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Chapter 49

CHAPTER XLIX

Madame Merle had not made her appearance at Palazzo Roccanera on
the evening of that Thursday of which I have narrated some of the
incidents, and Isabel, though she observed her absence, was not
surprised by it. Things had passed between them which added no
stimulus to sociability, and to appreciate which we must glance a
little backward. It has been mentioned that Madame Merle returned
from Naples shortly after Lord Warburton had left Rome, and that
on her first meeting with Isabel (whom, to do her justice, she
came immediately to see) her first utterance had been an enquiry
as to the whereabouts of this nobleman, for whom she appeared to
hold her dear friend accountable.

"Please don't talk of him," said Isabel for answer; "we've heard
so much of him of late."

Madame Merle bent her head on one side a little, protestingly,
and smiled at the left corner of her mouth. "You've heard, yes.
But you must remember that I've not, in Naples. I hoped to find
him here and to be able to congratulate Pansy."

"You may congratulate Pansy still; but not on marrying Lord
Warburton."

"How you say that! Don't you know I had set my heart on it?"
Madame Merle asked with a great deal of spirit, but still with
the intonation of good-humour.

Isabel was discomposed, but she was determined to be good-humoured
too. "You shouldn't have gone to Naples then. You should have
stayed here to watch the affair."

"I had too much confidence in you. But do you think it's too late?"

"You had better ask Pansy," said Isabel.

"I shall ask her what you've said to her."

These words seemed to justify the impulse of self-defence aroused
on Isabel's part by her perceiving that her visitor's attitude was
a critical one. Madame Merle, as we know, had been very discreet
hitherto; she had never criticised; she had been markedly afraid
of intermeddling. But apparently she had only reserved herself for
this occasion, since she now had a dangerous quickness in her eye
and an air of irritation which even her admirable ease was not
able to transmute. She had suffered a disappointment which excited
Isabel's surprise--our heroine having no knowledge of her zealous
interest in Pansy's marriage; and she betrayed it in a manner
which quickened Mrs. Osmond's alarm. More clearly than ever before
Isabel heard a cold, mocking voice proceed from she knew not
where, in the dim void that surrounded her, and declare that this
bright, strong, definite, worldly woman, this incarnation of the
practical, the personal, the immediate, was a powerful agent in
her destiny. She was nearer to her than Isabel had yet discovered,
and her nearness was not the charming accident she had so long
supposed. The sense of accident indeed had died within her that
day when she happened to be struck with the manner in which the
wonderful lady and her own husband sat together in private. No
definite suspicion had as yet taken its place; but it was enough
to make her view this friend with a different eye, to have been
led to reflect that there was more intention in her past
behaviour than she had allowed for at the time. Ah yes, there had
been intention, there had been intention, Isabel said to herself;
and she seemed to wake from a long pernicious dream. What was it
that brought home to her that Madame Merle's intention had not
been good? Nothing but the mistrust which had lately taken body
and which married itself now to the fruitful wonder produced by
her visitor's challenge on behalf of poor Pansy. There was
something in this challenge which had at the very outset excited
an answering defiance; a nameless vitality which she could see to
have been absent from her friend's professions of delicacy and
caution. Madame Merle had been unwilling to interfere, certainly,
but only so long as there was nothing to interfere with. It will
perhaps seem to the reader that Isabel went fast in casting
doubt, on mere suspicion, on a sincerity proved by several years
of good offices. She moved quickly indeed, and with reason, for a
strange truth was filtering into her soul. Madame Merle's
interest was identical with Osmond's: that was enough. "I think
Pansy will tell you nothing that will make you more angry," she
said in answer to her companion's last remark.

"I'm not in the least angry. I've only a great desire to retrieve
the situation. Do you consider that Warburton has left us for
ever?"

"I can't tell you; I don't understand you. It's all over; please
let it rest. Osmond has talked to me a great deal about it, and
I've nothing more to say or to hear. I've no doubt," Isabel
added, "that he'll be very happy to discuss the subject with
you."

"I know what he thinks; he came to see me last evening."

"As soon as you had arrived? Then you know all about it and you
needn't apply to me for information."

"It isn't information I want. At bottom it's sympathy. I had set
my heart on that marriage; the idea did what so few things do--
it satisfied the imagination."

"Your imagination, yes. But not that of the persons concerned."

"You mean by that of course that I'm not concerned. Of course not
directly. But when one's such an old friend one can't help having
something at stake. You forget how long I've known Pansy. You
mean, of course," Madame Merle added, "that YOU are one of the
persons concerned."

"No; that's the last thing I mean. I'm very weary of it all."

Madame Merle hesitated a little. "Ah yes, your work's done."

"Take care what you say," said Isabel very gravely.

"Oh, I take care; never perhaps more than when it appears least.
Your husband judges you severely."

Isabel made for a moment no answer to this; she felt choked with
bitterness. It was not the insolence of Madame Merle's informing
her that Osmond had been taking her into his confidence as
against his wife that struck her most; for she was not quick to
believe that this was meant for insolence. Madame Merle was very
rarely insolent, and only when it was exactly right. It was not
right now, or at least it was not right yet. What touched Isabel
like a drop of corosive acid upon an open wound was the knowledge
that Osmond dishonoured her in his words as well as in his
thoughts. "Should you like to know how I judge HIM? " she asked
at last.

"No, because you'd never tell me. And it would be painful for me
to know."

There was a pause, and for the first time since she had known her
Isabel thought Madame Merle disagreeable. She wished she would
leave her. "Remember how attractive Pansy is, and don't despair,"
she said abruptly, with a desire that this should close their
interview.

But Madame Merle's expansive presence underwent no contraction.
She only gathered her mantle about her and, with the movement,
scattered upon the air a faint, agreeable fragrance. "I don't
despair; I feel encouraged. And I didn't come to scold you; I
came if possible to learn the truth. I know you'll tell it if I
ask you. It's an immense blessing with you that one can count
upon that. No, you won't believe what a comfort I take in it."

"What truth do you speak of?" Isabel asked, wondering.

"Just this: whether Lord Warburton changed his mind quite of his
own movement or because you recommended it. To please himself I
mean, or to please you. Think of the confidence I must still
have in you, in spite of having lost a little of it," Madame
Merle continued with a smile, "to ask such a question as that!"
She sat looking at her friend, to judge the effect of her words,
and then went on: "Now don't be heroic, don't be unreasonable,
don't take offence. It seems to me I do you an honour in speaking
so. I don't know another woman to whom I would do it. I haven't
the least idea that any other woman would tell me the truth. And
don't you see how well it is that your husband should know it?
It's true that he doesn't appear to have had any tact whatever
in trying to extract it; he has indulged in gratuitous
suppositions. But that doesn't alter the fact that it would make
a difference in his view of his daughter's prospects to know
distinctly what really occurred. If Lord Warburton simply got
tired of the poor child, that's one thing, and it's a pity. If he
gave her up to please you it's another. That's a pity too, but in
a different way. Then, in the latter case, you'd perhaps resign
yourself to not being pleased--to simply seeing your
step-daughter married. Let him off--let us have him!"

Madame Merle had proceeded very deliberately, watching her
companion and apparently thinking she could proceed safely. As
she went on Isabel grew pale; she clasped her hands more tightly
in her lap. It was not that her visitor had at last thought it
the right time to be insolent; for this was not what was most
apparent. It was a worse horror than that. "Who are you--what are
you?" Isabel murmured. "What have you to do with my husband?"
It was strange that for the moment she drew as near to him as if
she had loved him.

"Ah then, you take it heroically! I'm very sorry. Don't think,
however, that I shall do so."

"What have you to do with me?" Isabel went on.

Madame Merle slowly got up, stroking her muff, but not removing
her eyes from Isabel's face. "Everything!" she answered.

Isabel sat there looking up at her, without rising; her face was
almost a prayer to be enlightened. But the light of this woman's
eyes seemed only a darkness. "Oh misery!" she murmured at last;
and she fell back, covering her face with her hands. It had come
over her like a high-surging wave that Mrs. Touchett was right.
Madame Merle had married her. Before she uncovered her face again
that lady had left the room.

Isabel took a drive alone that afternoon; she wished to be far
away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage
and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old
Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her
happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her
weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet
still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the
silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached
itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed
angle on a winter's day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no
one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its
smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her
haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried
her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly
acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion.
But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where
people had suffered. This was what came to her in the starved
churches, where the marble columns, transferred from pagan ruins,
seemed to offer her a companionship in endurance and the musty
incense to be a compound of long-unanswered prayers. There was no
gentler nor less consistent heretic than Isabel; the firmest of
worshippers, gazing at dark altar-pictures or clustered candles,
could not have felt more intimately the suggestiveness of these
objects nor have been more liable at such moments to a spiritual
visitation. Pansy, as we know, was almost always her companion,
and of late the Countess Gemini, balancing a pink parasol, had
lent brilliancy to their equipage; but she still occasionally
found herself alone when it suited her mood and where it suited
the place. On such occasions she had several resorts; the most
accessible of which perhaps was a seat on the low parapet which
edges the wide grassy space before the high, cold front of Saint
John Lateran, whence you look across the Campagna at the
far-trailing outline of the Alban Mount and at that mighty plain,
between, which is still so full of all that has passed from it.
After the departure of her cousin and his companions she roamed
more than usual; she carried her sombre spirit from one familiar
shrine to the other. Even when Pansy and the Countess were with
her she felt the touch of a vanished world. The carriage, leaving
the walls of Rome behind, rolled through narrow lanes where the
wild honeysuckle had begun to tangle itself in the hedges, or
waited for her in quiet places where the fields lay near, while
she strolled further and further over the flower-freckled turf, or
sat on a stone that had once had a use and gazed through the veil
of her personal sadness at the splendid sadness of the scene--at
the dense, warm light, the far gradations and soft confusions of
colour, the motionless shepherds in lonely attitudes, the hills
where the cloud-shadows had the lightness of a blush.

On the afternoon I began with speaking of, she had taken a
resolution not to think of Madame Merle; but the resolution
proved vain, and this lady's image hovered constantly before her.
She asked herself, with an almost childlike horror of the
supposition, whether to this intimate friend of several years the
great historical epithet of wicked were to be applied. She knew
the idea only by the Bible and other literary works; to the best
of her belief she had had no personal acquaintance with
wickedness. She had desired a large acquaintance with human life,
and in spite of her having flattered herself that she cultivated
it with some success this elementary privilege had been denied
her. Perhaps it was not wicked--in the historic sense--to be even
deeply false; for that was what Madame Merle had been--deeply,
deeply, deeply. Isabel's Aunt Lydia had made this discovery long
before, and had mentioned it to her niece; but Isabel had
flattered herself at this time that she had a much richer view of
things, especially of the spontaneity of her own career and the
nobleness of her own interpretations, than poor stiffly-reasoning
Mrs. Touchett. Madame Merle had done what she wanted; she had
brought about the union of her two friends; a reflection which
could not fail to make it a matter of wonder that she should so
much have desired such an event. There were people who had the
match-making passion, like the votaries of art for art; but
Madame Merle, great artist as she was, was scarcely one of these.
She thought too ill of marriage, too ill even of life; she had
desired that particular marriage but had not desired others. She
had therefore had a conception of gain, and Isabel asked herself
where she had found her profit. It took her naturally a long time
to discover, and even then her discovery was imperfect. It came
back to her that Madame Merle, though she had seemed to like her
from their first meeting at Gardencourt, had been doubly
affectionate after Mr. Touchett's death and after learning that
her young friend had been subject to the good old man's charity.
She had found her profit not in the gross device of borrowing
money, but in the more refined idea of introducing one of her
intimates to the young woman's fresh and ingenuous fortune. She
had naturally chosen her closest intimate, and it was already
vivid enough to Isabel that Gilbert occupied this position. She
found herself confronted in this manner with the conviction that
the man in the world whom she had supposed to be the least sordid
had married her, like a vulgar adventurer, for her money. Strange
to say, it had never before occurred to her; if she had thought a
good deal of harm of Osmond she had not done him this particular
injury. This was the worst she could think of, and she had been
saying to herself that the worst was still to come. A man might
marry a woman for her money perfectly well; the thing was often
done. But at least he should let her know. She wondered whether,
since he had wanted her money, her money would now satisfy him.
Would he take her money and let her go Ah, if Mr. Touchett's
great charity would but help her to-day it would be blessed
indeed! It was not slow to occur to her that if Madame Merle had
wished to do Gilbert a service his recognition to her of the boon
must have lost its warmth. What must be his feelings to-day in
regard to his too zealous benefactress, and what expression must
they have found on the part of such a master of irony? It is a
singular, but a characteristic, fact that before Isabel returned
from her silent drive she had broken its silence by the soft
exclamation: "Poor, poor Madame Merle!"

Her compassion would perhaps have been justified if on this same
afternoon she had been concealed behind one of the valuable
curtains of time-softened damask which dressed the interesting
little salon of the lady to whom it referred; the
carefully-arranged apartment to which we once paid a visit in
company with the discreet Mr. Rosier. In that apartment, towards
six o'clock, Gilbert Osmond was seated, and his hostess stood
before him as Isabel had seen her stand on an occasion
commemorated in this history with an emphasis appropriate not so
much to its apparent as to its real importance.

"I don't believe you're unhappy; I believe you like it," said
Madame Merle.

"Did I say I was unhappy?" Osmond asked with a face grave
enough to suggest that he might have been.

"No, but you don't say the contrary, as you ought in common
gratitude."

"Don't talk about gratitude," he returned dryly. "And don't
aggravate me," he added in a moment.

Madame Merle slowly seated herself, with her arms folded and her
white hands arranged as a support to one of them and an ornament,
as it were, to the other. She looked exquisitely calm but
impressively sad. "On your side, don't try to frighten me. I
wonder if you guess some of my thoughts."

"I trouble about them no more than I can help. I've quite
enough of my own."

"That's because they're so delightful."

Osmond rested his head against the back of his chair and looked
at his companion with a cynical directness which seemed also
partly an expression of fatigue. "You do aggravate me," he
remarked in a moment. "I'm very tired."

"Eh moi donc!" cried Madame Merle.

"With you it's because you fatigue yourself. With me it's not my
own fault."

"When I fatigue myself it's for you. I've given you an interest.
That's a great gift."

"Do you call it an interest?" Osmond enquired with detachment.

"Certainly, since it helps you to pass your time."

"The time has never seemed longer to me than this winter."

"You've never looked better; you've never been so agreeable, so
brilliant."

"Damn my brilliancy!" he thoughtfully murmured. "How little,
after all, you know me!"

"If I don't know you I know nothing," smiled Madame Merle.
"You've the feeling of complete success."

"No, I shall not have that till I've made you stop judging me."

"I did that long ago. I speak from old knowledge. But you express
yourself more too."

Osmond just hung fire. "I wish you'd express yourself less!"

"You wish to condemn me to silence? Remember that I've never
been a chatterbox. At any rate there are three or four things I
should like to say to you first. Your wife doesn't know what to
do with herself," she went on with a change of tone.

"Pardon me; she knows perfectly. She has a line sharply drawn.
She means to carry out her ideas."

"Her ideas to-day must be remarkable."

"Certainly they are. She has more of them than ever."

"She was unable to show me any this morning," said Madame Merle.
"She seemed in a very simple, almost in a stupid, state of mind.
She was completely bewildered."

"You had better say at once that she was pathetic."

"Ah no, I don't want to encourage you too much."

He still had his head against the cushion behind him; the ankle
of one foot rested on the other knee. So he sat for a while. "I
should like to know what's the matter with you," he said at last.
s
"The matter--the matter--!" And here Madame Merle stopped. Then
she went on with a sudden outbreak of passion, a burst of summer
thunder in a clear sky: "The matter is that I would give my right
hand to be able to weep, and that I can't!"

"What good would it do you to weep?"

"It would make me feel as I felt before I knew you."

"If I've dried your tears, that's something. But I've seen you
shed them."

"Oh, I believe you'll make me cry still. I mean make me howl like
a wolf. I've a great hope, I've a great need, of that. I was vile
this morning; I was horrid," she said.

"If Isabel was in the stupid state of mind you mention she
probably didn't perceive it," Osmond answered.

"It was precisely my deviltry that stupefied her. I couldn't help
it; I was full of something bad. Perhaps it was something good;
I don't know. You've not only dried up my tears; you've dried up
my soul."

"It's not I then that am responsible for my wife's condition,"
Osmond said. "It's pleasant to think that I shall get the benefit
of your influence upon her. Don't you know the soul is an
immortal principle? How can it suffer alteration?"

"I don't believe at all that it's an immortal principle. I
believe it can perfectly be destroyed. That's what has happened
to mine, which was a very good one to start with; and it's you I
have to thank for it. You're VERY bad," she added with gravity in
her emphasis.

"Is this the way we're to end? " Osmond asked with the same
studied coldness.

"I don't know how we're to end. I wish I did--How do bad people
end?--especially as to their COMMON crimes. You have made me as
bad as yourself."

"I don't understand you. You seem to me quite good enough," said
Osmond, his conscious indifference giving an extreme effect to
the words.

Madame Merle's self-possession tended on the contrary to
diminish, and she was nearer losing it than on any occasion on
which we have had the pleasure of meeting her. The glow of her
eye turners sombre; her smile betrayed a painful effort.
"Good enough for anything that I've done with myself? I suppose
that's what you mean."

"Good enough to be always charming!" Osmond exclaimed, smiling
too.

"Oh God!" his companion murmured; and, sitting there in her ripe
freshness, she had recourse to the same gesture she had provoked
on Isabel's part in the morning: she bent her face and covered it
with her hands.

"Are you going to weep after all?" Osmond asked; and on her
remaining motionless he went on: "Have I ever complained to you?"

She dropped her hands quickly. "No, you've taken your revenge
otherwise--you have taken it on HER."

Osmond threw back his head further; he looked a while at the
ceiling and might have been supposed to be appealing, in an
informal way, to the heavenly powers. "Oh, the imagination of
women! It's always vulgar, at bottom. You talk of revenge like a
third-rate novelist."

"Of course you haven't complained. You've enjoyed your triumph
too much."

"I'm rather curious to know what you call my triumph."

"You've made your wife afraid of you."

Osmond changed his position; he leaned forward, resting his
elbows on his knees and looking a while at a beautiful old
Persian rug, at his feet. He had an air of refusing to accept any
one's valuation of anything, even of time, and of preferring to
abide by his own; a peculiarity which made him at moments an
irritating person to converse with. "Isabel's not afraid of me,
and it's not what I wish," he said at last. "To what do you want
to provoke me when you say such things as that?"

"I've thought over all the harm you can do me," Madame Merle
answered. "Your wife was afraid of me this morning, but in me it
was really you she feared."

"You may have said things that were in very bad taste; I'm not
responsible for that. I didn't see the use of your going to see
her at all: you're capable of acting without her. I've not made
you afraid of me that I can see," he went on; "how then should I
have made her? You're at least as brave. I can't think where
you've picked up such rubbish; one might suppose you knew me by
this time." He got up as he spoke and walked to the chimney,
where he stood a moment bending his eye, as if he had seen them
for the first time, on the delicate specimens of rare porcelain
with which it was covered. He took up a small cup and held it in
his hand; then, still holding it and leaning his arm on the
mantel, he pursued: "You always see too much ins everything; you
overdo it; you lose sight of the real. I'm much simpler than you
think."

"I think you're very simple." And Madame Merle kept her eye on
her cup. "I've come to that with time. I judged you, as I say, of
old; but it's only since your marriage that I've understood you.
I've seen better what you have been to your wife than I ever saw
what you were for me. Please be very careful of that precious
object."

"It already has a wee bit of a tiny crack," said Osmond dryly as
he put it down. "If you didn't understand me before I married it
was cruelly rash of you to put me into such a box. However, I
took a fancy to my box myself; I thought it would be a
comfortable fit. I asked very little; I only asked that she
should like me."

"That she should like you so much!"

"So much, of course; in such a case one asks the maximum. That
she should adore me, if you will. Oh yes, I wanted that."

"I never adored you," said Madame Merle.

"Ah, but you pretended to!"

"It's true that you never accused me of being a comfortable fit,"
Madame Merle went on.

"My wife has declined--declined to do anything of the sort,"
said Osmond. "If you're determined to make a tragedy of that, the
tragedy's hardly for her."

"The tragedy's for me!" Madame Merle exclaimed, rising with a
long low sigh but having a glance at the same time for the
contents of her mantel-shelf.

"It appears that I'm to be severely taught the disadvantages of a
false position."

"You express yourself like a sentence in a copybook. We must look
for our comfort where we can find it. If my wife doesn't like me,
at least my child does. I shall look for compensations in Pansy.
Fortunately I haven't a fault to find with her."

"Ah," she said softly, "if I had a child--!"

Osmond waited, and then, with a little formal air, "The children
of others may be a great interest!" he announced.

"You're more like a copy-book than I. There's something after all
that holds us together."

"Is it the idea of the harm I may do you?" Osmond asked.

"No; it's the idea of the good I may do for you. It's that,"
Madame Merle pursued, "that made me so jealous of Isabel. I want
it to be MY work," she added, with her face, which had grown hard
and bitter, relaxing to its habit of smoothness.

Her friend took up his hat and his umbrella, and after giving the
former article two or three strokes with his coat-cuff, "On the
whole, I think," he said, "you had better leave it to me."

After he had left her she went, the first thing, and lifted from
the mantel-shelf the attenuated coffee-cup in which he had
mentioned the existence of a crack; but she looked at it rather
abstractedly. "Have I been so vile all for nothing?" she vaguely
wailed.

Henry James