The Countess was not banished, but she felt the insecurity of her tenure o_er brother's hospitality. A week after this incident Isabel received _elegram from England, dated from Gardencourt and bearing the stamp of Mrs.
Touchett's authorship. "Ralph cannot last many days," it ran, "and i_onvenient would like to see you. Wishes me to say that you must come only i_ou've not other duties. Say, for myself, that you used to talk a good dea_bout your duty and to wonder what it was; shall be curious to see whethe_ou've found it out. Ralph is really dying, and there's no other company."
Isabel was prepared for this news, having received from Henrietta Stackpole _etailed account of her journey to England with her appreciative patient.
Ralph had arrived more dead than alive, but she had managed to convey him t_ardencourt, where he had taken to his bed, which, as Miss Stackpole wrote, h_vidently would never leave again. She added that she had really had tw_atients on her hands instead of one, inasmuch as Mr. Goodwood, who had bee_f no earthly use, was quite as ailing, in a different way, as Mr. Touchett.
Afterwards she wrote that she had been obliged to surrender the field to Mrs.
Touchett, who had just returned from America and had promptly given her t_nderstand that she didn't wish any interviewing at Gardencourt. Isabel ha_ritten to her aunt shortly after Ralph came to Rome, letting her know of hi_ritical condition and suggesting that she should lose no time in returning t_urope. Mrs. Touchett had telegraphed an acknowledgement of this admonition, and the only further news Isabel received from her was the second telegram _ave just quoted.
Isabel stood a moment looking at the latter missive; then, thrusting it int_er pocket, she went straight to the door of her husband's study. Here sh_gain paused an instant, after which she opened the door and went in. Osmon_as seated at the table near the window with a folio volume before him, propped against a pile of books. This volume was open at a page of smal_oloured plates, and Isabel presently saw that he had been copying from it th_rawing of an antique coin. A box of water-colours and fine brushes lay befor_im, and he had already transferred to a sheet of immaculate paper th_elicate, finely-tinted disk. His back was turned toward the door, but h_ecognised his wife without looking round.
"Excuse me for disturbing you," she said.
"When I come to your room I always knock," he answered, going on with hi_ork.
"I forgot; I had something else to think of. My cousin's dying."
"Ah, I don't believe that," said Osmond, looking at his drawing through _agnifying glass. "He was dying when we married; he'll outlive us all."
Isabel gave herself no time, no thought, to appreciate the careful cynicism o_his declaration; she simply went on quickly, full of her own intention "M_unt has telegraphed for me; I must go to Gardencourt."
"Why must you go to Gardencourt?" Osmond asked in the tone of impartia_uriosity.
"To see Ralph before he dies."
To this, for some time, he made no rejoinder; he continued to give his chie_ttention to his work, which was of a sort that would brook no negligence. "_on't see the need of it," he said at last. "He came to see you here. I didn'_ike that; I thought his being in Rome a great mistake. But I tolerated i_ecause it was to be the last time you should see him. Now you tell me it'_ot to have been the last. Ah, you're not grateful!"
"What am I to be grateful for?"
Gilbert Osmond laid down his little implements, blew a speck of dust from hi_rawing, slowly got up, and for the first time looked at his wife. "For my no_aving interfered while he was here."
"Oh yes, I am. I remember perfectly how distinctly you let me know you didn'_ike it. I was very glad when he went away."
"Leave him alone then. Don't run after him."
Isabel turned her eyes away from him; they rested upon his little drawing. "_ust go to England," she said, with a full consciousness that her tone migh_trike an irritable man of taste as stupidly obstinate.
"I shall not like it if you do," Osmond remarked.
"Why should I mind that? You won't like it if I don't. You like nothing I d_r don't do. You pretend to think I lie."
Osmond turned slightly pale; he gave a cold smile. "That's why you must g_hen? Not to see your cousin, but to take a revenge on me."
"I know nothing about revenge."
"I do," said Osmond. "Don't give me an occasion."
"You're only too eager to take one. You wish immensely that I would commi_ome folly."
"I should be gratified in that case if you disobeyed me."
"If I disobeyed you?" said Isabel in a low tone which had the effect o_ildness.
"Let it be clear. If you leave Rome to-day it will be a piece of the mos_eliberate, the most calculated, opposition."
"How can you call it calculated? I received my aunt's telegram but thre_inutes ago."
"You calculate rapidly; it's a great accomplishment. I don't see why we shoul_rolong our discussion; you know my wish." And he stood there as if h_xpected to see her withdraw.
But she never moved; she couldn't move, strange as it may seem; she stil_ished to justify herself; he had the power, in an extraordinary degree, o_aking her feel this need. There was something in her imagination he coul_lways appeal to against her judgement. "You've no reason for such a wish,"
said Isabel, "and I've every reason for going. I can't tell you how unjust yo_eem to me. But I think you know. It's your own opposition that's calculated.
She had never uttered her worst thought to her husband before, and th_ensation of hearing it was evidently new to Osmond. But he showed n_urprise, and his coolness was apparently a proof that he had believed hi_ife would in fact be unable to resist for ever his ingenious endeavour t_raw her out. "It's all the more intense then," he answered. And he adde_lmost as if he were giving her a friendly counsel: "This is a very importan_atter." She recognised that; she was fully conscious of the weight of th_ccasion; she knew that between them they had arrived at a crisis. Its gravit_ade her careful; she said nothing, and he went on. "You say I've no reason? _ave the very best. I dislike, from the bottom of my soul, what you intend t_o. It's dishonourable; it's indelicate; it's indecent. Your cousin is nothin_hatever to me, and I'm under no obligation to make concessions to him. I'v_lready made the very handsomest. Your relations with him, while he was here, kept me on pins and needles; but I let that pass, because from week to week _xpected him to go. I've never liked him and he has never liked me. That's wh_ou like him—because he hates me," said Osmond with a quick, barely audibl_remor in his voice. "I've an ideal of what my wife should do and should no_o. She should not travel across Europe alone, in defiance of my deepes_esire, to sit at the bedside of other men. Your cousin's nothing to you; he'_othing to us. You smile most expressively when I talk about US, but I assur_ou that WE, WE, Mrs. Osmond, is all I know. I take our marriage seriously; you appear to have found a way of not doing so. I'm not aware that we'r_ivorced or separated; for me we're indissolubly united. You are nearer to m_han any human creature, and I'm nearer to you. It may be a disagreeabl_roximity; it's one, at any rate, of our own deliberate making. You don't lik_o be reminded of that, I know; but I'm perfectly willing, because—because—"
And he paused a moment, looking as if he had something to say which would b_ery much to the point. "Because I think we should accept the consequences o_ur actions, and what I value most in life is the honour of a thing!"
He spoke gravely and almost gently; the accent of sarcasm had dropped out o_is tone. It had a gravity which checked his wife's quick emotion; th_esolution with which she had entered the room found itself caught in a mes_f fine threads. His last words were not a command, they constituted a kind o_ppeal; and, though she felt that any expression of respect on his part coul_nly be a refinement of egotism, they represented something transcendent an_bsolute, like the sign of the cross or the flag of one's country. He spoke i_he name of something sacred and precious—the observance of a magnificen_orm. They were as perfectly apart in feeling as two disillusioned lovers ha_ver been; but they had never yet separated in act. Isabel had not changed; her old passion for justice still abode within her; and now, in the very thic_f her sense of her husband's blasphemous sophistry, it began to throb to _une which for a moment promised him the victory. It came over her that in hi_ish to preserve appearances he was after all sincere, and that this, as fa_s it went, was a merit. Ten minutes before she had felt all the joy o_rreflective action—a joy to which she had so long been a stranger; but actio_ad been suddenly changed to slow renunciation, transformed by the blight o_smond's touch. If she must renounce, however, she would let him know she wa_ victim rather than a dupe. "I know you're a master of the art of mockery,"
she said. "How can you speak of an indissoluble union —how can you speak o_our being contented? Where's our union when you accuse me of falsity? Where'_our contentment when you have nothing but hideous suspicion in your heart?"
"It is in our living decently together, in spite of such drawbacks."
"We don't live decently together!" cried Isabel.
"Indeed we don't if you go to England."
"That's very little; that's nothing. I might do much more."
He raised his eyebrows and even his shoulders a little: he had lived lon_nough in Italy to catch this trick. "Ah, if you've come to threaten me _refer my drawing." And he walked back to his table, where he took up th_heet of paper on which he had been working and stood studying it.
"I suppose that if I go you'll not expect me to come back," said Isabel.
He turned quickly round, and she could see this movement at least was no_esigned. He looked at her a little, and then, "Are you out of your mind?" h_nquired.
"How can it be anything but a rupture?" she went on; "especially if all yo_ay is true?" She was unable to see how it could be anything but a rupture; she sincerely wished to know what else it might be.
He sat down before his table. "I really can't argue with you on the hypothesi_f your defying me," he said. And he took up one of his little brushes again.
She lingered but a moment longer; long enough to embrace with her eye hi_hole deliberately indifferent yet most expressive figure; after which sh_uickly left the room. Her faculties, her energy, her passion, were al_ispersed again; she felt as if a cold, dark mist had suddenly encompasse_er. Osmond possessed in a supreme degree the art of eliciting any weakness.
On her way back to her room she found the Countess Gemini standing in the ope_oorway of a little parlour in which a small collection of heterogeneous book_ad been arranged. The Countess had an open volume in her hand; she appeare_o have been glancing down a page which failed to strike her as interesting.
At the sound of Isabel's step she raised her head.
"Ah my dear," she said, "you, who are so literary, do tell me some amusin_ook to read! Everything here's of a dreariness—! Do you think this would d_e any good?"
Isabel glanced at the title of the volume she held out, but without reading o_nderstanding it. "I'm afraid I can't advise you. I've had bad news. M_ousin, Ralph Touchett, is dying."
The Countess threw down her book. "Ah, he was so simpatico. I'm awfully sorr_or you."
"You would be sorrier still if you knew."
"What is there to know? You look very badly," the Countess added. "You mus_ave been with Osmond."
Half an hour before Isabel would have listened very coldly to an intimatio_hat she should ever feel a desire for the sympathy of her sister-in-law, an_here can be no better proof of her present embarrassment than the fact tha_he almost clutched at this lady's fluttering attention. "I've been wit_smond," she said, while the Countess's bright eyes glittered at her.
"I'm sure then he has been odious!" the Countess cried. "Did he say he wa_lad poor Mr. Touchett's dying?"
"He said it's impossible I should go to England."
The Countess's mind, when her interests were concerned, was agile; she alread_oresaw the extinction of any further brightness in her visit to Rome. Ralp_ouchett would die, Isabel would go into mourning, and then there would be n_ore dinner-parties. Such a prospect produced for a moment in her countenanc_n expressive grimace; but this rapid, picturesque play of feature was he_nly tribute to disappointment. After all, she reflected, the game was almos_layed out; she had already overstayed her invitation. And then she care_nough for Isabel's trouble to forget her own, and she saw that Isabel'_rouble was deep.
It seemed deeper than the mere death of a cousin, and the Countess had n_esitation in connecting her exasperating brother with the expression of he_ister-in-law's eyes. Her heart beat with an almost joyous expectation, for i_he had wished to see Osmond overtopped the conditions looked favourable now.
Of course if Isabel should go to England she herself would immediately leav_alazzo Roccanera; nothing would induce her to remain there with Osmond.
Nevertheless she felt an immense desire to hear that Isabel would go t_ngland. "Nothing's impossible for you, my dear," she said caressingly. "Wh_lse are you rich and clever and good?"
"Why indeed? I feel stupidly weak."
"Why does Osmond say it's impossible?" the Countess asked in a tone whic_ufficiently declared that she couldn't imagine.
From the moment she thus began to question her, however, Isabel drew back; sh_isengaged her hand, which the Countess had affectionately taken. But sh_nswered this enquiry with frank bitterness. "Because we're so happy togethe_hat we can't separate even for a fortnight."
"Ah," cried the Countess while Isabel turned away, "when I want to make _ourney my husband simply tells me I can have no money!"
Isabel went to her room, where she walked up and down for an hour. It ma_ppear to some readers that she gave herself much trouble, and it is certai_hat for a woman of a high spirit she had allowed herself easily to b_rrested. It seemed to her that only now she fully measured the grea_ndertaking of matrimony. Marriage meant that in such a case as this, when on_ad to choose, one chose as a matter of course for one's husband. "I'_fraid—yes, I'm afraid," she said to herself more than once, stopping short i_er walk. But what she was afraid of was not her husband—his displeasure, hi_atred, his revenge; it was not even her own later judgement of her conduct _onsideration which had often held her in check; it was simply the violenc_here would be in going when Osmond wished her to remain. A gulf of differenc_ad opened between them, but nevertheless it was his desire that she shoul_tay, it was a horror to him that she should go. She knew the nervous finenes_ith which he could feel an objection. What he thought of her she knew, wha_e was capable of saying to her she had felt; yet they were married, for al_hat, and marriage meant that a woman should cleave to the man with whom, uttering tremendous vows, she had stood at the altar. She sank down on he_ofa at last and buried her head in a pile of cushions.
When she raised her head again the Countess Gemini hovered before her. She ha_ome in all unperceived; she had a strange smile on her thin lips and he_hole face had grown in an hour a shining intimation. She lived assuredly, i_ight be said, at the window of her spirit, but now she was leaning far out.
"I knocked," she began, "but you didn't answer me. So I ventured in. I've bee_ooking at you for the past five minutes. You're very unhappy."
"Yes; but I don't think you can comfort me."
"Will you give me leave to try?" And the Countess sat down on the sofa besid_er. She continued to smile, and there was something communicative an_xultant in her expression. She appeared to have a deal to say, and i_ccurred to Isabel for the first time that her sister-in-law might sa_omething really human. She made play with her glittering eyes, in which ther_as an unpleasant fascination. "After all," she soon resumed, "I must tel_ou, to begin with, that I don't understand your state of mind. You seem t_ave so many scruples, so many reasons, so many ties. When I discovered, te_ears ago, that my husband's dearest wish was to make me miserable—of late h_as simply let me alone —ah, it was a wonderful simplification! My poo_sabel, you're not simple enough."
"No, I'm not simple enough," said Isabel.
"There's something I want you to know," the Countess declared— "because _hink you ought to know it. Perhaps you do; perhaps you've guessed it. But i_ou have, all I can say is that I understand still less why you shouldn't d_s you like."
"What do you wish me to know?" Isabel felt a foreboding that made her hear_eat faster. The Countess was about to justify herself, and this alone wa_ortentous.
But she was nevertheless disposed to play a little with her subject. "In you_lace I should have guessed it ages ago. Have you never really suspected?"
"I've guessed nothing. What should I have suspected? I don't know what yo_ean."
"That's because you've such a beastly pure mind. I never saw a woman with suc_ pure mind!" cried the Countess.
Isabel slowly got up. "You're going to tell me something horrible."
"You can call it by whatever name you will!" And the Countess rose also, whil_er gathered perversity grew vivid and dreadful. She stood a moment in a sor_f glare of intention and, as seemed to Isabel even then, of ugliness; afte_hich she said: "My first sister-in-law had no children."
Isabel stared back at her; the announcement was an anticlimax. "Your firs_ister-in-law?"
"I suppose you know at least, if one may mention it, that Osmond has bee_arried before! I've never spoken to you of his wife; I thought it mightn't b_ecent or respectful. But others, less particular, must have done so. The poo_ittle woman lived hardly three years and died childless. It wasn't till afte_er death that Pansy arrived."
Isabel's brow had contracted to a frown; her lips were parted in pale, vagu_onder. She was trying to follow; there seemed so much more to follow than sh_ould see. "Pansy's not my husband's child then?"
"Your husband's—in perfection! But no one else's husband's. Some one else'_ife's. Ah, my good Isabel," cried the Countess, "with you one must dot one'_'s!"
"I don't understand. Whose wife's?" Isabel asked.
"The wife of a horrid little Swiss who died—how long?—a dozen, more tha_ifteen, years ago. He never recognised Miss Pansy, nor, knowing what he wa_bout, would have anything to say to her; and there was no reason why h_hould. Osmond did, and that was better; though he had to fit on afterward_he whole rigmarole of his own wife's having died in childbirth, and of hi_aving, in grief and horror, banished the little girl from his sight for a_ong as possible before taking her home from nurse. His wife had really died, you know, of quite another matter and in quite another place: in th_iedmontese mountains, where they had gone, one August, because her healt_ppeared to require the air, but where she was suddenly taken worse— fatall_ll. The story passed, sufficiently; it was covered by the appearances so lon_s nobody heeded, as nobody cared to look into it. But of course _new—without researches," the Countess lucidly proceeded; "as also, you'l_nderstand, without a word said between us—I mean between Osmond and me. Don'_ou see him looking at me, in silence, that way, to settle it?—that is t_ettle ME if I should say anything. I said nothing, right or left—never a wor_o a creature, if you can believe that of me: on my honour, my dear, I spea_f the thing to you now, after all this time, as I've never, never spoken. I_as to be enough for me, from the first, that the child was my niece—from th_oment she was my brother's daughter. As for her veritable mother—!" But wit_his Pansy's wonderful aunt dropped—as, involuntarily, from the impression o_er sister-in-law's face, out of which more eyes might have seemed to look a_er than she had ever had to meet.
She had spoken no name, yet Isabel could but check, on her own lips, an ech_f the unspoken. She sank to her seat again, hanging her head. "Why have yo_old me this?" she asked in a voice the Countess hardly recognised.
"Because I've been so bored with your not knowing. I've been bored, frankly, my dear, with not having told you; as if, stupidly, all this time I couldn'_ave managed! Ca me depasse, if you don't mind my saying so, the things, al_ound you, that you've appeared to succeed in not knowing. It's a sort o_ssistance—aid to innocent ignorance—that I've always been a bad hand a_endering; and in this connexion, that of keeping quiet for my brother, m_irtue has at any rate finally found itself exhausted. It's not a black lie, moreover, you know," the Countess inimitably added. "The facts are exactl_hat I tell you."
"I had no idea," said Isabel presently; and looked up at her in a manner tha_oubtless matched the apparent witlessness of this confession.
"So I believed—though it was hard to believe. Had it never occurred to yo_hat he was for six or seven years her lover?"
"I don't know. Things HAVE occurred to me, and perhaps that was what they al_eant."
"She has been wonderfully clever, she has been magnificent, about Pansy!" th_ountess, before all this view of it, cried.
"Oh, no idea, for me," Isabel went on, "ever DEFINITELY took that form." Sh_ppeared to be making out to herself what had been and what hadn't. "And as i_s—I don't understand."
She spoke as one troubled and puzzled, yet the poor Countess seemed to hav_een her revelation fall below its possibilities of effect. She had expecte_o kindle some responsive blaze, but had barely extracted a spark. Isabe_howed as scarce more impressed than she might have been, as a young woman o_pproved imagination, with some fine sinister passage of public history.
"Don't you recognise how the child could never pass for HER husband's?—that i_ith M. Merle himself," her companion resumed. "They had been separated to_ong for that, and he had gone to some far country—I think to South America.
If she had ever had children—which I'm not sure of—she had lost them. Th_onditions happened to make it workable, under stress (I mean at so awkward _inch), that Osmond should acknowledge the little girl. His wife was dead—ver_rue; but she had not been dead too long to put a certain accommodation o_ates out of the question—from the moment, I mean, that suspicion wasn'_tarted; which was what they had to take care of. What was more natural tha_hat poor Mrs. Osmond, at a distance and for a world not troubling abou_rifles, should have left behind her, poverina, the pledge of her brie_appiness that had cost her her life? With the aid of a change o_esidence—Osmond had been living with her at Naples at the time of their sta_n the Alps, and he in due course left it for ever—the whole history wa_uccessfully set going. My poor sister-in-law, in her grave, couldn't hel_erself, and the real mother, to save HER skin, renounced all visible propert_n the child."
"Ah, poor, poor woman!" cried Isabel, who herewith burst into tears. It was _ong time since she had shed any; she had suffered a high reaction fro_eeping. But now they flowed with an abundance in which the Countess Gemin_ound only another discomfiture.
"It's very kind of you to pity her!" she discordantly laughed. "Yes indeed, you have a way of your own—!"
"He must have been false to his wife—and so very soon!" said Isabel with _udden check.
"That's all that's wanting—that you should take up her cause!" the Countes_ent on. "I quite agree with you, however, that it was much too soon."
"But to me, to me—?" And Isabel hesitated as if she had not heard; as if he_uestion—though it was sufficiently there in her eyes—were all for herself.
"To you he has been faithful? Well, it depends, my dear, on what you cal_aithful. When he married you he was no longer the lover of another woman—SUC_ lover as he had been, cara mia, between their risks and their precautions, while the thing lasted! That state of affairs had passed away; the lady ha_epented, or at all events, for reasons of her own, drawn back: she had alway_ad, too, a worship of appearances so intense that even Osmond himself had go_ored with it. You may therefore imagine what it was—when he couldn't patch i_n conveniently to ANY of those he goes in for! But the whole past was betwee_hem."
"Yes," Isabel mechanically echoed, "the whole past is between them."
"Ah, this later past is nothing. But for six or seven years, as I say, the_ad kept it up."
She was silent a little. "Why then did she want him to marry me?"
"Ah my dear, that's her superiority! Because you had money; and because sh_elieved you would be good to Pansy."
"Poor woman—and Pansy who doesn't like her!" cried Isabel.
"That's the reason she wanted some one whom Pansy would like. She knows it; she knows everything."
"Will she know that you've told me this?"
"That will depend upon whether you tell her. She's prepared for it, and do yo_now what she counts upon for her defence? On your believing that I lie.
Perhaps you do; don't make yourself uncomfortable to hide it. Only, as i_appens this time, I don't. I've told plenty of little idiotic fibs, bu_hey've never hurt any one but myself."
Isabel sat staring at her companion's story as at a bale of fantastic ware_ome strolling gypsy might have unpacked on the carpet at her feet. "Why di_smond never marry her?" she finally asked.
"Because she had no money." The Countess had an answer for everything, and i_he lied she lied well. "No one knows, no one has ever known, what she live_n, or how she has got all those beautiful things. I don't believe Osmon_imself knows. Besides, she wouldn't have married him."
"How can she have loved him then?"
"She doesn't love him in that way. She did at first, and then, I suppose, sh_ould have married him; but at that time her husband was living. By the tim_. Merle had rejoined—I won't say his ancestors, because he never had any—he_elations with Osmond had changed, and she had grown more ambitious. Besides, she has never had, about him," the Countess went on, leaving Isabel to winc_or it so tragically afterwards—"she HAD never had, what you might call an_llusions of INTELLIGENCE. She hoped she might marry a great man; that ha_lways been her idea. She has waited and watched and plotted and prayed; bu_he has never succeeded. I don't call Madame Merle a success, you know. _on't know what she may accomplish yet, but at present she has very little t_how. The only tangible result she has ever achieved—except, of course, getting to know every one and staying with them free of expense—has been he_ringing you and Osmond together. Oh, she did that, my dear; you needn't loo_s if you doubted it. I've watched them for years; I kno_verything—everything. I'm thought a great scatterbrain, but I've had enoug_pplication of mind to follow up those two. She hates me, and her way o_howing it is to pretend to be for ever defending me. When people say I've ha_ifteen lovers she looks horrified and declares that quite half of them wer_ever proved. She has been afraid of me for years, and she has taken grea_omfort in the vile, false things people have said about me. She has bee_fraid I'd expose her, and she threatened me one day when Osmond began to pa_is court to you. It was at his house in Florence; do you remember tha_fternoon when she brought you there and we had tea in the garden? She let m_now then that if I should tell tales two could play at that game. Sh_retends there's a good deal more to tell about me than about her. It would b_n interesting comparison! I don't care a fig what she may say, simply becaus_ know YOU don't care a fig. You can't trouble your head about me less tha_ou do already. So she may take her revenge as she chooses; I don't thin_he'll frighten you very much. Her great idea has been to be tremendousl_rreproachable—a kind of full-blown lily—the incarnation of propriety. She ha_lways worshipped that god. There should be no scandal about Caesar's wife, you know; and, as I say, she has always hoped to marry Caesar. That was on_eason she wouldn't marry Osmond; the fear that on seeing her with Pans_eople would put things together— would even see a resemblance. She has had _error lest the mother should betray herself. She has been awfully careful; the mother has never done so."
"Yes, yes, the mother has done so," said Isabel, who had listened to all thi_ith a face more and more wan. "She betrayed herself to me the other day, though I didn't recognise her. There appeared to have been a chance of Pansy'_aking a great marriage, and in her disappointment at its not coming off sh_lmost dropped the mask."
"Ah, that's where she'd dish herself!" cried the Countess. "She has failed s_readfully that she's determined her daughter shall make it up."
Isabel started at the words "her daughter," which her guest threw off s_amiliarly. "It seems very wonderful," she murmured; and in this bewilderin_mpression she had almost lost her sense of being personally touched by th_tory.
"Now don't go and turn against the poor innocent child!" the Countess went on.
"She's very nice, in spite of her deplorable origin. I myself have like_ansy; not, naturally, because she was hers, but because she had becom_ours."
"Yes, she has become mine. And how the poor woman must have suffered at seein_e—!" Isabel exclaimed while she flushed at the thought.
"I don't believe she has suffered; on the contrary, she has enjoyed. Osmond'_arriage has given his daughter a great little lift. Before that she lived i_ hole. And do you know what the mother thought? That you might take such _ancy to the child that you'd do something for her. Osmond of course coul_ever give her a portion. Osmond was really extremely poor; but of course yo_now all about that. Ah, my dear," cried the Countess, "why did you eve_nherit money?" She stopped a moment as if she saw something singular i_sabel's face. "Don't tell me now that you'll give her a dot. You're capabl_f that, but I would refuse to believe it. Don't try to be too good. Be _ittle easy and natural and nasty; feel a little wicked, for the comfort o_t, once in your life!"
"It's very strange. I suppose I ought to know, but I'm sorry," Isabel said.
"I'm much obliged to you."
"Yes, you seem to be!" cried the Countess with a mocking laugh. "Perhaps yo_re—perhaps you're not. You don't take it as I should have thought."
"How should I take it?" Isabel asked.
"Well, I should say as a woman who has been made use of." Isabel made n_nswer to this; she only listened, and the Countess went on. "They've alway_een bound to each other; they remained so even after she broke off—or HE did.
But he has always been more for her than she has been for him. When thei_ittle carnival was over they made a bargain that each should give the othe_omplete liberty, but that each should also do everything possible to help th_ther on. You may ask me how I know such a thing as that. I know it by the wa_hey've behaved. Now see how much better women are than men! She has found _ife for Osmond, but Osmond has never lifted a little finger for HER. She ha_orked for him, plotted for him, suffered for him; she has even more than onc_ound money for him; and the end of it is that he's tired of her. She's an ol_abit; there are moments when he needs her, but on the whole he wouldn't mis_er if she were removed. And, what's more, today she knows it. So you needn'_e jealous!" the Countess added humorously.
Isabel rose from her sofa again; she felt bruised and scant of breath; he_ead was humming with new knowledge. "I'm much obliged to you," she repeated.
And then she added abruptly, in quite a different tone: "How do you know al_his?"
This enquiry appeared to ruffle the Countess more than Isabel's expression o_ratitude pleased her. She gave her companion a bold stare, with which, "Le_s assume that I've invented it!" she cried. She too, however, suddenl_hanged her tone and, laying her hand on Isabel's arm, said with th_enetration of her sharp bright smile: "Now will you give up your journey?"
Isabel started a little; she turned away. But she felt weak and in a momen_ad to lay her arm upon the mantel-shelf for support. She stood a minute so, and then upon her arm she dropped her dizzy head, with closed eyes and pal_ips.
"I've done wrong to speak—I've made you ill!" the Countess cried.
"Ah, I must see Ralph!" Isabel wailed; not in resentment, not in the quic_assion her companion had looked for; but in a tone of far-reaching, infinit_adness.