IT was not with surprise, it was with a feeling which in other circumstances would have had much of the effect of joy, that as Isabel descended from the Paris mail at Charing Cross, she stepped into the arms, as it wereor at any rate into the handsof Henrietta Stackpole. She had telegraphed to her friend from Turin, and though she had not definitely said to herself that Henrietta would meet her, she had felt that her telegram would produce some helpful result. On her long journey from Rome her mind had been given up to vagueness; she was unable to question the future. She performed this journey with sightless eyes, and took little pleasure in the countries she traversed, decked out through they were in the richest freshness of spring. Her thoughts followed their course through other countriesstrange-looking, dimly-lighted, pathless lands, in which there was no change of seasons, but only, as it seemed, a perpetual dreariness of winter. She had plenty to think about; but it was not reflection, nor conscious purpose, that filled her mind. Disconnected visions passed through it, and sudden dull gleams of memory, of expectation. The past and the future alternated at their will, but she saw them only in fitful images, which came and went by a logic of their own. It was extraordinary the things she remembered. Now that she was in the secret, now that she knew something that so much concerned her, and the eclipse of which had made life resemble an attempt to play whist with an imperfect pack of cards, the truth of things, their mutual relations, their meaning, and for the most part their horror rose before her with a kind of architectural vastness. She remembered a thousand trifles; they started to life with the spontaneity of a shiver. That is, she had thought them trifles at the time; now she saw that they were leaden-weighted. Yet even now they were trifles, after all; for of what use was it to her to understand them? Nothing seemed of use to her to-day. All purpose, all intention, was suspended; all desire, too, save the single desire to reach her richly-constituted refuge. Gardencourt had been her starting-point, and to those muffled chambers it was at least a temporary solution to return. She had gone forth in her strength; she would come back in her weakness, and if the place had been a rest to her before, it would be a positive sanctuary now. She envied Ralph his dying; for if one were thinking of rest, that was the most perfect of all. To cease utterly, to give it all up and not know anything morethis idea was as sweet as the vision of a cool bath in a marble tank, in a darkened chamber, in a hot land. She had moments, indeed, in her journey from Rome, which were almost as good as being dead. She sat in her corner, so motionless, so passive, simply with the sense of being carried, so detached from hope and regret, that if her spirit was haunted with sudden pictures, it might have been the spirit disembarrassed of the flesh. There was nothing to regret nowthat was all over. Not only the time of her folly, but the time of her repentance seemed far away. The only thing to regret was that Madame Merle had been soso strange. Just here Isabels imagination paused, from literal inability to say what it was that Madame Merle had been. Whatever it was, it was for Madame Merle herself to regret it; and doubtless she would do so in America, where she was going. It concerned Isabel no more; she only had an impression that she should never again see Madame Merle. This impression carried her into the future, of which from time to time she had a mutilated glimpse. She saw herself, in the distant years, still in the attitude of a woman who had her life to live, and those intimations contradicted the spirit of the present hour. It might be desirable to die; but this privilege was evidently to be denied her. Deep in her souldeeper than any appetite for renunciationwas the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost exhilarating, in the conviction. It was a proof of strengthit was a proof that she should some day be happy again. It couldnt be that she was to live only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet. To live only to sufferonly to feel the injury of life repeated and enlargedit seemed to her that she was too valuable, too capable, for that. Then she wondered whether it were vain and stupid to think so well of herself. When had it ever been a guarantee to be valuable? Was not all history full of the destruction of precious things? Was it not much more probable that if one were delicate one would suffer? It involved then, perhaps, an admission that one had a certain grossness; but Isabel recognised, as it passed before her eyes, the quick, vague shadow of a long future. She should not escape; she should last. Then the middle years wrapped her about again, and the grey curtain of her indifference closed her in.
Henrietta kissed her, as Henrietta usually kissed, as if she were afraid she should be caught doing it; and then Isabel stood there in the crowd, looking about her, looking for her servant. She asked nothing; she wished to wait. She had a sudden perception that she should be helped. She was so glad Henrietta was there; there was something terrible in an arrival in London. The dusky, smoky, far-arching vault of the station, the strange, livid light, the dense, dark, pushing crowd, filled her with a nervous fear and made her put her arm into her friends. She remembered that she had once liked these things; they seemed part of a mighty spectacle, in which there was something that touched her. She remembered how she walked away from Euston, in the winter dusk, in the crowded streets, five years before. She could not have done that to-day, and the incident came before her as the deed of another person.
Its too beautiful that you should have come, said Henrietta, looking at her as if she thought Isabel might be prepared to challenge the proposition. If you hadntif you hadnt; well, I dont know, remarked Miss Stackpole, hinting ominously at her powers of disapproval.
Isabel looked about, without seeing her maid. Her eyes rested on another figure, however, which she felt that she had seen before; and in a moment she recognised the genial countenance of Mr. Bantling. He stood a little apart, and it was not in the power of the multitude that pressed about him to make him yield an inch of the ground he had takenthat of abstracting himself, discreetly, while the two ladies performed their embraces.
Oh yes, he goes everywhere with me. Come here, Mr. Bantling! Henrietta exclaimed. Whereupon the gallant bachelor advanced with a smilea smile tempered, however, by the gravity of the occasion. Isnt it lovely that she has come? Henrietta asked. He knows all about it, she added; we had quite a discussion; he said you wouldnt; I said you would.
I thought you always agreed, Isabel answered, smiling. She found she could smile now; she had seen in an instant, in Mr. Bantlings excellent eye, that he had good news for her. It seemed to say that he wished her to remember that he was an old friend of her cousinthat he understoodthat it was all right. Isabel gave him her hand; she thought him so kind.
Only for a little. But he had been seeing people; Warburton was there the day before. Touchett was just the same as usual, except that he was in bed, that he looks tremendously ill, and that he cant speak, Mr. Bantling pursued. He was immensely friendly all the same. He was just as clever as ever. Its awfully sad.
Ah, I dont think shell let you go, said Mr. Bantling. She wants you to stop with her. I made Touchetts man promise to telegraph me to-day, and I found the telegram an hour ago at my club. Quiet and easy, thats what it says, and its dated two oclock. So you see you can wait till to-morrow. You must be very tired.
Miss Stackpole came back with Isabels maid, whom she had caught in the act of proving her utility. This excellent person, instead of losing herself in the crowd, had simply attended to her mistresss luggage, so that now Isabel was at liberty to leave the station.
You know you are not to think of going to the country to-night, Henrietta remarked to her. It doesnt matter whether there is a train or not. You are to come straight to me, in Wimpole Street. There isnt a corner to be had in London, but I have got you one all the same. It isnt a Roman palace, but it will do for a night.
It must have been awful, she then remarked. And Isabel did not deny that it had been awful. But she confined herself to answering Henriettas questions, which was easy, as they were tolerably definite. For the present she offered her no new information. Well, said Miss Stackpole at last, I have only one criticism to make. I dont see why you promised little Miss Osmond to go back.
It was more natural than I think you know, said Henrietta, fixing her eyes on a distant point. And then she added, turning suddenly: Isabel Archer, I beg your pardon. You dont know why? Because I criticised you, and yet I have gone further than you. Mr. Osmond, at least, was born on the other side!
It was a moment before Isabel perceived her meaning; it was so modestly, or at least so ingeniously, veiled. Isabels mind was not possessed at present with the comicality of things; but she greeted with a quick laugh the image that her companion had raised. She immediately recovered herself, however, and with a gravity too pathetic to be real
He has a beautiful nature, she remarked at last. I have studied him for many years, and I see right through him. Hes as clear as glasstheres no mystery about him. He is not intellectual, but he appreciates intellect. On the other hand, he doesnt exaggerate its claims. I sometimes think we do in the United States.
Isabel was deeply diverted, but there was a certain melancholy in her view. Henrietta, after all, was human and feminine, Henrietta whom she had hitherto regarded as a light keen flame, a disembodied voice. It was rather a disappointment to find that she had personal susceptibilities, that she was subject to common passions, and that her intimacy with Mr. Bantling had not been completely original. There was a want of originality in her marrying himthere was even a kind of stupidity; and for a moment, to Isabels sense, the dreariness of the world took on a deeper tinge.
A little later, indeed, she reflected that Mr. Bantling, after all, was original. But she didnt see how Henrietta could give up her country. She herself had relaxed her hold of it, but it had never been her country as it had been Henriettas. She presently asked her if she had enjoyed her visit to Lady Pensil.
Very much so, because she is supposed to be very talented. She thinks she knows everything; but she doesnt understand a lady-correspondent! It would be so much easier for her if I were only a little better or a little worse. Shes so puzzled; I believe she thinks its my duty to go and do something immoral. She thinks its immoral that I should marry her brother; but, after all, that isnt immoral enough. And she will never understandnever!
Isabel also perceived, however, on the morrow, at the Paddington station, where she found herself, at two oclock, in the company both of Miss Stackpole and Mr. Bantling, that the gentleman bore his perplexities lightly. If he had not found out everything, he had found out at least the great pointthat Miss Stackpole would not be wanting in initiative. It was evident that in the selection of a wife he had been on his guard against this deficiency.