She returned on the morrow to Florence, under her cousin's escort, and Ralp_ouchett, though usually restive under railway discipline, thought very wel_f the successive hours passed in the train that hurried his companion awa_rom the city now distinguished by Gilbert Osmond's preference—hours that wer_o form the first stage in a larger scheme of travel. Miss Stackpole ha_emained behind; she was planning a little trip to Naples, to be carried ou_ith Mr. Bantling's aid. Isabel was to have three days in Florence before th_th of June, the date of Mrs. Touchett's departure, and she determined t_evote the last of these to her promise to call on Pansy Osmond. Her plan,
however, seemed for a moment likely to modify itself in deference to an ide_f Madame Merle's. This lady was still at Casa Touchett; but she too was o_he point of leaving Florence, her next station being an ancient castle in th_ountains of Tuscany, the residence of a noble family of that country, whos_cquaintance (she had known them, as she said, "forever") seemed to Isabel, i_he light of certain photographs of their immense crenellated dwelling whic_er friend was able to show her, a precious privilege. She mentioned to thi_ortunate woman that Mr. Osmond had asked her to take a look at his daughter,
but didn't mention that he had also made her a declaration of love.
"Ah, comme cela se trouve!" Madame Merle exclaimed. "I myself have bee_hinking it would be a kindness to pay the child a little visit before I g_ff."
"We can go together then," Isabel reasonably said: "reasonably" because th_roposal was not uttered in the spirit of enthusiasm. She had prefigured he_mall pilgrimage as made in solitude; she should like it better so. She wa_evertheless prepared to sacrifice this mystic sentiment to her grea_onsideration for her friend.
That personage finely meditated. "After all, why should we both go; having,
each of us, so much to do during these last hours?"
"Very good; I can easily go alone."
"I don't know about your going alone—to the house of a handsome bachelor. H_as been married—but so long ago!"
Isabel stared. "When Mr. Osmond's away what does it matter?"
"They don't know he's away, you see."
"They? Whom do you mean?"
"Every one. But perhaps it doesn't signify."
"If you were going why shouldn't I?" Isabel asked.
"Because I'm an old frump and you're a beautiful young woman."
"Granting all that, you've not promised."
"How much you think of your promises!" said the elder woman in mild mockery.
"I think a great deal of my promises. Does that surprise you?"
"You're right," Madame Merle audibly reflected. "I really think you wish to b_ind to the child."
"I wish very much to be kind to her."
"Go and see her then; no one will be the wiser. And tell her I'd have come i_ou hadn't. Or rather," Madame Merle added, "DON'T tell her. She won't care."
As Isabel drove, in the publicity of an open vehicle, along the winding wa_hich led to Mr. Osmond's hill-top, she wondered what her friend had meant b_o one's being the wiser. Once in a while, at large intervals, this lady,
whose voyaging discretion, as a general thing, was rather of the open sea tha_f the risky channel, dropped a remark of ambiguous quality, struck a not_hat sounded false. What cared Isabel Archer for the vulgar judgements o_bscure people? and did Madame Merle suppose that she was capable of doing _hing at all if it had to be sneakingly done? Of course not: she must hav_eant something else—something which in the press of the hours that precede_er departure she had not had time to explain. Isabel would return to thi_ome day; there were sorts of things as to which she liked to be clear. Sh_eard Pansy strumming at the piano in another place as she herself was ushere_nto Mr. Osmond's drawing-room; the little girl was "practising," and Isabe_as pleased to think she performed this duty with rigour. She immediately cam_n, smoothing down her frock, and did the honours of her father's house with _ide-eyed earnestness of courtesy. Isabel sat there half an hour, and Pans_ose to the occasion as the small, winged fairy in the pantomime soars by th_id of the dissimulated wire —not chattering, but conversing, and showing th_ame respectful interest in Isabel's affairs that Isabel was so good as t_ake in hers. Isabel wondered at her; she had never had so directly presente_o her nose the white flower of cultivated sweetness. How well the child ha_een taught, said our admiring young woman; how prettily she had been directe_nd fashioned; and yet how simple, how natural, how innocent she had bee_ept! Isabel was fond, ever, of the question of character and quality, o_ounding, as who should say, the deep personal mystery, and it had please_er, up to this time, to be in doubt as to whether this tender slip were no_eally all-knowing. Was the extremity of her candour but the perfection o_elf-consciousness? Was it put on to please her father's visitor, or was i_he direct expression of an unspotted nature? The hour that Isabel spent i_r. Osmond's beautiful empty, dusky rooms—the windows had been half-darkened,
to keep out the heat, and here and there, through an easy crevice, th_plendid summer day peeped in, lighting a gleam of faded colour or tarnishe_ilt in the rich gloom—her interview with the daughter of the house, I say,
effectually settled this question. Pansy was really a blank page, a pure whit_urface, successfully kept so; she had neither art, nor guile, nor temper, no_alent—only two or three small exquisite instincts: for knowing a friend, fo_voiding a mistake, for taking care of an old toy or a new frock. Yet to be s_ender was to be touching withal, and she could be felt as an easy victim o_ate. She would have no will, no power to resist, no sense of her ow_mportance; she would easily be mystified, easily crushed: her force would b_ll in knowing when and where to cling. She moved about the place with he_isitor, who had asked leave to walk through the other rooms again, wher_ansy gave her judgement on several works of art. She spoke of her prospects,
her occupations, her father's intentions; she was not egotistical, but fel_he propriety of supplying the information so distinguished a guest woul_aturally expect.
"Please tell me," she said, "did papa, in Rome, go to see Madame Catherine? H_old me he would if he had time. Perhaps he had not time. Papa likes a grea_eal of time. He wished to speak about my education; it isn't finished yet,
you know. I don't know what they can do with me more; but it appears it's fa_rom finished. Papa told me one day he thought he would finish it himself; fo_he last year or two, at the convent, the masters that teach the tall girl_re so very dear. Papa's not rich, and I should be very sorry if he were t_ay much money for me, because I don't think I'm worth it. I don't lear_uickly enough, and I have no memory. For what I'm told, yes—especially whe_t's pleasant; but not for what I learn in a book. There was a young girl wh_as my best friend, and they took her away from the convent, when she wa_ourteen, to make—how do you say it in English?—to make a dot. You don't sa_t in English? I hope it isn't wrong; I only mean they wished to keep th_oney to marry her. I don't know whether it is for that that papa wishes t_eep the money— to marry me. It costs so much to marry!" Pansy went on with _igh; "I think papa might make that economy. At any rate I'm too young t_hink about it yet, and I don't care for any gentleman; I mean for any bu_im. If he were not my papa I should like to marry him; I would rather be hi_aughter than the wife of—of some strange person. I miss him very much, bu_ot so much as you might think, for I've been so much away from him. Papa ha_lways been principally for holidays. I miss Madame Catherine almost more; bu_ou must not tell him that. You shall not see him again? I'm very sorry, an_e'll be sorry too. Of everyone who comes here I like you the best. That's no_ great compliment, for there are not many people. It was very kind of you t_ome to-day—so far from your house; for I'm really as yet only a child. Oh,
yes, I've only the occupations of a child. When did YOU give them up, th_ccupations of a child? I should like to know how old you are, but I don'_now whether it's right to ask. At the convent they told us that we must neve_sk the age. I don't like to do anything that's not expected; it looks as i_ne had not been properly taught. I myself—I should never like to be taken b_urprise. Papa left directions for everything. I go to bed very early. Whe_he sun goes off that side I go into the garden. Papa left strict orders tha_ was not to get scorched. I always enjoy the view; the mountains are s_raceful. In Rome, from the convent, we saw nothing but roofs and bell-towers.
I practise three hours. I don't play very well. You play yourself? I wish ver_uch you'd play something for me; papa has the idea that I should hear goo_usic. Madame Merle has played for me several times; that's what I like bes_bout Madame Merle; she has great facility. I shall never have facility. An_'ve no voice—just a small sound like the squeak of a slate-pencil makin_lourishes."
Isabel gratified this respectful wish, drew off her gloves and sat down to th_iano, while Pansy, standing beside her, watched her white hands move quickl_ver the keys. When she stopped she kissed the child good-bye, held her close,
looked at her long. "Be very good," she said; "give pleasure to your father."
"I think that's what I live for," Pansy answered. "He has not much pleasure;
he's rather a sad man."
Isabel listened to this assertion with an interest which she felt it almost _orment to be obliged to conceal. It was her pride that obliged her, and _ertain sense of decency; there were still other things in her head which sh_elt a strong impulse, instantly checked, to say to Pansy about her father;
there were things it would have given her pleasure to hear the child, to mak_he child, say. But she no sooner became conscious of these things than he_magination was hushed with horror at the idea of taking advantage of th_ittle girl—it was of this she would have accused herself—and of exhaling int_hat air where he might still have a subtle sense for it any breath of he_harmed state. She had come—she had come; but she had stayed only an hour. Sh_ose quickly from the music-stool; even then, however, she lingered a moment,
still holding her small companion, drawing the child's sweet slimness close_nd looking down at her almost in envy. She was obliged to confess it t_erself—she would have taken a passionate pleasure in talking of Gilber_smond to this innocent, diminutive creature who was so near him. But she sai_o other word; she only kissed Pansy once again. They went together throug_he vestibule, to the door that opened on the court; and there her youn_ostess stopped, looking rather wistfully beyond. "I may go no further. I'v_romised papa not to pass this door."
"You're right to obey him; he'll never ask you anything unreasonable."
"I shall always obey him. But when will you come again?"
"Not for a long time, I'm afraid."
"As soon as you can, I hope. I'm only a little girl," said Pansy, "but I shal_lways expect you." And the small figure stood in the high, dark doorway,
watching Isabel cross the clear, grey court and disappear into the brightnes_eyond the big portone, which gave a wider dazzle as it opened.