"Pardon me; she knows perfectly. She has a line sharply drawn. She means to carry out her ideas."
"Her ideas to-day must be remarkable."
"Certainly they are. She has more of them than ever."
"She was unable to show me any this morning," said Madame Merle. "She seemed in a very simple, almost in a stupid, state of mind. She was completely bewildered."
"You had better say at once that she was pathetic."
"Ah no, I don't want to encourage you too much."
He still had his head against the cushion behind him; the ankle of one foot rested on the other knee. So he sat for a while. "I should like to know what's the matter with you," he said at last.
"The matter — the matter — !" And here Madame Merle stopped. Then she went on with a sudden outbreak of passion, a burst of summer thunder in a clear sky: "The matter is that I would give my right hand to be able to weep, and that I can't!"
"What good would it do you to weep?"
"It would make me feel as I felt before I knew you."
"If I've dried your tears, that's something. But I've seen you shed them."
"Oh, I believe you'll make me cry still. I mean make me howl like a wolf. I've a great hope, I've a great need, of that. I was vile this morning; I was horrid," she said.
"If Isabel was in the stupid state of mind you mention she probably didn't perceive it," Osmond answered.
"It was precisely my deviltry that stupefied her. I couldn't help it; I was full of something bad. Perhaps it was something good; I don't know. You've not only dried up my tears; you've dried up my soul."
"It's not I then that am responsible for my wife's condition," Osmond said. "It's pleasant to think that I shall get the benefit of your influence upon her. Don't you know the soul is an immortal principle? How can it suffer alteration?"
"I don't believe at all that it's an immortal principle. I believe it can perfectly be destroyed. That's what has happened to mine, which was a very good one to start with; and it's you I have to thank for it. You're VERY bad," she added with gravity in her emphasis.
"Is this the way we're to end?" Osmond asked with the same studied coldness.
"I don't know how we're to end. I wish I did — How do bad people end? — especially as to their COMMON crimes. You have made me as bad as yourself."
"I don't understand you. You seem to me quite good enough," said Osmond, his conscious indifference giving an extreme effect to the words.
Madame Merle's self-possession tended on the contrary to diminish, and she was nearer losing it than on any occasion on which we have had the pleasure of meeting her. The glow of her eye turners sombre; her smile betrayed a painful effort. "Good enough for anything that I've done with myself? I suppose that's what you mean."
"Good enough to be always charming!" Osmond exclaimed, smiling too.
"Oh God!" his companion murmured; and, sitting there in her ripe freshness, she had recourse to the same gesture she had provoked on Isabel's part in the morning: she bent her face and covered it with her hands.
"Are you going to weep after all?" Osmond asked; and on her remaining motionless he went on: "Have I ever complained to you?"
She dropped her hands quickly. "No, you've taken your revenge otherwise — you have taken it on HER."
Osmond threw back his head further; he looked a while at the ceiling and might have been supposed to be appealing, in an informal way, to the heavenly powers. "Oh, the imagination of women! It's always vulgar, at bottom. You talk of revenge like a third-rate novelist."
"Of course you haven't complained. You've enjoyed your triumph too much."
"I'm rather curious to know what you call my triumph."
"You've made your wife afraid of you."
Osmond changed his position; he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and looking a while at a beautiful old Persian rug, at his feet. He had an air of refusing to accept any one's valuation of anything, even of time, and of preferring to abide by his own; a peculiarity which made him at moments an irritating person to converse with. "Isabel's not afraid of me, and it's not what I wish," he said at last. "To what do you want to provoke me when you say such things as that?"
"I've thought over all the harm you can do me," Madame Merle answered. "Your wife was afraid of me this morning, but in me it was really you she feared."
"You may have said things that were in very bad taste; I'm not responsible for that. I didn't see the use of your going to see her at all: you're capable of acting without her. I've not made you afraid of me that I can see," he went on; "how then should I have made her? You're at least as brave. I can't think where you've picked up such rubbish; one might suppose you knew me by this time." He got up as he spoke and walked to the chimney, where he stood a moment bending his eye, as if he had seen them for the first time, on the delicate specimens of rare porcelain with which it was covered. He took up a small cup and held it in his hand; then, still holding it and leaning his arm on the mantel, he pursued: "You always see too much in everything; you overdo it; you lose sight of the real. I'm much simpler than you think."