"Oh, I'm very harmless," said Isabel.
"Perhaps you won't come back?"
"Perhaps not. I can't tell."
"Ah, Mrs. Osmond, you won't leave me!"
Isabel now saw she had guessed everything. "My dear child, what can I do for you?" she asked.
"I don't know — but I'm happier when I think of you."
"You can always think of me."
"Not when you're so far. I'm a little afraid," said Pansy.
"What are you afraid of?"
"Of papa — a little. And of Madame Merle. She has just been to see me."
"You must not say that," Isabel observed.
"Oh, I'll do everything they want. Only if you're here I shall do it more easily."
Isabel considered. "I won't desert you," she said at last. "Good-bye, my child."
Then they held each other a moment in a silent embrace, like two sisters; and afterwards Pansy walked along the corridor with her visitor to the top of the staircase. "Madame Merle has been here," she remarked as they went; and as Isabel answered nothing she added abruptly: "I don't like Madame Merle!"
Isabel hesitated, then stopped. "You must never say that — that you don't like Madame Merle."
Pansy looked at her in wonder; but wonder with Pansy had never been a reason for non-compliance. "I never will again," she said with exquisite gentleness. At the top of the staircase they had to separate, as it appeared to be part of the mild but very definite discipline under which Pansy lived that she should not go down. Isabel descended, and when she reached the bottom the girl was standing above. "You'll come back?" she called out in a voice that Isabel remembered afterwards.
"Yes — I'll come back."
Madame Catherine met Mrs. Osmond below and conducted her to the door of the parlour, outside of which the two stood talking a minute. "I won't go in," said the good sister. "Madame Merle's waiting for you."
At this announcement Isabel stiffened; she was on the point of asking if there were no other egress from the convent. But a moment's reflexion assured her that she would do well not to betray to the worthy nun her desire to avoid Pansy's other friend. Her companion grasped her arm very gently and, fixing her a moment with wise, benevolent eyes, said in French and almost familiarly: "Eh bien, chere Madame, qu'en pensez-vous?"
"About my step-daughter? Oh, it would take long to tell you."
"We think it's enough," Madame Catherine distinctly observed. And she pushed open the door of the parlour.
Madame Merle was sitting just as Isabel had left her, like a woman so absorbed in thought that she had not moved a little finger. As Madame Catherine closed the door she got up, and Isabel saw that she had been thinking to some purpose. She had recovered her balance; she was in full possession of her resources. "I found I wished to wait for you," she said urbanely. "But it's not to talk about Pansy."
Isabel wondered what it could be to talk about, and in spite of Madame Merle's declaration she answered after a moment: "Madame Catherine says it's enough."
"Yes; it also seems to me enough. I wanted to ask you another word about poor Mr. Touchett," Madame Merle added. "Have you reason to believe that he's really at his last?"
"I've no information but a telegram. Unfortunately it only confirms a probability."
"I'm going to ask you a strange question," said Madame Merle. "Are you very fond of your cousin?" And she gave a smile as strange as her utterance.
"Yes, I'm very fond of him. But I don't understand you."
She just hung fire. "It's rather hard to explain. Something has occurred to me which may not have occurred to you, and I give you the benefit of my idea. Your cousin did you once a great service. Have you never guessed it?"
"He has done me many services."
"Yes; but one was much above the rest. He made you a rich woman."
"HE made me — ?"
Madame Merle appearing to see herself successful, she went on more triumphantly: "He imparted to you that extra lustre which was required to make you a brilliant match. At bottom it's him you've to thank." She stopped; there was something in Isabel's eyes.
"I don't understand you. It was my uncle's money."
"Yes; it was your uncle's money, but it was your cousin's idea. He brought his father over to it. Ah, my dear, the sum was large!"
Isabel stood staring; she seemed to-day to live in a world illumined by lurid flashes. "I don't know why you say such things. I don't know what you know."
"I know nothing but what I've guessed. But I've guessed that."
Isabel went to the door and, when she had opened it, stood a moment with her hand on the latch. Then she said — it was her only revenge: "I believed it was you I had to thank!"
Madame Merle dropped her eyes; she stood there in a kind of proud penance. "You're very unhappy, I know. But I'm more so."
"Yes; I can believe that. I think I should like never to see you again."
Madame Merle raised her eyes. "I shall go to America," she quietly remarked while Isabel passed out.