On one of the first days of May, some six months after old Mr. Touchett’s death, a small group that might have been described by a painter as composing well was gathered in one of the many rooms of an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill outside of the Roman gate of Florence. The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure, with the far-projecting roof which Tuscany loves and which, on the hills that encircle Florence, when considered from a distance, makes so harmonious a rectangle with the straight, dark, definite cypresses that usually rise in groups of three or four beside it. The house had a front upon a little grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hill-top; and this front, pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit which in Italy, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests any one who confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude — this antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way — looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. In that quarter the villa overhung the slope of its hill and the long valley of the Arno, hazy with Italian colour. It had a narrow garden, in the manner of a terrace, productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses and other old stone benches, mossy and sun-warmed. The parapet of the terrace was just the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined into the vagueness of olive-crops and vineyards. It is not, however, with the outside of the place that we are concerned; on this bright morning of ripened spring its tenants had reason to prefer the shady side of the wall. The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in. They were massively cross-barred, and placed at such a height that curiosity, even on tiptoe, expired before it reached them. In an apartment lighted by a row of three of these jealous apertures — one of the several distinct apartments into which the villa was divided and which were mainly occupied by foreigners of random race long resident in Florence — a gentleman was seated in company with a young girl and two good sisters from a religious house. The room was, however, less sombre than our indications may have represented, for it had a wide, high door, which now stood open into the tangled garden behind; and the tall iron lattices admitted on occasion more than enough of the Italian sunshine. It was moreover a seat of ease, indeed of luxury, telling of arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed, and containing a variety of those faded hangings of damask and tapestry, those chests and cabinets of carved and time-polished oak, those angular specimens of pictorial art in frames as pedantically primitive, those perverse-looking relics of medieval brass and pottery, of which Italy has long been the not quite exhausted storehouse. These things kept terms with articles of modern furniture in which large allowance had been made for a lounging generation; it was to be noticed that all the chairs were deep and well padded and that much space was occupied by a writing-table of which the ingenious perfection bore the stamp of London and the nineteenth century. There were books in profusion and magazines and newspapers, and a few small, odd, elaborate pictures, chiefly in water-colour. One of these productions stood on a drawing-room easel before which, at the moment we begin to be concerned with her, the young girl I have mentioned had placed herself. She was looking at the picture in silence.
Silence — absolute silence — had not fallen upon her companions; but their talk had an appearance of embarrassed continuity. The two good sisters had not settled themselves in their respective chairs; their attitude expressed a final reserve and their faces showed the glaze of prudence. They were plain, ample, mild-featured women, with a kind of business-like modesty to which the impersonal aspect of their stiffened linen and of the serge that draped them as if nailed on frames gave an advantage. One of them, a person of a certain age, in spectacles, with a fresh complexion and a full cheek, had a more discriminating manner than her colleague, as well as the responsibility of their errand, which apparently related to the young girl. This object of interest wore her hat — an ornament of extreme simplicity and not at variance with her plain muslin gown, too short for her years, though it must already have been “let out.” The gentleman who might have been supposed to be entertaining the two nuns was perhaps conscious of the difficulties of his function, it being in its way as arduous to converse with the very meek as with the very mighty. At the same time he was clearly much occupied with their quiet charge, and while she turned her back to him his eyes rested gravely on her slim, small figure. He was a man of forty, with a high but well-shaped head, on which the hair, still dense, but prematurely grizzled, had been cropped close. He had a fine, narrow, extremely modelled and composed face, of which the only fault was just this effect of its running a trifle too much to points; an appearance to which the shape of the beard contributed not a little. This beard, cut in the manner of the portraits of the sixteenth century and surmounted by a fair moustache, of which the ends had a romantic upward flourish, gave its wearer a foreign, traditionary look and suggested that he was a gentleman who studied style. His conscious, curious eyes, however, eyes at once vague and penetrating, intelligent and hard, expressive of the observer as well as of the dreamer, would have assured you that he studied it only within well-chosen limits, and that in so far as he sought it he found it. You would have been much at a loss to determine his original clime and country; he had none of the superficial signs that usually render the answer to this question an insipidly easy one. If he had English blood in his veins it had probably received some French or Italian commixture; but he suggested, fine gold coin as he was, no stamp nor emblem of the common mintage that provides for general circulation; he was the elegant complicated medal struck off for a special occasion. He had a light, lean, rather languid-looking figure, and was apparently neither tall nor short. He was dressed as a man dresses who takes little other trouble about it than to have no vulgar things.
“Well, my dear, what do you think of it?” he asked of the young girl. He used the Italian tongue, and used it with perfect ease; but this would not have convinced you he was Italian.
The child turned her head earnestly to one side and the other. “It’s very pretty, papa. Did you make it yourself?”
“Certainly I made it. Don’t you think I’m clever?”
“Yes, papa, very clever; I also have learned to make pictures.” And she turned round and showed a small, fair face painted with a fixed and intensely sweet smile.
“You should have brought me a specimen of your powers.”
“I’ve brought a great many; they’re in my trunk.”
“She draws very — very carefully,” the elder of the nuns remarked, speaking in French.
“I’m glad to hear it. Is it you who have instructed her?”
“Happily no,” said the good sister, blushing a little. “Ce n’est pas ma partie. I teach nothing; I leave that to those who are wiser. We’ve an excellent drawing-master, Mr. — Mr. — what is his name?” she asked of her companion.
Her companion looked about at the carpet. “It’s a German name,” she said in Italian, as if it needed to be translated.
“Yes,” the other went on, “he’s a German, and we’ve had him many years.”
The young girl, who was not heeding the conversation, had wandered away to the open door of the large room and stood looking into the garden. “And you, my sister, are French,” said the gentleman.
“Yes, sir,” the visitor gently replied. “I speak to the pupils in my own tongue. I know no other. But we have sisters of other countries — English, German, Irish. They all speak their proper language.”
The gentleman gave a smile. “Has my daughter been under the care of one of the Irish ladies?” And then, as he saw that his visitors suspected a joke, though failing to understand it, “You’re very complete,” he instantly added.
“Oh, yes, we’re complete. We’ve everything, and everything’s of the best.”
“We have gymnastics,” the Italian sister ventured to remark. “But not dangerous.”
“I hope not. Is that YOUR branch?” A question which provoked much candid hilarity on the part of the two ladies; on the subsidence of which their entertainer, glancing at his daughter, remarked that she had grown.
“Yes, but I think she has finished. She’ll remain — not big,” said the French sister.
“I’m not sorry. I prefer women like books — very good and not too long. But I know,” the gentleman said, “no particular reason why my child should be short.”
The nun gave a temperate shrug, as if to intimate that such things might be beyond our knowledge. “She’s in very good health; that’s the best thing.”
“Yes, she looks sound.” And the young girl’s father watched her a moment. “What do you see in the garden?” he asked in French.
“I see many flowers,” she replied in a sweet, small voice and with an accent as good as his own.
“Yes, but not many good ones. However, such as they are, go out and gather some for ces dames.”
The child turned to him with her smile heightened by pleasure. “May I, truly?”
“Ah, when I tell you,” said her father.
The girl glanced at the elder of the nuns. “May I, truly, ma mere?”
“Obey monsieur your father, my child,” said the sister, blushing again.
The child, satisfied with this authorisation, descended from the threshold and was presently lost to sight. “You don’t spoil them,” said her father gaily.
“For everything they must ask leave. That’s our system. Leave is freely granted, but they must ask it.”
“Oh, I don’t quarrel with your system; I’ve no doubt it’s excellent. I sent you my daughter to see what you’d make of her. I had faith.”
“One must have faith,” the sister blandly rejoined, gazing through her spectacles.
“Well, has my faith been rewarded What have you made of her?”
The sister dropped her eyes a moment. “A good Christian, monsieur.”
Her host dropped his eyes as well; but it was probable that the movement had in each case a different spring. “Yes, and what else?”
He watched the lady from the convent, probably thinking she would say that a good Christian was everything; but for all her simplicity she was not so crude as that. “A charming young lady — a real little woman — a daughter in whom you will have nothing but contentment.”
“She seems to me very gentille,” said the father. “She’s really pretty.”
“She’s perfect. She has no faults.”
“She never had any as a child, and I’m glad you have given her none.”
“We love her too much,” said the spectacled sister with dignity.
“And as for faults, how can we give what we have not? Le couvent n’est pas comme le monde, monsieur. She’s our daughter, as you may say. We’ve had her since she was so small.”
“Of all those we shall lose this year she’s the one we shall miss most,” the younger woman murmured deferentially.
“Ah, yes, we shall talk long of her,” said the other. “We shall hold her up to the new ones.” And at this the good sister appeared to find her spectacles dim; while her companion, after fumbling a moment, presently drew forth a pocket-handkerchief of durable texture.
“It’s not certain you’ll lose her; nothing’s settled yet,” their host rejoined quickly; not as if to anticipate their tears, but in the tone of a man saying what was most agreeable to himself. “We should be very happy to believe that. Fifteen is very young to leave us.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the gentleman with more vivacity than he had yet used, “it is not I who wish to take her away. I wish you could keep her always!”
“Ah, monsieur,” said the elder sister, smiling and getting up, “good as she is, she’s made for the world. Le monde y gagnera.”
“If all the good people were hidden away in convents how would the world get on?” her companion softly enquired, rising also.
This was a question of a wider bearing than the good woman apparently supposed; and the lady in spectacles took a harmonising view by saying comfortably: “Fortunately there are good people everywhere.”
“If you’re going there will be two less here,” her host remarked gallantly.
For this extravagant sally his simple visitors had no answer, and they simply looked at each other in decent deprecation; but their confusion was speedily covered by the return of the young girl with two large bunches of roses — one of them all white, the other red.
“I give you your choice, mamman Catherine,” said the child. “It’s only the colour that’s different, mamman Justine; there are just as many roses in one bunch as in the other.”
The two sisters turned to each other, smiling and hesitating, with “Which will you take?” and “No, it’s for you to choose.”
“I’ll take the red, thank you,” said Catherine in the spectacles. “I’m so red myself. They’ll comfort us on our way back to Rome.”
“Ah, they won’t last,” cried the young girl. I wish I could give you something that would last!”
“You’ve given us a good memory of yourself, my daughter. That will last!”
“I wish nuns could wear pretty things. I would give you my blue beads,” the child went on.
“And do you go back to Rome to-night?” her father enquired.
“Yes, we take the train again. We’ve so much to do la-bas.”
“Are you not tired?”
“We are never tired.”
“Ah, my sister, sometimes,” murmured the junior votaress.
“Not to-day, at any rate. We have rested too well here. Que Dieu vows garde, ma fine.”
Their host, while they exchanged kisses with his daughter, went forward to open the door through which they were to pass; but as he did so he gave a slight exclamation, and stood looking beyond. The door opened into a vaulted ante-chamber, as high as a chapel and paved with red tiles; and into this antechamber a lady had just been admitted by a servant, a lad in shabby livery, who was now ushering her toward the apartment in which our friends were grouped. The gentleman at the door, after dropping his exclamation, remained silent; in silence too the lady advanced. He gave her no further audible greeting and offered her no hand, but stood aside to let her pass into the saloon. At the threshold she hesitated. “Is there any one?” she asked.
“Some one you may see.”
She went in and found herself confronted with the two nuns and their pupil, who was coming forward, between them, with a hand in the arm of each. At the sight of the new visitor they all paused, and the lady, who had also stopped, stood looking at them. The young girl gave a little soft cry: “Ah, Madame Merle!”
The visitor had been slightly startled, but her manner the next instant was none the less gracious. “Yes, it’s Madame Merle, come to welcome you home.” And she held out two hands to the girl, who immediately came up to her, presenting her forehead to be kissed. Madame Merle saluted this portion of her charming little person and then stood smiling at the two nuns. They acknowledged her smile with a decent obeisance, but permitted themselves no direct scrutiny of this imposing, brilliant woman, who seemed to bring in with her something of the radiance of the outer world. “These ladies have brought my daughter home, and now they return to the convent,” the gentleman explained.
“Ah, you go back to Rome? I’ve lately come from there. It’s very lovely now,” said Madame Merle.
The good sisters, standing with their hands folded into their sleeves, accepted this statement uncritically; and the master of the house asked his new visitor how long it was since she had left Rome. “She came to see me at the convent,” said the young girl before the lady addressed had time to reply.
“I’ve been more than once, Pansy,” Madame Merle declared. “Am I not your great friend in Rome?”
“I remember the last time best,” said Pansy, “because you told me I should come away.”
“Did you tell her that?” the child’s father asked.
“I hardly remember. I told her what I thought would please her. I’ve been in Florence a week. I hoped you would come to see me.”
“I should have done so if I had known you were there. One doesn’t know such things by inspiration — though I suppose one ought. You had better sit down.”
These two speeches were made in a particular tone of voice — a tone half-lowered and carefully quiet, but as from habit rather than from any definite need. Madame Merle looked about her, choosing her seat. “You’re going to the door with these women? Let me of course not interrupt the ceremony. Je vous salue, mesdames,” she added, in French, to the nuns, as if to dismiss them.
“This lady’s a great friend of ours; you will have seen her at the convent,” said their entertainer. “We’ve much faith in her judgement, and she’ll help me to decide whether my daughter shall return to you at the end of the holidays.”
“I hope you’ll decide in our favour, madame,” the sister in spectacles ventured to remark.
“That’s Mr. Osmond’s pleasantry; I decide nothing,” said Madame Merle, but also as in pleasantry. “I believe you’ve a very good school, but Miss Osmond’s friends must remember that she’s very naturally meant for the world.”
“That’s what I’ve told monsieur,” sister Catherine answered. “It’s precisely to fit her for the world,” she murmured, glancing at Pansy, who stood, at a little distance, attentive to Madame Merle’s elegant apparel.
“Do you hear that, Pansy? You’re very naturally meant for the world,” said Pansy’s father.
The child fixed him an instant with her pure young eyes. “Am I not meant for you, papa?”
Papa gave a quick, light laugh. “That doesn’t prevent it! I’m of the world, Pansy.”
“Kindly permit us to retire,” said sister Catherine. “Be good and wise and happy in any case, my daughter.”
“I shall certainly come back and see you,” Pansy returned, recommencing her embraces, which were presently interrupted by Madame Merle.
“Stay with me, dear child,” she said, “while your father takes the good ladies to the door.”
Pansy stared, disappointed, yet not protesting. She was evidently impregnated with the idea of submission, which was due to any one who took the tone of authority; and she was a passive spectator of the operation of her fate. “May I not see mamman Catherine get into the carriage?” she nevertheless asked very gently.
“It would please me better if you’d remain with me,” said Madame Merle, while Mr. Osmond and his companions, who had bowed low again to the other visitor, passed into the ante-chamber.
“Oh yes, I’ll stay,” Pansy answered; and she stood near Madame Merle, surrendering her little hand, which this lady took. She stared out of the window; her eyes had filled with tears.
“I’m glad they’ve taught you to obey,” said Madame Merle. “That’s what good little girls should do.”
“Oh yes, I obey very well,” cried Pansy with soft eagerness, almost with boastfulness, as if she had been speaking of her piano-playing. And then she gave a faint, just audible sigh.
Madame Merle, holding her hand, drew it across her own fine palm and looked at it. The gaze was critical, but it found nothing to deprecate; the child’s small hand was delicate and fair. “I hope they always see that you wear gloves,” she said in a moment. “Little girls usually dislike them.”
“I used to dislike them, but I like them now,” the child made answer.
“Very good, I’ll make you a present of a dozen.”
“I thank you very much. What colours will they be?” Pansy demanded with interest.
Madame Merle meditated. “Useful colours.”
“But very pretty?”
“Are you very fond of pretty things?”
“Yes; but — but not too fond,” said Pansy with a trace of asceticism.
“Well, they won’t be too pretty,” Madame Merle returned with a laugh. She took the child’s other hand and drew her nearer; after which, looking at her a moment, “Shall you miss mother Catherine?” she went on.
“Yes — when I think of her.”
“Try then not to think of her. Perhaps some day,” added Madame Merle, “you’ll have another mother.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Pansy said, repeating her little soft conciliatory sigh. “I had more than thirty mothers at the convent.”
Her father’s step sounded again in the antechamber, and Madame Merle got up, releasing the child. Mr. Osmond came in and closed the door; then, without looking at Madame Merle, he pushed one or two chairs back into their places. His visitor waited a moment for him to speak, watching him as he moved about. Then at last she said: “I hoped you’d have come to Rome. I thought it possible you’d have wished yourself to fetch Pansy away.”
“That was a natural supposition; but I’m afraid it’s not the first time I’ve acted in defiance of your calculations.”
“Yes,” said Madame Merle, “I think you very perverse.”
Mr. Osmond busied himself for a moment in the room — there was plenty of space in it to move about — in the fashion of a man mechanically seeking pretexts for not giving an attention which may be embarrassing. Presently, however, he had exhausted his pretexts; there was nothing left for him — unless he took up a book — but to stand with his hands behind him looking at Pansy. “Why didn’t you come and see the last of mamman Catherine?” he asked of her abruptly in French.
Pansy hesitated a moment, glancing at Madame Merle. “I asked her to stay with me,” said this lady, who had seated herself again in another place.
“Ah, that was better,” Osmond conceded. With which he dropped into a chair and sat looking at Madame Merle; bent forward a little, his elbows on the edge of the arms and his hands interlocked.
“She’s going to give me some gloves,” said Pansy.
“You needn’t tell that to every one, my dear,” Madame Merle observed.
“You’re very kind to her,” said Osmond. “She’s supposed to have everything she needs.”
“I should think she had had enough of the nuns.”
“If we’re going to discuss that matter she had better go out of the room.”
“Let her stay,” said Madame Merle. “We’ll talk of something else.”
“If you like I won’t listen,” Pansy suggested with an appearance of candour which imposed conviction.
“You may listen, charming child, because you won’t understand,” her father replied. The child sat down, deferentially, near the open door, within sight of the garden, into which she directed her innocent, wistful eyes; and Mr. Osmond went on irrelevantly, addressing himself to his other companion. “You’re looking particularly well.”
“I think I always look the same,” said Madame Merle.
“You always ARE the same. You don’t vary. You’re a wonderful woman.”
“Yes, I think I am.”
“You sometimes change your mind, however. You told me on your return from England that you wouldn’t leave Rome again for the present.”
“I’m pleased that you remember so well what I say. That was my intention. But I’ve come to Florence to meet some friends who have lately arrived and as to whose movements I was at that time uncertain.”
“That reason’s characteristic. You’re always doing something for your friends.”
Madame Merle smiled straight at her host. “It’s less characteristic than your comment upon it which is perfectly insincere. I don’t, however, make a crime of that,” she added, “because if you don’t believe what you say there’s no reason why you should. I don’t ruin myself for my friends; I don’t deserve your praise. I care greatly for myself.”
“Exactly; but yourself includes so many other selves — so much of every one else and of everything. I never knew a person whose life touched so many other lives.”
“What do you call one’s life?” asked Madame Merle. “One’s appearance, one’s movements, one’s engagements, one’s society?”
“I call YOUR life your ambitions,” said Osmond.
Madame Merle looked a moment at Pansy. “I wonder if she understands that,” she murmured.
“You see she can’t stay with us!” And Pansy’s father gave rather a joyless smile. “Go into the garden, mignonne, and pluck a flower or two for Madame Merle,” he went on in French.
“That’s just what I wanted to do,” Pansy exclaimed, rising with promptness and noiselessly departing. Her father followed her to the open door, stood a moment watching her, and then came back, but remained standing, or rather strolling to and fro, as if to cultivate a sense of freedom which in another attitude might be wanting.
“My ambitions are principally for you,” said Madame Merle, looking up at him with a certain courage.
“That comes back to what I say. I’m part of your life — I and a thousand others. You’re not selfish — I can’t admit that. If you were selfish, what should I be? What epithet would properly describe me?”
“You’re indolent. For me that’s your worst fault.”
“I’m afraid it’s really my best.”
“You don’t care,” said Madame Merle gravely.
“No; I don’t think I care much. What sort of a fault do you call that? My indolence, at any rate, was one of the reasons I didn’t go to Rome. But it was only one of them.”
“It’s not of importance — to me at least — that you didn’t go; though I should have been glad to see you. I’m glad you’re not in Rome now — which you might be, would probably be, if you had gone there a month ago. There’s something I should like you to do at present in Florence.”
“Please remember my indolence,” said Osmond.
“I do remember it; but I beg you to forget it. In that way you’ll have both the virtue and the reward. This is not a great labour, and it may prove a real interest. How long is it since you made a new acquaintance?”
“I don’t think I’ve made any since I made yours.”
“It’s time then you should make another. There’s a friend of mine I want you to know.”
Mr. Osmond, in his walk, had gone back to the open door again and was looking at his daughter as she moved about in the intense sunshine. “What good will it do me?” he asked with a sort of genial crudity.
Madame Merle waited. “It will amuse you.” There was nothing crude in this rejoinder; it had been thoroughly well considered.
“If you say that, you know, I believe it,” said Osmond, coming toward her. “There are some points in which my confidence in you is complete. I’m perfectly aware, for instance, that you know good society from bad.”
“Society is all bad.”
“Pardon me. That isn’t — the knowledge I impute to you — a common sort of wisdom. You’ve gained it in the right way — experimentally; you’ve compared an immense number of more or less impossible people with each other.”
“Well, I invite you to profit by my knowledge.”
“To profit? Are you very sure that I shall?”
“It’s what I hope. It will depend on yourself. If I could only induce you to make an effort!”
“Ah, there you are! I knew something tiresome was coming. What in the world — that’s likely to turn up here — is worth an effort?”
Madame Merle flushed as with a wounded intention. “Don’t be foolish, Osmond. No one knows better than you what IS worth an effort. Haven’t I seen you in old days?”
“I recognise some things. But they’re none of them probable in this poor life.”
“It’s the effort that makes them probable,” said Madame Merle.
“There’s something in that. Who then is your friend?”
“The person I came to Florence to see. She’s a niece of Mrs. Touchett, whom you’ll not have forgotten.”
“A niece? The word niece suggests youth and ignorance. I see what you’re coming to.”
“Yes, she’s young — twenty-three years old. She’s a great friend of mine. I met her for the first time in England, several months ago, and we struck up a grand alliance. I like her immensely, and I do what I don’t do every day — I admire her. You’ll do the same.”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Precisely. But you won’t be able to help it.”
“Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent and unprecedentedly virtuous? It’s only on those conditions that I care to make her acquaintance. You know I asked you some time ago never to speak to me of a creature who shouldn’t correspond to that description. I know plenty of dingy people; I don’t want to know any more.”
“Miss Archer isn’t dingy; she’s as bright as the morning. She corresponds to your description; it’s for that I wish you to know her. She fills all your requirements.”
“More or less, of course.”
“No; quite literally. She’s beautiful, accomplished, generous and, for an American, well-born. She’s also very clever and very amiable, and she has a handsome fortune.”
Mr. Osmond listened to this in silence, appearing to turn it over in his mind with his eyes on his informant. “What do you want to do with her?” he asked at last.
“What you see. Put her in your way.”
“Isn’t she meant for something better than that?”
“I don’t pretend to know what people are meant for,” said Madame Merle. “I only know what I can do with them.”
“I’m sorry for Miss Archer!” Osmond declared.
Madame Merle got up. “If that’s a beginning of interest in her I take note of it.”
The two stood there face to face; she settled her mantilla, looking down at it as she did so. “You’re looking very well,” Osmond repeated still less relevantly than before. “You have some idea. You’re never so well as when you’ve got an idea; they’re always becoming to you.”
In the manner and tone of these two persons, on first meeting at any juncture, and especially when they met in the presence of others, was something indirect and circumspect, as if they had approached each other obliquely and addressed each other by implication. The effect of each appeared to be to intensify to an appreciable degree the self-consciousness of the other. Madame Merle of course carried off any embarrassment better than her friend; but even Madame Merle had not on this occasion the form she would have liked to have — the perfect self-possession she would have wished to wear for her host. The point to be made is, however, that at a certain moment the element between them, whatever it was, always levelled itself and left them more closely face to face than either ever was with any one else. This was what had happened now. They stood there knowing each other well and each on the whole willing to accept the satisfaction of knowing as a compensation for the inconvenience — whatever it might be — of being known. “I wish very much you were not so heartless,” Madame Merle quietly said. “It has always been against you, and it will be against you now.”
“I’m not so heartless as you think. Every now and then something touches me — as for instance your saying just now that your ambitions are for me. I don’t understand it; I don’t see how or why they should be. But it touches me, all the same.”
“You’ll probably understand it even less as time goes on. There are some things you’ll never understand. There’s no particular need you should.”
“You, after all, are the most remarkable of women,” said Osmond. “You have more in you than almost any one. I don’t see why you think Mrs. Touchett’s niece should matter very much to me, when — when —” But he paused a moment.
“When I myself have mattered so little?”
“That of course is not what I meant to say. When I’ve known and appreciated such a woman as you.”
“Isabel Archer’s better than I,” said Madame Merle.
Her companion gave a laugh. “How little you must think of her to say that!”
“Do you suppose I’m capable of jealousy? Please answer me that.”
“With regard to me? No; on the whole I don’t.”
“Come and see me then, two days hence. I’m staying at Mrs. Touchett’s — Palazzo Crescentini — and the girl will be there.”
“Why didn’t you ask me that at first simply, without speaking of the girl?” said Osmond. “You could have had her there at any rate.”
Madame Merle looked at him in the manner of a woman whom no question he could ever put would find unprepared. “Do you wish to know why? Because I’ve spoken of you to her.”
Osmond frowned and turned away. “I’d rather not know that.” Then in a moment he pointed out the easel supporting the little water-colour drawing. “Have you seen what’s there — my last?”
Madame Merle drew near and considered. “Is it the Venetian Alps — one of your last year’s sketches?”
“Yes — but how you guess everything!”
She looked a moment longer, then turned away. “You know I don’t care for your drawings.”
“I know it, yet I’m always surprised at it. They’re really so much better than most people’s.”
“That may very well be. But as the only thing you do — well, it’s so little. I should have liked you to do so many other things: those were my ambitions.”
“Yes; you’ve told me many times — things that were impossible.”
“Things that were impossible,” said Madame Merle. And then in quite a different tone: “In itself your little picture’s very good.” She looked about the room — at the old cabinets, pictures, tapestries, surfaces of faded silk. “Your rooms at least are perfect. I’m struck with that afresh whenever I come back; I know none better anywhere. You understand this sort of thing as nobody anywhere does. You’ve such adorable taste.”
“I’m sick of my adorable taste,” said Gilbert Osmond.
“You must nevertheless let Miss Archer come and see it. I’ve told her about it.”
“I don’t object to showing my things — when people are not idiots.”
“You do it delightfully. As cicerone of your museum you appear to particular advantage.”
Mr. Osmond, in return for this compliment, simply looked at once colder and more attentive. “Did you say she was rich?”
“She has seventy thousand pounds.”
“En ecus bien comptes?”
“There’s no doubt whatever about her fortune. I’ve seen it, as I may say.”
“Satisfactory woman! — I mean you. And if I go to see her shall I see the mother?”
“The mother? She has none — nor father either.”
“The aunt then — whom did you say? — Mrs. Touchett. I can easily keep her out of the way.”
“I don’t object to her,” said Osmond; “I rather like Mrs. Touchett. She has a sort of old-fashioned character that’s passing away — a vivid identity. But that long jackanapes the son — is he about the place?”
“He’s there, but he won’t trouble you.”
“He’s a good deal of a donkey.”
“I think you’re mistaken. He’s a very clever man. But he’s not fond of being about when I’m there, because he doesn’t like me.”
“What could he be more asinine than that? Did you say she has looks?” Osmond went on.
“Yes; but I won’t say it again, lest you should be disappointed in them. Come and make a beginning; that’s all I ask of you.”
“A beginning of what?”
Madame Merle was silent a little. “I want you of course to marry her.”
“The beginning of the end? Well, I’ll see for myself. Have you told her that?”
“For what do you take me? She’s not so coarse a piece of machinery — nor am I.”
“Really,” said Osmond after some meditation, “I don’t understand your ambitions.”
“I think you’ll understand this one after you’ve seen Miss Archer. Suspend your judgement.” Madame Merle, as she spoke, had drawn near the open door of the garden, where she stood a moment looking out. “Pansy has really grown pretty,” she presently added.
“So it seemed to me.”
“But she has had enough of the convent.”
“I don’t know,” said Osmond. “I like what they’ve made of her. It’s very charming.”
“That’s not the convent. It’s the child’s nature.”
“It’s the combination, I think. She’s as pure as a pearl.”
“Why doesn’t she come back with my flowers then?” Madame Merle asked. “She’s not in a hurry.”
“We’ll go and get them.”
“She doesn’t like me,” the visitor murmured as she raised her parasol and they passed into the garden.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10