On one of the first days of May, some six months after old Mr. Touchett'_eath, a small group that might have been described by a painter as composin_ell was gathered in one of the many rooms of an ancient villa crowning a_live-muffled hill outside of the Roman gate of Florence. The villa was _ong, rather blank-looking structure, with the far-projecting roof whic_uscany loves and which, on the hills that encircle Florence, when considere_rom a distance, makes so harmonious a rectangle with the straight, dark, definite cypresses that usually rise in groups of three or four beside it. Th_ouse had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied _art of the hill-top; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregula_elations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base o_he structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearin_ore or less of that air of undervalued merit which in Italy, for some reaso_r other, always gracefully invests any one who confidently assumes _erfectly passive attitude—this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposin_ront had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the fac_f the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looke_nother way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of th_fternoon light. In that quarter the villa overhung the slope of its hill an_he long valley of the Arno, hazy with Italian colour. It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace, productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses an_ther old stone benches, mossy and sun-warmed. The parapet of the terrace wa_ust the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined into th_agueness of olive-crops and vineyards. It is not, however, with the outsid_f the place that we are concerned; on this bright morning of ripened sprin_ts tenants had reason to prefer the shady side of the wall. The windows o_he ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their nobl_roportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offe_ommunication with the world than to defy the world to look in. They wer_assively cross-barred, and placed at such a height that curiosity, even o_iptoe, expired before it reached them. In an apartment lighted by a row o_hree of these jealous apertures—one of the several distinct apartments int_hich the villa was divided and which were mainly occupied by foreigners o_andom race long resident in Florence—a gentleman was seated in company with _oung girl and two good sisters from a religious house. The room was, however, less sombre than our indications may have represented, for it had a wide, hig_oor, which now stood open into the tangled garden behind; and the tall iro_attices admitted on occasion more than enough of the Italian sunshine. It wa_oreover a seat of ease, indeed of luxury, telling of arrangements subtl_tudied and refinements frankly proclaimed, and containing a variety of thos_aded hangings of damask and tapestry, those chests and cabinets of carved an_ime-polished oak, those angular specimens of pictorial art in frames a_edantically primitive, those perverse-looking relics of medieval brass an_ottery, of which Italy has long been the not quite exhausted storehouse.
These things kept terms with articles of modern furniture in which larg_llowance had been made for a lounging generation; it was to be noticed tha_ll the chairs were deep and well padded and that much space was occupied by _riting-table of which the ingenious perfection bore the stamp of London an_he nineteenth century. There were books in profusion and magazines an_ewspapers, and a few small, odd, elaborate pictures, chiefly in water-colour.
One of these productions stood on a drawing-room easel before which, at th_oment we begin to be concerned with her, the young girl I have mentioned ha_laced herself. She was looking at the picture in silence.
Silence—absolute silence—had not fallen upon her companions; but their tal_ad an appearance of embarrassed continuity. The two good sisters had no_ettled themselves in their respective chairs; their attitude expressed _inal reserve and their faces showed the glaze of prudence. They were plain, ample, mild-featured women, with a kind of business-like modesty to which th_mpersonal aspect of their stiffened linen and of the serge that draped the_s if nailed on frames gave an advantage. One of them, a person of a certai_ge, in spectacles, with a fresh complexion and a full cheek, had a mor_iscriminating manner than her colleague, as well as the responsibility o_heir errand, which apparently related to the young girl. This object o_nterest wore her hat—an ornament of extreme simplicity and not at varianc_ith her plain muslin gown, too short for her years, though it must alread_ave been "let out." The gentleman who might have been supposed to b_ntertaining the two nuns was perhaps conscious of the difficulties of hi_unction, it being in its way as arduous to converse with the very meek a_ith the very mighty. At the same time he was clearly much occupied with thei_uiet charge, and while she turned her back to him his eyes rested gravely o_er slim, small figure. He was a man of forty, with a high but well-shape_ead, on which the hair, still dense, but prematurely grizzled, had bee_ropped close. He had a fine, narrow, extremely modelled and composed face, o_hich the only fault was just this effect of its running a trifle too much t_oints; an appearance to which the shape of the beard contributed not _ittle. This beard, cut in the manner of the portraits of the sixteent_entury and surmounted by a fair moustache, of which the ends had a romanti_pward flourish, gave its wearer a foreign, traditionary look and suggeste_hat he was a gentleman who studied style. His conscious, curious eyes, however, eyes at once vague and penetrating, intelligent and hard, expressiv_f the observer as well as of the dreamer, would have assured you that h_tudied it only within well-chosen limits, and that in so far as he sought i_e found it. You would have been much at a loss to determine his origina_lime and country; he had none of the superficial signs that usually rende_he answer to this question an insipidly easy one. If he had English blood i_is veins it had probably received some French or Italian commixture; but h_uggested, fine gold coin as he was, no stamp nor emblem of the common mintag_hat provides for general circulation; he was the elegant complicated meda_truck off for a special occasion. He had a light, lean, rather languid- looking figure, and was apparently neither tall nor short. He was dressed as _an dresses who takes little other trouble about it than to have no vulga_hings.
"Well, my dear, what do you think of it?" he asked of the young girl. He use_he Italian tongue, and used it with perfect ease; but this would not hav_onvinced you he was Italian.
The child turned her head earnestly to one side and the other. "It's ver_retty, papa. Did you make it yourself?"
"Certainly I made it. Don't you think I'm clever?"
"Yes, papa, very clever; I also have learned to make pictures." And she turne_ound and showed a small, fair face painted with a fixed and intensely swee_mile.
"You should have brought me a specimen of your powers."
"I've brought a great many; they're in my trunk."
"She draws very—very carefully," the elder of the nuns remarked, speaking i_rench.
"I'm glad to hear it. Is it you who have instructed her?"
"Happily no," said the good sister, blushing a little. "Ce n'est pas m_artie. I teach nothing; I leave that to those who are wiser. We've a_xcellent drawing-master, Mr.—Mr.—what is his name?" she asked of he_ompanion.
Her companion looked about at the carpet. "It's a German name," she said i_talian, as if it needed to be translated.
"Yes," the other went on, "he's a German, and we've had him many years."
The young girl, who was not heeding the conversation, had wandered away to th_pen door of the large room and stood looking into the garden. "And you, m_ister, are French," said the gentleman.
"Yes, sir," the visitor gently replied. "I speak to the pupils in my ow_ongue. I know no other. But we have sisters of other countries—English, German, Irish. They all speak their proper language."
The gentleman gave a smile. "Has my daughter been under the care of one of th_rish ladies?" And then, as he saw that his visitors suspected a joke, thoug_ailing to understand it, "You're very complete," he instantly added.
"Oh, yes, we're complete. We've everything, and everything's of the best."
"We have gymnastics," the Italian sister ventured to remark. "But no_angerous."
"I hope not. Is that YOUR branch?" A question which provoked much candi_ilarity on the part of the two ladies; on the subsidence of which thei_ntertainer, glancing at his daughter, remarked that she had grown.
"Yes, but I think she has finished. She'll remain—not big," said the Frenc_ister.
"I'm not sorry. I prefer women like books—very good and not too long. But _now," the gentleman said, "no particular reason why my child should b_hort."
The nun gave a temperate shrug, as if to intimate that such things might b_eyond our knowledge. "She's in very good health; that's the best thing."
"Yes, she looks sound." And the young girl's father watched her a moment.
"What do you see in the garden?" he asked in French.
"I see many flowers," she replied in a sweet, small voice and with an accen_s good as his own.
"Yes, but not many good ones. However, such as they are, go out and gathe_ome for ces dames."
The child turned to him with her smile heightened by pleasure. "May I, truly?"
"Ah, when I tell you," said her father.
The girl glanced at the elder of the nuns. "May I, truly, ma mere?"
"Obey monsieur your father, my child," said the sister, blushing again.
The child, satisfied with this authorisation, descended from the threshold an_as presently lost to sight. "You don't spoil them," said her father gaily.
"For everything they must ask leave. That's our system. Leave is freel_ranted, but they must ask it."
"Oh, I don't quarrel with your system; I've no doubt it's excellent. I sen_ou my daughter to see what you'd make of her. I had faith."
"One must have faith," the sister blandly rejoined, gazing through he_pectacles.
"Well, has my faith been rewarded What have you made of her?"
The sister dropped her eyes a moment. "A good Christian, monsieur."
Her host dropped his eyes as well; but it was probable that the movement ha_n each case a different spring. "Yes, and what else?"
He watched the lady from the convent, probably thinking she would say that _ood Christian was everything; but for all her simplicity she was not so crud_s that. "A charming young lady —a real little woman—a daughter in whom yo_ill have nothing but contentment."
"She seems to me very gentille," said the father. "She's really pretty."
"She's perfect. She has no faults."
"She never had any as a child, and I'm glad you have given her none."
"We love her too much," said the spectacled sister with dignity.
"And as for faults, how can we give what we have not? Le couvent n'est pa_omme le monde, monsieur. She's our daughter, as you may say. We've had he_ince she was so small."
"Of all those we shall lose this year she's the one we shall miss most," th_ounger woman murmured deferentially.
"Ah, yes, we shall talk long of her," said the other. "We shall hold her up t_he new ones." And at this the good sister appeared to find her spectacle_im; while her companion, after fumbling a moment, presently drew forth _ocket-handkerchief of durable texture.
"It's not certain you'll lose her; nothing's settled yet," their host rejoine_uickly; not as if to anticipate their tears, but in the tone of a man sayin_hat was most agreeable to himself. "We should be very happy to believe that.
Fifteen is very young to leave us."
"Oh," exclaimed the gentleman with more vivacity than he had yet used, "it i_ot I who wish to take her away. I wish you could keep her always!"
"Ah, monsieur," said the elder sister, smiling and getting up, "good as sh_s, she's made for the world. Le monde y gagnera."
"If all the good people were hidden away in convents how would the world ge_n?" her companion softly enquired, rising also.
This was a question of a wider bearing than the good woman apparentl_upposed; and the lady in spectacles took a harmonising view by sayin_omfortably: "Fortunately there are good people everywhere."
"If you're going there will be two less here," her host remarked gallantly.
For this extravagant sally his simple visitors had no answer, and they simpl_ooked at each other in decent deprecation; but their confusion was speedil_overed by the return of the young girl with two large bunches of roses—one o_hem all white, the other red.
"I give you your choice, mamman Catherine," said the child. "It's only th_olour that's different, mamman Justine; there are just as many roses in on_unch as in the other."
The two sisters turned to each other, smiling and hesitating, with "Which wil_ou take?" and "No, it's for you to choose."
"I'll take the red, thank you," said Catherine in the spectacles. "I'm so re_yself. They'll comfort us on our way back to Rome."
"Ah, they won't last," cried the young girl. I wish I could give you somethin_hat would last!"
"You've given us a good memory of yourself, my daughter. That will last!"
"I wish nuns could wear pretty things. I would give you my blue beads," th_hild went on.
"And do you go back to Rome to-night?" her father enquired.
"Yes, we take the train again. We've so much to do la-bas."
"Are you not tired?"
"We are never tired."
"Ah, my sister, sometimes," murmured the junior votaress.
"Not to-day, at any rate. We have rested too well here. Que Dieu vows garde, ma fine."
Their host, while they exchanged kisses with his daughter, went forward t_pen the door through which they were to pass; but as he did so he gave _light exclamation, and stood looking beyond. The door opened into a vaulte_nte-chamber, as high as a chapel and paved with red tiles; and into thi_ntechamber a lady had just been admitted by a servant, a lad in shabb_ivery, who was now ushering her toward the apartment in which our friend_ere grouped. The gentleman at the door, after dropping his exclamation, remained silent; in silence too the lady advanced. He gave her no furthe_udible greeting and offered her no hand, but stood aside to let her pass int_he saloon. At the threshold she hesitated. "Is there any one?" she asked.
"Some one you may see."
She went in and found herself confronted with the two nuns and their pupil, who was coming forward, between them, with a hand in the arm of each. At th_ight of the new visitor they all paused, and the lady, who had also stopped, stood looking at them. The young girl gave a little soft cry: "Ah, Madam_erle!"
The visitor had been slightly startled, but her manner the next instant wa_one the less gracious. "Yes, it's Madame Merle, come to welcome you home."
And she held out two hands to the girl, who immediately came up to her, presenting her forehead to be kissed. Madame Merle saluted this portion of he_harming little person and then stood smiling at the two nuns. The_cknowledged her smile with a decent obeisance, but permitted themselves n_irect scrutiny of this imposing, brilliant woman, who seemed to bring in wit_er something of the radiance of the outer world. "These ladies have brough_y daughter home, and now they return to the convent," the gentlema_xplained.
"Ah, you go back to Rome? I've lately come from there. It's very lovely now,"
said Madame Merle.
The good sisters, standing with their hands folded into their sleeves, accepted this statement uncritically; and the master of the house asked hi_ew visitor how long it was since she had left Rome. "She came to see me a_he convent," said the young girl before the lady addressed had time to reply.
"I've been more than once, Pansy," Madame Merle declared. "Am I not your grea_riend in Rome?"
"I remember the last time best," said Pansy, "because you told me I shoul_ome away."
"Did you tell her that?" the child's father asked.
"I hardly remember. I told her what I thought would please her. I've been i_lorence a week. I hoped you would come to see me."
"I should have done so if I had known you were there. One doesn't know suc_hings by inspiration—though I suppose one ought. You had better sit down."
These two speeches were made in a particular tone of voice—a tone half-lowere_nd carefully quiet, but as from habit rather than from any definite need.
Madame Merle looked about her, choosing her seat. "You're going to the doo_ith these women? Let me of course not interrupt the ceremony. Je vous salue, mesdames," she added, in French, to the nuns, as if to dismiss them.
"This lady's a great friend of ours; you will have seen her at the convent,"
said their entertainer. "We've much faith in her judgement, and she'll help m_o decide whether my daughter shall return to you at the end of the holidays."
"I hope you'll decide in our favour, madame," the sister in spectacle_entured to remark.
"That's Mr. Osmond's pleasantry; I decide nothing," said Madame Merle, bu_lso as in pleasantry. "I believe you've a very good school, but Miss Osmond'_riends must remember that she's very naturally meant for the world."
"That's what I've told monsieur," sister Catherine answered. "It's precisel_o fit her for the world," she murmured, glancing at Pansy, who stood, at _ittle distance, attentive to Madame Merle's elegant apparel.
"Do you hear that, Pansy? You're very naturally meant for the world," sai_ansy's father.
The child fixed him an instant with her pure young eyes. "Am I not meant fo_ou, papa?"
Papa gave a quick, light laugh. "That doesn't prevent it! I'm of the world, Pansy."
"Kindly permit us to retire," said sister Catherine. "Be good and wise an_appy in any case, my daughter."
"I shall certainly come back and see you," Pansy returned, recommencing he_mbraces, which were presently interrupted by Madame Merle.
"Stay with me, dear child," she said, "while your father takes the good ladie_o the door."
Pansy stared, disappointed, yet not protesting. She was evidently impregnate_ith the idea of submission, which was due to any one who took the tone o_uthority; and she was a passive spectator of the operation of her fate. "Ma_ not see mamman Catherine get into the carriage?" she nevertheless asked ver_ently.
"It would please me better if you'd remain with me," said Madame Merle, whil_r. Osmond and his companions, who had bowed low again to the other visitor, passed into the ante-chamber.
"Oh yes, I'll stay," Pansy answered; and she stood near Madame Merle, surrendering her little hand, which this lady took. She stared out of th_indow; her eyes had filled with tears.
"I'm glad they've taught you to obey," said Madame Merle. "That's what goo_ittle girls should do."
"Oh yes, I obey very well," cried Pansy with soft eagerness, almost wit_oastfulness, as if she had been speaking of her piano-playing. And then sh_ave a faint, just audible sigh.
Madame Merle, holding her hand, drew it across her own fine palm and looked a_t. The gaze was critical, but it found nothing to deprecate; the child'_mall hand was delicate and fair. "I hope they always see that you wea_loves," she said in a moment. "Little girls usually dislike them."
"I used to dislike them, but I like them now," the child made answer.
"Very good, I'll make you a present of a dozen."
"I thank you very much. What colours will they be?" Pansy demanded wit_nterest.
Madame Merle meditated. "Useful colours."
"But very pretty?"
"Are you very fond of pretty things?"
"Yes; but—but not too fond," said Pansy with a trace of asceticism.
"Well, they won't be too pretty," Madame Merle returned with a laugh. She too_he child's other hand and drew her nearer; after which, looking at her _oment, "Shall you miss mother Catherine?" she went on.
"Yes—when I think of her."
"Try then not to think of her. Perhaps some day," added Madame Merle, "you'l_ave another mother."
"I don't think that's necessary," Pansy said, repeating her little sof_onciliatory sigh. "I had more than thirty mothers at the convent."
Her father's step sounded again in the antechamber, and Madame Merle got up, releasing the child. Mr. Osmond came in and closed the door; then, withou_ooking at Madame Merle, he pushed one or two chairs back into their places.
His visitor waited a moment for him to speak, watching him as he moved about.
Then at last she said: "I hoped you'd have come to Rome. I thought it possibl_ou'd have wished yourself to fetch Pansy away."
"That was a natural supposition; but I'm afraid it's not the first time I'v_cted in defiance of your calculations."
"Yes," said Madame Merle, "I think you very perverse."
Mr. Osmond busied himself for a moment in the room—there was plenty of spac_n it to move about—in the fashion of a man mechanically seeking pretexts fo_ot giving an attention which may be embarrassing. Presently, however, he ha_xhausted his pretexts; there was nothing left for him—unless he took up _ook—but to stand with his hands behind him looking at Pansy. "Why didn't yo_ome and see the last of mamman Catherine?" he asked of her abruptly i_rench.
Pansy hesitated a moment, glancing at Madame Merle. "I asked her to stay wit_e," said this lady, who had seated herself again in another place.
"Ah, that was better," Osmond conceded. With which he dropped into a chair an_at looking at Madame Merle; bent forward a little, his elbows on the edge o_he arms and his hands interlocked.
"She's going to give me some gloves," said Pansy.
"You needn't tell that to every one, my dear," Madame Merle observed.
"You're very kind to her," said Osmond. "She's supposed to have everything sh_eeds."
"I should think she had had enough of the nuns."
"If we're going to discuss that matter she had better go out of the room."
"Let her stay," said Madame Merle. "We'll talk of something else."
"If you like I won't listen," Pansy suggested with an appearance of candou_hich imposed conviction.
"You may listen, charming child, because you won't understand," her fathe_eplied. The child sat down, deferentially, near the open door, within sigh_f the garden, into which she directed her innocent, wistful eyes; and Mr.
Osmond went on irrelevantly, addressing himself to his other companion.
"You're looking particularly well."
"I think I always look the same," said Madame Merle.
"You always ARE the same. You don't vary. You're a wonderful woman."
"Yes, I think I am."
"You sometimes change your mind, however. You told me on your return fro_ngland that you wouldn't leave Rome again for the present."
"I'm pleased that you remember so well what I say. That was my intention. Bu_'ve come to Florence to meet some friends who have lately arrived and as t_hose movements I was at that time uncertain."
"That reason's characteristic. You're always doing something for you_riends."
Madame Merle smiled straight at her host. "It's less characteristic than you_omment upon it which is perfectly insincere. I don't, however, make a crim_f that," she added, "because if you don't believe what you say there's n_eason why you should. I don't ruin myself for my friends; I don't deserv_our praise. I care greatly for myself."
"Exactly; but yourself includes so many other selves—so much of every one els_nd of everything. I never knew a person whose life touched so many othe_ives."
"What do you call one's life?" asked Madame Merle. "One's appearance, one'_ovements, one's engagements, one's society?"
"I call YOUR life your ambitions," said Osmond.
Madame Merle looked a moment at Pansy. "I wonder if she understands that," sh_urmured.
"You see she can't stay with us!" And Pansy's father gave rather a joyles_mile. "Go into the garden, mignonne, and pluck a flower or two for Madam_erle," he went on in French.
"That's just what I wanted to do," Pansy exclaimed, rising with promptness an_oiselessly departing. Her father followed her to the open door, stood _oment watching her, and then came back, but remained standing, or rathe_trolling to and fro, as if to cultivate a sense of freedom which in anothe_ttitude might be wanting.
"My ambitions are principally for you," said Madame Merle, looking up at hi_ith a certain courage.
"That comes back to what I say. I'm part of your life—I and a thousand others.
You're not selfish—I can't admit that. If you were selfish, what should I be?
What epithet would properly describe me?"
"You're indolent. For me that's your worst fault."
"I'm afraid it's really my best."
"You don't care," said Madame Merle gravely.
"No; I don't think I care much. What sort of a fault do you call that? M_ndolence, at any rate, was one of the reasons I didn't go to Rome. But it wa_nly one of them."
"It's not of importance—to me at least—that you didn't go; though I shoul_ave been glad to see you. I'm glad you're not in Rome now—which you might be, would probably be, if you had gone there a month ago. There's something _hould like you to do at present in Florence."
"Please remember my indolence," said Osmond.
"I do remember it; but I beg you to forget it. In that way you'll have bot_he virtue and the reward. This is not a great labour, and it may prove a rea_nterest. How long is it since you made a new acquaintance?"
"I don't think I've made any since I made yours."
"It's time then you should make another. There's a friend of mine I want yo_o know."
Mr. Osmond, in his walk, had gone back to the open door again and was lookin_t his daughter as she moved about in the intense sunshine. "What good will i_o me?" he asked with a sort of genial crudity.
Madame Merle waited. "It will amuse you." There was nothing crude in thi_ejoinder; it had been thoroughly well considered.
"If you say that, you know, I believe it," said Osmond, coming toward her.
"There are some points in which my confidence in you is complete. I'_erfectly aware, for instance, that you know good society from bad."
"Society is all bad."
"Pardon me. That isn't—the knowledge I impute to you—a common sort of wisdom.
You've gained it in the right way—experimentally; you've compared an immens_umber of more or less impossible people with each other."
"Well, I invite you to profit by my knowledge."
"To profit? Are you very sure that I shall?"
"It's what I hope. It will depend on yourself. If I could only induce you t_ake an effort!"
"Ah, there you are! I knew something tiresome was coming. What in th_orld—that's likely to turn up here—is worth an effort?"
Madame Merle flushed as with a wounded intention. "Don't be foolish, Osmond.
No one knows better than you what IS worth an effort. Haven't I seen you i_ld days?"
"I recognise some things. But they're none of them probable in this poo_ife."
"It's the effort that makes them probable," said Madame Merle.
"There's something in that. Who then is your friend?"
"The person I came to Florence to see. She's a niece of Mrs. Touchett, who_ou'll not have forgotten."
"A niece? The word niece suggests youth and ignorance. I see what you'r_oming to."
"Yes, she's young—twenty-three years old. She's a great friend of mine. I me_er for the first time in England, several months ago, and we struck up _rand alliance. I like her immensely, and I do what I don't do every day—_dmire her. You'll do the same."
"Not if I can help it."
"Precisely. But you won't be able to help it."
"Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent an_nprecedentedly virtuous? It's only on those conditions that I care to mak_er acquaintance. You know I asked you some time ago never to speak to me of _reature who shouldn't correspond to that description. I know plenty of ding_eople; I don't want to know any more."
"Miss Archer isn't dingy; she's as bright as the morning. She corresponds t_our description; it's for that I wish you to know her. She fills all you_equirements."
"More or less, of course."
"No; quite literally. She's beautiful, accomplished, generous and, for a_merican, well-born. She's also very clever and very amiable, and she has _andsome fortune."
Mr. Osmond listened to this in silence, appearing to turn it over in his min_ith his eyes on his informant. "What do you want to do with her?" he asked a_ast.
"What you see. Put her in your way."
"Isn't she meant for something better than that?"
"I don't pretend to know what people are meant for," said Madame Merle. "_nly know what I can do with them."
"I'm sorry for Miss Archer!" Osmond declared.
Madame Merle got up. "If that's a beginning of interest in her I take note o_t."
The two stood there face to face; she settled her mantilla, looking down at i_s she did so. "You're looking very well," Osmond repeated still les_elevantly than before. "You have some idea. You're never so well as whe_ou've got an idea; they're always becoming to you."
In the manner and tone of these two persons, on first meeting at any juncture, and especially when they met in the presence of others, was something indirec_nd circumspect, as if they had approached each other obliquely and addresse_ach other by implication. The effect of each appeared to be to intensify t_n appreciable degree the self-consciousness of the other. Madame Merle o_ourse carried off any embarrassment better than her friend; but even Madam_erle had not on this occasion the form she would have liked to have—th_erfect self-possession she would have wished to wear for her host. The poin_o be made is, however, that at a certain moment the element between them, whatever it was, always levelled itself and left them more closely face t_ace than either ever was with any one else. This was what had happened now.
They stood there knowing each other well and each on the whole willing t_ccept the satisfaction of knowing as a compensation for th_nconvenience—whatever it might be—of being known. "I wish very much you wer_ot so heartless," Madame Merle quietly said. "It has always been against you, and it will be against you now."
"I'm not so heartless as you think. Every now and then something touches me—a_or instance your saying just now that your ambitions are for me. I don'_nderstand it; I don't see how or why they should be. But it touches me, al_he same."
"You'll probably understand it even less as time goes on. There are som_hings you'll never understand. There's no particular need you should."
"You, after all, are the most remarkable of women," said Osmond. "You hav_ore in you than almost any one. I don't see why you think Mrs. Touchett'_iece should matter very much to me, when— when—" But he paused a moment.
"When I myself have mattered so little?"
"That of course is not what I meant to say. When I've known and appreciate_uch a woman as you."
"Isabel Archer's better than I," said Madame Merle.
Her companion gave a laugh. "How little you must think of her to say that!"
"Do you suppose I'm capable of jealousy? Please answer me that."
"With regard to me? No; on the whole I don't."
"Come and see me then, two days hence. I'm staying at Mrs. Touchett's—Palazz_rescentini—and the girl will be there."
"Why didn't you ask me that at first simply, without speaking of the girl?"
said Osmond. "You could have had her there at any rate."
Madame Merle looked at him in the manner of a woman whom no question he coul_ver put would find unprepared. "Do you wish to know why? Because I've spoke_f you to her."
Osmond frowned and turned away. "I'd rather not know that." Then in a momen_e pointed out the easel supporting the little water-colour drawing. "Have yo_een what's there—my last?"
Madame Merle drew near and considered. "Is it the Venetian Alps—one of you_ast year's sketches?"
"Yes—but how you guess everything!"
She looked a moment longer, then turned away. "You know I don't care for you_rawings."
"I know it, yet I'm always surprised at it. They're really so much better tha_ost people's."
"That may very well be. But as the only thing you do—well, it's so little. _hould have liked you to do so many other things: those were my ambitions."
"Yes; you've told me many times—things that were impossible."
"Things that were impossible," said Madame Merle. And then in quite _ifferent tone: "In itself your little picture's very good." She looked abou_he room—at the old cabinets, pictures, tapestries, surfaces of faded silk.
"Your rooms at least are perfect. I'm struck with that afresh whenever I com_ack; I know none better anywhere. You understand this sort of thing as nobod_nywhere does. You've such adorable taste."
"I'm sick of my adorable taste," said Gilbert Osmond.
"You must nevertheless let Miss Archer come and see it. I've told her abou_t."
"I don't object to showing my things—when people are not idiots."
"You do it delightfully. As cicerone of your museum you appear to particula_dvantage."
Mr. Osmond, in return for this compliment, simply looked at once colder an_ore attentive. "Did you say she was rich?"
"She has seventy thousand pounds."
"En ecus bien comptes?"
"There's no doubt whatever about her fortune. I've seen it, as I may say."
"Satisfactory woman!—I mean you. And if I go to see her shall I see th_other?"
"The mother? She has none—nor father either."
"The aunt then—whom did you say?—Mrs. Touchett. I can easily keep her out o_he way."
"I don't object to her," said Osmond; "I rather like Mrs. Touchett. She has _ort of old-fashioned character that's passing away—a vivid identity. But tha_ong jackanapes the son—is he about the place?"
"He's there, but he won't trouble you."
"He's a good deal of a donkey."
"I think you're mistaken. He's a very clever man. But he's not fond of bein_bout when I'm there, because he doesn't like me."
"What could he be more asinine than that? Did you say she has looks?" Osmon_ent on.
"Yes; but I won't say it again, lest you should be disappointed in them. Com_nd make a beginning; that's all I ask of you."
"A beginning of what?"
Madame Merle was silent a little. "I want you of course to marry her."
"The beginning of the end? Well, I'll see for myself. Have you told her that?"
"For what do you take me? She's not so coarse a piece of machinery—nor am I."
"Really," said Osmond after some meditation, "I don't understand you_mbitions."
"I think you'll understand this one after you've seen Miss Archer. Suspen_our judgement." Madame Merle, as she spoke, had drawn near the open door o_he garden, where she stood a moment looking out. "Pansy has really grow_retty," she presently added.
"So it seemed to me."
"But she has had enough of the convent."
"I don't know," said Osmond. "I like what they've made of her. It's ver_harming."
"That's not the convent. It's the child's nature."
"It's the combination, I think. She's as pure as a pearl."
"Why doesn't she come back with my flowers then?" Madame Merle asked. "She'_ot in a hurry."
"We'll go and get them."
"She doesn't like me," the visitor murmured as she raised her parasol and the_assed into the garden.