Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 31

  • Isabel came back to Florence, but only after several months; an interva_ufficiently replete with incident. It is not, however, during this interva_hat we are closely concerned with her; our attention is engaged again on _ertain day in the late spring-time, shortly after her return to Palazz_rescentini and a year from the date of the incidents just narrated. She wa_lone on this occasion, in one of the smaller of the numerous rooms devoted b_rs. Touchett to social uses, and there was that in her expression an_ttitude which would have suggested that she was expecting a visitor. The tal_indow was open, and though its green shutters were partly drawn the brigh_ir of the garden had come in through a broad interstice and filled the roo_ith warmth and perfume. Our young woman stood near it for some time, he_ands clasped behind her; she gazed abroad with the vagueness of unrest. To_roubled for attention she moved in a vain circle. Yet it could not be in he_hought to catch a glimpse of her visitor before he should pass into th_ouse, since the entrance to the palace was not through the garden, in whic_tillness and privacy always reigned. She wished rather to forestall hi_rrival by a process of conjecture, and to judge by the expression of her fac_his attempt gave her plenty to do. Grave she found herself, and positivel_ore weighted, as by the experience of the lapse of the year she had spent i_eeing the world. She had ranged, she would have said, through space an_urveyed much of mankind, and was therefore now, in her own eyes, a ver_ifferent person from the frivolous young woman from Albany who had begun t_ake the measure of Europe on the lawn at Gardencourt a couple of year_efore. She flattered herself she had harvested wisdom and learned a grea_eal more of life than this light-minded creature had even suspected. If he_houghts just now had inclined themselves to retrospect, instead of flutterin_heir wings nervously about the present, they would have evoked a multitude o_nteresting pictures. These pictures would have been both landscapes an_igure-pieces; the latter, however, would have been the more numerous. Wit_everal of the images that might have been projected on such a field we ar_lready acquainted. There would be for instance the conciliatory Lily, ou_eroine's sister and Edmund Ludlow's wife, who had come out from New York t_pend five months with her relative. She had left her husband behind her, bu_ad brought her children, to whom Isabel now played with equal munificence an_enderness the part of maiden-aunt. Mr. Ludlow, toward the last, had been abl_o snatch a few weeks from his forensic triumphs and, crossing the ocean wit_xtreme rapidity, had spent a month with the two ladies in Paris before takin_is wife home. The little Ludlows had not yet, even from the American point o_iew, reached the proper tourist-age; so that while her sister was with he_sabel had confined her movements to a narrow circle. Lily and the babies ha_oined her in Switzerland in the month of July, and they had spent a summer o_ine weather in an Alpine valley where the flowers were thick in the meadow_nd the shade of great chestnuts made a resting-place for such upwar_anderings as might be undertaken by ladies and children on warm afternoons.
  • They had afterwards reached the French capital, which was worshipped, and wit_ostly ceremonies, by Lily, but thought of as noisily vacant by Isabel, who i_hese days made use of her memory of Rome as she might have done, in a hot an_rowded room, of a phial of something pungent hidden in her handkerchief.
  • Mrs. Ludlow sacrificed, as I say, to Paris, yet had doubts and wonderments no_llayed at that altar; and after her husband had joined her found furthe_hagrin in his failure to throw himself into these speculations. They all ha_sabel for subject; but Edmund Ludlow, as he had always done before, decline_o be surprised, or distressed, or mystified, or elated, at anything hi_ister-in-law might have done or have failed to do. Mrs. Ludlow's menta_otions were sufficiently various. At one moment she thought it would be s_atural for that young woman to come home and take a house in New York—th_ossiters', for instance, which had an elegant conservatory and was just roun_he corner from her own; at another she couldn't conceal her surprise at th_irl's not marrying some member of one of the great aristocracies. On th_hole, as I have said, she had fallen from high communion with th_robabilities. She had taken more satisfaction in Isabel's accession o_ortune than if the money had been left to herself; it had seemed to her t_ffer just the proper setting for her sister's slightly meagre, but scarce th_ess eminent figure. Isabel had developed less, however, than Lily had though_ikely—development, to Lily's understanding, being somehow mysteriousl_onnected with morning-calls and evening-parties. Intellectually, doubtless,
  • she had made immense strides; but she appeared to have achieved few of thos_ocial conquests of which Mrs. Ludlow had expected to admire the trophies.
  • Lily's conception of such achievements was extremely vague; but this wa_xactly what she had expected of Isabel—to give it form and body. Isabel coul_ave done as well as she had done in New York; and Mrs. Ludlow appealed to he_usband to know whether there was any privilege she enjoyed in Europe whic_he society of that city might not offer her. We know ourselves that Isabe_ad made conquests—whether inferior or not to those she might have effected i_er native land it would be a delicate matter to decide; and it is no_ltogether with a feeling of complacency that I again mention that she had no_endered these honourable victories public. She had not told her sister th_istory of Lord Warburton, nor had she given her a hint of Mr. Osmond's stat_f mind; and she had had no better reason for her silence than that she didn'_ish to speak. It was more romantic to say nothing, and, drinking deep, i_ecret, of romance, she was as little disposed to ask poor Lily's advice a_he would have been to close that rare volume forever. But Lily knew nothin_f these discriminations, and could only pronounce her sister's career _trange anti-climax—an impression confirmed by the fact that Isabel's silenc_bout Mr. Osmond, for instance, was in direct proportion to the frequency wit_hich he occupied her thoughts. As this happened very often it sometime_ppeared to Mrs. Ludlow that she had lost her courage. So uncanny a result o_o exhilarating an incident as inheriting a fortune was of course perplexin_o the cheerful Lily; it added to her general sense that Isabel was not at al_ike other people.
  • Our young lady's courage, however, might have been taken as reaching it_eight after her relations had gone home. She could imagine braver things tha_pending the winter in Paris—Paris had sides by which it so resembled Ne_ork, Paris was like smart, neat prose—and her close correspondence wit_adame Merle did much to stimulate such flights. She had never had a keene_ense of freedom, of the absolute boldness and wantonness of liberty, tha_hen she turned away from the platform at the Euston Station on one of th_ast days of November, after the departure of the train that was to conve_oor Lily, her husband and her children to their ship at Liverpool. It ha_een good for her to regale; she was very conscious of that; she was ver_bservant, as we know, of what was good for her, and her effort was constantl_o find something that was good enough. To profit by the present advantag_ill the latest moment she had made the journey from Paris with the unenvie_ravellers. She would have accompanied them to Liverpool as well, only Edmun_udlow had asked her, as a favour, not to do so; it made Lily so fidgety an_he asked such impossible questions. Isabel watched the train move away; sh_issed her hand to the elder of her small nephews, a demonstrative child wh_eaned dangerously far out of the window of the carriage and made separatio_n occasion of violent hilarity, and then she walked back into the fogg_ondon street. The world lay before her—she could do whatever she chose. Ther_as a deep thrill in it all, but for the present her choice was tolerabl_iscreet; she chose simply to walk back from Euston Square to her hotel. Th_arly dusk of a November afternoon had already closed in; the street-lamps, i_he thick, brown air, looked weak and red; our heroine was unattended an_uston Square was a long way from Piccadilly. But Isabel performed the journe_ith 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 obligin_oliceman easily set her right again. She was so fond of the spectacle o_uman life that she enjoyed even the aspect of gathering dusk in the Londo_treets— the moving crowds, the hurrying cabs, the lighted shops, the flarin_talls, 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. Sh_ade her way down to Rome without touching at Florence—having gone first t_enice and then proceeded southward by Ancona. She accomplished this journe_ithout other assistance than that of her servant, for her natural protector_ere 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 b_ telegram from the Interviewer. This journal offered its brillian_orrespondent a fresher field for her genius than the mouldering cities o_urope, and Henrietta was cheered on her way by a promise from Mr. Bantlin_hat he would soon come over to see her. Isabel wrote to Mrs. Touchett t_pologise for not presenting herself just yet in Florence, and her aun_eplied characteristically enough. Apologies, Mrs. Touchett intimated, were o_o 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 don_elonged to the sphere of the irrelevant, like the idea of a future life or o_he 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 no_topping at Florence, because she took it for a sign that Gilbert Osmond wa_ess in question there than formerly. She watched of course to see if he woul_ow find a pretext for going to Rome, and derived some comfort from learnin_hat he had not been guilty of an absence. Isabel, on her side, had not been _ortnight in Rome before she proposed to Madame Merle that they should make _ittle pilgrimage to the East. Madame Merle remarked that her friend wa_estless, but she added that she herself had always been consumed with th_esire to visit Athens and Constantinople. The two ladies accordingly embarke_n this expedition, and spent three months in Greece, in Turkey, in Egypt.
  • Isabel found much to interest her in these countries, though Madame Merl_ontinued to remark that even among the most classic sites, the scenes mos_alculated to suggest repose and reflexion, a certain incoherence prevailed i_er. Isabel travelled rapidly and recklessly; she was like a thirsty perso_raining cup after cup. Madame Merle meanwhile, as lady-in-waiting to _rincess circulating incognita, panted a little in her rear. It was o_sabel's invitation she had come, and she imparted all due dignity to th_irl's uncountenanced state. She played her part with the tact that might hav_een expected of her, effacing herself and accepting the position of _ompanion whose expenses were profusely paid. The situation, however, had n_ardships, and people who met this reserved though striking pair on thei_ravels would not have been able to tell you which was patroness and whic_lient. To say that Madame Merle improved on acquaintance states meagrely th_mpression she made on her friend, who had found her from the first so ampl_nd so easy. At the end of an intimacy of three months Isabel felt she kne_er better; her character had revealed itself, and the admirable woman ha_lso at last redeemed her promise of relating her history from her own poin_f view—a consummation the more desirable as Isabel had already heard i_elated from the point of view of others. This history was so sad a one (in s_ar as it concerned the late M. Merle, a positive adventurer, she might say,
  • though originally so plausible, who had taken advantage, years before, of he_outh and of an inexperience in which doubtless those who knew her only no_ould find it difficult to believe); it abounded so in startling an_amentable incidents that her companion wondered a person so eprouvee coul_ave kept so much of her freshness, her interest in life. Into this freshnes_f Madame Merle's she obtained a considerable insight; she seemed to see it a_rofessional, as slightly mechanical, carried about in its case like th_iddle of the virtuoso, or blanketed and bridled like the "favourite" of th_ockey. She liked her as much as ever, but there was a corner of the curtai_hat never was lifted; it was as if she had remained after all something of _ublic performer, condemned to emerge only in character and in costume. Sh_ad 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 _ifferent moral or social clime from her own, that she had grown up unde_ther stars.
  • She believed then that at bottom she had a different morality. Of course th_orality of civilised persons has always much in common; but our young woma_ad a sense in her of values gone wrong or, as they said at the shops, marke_own. She considered, with the presumption of youth, that a morality differin_rom her own must be inferior to it; and this conviction was an aid t_etecting an occasional flash of cruelty, an occasional lapse from candour, i_he conversation of a person who had raised delicate kindness to an art an_hose pride was too high for the narrow ways of deception. Her conception o_uman motives might, in certain lights, have been acquired at the court o_ome kingdom in decadence, and there were several in her list of which ou_eroine had not even heard. She had not heard of everything, that was ver_lain; and there were evidently things in the world of which it was no_dvantageous to hear. She had once or twice had a positive scare; since it s_ffected her to have to exclaim, of her friend, "Heaven forgive her, sh_oesn't understand me!" Absurd as it may seem this discovery operated as _hock, left her with a vague dismay in which there was even an element o_oreboding. The dismay of course subsided, in the light of some sudden proo_f Madame Merle's remarkable intelligence; but it stood for a high-water-mar_n the ebb and flow of confidence. Madame Merle had once declared her belie_hat when a friendship ceases to grow it immediately begins to decline—ther_eing no point of equilibrium between liking more and liking less. _tationary affection, in other words, was impossible—it must move one way o_he other. However that might be, the girl had in these days a thousand use_or her sense of the romantic, which was more active than it had ever been. _o not allude to the impulse it received as she gazed at the Pyramids in th_ourse of an excursion from Cairo, or as she stood among the broken columns o_he Acropolis and fixed her eyes upon the point designated to her as th_trait of Salamis; deep and memorable as these emotions had remained. She cam_ack 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 an_emained three weeks, during which the fact of her being with his old frien_adame Merle, in whose house she had gone to lodge, made it virtuall_nevitable that he should see her every day. When the last of April came sh_rote to Mrs. Touchett that she should now rejoice to accept an invitatio_iven long before, and went to pay a visit at Palazzo Crescentini, Madam_erle on this occasion remaining in Rome. She found her aunt alone; her cousi_as 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 giv_im the most affectionate welcome.