signal from Gilbert Osmond. She may have slackened speed for an hour, but before we know it she’ll be steaming away again. Excuse another metaphor.’

Mrs Touchett excused it perhaps, but was not so much reassured as to withhold from Madame Merle the expression of her fears. ‘You who know everything,’ she said, ‘you must know this: whether that curious creature’s really making love to my niece.’

‘Gilbert Osmond?’ Madame Merle widened her clear eyes and, with a full intelligence, ‘Heaven help us,’ she exclaimed, ‘that’s an idea!’

‘Hadn’t it occurred to you?’

‘You make me feel an idiot, but I confess it hadn’t. I wonder,’ she added, ‘if it has occurred to Isabel.’

‘Oh, I shall now ask her,’ said Mrs Touchett.

Madame Merle reflected. ‘Don’t put it into her head. The thing would be to ask Mr Osmond.’

‘I can’t do that,’ said Mrs Touchett. ‘I won’t have him enquire of me—as he perfectly may with that air of his, given Isabel’s situation—what business it is of mine.’

‘I’ll ask him myself,’ Madame Merle bravely declared.

‘But what business—for him—is it of yours?’

‘It’s being none whatever is just why I can afford to speak. It’s so much less my business than any one’s else that he can put me off with anything he chooses. But it will be by the way he does this that I shall know.’

‘Pray let me hear then,’ said Mrs Touchett, ‘of the fruits of your penetration. If I can’t speak to him, however, at least I can speak to Isabel.’

Her companion sounded at this the note of warning. ‘Don’t be too quick with her. Don’t inflame her imagination.’

‘I never did anything in life to any one’s imagination. But I’m always sure of her doing something—well, not of my kind.’

‘No, you wouldn’t like this,’ Madame Merle observed without the point of interrogation.

‘Why in the world should I, pray? Mr Osmond has nothing the least solid to offer.’

Again Madame Merle was silent while her thoughtful smile drew up her mouth even more charmingly than usual toward the left corner. ‘Let us distinguish. Gilbert Osmond’s certainly not the first comer. He’s a man who in favourable conditions might very well make a great impression. He has made a great impression, to my knowledge, more than once.’

‘Don’t tell me about his probably quite cold-blooded love-affairs; they’re nothing to me!’ Mrs Touchett cried. ‘What you say’s precisely why I wish he would cease his visits. He has nothing in the world that I know of but a dozen or two of early masters and a more or less pert little daughter.’

‘The early masters are now worth a good deal of money,’ said Madame Merle,‘and the daughter’s a very young and very innocent and very harmless person.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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