"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."
"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 vaguely awe-struck.
"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 had."
"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 great."
"They WERE great. I should make myself ridiculous by talking of them."
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?"