Chapter XIV

April 24, 2009

Had it been up to Miss Stackpole they would have left the confines of Gardencourt immediately, but it was not up to Miss Stackpole; the decision was Isabel Archer’s, and Miss Archer was of the decided opinion that her discourse with Lord Warburton had not been concluded, not to either’s satisfaction; so they waited for something happen, waited while Warburton prevaricated, waited while he dithered, waited for Warburton to arrive…

At least this was Miss Stackpole’s opinion.

Isabel, on the contrary, rather felt that Lord Warburton’s delay was understandable, that it corresponded with his desire not to appear aristocratic and arbitrary. She felt it both established his concern for her feelings and credited his need to let some time pass while he mastered his own difficult emotions. It was, in short, appropriate to Warburton’s situation whether Miss Stackpole thought so or not, and her uncle silently agreed with her, for when Warburton did finally come to lunch, Mr. Touchett made it his business to be present, providing a kind of umbrella of support and camouflage to both Isabel and his good friend.

viclady3Isabel was at first surprised that Lord Warburton brought his sister with him. Was Miss Molyneux there for support or camouflage? The two visitors were introduced to Miss Stackpole, who sat next to Warburton and questioned him avidly. Isabel couldn’t help but admire his self-possession, for while Warburton neither looked nor spoke to her, he conversed freely with the rest of the table and seemed to enjoy his meal. Miss Molyneux was wearing a simple silver cross that bespoke deep Anglican mysteries. She appeared to be quite taken with Miss Stackpole, and while they talked, Isabel took in her smooth features and quite demeanor, her almost nun-like self-possession. Isabel wondered what Miss Molyneux would think if she knew she had refused his brother’s marriage proposal, but quickly realized Miss Molyneux would never know of this event. Lord Warburton did not tell his sister such things. Miss Molyneux would find the act difficult to comprehend, and surely see the situation as a failure of Isabel’s—of Isabel’s own comprehension—and not that of her brother’s heredity certainties.

Despite her friend’s pensive state, Henrietta Stackpole was not inclined to miss her opportunity. ”Do you know you’re the first lord I’ve ever seen?” she stated to Warburton. “I suppose you think I’m awfully benighted.”

“Then you’ve escaped seeing some very ugly men,” he answered, glancing briefly at Miss Archer.

“In America, you know, they try to make us think they are all handsome and magnificent, and that they all wear robes and crowns.” She reflected: “They can’t all be ugly.”

“Ah, the robes and crowns are gone out of fashion, I’m afraid—like your tomahawks and revolvers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Miss Stackpole replied. “An aristocracy ought to be grand. I can’t see any other use for…”

“Potatoes?” Warburton interrupted. He was holding a plate of boiled potatoes. “They’re awfully good.”

Miss Stackpole did not think so. “I don’t much care for these European potatoes.” Boiled to death, they were. “I shouldn’t know you from an ordinary American gentleman.”

“Do talk to me as if I were one, you know…”

Miss Stackpole laughed. “A potato?”

Lord Warburton, hoist on his own petard, laughed as well. Miss Stackpole persisted: “I don’t approve of you, you know. I feel I ought to tell you that.”

“Don’t approve of me?”

“Of Lords and Ladies. I don’t suppose anyone has said such a thing to you before. The institution. We have gotten far beyond that.”

“Oh I agree. Sometimes I don’t approve of myself—as an institution.”

“Why don’t you give it up then?” Miss Stackpole enquired.

“Give up—a—?” No one had ever said such a thing to Lord Warburton. “Perhaps one day I shall.”

Miss Stackpole was not one to let a conversation lag. “Please explain about that young lady—your sister. I don’t understand about her. Is she a Lady?”

“She’s a capital good girl.”

“That’s not the same thing, Lord Warburton. Is her position inferior to yours?”

“We neither of us have any position to speak of, but she’s better off than I, because she has none of the bother.”

This of course was perfect nonsense, as both Miss Stackpole and Lord Warburton knew—but in Warburton’s case the self-description fitted his person and his station in life too well for him to shake it off. He would be just as likely to walk into the room naked as walk in without his self-deprecating false modesty.

“And is that silver cross a badge?” Miss Stackpole asked earnestly.

“A badge?” Lord Warburton seemed to travel a great distance in his mind. “Oh yes,” he answered finally. “The silver cross is worn by the eldest daughters of Viscounts.”

Thus Miss Stackpole, mildly mollified, somewhat mystified, was passed on to Miss Molyneux; let her explain about that cross…

In his careful way, Warburton proposed to Isabel that they look at the pictures in the gallery. Together, they walked silently to the end of the hall, studying portraits that Warburton had seen dozens of times. The room seemed changed, though, as if a subtitle sensibility had begun to rearrange the furniture and reframe the portraits. Warburton thought of that poem:

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing---Oh, make haste!
 

That Khayyam fellow. It would hardly be appropriate to quote this to Miss Archer, and Warburton had only a scant notion of the subconscious to guide him in his mental accounting. He felt at a loss for words—unusual for him—perhaps he didn’t realize the weight of the empire was on him—but perhaps he did.

“I had hoped you wouldn’t write to me that way!” he suddenly broke out.

“It was the only way, Lord Warburton,” said the girl. “Do try and believe that.”

“I can’t believe what I can’t understand,” Lord Warburton said simply. “It’s not a matter of the will.” Then: “Do you prefer someone else?”

“I’d rather not answer that.”

“Then you do!”

The bitterness in his voice touched her. Isabel had vowed to herself that this rendezvous would be conciliatory, for she was genuinely fond of Warburton and wished to spare him as much of the pain of rejection as possible. In the previous days’ interregnum she had imagined herself magnanimous in explanation. Explaining what could not be explained. Saying what could not be said. “No, you’re mistaken. I don’t,” was all in fact she could find to say.

Lord Warburton had many pieces of the puzzle in his mind. He could understand if she didn’t like him, that was fair enough, but she had admitted this was not the case. “You don’t seem to have any reason. That gives me a sense of injustice.”

Isabel walked to the other side of the gallery and stood there showing her charming back, her light slim figure, the length of her white neck as she bent her head, and the density of her dark braids: a physical presence the existence of which seemed to mock Warburton, and for a moment he sensed the truth of the situation. There was something so young and free in her movement that its very pliancy seemed to reproach him and his tendentious marriage proposal; it seemed to make him the outsider in this charade of light and he was not used to that. As he crossed the gallery, he realized that Isabel’s eyes had filled with tears. “That the reason that I wouldn’t tell you—I’ll tell you after all. It’s that I can’t escape my fate.”

“Your fate?”

“I would try to escape it if I were to marry you.”

“My dear girl, why should I not be your fate?”

“Because you’re not,” she said femininely. “I can’t escape unhappiness,” Isabel explained. “In marrying you, I shall be trying to.”

The piquancy of this idea was not lost on Warburton. “My dear Miss Archer, I don’t offer you protection from unhappiness. I don’t offer you any exoneration from life, or from life’s dangers. All I offer is the chance to take the common lot in a comfortable way. I’m not the Emperor of China.”

“I’m not bent on a life of misery,” Isabel amended. “I just don’t want to separate myself from life—from the dangers, from what most people know and suffer…”

Isabel broke off, for she realized they had been joined by Ralph, Henrietta Stackpole, and Miss Molyneux, who addressed her brother, as if indeed he were the Emperor of China, in a small hesitant voice, one that realized that it was intruding, though had the necessary task of reminding him they had company coming for tea. Lord Warburton sat, pondering Isabel’s life of misery. For a moment, brother and sister existed alone, in isolation, in silence, in a world gone cold.

“Well, I never, Miss Molyneux!” interjected Henrietta Stackpole, blowing smoke across the tundra. “If I wanted my brother to do a thing, he’d have to do it.

“I’m afraid we have some people to tea,” Miss Molyneux repeated, searching her brother’s eyes.

“Very well, my dear, we’ll go.”

O f course nothing had been resolved. The tableau that Miss Archer had arranged in her mind—images of understanding, images of a magnanimous colloquium, an image of developing friendship—were being shipwrecked over a cup of tea. Had Warburton asked his sister to interrupt? Had he brought her here for that specific purpose, or was she doing it out of natural guile?

“I should like you to come to Lockleigh again,” said Miss Molyneux, looking at Isabel, from behind the veil of her own incomprehension.

Isabel looked into her quiet eyes for a moment, and for that moment seemed to see in their grey depths the reflexion of everything she had rejected in rejecting Lord Warburton—the peace, the kindness, the honour, the possessions, a deep security and a great exclusion. She kissed Miss Molyneux and then she said: “I’m afraid I can never come again.”

***

Later, retired to her own rooms, Isabel Archer was visited by Mrs. Touchett. “I may as well tell you, that your Uncle informed me of your relations with Lord Warburton.”

Isabel considered. “Relations? They’re hardly relations. That’s the strange part of it; he’s only seen me three or four times.”

“Why did you tell your Uncle rather than me?”

Again the girl hesitated. This telling thing was the issue. Why had she confided in her uncle and not her aunt? Why had she kept Miss Stackpole in relative darkness? Why had Warburton neglected to inform his sister of the true purpose of today’s ‘luncheon’? They had not come for a garden party, after all, but to discuss a marriage. It was as if Isabel had stepped into the world of men with this proposal. Perhaps it would be the only time, she thought. But it was not enough time, not for her understanding.

“Because,” she addressed her aunt, “he knows Lord Warburton better.”

“But I know you better.”

Isabel thought back to her parting with Lord Warburton. When, then, shall I see you again, he’d asked. Not for a good while, she’d said, but some day or other, I hope. Do you? he’d asked

“I’m afraid I didn’t handle this well. He’s a kind man. We hardly know each other.”

Isabel thought of that poem everyone was reading, Omar something—

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/ Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/ Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

No, she didn’t know Warburton; he’d not given her the time. In a man’s world, time goes faster. To her aunt she said: “Do you think ideas matter?”

“They certainly seem to matter to that Mr. Huxley.”

“No, I don’t mean that so much. Poor Mr. Huxley. I mean ideas you have about yourself. Who you think you are?”

Isabel sat in front of the mirror, brushing her hair. Her aunt sat on the bed. “And who do you think you are, dear?”

Isabel was full of questions. “And if you were in the grip of an evil force, would you know it? Some minatory angel, a force so vague and so general…” Miss Archer crooked her head. “An angel of history, I don’t know, I felt it this afternoon, in the gallery with Lord Warburton, as if some battle in Heaven had been lost.”

“Somehow, as if there was a different author?”

“Yes, in a different book altogether. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.

“What’s that dear?”

Isabel smiled. “That’s my Admonitory Angel. I guess we shall have to turn the page together.”

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