Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 31

CHAPTER XXXI

Isabel came back to Florence, but only after several months; an
interval sufficiently replete with incident. It is not, however,
during this interval that we are closely concerned with her; our
attention is engaged again on a certain day in the late
spring-time, shortly after her return to Palazzo Crescentini and
a year from the date of the incidents just narrated. She was
alone on this occasion, in one of the smaller of the numerous
rooms devoted by Mrs. Touchett to social uses, and there was that
in her expression and attitude which would have suggested that
she was expecting a visitor. The tall window was open, and though
its green shutters were partly drawn the bright air of the garden
had come in through a broad interstice and filled the room with
warmth and perfume. Our young woman stood near it for some time,
her hands clasped behind her; she gazed abroad with the vagueness
of unrest. Too troubled for attention she moved in a vain circle.
Yet it could not be in her thought to catch a glimpse of her
visitor before he should pass into the house, since the entrance
to the palace was not through the garden, in which stillness and
privacy always reigned. She wished rather to forestall his arrival
by a process of conjecture, and to judge by the expression of her
face this attempt gave her plenty to do. Grave she found herself,
and positively more weighted, as by the experience of the lapse of
the year she had spent in seeing the world. She had ranged, she
would have said, through space and surveyed much of mankind, and
was therefore now, in her own eyes, a very different person from
the frivolous young woman from Albany who had begun to take the
measure of Europe on the lawn at Gardencourt a couple of years
before. She flattered herself she had harvested wisdom and
learned a great deal more of life than this light-minded creature
had even suspected. If her thoughts just now had inclined
themselves to retrospect, instead of fluttering their wings
nervously about the present, they would have evoked a multitude
of interesting pictures. These pictures would have been both
landscapes and figure-pieces; the latter, however, would have
been the more numerous. With several of the images that might
have been projected on such a field we are already acquainted.
There would be for instance the conciliatory Lily, our heroine's
sister and Edmund Ludlow's wife, who had come out from New York
to spend five months with her relative. She had left her husband
behind her, but had brought her children, to whom Isabel now
played with equal munificence and tenderness the part of
maiden-aunt. Mr. Ludlow, toward the last, had been able to snatch
a few weeks from his forensic triumphs and, crossing the ocean
with extreme rapidity, had spent a month with the two ladies in
Paris before taking his wife home. The little Ludlows had not
yet, even from the American point of view, reached the proper
tourist-age; so that while her sister was with her Isabel had
confined her movements to a narrow circle. Lily and the babies
had joined her in Switzerland in the month of July, and they had
spent a summer of fine weather in an Alpine valley where the
flowers were thick in the meadows and the shade of great
chestnuts made a resting-place for such upward wanderings as
might be undertaken by ladies and children on warm afternoons.
They had afterwards reached the French capital, which was
worshipped, and with costly ceremonies, by Lily, but thought of
as noisily vacant by Isabel, who in these days made use of her
memory of Rome as she might have done, in a hot and crowded room,
of a phial of something pungent hidden in her handkerchief.

Mrs. Ludlow sacrificed, as I say, to Paris, yet had doubts and
wonderments not allayed at that altar; and after her husband had
joined her found further chagrin in his failure to throw himself
into these speculations. They all had Isabel for subject; but
Edmund Ludlow, as he had always done before, declined to be
surprised, or distressed, or mystified, or elated, at anything
his sister-in-law might have done or have failed to do. Mrs.
Ludlow's mental motions were sufficiently various. At one moment
she thought it would be so natural for that young woman to come
home and take a house in New York--the Rossiters', for instance,
which had an elegant conservatory and was just round the corner
from her own; at another she couldn't conceal her surprise at the
girl's not marrying some member of one of the great aristocracies.
On the whole, as I have said, she had fallen from high communion
with the probabilities. She had taken more satisfaction in
Isabel's accession of fortune than if the money had been left to
herself; it had seemed to her to offer just the proper setting
for her sister's slightly meagre, but scarce the less eminent
figure. Isabel had developed less, however, than Lily had thought
likely--development, to Lily's understanding, being somehow
mysteriously connected with morning-calls and evening-parties.
Intellectually, doubtless, she had made immense strides; but she
appeared to have achieved few of those social conquests of which
Mrs. Ludlow had expected to admire the trophies. Lily's
conception of such achievements was extremely vague; but this was
exactly what she had expected of Isabel--to give it form and
body. Isabel could have done as well as she had done in New York;
and Mrs. Ludlow appealed to her husband to know whether there was
any privilege she enjoyed in Europe which the society of that
city might not offer her. We know ourselves that Isabel had made
conquests--whether inferior or not to those she might have
effected in her native land it would be a delicate matter to
decide; and it is not altogether with a feeling of complacency
that I again mention that she had not rendered these honourable
victories public. She had not told her sister the history of Lord
Warburton, nor had she given her a hint of Mr. Osmond's state of
mind; and she had had no better reason for her silence than that
she didn't wish to speak. It was more romantic to say nothing,
and, drinking deep, in secret, of romance, she was as little
disposed to ask poor Lily's advice as she would have been to
close that rare volume forever. But Lily knew nothing of these
discriminations, and could only pronounce her sister's career a
strange anti-climax--an impression confirmed by the fact that
Isabel's silence about Mr. Osmond, for instance, was in direct
proportion to the frequency with which he occupied her thoughts.
As this happened very often it sometimes appeared to Mrs. Ludlow
that she had lost her courage. So uncanny a result of so
exhilarating an incident as inheriting a fortune was of course
perplexing to the cheerful Lily; it added to her general sense
that Isabel was not at all like other people.

Our young lady's courage, however, might have been taken as
reaching its height after her relations had gone home. She could
imagine braver things than spending the winter in Paris--Paris
had sides by which it so resembled New York, Paris was like
smart, neat prose--and her close correspondence with Madame
Merle did much to stimulate such flights. She had never had a
keener sense of freedom, of the absolute boldness and wantonness
of liberty, than when she turned away from the platform at the
Euston Station on one of the last days of November, after the
departure of the train that was to convey poor Lily, her husband
and her children to their ship at Liverpool. It had been good for
her to regale; she was very conscious of that; she was very
observant, as we know, of what was good for her, and her effort
was constantly to find something that was good enough. To profit
by the present advantage till the latest moment she had made the
journey from Paris with the unenvied travellers. She would have
accompanied them to Liverpool as well, only Edmund Ludlow had
asked her, as a favour, not to do so; it made Lily so fidgety and
she asked such impossible questions. Isabel watched the train
move away; she kissed her hand to the elder of her small nephews,
a demonstrative child who leaned dangerously far out of the
window of the carriage and made separation an occasion of violent
hilarity, and then she walked back into the foggy London street.
The world lay before her--she could do whatever she chose. There
was a deep thrill in it all, but for the present her choice was
tolerably discreet; she chose simply to walk back from Euston
Square to her hotel. The early dusk of a November afternoon had
already closed in; the street-lamps, in the thick, brown air,
looked weak and red; our heroine was unattended and Euston Square
was a long way from Piccadilly. But Isabel performed the journey
with a positive enjoyment of its dangers and lost her way almost
on purpose, in order to get more sensations, so that she was
disappointed when an obliging policeman easily set her right
again. She was so fond of the spectacle of human life that she
enjoyed even the aspect of gathering dusk in the London streets--
the moving crowds, the hurrying cabs, the lighted shops, the
flaring stalls, the dark, shining dampness of everything. That
evening, at her hotel, she wrote to Madame Merle that she should
start in a day or two for Rome. She made her way down to Rome
without touching at Florence--having gone first to Venice and
then proceeded southward by Ancona. She accomplished this journey
without other assistance than that of her servant, for her
natural protectors were not now on the ground. Ralph Touchett was
spending the winter at Corfu, and Miss Stackpole, in the
September previous, had been recalled to America by a telegram
from the Interviewer. This journal offered its brilliant
correspondent a fresher field for her genius than the mouldering
cities of Europe, and Henrietta was cheered on her way by a
promise from Mr. Bantling that he would soon come over to see
her. Isabel wrote to Mrs. Touchett to apologise for not
presenting herself just yet in Florence, and her aunt replied
characteristically enough. Apologies, Mrs. Touchett intimated,
were of no more use to her than bubbles, and she herself never
dealt in such articles. One either did the thing or one didn't,
and what one "would" have done belonged to the sphere of the
irrelevant, like the idea of a future life or of the origin of
things. Her letter was frank, but (a rare case with Mrs.
Touchett) not so frank as it pretended. She easily forgave her
niece for not stopping at Florence, because she took it for a
sign that Gilbert Osmond was less in question there than
formerly. She watched of course to see if he would now find a
pretext for going to Rome, and derived some comfort from learning
that he had not been guilty of an absence. Isabel, on her side,
had not been a fortnight in Rome before she proposed to Madame
Merle that they should make a little pilgrimage to the East.
Madame Merle remarked that her friend was restless, but she added
that she herself had always been consumed with the desire to
visit Athens and Constantinople. The two ladies accordingly
embarked on this expedition, and spent three months in Greece, in
Turkey, in Egypt. Isabel found much to interest her in these
countries, though Madame Merle continued to remark that even
among the most classic sites, the scenes most calculated to
suggest repose and reflexion, a certain incoherence prevailed in
her. Isabel travelled rapidly and recklessly; she was like a
thirsty person draining cup after cup. Madame Merle meanwhile, as
lady-in-waiting to a princess circulating incognita, panted a
little in her rear. It was on Isabel's invitation she had come,
and she imparted all due dignity to the girl's uncountenanced
state. She played her part with the tact that might have been
expected of her, effacing herself and accepting the position of a
companion whose expenses were profusely paid. The situation,
however, had no hardships, and people who met this reserved
though striking pair on their travels would not have been able to
tell you which was patroness and which client. To say that Madame
Merle improved on acquaintance states meagrely the impression she
made on her friend, who had found her from the first so ample and
so easy. At the end of an intimacy of three months Isabel felt
she knew her better; her character had revealed itself, and the
admirable woman had also at last redeemed her promise of relating
her history from her own point of view--a consummation the more
desirable as Isabel had already heard it related from the point
of view of others. This history was so sad a one (in so far as it
concerned the late M. Merle, a positive adventurer, she might
say, though originally so plausible, who had taken advantage,
years before, of her youth and of an inexperience in which
doubtless those who knew her only now would find it difficult to
believe); it abounded so in startling and lamentable incidents
that her companion wondered a person so eprouvee could have
kept so much of her freshness, her interest in life. Into this
freshness of Madame Merle's she obtained a considerable insight;
she seemed to see it as professional, as slightly mechanical,
carried about in its case like the fiddle of the virtuoso, or
blanketed and bridled like the "favourite" of the jockey. She
liked her as much as ever, but there was a corner of the curtain
that never was lifted; it was as if she had remained after all
something of a public performer, condemned to emerge only in
character and in costume. She had once said that she came from a
distance, that she belonged to the "old, old" world, and Isabel
never lost the impression that she was the product of a different
moral or social clime from her own, that she had grown up under
other stars.

She believed then that at bottom she had a different morality. Of
course the morality of civilised persons has always much in
common; but our young woman had a sense in her of values gone
wrong or, as they said at the shops, marked down. She considered,
with the presumption of youth, that a morality differing from her
own must be inferior to it; and this conviction was an aid to
detecting an occasional flash of cruelty, an occasional lapse
from candour, in the conversation of a person who had raised
delicate kindness to an art and whose pride was too high for the
narrow ways of deception. Her conception of human motives might,
in certain lights, have been acquired at the court of some
kingdom in decadence, and there were several in her list of which
our heroine had not even heard. She had not heard of everything,
that was very plain; and there were evidently things in the world
of which it was not advantageous to hear. She had once or twice
had a positive scare; since it so affected her to have to
exclaim, of her friend, "Heaven forgive her, she doesn't
understand me!" Absurd as it may seem this discovery operated as
a shock, left her with a vague dismay in which there was even an
element of foreboding. The dismay of course subsided, in the
light of some sudden proof of Madame Merle's remarkable
intelligence; but it stood for a high-water-mark in the ebb and
flow of confidence. Madame Merle had once declared her belief
that when a friendship ceases to grow it immediately begins to
decline--there being no point of equilibrium between liking more
and liking less. A stationary affection, in other words, was
impossible--it must move one way or the other. However that might
be, the girl had in these days a thousand uses for her sense of
the romantic, which was more active than it had ever been. I do
not allude to the impulse it received as she gazed at the
Pyramids in the course of an excursion from Cairo, or as she
stood among the broken columns of the Acropolis and fixed her
eyes upon the point designated to her as the Strait of Salamis;
deep and memorable as these emotions had remained. She came back
by the last of March from Egypt and Greece and made another stay
in Rome. A few days after her arrival Gilbert Osmond descended
from Florence and remained three weeks, during which the fact of
her being with his old friend Madame Merle, in whose house she
had gone to lodge, made it virtually inevitable that he should
see her every day. When the last of April came she wrote to Mrs.
Touchett that she should now rejoice to accept an invitation
given long before, and went to pay a visit at Palazzo Crescentini,
Madame Merle on this occasion remaining in Rome. She found her
aunt alone; her cousin was still at Corfu. Ralph, however, was
expected in Florence from day to day, and Isabel, who had not
seen him for upwards of a year, was prepared to give him the most
affectionate welcome.

Henry James