"I don't agree to that — it may make them dangers. We know too much about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don't mind anything any one tells you about any one else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself."
"That's what I try to do," said Isabel "but when you do that people call you conceited."
"You're not to mind them — that's precisely my argument; not to mind what they say about yourself any more than what they say about your friend or your enemy."
Isabel considered. "I think you're right; but there are some things I can't help minding: for instance when my friend's attacked or when I myself am praised."
"Of course you're always at liberty to judge the critic. Judge people as critics, however," Ralph added, "and you'll condemn them all!"
"I shall see Mr. Osmond for myself," said Isabel. "I've promised to pay him a visit."
"To pay him a visit?"
"To go and see his view, his pictures, his daughter — I don't know exactly what. Madame Merle's to take me; she tells me a great many ladies call on him."
"Ah, with Madame Merle you may go anywhere, de confiance," said Ralph. "She knows none but the best people."
Isabel said no more about Mr. Osmond, but she presently remarked to her cousin that she was not satisfied with his tone about Madame Merle. "It seems to me you insinuate things about her. I don't know what you mean, but if you've any grounds for disliking her I think you should either mention them frankly or else say nothing at all."
Ralph, however, resented this charge with more apparent earnestness than he commonly used. "I speak of Madame Merle exactly as I speak to her: with an even exaggerated respect."
"Exaggerated, precisely. That's what I complain of."
"I do so because Madame Merle's merits are exaggerated."
"By whom, pray? By me? If so I do her a poor service."
"No, no; by herself."
"Ah, I protest!" Isabel earnestly cried. "If ever there was a woman who made small claims — !"
"You put your finger on it," Ralph interrupted. "Her modesty's exaggerated. She has no business with small claims — she has a perfect right to make large ones."
"Her merits are large then. You contradict yourself."
"Her merits are immense," said Ralph. "She's indescribably blameless; a pathless desert of virtue; the only woman I know who never gives one a chance."
"A chance for what?"
"Well, say to call her a fool! She's the only woman I know who has but that one little fault."
Isabel turned away with impatience. "I don't understand you; you're too paradoxical for my plain mind."
"Let me explain. When I say she exaggerates I don't mean it in the vulgar sense — that she boasts, overstates, gives too fine an account of herself. I mean literally that she pushes the search for perfection too far — that her merits are in themselves overstrained. She's too good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too everything. She's too complete, in a word. I confess to you that she acts on my nerves and that I feel about her a good deal as that intensely human Athenian felt about Aristides the Just."
Isabel looked hard at her cousin; but the mocking spirit, if it lurked in his words, failed on this occasion to peep from his face. "Do you wish Madame Merle to be banished?"
"By no means. She's much too good company. I delight in Madame Merle," said Ralph Touchett simply.
"You're very odious, sir!" Isabel exclaimed. And then she asked him if he knew anything that was not to the honour of her brilliant friend.
"Nothing whatever. Don't you see that's just what I mean? On the character of every one else you may find some little black speck; if I were to take half an hour to it, some day, I've no doubt I should be able to find one on yours. For my own, of course, I'm spotted like a leopard. But on Madame Merle's nothing, nothing, nothing!"
"That's just what I think!" said Isabel with a toss of her head. "That is why I like her so much."
"She's a capital person for you to know. Since you wish to see the world you couldn't have a better guide."
"I suppose you mean by that that she's worldly?"
"Worldly? No," said Ralph, "she's the great round world itself!"
It had certainly not, as Isabel for the moment took it into her head to believe, been a refinement of malice in him to say that he delighted in Madame Merle. Ralph Touchett took his refreshment wherever he could find it, and he would not have forgiven himself if he had been left wholly unbeguiled by such a mistress of the social art. There are deep-lying sympathies and antipathies, and it may have been that, in spite of the administered justice she enjoyed at his hands, her absence from his mother's house would not have made life barren to him. But Ralph Touchett had learned more or less inscrutably to attend, and there could have been nothing so "sustained" to attend to as the general performance of Madame Merle. He tasted her in sips, he let her stand, with an opportuneness she herself could not have surpassed. There were moments when he felt almost sorry for her; and these, oddly enough, were the moments when his kindness was least demonstrative. He was sure she had been yearningly ambitious and that what she had visibly accomplished was far below her secret measure. She had got herself into perfect training, but had won none of the prizes. She was always plain Madame Merle, the widow of a Swiss negociant, with a small income and a large acquaintance, who stayed with people a great deal and was almost as universally "liked" as some new volume of smooth twaddle. The contrast between this position and any one of some half-dozen others that he supposed to have at various moments engaged her hope had an element of the tragical. His mother thought he got on beautifully with their genial guest; to Mrs. Touchett's sense two persons who dealt so largely in too-ingenious theories of conduct — that is of their own — would have much in common. He had given due consideration to Isabel's intimacy with her eminent friend, having long since made up his mind that he could not, without opposition, keep his cousin to himself; and he made the best of it, as he had done of worse things. He believed it would take care of itself; it wouldn't last forever. Neither of these two superior persons knew the other as well as she supposed, and when each had made an important discovery or two there would be, if not a rupture, at least a relaxation. Meanwhile he was quite willing to admit that the conversation of the elder lady was an advantage to the younger, who had a great deal to learn and would doubtless learn it better from Madame Merle than from some other instructors of the young. It was not probable that Isabel would be injured.