‘I’m not in the least angry. I’ve only a great desire to retrieve the situation. Do you consider that Warburton has left us for ever?’

‘I can’t tell you; I don’t understand you. It’s all over; please let it rest. Osmond has talked to me a great deal about it, and I’ve nothing more to say or to hear. I’ve no doubt.’ Isabel added, ‘that he’ll be very happy to discuss the subject with you.’

‘I know what he thinks; he came to see me last evening.’

‘As soon as you had arrived? Then you know all about it and you needn’t apply to me for information.’

‘It isn’t information I want. At bottom it’s sympathy. I had set my heart on that marriage; the idea did what so few things do—it satisfied the imagination.’

‘Your imagination, yes. But not that of the persons concerned.’

‘You mean by that of course that I’m not concerned. Of course not directly. But when one’s such an old friend one can’t help having something at stake. You forget how long I’ve known Pansy. You mean, of course,’ Madame Merle added, ‘that you are one of the persons concerned.’

‘No; that’s the last thing I mean. I’m very weary of it all.’

Madame Merle hesitated a little. ‘Ah yes, your work’s done.’

‘Take care what you say,’ said Isabel very gravely.

‘Oh, I take care; never perhaps more than when it appears least. Your husband judges you severely.’

Isabel made for a moment no answer to this; she felt choked with bitterness. It was not the insolence of Madame Merle’s informing her that Osmond had been taking her into his confidence as against his wife that struck her most; for she was not quick to believe that this was meant for insolence. Madame Merle was very rarely insolent, and only when it was exactly right. It was not right now, or at least it was not right yet. What touched Isabel like a drop of corrosive acid upon an open wound was the knowledge that Osmond dishonoured her in his words as well as in his thoughts. ‘Should you like to know how I judge him?’ she asked at last.

‘No, because you’d never tell me. And it would be painful for me to know.’

There was a pause, and for the first time since she had known her Isabel thought Madame Merle disagreeable. She wished she would leave her. ‘Remember how attractive Pansy is, and don’t despair,’ she said abruptly, with a desire that this should close their interview.

But Madame Merle’s expansive presence underwent no contraction. She only gathered her mantle about her and, with the movement, scattered upon the air a faint, agreeable fragrance. ‘I don’t despair; I feel encouraged. And I didn’t come to scold you; I came if possible to learn the truth. I know you’ll tell it if I ask you. It’s an immense blessing with you that one can count upon that. No, you won’t believe what a comfort I take in it.’

‘What truth do you speak of?’ Isabel asked, wondering.

‘Just this: whether Lord Warburton changed his mind quite of his own movement or because you recommended it. To please himself I mean, or to please you. Think of the confidence I must still have in you, in spite of having lost a little of it,’ Madame Merle continued with a smile, ‘to ask such a question as that!’ She sat looking at her friend, to judge the effect of her words, and then went on: ‘Now don’t be heroic, don’t be unreasonable, don’t take offence. It seems to me I do you an honour in speaking so. I don’t know another woman to whom I would do it. I haven’t the least idea that any other woman would tell me the

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