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Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII

Madame Merle, who had come to Florence on Mrs. Touchett's arrival
at the invitation of this lady--Mrs. Touchett offering her for a
month the hospitality of Palazzo Crescentini--the judicious
Madame Merle spoke to Isabel afresh about Gilbert Osmond and
expressed the hope she might know him; making, however, no such
point of the matter as we have seen her do in recommending the
girl herself to Mr. Osmond's attention. The reason of this was
perhaps that Isabel offered no resistance whatever to Madame
Merle's proposal. In Italy, as in England, the lady had a
multitude of friends, both among the natives of the country and
its heterogeneous visitors. She had mentioned to Isabel most of
the people the girl would find it well to "meet"--of course, she
said, Isabel could know whomever in the wide world she would--and
had placed Mr. Osmond near the top of the list. He was an old
friend of her own; she had known him these dozen years; he was
one of the cleverest and most agreeable men--well, in Europe
simply. He was altogether above the respectable average; quite
another affair. He wasn't a professional charmer--far from it,
and the effect he produced depended a good deal on the state of
his nerves and his spirits. When not in the right mood he could
fall as low as any one, saved only by his looking at such hours
rather like a demoralised prince in exile. But if he cared or was
interested or rightly challenged--just exactly rightly it had to
be--then one felt his cleverness and his distinction. Those
qualities didn't depend, in him, as in so many people, on his not
committing or exposing himself. He had his perversities--which
indeed Isabel would find to be the case with all the men really
worth knowing--and didn't cause his light to shine equally for
all persons. Madame Merle, however, thought she could undertake
that for Isabel he would be brilliant. He was easily bored, too
easily, and dull people always put him out; but a quick and
cultivated girl like Isabel would give him a stimulus which was
too absent from his life. At any rate he was a person not to miss.
One shouldn't attempt to live in Italy without making a friend of
Gilbert Osmond, who knew more about the country than any one
except two or three German professors. And if they had more
knowledge than he it was he who had most perception and taste--
being artistic through and through. Isabel remembered that her
friend had spoken of him during their plunge, at Gardencourt, into
the deeps of talk, and wondered a little what was the nature of
the tie binding these superior spirits. She felt that Madame
Merle's ties always somehow had histories, and such an impression
was part of the interest created by this inordinate woman. As
regards her relations with Mr. Osmond, however, she hinted at
nothing but a long-established calm friendship. Isabel said she
should be happy to know a person who had enjoyed so high a
confidence for so many years. "You ought to see a great many men,"
Madame Merle remarked; "you ought to see as many as possible, so
as to get used to them."

"Used to them?" Isabel repeated with that solemn stare which
sometimes seemed to proclaim her deficient in the sense of comedy.
"Why, I'm not afraid of them--I'm as used to them as the cook to
the butcher-boys."

"Used to them, I mean, so as to despise them. That's what one
comes to with most of them. You'll pick out, for your society, the
few whom you don't despise."

This was a note of cynicism that Madame Merle didn't often allow
herself to sound; but Isabel was not alarmed, for she had never
supposed that as one saw more of the world the sentiment of
respect became the most active of one's emotions. It was excited,
none the less, by the beautiful city of Florence, which pleased
her not less than Madame Merle had promised; and if her unassisted
perception had not been able to gauge its charms she had clever
companions as priests to the mystery. She was--in no want indeed
of esthetic illumination, for Ralph found it a joy that renewed
his own early passion to act as cicerone to his eager young
kinswoman. Madame Merle remained at home; she had seen the
treasures of Florence again and again and had always something
else to do. But she talked of all things with remarkable
vividness of memory--she recalled the right-hand corner of the
large Perugino and the position of the hands of the Saint
Elizabeth in the picture next to it. She had her opinions as to
the character of many famous works of art, differing often from
Ralph with great sharpness and defending her interpretations with
as much ingenuity as good-humour. Isabel listened to the
discussions taking place between the two with a sense that she
might derive much benefit from them and that they were among the
advantages she couldn't have enjoyed for instance in Albany. In
the clear May mornings before the formal breakfast--this repast
at Mrs. Touchett's was served at twelve o'clock--she wandered
with her cousin through the narrow and sombre Florentine streets,
resting a while in the thicker dusk of some historic church or
the vaulted chambers of some dispeopled convent. She went to the
galleries and palaces; she looked at the pictures and statues
that had hitherto been great names to her, and exchanged for a
knowledge which was sometimes a limitation a presentiment which
proved usually to have been a blank. She performed all those acts
of mental prostration in which, on a first visit to Italy, youth
and enthusiasm so freely indulge; she felt her heart beat in the
presence of immortal genius and knew the sweetness of rising
tears in eyes to which faded fresco and darkened marble grew dim.
But the return, every day, was even pleasanter than the going
forth; the return into the wide, monumental court of the great
house in which Mrs. Touchett, many years before, had established
herself, and into the high, cool rooms where the carven rafters
and pompous frescoes of the sixteenth century looked down on the
familiar commodities of the age of advertisement. Mrs. Touchett
inhabited an historic building in a narrow street whose very name
recalled the strife of medieval factions; and found compensation
for the darkness of her frontage in the modicity of her rent and
the brightness of a garden where nature itself looked as archaic
as the rugged architecture of the palace and which cleared and
scented the rooms in regular use. To live in such a place was,
for Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the
past. This vague eternal rumour kept her imagination awake.

Gilbert Osmond came to see Madame Merle, who presented him to the
young lady lurking at the other side of the room. Isabel took on
this occasion little part in the talk; she scarcely even smiled
when the others turned to her invitingly; she sat there as if she
had been at the play and had paid even a large sum for her place.
Mrs. Touchett was not present, and these two had it, for the
effect of brilliancy, all their own way. They talked of the
Florentine, the Roman, the cosmopolite world, and might have been
distinguished performers figuring for a charity. It all had the
rich readiness that would have come from rehearsal. Madame Merle
appealed to her as if she had been on the stage, but she could
ignore any learnt cue without spoiling the scene--though of
course she thus put dreadfully in the wrong the friend who had
told Mr. Osmond she could be depended on. This was no matter for
once; even if more had been involved she could have made no
attempt to shine. There was something in the visitor that checked
her and held her in suspense--made it more important she should
get an impression of him than that she should produce one
herself. Besides, she had little skill in producing an impression
which she knew to be expected: nothing could be happier, in
general, than to seem dazzling, but she had a perverse
unwillingness to glitter by arrangement. Mr. Osmond, to do him
justice, had a well-bred air of expecting nothing, a quiet ease
that covered everything, even the first show of his own wit.
This was the more grateful as his face, his head, was sensitive;
he was not handsome, but he was fine, as fine as one of the
drawings in the long gallery above the bridge of the Uffizi. And
his very voice was fine--the more strangely that, with its
clearness, it yet somehow wasn't sweet. This had had really to do
with making her abstain from interference. His utterance was the
vibration of glass, and if she had put out her finger she might
have changed the pitch and spoiled the concert. Yet before he
went she had to speak.

"Madame Merle," he said, "consents to come up to my hill-top some
day next week and drink tea in my garden. It would give me much
pleasure if you would come with her. It's thought rather pretty--
there's what they call a general view. My daughter too would
be so glad--or rather, for she's too young to have strong
emotions, I should be so glad--so very glad." And Mr. Osmond
paused with a slight air of embarrassment, leaving his sentence
unfinished. "I should be so happy if you could know my daughter,"
he went on a moment afterwards.

Isabel replied that she should be delighted to see Miss Osmond
and that if Madame Merle would show her the way to the hill-top
she should be very grateful. Upon this assurance the visitor took
his leave; after which Isabel fully expected her friend would
scold her for having been so stupid. But to her surprise that
lady, who indeed never fell into the mere matter-of-course, said
to her in a few moments

"You were charming, my dear; you were just as one would have
wished you. You're never disappointing."

A rebuke might possibly have been irritating, though it is much
more probable that Isabel would have taken it in good part; but,
strange to say, the words that Madame Merle actually used caused
her the first feeling of displeasure she had known this ally to
excite. "That's more than I intended," she answered coldly. "I'm
under no obligation that I know of to charm Mr. Osmond."

Madame Merle perceptibly flushed, but we know it was not her
habit to retract. "My dear child, I didn't speak for him, poor
man; I spoke for yourself. It's not of course a question as to
his liking you; it matters little whether he likes you or not!
But I thought you liked HIM."

"I did," said Isabel honestly. "But I don't see what that matters
either."

"Everything that concerns you matters to me," Madame Merle
returned with her weary nobleness; "especially when at the same
time another old friend's concerned."

Whatever Isabel's obligations may have been to Mr. Osmond, it
must be admitted that she found them sufficient to lead her to
put to Ralph sundry questions about him. She thought Ralph's
judgements distorted by his trials, but she flattered herself she
had learned to make allowance for that.

"Do I know him?" said her cousin. "Oh, yes, I 'know' him; not
well, but on the whole enough. I've never cultivated his society,
and he apparently has never found mine indispensable to his
happiness. Who is he, what is he? He's a vague, unexplained
American who has been living these thirty years, or less, in
Italy. Why do I call him unexplained? Only as a cover for my
ignorance; I don't know his antecedents, his family, his origin.
For all I do know he may be a prince in disguise; he rather looks
like one, by the way--like a prince who has abdicated in a fit of
fastidiousness and has been in a state of disgust ever since. He
used to live in Rome; but of late years he has taken up his abode
here; I remember hearing him say that Rome has grown vulgar. He
has a great dread of vulgarity; that's his special line; he
hasn't any other that I know of. He lives on his income, which I
suspect of not being vulgarly large. He's a poor but honest
gentleman that's what he calls himself. He married young and lost
his wife, and I believe he has a daughter. He also has a sister,
who's married to some small Count or other, of these parts; I
remember meeting her of old. She's nicer than he, I should think,
but rather impossible. I remember there used to be some stories
about her. I don't think I recommend you to know her. But why
don't you ask Madame Merle about these people? She knows them all
much better than I."

"I ask you because I want your opinion as well as hers," said
Isabel.

"A fig for my opinion! If you fall in love with Mr. Osmond what
will you care for that?"

"Not much, probably. But meanwhile it has a certain importance.
The more information one has about one's dangers the better."

"I don't agree to that--it may make them dangers. We know too much
about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our minds,
our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don't mind anything
any one tells you about any one else. Judge everyone and
everything for yourself."

"That's what I try to do," said Isabel "but when you do that
people call you conceited."

"You're not to mind them--that's precisely my argument; not to
mind what they say about yourself any more than what they say
about your friend or your enemy."

Isabel considered. "I think you're right; but there are some
things I can't help minding: for instance when my friend's
attacked or when I myself am praised."

"Of course you're always at liberty to judge the critic. Judge
people as critics, however," Ralph added, "and you'll condemn
them all!"

"I shall see Mr. Osmond for myself," said Isabel. "I've promised
to pay him a visit."

"To pay him a visit?"

"To go and see his view, his pictures, his daughter--I don't know
exactly what. Madame Merle's to take me; she tells me a great
many ladies call on him."

"Ah, with Madame Merle you may go anywhere, de confiance," said
Ralph. "She knows none but the best people."

Isabel said no more about Mr. Osmond, but she presently remarked
to her cousin that she was not satisfied with his tone about
Madame Merle. "It seems to me you insinuate things about her. I
don't know what you mean, but if you've any grounds for disliking
her I think you should either mention them frankly or else say
nothing at all."

Ralph, however, resented this charge with more apparent
earnestness than he commonly used. "I speak of Madame Merle
exactly as I speak to her: with an even exaggerated respect."

"Exaggerated, precisely. That's what I complain of."

"I do so because Madame Merle's merits are exaggerated."

"By whom, pray? By me? If so I do her a poor service."

"No, no; by herself."

"Ah, I protest!" Isabel earnestly cried. "If ever there was a
woman who made small claims--!"

"You put your finger on it," Ralph interrupted. "Her modesty's
exaggerated. She has no business with small claims--she has a
perfect right to make large ones."

"Her merits are large then. You contradict yourself."

"Her merits are immense," said Ralph. "She's indescribably
blameless; a pathless desert of virtue; the only woman I know who
never gives one a chance."

"A chance for what?"

"Well, say to call her a fool! She's the only woman I know who
has but that one little fault."

Isabel turned away with impatience. "I don't understand you;
you're too paradoxical for my plain mind."

"Let me explain. When I say she exaggerates I don't mean it in
the vulgar sense--that she boasts, overstates, gives too fine an
account of herself. I mean literally that she pushes the search
for perfection too far--that her merits are in themselves
overstrained. She's too good, too kind, too clever, too learned,
too accomplished, too everything. She's too complete, in a word.
I confess to you that she acts on my nerves and that I feel about
her a good deal as that intensely human Athenian felt about
Aristides the Just."

Isabel looked hard at her cousin; but the mocking spirit, if it
lurked in his words, failed on this occasion to peep from his
face. "Do you wish Madame Merle to be banished?"

"By no means. She's much too good company. I delight in Madame
Merle," said Ralph Touchett simply.

"You're very odious, sir!" Isabel exclaimed. And then she asked
him if he knew anything that was not to the honour of her
brilliant friend.

"Nothing whatever. Don't you see that's just what I mean? On the
character of every one else you may find some little black speck;
if I were to take half an hour to it, some day, I've no doubt I
should be able to find one on yours. For my own, of course, I'm
spotted like a leopard. But on Madame Merle's nothing, nothing,
nothing!"

"That's just what I think!" said Isabel with a toss of her head.
"That is why I like her so much."

"She's a capital person for you to know. Since you wish to see
the world you couldn't have a better guide."

"I suppose you mean by that that she's worldly?"

"Worldly? No," said Ralph, "she's the great round world itself!"

It had certainly not, as Isabel for the moment took it into her
head to believe, been a refinement of malice in him to say that
he delighted in Madame Merle. Ralph Touchett took his refreshment
wherever he could find it, and he would not have forgiven himself
if he had been left wholly unbeguiled by such a mistress of the
social art. There are deep-lying sympathies and antipathies, and
it may have been that, in spite of the administered justice she
enjoyed at his hands, her absence from his mother's house would
not have made life barren to him. But Ralph Touchett had learned
more or less inscrutably to attend, and there could have been
nothing so "sustained" to attend to as the general performance of
Madame Merle. He tasted her in sips, he let her stand, with an
opportuneness she herself could not have surpassed. There were
moments when he felt almost sorry for her; and these, oddly
enough, were the moments when his kindness was least
demonstrative. He was sure she had been yearningly ambitious and
that what she had visibly accomplished was far below her secret
measure. She had got herself into perfect training, but had won
none of the prizes. She was always plain Madame Merle, the widow
of a Swiss negociant, with a small income and a large acquaintance,
who stayed with people a great deal and was almost as universally
"liked" as some new volume of smooth twaddle. The contrast
between this position and any one of some half-dozen others that
he supposed to have at various moments engaged her hope had an
element of the tragical. His mother thought he got on beautifully
with their genial guest; to Mrs. Touchett's sense two persons who
dealt so largely in too-ingenious theories of conduct--that is of
their own--would have much in common. He had given due
consideration to Isabel's intimacy with her eminent friend,
having long since made up his mind that he could not, without
opposition, keep his cousin to himself; and he made the best of
it, as he had done of worse things. He believed it would take
care of itself; it wouldn't last forever. Neither of these two
superior persons knew the other as well as she supposed, and
when each had made an important discovery or two there would be,
if not a rupture, at least a relaxation. Meanwhile he was quite
willing to admit that the conversation of the elder lady was an
advantage to the younger, who had a great deal to learn and would
doubtless learn it better from Madame Merle than from some other
instructors of the young. It was not probable that Isabel would
be injured.

Henry James