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Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

Ralph Touchett was a philosopher, but nevertheless he knocked at
his mother's door (at a quarter to seven) with a good deal of
eagerness. Even philosophers have their preferences, and it must
be admitted that of his progenitors his father ministered most to
his sense of the sweetness of filial dependence. His father, as
he had often said to himself, was the more motherly; his mother,
on the other hand, was paternal, and even, according to the slang
of the day, gubernatorial. She was nevertheless very fond of her
only child and had always insisted on his spending three months
of the year with her. Ralph rendered perfect justice to her
affection and knew that in her thoughts and her thoroughly
arranged and servanted life his turn always came after the other
nearest subjects of her solicitude, the various punctualities of
performance of the workers of her will. He found her completely
dressed for dinner, but she embraced her boy with her gloved
hands and made him sit on the sofa beside her. She enquired
scrupulously about her husband's health and about the young man's
own, and, receiving no very brilliant account of either, remarked
that she was more than ever convinced of her wisdom in not
exposing herself to the English climate. In this case she also
might have given way. Ralph smiled at the idea of his mother's
giving way, but made no point of reminding her that his own
infirmity was not the result of the English climate, from which
he absented himself for a considerable part of each year.

He had been a very small boy when his father, Daniel Tracy
Touchett, a native of Rutland, in the State of Vermont, came to
England as subordinate partner in a banking-house where some ten
years later he gained preponderant control. Daniel Touchett saw
before him a life-long residence in his adopted country, of
which, from the first, he took a simple, sane and accommodating
view. But, as he said to himself, he had no intention of
disamericanising, nor had he a desire to teach his only son any
such subtle art. It had been for himself so very soluble a
problem to live in England assimilated yet unconverted that it
seemed to him equally simple his lawful heir should after his
death carry on the grey old bank in the white American light. He s
was at pains to intensify this light, however, by sending the boy
home for his education. Ralph spent several terms at an American
school and took a degree at an American university, after which,
as he struck his father on his return as even redundantly native,
he was placed for some three years in residence at Oxford. Oxford
swallowed up Harvard, and Ralph became at last English enough.
His outward conformity to the manners that surrounded him was
none the less the mask of a mind that greatly enjoyed its
independence, on which nothing long imposed itself, and which,
naturally inclined to adventure and irony, indulged in a
boundless liberty of appreciation. He began with being a young
man of promise; at Oxford he distinguished himself, to his
father's ineffable satisfaction, and the people about him said
it was a thousand pities so clever a fellow should be shut out
from a career. He might have had a career by returning to his own
country (though this point is shrouded in uncertainty) and even
if Mr. Touchett had been willing to part with him (which was not
the case) it would have gone hard with him to put a watery waste
permanently between himself and the old man whom he regarded as
his best friend. Ralph was not only fond of his father, he
admired him--he enjoyed the opportunity of observing him. Daniel
Touchett, to his perception, was a man of genius, and though he
himself had no aptitude for the banking mystery he made a point
of learning enough of it to measure the great figure his father
had played. It was not this, however, he mainly relished; it was
the fine ivory surface, polished as by the English air, that the
old man had opposed to possibilities of penetration. Daniel
Touchett had been neither at Harvard nor at Oxford, and it was
his own fault if he had placed in his son's hands the key to
modern criticism. Ralph, whose head was full of ideas which his
father had never guessed, had a high esteem for the latter's
originality. Americans, rightly or wrongly, are commended for the
ease with which they adapt themselves to foreign conditions; but
Mr. Touchett had made of the very limits of his pliancy half the
ground of his general success. He had retained in their freshness
most of his marks of primary pressure; his tone, as his son
always noted with pleasure, was that of the more luxuriant parts
of New England. At the end of his life he had become, on his own
ground, as mellow as he was rich; he combined consummate
shrewdness with the disposition superficially to fraternise, and
his "social position," on which he had never wasted a care, had
the firm perfection of an unthumbed fruit. It was perhaps his
want of imagination and of what is called the historic
consciousness; but to many of the impressions usually made by
English life upon the cultivated stranger his sense was
completely closed. There were certain differences he had never
perceived, certain habits he had never formed, certain
obscurities he had never sounded. As regards these latter, on the
day he had sounded them his son would have thought less well of
him.

Ralph, on leaving Oxford, had spent a couple of years in
travelling; after which he had found himself perched on a high
stool in his father's bank. The responsibility and honour of such
positions is not, I believe, measured by the height of the stool,
which depends upon other considerations: Ralph, indeed, who had
very long legs, was fond of standing, and even of walking about,
at his work. To this exercise, however, he was obliged to devote
but a limited period, for at the end of some eighteen months he
had become aware of his being seriously out of health. He had
caught a violent cold, which fixed itself on his lungs and threw
them into dire confusion. He had to give up work and apply, to
the letter, the sorry injunction to take care of himself. At
first he slighted the task; it appeared to him it was not himself
in the least he was taking care of, but an uninteresting and
uninterested person with whom he had nothing in common. This
person, however, improved on acquaintance, and Ralph grew at last
to have a certain grudging tolerance, even an undemonstrative
respect, for him. Misfortune makes strange bedfellows, and our
young man, feeling that he had something at stake in the matter--
it usually struck him as his reputation for ordinary wit--
devoted to his graceless charge an amount of attention of which
note was duly taken and which had at least the effect of keeping
the poor fellow alive. One of his lungs began to heal, the other
promised to follow its example, and he was assured he might
outweather a dozen winters if he would betake himself to those
climates in which consumptives chiefly congregate. As he had
grown extremely fond of London, he cursed the flatness of exile:
but at the same time that he cursed he conformed, and gradually,
when he found his sensitive organ grateful even for grim favours,
he conferred them with a lighter hand. He wintered abroad, as the
phrase is; basked in the sun, stopped at home when the wind blew,
went to bed when it rained, and once or twice, when it had snowed
overnight, almost never got up again.

A secret hoard of indifference--like a thick cake a fond old
nurse might have slipped into his first school outfit--came to
his aid and helped to reconcile him to sacrifice; since at the
best he was too ill for aught but that arduous game. As he said
to himself, there was really nothing he had wanted very much to
do, so that he had at least not renounced the field of valour. At
present, however, the fragrance of forbidden fruit seemed
occasionally to float past him and remind him that the finest of
pleasures is the rush of action. Living as he now lived was like
reading a good book in a poor translation--a meagre entertainment
for a young man who felt that he might have been an excellent
linguist. He had good winters and poor winters, and while the
former lasted he was sometimes the sport of a vision of virtual
recovery. But this vision was dispelled some three years before
the occurrence of the incidents with which this history opens: he
had on that occasion remained later than usual in England and had
been overtaken by bad weather before reaching Algiers. He arrived
more dead than alive and lay there for several weeks between life
and death. His convalescence was a miracle, but the first use he
made of it was to assure himself that such miracles happen but
once. He said to himself that his hour was in sight and that it
behoved him to keep his eyes upon it, yet that it was also open
to him to spend the interval as agreeably as might be consistent
with such a preoccupation. With the prospect of losing them the
simple use of his faculties became an exquisite pleasure; it
seemed to him the joys of contemplation had never been sounded.
He was far from the time when he had found it hard that he should
be obliged to give up the idea of distinguishing himself; an idea
none the less importunate for being vague and none the less
delightful for having had to struggle in the same breast with
bursts of inspiring self-criticism. His friends at present judged
him more cheerful, and attributed it to a theory, over which they
shook their heads knowingly, that he would recover his health.
His serenity was but the array of wild flowers niched in his
ruin.

It was very probably this sweet-tasting property of the observed
thing in itself that was mainly concerned in Ralph's
quickly-stirred interest in the advent of a young lady who was
evidently not insipid. If he was consideringly disposed,
something told him, here was occupation enough for a succession
of days. It may be added, in summary fashion, that the
imagination of loving--as distinguished from that of being loved
--had still a place in his reduced sketch. He had only forbidden
himself the riot of expression. However, he shouldn't inspire his
cousin with a passion, nor would she be able, even should she
try, to help him to one. "And now tell me about the young lady,"
he said to his mother. "What do you mean to do with her?"

Mrs. Touchett was prompt. "I mean to ask your father to invite
her to stay three or four weeks at Gardencourt."

"You needn't stand on any such ceremony as that," said Ralph.
"My father will ask her as a matter of course."

"I don't know about that. She's my niece; she's not his."

"Good Lord, dear mother; what a sense of property! That's all the
more reason for his asking her. But after that--I mean after
three months (for its absurd asking the poor girl to remain but
for three or four paltry weeks)--what do you mean to do with her?"

"I mean to take her to Paris. I mean to get her clothing."

"Ah yes, that's of course. But independently of that?"

"I shall invite her to spend the autumn with me in Florence."

"You don't rise above detail, dear mother," said Ralph. "I should
like to know what you mean to do with her in a general way."

"My duty!" Mrs. Touchett declared. "I suppose you pity her very
much," she added.

"No, I don't think I pity her. She doesn't strike me as inviting
compassion. I think I envy her. Before being sure, however, give
me a hint of where you see your duty."

"In showing her four European countries--I shall leave her the
choice of two of them--and in giving her the opportunity of
perfecting herself in French, which she already knows very well."

Ralph frowned a little. "That sounds rather dry--even allowing
her the choice of two of the countries."

"If it's dry," said his mother with a laugh, "you can leave
Isabel alone to water it! She is as good as a summer rain, any
day."

"Do you mean she's a gifted being?"

"I don't know whether she's a gifted being, but she's a clever
girl--with a strong will and a high temper. She has no idea of
being bored."

"I can imagine that," said Ralph; and then he added abruptly:
"How do you two get on?"

"Do you mean by that that I'm a bore? I don't think she finds me
one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel's too clever for that.
I think I greatly amuse her. We get on because I understand her,
I know the sort of girl she is. She's very frank, and I'm very
frank: we know just what to expect of each other."

"Ah, dear mother," Ralph exclaimed, "one always knows what to
expect of you! You've never surprised me but once, and that's
to-day--in presenting me with a pretty cousin whose existence I
had never suspected."

"Do you think her so very pretty?"

"Very pretty indeed; but I don't insist upon that. It's her
general air of being some one in particular that strikes me. Who
is this rare creature, and what is she? Where did you find her,
and how did you make her acquaintance?"

"I found her in an old house at Albany, sitting in a dreary room
on a rainy day, reading a heavy book and boring herself to death.
She didn't know she was bored, but when I left her no doubt of it
she seemed very grateful for the service. You may say I shouldn't
have enlightened he--I should have let her alone. There's a good
deal in that, but I acted conscientiously; I thought she was
meant for something better. It occurred to me that it would be a
kindness to take her about and introduce her to the world. She
thinks she knows a great deal of it--like most American girls;
but like most American girls she's ridiculously mistaken. If you
want to know, I thought she would do me credit. I like to be well
thought of, and for a woman of my age there's no greater
convenience, in some ways, than an attractive niece. You know I
had seen nothing of my sister's children for years; I disapproved
entirely of the father. But I always meant to do something for
them when he should have gone to his reward. I ascertained where
they were to be found and, without any preliminaries, went and
introduced myself. There are two others of them, both of whom are
married; but I saw only the elder, who has, by the way, a very
uncivil husband. The wife, whose name is Lily, jumped at the idea
of my taking an interest in Isabel; she said it was just what her
sister needed--that some one should take an interest in her. She
spoke of her as you might speak of some young person of genius--
in want of encouragement and patronage. It may be that Isabel's a
genius; but in that case I've not yet learned her special line.
Mrs. Ludlow was especially keen about my taking her to Europe;
they all regard Europe over there as a land of emigration, of
rescue, a refuge for their superfluous population. Isabel herself
seemed very glad to come, and the thing was easily arranged.
There was a little difficulty about the money-question, as she
seemed averse to being under pecuniary obligations. But she has a
small income and she supposes herself to be travelling at her own
expense."

Ralph had listened attentively to this judicious report, by which
his interest in the subject of it was not impaired. "Ah, if she's
a genius," he said, "we must find out her special line. Is it by
chance for flirting?"

"I don't think so. You may suspect that at first, but you'll be
wrong. You won't, I think, in anyway, be easily right about her."

"Warburton's wrong then!" Ralph rejoicingly exclaimed. "He
flatters himself he has made that discovery."

His mother shook her head. "Lord Warburton won't understand her.
He needn't try."

"He's very intelligent," said Ralph; "but it's right he should be
puzzled once in a while."

"Isabel will enjoy puzzling a lord," Mrs. Touchett remarked.

Her son frowned a little. What does she know about lords?"

"Nothing at all: that will puzzle him all the more."

Ralph greeted these words with a laugh and looked out of the
window. Then, "Are you not going down to see my father?" he
asked.

"At a quarter to eight," said Mrs. Touchett.

Her son looked at his watch. "You've another quarter of an hour
then. Tell me some more about Isabel." After which, as Mrs.
Touchett declined his invitation, declaring that he must find out
for himself, "Well," he pursued, "she'll certainly do you credit.
But won't she also give you trouble?"

"I hope not; but if she does I shall not shrink from it. I never
do that."

"She strikes me as very natural," said Ralph.

"Natural people are not the most trouble."

"No," said Ralph; "you yourself are a proof of that. You're
extremely natural, and I'm sure you have never troubled any one.
It takes trouble to do that. But tell me this; it just occurs to
me. Is Isabel capable of making herself disagreeable?"

"Ah," cried his mother, "you ask too many questions! Find that
out for yourself."

His questions, however, were not exhausted. "All this time," he
said, "you've not told me what you intend to do with her."

"Do with her? You talk as if she were a yard of calico. I shall
do absolutely nothing with her, and she herself will do
everything she chooses. She gave me notice of that."

"What you meant then, in your telegram, was that her character's
independent."

"I never know what I mean in my telegrams--especially those I
send from America. Clearness is too expensive. Come down to your
father."

"It's not yet a quarter to eight," said Ralph.

"I must allow for his impatience," Mrs. Touchett answered.
Ralph knew what to think of his father's impatience; but, making
no rejoinder, he offered his mother his arm. This put it in his
power, as they descended together, to stop her a moment on the
middle landing of the staircase--the broad, low, wide-armed
staircase of time-blackened oak which was one of the most
striking features of Gardencourt. "You've no plan of marrying
her?" he smiled.

"Marrying her? I should be sorry to play her such a trick! But
apart from that, she's perfectly able to marry herself. She has
every facility."

"Do you mean to say she has a husband picked out?"

"I don't know about a husband, but there's a young man in
Boston--!"

Ralph went on; he had no desire to hear about the young man in
Boston. "As my father says, they're always engaged!"

His mother had told him that he must satisfy his curiosity at the
source, and it soon became evident he should not want for
occasion. He had a good deal of talk with his young kinswoman
when the two had been left together in the drawing-room. Lord
Warburton, who had ridden over from his own house, some ten miles
distant, remounted and took his departure before dinner; and an
hour after this meal was ended Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, who
appeared to have quite emptied the measure of their forms,
withdrew, under the valid pretext of fatigue, to their
respective apartments. The young man spent an hour with his
cousin; though she had been travelling half the day she appeared
in no degree spent. She was really tired; she knew it, and knew
she should pay for it on the morrow; but it was her habit at this
period to carry exhaustion to the furthest point and confess to
it only when dissimulation broke down. A fine hypocrisy was for
the present possible; she was interested; she was, as she said to
herself, floated. She asked Ralph to show her the pictures; there
were a great many in the house, most of them of his own choosing.
The best were arranged in an oaken gallery, of charming
proportions, which had a sitting-room at either end of it and
which in the evening was usually lighted. The light was
insufficient to show the pictures to advantage, and the visit
might have stood over to the morrow. This suggestion Ralph had
ventured to make; but Isabel looked disappointed--smiling still,
however--and said: "If you please I should like to see them just
a little." She was eager, she knew she was eager and now seemed
so; she couldn't help it. "She doesn't take suggestions," Ralph
said to himself; but he said it without irritation; her pressure
amused and even pleased him. The lamps were on brackets, at
intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was genial. It fell
upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded gilding of
heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the
gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out
the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after
another, indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was
evidently a judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with
that. She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and
there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself
pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes much less
upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in
truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth
looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and
ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to
distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always
called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to
blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light
grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had
an enchanting range of concession. They walked slowly up one side
of the gallery and down the other, and then she said: "Well, now
I know more than I did when I began!"

"You apparently have a great passion for knowledge," her cousin
returned.

"I think I have; most girls are horridly ignorant."

"You strike me as different from most girls."

"Ah, some of them would--but the way they're talked to!" murmured
Isabel, who preferred not to dilate just yet on herself. Then in
a moment, to change the subject, "Please tell me--isn't there a
ghost?" she went on.

"A ghost?"

"A castle-spectre, a thing that appears. We call them ghosts in
America."

"So we do here, when we see them."

"You do see them then? You ought to, in this romantic old house."

"It's not a romantic old house," said Ralph. "You'll be
disappointed if you count on that. It's a dismally prosaic one;
there's no romance here but what you may have brought with you."

"I've brought a great deal; but it seems to me I've brought it to
the right place."

"To keep it out of harm, certainly; nothing will ever happen to
it here, between my father and me."

Isabel looked at him a moment. "Is there never any one here but
your father and you?"

"My mother, of course."

"Oh, I know your mother; she's not romantic. Haven't you other
people?"

"Very few."

"I'm sorry for that; I like so much to see people."

"Oh, we'll invite all the county to amuse you," said Ralph.

"Now you're making fun of me," the girl answered rather gravely.
"Who was the gentleman on the lawn when I arrived?"

"A county neighbour; he doesn't come very often."

"I'm sorry for that; I liked him," said Isabel.

"Why, it seemed to me that you barely spoke to him," Ralph
objected.

"Never mind, I like him all the same. I like your father too,
immensely."

"You can't do better than that. He's the dearest of the dear."

"I'm so sorry he is ill," said Isabel.

"You must help me to nurse him; you ought to be a good nurse."

"I don't think I am; I've been told I'm not; I'm said to have too
many theories. But you haven't told me about the ghost," she
added.

Ralph, however, gave no heed to this observation. "You like my
father and you like Lord Warburton. I infer also that you like my
mother."

"I like your mother very much, because--because--" And Isabel
found herself attempting to assign a reason for her affection for
Mrs. Touchett.

"Ah, we never know why!" said her companion, laughing.

"I always know why," the girl answered. "It's because she doesn't
expect one to like her. She doesn't care whether one does or
not."

"So you adore her--out of perversity? Well, I take greatly after
my mother," said Ralph.

"I don't believe you do at all. You wish people to like you, and
you try to make them do it."

"Good heavens, how you see through one!" he cried with a dismay
that was not altogether jocular.

"But I like you all the same," his cousin went on. "The way to
clinch the matter will be to show me the ghost."

Ralph shook his head sadly. "I might show it to you, but you'd
never see it. The privilege isn't given to every one; it's not
enviable. It has never been seen by a young, happy, innocent
person like you. You must have suffered first, have suffered
greatly, have gained some miserable knowledge. In that way your
eyes are opened to it. I saw it long ago," said Ralph.

"I told you just now I'm very fond of knowledge," Isabel
answered.

"Yes, of happy knowledge--of pleasant knowledge. But you haven't
suffered, and you're not made to suffer. I hope you'll never see
the ghost!"

She had listened to him attentively, with a smile on her lips,
but with a certain gravity in her eyes. Charming as he found her,
she had struck him as rather presumptuous--indeed it was a part
of her charm; and he wondered what she would say. "I'm not
afraid, you know," she said: which seemed quite presumptuous
enough.

"You're not afraid of suffering?"

"Yes, I'm afraid of suffering. But I'm not afraid of ghosts. And
I think people suffer too easily," she added.

"I don't believe you do," said Ralph, looking at her with his
hands in his pockets.

"I don't think that's a fault," she answered. "It's not
absolutely necessary to suffer; we were not made for that."

"You were not, certainly."

"I'm not speaking of myself." And she wandered off a little.

"No, it isn't a fault," said her cousin. "It's a merit to be
strong."

"Only, if you don't suffer they call you hard," Isabel remarked.

They passed out of the smaller drawing-room, into which they had
returned from the gallery, and paused in the hall, at the foot of
the staircase. Here Ralph presented his companion with her
bedroom candle, which he had taken from a niche. "Never mind what
they call you. When you do suffer they call you an idiot. The
great point's to be as happy as possible."

She looked at him a little; she had taken her candle and placed
her foot on the oaken stair. "Well," she said, "that's what I
came to Europe for, to be as happy as possible. Good-night."

"Good-night! I wish you all success, and shall be very glad to
contribute to it!"

She turned away, and he watched her as she slowly ascended. Then,
with his hands always in his pockets, he went back to the empty
drawing-room.

Henry James