Death of Ralph Touchett:
How he knew 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 she might go — 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 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 but one change possible now. There was
a strange tranquility 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 he 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 three day in a kind of grateful silence. He recognized
her and at moments 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
though it possible her husband would write to her. But he remained
silent, and she only got a letter from Florence and 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 necessary 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’m tired when I’ve got
all eternity to rest? There’s no harm in making an effort when it’s
the very last of all. Don’t people always feel better just before
the end? I’ve often heard of that; it’s what I was waiting for. Ever
since you’ve been here I thought it would come, I tried two or three
times; I was afraid you’d 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’ve been like an angel beside my bed. You know
they talk about the angel of death. It’s the most beautiful of all.
You’ve 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’s nothing makes us feel so
much alive as to see others die. That’s the sensation of life — the
sense that we remain. I’ve had it — even I. But now I’m 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 couldn’t 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
shame, all wish to hide things. Now he must 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. O Ralph,
you’ve been everything! What have I done for you — what can I do
today? 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 a broken as his
own and full of tears and anguish.
"You won’t lose me — you’ll keep me. Keep me in your
heart; I shall be nearer to you than I’ve ever been. Dear Isabel,
life is better; for in life there’s love. Death is good — but
there’s no love."
"I never thanked you — I never spoke — 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 only know today because there are people
less stupid than I."
"Don’t mind people, " said Ralph. "I think I’m 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
"True that you’ve 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 wailed.
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 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.
A few mornings later, Ralph was dead.