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The Portrait of a Lady

Chapter 23
Madame Merle, who had come to Florence on Mrs. Touchett's arrival at the
invitation of this lady--Mrs. Touchett offering her for a month the hospitality of
Palazzo Crescentini--the judicious Madame Merle spoke to Isabel afresh about
Gilbert Osmond and expressed the hope she might know him; making, however,
no such point of the matter as we have seen her do in recommending the girl
herself to Mr. Osmond's attention. The reason of this was perhaps that Isabel
offered no resistance whatever to Madame Merle's proposal. In Italy, as in
England, the lady had a multitude of friends, both among the natives of the
country and its heterogeneous visitors. She had mentioned to Isabel most of the
people the girl would find it well to "meet"--of course, she said, Isabel could know
whomever in the wide world she would--and had placed Mr. Osmond near the
top of the list. He was an old friend of her own; she had known him these dozen
years; he was one of the cleverest and most agreeable men--well, in Europe
simply. He was altogether above the respectable average; quite another affair.
He wasn't a professional charmer--far from it, and the effect he produced
depended a good deal on the state of his nerves and his spirits. When not in the
right mood he could fall as low as any one, saved only by his looking at such
hours rather like a demoralised prince in exile. But if he cared or was interested
or rightly challenged--just exactly rightly it had to be--then one felt his cleverness
and his distinction. Those qualities didn't depend, in him, as in so many people,
on his not committing or exposing himself. He had his perversities--which indeed
Isabel would find to be the case with all the men really worth knowing--and didn't
cause his light to shine equally for all persons. Madame Merle, however, thought
she could undertake that for Isabel he would be brilliant. He was easily bored, too
easily, and dull people always put him out; but a quick and cultivated girl like
Isabel would give him a stimulus which was too absent from his life. At any rate
he was a person not to miss. One shouldn't attempt to live in Italy without making
a friend of Gilbert Osmond, who knew more about the country than any one
except two or three German professors. And if they had more knowledge than he
it was he who had most perception and taste-- being artistic through and through.
Isabel remembered that her friend had spoken of him during their plunge, at
Gardencourt, into the deeps of talk, and wondered a little what was the nature of
the tie binding these superior spirits. She felt that Madame Merle's ties always
somehow had histories, and such an impression was part of the interest created
by this inordinate woman. As regards her relations with Mr. Osmond, however,
she hinted at nothing but a long-established calm friendship. Isabel said she
should be happy to know a person who had enjoyed so high a confidence for so
many years. "You ought to see a great many men," Madame Merle remarked;
"you ought to see as many as possible, so as to get used to them."
"Used to them?" Isabel repeated with that solemn stare which sometimes
seemed to proclaim her deficient in the sense of comedy. "Why, I'm not afraid of
them--I'm as used to them as the cook to the butcher-boys."