While this sufficiently intimate colloquy (prolonged for some time after we cease to follow it) went forward Madame Merle and her companion, breaking a silence of some duration, had begun to exchange remarks. They were sitting in an attitude of unexpressed expectancy; an attitude especially marked on the part of the Countess Gemini, who, being of a more nervous temperament than her friend, practised with less success the art of disguising impatience. What these ladies were waiting for would not have been apparent and was perhaps not very definite to their own minds. Madame Merle waited for Osmond to release their young friend from her tete-a-tete, and the Countess waited because Madame Merle did. The Countess, moreover, by waiting, found the time ripe for one of her pretty perversities. She might have desired for some minutes to place it. Her brother wandered with Isabel to the end of the garden, to which point her eyes followed them.
"My dear," she then observed to her companion, "you'll excuse me if I don't congratulate you!"
"Very willingly, for I don't in the least know why you should."
"Haven't you a little plan that you think rather well of?" And the Countess nodded at the sequestered couple.
Madame Merle's eyes took the same direction; then she looked serenely at her neighbour. "You know I never understand you very well," she smiled.
"No one can understand better than you when you wish. I see that just now you DON'T wish."
"You say things to me that no one else does," said Madame Merle gravely, yet without bitterness.
"You mean things you don't like? Doesn't Osmond sometimes say such things?"
"What your brother says has a point."
"Yes, a poisoned one sometimes. If you mean that I'm not so clever as he you mustn't think I shall suffer from your sense of our difference. But it will be much better that you should understand me."
"Why so?" asked Madame Merle. "To what will it conduce?"
"If I don't approve of your plan you ought to know it in order to appreciate the danger of my interfering with it."
Madame Merle looked as if she were ready to admit that there might be something in this; but in a moment she said quietly: "You think me more calculating than I am."
"It's not your calculating I think ill of; it's your calculating wrong. You've done so in this case."
"You must have made extensive calculations yourself to discover that."
"No, I've not had time. I've seen the girl but this once," said the Countess, "and the conviction has suddenly come to me. I like her very much."
"So do I," Madame Merle mentioned.
"You've a strange way of showing it."
"Surely I've given her the advantage of making your acquaintance."
"That indeed," piped the Countess, "is perhaps the best thing that could happen to her!"
Madame Merle said nothing for some time. The Countess's manner was odious, was really low; but it was an old story, and with her eyes upon the violet slope of Monte Morello she gave herself up to reflection. "My dear lady," she finally resumed, "I advise you not to agitate yourself. The matter you allude to concerns three persons much stronger of purpose than yourself."
"Three persons? You and Osmond of course. But is Miss Archer also very strong of purpose?"
"Quite as much so as we."
"Ah then," said the Countess radiantly, "if I convince her it's her interest to resist you she'll do so successfully!"
"Resist us? Why do you express yourself so coarsely? She's not exposed to compulsion or deception."
"I'm not sure of that. You're capable of anything, you and Osmond. I don't mean Osmond by himself, and I don't mean you by yourself. But together you're dangerous--like some chemical combination."
"You had better leave us alone then," smiled Madame Merle.
"I don't mean to touch you--but I shall talk to that girl."
"My poor Amy," Madame Merle murmured, "I don't see what has got into your head."
"I take an interest in her--that's what has got into my head. I like her."
Madame Merle hesitated a moment. "I don't think she likes you."
The Countess's bright little eyes expanded and her face was set in a grimace. "Ah, you ARE dangerous--even by yourself!"
"If you want her to like you don't abuse your brother to her," said Madame Merle.
"I don't suppose you pretend she has fallen in love with him in two interviews."
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."
"It's much better that we should always act together," Madame Merle went on.
"Do you mean that as a threat?" asked the Countess rising. Madame Merle shook her head as for quiet amusement. "No indeed, you've not my coolness!"
Isabel and Mr. Osmond were now slowly coming toward them and Isabel had taken Pansy by the hand. "Do you pretend to believe he'd make her happy?" the Countess demanded.
"If he should marry Miss Archer I suppose he'd behave like a gentleman."
The Countess jerked herself into a succession of attitudes. "Do you mean as most gentlemen behave? That would be much to be thankful for! Of course Osmond's a gentleman; his own sister needn't be reminded of that. But does he think he can marry any girl he happens to pick out? Osmond's a gentleman, of course; but I must say I've NEVER, no, no, never, seen any one of Osmond's pretensions! What they're all founded on is more than I can say. I'm his own sister; I might he supposed to know. Who is he, if you please? What has he ever done? If there had been anything particularly grand in his origin--if he were made of some superior clay--I presume I should have got some inkling of it. If there had been any great honours or splendours in the family I should certainly have made the most of them: they would have been quite in my line. But there's nothing, nothing, nothing. One's parents were charming people of course; but so were yours, I've no doubt. Every one's a charming person nowadays. Even I'm a charming person; don't laugh, it has literally been said. As for Osmond, he has always appeared to believe that he's descended from the gods."
"You may say what you please," said Madame Merle, who had listened to this quick outbreak none the less attentively, we may believe, because her eye wandered away from the speaker and her hands busied themselves with adjusting the knots of ribbon on her dress. "You Osmonds are a fine race--your blood must flow from some very pure source. Your brother, like an intelligent man, has had the conviction of it if he has not had the proofs. You're modest about it, but you yourself are extremely distinguished. What do you say about your niece? The child's a little princess. Nevertheless," Madame Merle added, "it won't be an easy matter for Osmond to marry Miss Archer. Yet he can try."
"I hope she'll refuse him. It will take him down a little."
"We mustn't forget that he is one of the cleverest of men."
"I've heard you say that before, but I haven't yet discovered what he has done."
"What he has done? He has done nothing that has had to be undone. And he has known how to wait."
"To wait for Miss Archer's money? How much of it is there?"
"That's not what I mean," said Madame Merle. "Miss Archer has seventy thousand pounds."
"Well, it's a pity she's so charming," the Countess declared. "To be sacrificed, any girl would do. She needn't be superior."
"If she weren't superior your brother would never look at her. He must have the best."
"Yes," returned the Countess as they went forward a little to meet the others, "he's very hard to satisfy. That makes me tremble for her happiness!"