UNDER her cousins escort Isabel returned on the morrow to Florence, and Ralph Touchett, though usually he was not fond of railway journeys, thought very well of the successive hours passed in the train which hurried his companion away from the city now distinguished by Gilbert Osmonds preferencehours that were to form the first stage in a still larger scheme of travel. Miss Stackpole had remained behind; she was planning a little trip to Naples, to be executed with Mr. Bantlings assistance. Isabel was to have but three days in Florence before the 4th of June, the date of Mrs. Touchetts departure, and she determined to devote the last of these to her promise to go and see Pansy Osmond. Her plan, however, seemed for a moment likely to modify itself, in deference to a plan of Madame Merles. This lady was still at Casa Touchett; but she too was on the point of leaving Florence, her next station being an ancient castle in the mountains of Tuscany, the residence of a noble family of that country, whose acquaintance (she had known them, as she said, for ever) seemed to Isabel, in the light of certain photographs of their immense crenellated dwelling which her friend was able to show her, a precious privilege.
We can go together, then, said Isabel, reasonably. I say reasonably, because the proposal was not uttered in the spirit of enthusiasm. She had prefigured her visit as made in solitude; she should like it better so. Nevertheless, to her great consideration for Madame Merle she was prepared to sacrifice this mystic sentiment.
As Isabel drove, in the publicity of an open vehicle, along the charming winding way which led to Mr. Osmonds hilltop, she wondered what Madame Merle had meant by no one being the wiser. Once in a while, at large intervals, this lady, in whose discretion, as a general thing, there was something almost brilliant, dropped a remark of ambiguous quality, struck a note that sounded false. What cared Isabel Archer for the vulgar judgments of obscure people? and did Madame Merle suppose that she was capable of doing a deed in secret? Of course notshe must have meant something elsesomething which in the press of the hours that preceded her departure she had not had time to explain. Isabel would return to this some day; there were certain things as to which she liked to be clear. She heard Pansy strumming at the piano in another apartment, as she herself was ushered into Mr. Osmonds drawing-room; the little girl was practising, and Isabel was pleased to think that she performed this duty faithfully. Presently Pansy came in, smoothing down her frock, and did the honours of her fathers house with the wide-eyed conscientiousness of a sensitive child. Isabel sat there for half-an-hour, and Pansy entertained her like a little ladynot chattering, but conversing, and showing the same courteous interest in Isabels affairs that Isabel was so good as to take in hers. Isabel wondered at her; as I have said before, she had never seen a child like that. How well she had been taught, said our keen young lady, how prettily she had been directed and fashioned; and yet how simple, how natural, how innocent she has been kept! Isabel was fond of psychological problems, and it had pleased her, up to this time, to be in doubt as to whether Miss Pansy were not all-knowing. Was her infantine serenity but the perfection of self-consciousness? Was it put on to please her fathers visitor, or was it the direct expression of a little neat, orderly character? The hour that Isabel spent in Mr. Osmonds beautiful empty, dusky roomsthe windows had been half-darkened, to keep out the heat, and here and there, through an easy crevice, the splendid summer day peeped in, lighting a gleam of faded colour or tarnished gilt in the rich-looking gloomIsabels interview with the daughter of the house, I say, effectually settled this question. Pansy was really a blank page, a pure white surface; she was not clever enough for precocious coquetries. She was not clever; Isabel could see that; she only had nice feelings. There was something touching about her; Isabel had felt it before; she would be an easy victim of fate. She would have no will, no power to resist, no sense of her own importance; only an exquisite taste, and an appreciation, equally exquisite, of such affection as might be bestowed upon her. She would easily be mystified, easily crushed; her force would be solely in her power to cling. She moved about the place with Isabel, who had asked leave to walk through the other rooms again, where Pansy gave her judgment on several works of art. She talked about her prospects, her occupations, her fathers intention; she was not egotistical, but she felt the propriety of giving Isabel the information that so observant a visitor would naturally expect.
Please tell me, she said, did papa, in Rome, go to see Madame Catherine? He told me he would if he had time. Perhaps he had not time. Papa likes a great deal of time. He wished to speak about my education; it isnt finished yet, you know. I dont know what they can do with me more; but it appears it is far from finished. Papa told me one day he thought he would finish it himself; for the last year or two, at the convent, the masters that teach the tall girls are so very dear. Papa is not rich, and I should be very sorry if he were to pay much money for me, because I dont think I am worth it. I dont learn quickly enough, and I have got no memory. For what I am told, yesespecially when it is pleasant; but not for what I learn in a book. There was a young girl, who was my best friend, and they took her away from the convent when she was fourteen, to makehow do you say it in English?to make a dot. You dont say it in English? I hope it isnt wrong; I only mean they wished to keep the money, to marry her. I dont know whether it is for that that papa wishes to keep the money, to marry me. It costs so much to marry! Pansy went on, with a sigh; I think papa might make that economy. At any rate I am too young to think about it yet, and I dont care for any gentleman; I mean for any but him. If he were not my papa I should like to marry him; I would rather be his daughter than the wife ofof some strange person. I miss him very much, but not so much as you might think, for I have been so much away from him. Papa has always been principally for holidays. I miss Madame Catherine almost more; but you must not tell him that. You shall not see him again? I am very sorry for that. Of every one who comes here I like you the best. That is not a great compliment, for there are not many people. It was very kind of you to come to-dayso far from your house; for I am as yet only a child. Oh, yes, I have only the occupations of a child. When did you give them up, the occupations of a child? I should like to know how old you are, but I dont know whether it is right to ask. At the convent they told us that we must never ask the age. I dont like to do anything that is not expected; it looks at if one had not been properly taught. I myselfI should never like to be taken by surprise. Papa left directions for everything. I go to bed very early. When the sun goes off that side I go into the garden. Papa left strict orders that I was not to get scorched. I always enjoy the view; the mountains are so graceful. In Rome, from the convent, we saw nothing but roofs and bell-towers. I practise three hours. I do not play very well. You play yourself? I wish very much that you would play something for me; papa wishes very much that I should hear good music. Madame Merle has played for me several times; that is what I like best about Madame Merle; she has great facility. I shall never have facility. And I have no voicejust a little thread.
Isabel gratified this respectful wish, drew off her gloves, and sat down to the piano, while Pansy, standing beside her, watched her white hands move quickly over the keys. When she stopped, she kissed the child good-bye, and held her a moment, looking at her.
Isabel listened to this assertion with an interest which she felt it to be almost a torment that she was obliged to conceal from the child. It was her pride that obliged her, and a certain sense of decency; there were still other things in her head which she felt a strong impulse, instantly checked, to say to Pansy about her father; there were things it would have given her pleasure to hear the child, to make the child, say. But she no sooner became conscious of these things than her imagination was hushed with horror at the idea of taking advantage of the little girlit was of this she would have accused herselfand of leaving an audible trace of her emotion behind. She had comeshe had come; but she had stayed only an hour! She rose quickly from the music-stool; even then, however, she lingered a moment, still holding her small companion, drawing the childs little tender person closer, and looking down at her. She was obliged to confess it to herselfshe would have taken a passionate pleasure in talking about Gilbert Osmond to this innocent, diminutive creature who was near to him. But she said not another word; she only kissed Pansy once more. They went together through the vestibule, to the door which opened into the court; and there Pansy stopped, looking rather wistfully beyond.