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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Lifting of a Veil

By Henry James (1843–1916)

[The Portrait of a Lady. 1881.]

IT was not till the evening that she was able to see Ralph. He had been dozing all day; at least he had been lying unconscious. The doctor was there, but after a while he went away—the local doctor, who had attended his father, and whom Ralph liked. He came three or four times a day; he was deeply interested in his patient. Ralph had had Sir Matthew Hope, but he had got tired of this celebrated man, to whom he had asked his mother to send word that he was now dead, and was therefore without further need of medical advice. Mrs. Touchett had simply written to Sir Matthew that her son disliked him. On the day of Isabel’s arrival Ralph gave no sign, as I have related, for many hours; but toward evening he raised himself and said he knew that she had come. How he knew it was not apparent, inasmuch as, for fear of exciting him, no one had offered the information. Isabel came in and sat by his bed in the dim light; there was only a shaded candle in a corner of the room. She told the nurse that she might go—that she herself would sit with him for the rest of the evening. He had opened his eyes and recognized her, and had moved his hand, which lay very helpless beside him, so that she might take it. But he was unable to speak; he closed his eyes again and remained perfectly still, only keeping her hand in his own. She sat with him a long time—till the nurse came back; but he gave no further sign. He might have passed away while she looked at him; he was already the figure and pattern of death. She had thought him far gone in Rome, but this was worse; there was only one change possible now. There was a strange tranquillity in his face; it was as still as the lid of a box. With this he was a mere lattice of bones; when he opened his eyes to greet her, it was as if she were looking into immeasurable space. It was not till midnight that the nurse came back; but the hours, to Isabel, had not seemed long; it was exactly what she had come for. If she had come simply to wait, she found ample occasion, for he lay for three days in a kind of grateful silence. He recognized her, and at moments he seemed to wish to speak; but he found no voice. Then he closed his eyes again, as if he too were waiting for something—for something that certainly would come. He was so absolutely quiet that it seemed to her what was coming had already arrived; and yet she never lost the sense that they were still together. But they were not always together; there were other hours that she passed in wandering through the empty house and listening for a voice that was not poor Ralph’s. She had a constant fear; she thought it possible her husband would write to her. But he remained silent, and she only got a letter from Florence from the Countess Gemini. Ralph, however, spoke at last, on the evening of the third day.

“I feel better to-night,” he murmured, abruptly, in the soundless dimness of her vigil; “I think I can say something.”

She sank upon her knees beside his pillow; took his thin hand in her own; begged him not to make an effort—not to tire himself.

His face was of necessity serious—it was incapable of the muscular play of a smile; but its owner apparently had not lost a perception of incongruities. “What does it matter if I am tired, when I have all eternity to rest?” he asked. “There is no harm in making an effort when it is the very last. Don’t people always feel better just before the end? I have often heard of that; it’s what I was waiting for. Ever since you have been here, I thought it would come. I tried two or three times; I was afraid you would get tired of sitting there.” He spoke slowly, with painful breaks and long pauses; his voice seemed to come from a distance. When he ceased, he lay with his face turned to Isabel, and his large unwinking eyes open into her own. “It was very good of you to come,” he went on. “I thought you would; but I wasn’t sure.”

“I was not sure either, till I came,” said Isabel.

“You have been like an angel beside my bed. You know they talk about the angel of death. It’s the most beautiful of all. You have been like that; as if you were waiting for me.”

“I was not waiting for your death; I was waiting for—for this. This is not death, dear Ralph.”

“Not for you—no. There is nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life—the sense that we remain. I have had it—even I. But now I am of no use but to give it to others. With me it’s all over.” And then he paused. Isabel bowed her head further, till it rested on the two hands that were clasped upon his own. She could not see him now; but his far-away voice was close to her ear. “Isabel,” he went on, suddenly, “I wish it were over for you.” She answered nothing; she had burst into sobs; she remained so, with her buried face. He lay silent, listening to her sobs; at last he gave a long groan. “Ah, what is it you have done for me?”

“What is it you did for me?” she cried, her now extreme agitation half smothered by her attitude. She had lost all her shame, all wish to hide things. Now he might know; she wished him to know, for it brought them supremely together, and he was beyond the reach of pain. “You did something once—you know it. Oh, Ralph, you have been everything! What have I done for you—what can I do to-day? I would die if you could live. But I don’t wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you.” Her voice was as broken as his own, and full of tears and anguish.

“You won’t lose me—you will keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I have ever been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there is love. Death is good—but there is no love.”

“I never thanked you—I never spoke—I never was what I should be!” Isabel went on. She felt a passionate need to cry out and accuse herself, to let her sorrow possess her. All her troubles, for the moment, became single and melted together into this present pain. “What must you have thought of me? Yet how could I know? I never knew, and I only know to-day because there are people less stupid than I.”

“Don’t mind people,” said Ralph. “I think I am glad to leave people.”

She raised her head and her clasped hands; she seemed for a moment to pray to him.

“Is it true—is it true?” she asked.

“True that you have been stupid? Oh, no,” said Ralph, with a sensible intention of wit.

“That you made me rich—that all I have is yours?”

He turned away his head, and for some time said nothing. Then at last—

“Ah, don’t speak of that—that was not happy.” Slowly he moved his face toward her again, and they once more saw each other. “But for that—but for that—” And he paused. “I believe I ruined you,” he added softly.

She was full of the sense that he was beyond the reach of pain; he seemed already so little of this world. But even if she had not had it she would still have spoken, for nothing mattered now but the only knowledge that was not pure anguish—the knowledge that they were looking at the truth together.

“He married me for my money,” she said.

She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.

He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—

“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

He listened to her a little, and then continued:

“Was he very bad about your coming?”

“He made it very hard for me. But I don’t care.”

“It is all over, then, between you?”

“Oh, no; I don’t think anything is over.”

“Are you going back to him?” Ralph stammered.

“I don’t know—I can’t tell. I shall stay here as long as I may. I don’t want to think—I needn’t think. I don’t care for anything but you, and that is enough for the present. It will last a little yet. Here on my knees, with you dying in my arms, I am happier than I have been for a long time. And I want you to be happy—not to think of anything sad; only to feel that I am near you and I love you. Why should there be pain? In such hours as this what have we to do with pain? That is not the deepest thing; there is something deeper.”

Ralph evidently found, from moment to moment, greater difficulty in speaking; he had to wait longer to collect himself. At first he appeared to make no response to these last words; he let a long time elapse. Then he murmured simply:

“You must stay here.”

“I should like to stay, as long as seems right.”

“As seems right—as seems right?” He repeated her words. “Yes, you think a great deal about that.”

“Of course one must. You are very tired,” said Isabel.

“I am very tired. You said just now that pain is not the deepest thing. No—no. But it is very deep. If I could stay”——

“For me you will always be here,” she softly interrupted. It was easy to interrupt him.

But he went on, after a moment:

“It passes, after all; it’s passing now. But love remains. I don’t know why we should suffer so much. Perhaps I shall find out. There are many things in life; you are very young.”

“I feel very old,” said Isabel.

“You will grow young again. That’s how I see you. I don’t believe—I don’t believe”—— And he stopped again; his strength failed him.

She begged him to be quiet now. “We needn’t speak to understand each other,” she said.

“I don’t believe that such a generous mistake as yours—can hurt you for more than a little.”

“Oh, Ralph, I am very happy now,” she cried, through her tears.

“And remember this,” he continued, “that if you have been hated, you have also been loved.”

“Ah, my brother!” she cried, with a movement of still deeper prostration.

He had told her, the first evening she ever spent at Gardencourt, that if she should live to suffer enough she might some day see the ghost with which the old house was duly provided. She apparently had fulfilled the necessary condition; for the next morning, in the cold, faint dawn, she knew that a spirit was standing by her bed. She had lain down without undressing, for it was her belief that Ralph would not outlast the night. She had no inclination to sleep; she was waiting, and such waiting was wakeful. But she closed her eyes; she believed that as the night wore on she should hear a knock at her door. She heard no knock, but at the time the darkness began vaguely to grow gray, she started up from her pillow as abruptly as if she had received a summons. It seemed to her for an instant that Ralph was standing there—a dim, hovering figure in the dimness of the room. She stared a moment; she saw his white face—his kind eyes; then she saw there was nothing. She was not afraid; she was only sure. She went out of her room, and in her certainty passed through dark corridors and down a flight of oaken steps that shone in the vague light of a hall-window. Outside of Ralph’s door she stopped a moment, listening; but she seemed to hear only the hush that filled it. She opened the door with a hand as gentle as if she were lifting a veil from the face of the dead, and saw Mrs. Touchett sitting motionless and upright beside the couch of her son, with one of his hands in her own. The doctor was on the other side, with poor Ralph’s further wrist resting in his professional fingers. The nurse was at the foot, between them. Mrs. Touchett took no notice of Isabel, but the doctor looked at her very hard; then he gently placed Ralph’s hand in a proper position, close beside him. The nurse looked at her very hard too, and no one said a word; but Isabel only looked at what she had come to see. It was fairer than Ralph had ever been in life, and there was a strange resemblance to the face of his father, which, six years before, she had seen lying on the same pillow.