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

Chapter XXIII

MADAME MERLE, who had come to Florence on Mrs. Touchett’s arrival at the invitation of this lady—Mrs. Touchett offering her for a month the hospitality of the Palazzo Crescentini—the judicious Madame Merle spoke to Isabel afresh about Gilbert Osmond, and expressed the wish that she should know him; but made no such point of the matter as we have seen her do in recommending the girl herself to Mr. Osmond’s attention. The reason of this was perhaps that Isabel offered no resistance whatever to Madame Merle’s proposal. In Italy, as in England, the lady had a multitude of friends, both among the natives of the country and its heterogeneous visitors. She had mentioned to Isabel most of the people the girl would find it well to know—of course, she said, Isabel could know whomever she would—and she had placed Mr. Osmond near the top of the list. He was an old friend of her own; she had known him these ten years; he was one of the cleverest and most agreeable men it was possible to meet. He was altogether above the respectable average; quite another affair. He was not perfect—far from it; the effect he produced depended a good deal on the state of his nerves and his spirits. If he were not in the right mood he could be very unsatisfactory—like most people, after all; but when he chose to exert himself no man could do it to better purpose. He had his peculiarities—which indeed Isabel would find to be the case with all the men really worth knowing—and he did not cause his light to shine equally for all persons. Madame Merle, however, thought she could undertake that for Isabel he would be brilliant. He was easily bored—too easily, and dull people always put him out; but a quick and cultivated girl like Isabel would give him a stimulus which was too absent from his life. At any rate, he was a person to know. One should not attempt to live in Italy without making a friend of Gilbert Osmond, who knew more about the country than any one except two or three German professors. And if they had more knowledge than he, he had infinitely more taste; he had a taste which was quite by itself. Isabel remembered that her friend had spoken of him during their multifarious colloquies at Gardencourt, and wondered a little what was the nature of the tie that united them. She was inclined to imagine that Madame Merle’s ties were peculiar, and such a possibility was a part of the interest created by this suggestive woman. As regards her relations with Mr. Osmond, however, Madame Merle hinted at nothing but a long-established and tranquil friendship. Isabel said that she should be happy to know a person who had enjoyed her friend’s confidence for so many years. “You ought to see a great many men,” Madame Merle remarked; “you ought to see as many as possible, so as to get used to them.”

“Used to them?” Isabel repeated, with that exceedingly serious gaze which sometimes seemed to proclaim that she was deficient in a sense of humour—an intimation which at other moments she effectively refuted. “I am not afraid of them.”

“Used to them. I mean, so as to despise them. That’s what one comes to with most of them. You will pick out, for your society, the few whom you don’t despise.”

This remark had a bitterness which Madame Merle did not often allow herself to betray; but Isabel was not alarmed by it, for she had never supposed that, as one saw more of the world, the sentiment of respect became the most active of one’s emotions. This sentiment was excited, however, by the beautiful city of Florence, which pleased her not less than Madame Merle had promised; and if her unassisted perception had not been able to gauge its charms, she had clever companions to call attention to latent merits. She was in no want, indeed, of æsthetic illumination, for Ralph found it a pleasure which renewed his own earlier sensations, to act as cicerone to his eager young kinswoman. Madame Merle remained at home; she had seen the treasures of Florence so often, and she had always something to do. But she talked of all things with remarkable vividness of memory—she remembered the right-hand angel in the large Perugino, and the position of the hands of the Saint Elizabeth in the picture next to it; and had her own opinions as to the character of many famous works of art, differing often from Ralph with great sharpness, and defending her interpretations with as much ingenuity as good-humour. Isabel listened to the discussions which took place between the two, with a sense that she might derive much benefit from them and that they were among the advantages which—for instance—she could not have enjoyed in Albany. In the clear May mornings, before the formal breakfast—this repast at Mrs. Touchett’s was served at twelve o’clock—Isabel wandered about with her cousin through the narrow and sombre Florentine streets, resting a while in the thicker dusk of some historic church, or the vaulted chambers of some dispeopled convent. She went to the galleries and palaces; she looked at the pictures and statues which had hitherto been great names to her, and exchanged for a knowledge which was sometimes a limitation a presentiment which proved usually to have been a blank. She performed all those acts of mental prostration in which, on a first visit to Italy, youth and enthusiasm so freely indulge; she felt her heart beat in the presence of immortal genius, and knew the sweetness of rising tears in eyes to which faded fresco and darkened marble grew dim. But the return, every day, was even pleasanter than the going forth; the return into the wide, monumental court of the great house in which Mrs. Touchett, many years before, had established herself, and into the high, cool rooms where carven rafters and pompous frescoes of the sixteenth century looked down upon the familiar commodities of the nineteenth. Mrs. Touchett inhabited an historic building in a narrow street whose very name recalled the strife of Mediæval factions; and found compensation for the darkness of her frontage in the modicity of her rent and the brightness of a garden in which nature itself looked as archaic as the rugged architecture of the palace and which illumined the rooms that were in regular use. Isabel found that to live in such a place might be a source of happiness—almost of excitement. At first it had struck her as a sort of prison; but very soon its prison-like quality became a merit, for she discovered that it contained other prisoners than the members of her aunt’s household. The spirit of the past was shut up there, like a refugee from the outer world; it lurked in lonely corners, and, at night, haunted even the rooms in which Mrs. Touchett diffused her matter-of-fact influence. Isabel used to hear vague echoes and strange reverberations; she had a sense of the hovering of unseen figures, of the flitting of ghosts. Often she paused, listening, half-startled, half-disappointed, on the great cold stone staircase.

Gilbert Osmond came to see Madame Merle, who presented him to the young lady seated almost out of sight at the other end of the room. Isabel, on this occasion, took little share in the conversation; she scarcely even smiled when the others turned to her appealingly; but sat there as an impartial auditor of their brilliant discourse. Mrs. Touchett was not present, and these two had it their own way. They talked extremely well; it struck Isabel almost as a dramatic entertainment, rehearsed in advance. Madame Merle referred everything to her, but the girl answered nothing, though she knew that this attitude would make Mr. Osmond think she was one of those dull people who bored him. It was the worse, too, that Madame Merle would have told him she was almost as much above the merely respectable average as he himself, and that she was putting her friend dreadfully in the wrong. But this was no matter, for once; even if more had depended on it, Isabel could not have made an attempt to shine. There was something in Mr. Osmond that arrested her and held her in suspense—made it seem more important that she should get an impression of him than that she should produce one herself. Besides, Isabel had little skill in producing an impression which she knew to be expected; nothing could be more charming, in general, than to seem dazzling; but she had a perverse unwillingness to perform by arrangement. Mr. Osmond, to do him justice, had a well-bred air of expecting nothing; he was a quiet gentleman, with a colourless manner, who said elaborate things with a great deal of simplicity. Isabel, however, privately perceived that if he did not expect he observed; she was very sure he was sensitive. His face, his head was sensitive; he was not handsome, but he was fine, as fine as one of the drawings in the long gallery above the bridge, at the Uffizi. Mr. Osmond was very delicate; the tone of his voice alone would have proved it. It was the visitor’s delicacy that made her abstain from interference. His talk was like the tinking of glass, and if she had put out her finger she might have changed the pitch and spoiled the concert. Before he went he made an appeal to her.

“Madame Merle says she will come up to my hill-top some day next week and drink tea in my garden. It would give me much pleasure if you would come with her. It’s thought rather pretty—there’s what they call a general view. My daughter, too, would be so glad—or rather, for she is too young to have strong emotions, I should be so glad—so very glad.” And Mr. Osmond paused a moment, with a slight air of embarrassment leaving his sentence unfinished. “I should be so happy if you could know my daughter,” he went on, a moment afterwards.

Isabel answered that she should be delighted to see Miss Osmond, and that if Madame Merle would show her the way to the hill-top she should be very grateful. Upon this assurance the visitor took his leave; after which Isabel fully expected that her friend would scold her for having been so stupid. But to her surprise, Madame Merle, who indeed never fell into the matter-of-course, said to her in a few moments—

“You were charming, my dear; you were just as one would have wished you. You are never disappointing.”

A rebuke might possibly have been irritating, though it is much more probable that Isabel would have taken it in good part; but, strange to say, the words that Madame Merle actually used caused her the first feeling of displeasure she had known this lady to excite. “That is more than I intended,” she answered, coldly. “I am under no obligation that I know of to charm Mr. Osmond.”

Madame Merle coloured a moment; but we know it was not her habit to retract. “My dear child, I didn’t speak for him, poor man; I spoke for yourself. It is not of course a question as to his liking you; it matters little whether he likes you or not! But I thought you liked him.”

“I did,” said Isabel, honestly. “But I don’t see what that matters, either.”

“Everything that concerns you matters to me,” Madame Merle returned, with a sort of noble gentleness, “especially when at the same time another old friend is concerned.”

Whatever Isabel’s obligations may have been to Mr. Osmond, it must be admitted that she found them sufficient to lead her to ask Ralph sundry questions about him. She thought Ralph’s judgments cynical, but she flattered herself that she had learned to make allowance for that.

“Do I know him?” said her cousin. “Oh, yes, I know him; not well, but on the whole enough. I have never cultivated his society, and he apparently has never found mine indispensable to his happiness. Who is he—what is he? He is a mysterious American, who has been living these twenty years, or more, in Italy. Why do I call him mysterious? Only as a cover for my ignorance; I don’t know his antecedents, his family, his origin. For all I know, he may be a prince in disguise; he rather looks like one, by the way—like a prince who has abdicated in a fit of magnanimity, and has been in a state of disgust ever since. He used to live in Rome; but of late years he has taken up his abode in Florence; I remember hearing him say once that Rome has grown vulgar. He has a great dread of vulgarity; that’s his special line; he hasn’t any other that I know of. He lives on his income, which I suspect of not being vulgarly large. He’s a poor gentleman—that’s what he calls himself. He married young and lost his wife, and I believe he has a daughter. He also has a sister, who is married to some little Count or other, of these parts; I remember meeting her of old. She is nicer than he, I should think, but rather wicked. I remember there used to be some stories about her. I don’t think I recommend you to know her. But why don’t you ask Madame Merle about these people? She knows them all much better than I.”

“I ask you because I want your opinion as well as hers,” said Isabel.

“A fig for my opinion! If you fall in love with Mr. Osmond, what will you care for that?”

“Not much, probably. But meanwhile it has a certain importance. The more information one has about a person the better.”

“I don’t agree to that. We know too much about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don’t mind anything that any one tells you about any one else. Judge every one and everything for yourself.”

“That’s what I try to do,” said Isabel; “but when you do that people call you conceited.”

“You are not to mind them—that’s precisely my argument; not to mind what they say about yourself any more than what they say about your friend or your enemy.”

Isabel was silent a moment. “I think you are right; but there are some things I can’t help minding: for instance, when my friend is attacked, or when I myself am praised.”

“Of course you are always at liberty to judge the critic. Judge people as critics, however,” Ralph added, “and you will condemn them all!”

“I shall see Mr. Osmond for myself,” said Isabel. “I have promised to pay him a visit.”

“To pay him a visit?”

“To go and see his view, his pictures, his daughter—I don’t know exactly what. Madame Merle is to take me; she tells me a great many ladies call upon him.”

“Ah, with Madame Merle you may go anywhere, de confiance,” said Ralph. “She knows none but the best people.”

Isabel said no more about Mr. Osmond, but she presently remarked to her cousin that she was not satisfied with his tone about Madame Merle. “It seems to me that you insinuate things about her. I don’t know what you mean, but if you have any grounds for disliking her, I think you should either mention them frankly or else say nothing at all.”

Ralph, however, resented this charge with more apparent earnestness than he commonly used. “I speak of Madame Merle exactly as I speak to her: with an even exaggerated respect.”

“Exaggerated, precisely. That is what I complain of.”

“I do so because Madame Merle’s merits are exaggerated.”

“By whom, pray? By me? If so, I do her a poor service.”

“No, no; by herself.”

“Ah, I protest!” Isabel cried with fervour. “If ever there was a woman who made small claims——”

“You put your finger on it,” Ralph interrupted. “Her modesty is exaggerated. She has no business with small claims—she has a perfect right to make large ones.”

“Her merits are large, then. You contradict yourself.”

“Her merits are immense,” said Ralph. “She is perfect; she is the only woman I know who has but that one little fault.”

Isabel turned away with impatience. “I don’t understand you; you are too paradoxical for my plain mind.”

“Let me explain. When I say she exaggerates, I don’t mean it in the vulgar sense—that she boasts, overstates, gives too fine an account of herself. I mean literally that she pushes the search for perfection too far—that her merits are in themselves overstrained. She is too good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too everything. She is too complete, in a word. I confess to you that she acts a little on my nerves, and that I feel about her a good deal as that intensely human Athenian felt about Aristides the just.”

Isabel looked hard at her cousin; but the mocking spirit, if it lurked in his words, failed on this occasion to peep from his eyes.

“Do you wish Madame Merle to be banished?” she inquired.

“By no means. She is much too good company. I delight in Madame Merle,” said Ralph Touchett, simply.

“You are very odious, sir!” Isabel exclaimed. And then she asked him if he knew anything that was not to the honour of her brilliant friend.

“Nothing whatever. Don’t you see that is just what I mean? Upon the character of every one else you may find some little black speck; if I were to take half-an-hour to it, some day, I have no doubt I should be able to find one on yours. For my own, of course, I am spotted like a leopard. But on Madame Merle’s nothing, nothing, nothing!”

“That is just what I think!” said Isabel, with a toss of her head. “That is why I like her so much.”

“She is a capital person for you to know. Since you wish to see the world you couldn’t have a better guide.”

“I suppose you mean by that that she is worldly?”

“Worldly? No,” said Ralph, “she is the world itself!”

It had certainly not, as Isabel for the moment took it into her head to believe, been a refinement of malice in him to say that he delighted in Madame Merle. Ralph Touchett took his entertainment wherever he could find it, and he would not have forgiven himself if he had not been able to find a great deal in the society of a woman in whom the social virtues existed in polished perfection. There are deep-lying sympathies and antipathies; and it may have been that in spite of the intellectual justice he rendered her, her absence from his mother’s house would not have made life seem barren. But Ralph Touchett had learned to appreciate, and there could be no better field for such a talent than the table-talk of Madame Merle. He talked with her largely, treated her with conspicuous civility, occupied himself with her and let her alone, with an opportuneness which she herself could not have surpassed. There were moments when he felt almost sorry for her; and these, oddly enough, were the moments when his kindness was least demonstrative. He was sure that she had been richly ambitious, and that what she had visibly accomplished was far below her ambition. She had got herself into perfect training, but she had won none of the prizes. She was always plain Madame Merle, the widow of a Swiss négociant, with a small income and a large acquaintance, who stayed with people a great deal, and was universally liked. The contrast between this position and any one of some half-dozen others which he vividly imagined her to have had her eyes upon at various moments, had an element of the tragical. His mother thought he got on beautifully with their pliable guest; to Mrs. Touchett’s sense two people who dealt so largely in factitious theories of conduct would have much in common. He had given a great deal of consideration to Isabel’s intimacy with Madame Merle—having long since made up his mind that he could not, without opposition, keep his cousin to himself; and he regarded it on the whole with philosophic tolerance. He believed it would take care of itself; it would not last for ever. Neither of these two superior persons knew the other as well as she supposed, and when each of them had made certain discoveries, there would be, if not a rupture, at least a relaxation. Meanwhile he was quite willing to admit that the conversation of the elder lady was an advantage to the younger, who had a great deal to learn, and would doubtless learn it better from Madame Merle than from some other instructors of the young. It was not probable that Isabel would be injured.