The Portrait of a Lady HTML version

Chapter 19
As Mrs. Touchett had foretold, Isabel and Madame Merle were thrown much
together during the illness of their host, so that if they had not become intimate it
would have been almost a breach of good manners. Their manners were of the
best, but in addition to this they happened to please each other. It is perhaps too
much to say that they swore an eternal friendship, but tacitly at least they called
the future to witness. Isabel did so with a perfectly good conscience, though she
would have hesitated to admit she was intimate with her new friend in the high
sense she privately attached to this term. She often wondered indeed if she ever
had been, or ever could be, intimate with any one. She had an ideal of friendship
as well as of several other sentiments, which it failed to seem to her in this case--
it had not seemed to her in other cases--that the actual completely expressed.
But she often reminded herself that there were essential reasons why one's ideal
could never become concrete. It was a thing to believe in, not to see--a matter of
faith, not of experience. Experience, however, might supply us with very
creditable imitations of it, and the part of wisdom was to make the best of these.
Certainly, on the whole, Isabel had never encountered a more agreeable and
interesting figure than Madame Merle; she had never met a person having less of
that fault which is the principal obstacle to friendship--the air of reproducing the
more tiresome, the stale, the too-familiar parts of one's own character. The gates
of the girl's confidence were opened wider than they had ever been; she said
things to this amiable auditress that she had not yet said to any one. Sometimes
she took alarm at her candour: it was as if she had given to a comparative
stranger the key to her cabinet of jewels. These spiritual gems were the only
ones of any magnitude that Isabel possessed, but there was all the greater
reason for their being carefully guarded. Afterwards, however, she always
remembered that one should never regret a generous error and that if Madame
Merle had not the merits she attributed to her, so much the worse for Madame
Merle. There was no doubt she had great merits--she was charming,
sympathetic, intelligent, cultivated. More than this (for it had not been Isabel's ill-
fortune to go through life without meeting in her own sex several persons of
whom no less could fairly be said), she was rare, superior and preeminent. There
are many amiable people in the world, and Madame Merle was far from being
vulgarly good-natured and restlessly witty. She knew how to think--an
accomplishment rare in women; and she had thought to very good purpose. Of
course, too, she knew how to feel; Isabel couldn't have spent a week with her
without being sure of that. This was indeed Madame Merle's great talent, her
most perfect gift. Life had told upon her; she had felt it strongly, and it was part of
the satisfaction to be taken in her society that when the girl talked of what she
was pleased to call serious matters this lady understood her so easily and
quickly. Emotion, it is true, had become with her rather historic; she made no
secret of the fact that the fount of passion, thanks to having been rather violently
tapped at one period, didn't flow quite so freely as of yore. She proposed