Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 40


Isabel had not seen much of Madame Merle since her marriage, this
lady having indulged in frequent absences from Rome. At one time
she had spent six months in England; at another she had passed a
portion of a winter in Paris. She had made numerous visits to
distant friends and gave countenance to the idea that for the
future she should be a less inveterate Roman than in the past. As
she had been inveterate in the past only in the sense of
constantly having an apartment in one of the sunniest niches of
the Pincian--an apartment which often stood empty--this suggested
a prospect of almost constant absence; a danger which Isabel at
one period had been much inclined to deplore. Familiarity had
modified in some degree her first impression of Madame Merle, but
it had not essentially altered it; there was still much wonder of
admiration in it. That personage was armed at all points; it was
a pleasure to see a character so completely equipped for the
social battle. She carried her flag discreetly, but her weapons
were polished steel, and she used them with a skill which struck
Isabel as more and more that of a veteran. She was never weary,
never overcome with disgust; she never appeared to need rest or
consolation. She had her own ideas; she had of old exposed a
great many of them to Isabel, who knew also that under an
appearance of extreme self-control her highly-cultivated friend
concealed a rich sensibility. But her will was mistress of her
life; there was something gallant in the way she kept going. It
was as if she had learned the secret of it--as if the art of life
were some clever trick she had guessed. Isabel, as she herself
grew older, became acquainted with revulsions, with disgusts;
there were days when the world looked black and she asked herself
with some sharpness what it was that she was pretending to live
for. Her old habit had been to live by enthusiasm, to fall in
love with suddenly-perceived possibilities, with the idea of some
new adventure. As a younger person she had been used to proceed
from one little exaltation to the other: there were scarcely any
dull places between. But Madame Merle had suppressed enthusiasm;
she fell in love now-a-days with nothing; she lived entirely by
reason and by wisdom. There were hours when Isabel would have
given anything for lessons in this art; if her brilliant friend
had been near she would have made an appeal to her. She had
become aware more than before of the advantage of being like that
--of having made one's self a firm surface, a sort of corselet of

But, as I say, it was not till the winter during which we lately
renewed acquaintance with our heroine that the personage in
question made again a continuous stay in Rome. Isabel now saw
more of her than she had done since her marriage; but by this
time Isabel's needs and inclinations had considerably changed. It
was not at present to Madame Merle that she would have applied
for instruction; she had lost the desire to know this lady's
clever trick. If she had troubles she must keep them to herself,
and if life was difficult it would not make it easier to confess
herself beaten. Madame Merle was doubtless of great use to
herself and an ornament to any circle; but was she--would she be
--of use to others in periods of refined embarrassment? The best
way to profit by her friend--this indeed Isabel had always
thought--was to imitate her, to be as firm and bright as she. She
recognised no embarrassments, and Isabel, considering this fact,
determined for the fiftieth time to brush aside her own. It
seemed to her too, on the renewal of an intercourse which had
virtually been interrupted, that her old ally was different, was
almost detached--pushing to the extreme a certain rather
artificial fear of being indiscreet. Ralph Touchett, we know, had
been of the opinion that she was prone to exaggeration, to
forcing the note--was apt, in the vulgar phrase, to overdo it.
Isabel had never admitted this charge--had never indeed quite
understood it; Madame Merle's conduct, to her perception, always
bore the stamp of good taste, was always "quiet." But in this
matter of not wishing to intrude upon the inner life of the
Osmond family it at last occurred to our young woman that she
overdid a little. That of course was not the best taste; that was
rather violent. She remembered too much that Isabel was married;
that she had now other interests; that though she, Madame Merle,
had known Gilbert Osmond and his little Pansy very well, better
almost than any one, she was not after all of the inner circle.
She was on her guard; she never spoke of their affairs till she
was asked, even pressed--as when her opinion was wanted; she had
a dread of seeming to meddle. Madame Merle was as candid as we
know, and one day she candidly expressed this dread to Isabel.

"I MUST be on my guard," she said; "I might so easily, without
suspecting it, offend you. You would be right to be offended,
even if my intention should have been of the purest. I must not
forget that I knew your husband long before you did; I must not
let that betray me. If you were a silly woman you might be
jealous. You're not a silly woman; I know that perfectly. But
neither am I; therefore I'm determined not to get into trouble. A
little harm's very soon done; a mistake's made before one knows
it. Of course if I had wished to make love to your husband I had
ten years to do it in, and nothing to prevent; so it isn't likely
I shall begin to-day, when I'm so much less attractive than I
was. But if I were to annoy you by seeming to take a place that
doesn't belong to me, you wouldn't make that reflection;
you'd simply say I was forgetting certain differences. I'm
determined not to forget them. Certainly a good friend isn't
always thinking of that; one doesn't suspect one's friends of
injustice. I don't suspect you, my dear, in the least; but I
suspect human nature. Don't think I make myself uncomfortable;
I'm not always watching myself. I think I sufficiently prove it
in talking to you as I do now. All I wish to say is, however,
that if you were to be jealous--that's the form it would take--I
should be sure to think it was a little my fault. It certainly
wouldn't be your husband's."

Isabel had had three years to think over Mrs. Touchett's theory
that Madame Merle had made Gilbert Osmond's marriage. We know how
she had at first received it. Madame Merle might have made
Gilbert Osmond's marriage, but she certainly had not made Isabel
Archer's. That was the work of--Isabel scarcely knew what: of
nature, providence, fortune, of the eternal mystery of things. It
was true her aunt's complaint had been not so much of Madame
Merle's activity as of her duplicity: she had brought about the
strange event and then she had denied her guilt. Such guilt would
not have been great, to Isabel's mind; she couldn't make a crime
of Madame Merle's having been the producing cause of the most
important friendship she had ever formed. This had occurred to
her just before her marriage, after her little discussion with
her aunt and at a time when she was still capable of that large
inward reference, the tone almost of the philosophic historian,
to her scant young annals. If Madame Merle had desired her change
of state she could only say it had been a very happy thought.
With her, moreover, she had been perfectly straightforward; she
had never concealed her high opinion of Gilbert Osmond. After
their union Isabel discovered that her husband took a less
convenient view of the matter; he seldom consented to finger, in
talk, this roundest and smoothest bead of their social rosary.
"Don't you like Madame Merle?" Isabel had once said to him. "She
thinks a great deal of you."

"I'll tell you once for all," Osmond had answered. "I liked her
once better than I do to-day. I'm tired of her, and I'm rather
ashamed of it. She's so almost unnaturally good! I'm glad she's
not in Italy; it makes for relaxation--for a sort of moral
detente. Don't talk of her too much; it seems to bring her
back. She'll come back in plenty of time."

Madame Merle, in fact, had come back before it was too late--too
late, I mean, to recover whatever advantage she might have lost.
But meantime, if, as I have said, she was sensibly different,
Isabel's feelings were also not quite the same. Her consciousness
of the situation was as acute as of old, but it was much less
satisfying. A dissatisfied mind, whatever else it may miss, is
rarely in want of reasons; they bloom as thick as buttercups in
June. The fact of Madame Merle's having had a hand in Gilbert
Osmond's marriage ceased to be one of her titles to
consideration; it might have been written, after all, that there
was not so much to thank her for. As time went on there was less
and less, and Isabel once said to herself that perhaps without
her these things would not have been. That reflection indeed was
instantly stifled; she knew an immediate horror at having made
it. "Whatever happens to me let me not be unjust," she said; "let
me bear my burdens myself and not shift them upon others!" This
disposition was tested, eventually, by that ingenious apology for
her present conduct which Madame Merle saw fit to make and of
which I have given a sketch; for there was something irritating--
there was almost an air of mockery--in her neat discriminations
and clear convictions. In Isabel's mind to-day there was nothing
clear; there was a confusion of regrets, a complication of fears.
She felt helpless as she turned away from her friend, who had
just made the statements I have quoted: Madame Merle knew so
little what she was thinking of! She was herself moreover so
unable to explain. Jealous of her--jealous of her with Gilbert?
The idea just then suggested no near reality. She almost wished
jealousy had been possible; it would have made in a manner for
refreshment. Wasn't it in a manner one of the symptoms of
happiness? Madame Merle, however, was wise, so wise that she
might have been pretending to know Isabel better than Isabel knew
herself. This young woman had always been fertile in resolutions
--any of them of an elevated character; but at no period had they
flourished (in the privacy of her heart) more richly than to-day.
It is true that they all had a family likeness; they might have
been summed up in the determination that if she was to be unhappy
it should not be by a fault of her own. Her poor winged spirit
had always had a great desire to do its best, and it had not as
yet been seriously discouraged. It wished, therefore, to hold
fast to justice--not to pay itself by petty revenges. To
associate Madame Merle with its disappointment would be a petty
revenge--especially as the pleasure to be derived from that would
be perfectly insincere. It might feed her sense of bitterness,
but it would not loosen her bonds. It was impossible to pretend
that she had not acted with her eyes open; if ever a girl was a
free agent she had been. A girl in love was doubtless not a free
agent; but the sole source of her mistake had been within
herself. There had been no plot, no snare; she had looked and
considered and chosen. When a woman had made such a mistake,
there was only one way to repair it--just immensely (oh, with the
highest grandeur!) to accept it. One folly was enough, especially
when it was to last for ever; a second one would not much set it
off. In this vow of reticence there was a certain nobleness which
kept Isabel going; but Madame Merle had been right, for all that,
in taking her precautions.

One day about a month after Ralph Touchett's arrival in Rome
Isabel came back from a walk with Pansy. It was not only a part
of her general determination to be just that she was at present
very thankful for Pansy--it was also a part of her tenderness for
things that were pure and weak. Pansy was dear to her, and there
was nothing else in her life that had the rightness of the young
creature's attachment or the sweetness of her own clearness about
it. It was like a soft presence--like a small hand in her own; on
Pansy's part it was more than an affection--it was a kind of
ardent coercive faith. On her own side her sense of the girl's
dependence was more than a pleasure; it operated as a definite
reason when motives threatened to fail her. She had said to
herself that we must take our duty where we find it, and that we
must look for it as much as possible. Pansy's sympathy was a
direct admonition; it seemed to say that here was an opportunity,
not eminent perhaps, but unmistakeable. Yet an opportunity for
what Isabel could hardly have said; in general, to be more for
the child than the child was able to be for herself. Isabel could
have smiled, in these days, to remember that her little companion
had once been ambiguous, for she now perceived that Pansy's
ambiguities were simply her own grossness of vision. She had been
unable to believe any one could care so much--so extraordinarily
much--to please. But since then she had seen this delicate
faculty in operation, and now she knew what to think of it. It
was the whole creature--it was a sort of genius. Pansy had no
pride to interfere with it, and though she was constantly
extending her conquests she took no credit for them. The two were
constantly together; Mrs. Osmond was rarely seen without her
stepdaughter. Isabel liked her company; it had the effect of
one's carrying a nosegay composed all of the same flower. And
then not to neglect Pansy, not under any provocation to neglect
her--this she had made an article of religion. The young girl had
every appearance of being happier in Isabel's society than in
that of any one save her father,--whom she admired with an
intensity justified by the fact that, as paternity was an
exquisite pleasure to Gilbert Osmond, he had always been
luxuriously mild. Isabel knew how Pansy liked to be with her and
how she studied the means of pleasing her. She had decided that
the best way of pleasing her was negative, and consisted in not
giving her trouble--a conviction which certainly could have had
no reference to trouble already existing. She was therefore
ingeniously passive and almost imaginatively docile; she was
careful even to moderate the eagerness with which she assented to
Isabel's propositions and which might have implied that she could
have thought otherwise. She never interrupted, never asked social
questions, and though she delighted in approbation, to the point
of turning pale when it came to her, never held out her hand for
it. She only looked toward it wistfully--an attitude which, as
she grew older, made her eyes the prettiest in the world. When
during the second winter at Palazzo Roccanera she began to go to
parties, to dances, she always, at a reasonable hour, lest Mrs.
Osmond should be tired, was the first to propose departure.
Isabel appreciated the sacrifice of the late dances, for she knew
her little companion had a passionate pleasure in this exercise,
taking her steps to the music like a conscientious fairy. Society,
moreover, had no drawbacks for her; she liked even the tiresome
parts--the heat of ball-rooms, the dulness of dinners, the crush
at the door, the awkward waiting for the carriage. During the day,
in this vehicle, beside her stepmother, she sat in a small fixed,
appreciative posture, bending forward and faintly smiling, as if
she had been taken to drive for the first time.

On the day I speak of they had been driven out of one of the
gates of the city and at the end of half an hour had left the
carriage to await them by the roadside while they walked away
over the short grass of the Campagna, which even in the winter
months is sprinkled with delicate flowers. This was almost a
daily habit with Isabel, who was fond of a walk and had a swift
length of step, though not so swift a one as on her first coming
to Europe. It was not the form of exercise that Pansy loved best,
but she liked it, because she liked everything; and she moved
with a shorter undulation beside her father's wife, who
afterwards, on their return to Rome, paid a tribute to her
preferences by making the circuit of the Pincian or the Villa
Borghese. She had gathered a handful of flowers in a sunny
hollow, far from the walls of Rome, and on reaching Palazzo
Roccanera she went straight to her room, to put them into water.
Isabel passed into the drawing-room, the one she herself usually
occupied, the second in order from the large ante-chamber which
was entered from the staircase and in which even Gilbert Osmond's
rich devices had not been able to correct a look of rather grand
nudity. Just beyond the threshold of the drawing-room she stopped
short, the reason for her doing so being that she had received an
impression. The impression had, in strictness, nothing
unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and the
soundlessness of her step gave her time to take in the scene
before she interrupted it. Madame Merle was there in her bonnet,
and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were
unaware she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before,
certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not
noticed, was that their colloquy had for the moment converted
itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly
perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was
standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a
deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect,
as usual, but her eyes were bent on his. What struck Isabel first
was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an
anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they
had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and
were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who
sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing
to shock in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing
made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of
light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze,
struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time
she had fairly seen it. Madame Merle had seen her and had
welcomed her without moving; her husband, on the other hand, had
instantly jumped up. He presently murmured something about
wanting a walk and, after having asked their visitor to excuse
him, left the room.

"I came to see you, thinking you would have come in; and as you
hadn't I waited for you," Madame Merle said.

"Didn't he ask you to sit down?" Isabel asked with a smile.

Madame Merle looked about her. "Ah, it's very true; I was going

"You must stay now."

"Certainly. I came for a reason; I've something on my mind."

"I've told you that before," Isabel said--"that it takes
something extraordinary to bring you to this house."

"And you know what I've told YOU; that whether I come or whether
I stay away, I've always the same motive--the affection I bear

"Yes, you've told me that."

"You look just now as if you didn't believe it," said Madame

"Ah," Isabel answered, "the profundity of your motives, that's
the last thing I doubt!"

"You doubt sooner of the sincerity of my words."

Isabel shook her head gravely. "I know you've always been kind to

"As often as you would let me. You don't always take it; then one
has to let you alone. It's not to do you a kindness, however,
that I've come to-day; it's quite another affair. I've come to
get rid of a trouble of my own--to make it over to you. I've been
talking to your husband about it."

"I'm surprised at that; he doesn't like troubles."

"Especially other people's; I know very well. But neither do you,
I suppose. At any rate, whether you do or not, you must help me.
It's about poor Mr. Rosier."

"Ah," said Isabel reflectively, "it's his trouble then, not yours."

"He has succeeded in saddling me with it. He comes to see me ten
times a week, to talk about Pansy."

"Yes, he wants to marry her. I know all about it."

Madame Merle hesitated. "I gathered from your husband that
perhaps you didn't."

"How should he know what I know? He has never spoken to me of the

"It's probably because he doesn't know how to speak of it."

"It's nevertheless the sort of question in which he's rarely at

"Yes, because as a general thing he knows perfectly well what to
think. To-day he doesn't."

"Haven't you been telling him?" Isabel asked.

Madame Merle gave a bright, voluntary smile. "Do you know you're
a little dry?"

"Yes; I can't help it. Mr. Rosier has also talked to me."

"In that there's some reason. You're so near the child."

"Ah," said Isabel, "for all the comfort I've given him! If you
think me dry, I wonder what HE thinks."

"I believe he thinks you can do more than you have done."

"I can do nothing."

"You can do more at least than I. I don't know what mysterious
connection he may have discovered between me and Pansy; but he
came to me from the first, as if I held his fortune in my hand.
Now he keeps coming back, to spur me up, to know what hope there
is, to pour out his feelings."

"He's very much in love," said Isabel.

"Very much--for him."

"Very much for Pansy, you might say as well."

Madame Merle dropped her eyes a moment. "Don't you think she's

"The dearest little person possible--but very limited."

"She ought to be all the easier for Mr. Rosier to love. Mr.
Rosier's not unlimited."

"No," said Isabel, "he has about the extent of one's
pocket-handkerchief--the small ones with lace borders." Her
humour had lately turned a good deal to sarcasm, but in a moment
she was ashamed of exercising it on so innocent an object as
Pansy's suitor. "He's very kind, very honest," she presently
added; "and he's not such a fool as he seems."

"He assures me that she delights in him," said Madame Merle.

"I don't know; I've not asked her."

"You've never sounded her a little?"

"It's not my place; it's her father's."

"Ah, you're too literal!" said Madame Merle.

"I must judge for myself."

Madame Merle gave her smile again. "It isn't easy to help you."

"To help me?" said Isabel very seriously. "What do you mean?"

"It's easy to displease you. Don't you see how wise I am to be
careful? I notify you, at any rate, as I notified Osmond, that I
wash my hands of the love-affairs of Miss Pansy and Mr. Edward
Rosier. Je n'y peux rien, moi! I can't talk to Pansy about him.
Especially," added Madame Merle, "as I don't think him a paragon
of husbands."

Isabel reflected a little; after which, with a smile, "You don't
wash your hands then!" she said. After which again she added in
another tone: "You can't--you're too much interested."

Madame Merle slowly rose; she had given Isabel a look as rapid as
the intimation that had gleamed before our heroine a few moments
before. Only this time the latter saw nothing. "Ask him the next
time, and you'll see."

"I can't ask him; he has ceased to come to the house. Gilbert has
let him know that he's not welcome."

"Ah yes," said Madame Merle, "I forgot that--though it's the
burden of his lamentation. He says Osmond has insulted him. All
the same," she went on, "Osmond doesn't dislike him so much as he
thinks." She had got up as if to close the conversation, but she
lingered, looking about her, and had evidently more to say.
Isabel perceived this and even saw the point she had in view; but
Isabel also had her own reasons for not opening the way.

"That must have pleased him, if you've told him," she answered,

"Certainly I've told him; as far as that goes I've encouraged
him. I've preached patience, have said that his case isn't
desperate if he'll only hold his tongue and be quiet.
Unfortunately he has taken it into his head to be jealous."


"Jealous of Lord Warburton, who, he says, is always here."

Isabel, who was tired, had remained sitting; but at this she also
rose. "Ah!" she exclaimed simply, moving slowly to the fireplace.
Madame Merle observed her as she passed and while she stood a
moment before the mantel-glass and pushed into its place a
wandering tress of hair.

"Poor Mr. Rosier keeps saying there's nothing impossible in Lord
Warburton's falling in love with Pansy," Madame Merle went on.
Isabel was silent a little; she turned away from the glass. "It's
true--there's nothing impossible," she returned at last, gravely
and more gently.

"So I've had to admit to Mr. Rosier. So, too, your husband

"That I don't know."

"Ask him and you'll see."

"I shall not ask him," said Isabel.

"Pardon me; I forgot you had pointed that out. Of course," Madame
Merle added, "syou've had infinitely more observation of Lord
Warburton's behaviour than I."

"I see no reason why I shouldn't tell you that he likes my
stepdaughter very much."

Madame Merle gave one of her quick looks again. "Likes her, you
mean--as Mr. Rosier means?"

"I don't know how Mr. Rosier means; but Lord Warburton has let me
know that he's charmed with Pansy."

"And you've never told Osmond?" This observation was immediate,
precipitate; it almost burst from Madame Merle's lips.

Isabel's eyes rested on her. "I suppose he'll know in time; Lord
Warburton has a tongue and knows how to express himself."

Madame Merle instantly became conscious that she had spoken more
quickly than usual, and the reflection brought the colour to her
cheek. She gave the treacherous impulse time to subside and then
said as if she had been thinking it over a little: "That would be
better than marrying poor Mr. Rosier."

"Much better, I think."

"It would be very delightful; it would be a great marriage. It's
really very kind of him."

"Very kind of him?"

"To drop his eyes on a simple little girl."

"I don't see that."

"It's very good of you. But after all, Pansy Osmond--"

"After all, Pansy Osmond's the most attractive person he has ever
known!" Isabel exclaimed.

Madame Merle stared, and indeed she was justly bewildered. "Ah, a
moment ago I thought you seemed rather to disparage her."

"I said she was limited. And so she is. And so's Lord Warburton."

"So are we all, if you come to that. If it's no more than Pansy
deserves, all the better. But if she fixes her affections on Mr.
Rosier I won't admit that she deserves it. That will be too

"Mr. Rosier's a nuisance!" Isabel cried abruptly.

"I quite agree with you, and I'm delighted to know that I'm not
expected to feed his flame. For the future, when he calls on me,
my door shall be closed to him." And gathering her mantle
together Madame Merle prepared to depart. She was checked,
however, on her progress to the door, by an inconsequent request
from Isabel.

"All the same, you know, be kind to him."

She lifted her shoulders and eyebrows and stood looking at her
friend. "I don't understand your contradictions! Decidedly I
shan't be kind to him, for it will be a false kindness. I want to
see her married to Lord Warburton."

"You had better wait till he asks her."

"If what you say's true, he'll ask her. Especially," said Madame
Merle in a moment, "if you make him."

"If I make him?"

"It's quite in your power. You've great influence with him."

Isabel frowned a little. "Where did you learn that?"

"Mrs. Touchett told me. Not you--never!" said Madame Merle,

"I certainly never told you anything of the sort."

"You MIGHT have done so--so far as opportunity went--when we were
by way of being confidential with each other. But you really told
me very little; I've often thought so since."

Isabel had thought so too, and sometimes with a certain
satisfaction. But she didn't admit it now--perhaps because she
wished not to appear to exult in it. "You seem to have had an
excellent informant in my aunt," she simply returned.

"She let me know you had declined an offer of marriage from Lord
Warburton, because she was greatly vexed and was full of the
subject. Of course I think you've done better in doing as you
did. But if you wouldn't marry Lord Warburton yourself, make him
the reparation of helping him to marry some one else."

Isabel listened to this with a face that persisted in not
reflecting the bright expressiveness of Madame Merle's. But in a
moment she said, reasonably and gently enough: "I should be very
glad indeed if, as regards Pansy, it could be arranged." Upon
which her companion, who seemed to regard this as a speech of
good omen, embraced her more tenderly than might have been
expected and triumphantly withdrew.

Henry James