Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Chapter XL

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

Chapter XL

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 a kind of wonder of admiration in it. Madame Merle was armed at all points; it was a pleasure to see a person 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 brilliant 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 that she had guessed. Isabel, as she herself grew older, became acquainted with revulsions, with disgust; there were days when the world looked black, and she asked herself with some peremptoriness 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 a new attempt. As a young girl, she 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, by wisdom. There were hours when Isabel would have given anything for lessons in this art; if Madame Merle 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 silver. But, as I say, it was not till the winter, during which we lately renewed acquaintance with our heroine, that Madame Merle made 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 Madame Merle—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 Madame Merle was changed—that she pushed 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 heroine that she overdid it 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 after all not one of them. 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 are not a silly woman; I know that perfectly. But neither am I; therefore I am determined not to get into trouble. A little harm is very soon done; a mistake is 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 am 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 would simply say that I was forgetting certain differences. I am determined not to forget them. Of course 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 am 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 is 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, of providence, of fortune, of the eternal mystery of things. It was true that her aunt’s complaint had been not so much of Madame Merle’s activity as of her duplicity; she had brought about the marriage 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 cause of the most fertile friendship she had ever formed. That occurred to her just before her marriage, after her little discussion with her aunt. If Madame Merle had desired the event, 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 her marriage Isabel discovered that her husband took a less comfortable view of the matter; he seldom spoke of Madame Merle, and when his wife alluded to her he usually let the allusion drop.

“Don’t you like her?” Isabel had once said to him. “She thinks a great deal of you.”

“I will tell you once for all,” Osmond had answered. “I liked her once better than I do to-day. I am tired of her, and I am rather ashamed of it. She is so good! I am glad she is not in Italy; it’s a sort of rest. Don’t talk of her too much; it seems to bring her back. She will 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 somewhat changed, Isabel’s feelings were also altered. Her consciousness of the situation was as acute as of old, but it was much less satisfying. A dissatisfied mind, whatever else it lack, is rarely in want of reasons; they bloom as thick as buttercups in June. The fact of Madame Merle having had a hand in Gilbert Osmond’s marriage ceased to be one of her titles to consideration; it seemed, 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. This reflection, however, was instantly stifled; Isabel felt a sort of 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 brilliant friend, who had just made the statements I have quoted; Madame Merle knew so little what she was thinking of! Moreover, she herself was so unable to explain. Jealous of her—jealous of her with Gilbert? The idea just then suggested no near reality. She almost wished that jealousy had been possible; it would be a kind of refreshment. Jealousy, after all, was in a sense one of the symptoms of happiness. Madame Merle, however, was wise; it would seem that she knew Isabel better than Isabel knew herself. This young woman had always been fertile in resolutions—many 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.

The poor girl had always had a great desire to do her best, and she had not as yet been seriously discouraged. She wished, therefore, to hold fast to justice—not to pay herself by petty revenges. To associate Madame Merle with her disappointment would be a petty revenge—especially as the pleasure she might derive from it 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—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 a part of her tenderness for things that were pure and weak.

Pansy was dear to her, and there was nothing in her life so much as it should be as the young girl’s attachment and the pleasantness of feeling 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 faith. On her own side her sense of Pansy’s dependence was more than a pleasure; it operated as a command, 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 kind of admonition; it seemed to say that here was an opportunity. 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 that any one could care so much—so extraordinarily much—to please. But since then she had seen this delicate faculty in operation, and 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 step-daughter. 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 elaborately soft. Isabel knew that Pansy liked immensely to be with her and 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 not have had any 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 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 the 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 that Pansy 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 Isabel, she sat in a little 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 stepped quickly, though not so quickly as when she first came 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 stepmother, who afterwards, on their return to Rome, paid a tribute to Pansy’s preferences by making the circuit of the Pincian or the Villa Borghese. Pansy had gathered a handful of flowers in a sunny hollow, far from the walls of Rome, and on reaching the 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 sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that 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 dialogue 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 upon 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 shocking 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 position, 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; Gilbert Osmond, on the other hand, had instantly jumped up. He presently murmured something about wanting a walk, and after having asked Madame Merle to excuse him, he left the room.

“I came to see you, thinking you would have come in; and as you had not, I waited for you,” Madame Merle said.

“Didn’t he ask you to sit down?” asked Isabel, smiling.

Madame Merle looked about her.

“Ah, it’s very true; I was going away.”

“You must stay now.”

“Certainly. I came for a reason; I have something on my mind.”

“I have told you that before,” Isabel said—“that it takes something extraordinary to bring you to this house.”

“And you know what I have told you; that whether I come or whether I stay away, I have always the same motive—the affection I bear you.”

“Yes, you have told me that.”

“You look just now as if you didn’t believe me,” said Madame Merle.

“Ah,” Isabel answered, “the profundity of your motives, that is the last thing I doubt!”

“You doubt sooner of the sincerity of my words.”

Isabel shook her head gravely. “I know you have always been kind to me.”

“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 have come to-day; it’s quite another affair. I have come to get rid of a trouble of my own—to make it over to you. I have been talking to your husband about it.”

“I am surprised at that; he doesn’t like troubles.”

“Especially other people’s; I know that. 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 a moment. “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 matter.”

“It is probably because he doesn’t know how to speak of it.”

“It’s nevertheless a sort of question in which he is rarely at fault.”

“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 is some reason. You are so near the child.”

“Ah,” said Isabel, “for all the comfort I have 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 is 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 attractive?”

“She is the dearest little person possible; but she is very limited.”

“She ought to be all the easier for Mr. Rosier to love. Mr. Rosier is not unlimited.”

“No,” said Isabel, “he has about the extent of one’s pocket-handkerchief—the small ones, with lace.” 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 is very kind, very honest,” she presently added; “and he is not such a fool as he seems.”

“He assures me that she delights in him,” said Madame Merle

“I don’t know, I have not asked her.”

“You have never sounded her a little?”

“It’s not my place; it’s her father’s.”

“Ah, you are 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. Then she added, in another tone—“You can’t—you are 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 Isabel saw nothing. “Ask him the next time, and you will see.”

“I can’t ask him; he has ceased to come to the house. Gilbert has let him know that he is 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 as 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 have told him,” she answered, smiling.

“Certainly I have told him; as far as that goes, I have encouraged him. I have preached patience, have said that his case is not desperate, if he will 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 as she stood a moment before the mantel-glass, pushing into its place a wandering tress of hair.

“Poor Mr. Rosier keeps saying that there is nothing impossible in Lord Warburton falling in love with Pansy,” Madame Merle went on.

Isabel was silent a little; she turned away from the glass. “It is true—there is nothing impossible,” she rejoined at last, gravely and more gently.

“So I have had to admit to Mr. Rosier. So, too, your husband thinks.”

“That I don’t know.”

“Ask him, and you will see.”

“I shall not ask him,” said Isabel.

“Excuse me; I forgot that you had pointed that out. Of course,” Madame Merle added, “you have 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 step-daughter 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 is charmed with Pansy.”

“And you have never told Osmond?” This observation was immediate, precipitate; it almost burst from Madame Merle’s lips.

Isabel smiled a little. “I suppose he will 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 she 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 is 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 is 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 is 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 perverse.”

“Mr. Rosier’s a nuisance!” cried Isabel, abruptly.

“I quite agree with you, and I am delighted to know that I am 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 shall not be kind to him, for it will be a false kindness. I wish to see her married to Lord Warburton.”

“You had better wait till he asks her.”

“If what you say is true, he ask her. Especially,” said Madame Merle in a moment, “if you make him.”

“If I make him?”

“It’s quite in your power. You have great influence with him.”

Isabel frowned a little. “Where did you learn that?”

“Mrs. Touchett told me. Not you—never!” said Madame Merle, smiling.

“I certainly never told you that.”

“You might have done so when we were by way of being confidential with each other. But you really told me very little; I have often thought so since.”

Isabel had thought so too, sometimes with a certain satisfaction. But she did not admit it now—perhaps because she did not wish to appear to exult in it. “You seem to have had an excellent informant in my aunt,” she simply said.

“She let me know that 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 have 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 which 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 took her departure.