On the day I speak of they had been driven out of one of the gates of the city and at the end of half an hour had left the carriage to await them by the roadside while they walked away over the short grass of the Campagna, which even in the winter months is sprinkled with delicate flowers. This was almost a daily habit with Isabel, who was fond of a walk and had a swift length of step, though not so swift a one as on her first coming to Europe. It was not the form of exercise that Pansy loved best, but she liked it, because she liked everything; and she moved with a shorter undulation beside her father's wife, who afterwards, on their return to Rome, paid a tribute to her preferences by making the circuit of the Pincian or the Villa Borghese. She had gathered a handful of flowers in a sunny hollow, far from the walls of Rome, and on reaching Palazzo Roccanera she went straight to her room, to put them into water. Isabel passed into the drawing-room, the one she herself usually occupied, the second in order from the large ante-chamber which was entered from the staircase and in which even Gilbert Osmond's rich devices had not been able to correct a look of rather grand nudity. Just beyond the threshold of the drawing-room she stopped short, the reason for her doing so being that she had received an impression. The impression had, in strictness, nothing unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and the soundlessness of her step gave her time to take in the scene before she interrupted it. Madame Merle was there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed, was that their colloquy had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent on his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it. Madame Merle had seen her and had welcomed her without moving; her husband, on the other hand, had instantly jumped up. He presently murmured something about wanting a walk and, after having asked their visitor to excuse him, left the room.
"I came to see you, thinking you would have come in; and as you hadn't I waited for you," Madame Merle said.
"Didn't he ask you to sit down?" Isabel asked with a smile.
Madame Merle looked about her. "Ah, it's very true; I was going away."
"You must stay now."
"Certainly. I came for a reason; I've something on my mind."
"I've told you that before," Isabel said — "that it takes something extraordinary to bring you to this house."
"And you know what I've told YOU; that whether I come or whether I stay away, I've always the same motive — the affection I bear you."
"Yes, you've told me that."
"You look just now as if you didn't believe it," said Madame Merle.
"Ah," Isabel answered, "the profundity of your motives, that's the last thing I doubt!"
"You doubt sooner of the sincerity of my words."
Isabel shook her head gravely. "I know you've always been kind to me."
"As often as you would let me. You don't always take it; then one has to let you alone. It's not to do you a kindness, however, that I've come to-day; it's quite another affair. I've come to get rid of a trouble of my own — to make it over to you. I've been talking to your husband about it."
"I'm surprised at that; he doesn't like troubles."
"Especially other people's; I know very well. But neither do you, I suppose. At any rate, whether you do or not, you must help me. It's about poor Mr. Rosier."
"Ah," said Isabel reflectively, "it's his trouble then, not yours."
"He has succeeded in saddling me with it. He comes to see me ten times a week, to talk about Pansy."
"Yes, he wants to marry her. I know all about it."
Madame Merle hesitated. "I gathered from your husband that perhaps you didn't."
"How should he know what I know? He has never spoken to me of the matter."
"It's probably because he doesn't know how to speak of it."
"It's nevertheless the sort of question in which he's rarely at fault."
"Yes, because as a general thing he knows perfectly well what to think. To-day he doesn't."
"Haven't you been telling him?" Isabel asked.
Madame Merle gave a bright, voluntary smile. "Do you know you're a little dry?"
"Yes; I can't help it. Mr. Rosier has also talked to me."