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

Chapter XXV

WHILE this sufficiently intimate colloquy (prolonged for some time after we cease to follow it) was going on, Madame Merle and her companion, breaking a silence of some duration, had begun to exchange remarks. They were sitting in an attitude of unexpressed expectancy; an attitude especially marked on the part of the Countess Gemini, who, being of a more nervous temperament than Madame Merle practised with less success the art of disguising impatience. What these ladies were waiting for would not have been apparent, and was perhaps not very definite to their own minds. Madame Merle waited for Osmond to release their young friend from her tête-à-tête, and the Countess waited because Madame Merle did. The Countess, moreover, by waiting, found the time ripe for saying something discordant; a necessity of which she had been conscious for the last twenty minutes. Her brother wandered with Isabel to the end of the garden, and she followed the pair for a while with her eyes.

“My dear,” she then observed to Madame Merle, “you will excuse me if I don’t congratulate you!”

“Very willingly; for I don’t in the least know why you should.”

“Haven’t you a little plan that you think rather well of?” And the Countess nodded towards the retreating couple.

Madame Merle’s eyes took the same direction; then she looked serenely at her neighbour. “You know I never understand you very well,” she answered, smiling.

“No one can understand better than you when you wish. I see that, just now, you don’t wish to.”

“You say things to me that no one else does,” said Madame Merle, gravely, but without bitterness.

“You mean things you don’t like? Doesn’t Osmond sometimes say such things?”

“What your brother says has a point.”

“Yes, a very sharp one sometimes. If you mean that I am not so clever as he, you must not think I shall suffer from your saying it. But it will be much better that you should understand me.”

“Why so?” asked Madame Merle; “what difference will it make?”

“If I don’t approve of your plan, you ought to know it in order to appreciate the danger of my interfering with it.”

Madame Merle looked as if she were ready to admit that there might be something in this; but in a moment she said quietly—“You think me more calculating than I am.”

“It’s not your calculating that I think ill of; it’s your calculating wrong. You have done so in this case.”

“You must have made extensive calculations yourself to discover it.”

“No, I have not had time for that. I have seen the girl but this once,” said the Countess, “and the conviction has suddenly come to me. I like her very much.”

“So do I,” Madame Merle declared.

“You have a strange way of showing it.”

“Surely—I have given her the advantage of making your acquaintance.”

“That, indeed,” cried the Countess, with a laugh, “is perhaps the best thing that could happen to her!”

Madame Merle said nothing for some time. The Countess’s manner was impertinent, but she did not suffer this to discompose her; and with her eyes upon the violet slope of Monte Morello she gave herself up to reflection.

“My dear lady,” she said at last, “I advise you not to agitate yourself. The matter you allude to concerns three persons much stronger of purpose than yourself.”

“Three persons? You and Osmond, of course. But is Miss Archer also very strong of purpose?”

“Quite as much so as we.”

“Ah then,” said the Countess radiantly, “if I convince her it’s her interest to resist you, she will do so successfully!”

“Resist us? Why do you express yourself so coarsely? She is not to be subjected to force.”

“I am not sure of that. You are capable of anything, you and Osmond. I don’t mean Osmond by himself, and I don’t mean you by yourself. But together you are dangerous—like some chemical combination.”

“You had better leave us alone, then,” said Madame Merle, smiling.

“I don’t mean to touch you—but I shall talk to that girl.”

“My poor Amy,” Madame Merle murmured, “I don’t see what has got into your head.”

“I take an interest in her—that is what has got into my head. I like her.”

Madame Merle hesitated a moment. “I don’t think she likes you.”

The Countess’s bright little eyes expanded, and her face was set in a grimace. “Ah, you are dangerous,” she cried, “even by yourself!”

“If you want her to like you, don’t abuse your brother to her,” said Madame Merle.

“I don’t suppose you pretend she has fallen in love with him—in two interviews.”

Madame Merle looked a moment at Isabel and at the master of the house. He was leaning against the parapet, facing her, with his arms folded; and she, at present, though she had her face turned to the opposite prospect, was evidently not scrutinising it. As Madame Merle watched her she lowered her eyes; she was listening, possibly with a certain embarrassment, while she pressed the point of her parasol into the path. Madame Merle rose from her chair. “Yes, I think so!” she said.

The shabby footboy, summoned by Pansy, had come out with a small table, which he placed upon the grass, and then had gone back and fetched the tea-tray; after which he again disappeared, to return with a couple of chairs. Pansy had watched these proceedings with the deepest interest, standing with her small hands folded together upon the front of her scanty frock; but she had not presumed to offer assistance to the servant. When the tea-table had been arranged, however, she gently approached her aunt.

“Do you think papa would object to my making the tea?”

The Countess looked at her with a deliberately critical gaze, and without answering her question. “My poor niece,” she said, “is that your best frock?”

“Ah no,” Pansy answered, “it’s just a little toilet for common occasions.”

“Do you call it a common occasion when I come to see you?—to say nothing of Madame Merle and the pretty lady yonder.”

Pansy reflected a moment, looking gravely from one of the persons mentioned to the other. Then her face broke into its perfect smile. “I have a pretty dress, but even that one is very simple. Why should I expose it beside your beautiful things?”

“Because it’s the prettiest you have; for me you must always wear the prettiest. Please put it on the next time. It seems to me they don’t dress you so well as they might.”

The child stroked down her antiquated skirt, sparingly. “It’s a good little dress to make tea—don’t you think? Do you not believe papa would allow me?”

“Impossible for me to say, my child,” said the Countess. “For me, your father’s ideas are unfathomable. Madame Merle understands them better; ask her.”

Madame Merle smiled with her usual geniality. “It’s a weighty question—let me think. It seems to me it would please your father to see a careful little daughter making his tea. It’s the proper duty of the daughter of the house—when she grows up.”

“So it seems to me, Madame Merle!” Pansy cried. “You shall see how well I will make it. A spoonful for each.” And she began to busy herself at the table.

“Two spoonfuls for me,” said the Countess, who with Madame Merle, remained for some moments watching her. “Listen to me, Pansy,” the Countess resumed at last. “I should like to know what you think of your visitor.”

“Ah, she is not mine—she is papa’s,” said Pansy.

“Miss Archer came to see you as well,” Madame Merle remarked.

“I am very happy to hear that. She has been very polite to me.”

“Do you like her, then?” the Countess asked.

“She is charming—charming,” said Pansy, in her little neat, conversational tone. “She pleases me exceedingly.”

“And you think she pleases your father?”

“Ah, really, Countess,” murmured Madame Merle, dissuasively. “Go and call them to tea,” she went on, to the child.

“You will see if they don’t like it!” Pansy declared; and went off to summon the others, who were still lingering at the end of the terrace.

“If Miss Archer is to become her mother it is surely interesting to know whether the child likes her,” said the Countess.

“If your brother marries again it won’t be for Pansy’s sake,” Madame Merle replied. “She will soon be sixteen, and after that she will begin to need a husband rather than a stepmother.”

“And will you provide the husband as well?”

“I shall certainly take an interest in her marrying well. I imagine you will do the same.”

“Indeed I shan’t!” cried the Countess. “Why should I of all women, set such a price on a husband?”

“You didn’t marry well; that’s what I am speaking of. When I say a husband, I mean a good one.”

“There are no good ones. Osmond won’t be a good one.”

Madame Merle closed her eyes a moment. “You are irritated just now; I don’t know why,” she said, presently. “I don’t think you will really object either to your brother, or to your niece’s, marrying, when the time comes for them to do so; and as regards Pansy, I am confident that we shall some day have the pleasure of looking for a husband for her together. Your large acquaintance will be a great help.”

“Yes, I am irritated,” the Countess answered. “You often irritate me. Your own coolness is fabulous; you are a strange woman.”

“It is much better that we should always act together,” Madame Merle went on.

“Do you mean that as a threat?” asked the Countess, rising.

Madame Merle shook her head, with a smile of sadness. “No indeed, you have not my coolness!”

Isabel and Mr. Osmond were now coming toward them, and Isabel had taken Pansy by the hand.

“Do you pretend to believe he would make her happy?” the Countess demanded.

“If he should marry Miss Archer I suppose he would behave like a gentleman.”

The Countess jerked herself into a succession of attitudes. “Do you mean as most gentlemen behave? That would be much to be thankful for! Of course Osmond’s a gentleman; his own sister needn’t be reminded of that. But does he think he can marry any girl he happens to pick out? Osmond’s a gentleman, of course; but I must say I have never, no never, seen any one of Osmond’s pretensions! What they are all based upon is more than I can say. I am his own sister; I might be supposed to know. Who is he, if you please? What has he ever done? If there had been anything particularly grand in his origin—if he were made of some superior clay—I suppose I should have got some inkling of it. If there had been any great honours or splendours in the family, I should certainly have made the most of them; they would have been quite in my line. But there is nothing, nothing, nothing. One’s parents were charming people of course; but so were yours, I have no doubt. Every one is a charming person, now-a-days. Even I am a charming person; don’t laugh, it has literally been said. As for Osmond, he has always appeared to believe that he is descended from the gods.”

“You may say what you please,” said Madame Merle, who had listened to this quick outbreak none the less attentively, we may believe, because her eye wandered away from the speaker, and her hands busied themselves with adjusting the knots of ribbon on her dress. “You Osmonds are a fine race—your blood must flow from some very pure source. Your brother, like an intelligent man, has had the conviction of it, if he has not had the proofs. You are modest about it, but you yourself are extremely distinguished. What do you say about your niece? The child’s a little duchess. Nevertheless,” Madame Merle added, “it will not be an easy matter for Osmond to marry Miss Archer. But he can try.”

“I hope she will refuse him. It will take him down a little.”

“We must not forget that he is one of the cleverest of men.”

“I have heard you say that before; but I haven’t yet discovered what he has done.”

“What he has done? He has done nothing that has had to be undone. And he has known how to wait.”

“To wait for Miss Archer’s money? How much of it is there?”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Madame Merle. “Miss Archer has seventy thousand pounds.”

“Well, it is a pity she is so nice,” the Countess declared. “To be sacrificed, any girl would do. She needn’t be superior.”

“If she were not superior, your brother would never look at her. He must have the best.”

“Yes,” rejoined the Countess, as they went forward a little to meet the others, “he is very hard to please. That makes me fear for her happiness!”