‘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.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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