Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter LII

Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter LII

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

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

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

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

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

“I am come to bid Pansy good-bye,” Isabel said at last. “I am going to England to-night.”

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

“I am going to Gardencourt. Ralph Touchett is dying.”

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

“Yes; without my husband.”

Madame Merle gave a low, vague murmur; a sort of recognition of the general sadness of things.

“Mr. Touchett never liked me; but I am sorry he is dying. Shall you see his mother?”

“Yes; she has returned from America.”

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

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

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

Isabel turned away.

“I had better go to Pansy,” she said. “I have not much time.”

And while she looked about her for the proper egress, the door opened and admitted one of the ladies of the house, who advanced with a discreet smile, gently rubbing, under her long loose sleeves, a pair of plump white hands. Isabel recognised her as Madame Catherine, whose acquaintance she had already made, and begged that she would immediately let her see Miss Osmond. Madame Catherine looked doubly discreet, but smiled very blandly and said—

“It will be good for her to see you. I will take you to her myself.” Then she directed her pleasant, cautious little eye towards Madame Merle.

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

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

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

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

“She looks pale,” Isabel answered.

“That is the pleasure of seeing you. She is very happy. Elle éclaire la maison,” said the good sister.

Pansy wore, as Madame Merle had said, a little black dress; it was perhaps this that made her look pale.

“They are very good to me—they think of everything!” she exclaimed, with all her customary eagerness to say something agreeable.

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

When Madame Catherine had left them together, Pansy kneeled down before Isabel and hid her head in her step-mother’s lap. So she remained some moments, while Isabel gently stroked her hair. Then she got up, averting her face and looking about the room.

“Don’t you think I have arranged it well? I have everything I have at home.”

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

Pansy’s white little face turned red.

“To England! Not to come back?”

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

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

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

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

“No; I shall go alone.”

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

“You will be very far away,” she said presently.

“Yes; I shall be far away. But it will scarcely matter,” Isabel answered; “for so long as you are here I am very far away from you.”

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

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

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

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

“You are not happy, Mrs. Osmond,” said Pansy.

“Not very. But it doesn’t matter.”

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

“I wish indeed you might.”

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

Isabel was silent a moment; her heart beat fast.

“Will you come away with me now?” she asked.

Pansy looked at her pleadingly.

“Did papa tell you to bring me?”

“No; it’s my own proposal.”

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

“I don’t think he knew I was coming.”

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

“What have you thought?”

“Well, that I must never displease papa.”

“You knew that before.”

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

She bowed her pretty head to authority, and only asked of authority to be merciful. Yes; it was very well that Edward Rosier had reserved a few articles!

Isabel got up; her time was rapidly shortening.

“Good-bye, then,” she said; “I leave Rome to-night.”

Pansy took hold of her dress; there was a sudden change. in the girl’s face.

“You look strange; you frighten me.”

“Oh, I am very harmless,” said Isabel.

“Perhaps you won’t come back?”

“Perhaps not. I can’t tell”

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

Isabel now saw that she had guessed everything.

“My dear child, what can I do for you?” she asked.

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

“You can always think of me.”

“Not when you are so far. I am a little afraid,” said Pansy.

“What are you afraid of?”

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

“You must not say that,” Isabel observed.

“Oh, I will do everything they want. Only if you are here I shall do it more easily.”

Isabel reflected a little.

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

Then they held each other a moment in a silent embrace, like two sisters; and afterwards Pansy walked along the corridor with her visitor to the top of the staircase.

“Madame Merle has been here,” Pansy remarked as they went; and as Isabel answered nothing she added, abruptly, “I don’t like Madame Merle!”

Isabel hesitated a moment; then she stopped.

“You must never say that—that you don’t like Madame Merle.”

Pansy looked at her in wonder; but wonder with Pansy had never been a reason for non-compliance.

“I never will again,” she said, with exquisite gentleness.

At the top of the staircase they had to separate, as it appeared to be part of the mild but very definite discipline under which Pansy lived that she should not go down. Isabel descended, and when she reached the bottom the girl was standing above.

“You will come back?” she called out in a voice that Isabel remembered afterwards.

“Yes—I will come back.”

Madame Catherine met Isabel below, and conducted her to the door of the parlour, outside of which the two stood talking a minute.

“I won’t go in,” said the good sister. “Madame Merle is waiting for you.”

At this announcement Isabel gave a start, and she was on the point of asking if there were no other egress from the convent. But a moment’s reflection assured her that she would do well not to betray to the worthy nun her desire to avoid Pansy’s other visitor. Her companion laid her hand very gently on her arm, and fixing her a moment with a wise, benevolent eye, said to her, speaking French, almost familiarly—

“Eh bien, chère Madame, qu’en pensez-vous?”

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

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

Madame Merle was sitting just as Isabel had left her, like a woman so absorbed in thought that she had not moved a little-finger. As Madame Catherine closed the door behind Isabel, she got up, and Isabel saw that she had been thinking to some purpose. She had recovered her balance; she was in full possession of her resources.

“I found that I wished to wait for you,” she said, urbanely. “But it’s not to talk about Pansy.”

Isabel wondered what it could be to talk about, and in spite of Madame Merle’s declaration she answered after a moment—

“Madame Catherine says it’s enough.”

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

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

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

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

Madame Merle hesitated a moment.

“It is difficult to explain. Something has occurred to me which may not have occurred to you, and I give you the benefit of my idea. Your cousin did you once a great service. Have you never guessed it?”

“He has done me many services.”

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

“He made me——?”

Madame Merle appeared to see herself successful, and she went on, more triumphantly—

“He imparted to you that extra lustre which was required to make you a brilliant match. At bottom, it is him that you have to thank.” She stopped; there was something in Isabel’s eyes.

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

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

Isabel stood staring; she seemed to-day to be living in a world illumined by lurid flashes.

“I don’t know why you say such things! I don’t know what you know.”

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

Isabel went to the door, and when she had opened it stood a moment with her hand on the latch. Then she said—it was her only revenge—

“I believed it was you I had to thank!”

Madame Merle dropped her eyes; she stood there in a kind of proud penance.

“You are very unhappy, I know. But I am more so.”

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

Madame Merle raised her eyes.

“I shall go to America,” she announced, while Isabel passed out.