increasing distance, were still sufficiently salient;
they were recognisable without difficulty as those of Caspar
Goodwood and Lord Warburton. It was strange how quickly these
images of energy had fallen into the background of our young
lady's life. It was in her disposition at all times to lose faith
in the reality of absent things; she could summon back her faith,
in case of need, with an effort, but the effort was often painful
even when the reality had been pleasant. The past was apt to look
dead and its revival rather to show the livid light of a
judgement-day. The girl moreover was not prone to take for
granted that she herself lived in the mind of others--she had not
the fatuity to believe she left indelible traces. She was capable
of being wounded by the discovery that she had been forgotten;
but of all liberties the one she herself found sweetest was the
liberty to forget. She had not given her last shilling,
sentimentally speaking, either to Caspar Goodwood or to Lord
Warburton, and yet couldn't but feel them appreciably in debt to
her. She had of course reminded herself that she was to hear from
Mr. Goodwood again; but this was not to be for another year
and a half, and in that time a great many things might happen.
She had indeed failed to say to herself that her American suitor
might find some other girl more comfortable to woo; because,
though it was certain many other girls would prove so, she had
not the smallest belief that this merit would attract him. But
she reflected that she herself might know the humiliation of
change, might really, for that matter, come to the end of the
things that were not Caspar (even though there appeared so many
of them), and find rest in those very elements of his presence
which struck her now as impediments to the finer respiration. It
was conceivable that these impediments should some day prove a
sort of blessing in disguise--a clear and quiet harbour enclosed
by a brave granite breakwater. But that day could only come in
its order, and she couldn't wait for it with folded hands. That
Lord Warburton should continue to cherish her image seemed to her
more than a noble humility or an enlightened pride ought to wish
to reckon with. She had so definitely undertaken to preserve no
record of what had passed between them that a corresponding
effort on his own part would be eminently just. This was not, as
it may seem, merely a theory tinged with sarcasm. Isabel candidly
believed that his lordship would, in the usual phrase, get over
his disappointment. He had been deeply affected--this she
believed, and she was still capable of deriving pleasure from the
belief; but it was absurd that a man both so intelligent and so
honourably dealt with should cultivate a scar out of proportion
to any wound. Englishmen liked moreover to be comfortable, said
Isabel, and there could be little comfort for Lord Warburton, in
the long run, in brooding over a self-sufficient American girl
who had been but a casual acquaintance. She flattered herself
that, should she hear from one day to another that he had married
some young woman of his own country who had done more to deserve
him, she should receive the news without a pang even of surprise.
It would have proved that he believed she was firm--which was
what she wished to seem to him. That alone was grateful to her
pride.

Henry James