Isabel's brow had contracted to a frown; her lips were parted in pale, vague wonder. She was trying to follow; there seemed so much more to follow than she could see. "Pansy's not my husband's child then?"
"Your husband's — in perfection! But no one else's husband's. Some one else's wife's. Ah, my good Isabel," cried the Countess, "with you one must dot one's i's!"
"I don't understand. Whose wife's?" Isabel asked.
"The wife of a horrid little Swiss who died — how long? — a dozen, more than fifteen, years ago. He never recognised Miss Pansy, nor, knowing what he was about, would have anything to say to her; and there was no reason why he should. Osmond did, and that was better; though he had to fit on afterwards the whole rigmarole of his own wife's having died in childbirth, and of his having, in grief and horror, banished the little girl from his sight for as long as possible before taking her home from nurse. His wife had really died, you know, of quite another matter and in quite another place: in the Piedmontese mountains, where they had gone, one August, because her health appeared to require the air, but where she was suddenly taken worse — fatally ill. The story passed, sufficiently; it was covered by the appearances so long as nobody heeded, as nobody cared to look into it. But of course I knew — without researches," the Countess lucidly proceeded; "as also, you'll understand, without a word said between us — I mean between Osmond and me. Don't you see him looking at me, in silence, that way, to settle it? — that is to settle ME if I should say anything. I said nothing, right or left — never a word to a creature, if you can believe that of me: on my honour, my dear, I speak of the thing to you now, after all this time, as I've never, never spoken. It was to be enough for me, from the first, that the child was my niece — from the moment she was my brother's daughter. As for her veritable mother — !" But with this Pansy's wonderful aunt dropped — as, involuntarily, from the impression of her sister-in-law's face, out of which more eyes might have seemed to look at her than she had ever had to meet.
She had spoken no name, yet Isabel could but check, on her own lips, an echo of the unspoken. She sank to her seat again, hanging her head. "Why have you told me this?" she asked in a voice the Countess hardly recognised.
"Because I've been so bored with your not knowing. I've been bored, frankly, my dear, with not having told you; as if, stupidly, all this time I couldn't have managed! Ca me depasse, if you don't mind my saying so, the things, all round you, that you've appeared to succeed in not knowing. It's a sort of assistance — aid to innocent ignorance — that I've always been a bad hand at rendering; and in this connexion, that of keeping quiet for my brother, my virtue has at any rate finally found itself exhausted. It's not a black lie, moreover, you know," the Countess inimitably added. "The facts are exactly what I tell you."
"I had no idea," said Isabel presently; and looked up at her in a manner that doubtless matched the apparent witlessness of this confession.
"So I believed — though it was hard to believe. Had it never occurred to you that he was for six or seven years her lover?"
"I don't know. Things HAVE occurred to me, and perhaps that was what they all meant."
"She has been wonderfully clever, she has been magnificent, about Pansy!" the Countess, before all this view of it, cried.
"Oh, no idea, for me," Isabel went on, "ever DEFINITELY took that form." She appeared to be making out to herself what had been and what hadn't. "And as it is — I don't understand."
She spoke as one troubled and puzzled, yet the poor Countess seemed to have seen her revelation fall below its possibilities of effect. She had expected to kindle some responsive blaze, but had barely extracted a spark. Isabel showed as scarce more impressed than she might have been, as a young woman of approved imagination, with some fine sinister passage of public history. "Don't you recognise how the child could never pass for HER husband's? — that is with M. Merle himself," her companion resumed. "They had been separated too long for that, and he had gone to some far country — I think to South America. If she had ever had children — which I'm not sure of — she had lost them. The conditions happened to make it workable, under stress (I mean at so awkward a pinch), that Osmond should acknowledge the little girl. His wife was dead — very true; but she had not been dead too long to put a certain accommodation of dates out of the question — from the moment, I mean, that suspicion wasn't started; which was what they had to take care of. What was more natural than that poor Mrs. Osmond, at a distance and for a world not troubling about trifles, should have left behind her, poverina, the pledge of her brief happiness that had cost her her life? With the aid of a change of residence — Osmond had been living with her at Naples at the time of their stay in the Alps, and he in due course left it for ever — the whole history was successfully set going. My poor sister-in-law, in her grave, couldn't help herself, and the real mother, to save HER skin, renounced all visible property in the child."
"Ah, poor, poor woman!" cried Isabel, who herewith burst into tears. It was a long time since she had shed any; she had suffered a high reaction from weeping. But now they flowed with an abundance in which the Countess Gemini found only another discomfiture.
"It's very kind of you to pity her!" she discordantly laughed. "Yes indeed, you have a way of your own — !"
"He must have been false to his wife — and so very soon!" said Isabel with a sudden check.
"That's all that's wanting — that you should take up her cause!" the Countess went on. "I quite agree with you, however, that it was much too soon."
"But to me, to me — ?" And Isabel hesitated as if she had not heard; as if her question — though it was sufficiently there in her eyes — were all for herself.