"That's too much," said Ralph.
"Ah, don't say that. The best thing you can do; when I'm gone, will be to marry."
Ralph had foreseen what his father was coming to, and this suggestion was by no means fresh. It had long been Mr. Touchett's most ingenious way of taking the cheerful view of his son's possible duration. Ralph had usually treated it facetiously; but present circumstances proscribed the facetious. He simply fell back in his chair and returned his father's appealing gaze.
"If I, with a wife who hasn't been very fond of me, have had a very happy life," said the old man, carrying his ingenuity further still, "what a life mightn't you have if you should marry a person different from Mrs. Touchett. There are more different from her than there are like her." Ralph still said nothing; and after a pause his father resumed softly: "What do you think of your cousin?"
At this Ralph started, meeting the question with a strained smile. "Do I understand you to propose that I should marry Isabel?"
"Well, that's what it comes to in the end. Don't you like Isabel?"
"Yes, very much." And Ralph got up from his chair and wandered over to the fire. He stood before it an instant and then he stooped and stirred it mechanically. "I like Isabel very much," he repeated.
"Well," said his father, "I know she likes you. She has told me how much she likes you."
"Did she remark that she would like to marry me?"
"No, but she can't have anything against you. And she's the most charming young lady I've ever seen. And she would be good to you. I have thought a great deal about it."
"So have I," said Ralph, coming back to the bedside again. "I don't mind telling you that."
"You ARE in love with her then? I should think you would be. It's as if she came over on purpose."
"No, I'm not in love with her; but I should be if — if certain things were different."
"Ah, things are always different from what they might be," said the old man. "If you wait for them to change you'll never do anything. I don't know whether you know," he went on; "but I suppose there's no harm in my alluding to it at such an hour as this: there was some one wanted to marry Isabel the other day, and she wouldn't have him."
"I know she refused Warburton: he told me himself."
"Well, that proves there's a chance for somebody else."
"Somebody else took his chance the other day in London — and got nothing by it."
"Was it you?" Mr. Touchett eagerly asked.
"No, it was an older friend; a poor gentleman who came over from America to see about it."
"Well, I'm sorry for him, whoever he was. But it only proves what I say — that the way's open to you."
"If it is, dear father, it's all the greater pity that I'm unable to tread it. I haven't many convictions; but I have three or four that I hold strongly. One is that people, on the whole, had better not marry their cousins. Another is that people in an advanced stage of pulmonary disorder had better not marry at all."
The old man raised his weak hand and moved it to and fro before his face. "What do you mean by that? You look at things in a way that would make everything wrong. What sort of a cousin is a cousin that you had never seen for more than twenty years of her life? We're all each other's cousins, and if we stopped at that the human race would die out. It's just the same with your bad lung. You're a great deal better than you used to be. All you want is to lead a natural life. It is a great deal more natural to marry a pretty young lady that you're in love with than it is to remain single on false principles."
"I'm not in love with Isabel," said Ralph.
"You said just now that you would be if you didn't think it wrong. I want to prove to you that it isn't wrong."
"It will only tire you, dear daddy," said Ralph, who marvelled at his father's tenacity and at his finding strength to insist. "Then where shall we all be?"
"Where shall you be if I don't provide for you? You won't have anything to do with the bank, and you won't have me to take care of. You say you've so many interests; but I can't make them out."
Ralph leaned back in his chair with folded arms; his eyes were fixed for some time in meditation. At last, with the air of a man fairly mustering courage, "I take a great interest in my cousin," he said, "but not the sort of interest you desire. I shall not live many years; but I hope I shall live long enough to see what she does with herself. She's entirely independent of me; I can exercise very little influence upon her life. But I should like to do something for her."
"What should you like to do?"
"I should like to put a little wind in her sails."
"What do you mean by that?"