"I should like to be in Rome with you," he commented. "I should like to see you on that wonderful ground."
She scarcely faltered. "You might come then."
"But you'll have a lot of people with you."
"Ah," Isabel admitted, "of course I shall not be alone."
For a moment he said nothing more. "You'll like it," he went on at last. "They've spoiled it, but you'll rave about it."
"Ought I to dislike it because, poor old dear — the Niobe of Nations, you know — it has been spoiled?" she asked.
"No, I think not. It has been spoiled so often," he smiled. "If I were to go, what should I do with my little girl?"
"Can't you leave her at the villa?"
"I don't know that I like that — though there's a very good old woman who looks after her. I can't afford a governess."
"Bring her with you then," said Isabel promptly.
Mr. Osmond looked grave. "She has been in Rome all winter, at her convent; and she's too young to make journeys of pleasure."
"You don't like bringing her forward?" Isabel enquired.
"No, I think young girls should be kept out of the world."
"I was brought up on a different system."
"You? Oh, with you it succeeded, because you — you were exceptional."
"I don't see why," said Isabel, who, however, was not sure there was not some truth in the speech.
Mr. Osmond didn't explain; he simply went on: "If I thought it would make her resemble you to join a social group in Rome I'd take her there to-morrow."
"Don't make her resemble me," said Isabel. "Keep her like herself."
"I might send her to my sister," Mr. Osmond observed. He had almost the air of asking advice; he seemed to like to talk over his domestic matters with Miss Archer.
"Yes," she concurred; "I think that wouldn't do much towards making her resemble me!"
After she had left Florence Gilbert Osmond met Madame Merle at the Countess Gemini's. There were other people present; the Countess's drawing-room was usually well filled, and the talk had been general, but after a while Osmond left his place and came and sat on an ottoman half-behind, half-beside Madame Merle's chair. "She wants me to go to Rome with her," he remarked in a low voice.
"To go with her?"
"To be there while she's there. She proposed it.
"I suppose you mean that you proposed it and she assented."
"Of course I gave her a chance. But she's encouraging — she's very encouraging."
"I rejoice to hear it — but don't cry victory too soon. Of course you'll go to Rome."
"Ah," said Osmond, "it makes one work, this idea of yours!"
"Don't pretend you don't enjoy it — you're very ungrateful. You've not been so well occupied these many years."
"The way you take it's beautiful," said Osmond. "I ought to be grateful for that."
"Not too much so, however," Madame Merle answered. She talked with her usual smile, leaning back in her chair and looking round the room. "You've made a very good impression, and I've seen for myself that you've received one. You've not come to Mrs. Touchett's seven times to oblige me."
"The girl's not disagreeable," Osmond quietly conceded.
Madame Merle dropped her eye on him a moment, during which her lips closed with a certain firmness. "Is that all you can find to say about that fine creature?"
"All? Isn't it enough? Of how many people have you heard me say more?"
She made no answer to this, but still presented her talkative grace to the room. "You're unfathomable," she murmured at last. "I'm frightened at the abyss into which I shall have cast her."
He took it almost gaily. "You can't draw back — you've gone too far."
"Very good; but you must do the rest yourself."
"I shall do it," said Gilbert Osmond.
Madame Merle remained silent and he changed his place again; but when she rose to go he also took leave. Mrs. Touchett's victoria was awaiting her guest in the court, and after he had helped his friend into it he stood there detaining her. "You're very indiscreet," she said rather wearily; "you shouldn't have moved when I did."
He had taken off his hat; he passed his hand over his forehead. "I always forget; I'm out of the habit."
"You're quite unfathomable," she repeated, glancing up at the windows of the house, a modern structure in the new part of the town.
He paid no heed to this remark, but spoke in his own sense. "She's really very charming. I've scarcely known any one more graceful."
"It does me good to hear you say that. The better you like her the better for me."
"I like her very much. She's all you described her, and into the bargain capable, I feel, of great devotion. She has only one fault."
"Too many ideas."
"I warned you she was clever."
"Fortunately they're very bad ones," said Osmond.
"Why is that fortunate?"
"Dame, if they must be sacrificed!"
Madame Merle leaned back, looking straight before her; then she spoke to the coachman. But her friend again detained her. "If I go to Rome what shall I do with Pansy?"
"I'll go and see her," said Madame Merle.