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Chapter 3

  • 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."