The Portrait of a Lady [Volume 1]
Part 5 out of 7
"I gave him too little satisfaction to have the right to ask
questions of him."
This assertion seemed to Miss Stackpole for a moment to bid
defiance to comment; but at last she exclaimed: "Well, Isabel, if
I didn't know you I might think you were heartless!"
"Take care," said Isabel; "you're spoiling me."
"I'm afraid I've done that already. I hope, at least," Miss
Stackpole added, "that he may cross with Annie Climber!"
Isabel learned from her the next morning that she had determined
not to return to Gardencourt (where old Mr. Touchett had promised
her a renewed welcome), but to await in London the arrival of the
invitation that Mr. Bantling had promised her from his sister Lady
Pensil. Miss Stackpole related very freely her conversation with
Ralph Touchett's sociable friend and declared to Isabel that she
really believed she had now got hold of something that would lead
to something. On the receipt of Lady Pensil's letter--Mr. Bantling
had virtually guaranteed the arrival of this document--she would
immediately depart for Bedfordshire, and if Isabel cared to look
out for her impressions in the Interviewer she would certainly
find them. Henrietta was evidently going to see something of the
inner life this time.
"Do you know where you're drifting, Henrietta Stackpole?" Isabel
asked, imitating the tone in which her friend had spoken the
"I'm drifting to a big position--that of the Queen of American
Journalism. If my next letter isn't copied all over the West I'll
swallow my penwiper!"
She had arranged with her friend Miss Annie Climber, the young
lady of the continental offers, that they should go together to
make those purchases which were to constitute Miss Climber's
farewell to a hemisphere in which she at least had been
appreciated; and she presently repaired to Jermyn Street to pick
up her companion. Shortly after her departure Ralph Touchett was
announced, and as soon as he came in Isabel saw he had something
on his mind. He very soon took his cousin into his confidence. He
had received from his mother a telegram to the effect that his
father had had a sharp attack of his old malady, that she was
much alarmed and that she begged he would instantly return to
Gardencourt. On this occasion at least Mrs. Touchett's devotion
to the electric wire was not open to criticism.
"I've judged it best to see the great doctor, Sir Matthew Hope,
first," Ralph said; "by great good luck he's in town. He's to see
me at half-past twelve, and I shall make sure of his coming down
to Gardencourt--which he will do the more readily as he has
already seen my father several times, both there and in London.
There's an express at two-forty-five, which I shall take; and
you'll come back with me or remain here a few days longer, exactly
as you prefer."
"I shall certainly go with you," Isabel returned. "I don't
suppose I can be of any use to my uncle, but if he's ill I shall
like to be near him."
"I think you're fond of him," said Ralph with a certain shy
pleasure in his face. "You appreciate him, which all the world
hasn't done. The quality's too fine."
"I quite adore him," Isabel after a moment said.
"That's very well. After his son he's your greatest admirer."
She welcomed this assurance, but she gave secretly a small sigh
of relief at the thought that Mr. Touchett was one of those
admirers who couldn't propose to marry her. This, however, was
not what she spoke; she went on to inform Ralph that there were
other reasons for her not remaining in London. She was tired of
it and wished to leave it; and then Henrietta was going away--
going to stay in Bedfordshire.
"With Lady Pensil, the sister of Mr. Bantling, who has answered
for an invitation."
Ralph was feeling anxious, but at this he broke into a laugh.
Suddenly, none the less, his gravity returned. "Bantling's a man
of courage. But if the invitation should get lost on the way?"
"I thought the British post-office was impeccable."
"The good Homer sometimes nods," said Ralph. "However," he went
on more brightly, "the good Bantling never does, and, whatever
happens, he'll take care of Henrietta."
Ralph went to keep his appointment with Sir Matthew Hope, and
Isabel made her arrangements for quitting Pratt's Hotel. Her
uncle's danger touched her nearly, and while she stood before her
open trunk, looking about her vaguely for what she should put
into it, the tears suddenly rose to her eyes. It was perhaps for
this reason that when Ralph came back at two o'clock to take her
to the station she was not yet ready. He found Miss Stackpole,
however, in the sitting-room, where she had just risen from her
luncheon, and this lady immediately expressed her regret at his
"He's a grand old man," she said; "he's faithful to the last. If
it's really to be the last--pardon my alluding to it, but you
must often have thought of the possibility--I'm sorry that I
shall not be at Gardencourt."
"You'll amuse yourself much more in Bedfordshire."
"I shall be sorry to amuse myself at such a time," said Henrietta
with much propriety. But she immediately added: "I should like so
to commemorate the closing scene."
"My father may live a long time," said Ralph simply. Then,
adverting to topics more cheerful, he interrogated Miss Stackpole
as to her own future.
Now that Ralph was in trouble she addressed him in a tone of
larger allowance and told him that she was much indebted to him
for having made her acquainted with Mr. Bantling. "He has told me
just the things I want to know," she said; "all the society items
and all about the royal family. I can't make out that what he
tells me about the royal family is much to their credit; but he
says that's only my peculiar way of looking at it. Well, all I
want is that he should give me the facts; I can put them together
quick enough, once I've got them." And she added that Mr.
Bantling had been so good as to promise to come and take her out
"To take you where?" Ralph ventured to enquire.
"To Buckingham Palace. He's going to show me over it, so that I
may get some idea how they live."
"Ah," said Ralph, "we leave you in good hands. The first thing we
shall hear is that you're invited to Windsor Castle."
"If they ask me, I shall certainly go. Once I get started I'm not
afraid. But for all that," Henrietta added in a moment, "I'm not
satisfied; I'm not at peace about Isabel."
"What is her last misdemeanour?"
"Well, I've told you before, and I suppose there's no harm in my
going on. I always finish a subject that I take up. Mr. Goodwood
was here last night."
Ralph opened his eyes; he even blushed a little--his blush being
the sign of an emotion somewhat acute. He remembered that Isabel,
in separating from him in Winchester Square, had repudiated his
suggestion that her motive in doing so was the expectation of a
visitor at Pratt's Hotel, and it was a new pang to him to have to
suspect her of duplicity. On the other hand, he quickly said to
himself, what concern was it of his that she should have made an
appointment with a lover? Had it not been thought graceful in
every age that young ladies should make a mystery of such
appointments? Ralph gave Miss Stackpole a diplomatic answer. "I
should have thought that, with the views you expressed to me the
other day, this would satisfy you perfectly."
"That he should come to see her? That was very well, as far as it
went. It was a little plot of mine; I let him know that we were
in London, and when it had been arranged that I should spend the
evening out I sent him a word--the word we just utter to the
'wise.' I hoped he would find her alone; I won't pretend I didn't
hope that you'd be out of the way. He came to see her, but he
might as well have stayed away."
"Isabel was cruel?"--and Ralph's face lighted with the relief of
his cousin's not having shown duplicity.
"I don't exactly know what passed between them. But she gave him
no satisfaction--she sent him back to America."
"Poor Mr. Goodwood!" Ralph sighed.
"Her only idea seems to be to get rid of him," Henrietta went on.
"Poor Mr. Goodwood!" Ralph repeated. The exclamation, it must be
confessed, was automatic; it failed exactly to express his
thoughts, which were taking another line.
"You don't say that as if you felt it. I don't believe you care."
"Ah," said Ralph, "you must remember that I don't know this
interesting young man--that I've never seen him."
"Well, I shall see him, and I shall tell him not to give up. If I
didn't believe Isabel would come round," Miss Stackpole added--
"well, I'd give up myself. I mean I'd give HER up!"
It had occurred to Ralph that, in the conditions, Isabel's
parting with her friend might be of a slightly embarrassed
nature, and he went down to the door of the hotel in advance of
his cousin, who, after a slight delay, followed with the traces
of an unaccepted remonstrance, as he thought, in her eyes. The
two made the journey to Gardencourt in almost unbroken silence,
and the servant who met them at the station had no better news to
give them of Mr. Touchett--a fact which caused Ralph to
congratulate himself afresh on Sir Matthew Hope's having promised
to come down in the five o'clock train and spend the night. Mrs.
Touchett, he learned, on reaching home, had been constantly with
the old man and was with him at that moment; and this fact made
Ralph say to himself that, after all, what his mother wanted was
just easy occasion. The finer natures were those that shone at
the larger times. Isabel went to her own room, noting throughout
the house that perceptible hush which precedes a crisis. At the
end of an hour, however, she came downstairs in search of her
aunt, whom she wished to ask about Mr. Touchett. She went into
the library, but Mrs. Touchett was not there, and as the weather,
which had been damp and chill, was now altogether spoiled, it was
not probable she had gone for her usual walk in the grounds.
Isabel was on the point of ringing to send a question to her
room, when this purpose quickly yielded to an unexpected sound--
the sound of low music proceeding apparently from the saloon. She
knew her aunt never touched the piano, and the musician was
therefore probably Ralph, who played for his own amusement. That
he should have resorted to this recreation at the present time
indicated apparently that his anxiety about his father had been
relieved; so that the girl took her way, almost with restored
cheer, toward the source of the harmony. The drawing-room at
Gardencourt was an apartment of great distances, and, as the
piano was placed at the end of it furthest removed from the door
at which she entered, her arrival was not noticed by the person
seated before the instrument. This person was neither Ralph nor
his mother; it was a lady whom Isabel immediately saw to be a
stranger to herself, though her back was presented to the door.
This back--an ample and well-dressed one--Isabel viewed for some
moments with surprise. The lady was of course a visitor who had
arrived during her absence and who had not been mentioned by
either of the servants--one of them her aunt's maid--of whom she
had had speech since her return. Isabel had already learned,
however, with what treasures of reserve the function of receiving
orders may be accompanied, and she was particularly conscious of
having been treated with dryness by her aunt's maid, through
whose hands she had slipped perhaps a little too mistrustfully
and with an effect of plumage but the more lustrous. The advent
of a guest was in itself far from disconcerting; she had not yet
divested herself of a young faith that each new acquaintance
would exert some momentous influence on her life. By the time she
had made these reflexions she became aware that the lady at the
piano played remarkably well. She was playing something of
Schubert's--Isabel knew not what, but recognised Schubert--and
she touched the piano with a discretion of her own. It showed
skill, it showed feeling; Isabel sat down noiselessly on the
nearest chair and waited till the end of the piece. When it was
finished she felt a strong desire to thank the player, and rose
from her seat to do so, while at the same time the stranger
turned quickly round, as if but just aware of her presence.
"That's very beautiful, and your playing makes it more beautiful
still," said Isabel with all the young radiance with which she
usually uttered a truthful rapture.
"You don't think I disturbed Mr. Touchett then?" the musician
answered as sweetly as this compliment deserved. "The house is so
large and his room so far away that I thought I might venture,
especially as I played just--just du bout des doigts."
"She's a Frenchwoman," Isabel said to herself; "she says that as
if she were French." And this supposition made the visitor more
interesting to our speculative heroine. "I hope my uncle's doing
well," Isabel added. "I should think that to hear such lovely
music as that would really make him feel better."
The lady smiled and discriminated. "I'm afraid there are moments
in life when even Schubert has nothing to say to us. We must
admit, however, that they are our worst."
"I'm not in that state now then," said Isabel. "On the contrary I
should be so glad if you would play something more."
"If it will give you pleasure--delighted." And this obliging
person took her place again and struck a few chords, while Isabel
sat down nearer the instrument. Suddenly the new-comer stopped
with her hands on the keys, half-turning and looking over her
shoulder. She was forty years old and not pretty, though her
expression charmed. "Pardon me," she said; "but are you the niece
--the young American?"
"I'm my aunt's niece," Isabel replied with simplicity.
The lady at the piano sat still a moment longer, casting her air
of interest over her shoulder. "That's very well; we're
compatriots." And then she began to play.
"Ah then she's not French," Isabel murmured; and as the opposite
supposition had made her romantic it might have seemed that this
revelation would have marked a drop. But such was not the fact;
rarer even than to be French seemed it to be American on such
The lady played in the same manner as before, softly and
solemnly, and while she played the shadows deepened in the room.
The autumn twilight gathered in, and from her place Isabel could
see the rain, which had now begun in earnest, washing the
cold-looking lawn and the wind shaking the great trees. At last,
when the music had ceased, her companion got up and, coming
nearer with a smile, before Isabel had time to thank her again,
said: "I'm very glad you've come back; I've heard a great deal
Isabel thought her a very attractive person, but nevertheless
spoke with a certain abruptness in reply to this speech. "From
whom have you heard about me?"
The stranger hesitated a single moment and then, "From your
uncle," she answered. "I've been here three days, and the first
day he let me come and pay him a visit in his room. Then he
talked constantly of you."
"As you didn't know me that must rather have bored you."
"It made me want to know you. All the more that since then--your
aunt being so much with Mr. Touchett--I've been quite alone and
have got rather tired of my own society. I've not chosen a good
moment for my visit."
A servant had come in with lamps and was presently followed by
another bearing the tea-tray. On the appearance of this repast
Mrs. Touchett had apparently been notified, for she now arrived
and addressed herself to the tea-pot. Her greeting to her niece
did not differ materially from her manner of raising the lid of
this receptacle in order to glance at the contents: in neither
act was it becoming to make a show of avidity. Questioned about
her husband she was unable to say he was better; but the local
doctor was with him, and much light was expected from this
gentleman's consultation with Sir Matthew Hope.
"I suppose you two ladies have made acquaintance," she pursued.
"If you haven't I recommend you to do so; for so long as we
continue--Ralph and I--to cluster about Mr. Touchett's bed you're
not likely to have much society but each other."
"I know nothing about you but that you're a great musician," Isabel
said to the visitor.
"There's a good deal more than that to know," Mrs. Touchett
affirmed in her little dry tone.
"A very little of it, I am sure, will content Miss Archer!" the
lady exclaimed with a light laugh. "I'm an old friend of your
aunt's. I've lived much in Florence. I'm Madame Merle." She made
this last announcement as if she were referring to a person of
tolerably distinct identity. For Isabel, however, it represented
little; she could only continue to feel that Madame Merle had as
charming a manner as any she had ever encountered.
"She's not a foreigner in spite of her name," said Mrs. Touchett.
"She was born--I always forget where you were born."
"It's hardly worth while then I should tell you."
"On the contrary," said Mrs. Touchett, who rarely missed a
logical point; "if I remembered your telling me would be quite
Madame Merle glanced at Isabel with a sort of world-wide smile, a
thing that over-reached frontiers. "I was born under the shadow
of the national banner."
"She's too fond of mystery," said Mrs. Touchett; "that's her
"Ah," exclaimed Madame Merle, "I've great faults, but I don't
think that's one of then; it certainly isn't the greatest. I came
into the world in the Brooklyn navy-yard. My father was a high
officer in the United States Navy, and had a post--a post of
responsibility--in that establishment at the time. I suppose I
ought to love the sea, but I hate it. That's why I don't return
to America. I love the land; the great thing is to love
Isabel, as a dispassionate witness, had not been struck with the
force of Mrs. Touchett's characterisation of her visitor, who had
an expressive, communicative, responsive face, by no means of the
sort which, to Isabel's mind, suggested a secretive disposition.
It was a face that told of an amplitude of nature and of quick
and free motions and, though it had no regular beauty, was in the
highest degree engaging and attaching. Madame Merle was a tall,
fair, smooth woman; everything in her person was round and
replete, though without those accumulations which suggest
heaviness. Her features were thick but in perfect proportion and
harmony, and her complexion had a healthy clearness. Her grey
eyes were small but full of light and incapable of stupidity--
incapable, according to some people, even of tears; she had a
liberal, full-rimmed mouth which when she smiled drew itself
upward to the left side in a manner that most people thought very
odd, some very affected and a few very graceful. Isabel inclined
to range herself in the last category. Madame Merle had thick,
fair hair, arranged somehow "classically" and as if she were a
Bust, Isabel judged--a Juno or a Niobe; and large white hands, of
a perfect shape, a shape so perfect that their possessor,
preferring to leave them unadorned, wore no jewelled rings.
Isabel had taken her at first, as we have seen, for a Frenchwoman;
but extended observation might have ranked her as a German--a
German of high degree, perhaps an Austrian, a baroness, a
countess, a princess. It would never have been supposed she had
come into the world in Brooklyn--though one could doubtless not
have carried through any argument that the air of distinction
marking her in so eminent a degree was inconsistent with such a
birth. It was true that the national banner had floated
immediately over her cradle, and the breezy freedom of the stars
and stripes might have shed an influence upon the attitude she
there took towards life. And yet she had evidently nothing of the
fluttered, flapping quality of a morsel of bunting in the wind;
her manner expressed the repose and confidence which come from a
large experience. Experience, however, had not quenched her
youth; it had simply made her sympathetic and supple. She was in
a word a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order. This
commended itself to Isabel as an ideal combination.
The girl made these reflexions while the three ladies sat at
their tea, but that ceremony was interrupted before long by the
arrival of the great doctor from London, who had been immediately
ushered into the drawing-room. Mrs. Touchett took him off to the
library for a private talk; and then Madame Merle and Isabel
parted, to meet again at dinner. The idea of seeing more of this
interesting woman did much to mitigate Isabel's sense of the
sadness now settling on Gardencourt.
When she came into the drawing-room before dinner she found the
place empty; but in the course of a moment Ralph arrived. His
anxiety about his father had been lightened; Sir Matthew Hope's
view of his condition was less depressed than his own had been.
The doctor recommended that the nurse alone should remain with
the old man for the next three or four hours; so that Ralph, his
mother and the great physician himself were free to dine at
table. Mrs. Touchett and Sir Matthew appeared; Madame Merle was
Before she came Isabel spoke of her to Ralph, who was standing
before the fireplace. "Pray who is this Madame Merle?"
"The cleverest woman I know, not excepting yourself," said Ralph.
"I thought she seemed very pleasant."
"I was sure you'd think her very pleasant."
"Is that why you invited her?"
"I didn't invite her, and when we came back from London I didn't
know she was here. No one invited her. She's a friend of my
mother's, and just after you and I went to town my mother got
a note from her. She had arrived in England (she usually lives
abroad, though she has first and last spent a good deal of time
here), and asked leave to come down for a few days. She's a woman
who can make such proposals with perfect confidence; she's so
welcome wherever she goes. And with my mother there could be no
question of hesitating; she's the one person in the world whom my
mother very much admires. If she were not herself (which she
after all much prefers), she would like to be Madame Merle. It
would indeed be a great change."
"Well, she's very charming," said Isabel. "And she plays
"She does everything beautifully. She's complete."
Isabel looked at her cousin a moment. "You don't like her."
"On the contrary, I was once in love with her."
"And she didn't care for you, and that's why you don't like her."
"How can we have discussed such things? Monsieur Merle was then
"Is he dead now?"
"So she says."
"Don't you believe her?"
"Yes, because the statement agrees with the probabilities. The
husband of Madame Merle would be likely to pass away."
Isabel gazed at her cousin again. "I don't know what you mean.
You mean something--that you don't mean. What was Monsieur
"The husband of Madame."
"You're very odious. Has she any children?"
"Not the least little child--fortunately."
"I mean fortunately for the child. She'd be sure to spoil it."
Isabel was apparently on the point of assuring her cousin for the
third time that he was odious; but the discussion was interrupted
by the arrival of the lady who was the topic of it. She came
rustling in quickly, apologising for being late, fastening a
bracelet, dressed in dark blue satin, which exposed a white bosom
that was ineffectually covered by a curious silver necklace.
Ralph offered her his arm with the exaggerated alertness of a man
who was no longer a lover.
Even if this had still been his condition, however, Ralph had
other things to think about. The great doctor spent the night at
Gardencourt and, returning to London on the morrow, after another
consultation with Mr. Touchett's own medical adviser, concurred
in Ralph's desire that he should see the patient again on the day
following. On the day following Sir Matthew Hope reappeared at
Gardencourt, and now took a less encouraging view of the old man,
who had grown worse in the twenty-four hours. His feebleness was
extreme, and to his son, who constantly sat by his bedside, it
often seemed that his end must be at hand. The local doctor, a
very sagacious man, in whom Ralph had secretly more confidence
than in his distinguished colleague, was constantly in attendance,
and Sir Matthew Hope came back several times. Mr. Touchett was
much of the time unconscious; he slept a great deal; he rarely
spoke. Isabel had a great desire to be useful to him and was
allowed to watch with him at hours when his other attendants (of
whom Mrs. Touchett was not the least regular) went to take rest.
He never seemed to know her, and she always said to herself
"Suppose he should die while I'm sitting here;" an idea which
excited her and kept her awake. Once he opened his eyes for a
while and fixed them upon her intelligently, but when she went
to him, hoping he would recognise her, he closed them and
relapsed into stupor. The day after this, however, he revived for
a longer time; but on this occasion Ralph only was with him. The
old man began to talk, much to his son's satisfaction, who
assured him that they should presently have him sitting up.
"No, my boy," said Mr. Touchett, "not unless you bury me in a
sitting posture, as some of the ancients--was it the ancients?--
used to do."
"Ah, daddy, don't talk about that," Ralph murmured. "You mustn't
deny that you're getting better."
"There will be no need of my denying it if you don't say it," the
old man answered. "Why should we prevaricate just at the last? We
never prevaricated before. I've got to die some time, and it's
better to die when one's sick than when one's well. I'm very sick
--as sick as I shall ever be. I hope you don't want to prove that
I shall ever be worse than this? That would be too bad. You
don't? Well then."
Having made this excellent point he became quiet; but the next
time that Ralph was with him he again addressed himself to
conversation. The nurse had gone to her supper and Ralph was
alone in charge, having just relieved Mrs. Touchett, who had been
on guard since dinner. The room was lighted only by the
flickering fire, which of late had become necessary, and Ralph's
tall shadow was projected over wall and ceiling with an outline
constantly varying but always grotesque.
"Who's that with me--is it my son?" the old man asked.
"Yes, it's your son, daddy."
"And is there no one else?"
"No one else."
Mr. Touchett said nothing for a while; and then, "I want to talk
a little," he went on.
"Won't it tire you?" Ralph demurred.
"It won't matter if it does. I shall have a long rest. I want to
talk about YOU."
Ralph had drawn nearer to the bed; he sat leaning forward with
his hand on his father's. "You had better select a brighter
"You were always bright; I used to be proud of your brightness. I
should like so much to think you'd do something."
"If you leave us," said Ralph, "I shall do nothing but miss you."
"That's just what I don't want; it's what I want to talk about.
You must get a new interest."
"I don't want a new interest, daddy. I have more old ones than I
know what to do with."
The old man lay there looking at his son; his face was the face
of the dying, but his eyes were the eyes of Daniel Touchett. He
seemed to be reckoning over Ralph's interests. "Of course you
have your mother," he said at last. "You'll take care of her."
"My mother will always take care of herself," Ralph returned.
"Well," said his father, "perhaps as she grows older she'll need
a little help."
"I shall not see that. She'll outlive me."
"Very likely she will; but that's no reason--!" Mr. Touchett let
his phrase die away in a helpless but not quite querulous sigh
and remained silent again.
"Don't trouble yourself about us," said his son, "My mother and I
get on very well together, you know."
"You get on by always being apart; that's not natural."
"If you leave us we shall probably see more of each other."
"Well," the old man observed with wandering irrelevance, "it
can't be said that my death will make much difference in your
"It will probably make more than you think."
"Well, she'll have more money," said Mr. Touchett. "I've left her
a good wife's portion, just as if she had been a good wife."
"She has been one, daddy, according to her own theory. She has
never troubled you."
"Ah, some troubles are pleasant," Mr. Touchett murmured. "Those
you've given me for instance. But your mother has been less--
less--what shall I call it? less out of the way since I've been
ill. I presume she knows I've noticed it."
"I shall certainly tell her so; I'm so glad you mention it."
"It won't make any difference to her; she doesn't do it to please
me. She does it to please--to please--" And he lay a while trying
to think why she did it. "She does it because it suits her. But
that's not what I want to talk about," he added. "It's about you.
You'll be very well off."
"Yes," said Ralph, "I know that. But I hope you've not forgotten
the talk we had a year ago--when I told you exactly what money I
should need and begged you to make some good use of the rest."
"Yes, yes, I remember. I made a new will--in a few days. I
suppose it was the first time such a thing had happened--a young
man trying to get a will made against him."
"It is not against me," said Ralph. "It would be against me to
have a large property to take care of. It's impossible for a man
in my state of health to spend much money, and enough is as good
as a feast."
"Well, you'll have enough--and something over. There will be more
than enough for one--there will be enough for two."
"That's too much," said Ralph.
"Ah, don't say that. The best thing you can do; when I'm gone,
will be to marry."
Ralph had foreseen what his father was coming to, and this
suggestion was by no means fresh. It had long been Mr. Touchett's
most ingenious way of taking the cheerful view of his son's
possible duration. Ralph had usually treated it facetiously; but
present circumstances proscribed the facetious. He simply fell
back in his chair and returned his father's appealing gaze.
"If I, with a wife who hasn't been very fond of me, have had a
very happy life," said the old man, carrying his ingenuity
further still, "what a life mightn't you have if you should marry
a person different from Mrs. Touchett. There are more different
from her than there are like her." Ralph still said nothing; and
after a pause his father resumed softly: "What do you think of
At this Ralph started, meeting the question with a strained
smile. "Do I understand you to propose that I should marry
"Well, that's what it comes to in the end. Don't you like
"Yes, very much." And Ralph got up from his chair and wandered
over to the fire. He stood before it an instant and then he
stooped and stirred it mechanically. "I like Isabel very much,"
"Well," said his father, "I know she likes you. She has told me
how much she likes you."
"Did she remark that she would like to marry me?"
"No, but she can't have anything against you. And she's the most
charming young lady I've ever seen. And she would be good to you.
I have thought a great deal about it."
"So have I," said Ralph, coming back to the bedside again. "I
don't mind telling you that."
"You ARE in love with her then? I should think you would be. It's
as if she came over on purpose."
"No, I'm not in love with her; but I should be if--if certain
things were different."
"Ah, things are always different from what they might be," said
the old man. "If you wait for them to change you'll never do
anything. I don't know whether you know," he went on; "but I
suppose there's no harm in my alluding to it at such an hour as
this: there was some one wanted to marry Isabel the other day,
and she wouldn't have him."
"I know she refused Warburton: he told me himself."
"Well, that proves there's a chance for somebody else."
"Somebody else took his chance the other day in London--and got
nothing by it."
"Was it you?" Mr. Touchett eagerly asked.
"No, it was an older friend; a poor gentleman who came over from
America to see about it."
"Well, I'm sorry for him, whoever he was. But it only proves what
I say--that the way's open to you."
"If it is, dear father, it's all the greater pity that I'm unable
to tread it. I haven't many convictions; but I have three or four
that I hold strongly. One is that people, on the whole, had
better not marry their cousins. Another is that people in an
advanced stage of pulmonary disorder had better not marry at
The old man raised his weak hand and moved it to and fro before
his face. "What do you mean by that? You look at things in a way
that would make everything wrong. What sort of a cousin is a
cousin that you had never seen for more than twenty years of her
life? We're all each other's cousins, and if we stopped at that
the human race would die out. It's just the same with your bad
lung. You're a great deal better than you used to be. All you
want is to lead a natural life. It is a great deal more natural
to marry a pretty young lady that you're in love with than it is
to remain single on false principles."
"I'm not in love with Isabel," said Ralph.
"You said just now that you would be if you didn't think it
wrong. I want to prove to you that it isn't wrong."
"It will only tire you, dear daddy," said Ralph, who marvelled at
his father's tenacity and at his finding strength to insist.
"Then where shall we all be?"
"Where shall you be if I don't provide for you? You won't have
anything to do with the bank, and you won't have me to take care
of. You say you've so many interests; but I can't make them out."
Ralph leaned back in his chair with folded arms; his eyes were
fixed for some time in meditation. At last, with the air of a man
fairly mustering courage, "I take a great interest in my cousin,"
he said, "but not the sort of interest you desire. I shall not
live many years; but I hope I shall live long enough to see what
she does with herself. She's entirely independent of me; I can
exercise very little influence upon her life. But I should like
to do something for her."
"What should you like to do?"
"I should like to put a little wind in her sails."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I should like to put it into her power to do some of the things
she wants. She wants to see the world for instance. I should like
to put money in her purse."
"Ah, I'm glad you've thought of that," said the old man. "But
I've thought of it too. I've left her a legacy--five thousand
"That's capital; it's very kind of you. But I should like to do a
Something of that veiled acuteness with which it had been on
Daniel Touchett's part the habit of a lifetime to listen to a
financial proposition still lingered in the face in which the
invalid had not obliterated the man of business. "I shall be
happy to consider it," he said softly.
"Isabel's poor then. My mother tells me that she has but a few
hundred dollars a year. I should like to make her rich."
"What do you mean by rich?"
"I call people rich when they're able to meet the requirements of
their imagination. Isabel has a great deal of imagination."
"So have you, my son," said Mr. Touchett, listening very
attentively but a little confusedly.
"You tell me I shall have money enough for two. What I want is
that you should kindly relieve me of my superfluity and make it
over to Isabel. Divide my inheritance into two equal halves and
give her the second."
"To do what she likes with?"
"Absolutely what she likes."
"And without an equivalent?"
"What equivalent could there be?"
"The one I've already mentioned."
"Her marrying--some one or other? It's just to do away with
anything of that sort that I make my suggestion. If she has an
easy income she'll never have to marry for a support. That's what
I want cannily to prevent. She wishes to be free, and your
bequest will make her free."
"Well, you seem to have thought it out," said Mr. Touchett. "But
I don't see why you appeal to me. The money will be yours, and
you can easily give it to her yourself."
Ralph openly stared. "Ah, dear father, I can't offer Isabel
The old man gave a groan. "Don't tell me you're not in love with
her! Do you want me to have the credit of it?"
"Entirely. I should like it simply to be a clause in your will,
without the slightest reference to me."
"Do you want me to make a new will then?"
"A few words will do it; you can attend to it the next time you
feel a little lively."
"You must telegraph to Mr. Hilary then. I'll do nothing without
"You shall see Mr. Hilary to-morrow."
"He'll think we've quarrelled, you and I," said the old man.
"Very probably; I shall like him to think it," said Ralph,
smiling; "and, to carry out the idea, I give you notice that I
shall be very sharp, quite horrid and strange, with you."
The humour of this appeared to touch his father, who lay a little
while taking it in. "I'll do anything you like," Mr. Touchett
said at last; "but I'm not sure it's right. You say you want to
put wind in her sails; but aren't you afraid of putting too
"I should like to see her going before the breeze!" Ralph
"You speak as if it were for your mere amusement."
"So it is, a good deal."
"Well, I don't think I understand," said Mr. Touchett with a
sigh. "Young men are very different from what I was. When I cared
for a girl--when I was young--I wanted to do more than look at
"You've scruples that I shouldn't have had, and you've ideas that
I shouldn't have had either. You say Isabel wants to be free, and
that her being rich will keep her from marrying for money. Do you
think that she's a girl to do that?"
"By no means. But she has less money than she has ever had
before. Her father then gave her everything, because he used to
spend his capital. She has nothing but the crumbs of that feast
to live on, and she doesn't really know how meagre they are--she
has yet to learn it. My mother has told me all about it. Isabel
will learn it when she's really thrown upon the world, and it
would be very painful to me to think of her coming to the
consciousness of a lot of wants she should be unable to satisfy."
"I've left her five thousand pounds. She can satisfy a good many
wants with that."
"She can indeed. But she would probably spend it in two or three
"You think she'd be extravagant then?"
"Most certainly," said Ralph, smiling serenely.
Poor Mr. Touchett's acuteness was rapidly giving place to pure
confusion. "It would merely be a question of time then, her
spending the larger sum?"
"No--though at first I think she'd plunge into that pretty
freely: she'd probably make over a part of it to each of her
sisters. But after that she'd come to her senses, remember she
has still a lifetime before her, and live within her means."
"Well, you HAVE worked it out," said the old man helplessly. "You
do take an interest in her, certainly."
"You can't consistently say I go too far. You wished me to go
"Well, I don't know," Mr. Touchett answered. "I don't think I
enter into your spirit. It seems to me immoral."
"Immoral, dear daddy?"
"Well, I don't know that it's right to make everything so easy
for a person."
"It surely depends upon the person. When the person's good, your
making things easy is all to the credit of virtue. To facilitate
the execution of good impulses, what can be a nobler act?"
This was a little difficult to follow, and Mr. Touchett
considered it for a while. At last he said: "Isabel's a sweet
young thing; but do you think she's so good as that?"
"She's as good as her best opportunities," Ralph returned.
"Well," Mr. Touchett declared, "she ought to get a great many
opportunities for sixty thousand pounds."
"I've no doubt she will."
"Of course I'll do what you want," said the old man. "I only want
to understand it a little."
"Well, dear daddy, don't you understand it now?" his son
caressingly asked. "If you don't we won't take any more trouble
about it. We'll leave it alone."
Mr. Touchett lay a long time still. Ralph supposed he had given
up the attempt to follow. But at last, quite lucidly, he began
again. "Tell me this first. Doesn't it occur to you that a young
lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the
"She'll hardly fall a victim to more than one."
"Well, one's too many."
"Decidedly. That's a risk, and it has entered into my calculation.
I think it's appreciable, but I think it's small, and I'm prepared
to take it."
Poor Mr. Touchett's acuteness had passed into perplexity, and his
perplexity now passed into admiration. "Well, you have gone into
it!" he repeated. "But I don't see what good you're to get of
Ralph leaned over his father's pillows and gently smoothed them;
he was aware their talk had been unduly prolonged. "I shall get
just the good I said a few moments ago I wished to put into
Isabel's reach--that of having met the requirements of my
imagination. But it's scandalous, the way I've taken advantage of
As Mrs. Touchett had foretold, Isabel and Madame Merle were
thrown much together during the illness of their host, so that if
they had not become intimate it would have been almost a breach
of good manners. Their manners were of the best, but in addition
to this they happened to please each other. It is perhaps too
much to say that they swore an eternal friendship, but tacitly at
least they called the future to witness. Isabel did so with a
perfectly good conscience, though she would have hesitated to
admit she was intimate with her new friend in the high sense she
privately attached to this term. She often wondered indeed if she
ever had been, or ever could be, intimate with any one. She had
an ideal of friendship as well as of several other sentiments,
which it failed to seem to her in this case--it had not seemed to
her in other cases--that the actual completely expressed. But she
often reminded herself that there were essential reasons why
one's ideal could never become concrete. It was a thing to believe
in, not to see--a matter of faith, not of experience. Experience,
however, might supply us with very creditable imitations of it,
and the part of wisdom was to make the best of these. Certainly,
on the whole, Isabel had never encountered a more agreeable and
interesting figure than Madame Merle; she had never met a person
having less of that fault which is the principal obstacle to
friendship--the air of reproducing the more tiresome, the stale,
the too-familiar parts of one's own character. The gates of the
girl's confidence were opened wider than they had ever been; she
said things to this amiable auditress that she had not yet said
to any one. Sometimes she took alarm at her candour: it was as if
she had given to a comparative stranger the key to her cabinet of
jewels. These spiritual gems were the only ones of any magnitude
that Isabel possessed, but there was all the greater reason for
their being carefully guarded. Afterwards, however, she always
remembered that one should never regret a generous error and that
if Madame Merle had not the merits she attributed to her, so much
the worse for Madame Merle. There was no doubt she had great
merits--she was charming, sympathetic, intelligent, cultivated.
More than this (for it had not been Isabel's ill-fortune to go
through life without meeting in her own sex several persons of
whom no less could fairly be said), she was rare, superior and
preeminent. There are many amiable people in the world, and
Madame Merle was far from being vulgarly good-natured and
restlessly witty. She knew how to think--an accomplishment rare
in women; and she had thought to very good purpose. Of course,
too, she knew how to feel; Isabel couldn't have spent a week with
her without being sure of that. This was indeed Madame Merle's
great talent, her most perfect gift. Life had told upon her; she
had felt it strongly, and it was part of the satisfaction to be
taken in her society that when the girl talked of what she was
pleased to call serious matters this lady understood her so
easily and quickly. Emotion, it is true, had become with her
rather historic; she made no secret of the fact that the fount of
passion, thanks to having been rather violently tapped at one
period, didn't flow quite so freely as of yore. She proposed
moreover, as well as expected, to cease feeling; she freely
admitted that of old she had been a little mad, and now she
pretended to be perfectly sane.
"I judge more than I used to," she said to Isabel, "but it seems
to me one has earned the right. One can't judge till one's forty;
before that we're too eager, too hard, too cruel, and in addition
much too ignorant. I'm sorry for you; it will be a long time
before you're forty. But every gain's a loss of some kind; I
often think that after forty one can't really feel. The
freshness, the quickness have certainly gone. You'll keep them
longer than most people; it will be a great satisfaction to me to
see you some years hence. I want to see what life makes of you.
One thing's certain--it can't spoil you. It may pull you about
horribly, but I defy it to break you up."
Isabel received this assurance as a young soldier, still panting
from a slight skirmish in which he has come off with honour,
might receive a pat on the shoulder from his colonel. Like such a
recognition of merit it seemed to come with authority. How could
the lightest word do less on the part of a person who was
prepared to say, of almost everything Isabel told her, "Oh, I've
been in that, my dear; it passes, like everything else." On many
of her interlocutors Madame Merle might have produced an
irritating effect; it was disconcertingly difficult to surprise
her. But Isabel, though by no means incapable of desiring to be
effective, had not at present this impulse. She was too sincere,
too interested in her judicious companion. And then moreover
Madame Merle never said such things in the tone of triumph or of
boastfulness; they dropped from her like cold confessions.
A period of bad weather had settled upon Gardencourt; the days
grew shorter and there was an end to the pretty tea-parties on
the lawn. But our young woman had long indoor conversations with
her fellow visitor, and in spite of the rain the two ladies often
sallied forth for a walk, equipped with the defensive apparatus
which the English climate and the English genius have between
them brought to such perfection. Madame Merle liked almost
everything, including the English rain. "There's always a little
of it and never too much at once," she said; "and it never wets
you and it always smells good." She declared that in England the
pleasures of smell were great--that in this inimitable island
there was a certain mixture of fog and beer and soot which,
however odd it might sound, was the national aroma, and was most
agreeable to the nostril; and she used to lift the sleeve of her
British overcoat and bury her nose in it, inhaling the clear,
fine scent of the wool. Poor Ralph Touchett, as soon as the
autumn had begun to define itself, became almost a prisoner; in
bad weather he was unable to step out of the house, and he used
sometimes to stand at one of the windows with his hands in his
pockets and, from a countenance half-rueful, half-critical, watch
Isabel and Madame Merle as they walked down the avenue under a
pair of umbrellas. The roads about Gardencourt were so firm, even
in the worst weather, that the two ladies always came back with a
healthy glow in their cheeks, looking at the soles of their neat,
stout boots and declaring that their walk had done them
inexpressible good. Before luncheon, always, Madame Merle was
engaged; Isabel admired and envied her rigid possession of her
morning. Our heroine had always passed for a person of resources
and had taken a certain pride in being one; but she wandered, as
by the wrong side of the wall of a private garden, round the
enclosed talents, accomplishments, aptitudes of Madame Merle. She
found herself desiring to emulate them, and in twenty such ways
this lady presented herself as a model. "I should like awfully to
be so!" Isabel secretly exclaimed, more than once, as one after
another of her friend's fine aspects caught the light, and before
long she knew that she had learned a lesson from a high authority.
It took no great time indeed for her to feel herself, as the
phrase is, under an influence. "What's the harm," she wondered,
"so long as it's a good one? The more one's under a good
influence the better. The only thing is to see our steps as
we take them--to understand them as we go. That, no doubt, I
shall always do. I needn't be afraid of becoming too pliable;
isn't it my fault that I'm not pliable enough?" It is said that
imitation is the sincerest flattery; and if Isabel was sometimes
moved to gape at her friend aspiringly and despairingly it was
not so much because she desired herself to shine as because she
wished to hold up the lamp for Madame Merle. She liked her
extremely, but was even more dazzled than attracted. She
sometimes asked herself what Henrietta Stackpole would say to her
thinking so much of this perverted product of their common soil,
and had a conviction that it would be severely judged. Henrietta
would not at all subscribe to Madame Merle; for reasons she could
not have defined this truth came home to the girl. On the other
hand she was equally sure that, should the occasion offer, her
new friend would strike off some happy view of her old: Madame
Merle was too humorous, too observant, not to do justice to
Henrietta, and on becoming acquainted with her would probably
give the measure of a tact which Miss Stackpole couldn't hope to
emulate. She appeared to have in her experience a touchstone for
everything, and somewhere in the capacious pocket of her genial
memory she would find the key to Henrietta's value. "That's the
great thing," Isabel solemnly pondered; "that's the supreme good
fortune: to be in a better position for appreciating people than
they are for appreciating you." And she added that such, when one
considered it, was simply the essence of the aristocratic
situation. In this light, if in none other, one should aim at the
I may not count over all the links in the chain which led Isabel
to think of Madame Merle's situation as aristocratic--a view of
it never expressed in any reference made to it by that lady
herself. She had known great things and great people, but she had
never played a great part. She was one of the small ones of the
earth; she had not been born to honours; she knew the world too
well to nourish fatuous illusions on the article of her own place
in it. She had encountered many of the fortunate few and was
perfectly aware of those points at which their fortune differed
from hers. But if by her informed measure she was no figure for a
high scene, she had yet to Isabel's imagination a sort of
greatness. To be so cultivated and civilised, so wise and so
easy, and still make so light of it--that was really to be a
great lady, especially when one so carried and presented one's
self. It was as if somehow she had all society under
contribution, and all the arts and graces it practised--or was
the effect rather that of charming uses found for her, even from
a distance, subtle service rendered by her to a clamorous world
wherever she might be? After breakfast she wrote a succession of
letters, as those arriving for her appeared innumerable: her
correspondence was a source of surprise to Isabel when they
sometimes walked together to the village post-office to deposit
Madame Merle's offering to the mail. She knew more people, as she
told Isabel, than she knew what to do with, and something was
always turning up to be written about. Of painting she was
devotedly fond, and made no more of brushing in a sketch than of
pulling off her gloves. At Gardencourt she was perpetually taking
advantage of an hour's sunshine to go out with a camp-stool and a
box of water-colours. That she was a brave musician we have
already perceived, and it was evidence of the fact that when she
seated herself at the piano, as she always did in the evening,
her listeners resigned themselves without a murmur to losing the
grace of her talk. Isabel, since she had known her, felt ashamed
of her own facility, which she now looked upon as basely inferior;
and indeed, though she had been thought rather a prodigy at home,
the loss to society when, in taking her place upon the music-stool,
she turned her back to the room, was usually deemed greater than
the gain. When Madame Merle was neither writing, nor painting,
nor touching the piano, she was usually employed upon wonderful
tasks of rich embroidery, cushions, curtains, decorations for the
chimneypiece; an art in which her bold, free invention was as
noted as the agility of her needle. She was never idle, for when
engaged in none of the ways I have mentioned she was either
reading (she appeared to Isabel to read "everything important"),
or walking out, or playing patience with the cards, or talking
with her fellow inmates. And with all this she had always the
social quality, was never rudely absent and yet never too seated.
She laid down her pastimes as easily as she took them up; she
worked and talked at the same time, and appeared to impute scant
worth to anything she did. She gave away her sketches and
tapestries; she rose from the piano or remained there, according
to the convenience of her auditors, which she always unerringly
divined. She was in short the most comfortable, profitable,
amenable person to live with. If for Isabel she had a fault it
was that she was not natural; by which the girl meant, not that
she was either affected or pretentious, since from these vulgar
vices no woman could have been more exempt, but that her nature
had been too much overlaid by custom and her angles too much
rubbed away. She had become too flexible, too useful, was too
ripe and too final. She was in a word too perfectly the social
animal that man and woman are supposed to have been intended to
be; and she had rid herself of every remnant of that tonic
wildness which we may assume to have belonged even to the most
amiable persons in the ages before country-house life was the
fashion. Isabel found it difficult to think of her in any
detachment or privacy, she existed only in her relations, direct
or indirect, with her fellow mortals. One might wonder what
commerce she could possibly hold with her own spirit. One always
ended, however, by feeling that a charming surface doesn't
necessarily prove one superficial; this was an illusion in which,
in one's youth, one had but just escaped being nourished.
Madame Merle was not superficial--not she. She was deep, and her
nature spoke none the less in her behaviour because it spoke a
conventional tongue. "What's language at all but a convention?"
said Isabel. "She has the good taste not to pretend, like some
people I've met, to express herself by original signs."
"I'm afraid you've suffered much," she once found occasion to say
to her friend in response to some allusion that had appeared to
"What makes you think that?" Madame Merle asked with the amused
smile of a person seated at a game of guesses. "I hope I haven't
too much the droop of the misunderstood."
"No; but you sometimes say things that I think people who have
always been happy wouldn't have found out."
"I haven't always been happy," said Madame Merle, smiling still,
but with a mock gravity, as if she were telling a child a secret.
"Such a wonderful thing!"
But Isabel rose to the irony. "A great many people give me the
impression of never having for a moment felt anything."
"It's very true; there are many more iron pots certainly than
porcelain. But you may depend on it that every one bears some
mark; even the hardest iron pots have a little bruise, a little
hole somewhere. I flatter myself that I'm rather stout, but if I
must tell you the truth I've been shockingly chipped and
cracked. I do very well for service yet, because I've been
cleverly mended; and I try to remain in the cupboard--the quiet,
dusky cupboard where there's an odour of stale spices--as much as
I can. But when I've to come out and into a strong light--then,
my dear, I'm a horror!"
I know not whether it was on this occasion or on some other that
the conversation had taken the turn I have just indicated
she said to Isabel that she would some day a tale unfold. Isabel
assured her she should delight to listen to one, and reminded her
more than once of this engagement. Madame Merle, however, begged
repeatedly for a respite, and at last frankly told her young
companion that they must wait till they knew each other better.
This would be sure to happen, a long friendship so visibly lay
before them. Isabel assented, but at the same time enquired if
she mightn't be trusted--if she appeared capable of a betrayal of
"It's not that I'm afraid of your repeating what I say," her
fellow visitor answered; "I'm afraid, on the contrary, of your
taking it too much to yourself. You'd judge me too harshly;
you're of the cruel age." She preferred for the present to talk
to Isabel of Isabel, and exhibited the greatest interest in our
heroine's history, sentiments, opinions, prospects. She made her
chatter and listened to her chatter with infinite good nature.
This flattered and quickened the girl, who was struck with all
the distinguished people her friend had known and with her having
lived, as Mrs. Touchett said, in the best company in Europe.
Isabel thought the better of herself for enjoying the favour of a
person who had so large a field of comparison; and it was perhaps
partly to gratify the sense of profiting by comparison that she
often appealed to these stores of reminiscence. Madame Merle had
been a dweller in many lands and had social ties in a dozen
different countries. "I don't pretend to be educated," she would
say, "but I think I know my Europe;" and she spoke one day of
going to Sweden to stay with an old friend, and another of
proceeding to Malta to follow up a new acquaintance. With
England, where she had often dwelt, she was thoroughly familiar,
and for Isabel's benefit threw a great deal of light upon the
customs of the country and the character of the people, who
"after all," as she was fond of saying, were the most convenient
in the world to live with.
"You mustn't think it strange her remaining here at such a time
as this, when Mr. Touchett's passing away," that gentleman's wife
remarked to her niece. "She is incapable of a mistake; she's the
most tactful woman I know. It's a favour to me that she stays;
she's putting off a lot of visits at great houses," said Mrs.
Touchett, who never forgot that when she herself was in England
her social value sank two or three degrees in the scale. "She has
her pick of places; she's not in want of a shelter. But I've
asked her to put in this time because I wish you to know her. I
think it will be a good thing for you. Serena Merle hasn't a
"If I didn't already like her very much that description might
alarm me," Isabel returned.
"She's never the least little bit 'off.' I've brought you out
here and I wish to do the best for you. Your sister Lily told me
she hoped I would give you plenty of opportunities. I give you
one in putting you in relation with Madame Merle. She's one of
the most brilliant women in Europe."
"I like her better than I like your description of her," Isabel
persisted in saying.
"Do you flatter yourself that you'll ever feel her open to
criticism? I hope you'll let me know when you do."
"That will be cruel--to you," said Isabel.
"You needn't mind me. You won't discover a fault in her."
"Perhaps not. But I dare say I shan't miss it."
"She knows absolutely everything on earth there is to know," said
Isabel after this observed to their companion that she hoped she
knew Mrs. Touchett considered she hadn't a speck on her
perfection. On which "I'm obliged to you," Madame Merle replied,
"but I'm afraid your aunt imagines, or at least alludes to, no
aberrations that the clock-face doesn't register."
"So that you mean you've a wild side that's unknown to her?"
"Ah no, I fear my darkest sides are my tamest. I mean that having
no faults, for your aunt, means that one's never late for dinner
--that is for her dinner. I was not late, by the way, the other
day, when you came back from London; the clock was just at eight
when I came into the drawing-room: it was the rest of you that
were before the time. It means that one answers a letter the day
one gets it and that when one comes to stay with her one doesn't
bring too much luggage and is careful not to be taken ill. For
Mrs. Touchett those things constitute virtue; it's a blessing to
be able to reduce it to its elements."
Madame Merle's own conversation, it will be perceived, was
enriched with bold, free touches of criticism, which, even when
they had a restrictive effect, never struck Isabel as
ill-natured. It couldn't occur to the girl for instance that Mrs.
Touchett's accomplished guest was abusing her; and this for very
good reasons. In the first place Isabel rose eagerly to the sense
of her shades; in the second Madame Merle implied that there was
a great deal more to say; and it was clear in the third that for
a person to speak to one without ceremony of one's near relations
was an agreeable sign of that person's intimacy with one's self.
These signs of deep communion multiplied as the days elapsed, and
there was none of which Isabel was more sensible than of her
companion's preference for making Miss Archer herself a topic.
Though she referred frequently to the incidents of her own career
she never lingered upon them; she was as little of a gross
egotist as she was of a flat gossip.
"I'm old and stale and faded," she said more than once; "I'm of
no more interest than last week's newspaper. You're young and
fresh and of to-day; you've the great thing--you've actuality. I
once had it--we all have it for an hour. You, however, will have
it for longer. Let us talk about you then; you can say nothing I
shall not care to hear. It's a sign that I'm growing old--that I
like to talk with younger people. I think it's a very pretty
compensation. If we can't have youth within us we can have it
outside, and I really think we see it and feel it better that
way. Of course we must be in sympathy with it--that I shall
always be. I don't know that I shall ever be ill-natured with old
people--I hope not; there are certainly some old people I adore.
But I shall never be anything but abject with the young; they
touch me and appeal to me too much. I give you carte blanche
then; you can even be impertinent if you like; I shall let it
pass and horribly spoil you. I speak as if I were a hundred years
old, you say? Well, I am, if you please; I was born before the
French Revolution. Ah, my dear, je viens de loin; I belong to the
old, old world. But it's not of that I want to talk; I want to
talk about the new. You must tell me more about America; you
never tell me enough. Here I've been since I was brought here as
a helpless child, and it's ridiculous, or rather it's scandalous,
how little I know about that splendid, dreadful, funny country--
surely the greatest and drollest of them all. There are a great
many of us like that in these parts, and I must say I think we're
a wretched set of people. You should live in your own land;
whatever it may be you have your natural place there. If we're
not good Americans we're certainly poor Europeans; we've no
natural place here. We're mere parasites, crawling over the
surface; we haven't our feet in the soil. At least one can know
it and not have illusions. A woman perhaps can get on; a woman,
it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds
herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to
crawl. You protest, my dear? you're horrified? you declare you'll
never crawl? It's very true that I don't see you crawling; you
stand more upright than a good many poor creatures. Very good; on
the whole, I don't think you'll crawl. But the men, the
Americans; je vous demande un peu, what do they make of it over
here? I don't envy them trying to arrange themselves. Look at
poor Ralph Touchett: what sort of a figure do you call that?
Fortunately he has a consumption; I say fortunately, because it
gives him something to do. His consumption's his carriere it's a
kind of position. You can say: 'Oh, Mr. Touchett, he takes care
of his lungs, he knows a great deal about climates.' But without
that who would he be, what would he represent? 'Mr. Ralph
Touchett: an American who lives in Europe.' That signifies
absolutely nothing--it's impossible anything should signify less.
'He's very cultivated,' they say: 'he has a very pretty
collection of old snuff-boxes.' The collection is all that's
wanted to make it pitiful. I'm tired of the sound of the word; I
think it's grotesque. With the poor old father it's different; he
has his identity, and it's rather a massive one. He represents a
great financial house, and that, in our day, is as good as
anything else. For an American, at any rate, that will do very
well. But I persist in thinking your cousin very lucky to have a
chronic malady so long as he doesn't die of it. It's much better
than the snuffboxes. If he weren't ill, you say, he'd do
something?--he'd take his father's place in the house. My poor
child, I doubt it; I don't think he's at all fond of the house.
However, you know him better than I, though I used to know him
rather well, and he may have the benefit of the doubt. The worst
case, I think, is a friend of mine, a countryman of ours, who
lives in Italy (where he also was brought before he knew better),
and who is one of the most delightful men I know. Some day you
must know him. I'll bring you together and then you'll see what I
mean. He's Gilbert Osmond--he lives in Italy; that's all one can
say about him or make of him. He's exceedingly clever, a man made
to be distinguished; but, as I tell you, you exhaust the
description when you say he's Mr. Osmond who lives tout betement
in Italy. No career, no name, no position, no fortune, no past,
no future, no anything. Oh yes, he paints, if you please--paints
in water-colours; like me, only better than I. His painting's
pretty bad; on the whole I'm rather glad of that. Fortunately
he's very indolent, so indolent that it amounts to a sort of
position. He can say, 'Oh, I do nothing; I'm too deadly lazy. You
can do nothing to-day unless you get up at five o'clock in the
morning.' In that way he becomes a sort of exception; you feel he
might do something if he'd only rise early. He never speaks of
his painting to people at large; he's too clever for that. But he
has a little girl--a dear little girl; he does speak of her. He's
devoted to her, and if it were a career to be an excellent father
he'd be very distinguished. But I'm afraid that's no better than
the snuff-boxes; perhaps not even so good. Tell me what they do
in America," pursued Madame Merle, who, it must be observed
parenthetically, did not deliver herself all at once of these
reflexions, which are presented in a cluster for the convenience
of the reader. She talked of Florence, where Mr. Osmond lived and
where Mrs. Touchett occupied a medieval palace; she talked of
Rome, where she herself had a little pied-a-terre with some
rather good old damask. She talked of places, of people and even,
as the phrase is, of "subjects"; and from time to time she talked
of their kind old host and of the prospect of his recovery. From
the first she had thought this prospect small, and Isabel had
been struck with the positive, discriminating, competent way in
which she took the measure of his remainder of life. One evening
she announced definitely that he wouldn't live.
"Sir Matthew Hope told me so as plainly as was proper," she said;
"standing there, near the fire, before dinner. He makes himself
very agreeable, the great doctor. I don't mean his saying that
has anything to do with it. But he says such things with great
tact. I had told him I felt ill at my ease, staying here at
such a time; it seemed to me so indiscreet--it wasn't as if I
could nurse. 'You must remain, you must remain,' he answered;
'your office will come later.' Wasn't that a very delicate way of
saying both that poor Mr. Touchett would go and that I might be
of some use as a consoler? In fact, however, I shall not be of
the slightest use. Your aunt will console herself; she, and she
alone, knows just how much consolation she'll require. It would
be a very delicate matter for another person to undertake to
administer the dose. With your cousin it will be different; he'll
miss his father immensely. But I should never presume to condole
with Mr. Ralph; we're not on those terms." Madame Merle had
alluded more than once to some undefined incongruity in her
relations with Ralph Touchett; so Isabel took this occasion of
asking her if they were not good friends.
"Perfectly, but he doesn't like me."
"What have you done to him?"
"Nothing whatever. But one has no need of a reason for that."
"For not liking you? I think one has need of a very good reason."
"You're very kind. Be sure you have one ready for the day you
"Begin to dislike you? I shall never begin."
"I hope not; because if you do you'll never end. That's the way
with your cousin; he doesn't get over it. It's an antipathy of
nature--if I can call it that when it's all on his side. I've
nothing whatever against him and don't bear him the least little
grudge for not doing me justice. Justice is all I want. However,
one feels that he's a gentleman and would never say anything
underhand about one. Cartes sur table," Madame Merle subjoined
in a moment, "I'm not afraid of him."
"I hope not indeed," said Isabel, who added something about his
being the kindest creature living. She remembered, however, that
on her first asking him about Madame Merle he had answered her in
a manner which this lady might have thought injurious without
being explicit. There was something between them, Isabel said to
herself, but she said nothing more than this. If it were something
of importance it should inspire respect; if it were not it was
not worth her curiosity. With all her love of knowledge she had a
natural shrinking from raising curtains and looking into unlighted
corners. The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with the
finest capacity for ignorance.
But Madame Merle sometimes said things that startled her, made
her raise her clear eyebrows at the time and think of the words
afterwards. "I'd give a great deal to be your age again," she
broke out once with a bitterness which, though diluted in her
customary amplitude of ease, was imperfectly disguised by it. "If
I could only begin again--if I could have my life before me!"
"Your life's before you yet," Isabel answered gently, for she was
"No; the best part's gone, and gone for nothing."
"Surely not for nothing," said Isabel.
"Why not--what have I got? Neither husband, nor child, nor
fortune, nor position, nor the traces of a beauty that I never
"You have many friends, dear lady."
"I'm not so sure!" cried Madame Merle.
"Ah, you're wrong. You have memories, graces, talents--"
But Madame Merle interrupted her. "What have my talents brought
me? Nothing but the need of using them still, to get through the
hours, the years, to cheat myself with some pretence of movement,
of unconsciousness. As for my graces and memories the less said
about them the better. You'll be my friend till you find a better
use for your friendship."
"It will be for you to see that I don't then," said Isabel.
"Yes; I would make an effort to keep you." And her companion
looked at her gravely. "When I say I should like to be your age I
mean with your qualities--frank, generous, sincere like you. In
that case I should have made something better of my life."
"What should you have liked to do that you've not done?"
Madame Merle took a sheet of music--she was seated at the piano
and had abruptly wheeled about on the stool when she first spoke
--and mechanically turned the leaves. "I'm very ambitious!" she
at last replied.
"And your ambitions have not been satisfied? They must have been
"They WERE great. I should make myself ridiculous by talking of
Isabel wondered what they could have been--whether Madame Merle
had aspired to wear a crown. "I don't know what your idea of
success may be, but you seem to me to have been successful. To me
indeed you're a vivid image of success."
Madame Merle tossed away the music with a smile. "What's YOUR
idea of success?"
"You evidently think it must be a very tame one. It's to see some
dream of one's youth come true."
"Ah," Madame Merle exclaimed, "that I've never seen! But my
dreams were so great--so preposterous. Heaven forgive me, I'm
dreaming now!" And she turned back to the piano and began grandly
to play. On the morrow she said to Isabel that her definition of
success had been very pretty, yet frightfully sad. Measured in
that way, who had ever succeeded? The dreams of one's youth, why
they were enchanting, they were divine! Who had ever seen such
things come to pass?
"I myself--a few of them," Isabel ventured to answer.
"Already? They must have been dreams of yesterday."
"I began to dream very young," Isabel smiled.
"Ah, if you mean the aspirations of your childhood--that of
having a pink sash and a doll that could close her eyes."
"No, I don't mean that."
"Or a young man with a fine moustache going down on his knees to
"No, nor that either," Isabel declared with still more emphasis.
Madame Merle appeared to note this eagerness. "I suspect that's
what you do mean. We've all had the young man with the moustache.
He's the inevitable young man; he doesn't count."
Isabel was silent a little but then spoke with extreme and
characteristic inconsequence. "Why shouldn't he count? There are
young men and young men."
"And yours was a paragon--is that what you mean?" asked her
friend with a laugh. "If you've had the identical young man you
dreamed of, then that was success, and I congratulate you with
all my heart. Only in that case why didn't you fly with him to
his castle in the Apennines?"
"He has no castle in the Apennines."
"What has he? An ugly brick house in Fortieth Street? Don't tell
me that; I refuse to recognise that as an ideal."
"I don't care anything about his house," said Isabel.
"That's very crude of you. When you've lived as long as I you'll
see that every human being has his shell and that you must take
the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of
circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or
woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances.
What shall we call our 'self'? Where does it begin? where does it
end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it
flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes
I choose to wear. I've a great respect for THINGS! One's self--
for other people--is one's expression of one's self; and one's
house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the
company one keeps--these things are all expressive."
This was very metaphysical; not more so, however, than several
observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of
metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this
bold analysis of the human personality. "I don't agree with you.
I think just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed in
expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me.
Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on
the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one.
Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't
express me; and heaven forbid they should!"
"You dress very well," Madame Merle lightly interposed.
"Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes may
express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with
it's not my own choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me
"Should you prefer to go without them?" Madame Merle enquired in
a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.
I am bound to confess, though it may cast some discredit on the
sketch I have given of the youthful loyalty practised by our
heroine toward this accomplished woman, that Isabel had said
nothing whatever to her about Lord Warburton and had been equally
reticent on the subject of Caspar Goodwood. She had not, however,
concealed the fact that she had had opportunities of marrying and
had even let her friend know of how advantageous a kind they had
been. Lord Warburton had left Lockleigh and was gone to Scotland,
taking his sisters with him; and though he had written to Ralph
more than once to ask about Mr. Touchett's health the girl was
not liable to the embarrassment of such enquiries as, had he
still been in the neighbourhood, he would probably have felt
bound to make in person. He had excellent ways, but she felt sure
that if he had come to Gardencourt he would have seen Madame
Merle, and that if he had seen her he would have liked her and
betrayed to her that he was in love with her young friend. It so
happened that during this lady's previous visits to Gardencourt--
each of them much shorter than the present--he had either not
been at Lockleigh or had not called at Mr. Touchett's. Therefore,
though she knew him by name as the great man of that county, she
had no cause to suspect him as a suitor of Mrs. Touchett's
"You've plenty of time," she had said to Isabel in return for the
mutilated confidences which our young woman made her and which
didn't pretend to be perfect, though we have seen that at moments
the girl had compunctions at having said so much. "I'm glad
you've done nothing yet--that you have it still to do. It's a
very good thing for a girl to have refused a few good offers--so
long of course as they are not the best she's likely to have.
Pardon me if my tone seems horribly corrupt; one must take the
worldly view sometimes. Only don't keep on refusing for the sake
of refusing. It's a pleasant exercise of power; but accepting's
after all an exercise of power as well. There's always the danger
of refusing once too often. It was not the one I fell into--I
didn't refuse often enough. You're an exquisite creature, and I
should like to see you married to a prime minister. But speaking
strictly, you know, you're not what is technically called a parti.
You're extremely good-looking and extremely clever; in yourself
you're quite exceptional. You appear to have the vaguest ideas
about your earthly possessions; but from what I can make
out you're not embarrassed with an income. I wish you had a
"I wish I had!" said Isabel, simply, apparently forgetting for
the moment that her poverty had been a venial fault for two
In spite of Sir Matthew Hope's benevolent recommendation Madame
Merle did not remain to the end, as the issue of poor Mr.
Touchett's malady had now come frankly to be designated. She was
under pledges to other people which had at last to be redeemed,
and she left Gardencourt with the understanding that she should
in any event see Mrs. Touchett there again, or else in town,
before quitting England. Her parting with Isabel was even more
like the beginning of a friendship than their meeting had been.
"I'm going to six places in succession, but I shall see no one I
like so well as you. They'll all be old friends, however; one
doesn't make new friends at my age. I've made a great exception
for you. You must remember that and must think as well of me as
possible. You must reward me by believing in me."
By way of answer Isabel kissed her, and, though some women kiss
with facility, there are kisses and kisses, and this embrace was
satisfactory to Madame Merle. Our young lady, after this, was
much alone; she saw her aunt and cousin only at meals, and
discovered that of the hours during which Mrs. Touchett was
invisible only a minor portion was now devoted to nursing her
husband. She spent the rest in her own apartments, to which
access was not allowed even to her niece, apparently occupied
there with mysterious and inscrutable exercises. At table she was
grave and silent; but her solemnity was not an attitude--Isabel
could see it was a conviction. She wondered if her aunt repented
of having taken her own way so much; but there was no visible
evidence of this--no tears, no sighs, no exaggeration of a zeal
always to its own sense adequate. Mrs. Touchett seemed simply to
feel the need of thinking things over and summing them up; she
had a little moral account-book--with columns unerringly ruled and
a sharp steel clasp--which she kept with exemplary neatness.
Uttered reflection had with her ever, at any rate, a practical
ring. "If I had foreseen this I'd not have proposed your coming
abroad now," she said to Isabel after Madame Merle had left the
house. "I'd have waited and sent for you next year."
"So that perhaps I should never have known my uncle? It's a great
happiness to me to have come now."
"That's very well. But it was not that you might know your uncle
that I brought you to Europe." A perfectly veracious speech; but,
as Isabel thought, not as perfectly timed. She had leisure to
think of this and other matters. She took a solitary walk every
day and spent vague hours in turning over books in the library.
Among the subjects that engaged her attention were the adventures
of her friend Miss Stackpole, with whom she was in regular
correspondence. Isabel liked her friend's private epistolary
style better than her public; that is she felt her public letters
would have been excellent if they had not been printed.
Henrietta's career, however, was not so successful as might have
been wished even in the interest of her private felicity; that
view of the inner life of Great Britain which she was so eager to
take appeared to dance before her like an ignis fatuus. The
invitation from Lady Pensil, for mysterious reasons, had never
arrived; and poor Mr. Bantling himself, with all his friendly
ingenuity, had been unable to explain so grave a dereliction on
the part of a missive that had obviously been sent. He had
evidently taken Henrietta's affairs much to heart, and believed
that he owed her a set-off to this illusory visit to Bedfordshire.
"He says he should think I would go to the Continent," Henrietta
wrote; "and as he thinks of going there himself I suppose his
advice is sincere. He wants to know why I don't take a view of
French life; and it's a fact that I want very much to see the new
Republic. Mr. Bantling doesn't care much about the Republic, but
he thinks of going over to Paris anyway. I must say he's quite as
attentive as I could wish, and at least I shall have seen one
polite Englishman. I keep telling Mr. Bantling that he ought to
have been an American, and you should see how that pleases him.
Whenever I say so he always breaks out with the same exclamation--
'Ah, but really, come now!" A few days later she wrote that she
had decided to go to Paris at the end of the week and that Mr.
Banding had promised to see her off--perhaps even would go as far
as Dover with her. She would wait in Paris till Isabel should
arrive, Henrietta added; speaking quite as if Isabel were to start
on her continental journey alone and making no allusion to Mrs.
Touchett. Bearing in mind his interest in their late companion,
our heroine communicated several passages from this correspondence
to Ralph, who followed with an emotion akin to suspense the career
of the representative of the Interviewer.
"It seems to me she's doing very well," he said, "going over to
Paris with an ex-Lancer! If she wants something to write about
she has only to describe that episode."
"It's not conventional, certainly," Isabel answered; "but if you
mean that--as far as Henrietta is concerned--it's not perfectly
innocent, you're very much mistaken. You'll never understand
"Pardon me, I understand her perfectly. I didn't at all at first,
but now I've the point of view. I'm afraid, however, that
Bantling hasn't; he may have some surprises. Oh, I understand
Henrietta as well as if I had made her!"
Isabel was by no means sure of this, but she abstained from
expressing further doubt, for she was disposed in these days to
extend a great charity to her cousin. One afternoon less than a
week after Madame Merle's departure she was seated in the library
with a volume to which her attention was not fastened. She had
placed herself in a deep window-bench, from which she looked out
into the dull, damp park; and as the library stood at right
angles to the entrance-front of the house she could see the
doctor's brougham, which had been waiting for the last two hours
before the door. She was struck with his remaining so long, but
at last she saw him appear in the portico, stand a moment slowly
drawing on his gloves and looking at the knees of his horse, and
then get into the vehicle and roll away. Isabel kept her place
for half an hour; there was a great stillness in the house. It
was so great that when she at last heard a soft, slow step on the
deep carpet of the room she was almost startled by the sound. She
turned quickly away from the window and saw Ralph Touchett
standing there with his hands still in his pockets, but with a
face absolutely void of its usual latent smile. She got up and
her movement and glance were a question.
"It's all over," said Ralph.
"Do you mean that my uncle...?" And Isabel stopped.
"My dear father died an hour ago."
"Ah, my poor Ralph!" she gently wailed, putting out her two hands
Some fortnight after this Madame Merle drove up in a hansom cab
to the house in Winchester Square. As she descended from her
vehicle she observed, suspended between the dining-room windows,
a large, neat, wooden tablet, on whose fresh black ground were
inscribed in white paint the words--"This noble freehold mansion
to be sold"; with the name of the agent to whom application
should be made. "They certainly lose no time," said the visitor
as, after sounding the big brass knocker, she waited to
be admitted; "it's a practical country!" And within the house, as
she ascended to the drawing-room, she perceived numerous signs of
abdication; pictures removed from the walls and placed upon sofas,
windows undraped and floors laid bare. Mrs. Touchett presently
received her and intimated in a few words that condolences might
be taken for granted.
"I know what you're going to say--he was a very good man. But I
know it better than any one, because I gave him more chance to
show it. In that I think I was a good wife." Mrs. Touchett added
that at the end her husband apparently recognised this fact. "He
has treated me most liberally," she said; "I won't say more
liberally than I expected, because I didn't expect. You know that
as a general thing I don't expect. But he chose, I presume, to
recognise the fact that though I lived much abroad and mingled--
you may say freely--in foreign life, I never exhibited the
smallest preference for any one else."
"For any one but yourself," Madame Merle mentally observed; but
the reflexion was perfectly inaudible.
"I never sacrificed my husband to another," Mrs. Touchett
continued with her stout curtness.
"Oh no," thought Madame Merle; "you never did anything for
There was a certain cynicism in these mute comments which demands
an explanation; the more so as they are not in accord either with
the view--somewhat superficial perhaps--that we have hitherto
enjoyed of Madame Merle's character or with the literal facts of
Mrs. Touchett's history; the more so, too, as Madame Merle had a
well-founded conviction that her friend's last remark was not in
the least to be construed as a side-thrust at herself. The truth
is that the moment she had crossed the threshold she received an
impression that Mr. Touchett's death had had subtle consequences
and that these consequences had been profitable to a little
circle of persons among whom she was not numbered. Of course it
was an event which would naturally have consequences; her
imagination had more than once rested upon this fact during her
stay at Gardencourt. But it had been one thing to foresee such a
matter mentally and another to stand among its massive records.
The idea of a distribution of property--she would almost have
said of spoils--just now pressed upon her senses and irritated
her with a sense of exclusion. I am far from wishing to picture
her as one of the hungry mouths or envious hearts of the general
herd, but we have already learned of her having desires that had
never been satisfied. If she had been questioned, she would of
course have admitted--with a fine proud smile--that she had not
the faintest claim to a share in Mr. Touchett's relics. "There
was never anything in the world between us," she would have said.
"There was never that, poor man!"--with a fillip of her thumb and
her third finger. I hasten to add, moreover, that if she couldn't
at the present moment keep from quite perversely yearning she was
careful not to betray herself. She had after all as much sympathy
for Mrs. Touchett's gains as for her losses.
"He has left me this house," the newly-made widow said; "but of
course I shall not live in it; I've a much better one in
Florence. The will was opened only three days since, but I've
already offered the house for sale. I've also a share in the
bank; but I don't yet understand if I'm obliged to leave it
there. If not I shall certainly take it out. Ralph, of course,
has Gardencourt; but I'm not sure that he'll have means to keep
up the place. He's naturally left very well off, but his father
has given away an immense deal of money; there are bequests to a
string of third cousins in Vermont. Ralph, however, is very fond
of Gardencourt and would be quite capable of living there--in
summer--with a maid-of-all-work and a gardener's boy. There's one
remarkable clause in my husband's will," Mrs. Touchett added. "He
has left my niece a fortune."
"A fortune!" Madame Merle softly repeated.
"Isabel steps into something like seventy thousand pounds."
Madame Merle's hands were clasped in her lap; at this she raised
them, still clasped, and held them a moment against her bosom
while her eyes, a little dilated, fixed themselves on those of
her friend. "Ah," she cried, "the clever creature!"
Mrs. Touchett gave her a quick look. "What do you mean by that?"
For an instant Madame Merle's colour rose and she dropped her
eyes. "It certainly is clever to achieve such results--without an
"There assuredly was no effort. Don't call it an achievement."
Madame Merle was seldom guilty of the awkwardness of retracting
what she had said; her wisdom was shown rather in maintaining it
and placing it in a favourable light. "My dear friend, Isabel
would certainly not have had seventy thousand pounds left her if
she had not been the most charming girl in the world. Her charm
includes great cleverness."
"She never dreamed, I'm sure, of my husband's doing anything for
her; and I never dreamed of it either, for he never spoke to me
of his intention," Mrs. Touchett said. "She had no claim upon him
whatever; it was no great recommendation to him that she was my
niece. Whatever she achieved she achieved unconsciously."
"Ah," rejoined Madame Merle, "those are the greatest strokes!"
Mrs. Touchett reserved her opinion. "The girl's fortunate; I
don't deny that. But for the present she's simply stupefied."
"Do you mean that she doesn't know what to do with the money?"
"That, I think, she has hardly considered. She doesn't know what
to think about the matter at all. It has been as if a big gun
were suddenly fired off behind her; she's feeling herself to see
if she be hurt. It's but three days since she received a visit
from the principal executor, who came in person, very gallantly,
to notify her. He told me afterwards that when he had made his
little speech she suddenly burst into tears. The money's to
remain in the affairs of the bank, and she's to draw the
Madame Merle shook her head with a wise and now quite benignant
smile. "How very delicious! After she has done that two or three
times she'll get used to it." Then after a silence, "What does
your son think of it?" she abruptly asked.
"He left England before the will was read--used up by his fatigue
and anxiety and hurrying off to the south. He's on his way to the
Riviera and I've not yet heard from him. But it's not likely
he'll ever object to anything done by his father."
"Didn't you say his own share had been cut down?"
"Only at his wish. I know that he urged his father to do something
for the people in America. He's not in the least addicted to
looking after number one."
"It depends upon whom he regards as number one!" said Madame
Merle. And she remained thoughtful a moment, her eyes bent on the
"Am I not to see your happy niece?" she asked at last as she
"You may see her; but you'll not be struck with her being happy.
She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue
Madonna!" And Mrs. Touchett rang for a servant.
Isabel came in shortly after the footman had been sent to call
her; and Madame Merle thought, as she appeared, that Mrs.
Touchett's comparison had its force. The girl was pale and grave
--an effect not mitigated by her deeper mourning; but the smile
of her brightest moments came into her face as she saw Madame
Merle, who went forward, laid her hand on our heroine's shoulder
and, after looking at her a moment, kissed her as if she were
returning the kiss she had received from her at Gardencourt. This
was the only allusion the visitor, in her great good taste, made
for the present to her young friend's inheritance.
Mrs. Touchett had no purpose of awaiting in London the sale of
her house. After selecting from among its furniture the objects
she wished to transport to her other abode, she left the rest of
its contents to be disposed of by the auctioneer and took her
departure for the Continent. She was of course accompanied on
this journey by her niece, who now had plenty of leisure to
measure and weigh and otherwise handle the windfall on which
Madame Merle had covertly congratulated her. Isabel thought very
often of the fact of her accession of means, looking at it in a
dozen different lights; but we shall not now attempt to follow
her train of thought or to explain exactly why her new
consciousness was at first oppressive. This failure to rise to
immediate joy was indeed but brief; the girl presently made up
her mind that to be rich was a virtue because it was to be able
to do, and that to do could only be sweet. It was the graceful
contrary of the stupid side of weakness--especially the feminine
variety. To be weak was, for a delicate young person, rather
graceful, but, after all, as Isabel said to herself, there was a
larger grace than that. Just now, it is true, there was not much
to do--once she had sent off a cheque to Lily and another to poor
Edith; but she was thankful for the quiet months which her
mourning robes and her aunt's fresh widowhood compelled them to
spend together. The acquisition of power made her serious; she
scrutinised her power with a kind of tender ferocity, but was not
eager to exercise it. She began to do so during a stay of some
weeks which she eventually made with her aunt in Paris, though in
ways that will inevitably present themselves as trivial. They
were the ways most naturally imposed in a city in which the shops
are the admiration of the world, and that were prescribed
unreservedly by the guidance of Mrs. Touchett, who took a rigidly
practical view of the transformation of her niece from a poor
girl to a rich one. "Now that you're a young woman of fortune you
must know how to play the part--I mean to play it well," she said
to Isabel once for all; and she added that the girl's first duty
was to have everything handsome. "You don't know how to take care
of your things, but you must learn," she went on; this was
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