While this sufficiently intimate colloquy (prolonged for some time after we cease to follow it) went forward Madame Merle and her companion, breaking a silence of some duration, had begun to exchange remarks. They were sitting in an attitude of unexpressed expectancy; an attitude especially marked on the part of the Countess Gemini, who, being of a more nervous temperament than her friend, practised with less success the art of disguising impatience. What these ladies were waiting for would not have been apparent and was perhaps not very definite to their own minds. Madame Merle waited for Osmond to release their young friend from her tete-a-tete, and the Countess waited because Madame Merle did. The Countess, moreover, by waiting, found the time ripe for one of her pretty perversities. She might have desired for some minutes to place it. Her brother wandered with Isabel to the end of the garden, to which point her eyes followed them.
"My dear," she then observed to her companion, "you'll excuse me if I don't congratulate you!"
"Very willingly, for I don't in the least know why you should."
"Haven't you a little plan that you think rather well of?" And the Countess nodded at the sequestered couple.
Madame Merle's eyes took the same direction; then she looked serenely at her neighbour. "You know I never understand you very well," she smiled.
"No one can understand better than you when you wish. I see that just now you DON'T wish."
"You say things to me that no one else does," said Madame Merle gravely, yet without bitterness.
"You mean things you don't like? Doesn't Osmond sometimes say such things?"
"What your brother says has a point."
"Yes, a poisoned one sometimes. If you mean that I'm not so clever as he you mustn't think I shall suffer from your sense of our difference. But it will be much better that you should understand me."
"Why so?" asked Madame Merle. "To what will it conduce?"
"If I don't approve of your plan you ought to know it in order to appreciate the danger of my interfering with it."
Madame Merle looked as if she were ready to admit that there might be something in this; but in a moment she said quietly: "You think me more calculating than I am."
"It's not your calculating I think ill of; it's your calculating wrong. You've done so in this case."
"You must have made extensive calculations yourself to discover that."
"No, I've not had time. I've seen the girl but this once," said the Countess, "and the conviction has suddenly come to me. I like her very much."
"So do I," Madame Merle mentioned.
"You've a strange way of showing it."
"Surely I've given her the advantage of making your acquaintance."
"That indeed," piped the Countess, "is perhaps the best thing that could happen to her!"
Madame Merle said nothing for some time. The Countess's manner was odious, was really low; but it was an old story, and with her eyes upon the violet slope of Monte Morello she gave herself up to reflection. "My dear lady," she finally resumed, "I advise you not to agitate yourself. The matter you allude to concerns three persons much stronger of purpose than yourself."
"Three persons? You and Osmond of course. But is Miss Archer also very strong of purpose?"
"Quite as much so as we."
"Ah then," said the Countess radiantly, "if I convince her it's her interest to resist you she'll do so successfully!"
"Resist us? Why do you express yourself so coarsely? She's not exposed to compulsion or deception."
"I'm not sure of that. You're capable of anything, you and Osmond. I don't mean Osmond by himself, and I don't mean you by yourself. But together you're dangerous — like some chemical combination."
"You had better leave us alone then," smiled Madame Merle.
"I don't mean to touch you — but I shall talk to that girl."
"My poor Amy," Madame Merle murmured, "I don't see what has got into your head."
"I take an interest in her — that's what has got into my head. I like her."
Madame Merle hesitated a moment. "I don't think she likes you."
The Countess's bright little eyes expanded and her face was set in a grimace. "Ah, you ARE dangerous — even by yourself!"
"If you want her to like you don't abuse your brother to her," said Madame Merle.
"I don't suppose you pretend she has fallen in love with him in two interviews."