not to get into trouble. A little harm’s very soon done; a mistake’s made before one knows it. Of course if I had wished to make love to your husband I had ten years to do it in, and nothing to prevent; so it isn’t likely I shall begin to-day, when I’m so much less attractive than I was. But if I were to annoy you by seeming to take a place that doesn’t belong to me, you wouldn’t make that reflection; you’d simply say I was forgetting certain differences. I’m determined not to forget them. Certainly a good friend isn’t always thinking of that; one doesn’t suspect one’s friends of injustice. I don’t suspect you, my dear, in the least; but I suspect human nature. Don’t think I make myself uncomfortable; I’m not always watching myself. I think I sufficiently prove it in talking to you as I do now. All I wish to say is, however, that if you were to be jealous—that’s the form it would take—I should be sure to think it was a little my fault. It certainly wouldn’t be your husband’s.’

Isabel had had three years to think over Mrs Touchett’s theory that Madame Merle had made Gilbert Osmond’s marriage. We know how she had at first received it. Madame Merle might have made Gilbert Osmond’s marriage, but she certainly had not made Isabel Archer’s. That was the work of—Isabel scarcely knew what: of nature, providence, fortune, of the eternal mystery of things. It was true her aunt’s complaint had been not so much of Madame Merle’s activity as of her duplicity: she had brought about the strange event and then she had denied her guilt. Such guilt would not have been great, to Isabel’s mind; she couldn’t make a crime of Madame Merle’s having been the producing cause of the most important friendship she had ever formed. This had occurred to her just before her marriage, after her little discussion with her aunt and at a time when she was still capable of that large inward reference, the tone almost of the philosophic historian, to her scant young annals. If Madame Merle had desired her change of state she could only say it had been a very happy thought. With her, moreover, she had been perfectly straightforward; she had never concealed her high opinion of Gilbert Osmond. After their union Isabel discovered that her husband took a less convenient view of the matter; he seldom consented to finger, in talk, this roundest and smoothest bead of their social rosary.

‘Don’t you like Madame Merle?’ Isabel had once said to him. ‘She thinks a great deal of you.’

‘I’ll tell you once for all,’ Osmond had answered. ‘I liked her once better than I do to-day. I’m tired of her, and I’m rather ashamed of it. She’s so almost unnaturally good! I’m glad she’s not in Italy; it makes for relaxation—for a sort of more détente.2 Don’t talk of her too much; it seems to bring her back. She’ll come back in plenty of time.’

Madame Merle, in fact, had come back before it was too late—too late, I mean, to recover whatever advantage she might have lost. But meantime, if, as I have said, she was sensibly different, Isabel’s feelings were also not quite the same. Her consciousness of the situation was as acute as of old, but it was much less satisfying. A dissatisfied mind, whatever else it may miss, is rarely in want of reasons; they bloom as thick as buttercups in June. The fact of Madame Merle’s having had a hand in Gilbert Osmond’s marriage ceased to be one of her titles to consideration; it might have been written, after all, that there was not so much to thank her for. As time went on there was less and less, and Isabel once said to herself that perhaps without her these things would not have been. That reflection indeed was instantly stifled; she knew an immediate horror at having made it. ‘Whatever happens to me let me not be unjust,’ she said; ‘let me bear my burdens myself and not shift them upon others!’ This disposition was tested, eventually, by that ingenious apology for her present conduct which Madame Merle saw fit to make and of which I have given a sketch; for there was something irritating—there was almost an air of mockery—in her neat discriminations and clear convictions. In Isabel’s mind today there was nothing clear; there was a confusion of regrets, a complication of fears. She felt helpless as she turned away from her friend, who had just made the statements I have quoted: Madame Merle knew so little what she was thinking of! She was herself moreover so unable to explain. Jealous of her—jealous of her with Gilbert? The idea just then suggested no near reality. She almost wished jealousy had been possible; it would have made in a manner for refreshment. Wasn’t it in a manner one of the symptoms of happiness? Madame Merle, however, was wise, so wise that she might have been pretending to know Isabel better than Isabel knew herself. This young woman had always been fertile in resolutions—many of them of an elevated character; but at no period had they flourished (in the privacy of her heart) more richly than to-day. It is true that they

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