Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
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 was an inquiry 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 have heard so much of him of late.”
Madame Merle bent her head on one side a little, protestingly, and smiled in the left corner of her mouth.
“You have heard, yes. But you must remember that I have 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 is too late?”
“You had better ask Pansy,” said Isabel.
“I shall ask her what you have 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 excessively afraid of intermeddling. But apparently she had only reserved herself for this occasion; for she had a dangerous quickness in her eye, and an air of irritation which even her admirable smile 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 that she had so long thought. The sense of accident indeed had died within her that day when she happened to be struck with the manner in which Madame Merle and her own husband sat together in private. No definite suspicion had as yet taken its place; but it was enough to make her look at this lady 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 it 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 at the very outset excited an answering defiance; a nameless vitality which Isabel now saw to have been absent from her friend’s professions of delicacy and caution. Madame Merle has 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 am not in the least angry. I have only a great desire to retrieve the situation. Do you think his lordship 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 have nothing more to say or to hear. I have no doubt,” Isabel added, “that he will 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 am not concerned. Of course not directly. But when one is such an old friend, one can’t help having something at stake. You forget how long I have 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 am 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 corrosive 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 would 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 contradiction. She only gathered her mantle about her, and, with the movement, scattered upon the air a faint, agreeable fragrance.
“I don’t despair,” she answered; “I feel encouraged. And I didn’t come to scold you; I came if possible to learn the truth. I know you will 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 Isabel a moment, to judge of the effect of her words, and she 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 is 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; 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 would perhaps resign yourself to not being pleased—to simply seeing your stepdaughter 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 Madame Merle 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 am 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 her visitor’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, this 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 lying before the high, cold front of St. John Lateran; where 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 vanished from it. After the departure of her cousin and his companions she wandered about 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 passing out of the walls of Rome, 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 cold-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 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 false; for that was what Madame Merle had been. 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 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 marriage, but she had not desired others. She therefore had had an idea 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 very incomplete. 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 was a victim of the good old man’s benevolence. She had found her profit not in the gross device of borrowing money from Isabel, but in the more refined idea of introducing one of her intimates to the young girl’s fortune. She had naturally chosen her closest intimate, and it was already vivid enough to Isabel that Gilbert Osmond 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 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, very well; the thing was often done. But at least he should let her know!
She wondered whether, if he wanted her money, her money to-day would satisfy him. Would he take her money and let her go? Ah, if Mr. Touchett’s great charity would 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 Osmond a service, his recognition of the fact 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 Madame Merle!”
Her exclamation 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 are 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 so.
“No, but you don’t say the contrary, as you ought in common gratitude.”
“Don’t talk about gratitude,” Osmond 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,” she said. “I wonder whether you know some of my thoughts.”
“No more than I can help. I have quite enough of my own.”
“That’s because they are so delightful.”
Osmond rested his head against the back of his chair and looked at his companion for a long time, with a kind of cynical directness which seemed also partly an expression of fatigue. “You do aggravate me,” he remarked in a moment. “I am 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 have given you an interest; that’s a great gift.”
“Do you call it an interest?” Osmond inquired, languidly.
“Certainly, since it helps you to pass your time.”
“The time has never seemed longer to me than this winter.”
“You have never looked better; you have never been so agreeable, so brilliant.”
“Damn my brilliancy!” Osmond murmured, thoughtfully. “How little, after all, you know me!”
“If I don’t know you, I know nothing,” said Madame Merle smiling. “You have the feeling of complete success.”
“No, I shall not have that till I have made you stop judging me.”
“I did that long ago. I speak from old knowledge. But you express yourself more, too.”
Osmond hesitated a moment. “I wish you would express yourself less!”
“You wish to condemn me to silence? Remember that I have never been a chatterbox. At any rate, there are three or four things that 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.
“Excuse me; she knows perfectly. She has a line sharply marked out. 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 to much.”
Osmond 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 is the matter with you,” he said, at last.
“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 have dried your tears, that’s something. But I have seen you shed them.”
“Oh, I believe you will make me cry still. I have a great hope of that. I was vile this morning; I was horrid,” said Madame Merle.
“If Isabel was in the stupid state of mind you mention, she probably didn’t perceive it,” Osmond answered.
“It was precisely my devilry that stupefied her. I couldn’t help it; I was full of something bad. Perhaps it was something good; I don’t know. You have not only dried up my tears; you have dried up my soul.”
“It is not I then than am responsible for my wife’s condition,” Osmond said. “It is 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 are very bad,” Madame Merle added, gravely.
“Is this the way we are to end?” Osmond asked, with the same studied coldness.
“I don’t know how we are to end. I wish I did! How do bad people end? You have made me bad.”
“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. Her eye brightened, even flashed; her smile betrayed a painful effort. “Good enough for anything that I have 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 that 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 have 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 have enjoyed your triumph too much.”
“I am rather curious to know what you call my triumph.”
“You have 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 is not afraid of me, and it’s not what I wish,” he said at last. “To what do you wish to provoke me when you say such things as that?”
“I have 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 am not responsible for that. I didn’t see the use of your going to see her at all; you are capable of acting without her. I have not made you afraid of me, that I can see,” Osmond went on; “how then should I have made her? You are at least as brave. I can’t think where you have 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 continued: “You always see too much in everything; you overdo it; you lose sight of the real. I am much simpler than you think.”
“I think you are very simple.” And Madame Merle kept her eye upon her cup. “I have come to that with time. I judged you, as I say, of old; but it is only since your marriage that I have understood you. I have 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 small 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 is 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 are determined to make a tragedy of that, the tragedy is hardly for her.”
“The tragedy is for me!” Madame Merle exclaimed, rising, with a long low sigh, but giving a glance at the same time at the contents of her mantel-shelf. “It appears that I am to be severely taught the disadvantages of a false position.”
“You express yourself like a sentence in a copy-book. 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,” said Madame Merle, softly, “if I had a child—”
Osmond hesitated a moment; and then, with a little formal air—“The children of others may be a great interest!” he announced.
“You are more like a copy-book than I. There is 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 is that,” said Madame Merle, “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 into its usual social expression.
Osmond 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, Madame Merle went 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 murmured to herself.