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The Portrait of a Lady

Chapter 40
Isabel had not seen much of Madame Merle since her marriage, this lady having indulged
in frequent absences from Rome. At one time she had spent six months in England; at
another she had passed a portion of a winter in Paris. She had made numerous visits to
distant friends and gave countenance to the idea that for the future she should be a less
inveterate Roman than in the past. As she had been inveterate in the past only in the sense
of constantly having an apartment in one of the sunniest niches of the Pincian--an
apartment which often stood empty--this suggested a prospect of almost constant
absence; a danger which Isabel at one period had been much inclined to deplore.
Familiarity had modified in some degree her first impression of Madame Merle, but it
had not essentially altered it; there was still much wonder of admiration in it. That
personage was armed at all points; it was a pleasure to see a character so completely
equipped for the social battle. She carried her flag discreetly, but her weapons were
polished steel, and she used them with a skill which struck Isabel as more and more that
of a veteran. She was never weary, never overcome with disgust; she never appeared to
need rest or consolation. She had her own ideas; she had of old exposed a great many of
them to Isabel, who knew also that under an appearance of extreme self-control her
highly-cultivated friend concealed a rich sensibility. But her will was mistress of her life;
there was something gallant in the way she kept going. It was as if she had learned the
secret of it--as if the art of life were some clever trick she had guessed. Isabel, as she
herself grew older, became acquainted with revulsions, with disgusts; there were days
when the world looked black and she asked herself with some sharpness what it was that
she was pretending to live for. Her old habit had been to live by enthusiasm, to fall in
love with suddenly-perceived possibilities, with the idea of some new adventure. As a
younger person she had been used to proceed from one little exaltation to the other: there
were scarcely any dull places between. But Madame Merle had suppressed enthusiasm;
she fell in love now-a-days with nothing; she lived entirely by reason and by wisdom.
There were hours when Isabel would have given anything for lessons in this art; if her
brilliant friend had been near she would have made an appeal to her. She had become
aware more than before of the advantage of being like that --of having made one's self a
firm surface, a sort of corselet of silver.
But, as I say, it was not till the winter during which we lately renewed acquaintance with
our heroine that the personage in question made again a continuous stay in Rome. Isabel
now saw more of her than she had done since her marriage; but by this time Isabel's
needs and inclinations had considerably changed. It was not at present to Madame Merle
that she would have applied for instruction; she had lost the desire to know this lady's
clever trick. If she had troubles she must keep them to herself, and if life was difficult it
would not make it easier to confess herself beaten. Madame Merle was doubtless of great
use to herself and an ornament to any circle; but was she--would she be --of use to others
in periods of refined embarrassment? The best way to profit by her friend--this indeed
Isabel had always thought--was to imitate her, to be as firm and bright as she. She
recognised no embarrassments, and Isabel, considering this fact, determined for the
fiftieth time to brush aside her own. It seemed to her too, on the renewal of an intercourse
 
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