Madame Merle looked a moment at Isabel and at the master of the house. He was leaning against the parapet, facing her, his arms folded; and she at present was evidently not lost in the mere impersonal view, persistently as she gazed at it. As Madame Merle watched her she lowered her eyes; she was listening, possibly with a certain embarrassment, while she pressed the point of her parasol into the path. Madame Merle rose from her chair. "Yes, I think so!" she pronounced.
The shabby footboy, summoned by Pansy — he might, tarnished as to livery and quaint as to type, have issued from some stray sketch of old-time manners, been "put in" by the brush of a Longhi or a Goya — had come out with a small table and placed it on the grass, and then had gone back and fetched the tea-tray; after which he had again disappeared, to return with a couple of chairs. Pansy had watched these proceedings with the deepest interest, standing with her small hands folded together upon the front of her scanty frock; but she had not presumed to offer assistance. When the tea-table had been arranged, however, she gently approached her aunt.
"Do you think papa would object to my making the tea?"
The Countess looked at her with a deliberately critical gaze and without answering her question. "My poor niece," she said, "is that your best frock?"
"Ah no," Pansy answered, "it's just a little toilette for common occasions."
"Do you call it a common occasion when I come to see you? — to say nothing of Madame Merle and the pretty lady yonder."
Pansy reflected a moment, turning gravely from one of the persons mentioned to the other. Then her face broke into its perfect smile. "I have a pretty dress, but even that one's very simple. Why should I expose it beside your beautiful things?"
"Because it's the prettiest you have; for me you must always wear the prettiest. Please put it on the next time. It seems to me they don't dress you so well as they might."
The child sparingly stroked down her antiquated skirt. "It's a good little dress to make tea — don't you think? Don't you believe papa would allow me?"
"Impossible for me to say, my child," said the Countess. "For me, your father's ideas are unfathomable. Madame Merle understands them better. Ask HER."
Madame Merle smiled with her usual grace. "It's a weighty question — let me think. It seems to me it would please your father to see a careful little daughter making his tea. It's the proper duty of the daughter of the house — when she grows up."
"So it seems to me, Madame Merle!" Pansy cried. "You shall see how well I'll make it. A spoonful for each." And she began to busy herself at the table.
"Two spoonfuls for me," said the Countess, who, with Madame Merle, remained for some moments watching her. "Listen to me, Pansy," the Countess resumed at last. "I should like to know what you think of your visitor."
"Ah, she's not mine — she's papa's," Pansy objected.
"Miss Archer came to see you as well," said Madame Merle.
"I'm very happy to hear that. She has been very polite to me."
"Do you like her then?" the Countess asked.
"She's charming — charming," Pansy repeated in her little neat conversational tone. "She pleases me thoroughly."
"And how do you think she pleases your father?"
"Ah really, Countess!" murmured Madame Merle dissuasively. "Go and call them to tea," she went on to the child.
"You'll see if they don't like it!" Pansy declared; and departed to summon the others, who had still lingered at the end of the terrace.
"If Miss Archer's to become her mother it's surely interesting to know if the child likes her," said the Countess.
"If your brother marries again it won't be for Pansy's sake," Madame Merle replied. "She'll soon be sixteen, and after that she'll begin to need a husband rather than a stepmother."
"And will you provide the husband as well?"
"I shall certainly take an interest in her marrying fortunately. I imagine you'll do the same."
"Indeed I shan't!" cried the Countess. "Why should I, of all women, set such a price on a husband?"
"You didn't marry fortunately; that's what I'm speaking of. When I say a husband I mean a good one."
"There are no good ones. Osmond won't be a good one."
Madame Merle closed her eyes a moment. "You're irritated just now; I don't know why," she presently said. "I don't think you'll really object either to your brother's or to your niece's marrying, when the time comes for them to do so; and as regards Pansy I'm confident that we shall some day have the pleasure of looking for a husband for her together. Your large acquaintance will be a great help."
"Yes, I'm irritated," the Countess answered. "You often irritate me. Your own coolness is fabulous. You're a strange woman."