Madame Merle’s hands were clasped in her lap; at this she raised them, still clasped, and held them a moment against her bosom while her eyes, a little dilated, fixed themselves on those of her friend. ‘Ah,’ she cried, ‘the clever creature!’

Mrs Touchett gave her a quick look. ‘What do you mean by that?’

For an instant Madame Merle’s colour rose and she dropped her eyes. ‘It certainly is clever to achieve such results—without an effort!’

‘There assuredly was no effort. Don’t call it an achievement.’

Madame Merle was seldom guilty of the awkwardness of retracting what she had said; her wisdom was shown rather in maintaining it and placing it in a favourable light. ‘My dear friend, Isabel would certainly not have had seventy thousand pounds left her if she had not been the most charming girl in the world. Her charm includes great cleverness.’

‘She never dreamed, I’m sure, of my husband’s doing anything for her; and I never dreamed of it either, for he never spoke to me of his intention,’ Mrs Touchett said. ‘She had no claim upon him whatever; it was no great recommendation to him that she was my niece. Whatever she achieved she achieved unconsciously.’

‘Ah,’ rejoined Madame Merle, ‘those are the greatest strokes!’

Mrs Touchett reserved her opinion. ‘The girl’s fortunate; I don’t deny that. But for the present she’s simply stupefied.’

‘Do you mean that she doesn’t know what to do with the money?’

‘That, I think, she has hardly considered. She doesn’t know what to think about the matter at all. It has been as if a big gun were suddenly fired off behind her; she’s feeling herself to see if she be hurt. It’s but three days since she received a visit from the principal executor, who came in person, very gallantly, to notify her. He told me afterwards that when he had made his little speech she suddenly burst into tears. The money’s to remain in the affairs of the bank, and she’s to draw the interest.’

Madame Merle shook her head with a wise and now quite benignant smile. ‘How very delicious! After she has done that two or three times she’ll get used to it.’ Then after a silence, ‘What does your son think of it?’ she abruptly asked.

‘He left England before the will was read—used up by his fatigue and anxiety and hurrying off to the south. He’s on his way to the Riviera and I’ve not yet heard from him. But it’s not likely he’ll ever object to anything done by his father.’

‘Didn’t you say his own share had been cut down?’

‘Only at his wish. I know that he urged his father to do something for the people in America. He’s not in the least addicted to looking after number one.’

‘It depends upon whom he regards as number one!’ said Madame Merle. And she remained thoughtful a moment, her eyes bent on the floor. ‘Am I not to see your happy niece?’ she asked at last as she raised them.

‘You may see her; but you’ll not be struck with her being happy. She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue Madonna!’1 And Mrs Touchett rang for a servant.

Isabel came in shortly after the footman had been sent to call her; and Madame Merle thought, as she appeared, that Mrs Touchett’s comparison had its force. The girl was pale and grave—an effect not

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