Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Chapter LII

There was a train for Turin and Paris that evening; and after the Countess had left her Isabel had a rapid and decisive conference with her maid, who was discreet, devoted and active. After this she thought (except of her journey) only of one thing. She must go and see Pansy; from her she couldn’t turn away. She had not seen her yet, as Osmond had given her to understand that it was too soon to begin. She drove at five o’clock to a high floor in a narrow street in the quarter of the Piazza Navona, and was admitted by the portress of the convent, a genial and obsequious person. Isabel had been at this institution before; she had come with Pansy to see the sisters. She knew they were good women, and she saw that the large rooms were clean and cheerful and that the well-used garden had sun for winter and shade for spring. But she disliked the place, which affronted and almost frightened her; not for the world would she have spent a night there. It produced to-day more than before the impression of a well-appointed prison; for it was not possible to pretend Pansy was free to leave it. This innocent creature had been presented to her in a new and violent light, but the secondary effect of the revelation was to make her reach out a hand.

The portress left her to wait in the parlour of the convent while she went to make it known that there was a visitor for the dear young lady. The parlour was a vast, cold apartment, with new-looking furniture; a large clean stove of white porcelain, unlighted, a collection of wax flowers under glass, and a series of engravings from religious pictures on the walls. On the other occasion Isabel had thought it less like Rome than like Philadelphia, but to-day she made no reflexions; the apartment only seemed to her very empty and very soundless. The portress returned at the end of some five minutes, ushering in another person. Isabel got up, expecting to see one of the ladies of the sisterhood, but to her extreme surprise found herself confronted with Madame Merle. The effect was strange, for Madame Merle was already so present to her vision that her appearance in the flesh was like suddenly, and rather awfully, seeing a painted picture move. Isabel had been thinking all day of her falsity, her audacity, her ability, her probable suffering; and these dark things seemed to flash with a sudden light as she entered the room. Her being there at all had the character of ugly evidence, of handwritings, of profaned relics, of grim things produced in court. It made Isabel feel faint; if it had been necessary to speak on the spot she would have been quite unable. But no such necessity was distinct to her; it seemed to her indeed that she had absolutely nothing to say to Madame Merle. In one’s relations with this lady, however, there were never any absolute necessities; she had a manner which carried off not only her own deficiencies but those of other people. But she was different from usual; she came in slowly, behind the portress, and Isabel instantly perceived that she was not likely to depend upon her habitual resources. For her too the occasion was exceptional, and she had undertaken to treat it by the light of the moment. This gave her a peculiar gravity; she pretended not even to smile, and though Isabel saw that she was more than ever playing a part it seemed to her that on the whole the wonderful woman had never been so natural. She looked at her young friend from head to foot, but not harshly nor defiantly; with a cold gentleness rather, and an absence of any air of allusion to their last meeting. It was as if she had wished to mark a distinction. She had been irritated then, she was reconciled now.

“You can leave us alone,” she said to the portress; “in five minutes this lady will ring for you.” And then she turned to Isabel, who, after noting what has just been mentioned, had ceased to notice and had let her eyes wander as far as the limits of the room would allow. She wished never to look at Madame Merle again. “You’re surprised to find me here, and I’m afraid you’re not pleased,” this lady went on. “You don’t see why I should have come; it’s as if I had anticipated you. I confess I’ve been rather indiscreet — I ought to have asked your permission.” There was none of the oblique movement of irony in this; it was said simply and mildly; but Isabel, far afloat on a sea of wonder and pain, could not have told herself with what intention it was uttered. “But I’ve not been sitting long,” Madame Merle continued; “that is I’ve not been long with Pansy. I came to see her because it occurred to me this afternoon that she must be rather lonely and perhaps even a little miserable. It may be good for a small girl; I know so little about small girls; I can’t tell. At any rate it’s a little dismal. Therefore I came — on the chance. I knew of course that you’d come, and her father as well; still, I had not been told other visitors were forbidden. The good woman — what’s her name? Madame Catherine — made no objection whatever. I stayed twenty minutes with Pansy; she has a charming little room, not in the least conventual, with a piano and flowers. She has arranged it delightfully; she has so much taste. Of course it’s all none of my business, but I feel happier since I’ve seen her. She may even have a maid if she likes; but of course she has no occasion to dress. She wears a little black frock; she looks so charming. I went afterwards to see Mother Catherine, who has a very good room too; I assure you I don’t find the poor sisters at all monastic. Mother Catherine has a most coquettish little toilet-table, with something that looked uncommonly like a bottle of eau-de-Cologne. She speaks delightfully of Pansy; says it’s a great happiness for them to have her. She’s a little saint of heaven and a model to the oldest of them. Just as I was leaving Madame Catherine the portress came to say to her that there was a lady for the signorina. Of course I knew it must be you, and I asked her to let me go and receive you in her place. She demurred greatly — I must tell you that — and said it was her duty to notify the Mother Superior; it was of such high importance that you should be treated with respect. I requested her to let the Mother Superior alone and asked her how she supposed I would treat you!”

So Madame Merle went on, with much of the brilliancy of a woman who had long been a mistress of the art of conversation. But there were phases and gradations in her speech, not one of which was lost upon Isabel’s ear, though her eyes were absent from her companion’s face. She had not proceeded far before Isabel noted a sudden break in her voice, a lapse in her continuity, which was in itself a complete drama. This subtle modulation marked a momentous discovery — the perception of an entirely new attitude on the part of her listener. Madame Merle had guessed in the space of an instant that everything was at end between them, and in the space of another instant she had guessed the reason why. The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto, but was a very different person — a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and from the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to proceed. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in her not betraying herself. She resisted this, but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve — she couldn’t help it — while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.

Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure — this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day. And for a moment during which she stood apparently looking out of the window, with her back half-turned, Isabel enjoyed that knowledge. On the other side of the window lay the garden of the convent; but this is not what she saw; she saw nothing of the budding plants and the glowing afternoon. She saw, in the crude light of that revelation which had already become a part of experience and to which the very frailty of the vessel in which it had been offered her only gave an intrinsic price, the dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool, as senseless and convenient as mere shaped wood and iron. All the bitterness of this knowledge surged into her soul again; it was as if she felt on her lips the taste of dishonour. There was a moment during which, if she had turned and spoken, she would have said something that would hiss like a lash. But she closed her eyes, and then the hideous vision dropped. What remained was the cleverest woman in the world standing there within a few feet of her and knowing as little what to think as the meanest. Isabel’s only revenge was to be silent still — to leave Madame Merle in this unprecedented situation. She left her there for a period that must have seemed long to this lady, who at last seated herself with a movement which was in itself a confession of helplessness. Then Isabel turned slow eyes, looking down at her. Madame Merle was very pale; her own eyes covered Isabel’s face. She might see what she would, but her danger was over. Isabel would never accuse her, never reproach her; perhaps because she never would give her the opportunity to defend herself.

“I’m come to bid Pansy good-bye,” our young woman said at last. “I go to England to-night.”

“Go to England to-night!” Madame Merle repeated sitting there and looking up at her.

“I’m going to Gardencourt. Ralph Touchett’s dying.”

“Ah, you’ll feel that.” Madame Merle recovered herself; she had a chance to express sympathy. “Do you go alone?”

“Yes; without my husband.”

Madame Merle gave a low vague murmur; a sort of recognition of the general sadness of things. “Mr. Touchett never liked me, but I’m sorry he’s dying. Shall you see his mother?”

“Yes; she has returned from America.”

“She used to be very kind to me; but she has changed. Others too have changed,” said Madame Merle with a quiet noble pathos. She paused a moment, then added: “And you’ll see dear old Gardencourt again!”

“I shall not enjoy it much,” Isabel answered.

“Naturally — in your grief. But it’s on the whole, of all the houses I know, and I know many, the one I should have liked best to live in. I don’t venture to send a message to the people,” Madame Merle added; “but I should like to give my love to the place.”

Isabel turned away. “I had better go to Pansy. I’ve not much time.”

While she looked about her for the proper egress, the door opened and admitted one of the ladies of the house, who advanced with a discreet smile, gently rubbing, under her long loose sleeves, a pair of plump white hands. Isabel recognised Madame Catherine, whose acquaintance she had already made, and begged that she would immediately let her see Miss Osmond. Madame Catherine looked doubly discreet, but smiled very blandly and said: “It will be good for her to see you. I’ll take you to her myself.” Then she directed her pleased guarded vision to Madame Merle.

“Will you let me remain a little?” this lady asked. “It’s so good to be here.”

“You may remain always if you like!” And the good sister gave a knowing laugh.

She led Isabel out of the room, through several corridors, and up a long staircase. All these departments were solid and bare, light and clean; so, thought Isabel, are the great penal establishments. Madame Catherine gently pushed open the door of Pansy’s room and ushered in the visitor; then stood smiling with folded hands while the two others met and embraced.

“She’s glad to see you,” she repeated; “it will do her good.” And she placed the best chair carefully for Isabel. But she made no movement to seat herself; she seemed ready to retire. “How does this dear child look?” she asked of Isabel, lingering a moment.

“She looks pale,” Isabel answered.

“That’s the pleasure of seeing you. She’s very happy. Elle eclaire la maison,” said the good sister.

Pansy wore, as Madame Merle had said, a little black dress; it was perhaps this that made her look pale. “They’re very good to me — they think of everything!” she exclaimed with all her customary eagerness to accommodate.

“We think of you always — you’re a precious charge,” Madame Catherine remarked in the tone of a woman with whom benevolence was a habit and whose conception of duty was the acceptance of every care. It fell with a leaden weight on Isabel’s ears; it seemed to represent the surrender of a personality, the authority of the Church.

When Madame Catherine had left them together Pansy kneeled down and hid her head in her stepmother’s lap. So she remained some moments, while Isabel gently stroked her hair. Then she got up, averting her face and looking about the room. “Don’t you think I’ve arranged it well? I’ve everything I have at home.”

“It’s very pretty; you’re very comfortable.” Isabel scarcely knew what she could say to her. On the one hand she couldn’t let her think she had come to pity her, and on the other it would be a dull mockery to pretend to rejoice with her. So she simply added after a moment: “I’ve come to bid you good-bye. I’m going to England.”

Pansy’s white little face turned red. “To England! Not to come back?”

“I don’t know when I shall come back.”

“Ah, I’m sorry,” Pansy breathed with faintness. She spoke as if she had no right to criticise; but her tone expressed a depth of disappointment.

“My cousin, Mr. Touchett, is very ill; he’ll probably die. I wish to see him,” Isabel said.

“Ah yes; you told me he would die. Of course you must go. And will papa go?”

“No; I shall go alone.”

For a moment the girl said nothing. Isabel had often wondered what she thought of the apparent relations of her father with his wife; but never by a glance, by an intimation, had she let it be seen that she deemed them deficient in an air of intimacy. She made her reflexions, Isabel was sure; and she must have had a conviction that there were husbands and wives who were more intimate than that. But Pansy was not indiscreet even in thought; she would as little have ventured to judge her gentle stepmother as to criticise her magnificent father. Her heart may have stood almost as still as it would have done had she seen two of the saints in the great picture in the convent chapel turn their painted heads and shake them at each other. But as in this latter case she would (for very solemnity’s sake) never have mentioned the awful phenomenon, so she put away all knowledge of the secrets of larger lives than her own. “You’ll be very far away,” she presently went on.

“Yes; I shall be far away. But it will scarcely matter,” Isabel explained; “since so long as you’re here I can’t be called near you.”

“Yes, but you can come and see me; though you’ve not come very often.”

“I’ve not come because your father forbade it. To-day I bring nothing with me. I can’t amuse you.”

“I’m not to be amused. That’s not what papa wishes.”

“Then it hardly matters whether I’m in Rome or in England.”

“You’re not happy, Mrs. Osmond,” said Pansy.

“Not very. But it doesn’t matter.”

“That’s what I say to myself. What does it matter? But I should like to come out.”

“I wish indeed you might.”

“Don’t leave me here,” Pansy went on gently.

Isabel said nothing for a minute; her heart beat fast. “Will you come away with me now?” she asked.

Pansy looked at her pleadingly. “Did papa tell you to bring me?”

“No; it’s my own proposal.”

“I think I had better wait then. Did papa send me no message?”

“I don’t think he knew I was coming.”

“He thinks I’ve not had enough,” said Pansy. “But I have. The ladies are very kind to me and the little girls come to see me. There are some very little ones — such charming children. Then my room — you can see for yourself. All that’s very delightful. But I’ve had enough. Papa wished me to think a little — and I’ve thought a great deal.”

“What have you thought?”

“Well, that I must never displease papa.”

“You knew that before.”

“Yes; but I know it better. I’ll do anything — I’ll do anything,” said Pansy. Then, as she heard her own words, a deep, pure blush came into her face. Isabel read the meaning of it; she saw the poor girl had been vanquished. It was well that Mr. Edward Rosier had kept his enamels! Isabel looked into her eyes and saw there mainly a prayer to be treated easily. She laid her hand on Pansy’s as if to let her know that her look conveyed no diminution of esteem; for the collapse of the girl’s momentary resistance (mute and modest thought it had been) seemed only her tribute to the truth of things. She didn’t presume to judge others, but she had judged herself; she had seen the reality. She had no vocation for struggling with combinations; in the solemnity of sequestration there was something that overwhelmed her. She bowed her pretty head to authority and only asked of authority to be merciful. Yes; it was very well that Edward Rosier had reserved a few articles!

Isabel got up; her time was rapidly shortening. “Good-bye then. I leave Rome to-night.”

Pansy took hold of her dress; there was a sudden change in the child’s face. “You look strange, you frighten me.”

“Oh, I’m very harmless,” said Isabel.

“Perhaps you won’t come back?”

“Perhaps not. I can’t tell.”

“Ah, Mrs. Osmond, you won’t leave me!”

Isabel now saw she had guessed everything. “My dear child, what can I do for you?” she asked.

“I don’t know — but I’m happier when I think of you.”

“You can always think of me.”

“Not when you’re so far. I’m a little afraid,” said Pansy.

“What are you afraid of?”

“Of papa — a little. And of Madame Merle. She has just been to see me.”

“You must not say that,” Isabel observed.

“Oh, I’ll do everything they want. Only if you’re here I shall do it more easily.”

Isabel considered. “I won’t desert you,” she said at last. “Good-bye, my child.”

Then they held each other a moment in a silent embrace, like two sisters; and afterwards Pansy walked along the corridor with her visitor to the top of the staircase. “Madame Merle has been here,” she remarked as they went; and as Isabel answered nothing she added abruptly: “I don’t like Madame Merle!”

Isabel hesitated, then stopped. “You must never say that — that you don’t like Madame Merle.”

Pansy looked at her in wonder; but wonder with Pansy had never been a reason for non-compliance. “I never will again,” she said with exquisite gentleness. At the top of the staircase they had to separate, as it appeared to be part of the mild but very definite discipline under which Pansy lived that she should not go down. Isabel descended, and when she reached the bottom the girl was standing above. “You’ll come back?” she called out in a voice that Isabel remembered afterwards.

“Yes — I’ll come back.”

Madame Catherine met Mrs. Osmond below and conducted her to the door of the parlour, outside of which the two stood talking a minute. “I won’t go in,” said the good sister. “Madame Merle’s waiting for you.”

At this announcement Isabel stiffened; she was on the point of asking if there were no other egress from the convent. But a moment’s reflexion assured her that she would do well not to betray to the worthy nun her desire to avoid Pansy’s other friend. Her companion grasped her arm very gently and, fixing her a moment with wise, benevolent eyes, said in French and almost familiarly: “Eh bien, chere Madame, qu’en pensez-vous?”

“About my step-daughter? Oh, it would take long to tell you.”

“We think it’s enough,” Madame Catherine distinctly observed. And she pushed open the door of the parlour.

Madame Merle was sitting just as Isabel had left her, like a woman so absorbed in thought that she had not moved a little finger. As Madame Catherine closed the door she got up, and Isabel saw that she had been thinking to some purpose. She had recovered her balance; she was in full possession of her resources. “I found I wished to wait for you,” she said urbanely. “But it’s not to talk about Pansy.”

Isabel wondered what it could be to talk about, and in spite of Madame Merle’s declaration she answered after a moment: “Madame Catherine says it’s enough.”

“Yes; it also seems to me enough. I wanted to ask you another word about poor Mr. Touchett,” Madame Merle added. “Have you reason to believe that he’s really at his last?”

“I’ve no information but a telegram. Unfortunately it only confirms a probability.”

“I’m going to ask you a strange question,” said Madame Merle. “Are you very fond of your cousin?” And she gave a smile as strange as her utterance.

“Yes, I’m very fond of him. But I don’t understand you.”

She just hung fire. “It’s rather hard to explain. Something has occurred to me which may not have occurred to you, and I give you the benefit of my idea. Your cousin did you once a great service. Have you never guessed it?”

“He has done me many services.”

“Yes; but one was much above the rest. He made you a rich woman.”

“HE made me —?”

Madame Merle appearing to see herself successful, she went on more triumphantly: “He imparted to you that extra lustre which was required to make you a brilliant match. At bottom it’s him you’ve to thank.” She stopped; there was something in Isabel’s eyes.

“I don’t understand you. It was my uncle’s money.”

“Yes; it was your uncle’s money, but it was your cousin’s idea. He brought his father over to it. Ah, my dear, the sum was large!”

Isabel stood staring; she seemed to-day to live in a world illumined by lurid flashes. “I don’t know why you say such things. I don’t know what you know.”

“I know nothing but what I’ve guessed. But I’ve guessed that.”

Isabel went to the door and, when she had opened it, stood a moment with her hand on the latch. Then she said — it was her only revenge: “I believed it was you I had to thank!”

Madame Merle dropped her eyes; she stood there in a kind of proud penance. “You’re very unhappy, I know. But I’m more so.”

“Yes; I can believe that. I think I should like never to see you again.”

Madame Merle raised her eyes. “I shall go to America,” she quietly remarked while Isabel passed out.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38