The Awkward Age, by Henry James

Book First. Lady Julia

I

Save when it happened to rain Vanderbank always walked home, but he usually took a hansom when the rain was moderate and adopted the preference of the philosopher when it was heavy. On this occasion he therefore recognised as the servant opened the door a congruity between the weather and the “four-wheeler” that, in the empty street, under the glazed radiance, waited and trickled and blackly glittered. The butler mentioned it as on such a wild night the only thing they could get, and Vanderbank, having replied that it was exactly what would do best, prepared in the doorway to put up his umbrella and dash down to it. At this moment he heard his name pronounced from behind and on turning found himself joined by the elderly fellow guest with whom he had talked after dinner and about whom later on upstairs he had sounded his hostess. It was at present a clear question of how this amiable, this apparently unassertive person should get home — of the possibility of the other cab for which even now one of the footmen, with a whistle to his lips, craned out his head and listened through the storm. Mr. Longdon wondered to Vanderbank if their course might by any chance be the same; which led our young friend immediately to express a readiness to see him safely in any direction that should accommodate him. As the footman’s whistle spent itself in vain they got together into the four-wheeler, where at the end of a few moments more Vanderbank became conscious of having proposed his own rooms as a wind-up to their drive. Wouldn’t that be a better finish of the evening than just separating in the wet? He liked his new acquaintance, who struck him as in a manner clinging to him, who was staying at an hotel presumably at that hour dismal, and who, confessing with easy humility to a connexion positively timid with a club at which one couldn’t have a visitor, accepted his invitation under pressure. Vanderbank, when they arrived, was amused at the air of added extravagance with which he said he would keep the cab: he so clearly enjoyed to that extent the sense of making a night of it. “You young men, I believe, keep them for hours, eh? At least they did in my time,” he laughed —“the wild ones! But I think of them as all wild then. I dare say that when one settles in town one learns how to manage; only I’m afraid, you know, that I’ve got completely out of it. I do feel really quite mouldy. It’s a matter of thirty years —!”

“Since you’ve been in London?”

“For more than a few days at a time, upon my honour. You won’t understand that — any more, I dare say, than I myself quite understand how at the end of all I’ve accepted this queer view of the doom of coming back. But I don’t doubt I shall ask you, if you’ll be so good as to let me, for the help of a hint or two: as to how to do, don’t you know? and not to — what do you fellows call it? — BE done. Now about one of THESE things —!”

One of these things was the lift in which, at no great pace and with much rumbling and creaking, the porter conveyed the two gentlemen to the alarming eminence, as Mr. Longdon measured their flight, at which Vanderbank perched. The impression made on him by this contrivance showed him as unsophisticated, yet when his companion, at the top, ushering him in, gave a touch to the quick light and, in the pleasant ruddy room, all convenience and character, had before the fire another look at him, it was not to catch in him any protrusive angle. Mr. Longdon was slight and neat, delicate of body and both keen and kind of face, with black brows finely marked and thick smooth hair in which the silver had deep shadows. He wore neither whisker nor moustache and seemed to carry in the flicker of his quick brown eyes and the positive sun-play of his smile even more than the equivalent of what might, superficially or stupidly, elsewhere be missed in him; which was mass, substance, presence — what is vulgarly called importance. He had indeed no presence but had somehow an effect. He might almost have been a priest if priests, as it occurred to Vanderbank, were ever such dandies. He had at all events conclusively doubled the Cape of the years — he would never again see fifty-five: to the warning light of that bleak headland he presented a back sufficiently conscious. Yet though to Vanderbank he couldn’t look young he came near — strikingly and amusingly — looking new: this after a minute appeared mainly perhaps indeed in the perfection of his evening dress and the special smartness of the sleeveless overcoat he had evidently had made to wear with it and might even actually be wearing for the first time. He had talked to Vanderbank at Mrs. Brookenham’s about Beccles and Suffolk; but it was not at Beccles nor anywhere in the county that these ornaments had been designed. His action had already been, with however little purpose, to present the region to his interlocutor in a favourable light. Vanderbank, for that matter, had the kind of imagination that likes to PLACE an object, even to the point of losing sight of it in the conditions; he already saw the nice old nook it must have taken to keep a man of intelligence so fresh while suffering him to remain so fine. The product of Beccles accepted at all events a cigarette — still much as a joke and an adventure — and looked about him as if even more pleased than he expected. Then he broke, through his double eye-glass, into an exclamation that was like a passing pang of envy and regret. “You young men, you young men —!”

“Well, what about us?” Vanderbank’s tone encouraged the courtesy of the reference. “I’m not so young moreover as that comes to.”

“How old are you then, pray?”

“Why I’m thirty-four.”

“What do you call that? I’m a hundred and three!” Mr. Longdon at all events took out his watch. “It’s only a quarter past eleven.” Then with a quick change of interest, “What did you say is your public office?” he enquired.

“The General Audit. I’m Deputy Chairman.”

“Dear!” Mr. Longdon looked at him as if he had had fifty windows. “What a head you must have!”

“Oh yes — our head’s Sir Digby Dence.”

“And what do we do for you?”

“Well, you gild the pill — though not perhaps very thick. But it’s a decent berth.”

“A thing a good many fellows would give a pound of their flesh for?”

Vanderbank’s visitor appeared so to deprecate too faint a picture that he dropped all scruples. “I’m the most envied man I know — so that if I were a shade less amiable I should be one of the most hated.”

Mr. Longdon laughed, yet not quite as if they were joking. “I see. Your pleasant way carries it off.”

Vanderbank was, however, not serious. “Wouldn’t it carry off anything?”

Again his friend, through the pince-nez, appeared to crown him with a Whitehall cornice. “I think I ought to let you know I’m studying you. It’s really fair to tell you,” he continued with an earnestness not discomposed by the indulgence in Vanderbank’s face. “It’s all right — all right!” he reassuringly added, having meanwhile stopped before a photograph suspended on the wall. “That’s your mother!” he brought out with something of the elation of a child making a discovery or guessing a riddle. “I don’t make you out in her yet — in my recollection of her, which, as I told you, is perfect; but I dare say I soon shall.”

Vanderbank was more and more aware that the kind of amusement he excited would never in the least be a bar to affection. “Please take all your time.”

Mr. Longdon looked at his watch again. “Do you think I HAD better keep it?”

“The cab?” Vanderbank liked him so, found in him such a promise of pleasant things, that he was almost tempted to say: “Dear and delightful sir, don’t weigh that question; I’ll pay, myself, for the man’s whole night!” His approval at all events was complete.

“Most certainly. That’s the only way not to think of it.”

“Oh you young men, you young men!” his guest again murmured. He had passed on to the photograph — Vanderbank had many, too many photographs — of some other relation, and stood wiping the gold-mounted glasses through which he had been darting admirations and catching side-lights for shocks. “Don’t talk nonsense,” he continued as his friend attempted once more to throw in a protest; “I belong to a different period of history. There have been things this evening that have made me feel as if I had been disinterred — literally dug up from a long sleep. I assure you there have!”— he really pressed the point.

Vanderbank wondered a moment what things in particular these might be; he found himself wanting to get at everything his visitor represented, to enter into his consciousness and feel, as it were, on his side. He glanced with an intention freely sarcastic at an easy possibility. “The extraordinary vitality of Brookenham?”

Mr. Longdon, with nippers in place again, fixed on him a gravity that failed to prevent his discovering in the eyes behind them a shy reflexion of his irony. “Oh Brookenham! You must tell me all about Brookenham.”

“I see that’s not what you mean.”

Mr. Longdon forbore to deny it. “I wonder if you’ll understand what I mean.” Vanderbank bristled with the wish to be put to the test, but was checked before he could say so. “And what’s HIS place — Brookenham’s?”

“Oh Rivers and Lakes — an awfully good thing. He got it last year.”

Mr. Longdon — but not too grossly — wondered. “How did he get it?”

Vanderbank laughed. “Well, SHE got it.”

His friend remained grave. “And about how much now —?”

“Oh twelve hundred — and lots of allowances and boats and things. To do the work!” Vanderbank, still with a certain levity, added.

“And what IS the work?”

The young man had a pause. “Ask HIM. He’ll like to tell you.”

“Yet he seemed to have but little to say.” Mr. Longdon exactly measured it again.

“Ah not about that. Try him.”

He looked more sharply at his host, as if vaguely suspicious of a trap; then not less vaguely he sighed. “Well, it’s what I came up for — to try you all. But do they live on that?” he continued.

Vanderbank once more debated. “One doesn’t quite know what they live on. But they’ve means — for it was just that fact, I remember, that showed Brookenham’s getting the place wasn’t a job. It was given, I mean, not to his mere domestic need, but to his notorious efficiency. He has a property — an ugly little place in Gloucestershire — which they sometimes let. His elder brother has the better one, but they make up an income.”

Mr. Longdon for an instant lost himself. “Yes, I remember — one heard of those things at the time. And SHE must have had something.”

“Yes indeed, she had something — and she always has her intense cleverness. She knows thoroughly how. They do it tremendously well.”

“Tremendously well,” Mr. Longdon intelligently echoed. “But a house in Buckingham Crescent, with the way they seem to have built through to all sorts of other places —?”

“Oh they’re all right,” Vanderbank soothingly dropped.

“One likes to feel that of people with whom one has dined. There are four children?” his friend went on.

“The older boy, whom you saw and who in his way is a wonder, the older girl, whom you must see, and two youngsters, male and female, whom you mustn’t.”

There might by this time, in the growing interest of their talk, have been almost nothing too uncanny for Mr. Longdon to fear it. “You mean the youngsters are — unfortunate?”

“No — they’re only, like all the modern young, I think, mysteries, terrible little baffling mysteries.” Vanderbank had found amusement again — it flickered so from his friend’s face that, really at moments to the point of alarm, his explanations deepened darkness. Then with more interest he harked back. “I know the thing you just mentioned — the thing that strikes you as odd.” He produced his knowledge quite with elation. “The talk.” Mr. Longdon on this only looked at him in silence and harder, but he went on with assurance: “Yes, the talk — for we do talk, I think.” Still his guest left him without relief, only fixing him and his suggestion with a suspended judgement. Whatever the old man was on the point of saying, however, he disposed of in a curtailed murmur; he had already turned afresh to the series of portraits, and as he glanced at another Vanderbank spoke afresh.

“It was very interesting to me to hear from you there, when the ladies had left us, how many old threads you were prepared to pick up.”

Mr. Longdon had paused. “I’m an old boy who remembers the mothers,” he at last replied.

“Yes, you told me how well you remember Mrs. Brookenham’s.”

“Oh, oh!”— and he arrived at a new subject. “This must be your sister Mary.”

“Yes; it’s very bad, but as she’s dead —”

“Dead? Dear, dear!”

“Oh long ago”— Vanderbank eased him off. “It’s delightful of you,” this informant went on, “to have known also such a lot of MY people.”

Mr. Longdon turned from his contemplation with a visible effort. “I feel obliged to you for taking it so; it mightn’t — one never knows — have amused you. As I told you there, the first thing I did was to ask Fernanda about the company; and when she mentioned your name I immediately said: ‘Would he like me to speak to him?’”

“And what did Fernanda say?”

Mr. Longdon stared. “Do YOU call her Fernanda?”

Vanderbank felt ever so much more guilty than he would have expected. “You think it too much in the manner we just mentioned?”

His friend hesitated; then with a smile a trifle strange: “Pardon me; I didn’t mention —”

“No, you didn’t; and your scruple was magnificent. In point of fact,” Vanderbank pursued, “I DON’T call Mrs. Brookenham by her Christian name.”

Mr. Longdon’s clear eyes were searching. “Unless in speaking of her to others?” He seemed really to wish to know.

Vanderbank was but too ready to satisfy him. “I dare say we seem to you a vulgar lot of people. That’s not the way, I can see, you speak of ladies at Beccles.”

“Oh if you laugh at me —!” And his visitor turned off.

“Don’t threaten me,” said Vanderbank, “or I WILL send away the cab. Of course I know what you mean. It will be tremendously interesting to hear how the sort of thing we’ve fallen into — oh we HAVE fallen in! — strikes your fresh, your uncorrupted ear. Do have another cigarette. Sunk as I must appear to you it sometimes strikes even mine. But I’m not sure as regards Mrs. Brookenham, whom I’ve known a long time.”

Mr. Longdon again took him up. “What do you people call a long time?”

Vanderbank considered. “Ah there you are! And now we’re ‘we people’! That’s right — give it to us. I’m sure that in one way or another it’s all earned. Well, I’ve known her ten years. But awfully well.”

“What do you call awfully well?”

“We people?” Vanderbank’s enquirer, with his continued restless observation, moving nearer, the young man had laid on his shoulder the lightest of friendly hands. “Don’t you perhaps ask too much? But no,” he added quickly and gaily, “of course you don’t: if I don’t look out I shall have exactly the effect on you I don’t want. I dare say I don’t know HOW well I know Mrs. Brookenham. Mustn’t that sort of thing be put in a manner to the proof? What I meant to say just now was that I wouldn’t — at least I hope I shouldn’t — have named her as I did save to an old friend.”

Mr. Longdon looked promptly satisfied and reassured. “You probably heard me address her myself.”

“I did, but you’ve your rights, and that wouldn’t excuse me. The only thing is that I go to see her every Sunday.”

Mr. Longdon pondered and then, a little to Vanderbank’s surprise, at any rate to his deeper amusement, candidly asked: “Only Fernanda? No other lady?”

“Oh yes, several other ladies.”

Mr. Longdon appeared to hear this with pleasure. “You’re quite right. We don’t make enough of Sunday at Beccles.”

“Oh we make plenty of it in London!” Vanderbank said. “And I think it’s rather in my interest I should mention that Mrs. Brookenham calls ME—”

His visitor covered him now with an attention that just operated as a check. “By your Christian name?”

Before Vanderbank could in any degree attenuate “What IS your Christian name?” Mr. Longdon asked.

Vanderbank felt of a sudden almost guilty — as if his answer could only impute extravagance to the lady. “My Christian name”— he blushed it out —“is Gustavus.”

His friend took a droll conscious leap. “And she calls you Gussy?”

“No, not even Gussy. But I scarcely think I ought to tell you,” he pursued, “if she herself gave you no glimpse of the fact. Any implication that she consciously avoided it might make you see deeper depths.”

He spoke with pointed levity, but his companion showed him after an instant a face just covered — and a little painfully — with the vision of the possibility brushed away by the joke. “Oh I’m not so bad as that!” Mr. Longdon modestly ejaculated.

“Well, she doesn’t do it always,” Vanderbank laughed, “and it’s nothing moreover to what some people are called. Why, there was a fellow there —” He pulled up, however, and, thinking better of it, selected another instance. “The Duchess — weren’t you introduced to the Duchess? — never calls me anything but ‘Vanderbank’ unless she calls me ‘caro mio.’ It wouldn’t have taken much to make her appeal to YOU with an ‘I say, Longdon!’ I can quite hear her.”

Mr. Longdon, focussing the effect of the sketch, pointed its moral with an indulgent: “Oh well, a FOREIGN duchess!” He could make his distinctions.

“Yes, she’s invidiously, cruelly foreign,” Vanderbank agreed: “I’ve never indeed seen a woman avail herself so cleverly, to make up for the obloquy of that state, of the benefits and immunities it brings with it. She has bloomed in the hot-house of her widowhood — she’s a Neapolitan hatched by an incubator.”

“A Neapolitan?”— Mr. Longdon seemed all civilly to wish he had only known it.

“Her husband was one; but I believe that dukes at Naples are as thick as princes at Petersburg. He’s dead, at any rate, poor man, and she has come back here to live.”

“Gloomily, I should think — after Naples?” Mr. Longdon threw out.

“Oh it would take more than even a Neapolitan past —! However”— and the young man caught himself up —“she lives not in what’s behind her, but in what’s before — she lives in her precious little Aggie.”

“Little Aggie?” Mr. Longdon risked a cautious interest.

“I don’t take a liberty there,” Vanderbank smiled: “I speak only of the young Agnesina, a little girl, the Duchess’s niece, or rather I believe her husband’s, whom she has adopted — in the place of a daughter early lost — and has brought to England to marry.”

“Ah to some great man of course!”

Vanderbank thought. “I don’t know.” He gave a vague but expressive sigh. “She’s rather lovely, little Aggie.”

Mr. Longdon looked conspicuously subtle. “Then perhaps YOU’RE the man!”

“Do I look like a ‘great’ one?” Vanderbank broke in.

His visitor, turning away from him, again embraced the room. “Oh dear, yes!”

“Well then, to show how right you are, there’s the young lady.” He pointed to an object on one of the tables, a small photograph with a very wide border of something that looked like crimson fur.

Mr. Longdon took up the picture; he was serious now. “She’s very beautiful — but she’s not a little girl.”

“At Naples they develop early. She’s only seventeen or eighteen, I suppose; but I never know how old — or at least how young — girls are, and I’m not sure. An aunt, at any rate, has of course nothing to conceal. She IS extremely pretty — with extraordinary red hair and a complexion to match; great rarities I believe, in that race and latitude. She gave me the portrait — frame and all. The frame is Neapolitan enough and little Aggie’s charming.” Then Vanderbank subjoined: “But not so charming as little Nanda.”

“Little Nanda? — have you got HER?” The old man was all eagerness.

“She’s over there beside the lamp — also a present from the original.”

II

Mr. Longdon had gone to the place — little Nanda was in glazed white wood. He took her up and held her out; for a moment he said nothing, but presently, over his glasses, rested on his host a look intenser even than his scrutiny of the faded image. “Do they give their portraits now?”

“Little girls — innocent lambs? Surely — to old friends. Didn’t they in your time?”

Mr. Longdon studied the portrait again; after which, with an exhalation of something between superiority and regret, “They never did to me,” he returned.

“Well, you can have all you want now!” Vanderbank laughed.

His friend gave a slow droll headshake. “I don’t want them ‘now’!”

“You could do with them, my dear sir, still,” Vanderbank continued in the same manner, “every bit I do!”

“I’m sure you do nothing you oughtn’t.” Mr. Longdon kept the photograph and continued to look at it. “Her mother told me about her — promised me I should see her next time.”

“You must — she’s a great friend of mine.”

Mr. Longdon was really deep in it. “Is she clever?”

Vanderbank turned it over. “Well, you’ll tell me if you think so.”

“Ah with a child of seventeen —!” Mr. Longdon murmured it as if in dread of having to pronounce. “This one too IS seventeen?”

Vanderbank again considered. “Eighteen.” He just hung fire once more, then brought out: “Well, call it nearly nineteen. I’ve kept her birthdays,” he laughed.

His companion caught at the idea. “Upon my honour I should like to! When is the next?”

“You’ve plenty of time — the fifteenth of June.”

“I’m only too sorry to wait.” Laying down the object he had been examining Mr. Longdon took another turn about the room, and his manner was such an appeal to his host to accept his restlessness that as he circulated the latter watched him with encouragement. “I said to you just now that I knew the mothers, but it would have been more to the point to say the grandmothers.” He stopped before his young friend, then nodded at the image of Nanda. “I knew HERS. She put it at something less.”

Vanderbank rather failed to understand. “The old lady? Put what?”

Mr. Longdon’s face showed him as for a moment feeling his way. “I’m speaking of Mrs. Brookenham. She spoke of her daughter as only sixteen.”

Vanderbank’s amusement at the tone of this broke out. “She usually does! She has done so, I think, for the last year or two.”

His visitor dropped upon his sofa as with the weight of something sudden and fresh; then from this place, with a sharp little movement, tossed into the fire the end of a cigarette. Vanderbank offered him another, and as he accepted it and took a light he said: “I don’t know what you’re doing with me — I never at home smoke so much!” But he puffed away and, seated near, laid his hand on Vanderbank’s arm as to help himself to utter something too delicate not to be guarded and yet too important not to be risked. “Now that’s the sort of thing I did mean — as one of my impressions.” Vanderbank continued at a loss and he went on: “I refer — if you don’t mind my saying so — to what you said just now.”

Vanderbank was conscious of a deep desire to draw from him whatever might come; so sensible was it somehow that whatever in him was good was also thoroughly personal. But our young friend had to think a minute. “I see, I see. Nothing’s more probable than that I’ve said something nasty; but which of my particular horrors?”

“Well then, your conveying that she makes her daughter out younger —!”

“To make herself out the same?” Vanderbank took him straight up. “It was nasty my doing that? I see, I see. Yes, yes: I rather gave her away, and you’re struck by it — as is most delightful you SHOULD be-because you’re in every way of a better tradition and, knowing Mrs. Brookenham’s my friend, can’t conceive of one’s playing on a friend a trick so vulgar and odious. It strikes you also probably as the kind of thing we must be constantly doing; it strikes you that right and left, probably, we keep giving each other away. Well, I dare say we do. Yes, ‘come to think of it,’ as they say in America, we do. But what shall I tell you? Practically we all know it and allow for it and it’s as broad as it’s long. What’s London life after all? It’s tit for tat!”

“Ah but what becomes of friendship?” Mr. Longdon earnestly and pleadingly asked, while he still held Vanderbank’s arm as if under the spell of the vivid explanation supplied him.

The young man met his eyes only the more sociably. “Friendship?”

“Friendship.” Mr. Longdon maintained the full value of the word.

“Well,” his companion risked, “I dare say it isn’t in London by any means what it is at Beccles. I quite literally mean that,” Vanderbank reassuringly added; “I never really have believed in the existence of friendship in big societies — in great towns and great crowds. It’s a plant that takes time and space and air; and London society is a huge ‘squash,’ as we elegantly call it — an elbowing pushing perspiring chattering mob.”

“Ah I don’t say THAT of you!” the visitor murmured with a withdrawal of his hand and a visible scruple for the sweeping concession he had evoked.

“Do say it then — for God’s sake; let some one say it, so that something or other, whatever it may be, may come of it! It’s impossible to say too much — it’s impossible to say enough. There isn’t anything any one can say that I won’t agree to.”

“That shows you really don’t care,” the old man returned with acuteness.

“Oh we’re past saving, if that’s what you mean!” Vanderbank laughed.

“You don’t care, you don’t care!” his guest repeated, “and — if I may be frank with you — I shouldn’t wonder if it were rather a pity.”

“A pity I don’t care?”

“You ought to, you ought to.” And Mr. Longdon paused. “May I say all I think?”

“I assure you I shall! You’re awfully interesting.”

“So are you, if you come to that. It’s just what I’ve had in my head. There’s something I seem to make out in you —!” He abruptly dropped this, however, going on in another way. “I remember the rest of you, but why did I never see YOU?”

“I must have been at school — at college. Perhaps you did know my brothers, elder and younger.”

“There was a boy with your mother at Malvern. I was near her there for three months in-what WAS the year?”

“Yes, I know,” Vanderbank replied while his guest tried to fix the date. “It was my brother Miles. He was awfully clever, but had no health, poor chap, and we lost him at seventeen. She used to take houses at such places with him — it was supposed to be for his benefit.”

Mr. Longdon listened with a visible recovery. “He used to talk to me — I remember he asked me questions I couldn’t answer and made me dreadfully ashamed. But I lent him books — partly, upon my honour, to make him think that as I had them I did know something. He read everything and had a lot to say about it. I used to tell your mother he had a great future.”

Vanderbank shook his head sadly and kindly. “So he had. And you remember Nancy, who was handsome and who was usually with them?” he went on.

Mr. Longdon looked so uncertain that he explained he meant his other sister; on which his companion said: “Oh her? Yes, she was charming — she evidently had a future too.”

“Well, she’s in the midst of her future now. She’s married.”

“And whom did she marry?”

“A fellow called Toovey. A man in the City.”

“Oh!” said Mr. Longdon a little blankly. Then as if to retrieve his blankness: “But why do you call her Nancy? Wasn’t her name Blanche?”

“Exactly — Blanche Bertha Vanderbank.”

Mr. Longdon looked half-mystified and half-distressed. “And now she’s Nancy Toovey?”

Vanderbank broke into laughter at his dismay. “That’s what every one calls her.”

“But why?”

“Nobody knows. You see you were right about her future.”

Mr. Longdon gave another of his soft smothered sighs; he had turned back again to the first photograph, which he looked at for a longer time. “Well, it wasn’t HER way.”

“My mother’s? No indeed. Oh my mother’s way —!” Vanderbank waited, then added gravely: “She was taken in time.”

Mr. Longdon turned half-round as to reply to this, but instead of replying proceeded afresh to an examination of the expressive oval in the red plush frame. He took up little Aggie, who appeared to interest him, and abruptly observed: “Nanda isn’t so pretty.”

“No, not nearly. There’s a great question whether Nanda’s pretty at all.”

Mr. Longdon continued to inspect her more favoured friend; which led him after a moment to bring out: “She ought to be, you know. Her grandmother was.”

“Oh and her mother,” Vanderbank threw in. “Don’t you think Mrs. Brookenham lovely?”

Mr. Longdon kept him waiting a little. “Not so lovely as Lady Julia. Lady Julia had —!” He faltered; then, as if there were too much to say, disposed of the question. “Lady Julia had everything.”

Vanderbank gathered hence an impression that determined him more and more to diplomacy. “But isn’t that just what Mrs. Brookenham has?”

This time the old man was prompt. “Yes, she’s very brilliant, but it’s a totally different thing.” He laid little Aggie down and moved away as without a purpose; but his friend presently perceived his purpose to be another glance at the other young lady. As if all accidentally and absently he bent again over the portrait of Nanda. “Lady Julia was exquisite and this child’s exactly like her.”

Vanderbank, more and more conscious of something working in him, was more and more interested. “If Nanda’s so like her, WAS she so exquisite?”

“Oh yes; every one was agreed about that.” Mr. Longdon kept his eyes on the face, trying a little, Vanderbank even thought, to conceal his own. “She was one of the greatest beauties of her day.”

“Then IS Nanda so like her?” Vanderbank persisted, amused at his friend’s transparency.

“Extraordinarily. Her mother told me all about her.”

“Told you she’s as beautiful as her grandmother?”

Mr. Longdon turned it over. “Well, that she has just Lady Julia’s expression. She absolutely HAS it — I see it here.” He was delightfully positive. “She’s much more like the dead than like the living.”

Vanderbank saw in this too many deep things not to follow them up. One of these was, to begin with, that his guest had not more than half-succumbed to Mrs. Brookenham’s attraction, if indeed he had by a fine originality not resisted it altogether. That in itself, for an observer deeply versed in this lady, was attaching and beguiling. Another indication was that he found himself, in spite of such a break in the chain, distinctly predisposed to Nanda. “If she reproduces then so vividly Lady Julia,” the young man threw out, “why does she strike you as so much less pretty than her foreign friend there, who is after all by no means a prodigy?”

The subject of this address, with one of the photographs in his hand, glanced, while he reflected, at the other. Then with a subtlety that matched itself for the moment with Vanderbank’s: “You just told me yourself that the little foreign person —”

“Is ever so much the lovelier of the two? So I did. But you’ve promptly recognised it. It’s the first time,” Vanderbank went on, to let him down more gently, “that I’ve heard Mrs. Brookenham admit the girl’s good looks.”

“Her own girl’s? ‘Admit’ them?”

“I mean grant them to be even as good as they are. I myself, I must tell you, extremely like Nanda’s appearance. I think Lady Julia’s granddaughter has in her face, in spite of everything —!”

“What do you mean by everything?” Mr. Longdon broke in with such an approach to resentment that his host’s gaiety overflowed.

“You’ll see — when you do see. She has no features. No, not one,” Vanderbank inexorably pursued; “unless indeed you put it that she has two or three too many. What I was going to say was that she has in her expression all that’s charming in her nature. But beauty, in London”— and feeling that he held his visitor’s attention he gave himself the pleasure of freely presenting his idea —“staring glaring obvious knock-down beauty, as plain as a poster on a wall, an advertisement of soap or whiskey, something that speaks to the crowd and crosses the footlights, fetches such a price in the market that the absence of it, for a woman with a girl to marry, inspires endless terrors and constitutes for the wretched pair (to speak of mother and daughter alone) a sort of social bankruptcy. London doesn’t love the latent or the lurking, has neither time nor taste nor sense for anything less discernible than the red flag in front of the steam-roller. It wants cash over the counter and letters ten feet high. Therefore you see it’s all as yet rather a dark question for poor Nanda — a question that in a way quite occupies the foreground of her mother’s earnest little life. How WILL she look, what will be thought of her and what will she be able to do for herself? She’s at the age when the whole thing — speaking of her ‘attractions,’ her possible share of good looks — is still to a degree in a fog. But everything depends on it.”

Mr. Longdon had by this time come back to him. “Excuse my asking it again — for you take such jumps: what, once more, do you mean by everything?”

“Why naturally her marrying. Above all her marrying early.”

Mr. Longdon stood before the sofa. “What do you mean by early?”

“Well, we do doubtless get up later than at Beccles; but that gives us, you see, shorter days. I mean in a couple of seasons. Soon enough,” Vanderbank developed, “to limit the strain —!” He was moved to higher gaiety by his friend’s expression.

“What do you mean by the strain?”

“Well, the complication of her being there.”

“Being where?”

“You do put one through!” Vanderbank laughed. But he showed himself perfectly prepared. “Out of the school-room and where she is now. In her mother’s drawing-room. At her mother’s fireside.”

Mr. Longdon stared. “But where else should she be?”

“At her husband’s, don’t you see?”

He looked as if he quite saw, yet was nevertheless not to be put off from his original challenge. “Ah certainly; but not as if she had been pushed down the chimney. All in good time.”

“What do you call good time?”

“Why time to make herself loved.”

Vanderbank wondered. “By the men who come to the house?”

Mr. Longdon slightly attenuated this way of putting it. “Yes — and in the home circle. Where’s the ‘strain’ of her being suffered to be a member of it?”

III

Vanderbank at this left his corner of the sofa and, with his hands in his pockets and a manner so amused that it might have passed for excited, took several paces about the room while his interlocutor, watching him, waited for his response. That gentleman, as this response for a minute hung fire, took his turn at sitting down, and then Vanderbank stopped before him with a face in which something had been still more brightly kindled. “You ask me more things than I can tell you. You ask me more than I think you suspect. You must come and see me again — you must let me come and see you. You raise the most interesting questions and we must sooner or later have them all out.”

Mr. Longdon looked happy in such a prospect, but once more took out his watch. “It wants five minutes to midnight. Which means that I must go now.”

“Not in the least. There are satisfactions you too must give.” His host, with an irresistible hand, confirmed him in his position and pressed upon him another cigarette. His resistance rang hollow — it was clearly, he judged, such an occasion for sacrifices. Vanderbank’s view of it meanwhile was quite as marked. “You see there’s ever so much more you must in common kindness tell me.”

Mr. Longdon sat there like a shy singer invited to strike up. “I told you everything at Mrs. Brookenham’s. It comes over me now how I dropped on you.”

“What you told me,” Vanderbank returned, “was excellent so far as it went; but it was only after all that, having caught my name, you had asked of our friend if I belonged to people you had known years before, and then, from what she had said, had — with what you were so good as to call great pleasure — made out that I did. You came round to me on this, after dinner, and gave me a pleasure still greater. But that only takes us part of the way.” Mr. Longdon said nothing, but there was something appreciative in his conscious lapses; they were a tribute to his young friend’s frequent felicity. This personage indeed appeared more and more to take them for that — which was not without its effect on his spirits. At last, with a flight of some freedom, he brought their pause to a close. “You loved Lady Julia.” Then as the attitude of his guest, who serenely met his eyes, was practically a contribution to the subject, he went on with a feeling that he had positively pleased. “You lost her — and you’re unmarried.”

Mr. Longdon’s smile was beautiful — it supplied so many meanings that when presently he spoke he seemed already to have told half his story. “Well, my life took a form. It had to, or I don’t know what would have become of me, and several things that all happened at once helped me out. My father died — I came into the little place in Suffolk. My sister, my only one, who had married and was older than I, lost within a year or two both her husband and her little boy. I offered her, in the country, a home, for her trouble was greater than any trouble of mine. She came, she stayed; it went on and on and we lived there together. We were sorry for each other and it somehow suited us. But she died two years ago.”

Vanderbank took all this in, only wishing to show — wishing by this time quite tenderly — that he even read into it deeply enough all the unsaid. He filled out another of his friend’s gaps. “And here you are.” Then he invited Mr. Longdon himself to make the stride. “Well, you’ll be a great success.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Why, that we shall be so infatuated with you that we shall make your life a burden to you. You’ll see soon enough what I mean by it.”

“Possibly,” the old man said; “to understand you I shall have to. You speak of something that as yet — with my race practically run — I know nothing about. I was no success as a young man. I mean of the sort that would have made most difference. People wouldn’t look at me —”

“Well, WE shall look at you,” Vanderbank declared. Then he added: “What people do you mean?” And before his friend could reply: “Lady Julia?”

Mr. Longdon’s assent was mute. “Ah she was not the worst! I mean that what made it so bad,” he continued, “was that they all really liked me. Your mother, I think — as to THAT, the dreadful consolatory ‘liking’— even more than the others.”

“My mother?”— Vanderbank was surprised. “You mean there was a question —?”

“Oh for but half a minute! It didn’t take her long. It was five years after your father’s death.”

This explanation was very delicately made. “She COULD marry again.”

“And I suppose you know she did,” Vanderbank returned.

“I knew it soon enough!” With this, abruptly, Mr. Longdon pulled himself forward. “Good-night, good-night.”

“Good-night,” said Vanderbank. “But wasn’t that AFTER Lady Julia?”

On the edge of the sofa, his hands supporting him, Mr. Longdon looked straight. “There was nothing after Lady Julia.”

“I see.” His companion smiled. “My mother was earlier.”

“She was extremely good to me. I’m not speaking of that time at Malvern — that came later.”

“Precisely — I understand. You’re speaking of the first years of her widowhood.”

Mr. Longdon just faltered. “I should call them rather the last. Six months later came her second marriage.”

Vanderbank’s interest visibly improved. “Ah it was THEN? That was about my seventh year.” He called things back and pieced them together. “But she must have been older than you.”

“Yes — a little. She was kindness itself to me at all events, then and afterwards. That was the charm of the weeks at Malvern.”

“I see,” the young man laughed. “The charm was that you had recovered.”

“Oh dear, no!” Mr. Longdon, rather to his mystification, exclaimed. “I’m afraid I hadn’t recovered at all — hadn’t, if that’s what you mean, got over my misery and my melancholy. She knew I hadn’t — and that was what was nice of her. She was a person with whom I could talk about her.”

Vanderbank took a moment to clear up the ambiguity. “Oh you mean you could talk about the OTHER. You hadn’t got over Lady Julia.”

Mr. Longdon sadly smiled at him. “I haven’t got over her yet!” Then, however, as if not to look morbid, he took pains to be clear. “The first wound was bad — but from that one always comes round. Your mother, dear woman, had known how to help me. Lady Julia was at that time her intimate friend — it was she who introduced me there. She couldn’t help what happened — she did her best. What I meant just now was that in the aftertime, when opportunity occurred, she was the one person with whom I could always talk and who always understood.” He lost himself an instant in the deep memories to attest which he had survived alone; then he sighed out as if the taste of it all came back to him with a faint sweetness: “I think they must both have been good to me. At the Malvern time, the particular time I just mentioned to you, Lady Julia was already married, and during those first years she had been whirled out of my ken. Then her own life took a quieter turn; we met again; I went for a good while often to her house. I think she rather liked the state to which she had reduced me, though she didn’t, you know, in the least presume on it. The better a woman is — it has often struck me — the more she enjoys in a quiet way some fellow’s having been rather bad, rather dark and desperate, about her — for her. I dare say, I mean, that though Lady Julia insisted I ought to marry she wouldn’t really have liked it much if I had. At any rate it was in those years I saw her daughter just cease to be a child — the little girl who was to be transformed by time into the so different person with whom we dined to-night. That comes back to me when I hear you speak of the growing up, in turn, of that person’s own daughter.”

“I follow you with a sympathy —!” Vanderbank replied. “The situation’s reproduced.”

“Ah partly — not altogether. The things that are unlike — well, are so VERY unlike.” Mr. Longdon for a moment, on this, fixed his companion with eyes that betrayed one of the restless little jumps of his mind. “I told you just now that there’s something I seem to make out in you.”

“Yes, that was meant for better things?”— Vanderbank frankly took him up. “There IS something, I really believe — meant for ever so much better ones. Those are just the sort I like to be supposed to have a real affinity with. Help me to them, Mr. Longdon; help me to them, and I don’t know what I won’t do for you!”

“Then after all”— and his friend made the point with innocent sharpness —“you’re NOT past saving!”

“Well, I individually — how shall I put it to you? If I tell you,” Vanderbank went on, “that I’ve that sort of fulcrum for salvation which consists at least in a deep consciousness and the absence of a rag of illusion, I shall appear to say I’m wholly different from the world I live in and to that extent present myself as superior and fatuous. Try me at any rate. Let me try myself. Don’t abandon me. See what can be done with me. Perhaps I’m after all a case. I shall certainly cling to you.”

“You’re too clever — you’re too clever: that’s what’s the matter with you all!” Mr. Longdon sighed.

“With us ALL?” Vanderbank echoed. “Dear Mr. Longdon, it’s the first time I’ve heard it. If you should say the matter with ME in particular, why there might be something in it. What you mean at any rate — I see where you come out — is that we’re cold and sarcastic and cynical, without the soft human spot. I think you flatter us even while you attempt to warn; but what’s extremely interesting at all events is that, as I gather, we made on you this evening, in a particular way, a collective impression — something in which our trifling varieties are merged.” His visitor’s face, at this, appeared to acknowledge his putting the case in perfection, so that he was encouraged to go on. “There was something particular with which you weren’t altogether pleasantly struck.”

Mr. Longdon, who decidedly changed colour easily, showed in his clear cheek the effect at once of feeling a finger on his fault and of admiring his companion’s insight. But he accepted the situation. “I couldn’t help noticing your tone.”

“Do you mean its being so low?”

He had smiled at first but looked grave now. “Do you really want to know?”

“Just how you were affected? I assure you there’s at this moment nothing I desire nearly so much.”

“I’m no judge then,” Mr. Longdon began; “I’m no critic; I’m no talker myself. I’m old-fashioned and narrow and ignorant. I’ve lived for years in a hole. I’m not a man of the world.”

Vanderbank considered him with a benevolence, a geniality of approval, that he literally had to hold in check for fear of seeming to patronise. “There’s not one of us who can touch you. You’re delightful, you’re wonderful, and I’m intensely curious to hear you,” the young man pursued. “Were we absolutely odious?” Before his guest’s puzzled, finally almost pained face, such an air of appreciating so much candour, yet of looking askance at so much freedom, he could only try to smooth the way and light the subject. “You see we don’t in the least know where we are. We’re lost — and you find us.” Mr. Longdon, as he spoke, had prepared at last really to go, reaching the door with a manner that denoted, however, by no means so much satiety as an attention that felt itself positively too agitated. Vanderbank had helped him on with the Inverness cape and for an instant detained him by it. “Just tell me as a kindness. DO we talk —”

“Too freely?” Mr. Longdon, with his clear eyes so untouched by time, speculatively murmured.

“Too outrageously. I want the truth.”

The truth evidently for Mr. Longdon was difficult to tell. “Well — it was certainly different.”

“From you and Lady Julia? I see. Well, of course with time SOME change is natural, isn’t it? But so different,” Vanderbank pressed, “that you were really shocked?”

His visitor smiled at this, but the smile somehow made the face graver. “I think I was rather frightened. Good-night.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38