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The Portrait Of A Lady - Chapter 5







Chapter 5













The first few months following the death of Mr. Touchett were spent quietly by Isabel and Mrs. Touchett. There were many things to be done at Gardencourt. Ralph had left for the south of France even before the reading of the will. Garden­court itself and the greater part of his father’s interest in the bank had been left to him under the terms of the will. The Lon­don town house became Mrs. Touchett’s. This ugly old place, as she described it, she soon sold, keeping only a part of the furniture, which she shipped to her own place in Florence. Accompanied by Isabel, she then left for Paris. The trip was characteristic of her. Mrs. Touchett never changed her plans, and having intended, before her husband’s death, to spend the early part of the winter in Paris, she saw no reason why she, together with Isabel, should be denied this pleasure now.


As to the fortune left to Isabel under Mr. Touchett’s will, Mrs. Touchett did not concern herself at. all. She had been sur­prised at first by the large amount left to Isabel, but since she herself was so well provided for, she felt that she had little reason to object to the way her husband had decided to share the rest of his great wealth. She suspected that Isabel’s money had originally been part of Ralph’s share but she said nothing about this to anyone. The fact was that, in any case, she was pleased to see her young niece, of whom she was very fond, so well taken care of.


Isabel, for her part, went along obediently to Paris. The for­tune that had fallen to her still seemed unreal, and she could not readily adjust herself to the idea that she was now a rich young woman and personally independent. She had the feeling that she did not deserve all this money and that it laid upon her certain grave obligations. She felt, for one thing, that she lacked the knowledge and experience to use such wealth wisely. She sent several fairly large checks to her two sisters back in Al­bany for use in educating their children. She then settled back to live modestly, depending largely upon the advice of Mrs. Touchett and another person, Madame Merle, whom she had come to know quite well, as to how best to manage her newly gained fortune.


Madame Merle was a very old friend of Mrs. Touchett. She had been at Gardencourt during Mr. Touchett’s last attack, and she had remained after Mr. Touchett’s death. Like Mrs. Touchett, she was an American, and made her home in Italy. She was a woman of about forty years of age—not pretty, but still very attractive. She and Isabel were naturally thrown much together during this period. They soon became fast friends. Their manners toward each other were always of the best, but in addition to this, they happened to please each other.


Certainly, Isabel had never met a more pleasant or inter­esting person than Madame Merle. She had never met anyone who seemed to have so few of the usual human faults. Madame Merle talked little about herself, yet her conversation was al­ways bright and entertaining. She had traveled everywhere and had social ties in all the important countries of Europe; she was intelligent, superior, talented.


She played the piano well, could paint, sew, write yet she could also lay these things aside at a moment’s notice and become a simple, charming companion.


She’s not capable of a mistake,” Mrs. Touchett had once said, describing her to Isabel. “She’s the most won­derful woman I know. It’s a favor that she stays with us so long. She’s had to put off a lot of visits to important houses. But I’ve asked her to give us this time because I wish you to know her. I think it will be a good thing for you. Serena Merle- hasn’t a single fault that I know of.”


By not having a single fault, Mrs. Touchett meant, of course, that Madame Merle never arrived late for dinner, always an­swered one’s letters on time, or carried just the proper amount of baggage when she came to visit. Yet the character of Mad­ame Merle was not so readily explained as this. It was rather that, as an experienced woman of the world, she had long since learned to keep her own feelings and emotions well hidden. Only on very rare occasions was this veil raised. Then a note of tragedy seemed to creep into her voice and manner. Isabel had felt this. Madame Merle had mentioned on occasion that some­day she would tell the story of her life, but when Isabel encour­aged her to do so, she always put her off, saying that first they must know each other better. Madame Merle had gone directly from Paris to her home in Italy. Mrs. Touchett and Isabel had delayed a few weeks in San Remo, where they had stopped off to visit Ralph. The scene which follows may show something of this darker side of the character of Madame Merle.


It was in early May, some six months after the death of Mr. Touchett. A small group of people had gathered in one of the many rooms of an old, Italian-style house just outside the an­cient walls of the city of Florence. The room was characteris­tic, in its furnishings, of the rest of the house. The style was, in general, heavy and ancient. The curtains, tables, and chairs were all of an earlier period, but well cared for and in good condition. There were various works of art in evidence; several rich paintings hung from the walls; smaller objects in wood and stone stood on the tables and mantelpiece. There were also just enough books, with good bindings, to give the proper tone to the room. Everything was in good order; everything was in the best of taste.


The group included two sisters belonging to an Italian re­ligious order, a gentleman who appeared to be attending to them, and a young girl, the daughter of this gentleman. From the conversation, it was to be learned that the two sisters had just brought the young girl from Rome, where she had lived since a child in a convent there. The two sisters were from this convent and must now return there. Clearly, the two sisters felt great affection for the young girl, for they kissed her ten­derly as they now made ready to leave. The father led them to the door. As the group moved into the hall, however, the father stopped and gave a low cry of surprise. The servant at the front door had just admitted a woman, who was already walking down the long hall toward them. The father and she exchanged greetings; the daughter, Pansy, spoke shyly to her; the two sis­ters bowed politely. The woman was Madame Merle. The fa­ther asked her to wait for him in the living room, and Madame Merle, seeming to be well familiar with the house, passed im­mediately in that direction.


Comprehension, Discussion, and Vocabulary Review


A. 1. What were some of the arrangements that were made after Mr. Touchett’s death?

  1. Why was it characteristic of Mrs. Touchett not to give up her trip to Paris?

  2. How did Mrs. Touchett feel about the money that had been left to Isabel?

  3. How did Isabel feel about the money?

  4. Who was Madame Merle?

  5. Why did Isabel find Madame Merle pleasant and inter­esting?

  6. What did Mrs. Touchett mean when she said that Madame Merle didn’t have a single fault?

  7. Describe the room in which a group of people had gathered in May, six months after Mr. Touchett’s death.

9. Who was included in the group?

10. Who came in just as the sisters and the girl were leaving?


B. Use the following words and expressions in sentences of your own:


provide       object to


rare for       her part


furnish      depend upon


at all        become friends


provide     for in addition to

as to           on occasion





Mr. Osmond, the father, returned presently with his daugh­ter. He closed the door, and then, without looking at Madame Merle, pushed one or two chairs back into their places. His visitor waited a moment for him to speak, watching him as he moved about. Then at last she said:


I had hoped that you’d come to Rome. I even thought it possible that you yourself might have wished to bring Pansy home from there.”


That was a natural thing for you to suppose; but I’m afraid it’s not the first time I have acted differently from what you have wished.”


Yes,” said Madame Merle. “It’s almost as though you in­tentionally oppose whatever I think or feel.


Mr. Osmond bus­ied himself for a moment in the room after the manner of a person looking for an excuse for not giving an attention which might be embarrassing.


In any case,” continued Madame Merle,


I am glad she’s left the convent. She has had enough of the sisters.”


If we’re going to talk about that matter, Pansy had better go out of the room,” returned Mr. Osmond.


Let her stay,” said Madame Merle. “We’ll talk about some­thing else.”


If you like, I won’t listen,” Pansy suggested quietly.


You may listen, charming child, because you won’t under­stand,” her father answered. The child sat down, obediently, near the open door which led to the garden, toward which she directed her innocent eyes. Mr. Osmond went on, addressing himself to Madame Merle.

You’re looking particularly well.”


I’m afraid I always look the same,” answered Madame Merle.


You always are the same. You don’t change. You’re a most remarkable woman. However, you do sometimes change your mind. You told me when I last saw you that you didn’t plan to leave Rome for the present.”


I’m pleased you remember so well what I say. But I’ve come to Florence to be with some friends who have just arrived.”


I suppose that as usual you are doing something in this case for your friends. I never knew a person like you whose life touched so many other lives.”


That depends on what you mean by one’s life. In the pres­ent case, my interest is really in doing something for you.”

That’s exactly what I mean. I’m part of your life I and a thousand others.”

Madame Merle looked a moment at Pansy.


I wonder whether she understands that,” she said.


You see she can’t stay with us.” And Pansy’s father gave rather an indifferent smile.


Go into the garden, child, and pick a flower or two for Madame Merle.”


That’s just what I wanted to do,

Pansy cried, rising quick­ly and leaving. Her father followed her to the door and stood looking after her with his back turned to his guest. There were several moments of silence, broken at last when Madame Merle remarked suddenly,

How long has it been since you made a new acquaintance?”


I don’t think I’ve made any since I met you.”


Then it’s time you should make another. There’s a friend of mine I want you to know.”


What good will it do me?” Osmond still stood looking out into the garden.


It will amuse you if nothing else. I also hope that you may profit by it.”


Profit?” He turned slowly toward her, “Are you sure that I shall?”


It’s what I hope. It will depend on yourself whether or not you care to make the effort.”


Ah, there you are! I knew something of the kind was com­ing. What in the world that might turn up here is worth the effort?”


Madame Merle seemed to grow just a trifle angry.


Don’t be foolish, Osmond,” she said.


You may pretend to have grown indifferent but no one knows better than you what is worth an effort. Haven’t I known you in the old days?”


Yes, as a matter of fact you have. Who is your friend?”


The person I came to Florence to see. She’s a niece of Mrs. Touchett, whom you’ll not have forgotten. They have just ar­rived in Florence.”


A niece? The word suggests someone young and innocent.”


Yes, she’s young twenty-three years old. She’s a great friend of mine. I met her first in England several months ago, and we became very fond of each other. I like her a lot, and I do what I don’t do every day I admire her. You’ll do the same.”


I doubt it very much. Is she beautiful, clever, rich, elegant, intelligent? It’s only on this condition that I care to make her acquaintance. As I have often told you, I know plenty of dull people already; I don’t want to know any more.”


Miss Archer isn’t dull; she’s bright as the morning. She also suits your description very well. She’s beautiful, generous, and, for an American, well born. She’s also pleasant and clever and has a handsome fortune.”


Mr. Osmond listened to this in silence, appearing to turn it over in his mind.


What do you want me to do with her?”


What you see. Get to know her.”


Isn’t she meant for something better than that?”


I don't pretend to know what people are meant for,” re­turned Madame Merle.


I only know what I can do for them.”


You are really a remarkable woman. I suppose I should appreciate your interest in me it’s very touching. I don’t quite understand it but it touches me, all the same. I also can’t see why you should think Mrs. Touchett’s niece should matter very much to me when” But he paused a moment.


When I myself have mattered so little.”



That of course is not what I meant to say. When I’ve known and appreciated such a woman as you,”


Isabel Archer’s better than I,” said Madame Merle with some emotion.


In any case, come and judge for yourself. I’m staying at Mrs. Touchett’s Palazzo Crescentini and the girl will be there. I’ve already spoken of you to her.”


Really?” Mr. Osmond turned to regard a small painting on which he himself had been recently working. He seemed to study it for a moment from various angles. At last he said: “I won’t say I’m not interested in what you propose. The girl, you say, is rich.”


She has seventy thousand pounds.”


Are you sure of the amount?”


There’s no doubt whatever about her fortune. I’ve seen it I might almost say.”


And you also say she has looks?”


Yes, but I won’t say it again for fear you may expect too much and be disappointed. Come and visit us and make a be­ginning. That’s all I ask.”


A beginning of what?”


Madame Merle was silent a little.


I want you of course to marry her.”


Comprehension, Discussion, and Vocabulary Review


A. 1. Who was the father of the girl? What was the girl’s name?

  1. Did Mr. Osmond and Madame Merle seem to know each other well?

  2. Why did Madame Merle say she had come from Rome to Florence?

  3. Why did Mr. Osmond send Pansy into the garden?

  4. Who did Madame Merle want Osmond to meet?

  5. How did Madame Merle describe Isabel?

  6. What did Osmond ask particularly about Isabel?

  7. What did Madame Merle want Osmond to do?



B. Use the following words and expressions in sentences of your own:


remarkable        change your mind


acquaintance      for the present


handsome            turn up


at last             as a matter of fact


as though          all the same