"I'm not so heartless as you think. Every now and then something touches me — as for instance your saying just now that your ambitions are for me. I don't understand it; I don't see how or why they should be. But it touches me, all the same."
"You'll probably understand it even less as time goes on. There are some things you'll never understand. There's no particular need you should."
"You, after all, are the most remarkable of women," said Osmond. "You have more in you than almost any one. I don't see why you think Mrs. Touchett's niece should matter very much to me, when — when — " But he paused a moment.
"When I myself have mattered so little?"
"That of course is not what I meant to say. When I've known and appreciated such a woman as you."
"Isabel Archer's better than I," said Madame Merle.
Her companion gave a laugh. "How little you must think of her to say that!"
"Do you suppose I'm capable of jealousy? Please answer me that."
"With regard to me? No; on the whole I don't."
"Come and see me then, two days hence. I'm staying at Mrs. Touchett's — Palazzo Crescentini — and the girl will be there."
"Why didn't you ask me that at first simply, without speaking of the girl?" said Osmond. "You could have had her there at any rate."
Madame Merle looked at him in the manner of a woman whom no question he could ever put would find unprepared. "Do you wish to know why? Because I've spoken of you to her."
Osmond frowned and turned away. "I'd rather not know that." Then in a moment he pointed out the easel supporting the little water-colour drawing. "Have you seen what's there — my last?"
Madame Merle drew near and considered. "Is it the Venetian Alps — one of your last year's sketches?"
"Yes — but how you guess everything!"
She looked a moment longer, then turned away. "You know I don't care for your drawings."
"I know it, yet I'm always surprised at it. They're really so much better than most people's."
"That may very well be. But as the only thing you do — well, it's so little. I should have liked you to do so many other things: those were my ambitions."
"Yes; you've told me many times — things that were impossible."
"Things that were impossible," said Madame Merle. And then in quite a different tone: "In itself your little picture's very good." She looked about the room — at the old cabinets, pictures, tapestries, surfaces of faded silk. "Your rooms at least are perfect. I'm struck with that afresh whenever I come back; I know none better anywhere. You understand this sort of thing as nobody anywhere does. You've such adorable taste."
"I'm sick of my adorable taste," said Gilbert Osmond.
"You must nevertheless let Miss Archer come and see it. I've told her about it."
"I don't object to showing my things — when people are not idiots."
"You do it delightfully. As cicerone of your museum you appear to particular advantage."
Mr. Osmond, in return for this compliment, simply looked at once colder and more attentive. "Did you say she was rich?"
"She has seventy thousand pounds."
"En ecus bien comptes?"
"There's no doubt whatever about her fortune. I've seen it, as I may say."
"Satisfactory woman! — I mean you. And if I go to see her shall I see the mother?"
"The mother? She has none — nor father either."
"The aunt then — whom did you say? — Mrs. Touchett. I can easily keep her out of the way."
"I don't object to her," said Osmond; "I rather like Mrs. Touchett. She has a sort of old-fashioned character that's passing away — a vivid identity. But that long jackanapes the son — is he about the place?"
"He's there, but he won't trouble you."
"He's a good deal of a donkey."
"I think you're mistaken. He's a very clever man. But he's not fond of being about when I'm there, because he doesn't like me."
"What could he be more asinine than that? Did you say she has looks?" Osmond went on.
"Yes; but I won't say it again, lest you should be disappointed in them. Come and make a beginning; that's all I ask of you."
"A beginning of what?"
Madame Merle was silent a little. "I want you of course to marry her."
"The beginning of the end? Well, I'll see for myself. Have you told her that?"
"For what do you take me? She's not so coarse a piece of machinery — nor am I."
"Really," said Osmond after some meditation, "I don't understand your ambitions."
"I think you'll understand this one after you've seen Miss Archer. Suspend your judgement." Madame Merle, as she spoke, had drawn near the open door of the garden, where she stood a moment looking out. "Pansy has really grown pretty," she presently added.
"So it seemed to me."
"But she has had enough of the convent."
"I don't know," said Osmond. "I like what they've made of her. It's very charming."
"That's not the convent. It's the child's nature."
"It's the combination, I think. She's as pure as a pearl."
"Why doesn't she come back with my flowers then?" Madame Merle asked. "She's not in a hurry."
"We'll go and get them."
"She doesn't like me," the visitor murmured as she raised her parasol and they passed into the garden.