Mrs. Touchett was certainly a person of many oddities, of which her behaviou_n returning to her husband's house after many months was a noticeabl_pecimen. She had her own way of doing all that she did, and this is th_implest description of a character which, although by no means withou_iberal motions, rarely succeeded in giving an impression of suavity. Mrs.
Touchett might do a great deal of good, but she never pleased. This way of he_wn, of which she was so fond, was not intrinsically offensive—it was jus_nmistakeably distinguished from the ways of others. The edges of her conduc_ere so very clear-cut that for susceptible persons it sometimes had a knife- like effect. That hard fineness came out in her deportment during the firs_ours of her return from America, under circumstances in which it might hav_eemed that her first act would have been to exchange greetings with he_usband and son. Mrs. Touchett, for reasons which she deemed excellent, alway_etired on such occasions into impenetrable seclusion, postponing the mor_entimental ceremony until she had repaired the disorder of dress with _ompleteness which had the less reason to be of high importance as neithe_eauty nor vanity were concerned in it. She was a plain-faced old woman, without graces and without any great elegance, but with an extreme respect fo_er own motives. She was usually prepared to explain these—when th_xplanation was asked as a favour; and in such a case they proved totall_ifferent from those that had been attributed to her. She was virtuall_eparated from her husband, but she appeared to perceive nothing irregular i_he situation. It had become clear, at an early stage of their community, tha_hey should never desire the same thing at the same moment, and thi_ppearance had prompted her to rescue disagreement from the vulgar realm o_ccident. She did what she could to erect it into a law—a much more edifyin_spect of it—by going to live in Florence, where she bought a house an_stablished herself; and by leaving her husband to take care of the Englis_ranch of his bank. This arrangement greatly pleased her; it was s_elicitously definite. It struck her husband in the same light, in a fogg_quare in London, where it was at times the most definite fact he discerned; but he would have preferred that such unnatural things should have a greate_agueness. To agree to disagree had cost him an effort; he was ready to agre_o almost anything but that, and saw no reason why either assent or dissen_hould be so terribly consistent. Mrs. Touchett indulged in no regrets no_peculations, and usually came once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during which she apparently took pains to convince him that she ha_dopted the right system. She was not fond of the English style of life, an_ad three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bor_pon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they ampl_ustified non-residence. She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looke_ike a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of bee_y her maid-servants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs.
Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not _istress of her art. At fixed intervals she paid a visit to her own country; but this last had been longer than any of its predecessors.
She had taken up her niece—there was little doubt of that. One wet afternoon, some four months earlier than the occurrence lately narrated, this young lad_ad been seated alone with a book. To say she was so occupied is to say tha_er solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had _ertilising quality and her imagination was strong. There was at this time, however, a want of fresh taste in her situation which the arrival of a_nexpected visitor did much to correct. The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard her at last walking about the adjoining room. It was in an ol_ouse at Albany, a large, square, double house, with a notice of sale in th_indows of one of the lower apartments. There were two entrances, one of whic_ad long been out of use but had never been removed. They were exactl_like—large white doors, with an arched frame and wide side-lights, perche_pon little "stoops" of red stone, which descended sidewise to the bric_avement of the street. The two houses together formed a single dwelling, th_arty-wall having been removed and the rooms placed in communication. Thes_ooms, above-stairs, were extremely numerous, and were painted all ove_xactly alike, in a yellowish white which had grown sallow with time. On th_hird floor there was a sort of arched passage, connecting the two sides o_he house, which Isabel and her sisters used in their childhood to call th_unnel and which, though it was short and well lighted, always seemed to th_irl to be strange and lonely, especially on winter afternoons. She had bee_n the house, at different periods, as a child; in those days her grandmothe_ived there. Then there had been an absence of ten years, followed by a retur_o Albany before her father's death. Her grandmother, old Mrs. Archer, ha_xercised, chiefly within the limits of the family, a large hospitality in th_arly period, and the little girls often spent weeks under her roof— weeks o_hich Isabel had the happiest memory. The manner of life was different fro_hat of her own home—larger, more plentiful, practically more festal; th_iscipline of the nursery was delightfully vague and the opportunity o_istening to the conversation of one's elders (which with Isabel was a highly- valued pleasure) almost unbounded. There was a constant coming and going; he_randmother's sons and daughters and their children appeared to be in th_njoyment of standing invitations to arrive and remain, so that the hous_ffered to a certain extent the appearance of a bustling provincial inn kep_y a gentle old landlady who sighed a great deal and never presented a bill.
Isabel of course knew nothing about bills; but even as a child she thought he_randmother's home romantic. There was a covered piazza behind it, furnishe_ith a swing which was a source of tremulous interest; and beyond this was _ong garden, sloping down to the stable and containing peach-trees of barel_redible familiarity. Isabel had stayed with her grandmother at variou_easons, but somehow all her visits had a flavour of peaches. On the othe_ide, across the street, was an old house that was called the Dutch House—_eculiar structure dating from the earliest colonial time, composed of brick_hat had been painted yellow, crowned with a gable that was pointed out t_trangers, defended by a rickety wooden paling and standing sidewise to th_treet. It was occupied by a primary school for children of both sexes, kep_r rather let go, by a demonstrative lady of whom Isabel's chief recollectio_as that her hair was fastened with strange bedroomy combs at the temples an_hat she was the widow of some one of consequence. The little girl had bee_ffered the opportunity of laying a foundation of knowledge in thi_stablishment; but having spent a single day in it, she had protested agains_ts laws and had been allowed to stay at home, where, in the September days, when the windows of the Dutch House were open, she used to hear the hum o_hildish voices repeating the multiplication table—an incident in which th_lation of liberty and the pain of exclusion were indistinguishably mingled.
The foundation of her knowledge was really laid in the idleness of he_randmother's house, where, as most of the other inmates were not readin_eople, she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books wit_rontispieces, which she used to climb upon a chair to take down. When she ha_ound one to her taste— she was guided in the selection chiefly by th_rontispiece— she carried it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond th_ibrary and which was called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office.
Whose office it had been and at what period it had flourished, she neve_earned; it was enough for her that it contained an echo and a pleasant must_mell and that it was a chamber of disgrace for old pieces of furniture whos_nfirmities were not always apparent (so that the disgrace seemed unmerite_nd rendered them victims of injustice) and with which, in the manner o_hildren, she had established relations almost human, certainly dramatic.
There was an old haircloth sofa in especial, to which she had confided _undred childish sorrows. The place owed much of its mysterious melancholy t_he fact that it was properly entered from the second door of the house, th_oor that had been condemned, and that it was secured by bolts which _articularly slender little girl found it impossible to slide. She knew tha_his silent, motionless portal opened into the street; if the sidelights ha_ot been filled with green paper she might have looked out upon the littl_rown stoop and the well-worn brick pavement. But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side—a place which became to the child'_magination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or o_error.
It was in the "office" still that Isabel was sitting on that melanchol_fternoon of early spring which I have just mentioned. At this time she migh_ave had the whole house to choose from, and the room she had selected was th_ost depressed of its scenes. She had never opened the bolted door nor remove_he green paper (renewed by other hands) from its sidelights; she had neve_ssured herself that the vulgar street lay beyond. A crude, cold rain fel_eavily; the spring-time was indeed an appeal— and it seemed a cynical, insincere appeal—to patience. Isabel, however, gave as little heed as possibl_o cosmic treacheries; she kept her eyes on her book and tried to fix he_ind. It had lately occurred to her that her mind was a good deal of _agabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in training it to a military ste_nd teaching it to advance, to halt, to retreat, to perform even mor_omplicated manoeuvres, at the word of command. Just now she had given i_arching orders and it had been trudging over the sandy plains of a history o_erman Thought. Suddenly she became aware of a step very different from he_wn intellectual pace; she listened a little and perceived that some one wa_oving in the library, which communicated with the office. It struck her firs_s the step of a person from whom she was looking for a visit, then almos_mmediately announced itself as the tread of a woman and a stranger—he_ossible visitor being neither. It had an inquisitive, experimental qualit_hich 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 wh_aused there and looked very hard at our heroine. She was a plain, elderl_oman, dressed in a comprehensive waterproof mantle; she had a face with _ood deal of rather violent point.
"Oh," she began, "is that where you usually sit?" She looked about at th_eterogeneous chairs and tables.
"Not when I have visitors," said Isabel, getting up to receive the intruder.
She directed their course back to the library while the visitor continued t_ook about her. "You seem to have plenty of other rooms; they're in rathe_etter condition. But everything's immensely worn."
"Have you come to look at the house?" Isabel asked. "The servant will show i_o you."
"Send her away; I don't want to buy it. She has probably gone to look for yo_nd is wandering about upstairs; she didn't seem at all intelligent. You ha_etter tell her it's no matter." And then, since the girl stood ther_esitating and wondering, this unexpected critic said to her abruptly: "_uppose you're one of the daughters?"
Isabel thought she had very strange manners. "It depends upon whose daughter_ou 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'm your Aunt Lydia, but I'_ot at all crazy: I haven't a delusion! And which of the daughters are you?"
"I'm the youngest of the three, and my name's Isabel."
"Yes; the others are Lilian and Edith. And are you the prettiest?"
"I haven't 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 deat_f her sister, taking him to task for the manner in which he brought up hi_hree girls. Being a high-tempered man he had requested her to mind her ow_usiness, and she had taken him at his word. For many years she held n_ommunication with him and after his death had addressed not a word to hi_aughters, who had been bred in that disrespectful view of her which we hav_ust seen Isabel betray. Mrs. Touchett's behaviour was, as usual, perfectl_eliberate. She intended to go to America to look after her investments (wit_hich her husband, in spite of his great financial position, had nothing t_o) and would take advantage of this opportunity to enquire into the conditio_f her nieces. There was no need of writing, for she should attach n_mportance 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 goo_eal about them, and knew about the marriage of the two elder girls; knew tha_heir 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 t_ttend to this matter, in consideration of which the young couple, who ha_ome to Albany during Mr. Archer's illness, were remaining there for th_resent and, as well as Isabel herself, occupying the old place.
"How much money do you expect for it?" Mrs. Touchett asked of her companion, who had brought her to sit in the front parlour, which she had inspecte_ithout enthusiasm.
"I haven't the least idea," said the girl.
"That's the second time you have said that to me," her aunt rejoined. "And ye_ou 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.
What have you in point of fact inherited?"
"I really can't tell you. You must ask Edmund and Lilian; they'll be back i_alf an hour."
"In Florence we should call it a very bad house," said Mrs. Touchett; "bu_ere, I dare say, it will bring a high price. It ought to make a considerabl_um for each of you. In addition to that you must have something else; it'_ost extraordinary your not knowing. The position's of value, and they'l_robably pull it down and make a row of shops. I wonder you don't do tha_ourself; you might let the shops to great advantage."
Isabel stared; the idea of letting shops was new to her. "I hope they won'_ull 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," the girl rather strangely returned. "_ike places in which things have happened—even if they're sad things. A grea_any 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 thei_orrows only, for I've been very happy here as a child."
"You should go to Florence if you like houses in which things hav_appened—especially deaths. I live in an old palace in which three people hav_een 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 he_randmother's house. But the emotion was of a kind which led her to say: "_hould like very much to go to Florence."
"Well, if you'll be very good, and do everything I tell you I'll take yo_here," Mrs. Touchett declared.
Our young woman's emotion deepened; she flushed a little and smiled at he_unt in silence. "Do everything you tell me? I don't think I can promis_hat."
"No, you don't look like a person of that sort. You're 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'd promis_lmost anything!"
Edmund and Lilian were slow to return, and Mrs. Touchett had an hour'_ninterrupted talk with her niece, who found her a strange and interestin_igure: a figure essentially—almost the first she had ever met. She was a_ccentric as Isabel had always supposed; and hitherto, whenever the girl ha_eard people described as eccentric, she had thought of them as offensive o_larming. The term had always suggested to her something grotesque and eve_inister. But her aunt made it a matter of high but easy irony, or comedy, an_ed her to ask herself if the common tone, which was all she had known, ha_ver been as interesting. No one certainly had on any occasion so held her a_his little thin-lipped, bright-eyed, foreign-looking woman, who retrieved a_nsignificant appearance by a distinguished manner and, sitting there in _ell-worn waterproof, talked with striking familiarity of the courts o_urope. There was nothing flighty about Mrs. Touchett, but she recognised n_ocial superiors, and, judging the great ones of the earth in a way that spok_f this, enjoyed the consciousness of making an impression on a candid an_usceptible mind. Isabel at first had answered a good many questions, and i_as from her answers apparently that Mrs. Touchett derived a high opinion o_er intelligence. But after this she had asked a good many, and her aunt'_nswers, whatever turn they took, struck her as food for deep reflexion. Mrs.
Touchett waited for the return of her other niece as long as she though_easonable, but as at six o'clock Mrs. Ludlow had not come in she prepared t_ake her departure.
"Your sister must be a great gossip. Is she accustomed to staying out so man_ours?"
"You've been out almost as long as she," Isabel replied; "she can have lef_he house but a short time before you came in."
Mrs. Touchett looked at the girl without resentment; she appeared to enjoy _old retort and to be disposed to be gracious. "Perhaps she hasn't had so goo_n excuse as I. Tell her at any rate that she must come and see me thi_vening at that horrid hotel. She may bring her husband if she likes, but sh_eedn't bring you. I shall see plenty of you later."