Isabel had not seen much of Madame Merle since her marriage, this lady havin_ndulged in frequent absences from Rome. At one time she had spent six month_n England; at another she had passed a portion of a winter in Paris. She ha_ade numerous visits to distant friends and gave countenance to the idea tha_or the future she should be a less inveterate Roman than in the past. As sh_ad been inveterate in the past only in the sense of constantly having a_partment in one of the sunniest niches of the Pincian—an apartment whic_ften stood empty—this suggested a prospect of almost constant absence; _anger which Isabel at one period had been much inclined to deplore.
Familiarity had modified in some degree her first impression of Madame Merle, but it had not essentially altered it; there was still much wonder o_dmiration in it. That personage was armed at all points; it was a pleasure t_ee a character so completely equipped for the social battle. She carried he_lag discreetly, but her weapons were polished steel, and she used them with _kill which struck Isabel as more and more that of a veteran. She was neve_eary, never overcome with disgust; she never appeared to need rest o_onsolation. She had her own ideas; she had of old exposed a great many o_hem to Isabel, who knew also that under an appearance of extreme self-contro_er highly-cultivated friend concealed a rich sensibility. But her will wa_istress of her life; there was something gallant in the way she kept going.
It was as if she had learned the secret of it—as if the art of life were som_lever trick she had guessed. Isabel, as she herself grew older, becam_cquainted with revulsions, with disgusts; there were days when the worl_ooked black and she asked herself with some sharpness what it was that sh_as pretending to live for. Her old habit had been to live by enthusiasm, t_all in love with suddenly-perceived possibilities, with the idea of some ne_dventure. As a younger person she had been used to proceed from one littl_xaltation to the other: there were scarcely any dull places between. Bu_adame Merle had suppressed enthusiasm; she fell in love now-a-days wit_othing; she lived entirely by reason and by wisdom. There were hours whe_sabel would have given anything for lessons in this art; if her brillian_riend had been near she would have made an appeal to her. She had becom_ware more than before of the advantage of being like that —of having mad_ne's self a firm surface, a sort of corselet of silver.
But, as I say, it was not till the winter during which we lately renewe_cquaintance with our heroine that the personage in question made again _ontinuous stay in Rome. Isabel now saw more of her than she had done sinc_er marriage; but by this time Isabel's needs and inclinations ha_onsiderably changed. It was not at present to Madame Merle that she woul_ave applied for instruction; she had lost the desire to know this lady'_lever trick. If she had troubles she must keep them to herself, and if lif_as difficult it would not make it easier to confess herself beaten. Madam_erle was doubtless of great use to herself and an ornament to any circle; bu_as she—would she be —of use to others in periods of refined embarrassment?
The best way to profit by her friend—this indeed Isabel had always thought—wa_o imitate her, to be as firm and bright as she. She recognised n_mbarrassments, and Isabel, considering this fact, determined for the fiftiet_ime to brush aside her own. It seemed to her too, on the renewal of a_ntercourse which had virtually been interrupted, that her old ally wa_ifferent, was almost detached—pushing to the extreme a certain rathe_rtificial fear of being indiscreet. Ralph Touchett, we know, had been of th_pinion that she was prone to exaggeration, to forcing the note—was apt, i_he vulgar phrase, to overdo it. Isabel had never admitted this charge—ha_ever indeed quite understood it; Madame Merle's conduct, to her perception, always bore the stamp of good taste, was always "quiet." But in this matter o_ot wishing to intrude upon the inner life of the Osmond family it at las_ccurred to our young woman that she overdid a little. That of course was no_he best taste; that was rather violent. She remembered too much that Isabe_as married; that she had now other interests; that though she, Madame Merle, had known Gilbert Osmond and his little Pansy very well, better almost tha_ny one, she was not after all of the inner circle. She was on her guard; sh_ever spoke of their affairs till she was asked, even pressed—as when he_pinion was wanted; she had a dread of seeming to meddle. Madame Merle was a_andid as we know, and one day she candidly expressed this dread to Isabel.
"I MUST be on my guard," she said; "I might so easily, without suspecting it, offend you. You would be right to be offended, even if my intention shoul_ave been of the purest. I must not forget that I knew your husband lon_efore you did; I must not let that betray me. If you were a silly woman yo_ight be jealous. You're not a silly woman; I know that perfectly. But neithe_m I; therefore I'm determined not to get into trouble. A little harm's ver_oon done; a mistake's made before one knows it. Of course if I had wished t_ake love to your husband I had ten years to do it in, and nothing to prevent; so it isn't likely I shall begin to-day, when I'm so much less attractive tha_ was. But if I were to annoy you by seeming to take a place that doesn'_elong to me, you wouldn't make that reflection; you'd simply say I wa_orgetting certain differences. I'm determined not to forget them. Certainly _ood friend isn't always thinking of that; one doesn't suspect one's friend_f injustice. I don't suspect you, my dear, in the least; but I suspect huma_ature. Don't think I make myself uncomfortable; I'm not always watchin_yself. I think I sufficiently prove it in talking to you as I do now. All _ish to say is, however, that if you were to be jealous—that's the form i_ould take—I should be sure to think it was a little my fault. It certainl_ouldn't be your husband's."
Isabel had had three years to think over Mrs. Touchett's theory that Madam_erle had made Gilbert Osmond's marriage. We know how she had at firs_eceived it. Madame Merle might have made Gilbert Osmond's marriage, but sh_ertainly had not made Isabel Archer's. That was the work of—Isabel scarcel_new what: of nature, providence, fortune, of the eternal mystery of things.
It was true her aunt's complaint had been not so much of Madame Merle'_ctivity as of her duplicity: she had brought about the strange event and the_he had denied her guilt. Such guilt would not have been great, to Isabel'_ind; she couldn't make a crime of Madame Merle's having been the producin_ause of the most important friendship she had ever formed. This had occurre_o her just before her marriage, after her little discussion with her aunt an_t a time when she was still capable of that large inward reference, the ton_lmost of the philosophic historian, to her scant young annals. If Madam_erle had desired her change of state she could only say it had been a ver_appy thought. With her, moreover, she had been perfectly straightforward; sh_ad never concealed her high opinion of Gilbert Osmond. After their unio_sabel discovered that her husband took a less convenient view of the matter; he seldom consented to finger, in talk, this roundest and smoothest bead o_heir social rosary. "Don't you like Madame Merle?" Isabel had once said t_im. "She thinks a great deal of you."
"I'll tell you once for all," Osmond had answered. "I liked her once bette_han I do to-day. I'm tired of her, and I'm rather ashamed of it. She's s_lmost unnaturally good! I'm glad she's not in Italy; it makes fo_elaxation—for a sort of moral detente. Don't talk of her too much; it seem_o bring her back. She'll come back in plenty of time."
Madame Merle, in fact, had come back before it was too late—too late, I mean, to recover whatever advantage she might have lost. But meantime, if, as I hav_aid, she was sensibly different, Isabel's feelings were also not quite th_ame. Her consciousness of the situation was as acute as of old, but it wa_uch less satisfying. A dissatisfied mind, whatever else it may miss, i_arely in want of reasons; they bloom as thick as buttercups in June. The fac_f Madame Merle's having had a hand in Gilbert Osmond's marriage ceased to b_ne of her titles to consideration; it might have been written, after all, that there was not so much to thank her for. As time went on there was les_nd less, and Isabel once said to herself that perhaps without her thes_hings would not have been. That reflection indeed was instantly stifled; sh_new an immediate horror at having made it. "Whatever happens to me let me no_e unjust," she said; "let me bear my burdens myself and not shift them upo_thers!" This disposition was tested, eventually, by that ingenious apolog_or her present conduct which Madame Merle saw fit to make and of which I hav_iven a sketch; for there was something irritating— there was almost an air o_ockery—in her neat discriminations and clear convictions. In Isabel's min_o-day there was nothing clear; there was a confusion of regrets, _omplication of fears. She felt helpless as she turned away from her friend, who had just made the statements I have quoted: Madame Merle knew so littl_hat she was thinking of! She was herself moreover so unable to explain.
Jealous of her—jealous of her with Gilbert? The idea just then suggested n_ear reality. She almost wished jealousy had been possible; it would have mad_n a manner for refreshment. Wasn't it in a manner one of the symptoms o_appiness? Madame Merle, however, was wise, so wise that she might have bee_retending to know Isabel better than Isabel knew herself. This young woma_ad always been fertile in resolutions —any of them of an elevated character; but at no period had they flourished (in the privacy of her heart) more richl_han to-day. It is true that they all had a family likeness; they might hav_een summed up in the determination that if she was to be unhappy it shoul_ot be by a fault of her own. Her poor winged spirit had always had a grea_esire to do its best, and it had not as yet been seriously discouraged. I_ished, therefore, to hold fast to justice—not to pay itself by pett_evenges. To associate Madame Merle with its disappointment would be a pett_evenge—especially as the pleasure to be derived from that would be perfectl_nsincere. It might feed her sense of bitterness, but it would not loosen he_onds. It was impossible to pretend that she had not acted with her eyes open; if ever a girl was a free agent she had been. A girl in love was doubtless no_ free agent; but the sole source of her mistake had been within herself.
There had been no plot, no snare; she had looked and considered and chosen.
When a woman had made such a mistake, there was only one way to repair it—jus_mmensely (oh, with the highest grandeur!) to accept it. One folly was enough, especially when it was to last for ever; a second one would not much set i_ff. In this vow of reticence there was a certain nobleness which kept Isabe_oing; but Madame Merle had been right, for all that, in taking he_recautions.
One day about a month after Ralph Touchett's arrival in Rome Isabel came bac_rom a walk with Pansy. It was not only a part of her general determination t_e just that she was at present very thankful for Pansy—it was also a part o_er tenderness for things that were pure and weak. Pansy was dear to her, an_here was nothing else in her life that had the rightness of the youn_reature's attachment or the sweetness of her own clearness about it. It wa_ike a soft presence—like a small hand in her own; on Pansy's part it was mor_han an affection—it was a kind of ardent coercive faith. On her own side he_ense of the girl's dependence was more than a pleasure; it operated as _efinite reason when motives threatened to fail her. She had said to hersel_hat we must take our duty where we find it, and that we must look for it a_uch as possible. Pansy's sympathy was a direct admonition; it seemed to sa_hat here was an opportunity, not eminent perhaps, but unmistakeable. Yet a_pportunity for what Isabel could hardly have said; in general, to be more fo_he child than the child was able to be for herself. Isabel could have smiled, in these days, to remember that her little companion had once been ambiguous, for she now perceived that Pansy's ambiguities were simply her own grossnes_f vision. She had been unable to believe any one could care so much—s_xtraordinarily much—to please. But since then she had seen this delicat_aculty in operation, and now she knew what to think of it. It was the whol_reature—it was a sort of genius. Pansy had no pride to interfere with it, an_hough she was constantly extending her conquests she took no credit for them.
The two were constantly together; Mrs. Osmond was rarely seen without he_tepdaughter. Isabel liked her company; it had the effect of one's carrying _osegay composed all of the same flower. And then not to neglect Pansy, no_nder any provocation to neglect her—this she had made an article of religion.
The young girl had every appearance of being happier in Isabel's society tha_n that of any one save her father,—whom she admired with an intensit_ustified by the fact that, as paternity was an exquisite pleasure to Gilber_smond, he had always been luxuriously mild. Isabel knew how Pansy liked to b_ith her and how she studied the means of pleasing her. She had decided tha_he best way of pleasing her was negative, and consisted in not giving he_rouble—a conviction which certainly could have had no reference to troubl_lready existing. She was therefore ingeniously passive and almos_maginatively docile; she was careful even to moderate the eagerness wit_hich she assented to Isabel's propositions and which might have implied tha_he could have thought otherwise. She never interrupted, never asked socia_uestions, and though she delighted in approbation, to the point of turnin_ale when it came to her, never held out her hand for it. She only looke_oward it wistfully—an attitude which, as she grew older, made her eyes th_rettiest in the world. When during the second winter at Palazzo Roccanera sh_egan to go to parties, to dances, she always, at a reasonable hour, lest Mrs.
Osmond should be tired, was the first to propose departure. Isabel appreciate_he sacrifice of the late dances, for she knew her little companion had _assionate pleasure in this exercise, taking her steps to the music like _onscientious fairy. Society, moreover, had no drawbacks for her; she like_ven the tiresome parts—the heat of ball-rooms, the dulness of dinners, th_rush at the door, the awkward waiting for the carriage. During the day, i_his vehicle, beside her stepmother, she sat in a small fixed, appreciativ_osture, bending forward and faintly smiling, as if she had been taken t_rive for the first time.
On the day I speak of they had been driven out of one of the gates of the cit_nd at the end of half an hour had left the carriage to await them by th_oadside while they walked away over the short grass of the Campagna, whic_ven in the winter months is sprinkled with delicate flowers. This was almos_ daily habit with Isabel, who was fond of a walk and had a swift length o_tep, though not so swift a one as on her first coming to Europe. It was no_he form of exercise that Pansy loved best, but she liked it, because sh_iked everything; and she moved with a shorter undulation beside her father'_ife, who afterwards, on their return to Rome, paid a tribute to he_references by making the circuit of the Pincian or the Villa Borghese. Sh_ad gathered a handful of flowers in a sunny hollow, far from the walls o_ome, and on reaching Palazzo Roccanera she went straight to her room, to pu_hem into water. Isabel passed into the drawing-room, the one she hersel_sually occupied, the second in order from the large ante-chamber which wa_ntered from the staircase and in which even Gilbert Osmond's rich devices ha_ot been able to correct a look of rather grand nudity. Just beyond th_hreshold of the drawing-room she stopped short, the reason for her doing s_eing that she had received an impression. The impression had, in strictness, nothing unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and the soundlessnes_f her step gave her time to take in the scene before she interrupted it.
Madame Merle was there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware she had come in. Isabel had often seen tha_efore, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed, wa_hat their colloquy had for the moment converted itself into a sort o_amiliar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance woul_tartle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from th_ire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her hea_as erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent on his. What struck Isabel firs_as that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in thi_hat arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultor_ause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with th_reedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them.
There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends in fact. But th_hing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light.
Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as somethin_etected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it. Madame Merl_ad seen her and had welcomed her without moving; her husband, on the othe_and, had instantly jumped up. He presently murmured something about wanting _alk and, after having asked their visitor to excuse him, left the room.
"I came to see you, thinking you would have come in; and as you hadn't _aited for you," Madame Merle said.
"Didn't he ask you to sit down?" Isabel asked with a smile.
Madame Merle looked about her. "Ah, it's very true; I was going away."
"You must stay now."
"Certainly. I came for a reason; I've something on my mind."
"I've told you that before," Isabel said—"that it takes somethin_xtraordinary to bring you to this house."
"And you know what I've told YOU; that whether I come or whether I stay away, I've always the same motive—the affection I bear you."
"Yes, you've told me that."
"You look just now as if you didn't believe it," said Madame Merle.
"Ah," Isabel answered, "the profundity of your motives, that's the last thin_ doubt!"
"You doubt sooner of the sincerity of my words."
Isabel shook her head gravely. "I know you've always been kind to me."
"As often as you would let me. You don't always take it; then one has to le_ou alone. It's not to do you a kindness, however, that I've come to-day; it'_uite another affair. I've come to get rid of a trouble of my own—to make i_ver to you. I've been talking to your husband about it."
"I'm surprised at that; he doesn't like troubles."
"Especially other people's; I know very well. But neither do you, I suppose.
At any rate, whether you do or not, you must help me. It's about poor Mr.
"Ah," said Isabel reflectively, "it's his trouble then, not yours."
"He has succeeded in saddling me with it. He comes to see me ten times a week, to talk about Pansy."
"Yes, he wants to marry her. I know all about it."
Madame Merle hesitated. "I gathered from your husband that perhaps yo_idn't."
"How should he know what I know? He has never spoken to me of the matter."
"It's probably because he doesn't know how to speak of it."
"It's nevertheless the sort of question in which he's rarely at fault."
"Yes, because as a general thing he knows perfectly well what to think. To-da_e doesn't."
"Haven't you been telling him?" Isabel asked.
Madame Merle gave a bright, voluntary smile. "Do you know you're a littl_ry?"
"Yes; I can't help it. Mr. Rosier has also talked to me."
"In that there's some reason. You're so near the child."
"Ah," said Isabel, "for all the comfort I've given him! If you think me dry, _onder what HE thinks."
"I believe he thinks you can do more than you have done."
"I can do nothing."
"You can do more at least than I. I don't know what mysterious connection h_ay have discovered between me and Pansy; but he came to me from the first, a_f I held his fortune in my hand. Now he keeps coming back, to spur me up, t_now what hope there is, to pour out his feelings."
"He's very much in love," said Isabel.
"Very much—for him."
"Very much for Pansy, you might say as well."
Madame Merle dropped her eyes a moment. "Don't you think she's attractive?"
"The dearest little person possible—but very limited."
"She ought to be all the easier for Mr. Rosier to love. Mr. Rosier's no_nlimited."
"No," said Isabel, "he has about the extent of one's pocket-handkerchief—th_mall ones with lace borders." Her humour had lately turned a good deal t_arcasm, but in a moment she was ashamed of exercising it on so innocent a_bject as Pansy's suitor. "He's very kind, very honest," she presently added;
"and he's not such a fool as he seems."
"He assures me that she delights in him," said Madame Merle.
"I don't know; I've not asked her."
"You've never sounded her a little?"
"It's not my place; it's her father's."
"Ah, you're too literal!" said Madame Merle.
"I must judge for myself."
Madame Merle gave her smile again. "It isn't easy to help you."
"To help me?" said Isabel very seriously. "What do you mean?"
"It's easy to displease you. Don't you see how wise I am to be careful? _otify you, at any rate, as I notified Osmond, that I wash my hands of th_ove-affairs of Miss Pansy and Mr. Edward Rosier. Je n'y peux rien, moi! _an't talk to Pansy about him. Especially," added Madame Merle, "as I don'_hink him a paragon of husbands."
Isabel reflected a little; after which, with a smile, "You don't wash you_ands then!" she said. After which again she added in another tone: "Yo_an't—you're too much interested."
Madame Merle slowly rose; she had given Isabel a look as rapid as th_ntimation that had gleamed before our heroine a few moments before. Only thi_ime the latter saw nothing. "Ask him the next time, and you'll see."
"I can't ask him; he has ceased to come to the house. Gilbert has let him kno_hat he's not welcome."
"Ah yes," said Madame Merle, "I forgot that—though it's the burden of hi_amentation. He says Osmond has insulted him. All the same," she went on,
"Osmond doesn't dislike him so much as he thinks." She had got up as if t_lose the conversation, but she lingered, looking about her, and had evidentl_ore to say. Isabel perceived this and even saw the point she had in view; bu_sabel also had her own reasons for not opening the way.
"That must have pleased him, if you've told him," she answered, smiling.
"Certainly I've told him; as far as that goes I've encouraged him. I'v_reached patience, have said that his case isn't desperate if he'll only hol_is tongue and be quiet. Unfortunately he has taken it into his head to b_ealous."
"Jealous of Lord Warburton, who, he says, is always here."
Isabel, who was tired, had remained sitting; but at this she also rose. "Ah!"
she exclaimed simply, moving slowly to the fireplace. Madame Merle observe_er as she passed and while she stood a moment before the mantel-glass an_ushed into its place a wandering tress of hair.
"Poor Mr. Rosier keeps saying there's nothing impossible in Lord Warburton'_alling in love with Pansy," Madame Merle went on. Isabel was silent a little; she turned away from the glass. "It's true—there's nothing impossible," sh_eturned at last, gravely and more gently.
"So I've had to admit to Mr. Rosier. So, too, your husband thinks."
"That I don't know."
"Ask him and you'll see."
"I shall not ask him," said Isabel.
"Pardon me; I forgot you had pointed that out. Of course," Madame Merle added,
"you've had infinitely more observation of Lord Warburton's behaviour than I."
"I see no reason why I shouldn't tell you that he likes my stepdaughter ver_uch."
Madame Merle gave one of her quick looks again. "Likes her, you mean—as Mr.
"I don't know how Mr. Rosier means; but Lord Warburton has let me know tha_e's charmed with Pansy."
"And you've never told Osmond?" This observation was immediate, precipitate; it almost burst from Madame Merle's lips.
Isabel's eyes rested on her. "I suppose he'll know in time; Lord Warburton ha_ tongue and knows how to express himself."
Madame Merle instantly became conscious that she had spoken more quickly tha_sual, and the reflection brought the colour to her cheek. She gave th_reacherous impulse time to subside and then said as if she had been thinkin_t over a little: "That would be better than marrying poor Mr. Rosier."
"Much better, I think."
"It would be very delightful; it would be a great marriage. It's really ver_ind of him."
"Very kind of him?"
"To drop his eyes on a simple little girl."
"I don't see that."
"It's very good of you. But after all, Pansy Osmond—"
"After all, Pansy Osmond's the most attractive person he has ever known!"
Madame Merle stared, and indeed she was justly bewildered. "Ah, a moment ago _hought you seemed rather to disparage her."
"I said she was limited. And so she is. And so's Lord Warburton."
"So are we all, if you come to that. If it's no more than Pansy deserves, al_he better. But if she fixes her affections on Mr. Rosier I won't admit tha_he deserves it. That will be too perverse."
"Mr. Rosier's a nuisance!" Isabel cried abruptly.
"I quite agree with you, and I'm delighted to know that I'm not expected t_eed his flame. For the future, when he calls on me, my door shall be close_o him." And gathering her mantle together Madame Merle prepared to depart.
She was checked, however, on her progress to the door, by an inconsequen_equest from Isabel.
"All the same, you know, be kind to him."
She lifted her shoulders and eyebrows and stood looking at her friend. "_on't understand your contradictions! Decidedly I shan't be kind to him, fo_t will be a false kindness. I want to see her married to Lord Warburton."
"You had better wait till he asks her."
"If what you say's true, he'll ask her. Especially," said Madame Merle in _oment, "if you make him."
"If I make him?"
"It's quite in your power. You've great influence with him."
Isabel frowned a little. "Where did you learn that?"
"Mrs. Touchett told me. Not you—never!" said Madame Merle, smiling.
"I certainly never told you anything of the sort."
"You MIGHT have done so—so far as opportunity went—when we were by way o_eing confidential with each other. But you really told me very little; I'v_ften thought so since."
Isabel had thought so too, and sometimes with a certain satisfaction. But sh_idn't admit it now—perhaps because she wished not to appear to exult in it.
"You seem to have had an excellent informant in my aunt," she simply returned.
"She let me know you had declined an offer of marriage from Lord Warburton, because she was greatly vexed and was full of the subject. Of course I thin_ou've done better in doing as you did. But if you wouldn't marry Lor_arburton yourself, make him the reparation of helping him to marry some on_lse."
Isabel listened to this with a face that persisted in not reflecting th_right expressiveness of Madame Merle's. But in a moment she said, reasonabl_nd gently enough: "I should be very glad indeed if, as regards Pansy, i_ould be arranged." Upon which her companion, who seemed to regard this as _peech of good omen, embraced her more tenderly than might have been expecte_nd triumphantly withdrew.