The Awkward Age, by Henry James

Book Tenth. Nanda

I

Nanda Brookenham, for a fortnight after Mr. Longdon’s return, had found much to think of; but the bustle of business became, visibly for us, particularly great with her on a certain Friday afternoon in June. She was in unusual possession of that chamber of comfort in which so much of her life had lately been passed, the redecorated and rededicated room upstairs in which she had enjoyed a due measure both of solitude and of society. Passing the objects about her in review she gave especial attention to her rather marked wealth of books; changed repeatedly, for five minutes, the position of various volumes, transferred to tables those that were on shelves and rearranged shelves with an eye to the effect of backs. She was flagrantly engaged throughout indeed in the study of effect, which moreover, had the law of an extreme freshness not inveterately prevailed there, might have been observed to be traceable in the very detail of her own appearance. “Company” in short was in the air and expectation in the picture. The flowers on the little tables bloomed with a consciousness sharply taken up by the glitter of nick-nacks and reproduced in turn in the light exuberance of cushions on sofas and the measured drop of blinds in windows. The numerous photographed friends in particular were highly prepared, with small intense faces, each, that happened in every case to be turned to the door. The pair of eyes most dilated perhaps was that of old Van, present under a polished glass and in a frame of gilt-edged morocco that spoke out, across the room, of Piccadilly and Christmas, and visibly widening his gaze at the opening of the door, at the announcement of a name by a footman and at the entrance of a gentleman remarkably like him save as the resemblance was on the gentleman’s part flattered. Vanderbank had not been in the room ten seconds before he showed ever so markedly that he had arrived to be kind. Kindness therefore becomes for us, by a quick turn of the glass that reflects the whole scene, the high pitch of the concert — a kindness that almost immediately filled the place, to the exclusion of everything else, with a familiar friendly voice, a brightness of good looks and good intentions, a constant though perhaps sometimes misapplied laugh, a superabundance almost of interest, inattention and movement.

The first thing the young man said was that he was tremendously glad she had written. “I think it was most particularly nice of you.” And this thought precisely seemed, as he spoke, a flower of the general bloom — as if the niceness he had brought in was so great that it straightway converted everything to its image. “The only thing that upset me a little,” he went on, “was your saying that before writing it you had so hesitated and waited. I hope very much, you know, that you’ll never do anything of that kind again. If you’ve ever the slightest desire to see me — for no matter what reason, if there’s ever the smallest thing of any sort that I can do for you, I promise you I shan’t easily forgive you if you stand on ceremony. It seems to me that when people have known each other as long as you and I there’s one comfort at least they may treat themselves to. I mean of course,” Van developed, “that of being easy and frank and natural. There are such a lot of relations in which one isn’t, in which it doesn’t pay, in which ‘ease’ in fact would be the greatest of troubles and ‘nature’ the greatest of falsities. However,” he continued while he suddenly got up to change the place in which he had put his hat, “I don’t really know why I’m preaching at such a rate, for I’ve a perfect consciousness of not myself requiring it. One does half the time preach more or less for one’s self, eh? I’m not mistaken at all events, I think, about the right thing with YOU. And a hint’s enough for you, I’m sure, on the right thing with me.” He had been looking all round while he talked and had twice shifted his seat; so that it was quite in consonance with his general admiring notice that the next impression he broke out with should have achieved some air of relevance. “What extraordinarily lovely flowers you have and how charming you’ve made everything! You’re always doing something — women are always changing the position of their furniture. If one happens to come in in the dark, no matter how well one knows the place, one sits down on a hat or a puppy-dog. But of course you’ll say one doesn’t come in in the dark, or at least, if one does, deserves what one gets. Only you know the way some women keep their rooms. I’m bound to say YOU don’t, do you? — you don’t go in for flower-pots in the windows and half a dozen blinds. Why SHOULD you? You HAVE got a lot to show!” He rose with this for the third time, as the better to command the scene. “What I mean is that sofa — which by the way is awfully good: you do, my dear Nanda, go it! It certainly was HERE the last time, wasn’t it? and this thing was there. The last time — I mean the last time I was up here — was fearfully long ago: when, by the way, WAS it? But you see I HAVE been and that I remember it. And you’ve a lot more things now. You’re laying up treasure. Really the increase of luxury —! What an awfully jolly lot of books — have you read them all? Where did you learn so much about bindings?”

He continued to talk; he took things up and put them down; Nanda sat in her place, where her stillness, fixed and colourless, contrasted with his rather flushed freedom, and appeared only to wait, half in surprise, half in surrender, for the flow of his suggestiveness to run its course, so that, having herself provoked the occasion, she might do a little more to meet it. It was by no means, however, that his presence in any degree ceased to prevail; for there were minutes during which her face, the only thing in her that moved, turning with his turns and following his glances, actually had a look inconsistent with anything but submission to almost any accident. It might have expressed a desire for his talk to last and last, an acceptance of any treatment of the hour or any version, or want of version, of her act that would best suit his ease, even in fact a resigned prevision of the occurrence of something that would leave her, quenched and blank, with the appearance of having made him come simply that she might look at him. She might indeed well have been aware of an inability to look at him little enough to make it flagrant that she had appealed to him for something quite different. Keeping the situation meanwhile thus in his hands he recognised over the chimney a new alteration. “There used to be a big print — wasn’t there? a thing of the fifties — we had lots of them at home; some place or other ‘in the olden time.’ And now there’s that lovely French glass. So you see.” He spoke as if she had in some way gainsaid him, whereas he had not left her time even to answer a question. But he broke out anew on the beauty of her flowers. “You have awfully good ones — where do you get them? Flowers and pictures and — what are the other things people have when they’re happy and superior? — books and birds. You ought to have a bird or two, though I dare say you think that by the noise I make I’m as good myself as a dozen. Isn’t there some girl in some story — it isn’t Scott; what is it? — who had domestic difficulties and a cage in her window and whom one associates with chickweed and virtue? It isn’t Esmeralda — Esmeralda had a poodle, hadn’t she? — or have I got my heroines mixed? You’re up here yourself like a heroine; you’re perched in your tower or what do you call it? — your bower. You quite hang over the place, you know — the great wicked city, the wonderful London sky and the monuments looming through: or am I again only muddling up my Zola? You must have the sunsets — haven’t you? No — what am I talking about? Of course you look north. Well, they strike me as about the only thing you haven’t. At the same time it’s not only because I envy you that I feel humiliated. I ought to have sent you some flowers.” He smote himself with horror, throwing back his head with a sudden thought. “Why in goodness when I got your note didn’t I for once in my life do something really graceful? I simply liked it and answered it. Here I am. But I’ve brought nothing. I haven’t even brought a box of sweets. I’m not a man of the world.”

“Most of the flowers here,” Nanda at last said, “come from Mr. Longdon. Don’t you remember his garden?”

Vanderbank, in quick response, called it up. “Dear yes — wasn’t it charming? And that morning you and I spent there”— he was so careful to be easy about it —“talking under the trees.”

“You had gone out to be quiet and read —!”

“And you came out to look after me. Well, I remember,” Van went on, “that we had some good talk.”

The talk, Nanda’s face implied, had become dim to her; but there were other things. “You know he’s a great gardener — I mean really one of the greatest. His garden’s like a dinner in a house where the person — the person of the house — thoroughly knows and cares.”

“I see. And he sends you dishes from the table.”

“Often — every week. It comes to the same thing — now that he’s in town his gardener does it.”

“Charming of them both!” Vanderbank exclaimed. “But his gardener — that extraordinarily tall fellow with the long red beard — was almost as nice as himself. I had talks with HIM too and remember every word he said. I remember he told me you asked questions that showed ‘a deal of study.’ But I thought I had never seen all round such a charming lot of people — I mean as those down there that our friend has got about him. It’s an awfully good note for a man, pleasant servants, I always think, don’t you? Mr. Longdon’s — and quite without their saying anything; just from the sort of type and manner they had — struck me as a kind of chorus of praise. The same with Mitchy’s at Mertle, I remember,” Van rambled on. “Mitchy’s the sort of chap who might have awful ones, but I recollect telling him that one quite felt as if it were with THEM one had come to stay. Good note, good note,” he cheerfully repeated. “I’m bound to say, you know,” he continued in this key, “that you’ve a jolly sense for getting in with people who make you comfortable. Then, by the way, he’s still in town?”

Nanda waited. “Do you mean Mr. Mitchy?”

“Oh HE is, I know — I met them two nights ago; and by the way again — don’t let me forget — I want to speak to you about his wife. But I’ve not seen, do you know? Mr. Longdon — which is really too awful. Twice, thrice I think, have I at moments like this one snatched myself from pressure; but there’s no finding the old demon at any earthly hour. When do YOU go — or does he only come here? Of course I see you’ve got the place arranged for him. When I asked at his hotel at what hour he ever IS in, blest if the fellow didn’t say ‘very often, sir, about ten!’ And when I said ‘Ten P. M.?’ he quite laughed at my innocence over a person of such habits. What ARE his habits then now, and what are you putting him up to? Seriously,” Vanderbank pursued, “I AM awfully sorry and I wonder if, the first time you’ve a chance, you’d kindly tell him you’ve heard me say so and that I mean yet to run him to earth. The same really with the dear Mitchys. I didn’t somehow, the other night, in such a lot of people, get at them. But I sat opposite to Aggie all through dinner, and that puts me in mind. I should like volumes from you about Aggie, please. It’s too revolting of me not to go to see her. But every one knows I’m busy. We’re up to our necks!”

“I can’t tell you,” said Nanda, “how kind I think it of you to have found, with all you have to do, a moment for THIS. But please, without delay, let me tell you —!”

Practically, however, he would let her tell him nothing; his almost aggressive friendly optimism clung so to references of short range. “Don’t mention it, please. It’s too charming of you to squeeze me in. To see YOU moreover does me good. Quite distinct good. And your writing me touched me — oh but really. There were all sorts of old things in it.” Then he broke out once more on her books, one of which for some minutes past he had held in his hand. “I see you go in for sets — and, my dear child, upon my word, I see, BIG sets. What’s this? —‘Vol. 23: The British Poets.’ Vol. 23 is delightful — do tell me about Vol. 23. Are you doing much in the British Poets? But when the deuce, you wonderful being, do you find time to read? I don’t find any — it’s too hideous. One relapses in London into such illiteracy and barbarism. I have to keep up a false glitter to hide in conversation my rapidly increasing ignorance: I should be so ashamed after all to see other people NOT shocked by it. But teach me, teach me!” he gaily went on.

“The British Poets,” Nanda immediately answered, “were given me by Mr. Longdon, who has given me all the good books I have except a few — those in that top row — that have been given me at different times by Mr. Mitchy. Mr. Mitchy has sent me flowers too, as well as Mr. Longdon. And they’re both — since we’ve spoken of my seeing them — coming by appointment this afternoon; not together, but Mr. Mitchy at 5.30 and Mr. Longdon at 6.30.”

She had spoken as with conscious promptitude, making up for what she had not yet succeeded in saying by a quick, complete statement of her case. She was evidently also going on with more, but her actual visitor had already taken her up with a laugh. “You ARE making a day of it and you run us like railway-trains!” He looked at his watch. “Have I then time?”

“It seems to me I should say ‘Have I?’ But it’s not half-past four,” Nanda went on, “and though I’ve something very particular of course to say to you it won’t take long. They don’t bring tea till five, and you must surely stay till that. I had already written to you when they each, for the same reason, proposed this afternoon. They go out of town tomorrow for Sunday.”

“Oh I see — and they have to see you first. What an influence you exert, you know, on people’s behaviour!”

She continued as literal as her friend was facetious. “Well, it just happened so, and it didn’t matter, since, on my asking you, don’t you know? to choose your time, you had taken, as suiting you best, this comparatively early hour.”

“Oh perfectly.” But he again had his watch out. “I’ve a job, perversely — that was my reason — on the other side of the world; which, by the way, I’m afraid, won’t permit me to wait for tea. My tea doesn’t matter.” The watch went back to his pocket. “I’m sorry to say I must be off before five. It has been delightful at all events to see you again.”

He was on his feet as he spoke, and though he had been half the time on his feet his last words gave the effect of his moving almost immediately to the door. It appeared to come out with them rather clearer than before that he was embarrassed enough really to need help, and it was doubtless the measure she after an instant took of this that enabled Nanda, with a quietness all her own, to draw to herself a little more of the situation. The quietness was plainly determined for her by a quick vision of its being the best assistance she could show. Had he an inward terror that explained his superficial nervousness, the incoherence of a loquacity designed, it would seem, to check in each direction her advance? He only fed it in that case by allowing his precautionary benevolence to put him in so much deeper. Where indeed could he have supposed she wanted to come out, and what that she could ever do for him would really be so beautiful as this present chance to smooth his confusion and add as much as possible to that refined satisfaction with himself which would proceed from his having dealt with a difficult hour in a gallant and delicate way? To force upon him an awkwardness was like forcing a disfigurement or a hurt, so that at the end of a minute, during which the expression of her face became a kind of uplifted view of her opportunity, she arrived at the appearance of having changed places with him and of their being together precisely in order that he — not she — should be let down easily.

II

“But surely you’re not going already?” she asked. “Why in the world then do you suppose I appealed to you?”

“Bless me, no; I’ve lots of time.” He dropped, laughing for very eagerness, straight into another chair. “You’re too awfully interesting. Is it really an ‘appeal’?” Putting the question indeed he could scarce even yet allow her a chance to answer it. “It’s only that you make me a little nervous with your account of all the people who are going to tumble in. And there’s one thing more,” he quickly went on; “I just want to make the point in case we should be interrupted. The whole fun is in seeing you this way alone.”

“Is THAT the point?” Nanda, as he took breath, gravely asked.

“That’s a part of it — I feel it, I assure you, to be charming. But what I meant — if you’d only give me time, you know, to put in a word — is what for that matter I’ve already told you: that it almost spoils my pleasure for you to keep reminding me that a bit of luck like this — luck for ME: I see you coming! — is after all for you but a question of business. Hang business! Good — don’t stab me with that paper-knife. I listen. What IS the great affair?” Then as it looked for an instant as if the words she had prepared were just, in the supreme pinch of her need, falling apart, he once more tried his advantage. “Oh if there’s any difficulty about it let it go — we’ll take it for granted. There’s one thing at any rate — do let me say this — that I SHOULD like you to keep before me: I want before I go to make you light up for me the question of little Aggie. Oh there are other questions too as to which I regard you as a perfect fountain of curious knowledge! However, we’ll take them one by one — the next some other time. You always seem to me to hold the strings of such a lot of queer little dramas. Have something on the shelf for me when we meet again. THE thing just now is the outlook for Mitchy’s affair. One cares enough for old Mitch to fancy one may feel safer for a lead or two. In fact I want regularly to turn you on.”

“Ah but the thing I happen to have taken it into my head to say to you,” Nanda now securely enough replied, “hasn’t the least bit to do, I assure you, either with Aggie or with ‘old Mitch.’ If you don’t want to hear it — want some way of getting off — please believe THEY won’t help you a bit.” It was quite in fact that she felt herself at last to have found the right tone. Nothing less than a conviction of this could have made her after an instant add: “What in the world, Mr. Van, are you afraid of?”

Well, that it WAS the right tone a single little minute was sufficient to prove — a minute, I must yet haste to say, big enough in spite of its smallness to contain the longest look on any occasion exchanged between these friends. It was one of those looks — not so frequent, it must be admitted, as the muse of history, dealing at best in short cuts, is often by the conditions of her trade reduced to representing them — which after they have come and gone are felt not only to have changed relations but absolutely to have cleared the air. It certainly helped Vanderbank to find his answer. “I’m only afraid, I think, of your conscience.”

He had been indeed for the space more helped than she. “My conscience?”

“Think it over — quite at your leisure — and some day you’ll understand. There’s no hurry,” he continued —“no hurry. And when you do understand, it needn’t make your existence a burden to you to fancy you must tell me.” Oh he was so kind — kinder than ever now. “The thing is, you see, that I haven’t a conscience. I only want my fun.”

They had on this a second look, also decidedly comfortable, though discounted, as the phrase is, by the other, which had really in its way exhausted the possibilities of looks. “Oh I want MY fun too,” said Nanda, “and little as it may strike you in some ways as looking like it, just this, I beg you to believe, is the real thing. What’s at the bottom of it,” she went on, “is a talk I had not long ago with mother.”

“Oh yes,” Van returned with brightly blushing interest. “The fun,” he laughed, “that’s to be got out of ‘mother’!”

“Oh I’m not thinking so much of that. I’m thinking of any that she herself may be still in a position to pick up. Mine now, don’t you see? is in making out how I can manage for this. Of course it’s rather difficult,” the girl pursued, “for me to tell you exactly what I mean.”

“Oh but it isn’t a bit difficult for me to understand you!” Vanderbank spoke, in his geniality, as if this were in fact the veriest trifle. “You’ve got your mother on your mind. That’s very much what I mean by your conscience.”

Nanda had a fresh hesitation, but evidently unaccompanied at present by any pain. “Don’t you still LIKE mamma?” she at any rate quite successfully brought out. “I must tell you,” she quickly subjoined, “that though I’ve mentioned my talk with her as having finally led to my writing to you, it isn’t in the least that she then suggested my putting you the question. I put it,” she explained, “quite off my own bat.”

The explanation, as an effect immediately produced, did proportionately much for the visitor, who sat back in his chair with a pleased — a distinctly exhilarated — sense both of what he himself and what Nanda had done. “You’re an adorable family!”

“Well then if mother’s adorable why give her up? This I don’t mind admitting she did, the day I speak of, let me see that she feels you’ve done; but without suggesting either — not a scrap, please believe — that I should make you any sort of scene about it. Of course in the first place she knows perfectly that anything like a scene would be no use. You couldn’t make out even if you wanted,” Nanda went on, “that THIS is one. She won’t hear us — will she? — smashing the furniture. I didn’t think for a while that I could do anything at all, and I worried myself with that idea half to death. Then suddenly it came to me that I could do just what I’m doing now. You said a while ago that we must never be-you and I— anything but frank and natural. That’s what I said to myself also — why not? Here I am for you therefore as natural as a cold in your head. I just ask you — I even press you. It’s because, as she said, you’ve practically ceased coming. Of course I know everything changes. It’s the law — what is it? —‘the great law’ of something or other. All sorts of things happen — things come to an end. She has more or less — by his marriage — lost Mitchy. I don’t want her to lose everything. Do stick to her. What I really wanted to say to you — to bring it straight out — is that I don’t believe you thoroughly know how awfully she likes you. I hope my saying such a thing doesn’t affect you as ‘immodest.’ One never knows — but I don’t much care if it does. I suppose it WOULD be immodest if I were to say that I verily believe she’s in love with you. Not, for that matter, that father would mind — he wouldn’t mind, as he says, a tuppenny rap. So”— she extraordinarily kept it up —“you’re welcome to any good the information may have for you: though that, I dare say, does sound hideous. No matter — if I produce any effect on you. That’s the only thing I want. When I think of her downstairs there so often nowadays practically alone I feel as if I could scarcely bear it. She’s so fearfully young.”

This time at least her speech, while she went from point to point, completely hushed him, though after a full glimpse of the direction it was taking he ceased to meet her eyes and only sat staring hard at the pattern of the rug. Even when at last he spoke it was without looking up. “You’re indeed, as she herself used to say, the modern daughter! It takes that type to wish to make a career for her parents.”

“Oh,” said Nanda very simply, “it isn’t a ‘career’ exactly, is it — keeping hold of an old friend? but it may console a little, mayn’t it, for the absence of one? At all events I didn’t want not to have spoken before it’s too late. Of course I don’t know what’s the matter between you, or if anything’s really the matter at all. I don’t care at any rate WHAT is — it can’t be anything very bad. Make it up, make it up — forget it. I don’t pretend that’s a career for YOU any more than for her; but there it is. I know how I sound — most patronising and pushing; but nothing venture nothing have. You CAN’T know how much you are to her. You’re more to her, I verily believe, than any one EVER was. I hate to have the appearance of plotting anything about her behind her back; so I’ll just say it once for all. She said once, in speaking of it to a person who repeated it to me, that you had done more for her than any one, because it was you who had really brought her out. It WAS. You did. I saw it at the time myself. I was very small, but I COULD see it. You’ll say I must have been a most uncanny little wretch, and I dare say I was and am keeping now the pleasant promise. That doesn’t prevent one’s feeling that when a person has brought a person out —”

“A person should take the consequences,” Vanderbank broke in, “and see a person through?” He could meet her now perfectly and proceeded admirably to do it. “There’s an immense deal in that, I admit — I admit. I’m bound to say I don’t know quite what I did — one does those things, no doubt, with a fine unconsciousness: I should have thought indeed it was the other way round. But I assure you I accept all consequences and all responsibilities. If you don’t know what’s the matter between us I’m sure I don’t either. It can’t be much — we’ll look into it. I don’t mean you and I— YOU mustn’t be any more worried; but she and her so unwittingly faithless one. I HAVEN’T been as often, I know”— Van pleasantly kept his course. “But there’s a tide in the affairs of men — and of women too, and of girls and of every one. You know what I mean — you know it for yourself. The great thing is that — bless both your hearts! — one doesn’t, one simply CAN’T if one would, give your mother up. It’s absurd to talk about it. Nobody ever did such a thing in his life. There she is, like the moon or the Marble Arch. I don’t say, mind you,” he candidly explained, “that every one LIKES her equally: that’s another affair. But no one who ever HAS liked her can afford ever again for any long period to do without her. There are too many stupid people — there’s too much dull company. That, in London, is to be had by the ton; your mother’s intelligence, on the other hand, will always have its price. One can talk with her for a change. She’s fine, fine, fine. So, my dear child, be quiet. She’s a fixed star.”

“Oh I know she is,” Nanda said. “It’s YOU—”

“Who may be only the flashing meteor?” He sat and smiled at her. “I promise you then that your words have stayed me in my course. You’ve made me stand as still as Joshua made the sun.” With which he got straight up. “‘Young,’ you say she is?”— for as if to make up for it he all the more sociably continued. “It’s not like anything else. She’s youth. She’s MY youth — she WAS mine. And if you ever have a chance,” he wound up, “do put in for me that if she wants REALLY to know she’s booked for my old age. She’s clever enough, you know”— and Vanderbank, laughing, went over for his hat —“to understand what you tell her.”

Nanda took this in with due attention; she was also now on her feet. “And then she’s so lovely.”

“Awfully pretty!”

“I don’t say it, as they say, you know,” the girl continued, “BECAUSE she’s mother, but I often think when we’re out that wherever she is —!”

“There’s no one that all round really touches her?” Vanderbank took it up with zeal. “Oh so every one thinks, and in fact one’s appreciation of the charming things in that way so intensely her own can scarcely breathe on them all lightly enough. And then, hang it, she has perceptions — which are not things that run about the streets. She has surprises.” He almost broke down for vividness. “She has little ways.”

“Well, I’m glad you do like her,” Nanda gravely replied.

At this again he fairly faced her, his momentary silence making it still more direct. “I like, you know, about as well as I ever liked anything, this wonderful idea of yours of putting in a plea for her solitude and her youth. Don’t think I do it injustice if I say — which is saying much — that it’s quite as charming as it’s amusing. And now good-bye.”

He had put out his hand, but Nanda hesitated. “You won’t wait for tea?”

“My dear child, I can’t.” He seemed to feel, however, that something more must be said. “We shall meet again. But it’s getting on, isn’t it, toward the general scatter?”

“Yes, and I hope that this year,” she answered, “you’ll have a good holiday.”

“Oh we shall meet before that. I shall do what I can, but upon my word I feel, you know,” he laughed, “that such a tuning-up as YOU’VE given me will last me a long time. It’s like the high Alps.” Then with his hand out again he added: “Have you any plans yourself?”

So many, it might have seemed, that she had no time to take for thinking of them. “I dare say I shall be away a good deal.”

He candidly wondered. “With Mr. Longdon?”

“Yes — with him most.”

He had another pause. “Really for a long time?”

“A long long one, I hope.”

“Your mother’s willing again?”

“Oh perfectly. And you see that’s why.”

“Why?” She had said nothing more, and he failed to understand.

“Why you mustn’t too much leave her alone. DON’T!” Nanda brought out.

“I won’t. But,” he presently added, “there are one or two things.”

“Well, what are they?”

He produced in some seriousness the first. “Won’t she after all see the Mitchys?”

“Not so much either. That of course is now very different.”

Vanderbank demurred. “But not for YOU, I gather — is it? Don’t you expect to see them?”

“Oh yes — I hope they’ll come down.”

He moved away a little — not straight to the door. “To Beccles? Funny place for them, a little though, isn’t it?”

He had put the question as if for amusement, but Nanda took it literally. “Ah not when they’re invited so very very charmingly. Not when he wants them so.”

“Mr. Longdon? Then that keeps up?”

“‘That’?”— she was at a loss.

“I mean his intimacy — with Mitchy.”

“So far as it IS an intimacy.”

“But didn’t you, by the way”— and he looked again at his watch —“tell me they’re just about to turn up together?”

“Oh not so very particularly together.”

“Mitchy first alone?” Vanderbank asked.

She had a smile that was dim, that was slightly strange. “Unless you’ll stay for company.”

“Thanks — impossible. And then Mr. Longdon alone?”

“Unless Mitchy stays.”

He had another pause. “You haven’t after all told me about the ‘evolution’— or the evolutions — of his wife.”

“How can I if you don’t give me time?”

“I see — of course not.” He seemed to feel for an instant the return of his curiosity. “Yet it won’t do, will it? to have her out before HIM? No, I must go.” He came back to her and at present she gave him a hand. “But if you do see Mr. Longdon alone will you do me a service? I mean indeed not simply today, but with all other good chances?”

She waited. “Any service whatever. But which first?”

“Well,” he returned in a moment, “let us call it a bargain. I look after your mother —”

“And I—?” She had had to wait again.

“Look after my good name. I mean for common decency to HIM. He has been of a kindness to me that, when I think of my failure to return it, makes me blush from head to foot. I’ve odiously neglected him — by a complication of accidents. There are things I ought to have done that I haven’t. There’s one in particular — but it doesn’t matter. And I haven’t even explained about THAT. I’ve been a brute and I didn’t mean it and I couldn’t help it. But there it is. Say a good word for me. Make out somehow or other that I’m NOT a beast. In short,” the young man said, quite flushed once more with the intensity of his thought, “let us have it that you may quite trust ME if you’ll let me a little — just for my character as a gentleman — trust YOU.”

“Ah you may trust me,” Nanda replied with her handshake.

“Good-bye then!” he called from the door.

“Good-bye,” she said after he had closed it.

III

It was half-past five when Mitchy turned up; and her relapse had in the mean time known no arrest but the arrival of tea, which, however, she had left unnoticed. He expressed on entering the fear that he failed of exactitude, to which she replied by the assurance that he was on the contrary remarkably near it and by the mention of all the aid to patience she had drawn from the pleasure of half an hour with Mr. Van — an allusion that of course immediately provoked on Mitchy’s part the liveliest interest.

“He HAS risked it at last then? How tremendously exciting! And your mother?” he went on; after which, as she said nothing: “Did SHE see him, I mean, and is he perhaps with her now?”

“No; she won’t have come in-unless you asked.”

“I didn’t ask. I asked only for you.”

Nanda thought an instant. “But you’ll still sometimes come to see her, won’t you? I mean you won’t ever give her up?”

Mitchy at this laughed out. “My dear child, you’re an adorable family!”

She took it placidly enough. “That’s what Mr. Van said. He said I’m trying to make a career for her.”

“Did he?” Her visitor, though without prejudice to his amusement, appeared struck. “You must have got in with him rather deep.”

She again considered. “Well, I think I did rather. He was awfully beautiful and kind.”

“Oh,” Mitchy concurred, “trust him always for that!”

“He wrote me, on my note,” Nanda pursued, “a tremendously good answer.”

Mitchy was struck afresh. “Your note? What note?”

“To ask him to come. I wrote at the beginning of the week.”

“Oh — I see” Mitchy observed as if this were rather different. “He couldn’t then of course have done less than come.”

Yet his companion again thought. “I don’t know.”

“Oh come — I say: You do know,” Mitchy laughed. “I should like to see him — or you either!” There would have been for a continuous spectator of these episodes an odd resemblance between the manner and all the movements that had followed his entrance and those that had accompanied the installation of his predecessor. He laid his hat, as Vanderbank had done, in three places in succession and appeared to question scarcely less the safety, somewhere, of his umbrella and the grace of retaining in his hand his gloves. He postponed the final selection of a seat and he looked at the objects about him while he spoke of other matters. Quite in the same fashion indeed at last these objects impressed him. “How charming you’ve made your room and what a lot of nice things you’ve got!”

“That’s just what Mr. Van said too. He seemed immensely struck.”

But Mitchy hereupon once more had a drop to extravagance. “Can I do nothing then but repeat him? I came, you know, to be original.”

“It would be original for you,” Nanda promptly returned, “to be at all like him. But you won’t,” she went back, “not sometimes come for mother only? You’ll have plenty of chances.”

This he took up with more gravity. “What do you mean by chances? That you’re going away? That WILL add to the attraction!” he exclaimed as she kept silence.

“I shall have to wait,” she answered at last, “to tell you definitely what I’m to do. It’s all in the air — yet I think I shall know today. I’m to see Mr. Longdon.”

Mitchy wondered. “To-day?”

“He’s coming at half-past six.”

“And then you’ll know?”

“Well — HE will.”

“Mr. Longdon?”

“I meant Mr. Longdon,” she said after a moment.

Mitchy had his watch out. “Then shall I interfere?”

“There are quantities of time. You must have your tea. You see at any rate,” the girl continued, “what I mean by your chances.”

She had made him his tea, which he had taken. “You do squeeze us in!”

“Well, it’s an accident your coming together — except of course that you’re NOT together. I simply took the time that you each independently proposed. But it would have been all right even if you HAD met.

“That is, I mean,” she explained, “even if you and Mr. Longdon do. Mr. Van, I confess, I did want alone.”

Mitchy had been glaring at her over his tea. “You’re more and more remarkable!”

“Well then if I improve so give me your promise.”

Mitchy, as he partook of refreshment, kept up his thoughtful gaze. “I shall presently want some more, please. But do you mind my asking if Van knew —”

“That Mr. Longdon’s to come? Oh yes, I told him, and he left with me a message for him.”

“A message? How awfully interesting!”

Nanda thought. “It WILL be awfully — to Mr. Longdon.”

“Some more NOW, please,” said Mitchy while she took his cup. “And to Mr. Longdon only, eh? Is that a way of saying that it’s none of MY business?”

The fact of her attending — and with a happy show of particular care — to his immediate material want added somehow, as she replied, to her effect of sincerity. “Ah, Mr. Mitchy, the business of mine that has not by this time ever so naturally become a business of yours — well, I can’t think of any just now, and I wouldn’t, you know, if I could!”

“I can promise you then that there’s none of mine,” Mitchy declared, “that hasn’t made by the same token quite the same shift. Keep it well before you, please, that if ever a young woman had a grave lookout —!”

“What do you mean,” she interrupted, “by a grave lookout?”

“Well, the certainty of finding herself saddled for all time to come with the affairs of a gentleman whom she can never get rid of on the specious plea that he’s only her husband or her lover or her father or her son or her brother or her uncle or her cousin. There, as none of these characters, he just stands.”

“Yes,” Nanda kindly mused, “he’s simply her Mitchy.”

“Precisely. And a Mitchy, you see, is — what do you call it? — simply indissoluble. He’s moreover inordinately inquisitive. He goes to the length of wondering whether Van also learned that you were expecting ME.”

“Oh yes — I told him everything.”

Mitchy smiled. “Everything?”

“I told him — I told him,” she replied with impatience.

Mitchy hesitated. “And did he then leave me also a message?”

“No, nothing. What I’m to do for him with Mr. Longdon,” she immediately explained, “is to make practically a kind of apology.”

“Ah and for me”— Mitchy quickly took it up —“there can be no question of anything of that kind. I see. He has done me no wrong.”

Nanda, with her eyes now on the window, turned it over. “I don’t much think he would know even if he had.”

“I see, I see. And we wouldn’t tell him.”

She turned with some abruptness from the outer view. “We wouldn’t tell him. But he was beautiful all round,” she went on. “No one could have been nicer about having for so long, for instance, come so little to the house. As if he hadn’t only too many other things to do! He didn’t even make them out nearly the good reasons he might. But fancy, with his important duties — all the great affairs on his hands — our making vulgar little rows about being ‘neglected’! He actually made so little of what he might easily plead — speaking so, I mean, as if he were all in the wrong — that one had almost positively to SHOW him his excuses. As if”— she really kept it up —“he hasn’t plenty!”

“It’s only people like me,” Mitchy threw out, “who have none?”

“Yes — people like you. People of no use, of no occupation and no importance. Like you, you know,” she pursued, “there are so many.” Then it was with no transition of tone that she added: “If you’re bad, Mitchy, I won’t tell you anything.”

“And if I’m good what will you tell me? What I want really most to KNOW is why he should be, as you said just now, ‘apologetic’ to Mr. Longdon. What’s the wrong he allows he has done HIM?”

“Oh he has ‘neglected’ him — if that’s any comfort to us — quite as much.”

“Hasn’t looked him up and that sort of thing?”

“Yes — and he mentioned some other matter.”

Mitchy wondered. “‘Mentioned’ it?”

“In which,” said Nanda, “he hasn’t pleased him.”

Mitchy after an instant risked it. “But what other matter?”

“Oh he says that when I speak to him Mr. Longdon will know.”

Mitchy gravely took this in. “And shall you speak to him?”

“For Mr. Van?” How, she seemed to ask, could he doubt it? “Why the very first thing.”

“And then will Mr. Longdon tell you?”

“What Mr. Van means?” Nanda thought. “Well — I hope not.”

Mitchy followed it up. “You ‘hope’—?”

“Why if it’s anything that could possibly make any one like him any less. I mean I shan’t in that case in the least want to hear it.”

Mitchy looked as if he could understand that and yet could also imagine something of a conflict. “But if Mr. Longdon insists —?”

“On making me know? I shan’t let him insist. Would YOU?” she put to him.

“Oh I’m not in question!”

“Yes, you are!” she quite rang out.

“Ah —!” Mitchy laughed. After which he added: “Well then, I might overbear you.”

“No, you mightn’t,” she as positively declared again, “and you wouldn’t at any rate desire to.”

This he finally showed he could take from her — showed it in the silence in which for a minute their eyes met; then showed it perhaps even more in his deep exclamation: “You’re complete!”

For such a proposition as well she had the same detached sense. “I don’t think I am in anything but the wish to keep YOU so.”

“Well — keep me, keep me! It strikes me that I’m not at all now on a footing, you know, of keeping myself. I quite give you notice in fact,” Mitchy went on, “that I’m going to come to you henceforth for everything. But you’re too wonderful,” he wound up as she at first said nothing to this. “I don’t even frighten you.”

“Yes — fortunately for you.”

“Ah but I distinctly warn you that I mean to do my very best for it!”

Nanda viewed it all with as near an approach to gaiety as she often achieved. “Well, if you should ever succeed it would be a dark day for you.”

“You bristle with your own guns,” he pursued, “but the ingenuity of a lifetime shall be devoted to my taking you on some quarter on which you’re not prepared.”

“And what quarter, pray, will that be?”

“Ah I’m not such a fool as to begin by giving you a tip!” Mitchy on this turned off with an ambiguous but unmistakeably natural sigh; he looked at photographs, he took up a book or two as Vanderbank had done, and for a couple of minutes there was silence between them. “What does stretch before me,” he resumed after an interval during which clearly, in spite of his movements, he had looked at nothing —“what does stretch before me is the happy prospect of my feeling that I’ve found in you a friend with whom, so utterly and unreservedly, I can always go to the bottom of things. This luxury, you see now, of our freedom to look facts in the face is one of which, I promise you, I mean fully to avail myself.” He stopped before her again, and again she was silent. “It’s so awfully jolly, isn’t it? that there’s not at last a single thing that we can’t take our ease about. I mean that we can’t intelligibly name and comfortably tackle. We’ve worked through the long tunnel of artificial reserves and superstitious mysteries, and I at least shall have only to feel that in showing every confidence and dotting every ‘i’ I follow the example you so admirably set. You go down to the roots? Good. It’s all I ask!”

He had dropped into a chair as he talked, and so long as she remained in her own they were confronted; but she presently got up and, the next moment, while he kept his place, was busy restoring order to the objects both her visitors had disarranged. “If you weren’t delightful you’d be dreadful!”

“There we are! I could easily, in other words, frighten you if I would.”

She took no notice of the remark, only, after a few more scattered touches, producing an observation of her own. “He’s going, all the same, Mr. Van, to be charming to mother. We’ve settled that.”

“Ah then he CAN make time —?”

She judged it. “For as much as THAT, yes. For as much, I mean, as may sufficiently show her that he hasn’t given her up. So don’t you recognise how much more time YOU can make?”

“Ah — see precisely — there we are again!” Mitchy promptly ejaculated.

Yet he had gone, it seemed, further than she followed. “But where?”

“Why, as I say, at the roots and in the depths of things.”

“Oh!” She dropped to an indifference that was but part of her general patience for all his irony.

“It’s needless to go into the question of not giving your mother up. One simply DOESN’T give her up. One can’t. There she is.”

“That’s exactly what HE says. There she is.”

“Ah but I don’t want to say nothing but what ‘he’ says!” Mitchy laughed. “He can’t at all events have mentioned to you any such link as the one that in my case is now almost the most palpable. I’VE got a wife, you know.”

“Oh Mitchy!” the girl protestingly though vaguely murmured.

“And my wife — did you know it?” Mitchy went on, “is positively getting thick with your mother. Of course it isn’t new to you that she’s wonderful for wives. Now that our marriage is an accomplished fact she takes the greatest interest in it — or bids fair to if her attention can only be thoroughly secured — and more particularly in what I believe is generally called our peculiar situation: for it appears, you know, that we’re to the most conspicuous degree possible IN a peculiar situation. Aggie’s therefore already, and is likely to be still more, in what’s universally recognised as your mother’s regular line. Your mother will attract her, study her, finally ‘understand’ her. In fact she’ll ‘help’ her as she has ‘helped’ so many before and will ‘help’ so many still to come. With Aggie thus as a satellite and a frequenter — in a degree in which she never yet HAS been,” he continued, “what will the whole thing be but a practical multiplication of our points of contact? You may remind me of Mrs. Brook’s contention that if she did in her time keep something of a saloon the saloon is now, in consequence of events, but a collection of fortuitous atoms; but that, my dear Nanda, will become none the less, to your clearer sense, but a pious echo of her momentary modesty or — call it at the worst — her momentary despair. The generations will come and go, and the PERSONNEL, as the newspapers say, of the saloon will shift and change, but the institution itself, as resting on a deep human need, has a long course yet to run and a good work yet to do. WE shan’t last, but your mother will, and as Aggie is happily very young she’s therefore provided for, in the time to come, on a scale sufficiently considerable to leave us just now at peace. Meanwhile, as you’re almost as good for husbands as Mrs. Brook is for wives, why aren’t we, as a couple, we Mitchys, quite ideally arranged for, and why mayn’t I speak to you of my future as sufficiently guaranteed? The only appreciable shadow I make out comes, for me, from the question of what may today be between you and Mr. Longdon. Do I understand,” Mitchy asked, “that he’s presently to arrive for an answer to something he has put to you?” Nanda looked at him a while with a sort of solemnity of tenderness, and her voice, when she at last spoke, trembled with a feeling that clearly had grown in her as she listened to the string of whimsicalities, bitter and sweet, that he had just unrolled. “You’re wild,” she said simply —“you’re wild.”

He wonderfully glared. “Am I then already frightening you?” He shook his head rather sadly. “I’m not in the least trying yet. There’s something,” he added after an instant, “that I do want too awfully to ask you.”

“Well then —!” If she had not eagerness she had at least charity.

“Oh but you see I reflect that though you show all the courage to go to the roots and depths with ME, I’m not — I never have been — fully conscious of the nerve for doing as much with you. It’s a question,” Mitchy explained, “of how much — of a particular matter — you know.”

She continued ever so kindly to face him. “Hasn’t it come out all round now that I know everything?”

Her reply, in this form, took a minute or two to operate, but when it began to do so it fairly diffused a light. Mitchy’s face turned of a colour that might have been produced by her holding close to it some lantern wonderfully glazed. “You know, you know!” he then rang out.

“Of course I know.”

“You know, you know!” Mitchy repeated.

“Everything,” she imperturbably went on, “but what you’re talking about.”

He was silent a little, his eyes on her. “May I kiss your hand?”

“No,” she answered: “that’s what I call wild.”

He had risen with his question and after her reply he remained a moment on the spot. “See — I’ve frightened you. It proves as easy as that. But I only wanted to show you and to be sure for myself. Now that I’ve the mental certitude I shall never wish otherwise to use it.” He turned away to begin again one of his absorbed revolutions. “Mr. Longdon has asked you this time for a grand public adhesion, and what he turns up for now is to receive your ultimatum? A final irrevocable flight with him is the line he advises, so that he’ll be ready for it on the spot with the post-chaise and the pistols?”

The image appeared really to have for Nanda a certain vividness, and she looked at it a space without a hint of a smile. “We shan’t need any pistols, whatever may be decided about the post-chaise; and any flight we may undertake together will need no cover of secrecy or night. Mother, as I’ve told you —”

“Won’t fling herself across your reckless path? I remember,” said Mitchy —“you alluded to her magnificent resignation. But father?” he oddly demanded.

Nanda thought for this a moment longer. “Well, Mr. Longdon has — off in the country — a good deal of shooting.”

“So that Edward can sometimes come down with his old gun? Good then too — if it isn’t, as he takes you by the way, to shoot YOU. You’ve got it all shipshape and arranged, in other words, and have only, if the fancy does move you, to clear out. You clear out — you make all sorts of room. It IS interesting,” Mitchy exclaimed, “arriving thus with you at the depths! I look all round and see every one squared and every one but one or two suited. Why then reflexion and delay?”

“You don’t, dear Mr. Mitchy,” Nanda took her time to return, “know nearly as much as you think.”

“But isn’t my question absolutely a confession of ignorance and a renunciation of thought? I put myself from this moment forth with you,” Mitchy declared, “on the footing of knowing nothing whatever and of receiving literally from your hands all information and all life. Let my continued attitude of dependence, my dear Nanda, show it. Any hesitation you may yet feel, you imply, proceeds from a sense of duties in London not to be lightly renounced? Oh,” he thoughtfully said, “I do at least know you HAVE them.”

She watched him with the same mildness while he vaguely circled about. “You’re wild, you’re wild,” she insisted. “But it doesn’t in the least matter. I shan’t abandon you.”

He stopped short. “Ah that’s what I wanted from you in so many clear-cut golden words — though I won’t in the least of course pretend that I’ve felt I literally need it. I don’t literally need the big turquoise in my neck-tie; which incidentally means, by the way, that if you should admire it you’re quite welcome to it. Such words — that’s my point — are like such jewels: the pride, you see, of one’s heart. They’re mere vanity, but they help along. You’ve got of course always poor Tishy,” he continued.

“Will you leave it all to ME?” Nanda said as if she had not heard him.

“And then you’ve got poor Carrie,” he went on, “though HER of course you rather divide with your mother.”

“Will you leave it all to ME?” the girl repeated.

“To say nothing of poor Cashmore,” he pursued, “whom you take ALL, I believe, yourself?”

“Will you leave it all to ME?” she once more repeated.

This time he pulled up, suddenly and expressively wondering. “Are you going to do anything about it at present? — I mean with our friend?”

She appeared to have a scruple of saying, but at last she produced it. “Yes — he doesn’t mind now.”

Mitchy again laughed out. “You ARE, as a family —!” But he had already checked himself. “Mr. Longdon will at any rate, you imply, be somehow interested —”

“In MY interests? Of course — since he has gone so far. You expressed surprise at my wanting to wait and think; but how can I not wait and not think when so much depends on the question — now so definite — of how much further he WILL go?”

“I see,” said Mitchy, profoundly impressed. “And how much does that depend on?”

She had to reflect. “On how much further I, for my part, MUST!”

Mitchy’s grasp was already complete. “And he’s coming then to learn from you how far this is?”

“Yes — very much.”

Mitchy looked about for his hat. “So that of course I see my time’s about up, as you’ll want to be quite alone together.”

Nanda glanced at the clock. “Oh you’ve a margin yet.”

“But you don’t want an interval for your thinking —?”

“Now that I’ve seen you?” Nanda was already very obviously thoughtful.

“I mean if you’ve an important decision to take.”

“Well,” she returned, “seeing you HAS helped me.”

“Ah but at the same time worried you. Therefore —” And he picked up his umbrella.

Her eyes rested on its curious handle. “If you cling to your idea that I’m frightened you’ll be disappointed. It will never be given you to reassure me.”

“You mean by that that I’m primarily so solid —!”

“Yes, that till I see you yourself afraid —!”

“Well?”

“Well, I won’t admit that anything isn’t exactly what I was prepared for.”

Mitchy looked with interest into his hat. “Then what is it I’m to ‘leave’ to you?” After which, as she turned away from him with a suppressed sound and said, while he watched her, nothing else, “It’s no doubt natural for you to talk,” he went on, “but I do make you nervous. Good-bye — good-bye.”

She had stayed him, by a fresh movement, however, as he reached the door. “Aggie’s only trying to find out —!”

“Yes — what?” he asked, waiting.

“Why what sort of a person she is. How can she ever have known? It was carefully, elaborately hidden from her — kept so obscure that she could make out nothing. She isn’t now like ME.”

He wonderingly attended. “Like you?”

“Why I get the benefit of the fact that there was never a time when I didn’t know SOMETHING or other, and that I became more and more aware, as I grew older, of a hundred little chinks of daylight.”

Mitchy stared. “You’re stupendous, my dear!” he murmured.

Ah but she kept it up. “I had my idea about Aggie.”

“Oh don’t I know you had? And how you were positive about the sort of person —!”

“That she didn’t even suspect herself,” Nanda broke in, “to be? I’m equally positive now. It’s quite what I believed, only there’s ever so much more of it. More HAS come — and more will yet. You see, when there has been nothing before, it all has to come with a rush. So that if even I’m surprised of course she is.”

“And of course I am!” Mitchy’s interest, though even now not wholly unqualified with amusement, had visibly deepened. “You admit then,” he continued, “that you’re surprised?”

Nanda just hesitated. “At the mere scale of it. I think it’s splendid. The only person whose astonishment I don’t quite understand,” she added, “is Cousin Jane.”

“Oh Cousin Jane’s astonishment serves her right!”

“If she held so,” Nanda pursued, “that marriage should do everything —!”

“She shouldn’t be in such a funk at finding what it IS doing? Oh no, she’s the last one!” Mitchy declared. “I vow I enjoy her scare.”

“But it’s very bad, you know,” said Nanda.

“Oh too awful!”

“Well, of course,” the girl appeared assentingly to muse, “she couldn’t after all have dreamed —!” But she took herself up. “The great thing is to be helpful.”

“And in what way —?” Mitchy asked with his wonderful air of inviting competitive suggestions.

“Toward Aggie’s finding herself. Do you think,” she immediately continued, “that Lord Petherton really is?”

Mitchy frankly considered. “Helpful? Oh he does his best, I gather. Yes,” he presently added —“Petherton’s all right.”

“It’s you yourself, naturally,” his companion threw off, “who can help most.”

“Certainly, and I’m doing my best too. So that with such good assistance”— he seemed at last to have taken it all from her —“what is it, I again ask, that, as you request, I’m to ‘leave’ to you?”

Nanda required, while he still waited, some time to reply. “To keep my promise.”

“Your promise?”

“Not to abandon you.”

“Ah,” cried Mitchy, “that’s better!”

“Then good-bye,” she said.

“Good-bye.” But he came a few steps forward. “I MAYN’T kiss your hand?”

“Never.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“Oh!” he oddly sounded as he quickly went out.

IV

The interval he had represented as likely to be useful to her was in fact, however, not a little abbreviated by a punctuality of arrival on Mr. Longdon’s part so extreme as to lead the first thing to a word almost of apology. “You can’t say,” her new visitor immediately began, “that I haven’t left you alone, these many days, as much as I promised on coming up to you that afternoon when after my return to town I found Mr. Mitchett instead of your mother awaiting me in the drawing-room.”

“Yes,” said Nanda, “you’ve really done quite as I asked you.”

“Well,” he returned, “I felt half an hour ago that, near as I was to relief, I could keep it up no longer; so that though I knew it would bring me much too soon I started at six sharp for our trysting-place.”

“And I’ve no tea, after all, to reward you!” It was but now clearly that she noticed it. “They must have removed the things without my heeding.”

Her old friend looked at her with some intensity. “Were you in the room?”

“Yes — but I didn’t see the man come in.”

“What then were you doing?”

Nanda thought; her smile was as usual the faintest discernible outward sign. “Thinking of YOU.”

“So tremendously hard?”

“Well, of other things too and of other persons. Of everything really that in our last talk I told you I felt I must have out with myself before meeting you for what I suppose you’ve now in mind.”

Mr. Longdon had kept his eyes on her, but at this he turned away; not, however, for an alternative, embracing her material situation with the embarrassed optimism of Vanderbank or the mitigated gloom of Mitchy. “Ah”— he took her up with some dryness —“you’ve been having things out with yourself?” But he went on before she answered: “I don’t want any tea, thank you. I found myself, after five, in such a fidget that I went three times in the course of the hour to my club, where I’ve the impression I each time had it. I dare say it wasn’t there, though, I did have it,” he after an instant pursued, “for I’ve somehow a confused image of a shop in Oxford Street — or was it rather in Regent? — into which I gloomily wandered to beguile the moments with a mixture that if I strike you as upset I beg you to set it all down to. Do you know in fact what I’ve been doing for the last ten minutes? Roaming hither and thither in your beautiful Crescent till I could venture to come in.”

“Then did you see Mitchy go out? But no, you wouldn’t”— Nanda corrected herself. “He has been gone longer than that.”

Her visitor had dropped on a sofa where, propped by the back, he sat rather upright, his glasses on his nose, his hands in his pockets and his elbows much turned out. “Mitchy left you more than ten minutes ago, and yet your state on his departure remains such that there could be a bustle of servants in the room without your being aware? Kindly give me a lead then as to what it is he has done to you.”

She hovered before him with her obscure smile. “You see it for yourself.”

He shook his head with decision. “I don’t see anything for myself, and I beg you to understand that it’s not what I’ve come here today to do. Anything I may yet see which I don’t already see will be only, I warn you, so far as you shall make it very clear. There — you’ve work cut out. And is it with Mr. Mitchett, may I ask, that you’ve been, as you mention, cutting it?”

Nanda looked about her as if weighing many things; after which her eyes came back to him. “Do you mind if I don’t sit down?”

“I don’t mind if you stand on your head — at the pass we’ve come to.”

“I shall not try your patience,” the girl good-humouredly replied, “so far as that. I only want you not to be worried if I walk about a little.”

Mr. Longdon, without a movement, kept his posture. “Oh I can’t oblige you there. I SHALL be worried. I’ve come on purpose to be worried, and the more I surrender myself to the rack the more, I seem to feel, we shall have threshed our business out. So you may dance, you may stamp, if you like, on the absolutely passive thing you’ve made of me.”

“Well, what I HAVE had from Mitchy,” she cheerfully responded, “is practically a lesson in dancing: by which I perhaps mean rather a lesson in sitting, myself, as I want you to do while I talk, as still as a mouse. They take,” she declared, “while THEY talk, an amount of exercise!”

“They?” Mr. Longdon wondered. “Was his wife with him?”

“Dear no — he and Mr. Van.”

“Was Mr. Van with him?”

“Oh no — before, alone. All over the place.”

Mr. Longdon had a pause so rich in appeal that when he at last spoke his question was itself like an answer. “Mr. Van has been to see you?”

“Yes. I wrote and asked him.”

“Oh!” said Mr. Longdon.

“But don’t get up.” She raised her hand. “Don’t.”

“Why should I?” He had never budged.

“He was most kind; stayed half an hour and, when I told him you were coming, left a good message for you.”

Mr. Longdon appeared to wait for this tribute, which was not immediately produced. “What do you call a ‘good’ message?”

“I’m to make it all right with you.”

“To make what?”

“Why, that he has not, for so long, been to see you or written to you. That he has seemed to neglect you.”

Nanda’s visitor looked so far about as to take the neighbourhood in general into the confidence of his surprise. “To neglect ME?”

“Well, others too, I believe — with whom we’re not concerned. He has been so taken up. But you above all.”

Mr. Longdon showed on this a coldness that somehow spoke for itself as the greatest with which he had ever in his life met an act of reparation and that was infinitely confirmed by his sustained immobility. “But of what have I complained?”

“Oh I don’t think he fancies you’ve complained.”

“And how could he have come to see me,” he continued, “when for so many months past I’ve been so little in town?”

He was not more ready with objections, however, than his companion had by this time become with answers. “He must have been thinking of the time of your present stay. He evidently has you much on his mind — he spoke of not having seen you.”

“He has quite sufficiently tried — he has left cards,” Mr. Longdon returned. “What more does he want?”

Nanda looked at him with her long grave straightness, which had often a play of light beyond any smile. “Oh, you know, he does want more.”

“Then it was open to him —”

“So he so strongly feels”— she quickly took him up —“that you must have felt. And therefore it is I speak for him.”

“Don’t!” said Mr. Longdon.

“But I promised him I would.”

“Don’t!” her friend repeated as in stifled pain.

She had kept for the time all her fine clearness turned to him; but she might on this have been taken as giving him up with a movement of obedience and a strange soft sigh. The smothered sound might even have represented to a listener at all initiated a consenting retreat before an effort greater than her reckoning — a retreat that was in so far the snap of a sharp tension. The next minute, none the less, she evidently found a fresh provocation in the sight of the pale and positively excessive rigour she had imposed, so that, though her friend was only accommodating himself to her wish she had a sudden impulse of criticism. “You’re proud about it — too proud!”

“Well, what if I am?” He looked at her with a complexity of communication that no words could have meddled with. “Pride’s all right when it helps one to bear things.”

“Ah,” said Nanda, “but that’s only when one wants to take the least from them. When one wants to take the most —!”

“Well?”— he spoke, as she faltered, with a certain small hardness of interest.

She faltered, however, indeed. “Oh I don’t know how to say it.” She fairly coloured with the attempt. “One must let the sense of all that I speak of — well, all come. One must rather like it. I don’t know — but I suppose one must rather grovel.”

Mr. Longdon, though with visible reluctance, turned it over. “That’s very fine — but you’re a woman.”

“Yes — that must make a difference. But being a woman, in such a case, has then,” Nanda went on, “its advantages.”

On this point perhaps her friend might presently have been taken as relaxing. “It strikes me that even at that the advantages are mainly for others. I’m glad, God knows, that you’re not also a young man.”

“Then we’re suited all round.”

She had spoken with a promptitude that appeared again to act on him slightly as an irritant, for he met it — with more delay — by a long and derisive murmur. “Oh MY pride —!” But this she in no manner took up; so that he was left for a little to his thoughts. “That’s what you were plotting when you told me the other day that you wanted time?”

“Ah I wasn’t plotting — though I was, I confess, trying to work things out. That particular idea of simply asking Mr. Van by letter to present himself — that particular flight of fancy hadn’t in fact then at all occurred to me.”

“It never occurred, I’m bound to say, to ME,” said Mr. Longdon. “I’ve never thought of writing to him.”

“Very good. But you haven’t the reasons. I wanted to attack him.”

“Not about me, I hope to God!” Mr. Longdon, distinctly a little paler, rejoined.

“Don’t be afraid. I think I had an instinct of how you would have taken THAT. It was about mother.”

“Oh!” said her visitor.

“He has been worse to her than to you,” she continued. “But he’ll make it all right.”

Mr. Longdon’s attention retained its grimness. “If he has such a remedy for the more then, what has he for the less?”

Nanda, however, was but for an instant checked.

“Oh it’s I who make it up to YOU. To mother, you see, there’s no one otherwise to make it up.”

This at first unmistakeably sounded to him too complicated for acceptance. But his face changed as light dawned. “That puts it then that you WILL come?”

“I’ll come if you’ll take me as I am — which is what I must previously explain to you: I mean more than I’ve ever done before. But what HE means by what you call his remedy is my making you feel better about himself.”

The old man gazed at her. “‘Your’ doing it is too beautiful! And he could really come to you for the purpose of asking you?”

“Oh no,” said the girl briskly, “he came simply for the purpose of doing what he HAD to do. After my letter how could he not come? Then he met most kindly what I said to him for mother and what he quite understood to be all my business with him; so that his appeal to me to plead with you for — well, for his credit — was only thrown in because he had so good a chance.”

This speech brought Mr. Longdon abruptly to his feet, but before she could warn him again of the patience she continued to need he had already, as if what she evoked for him left him too stupefied, dropped back into submission. “The man stood there for you to render him a service? — for you to help him and praise him?”

“Ah but it wasn’t to go out of my way, don’t you see? He knew you were presently to be here.” Her anxiety that he should understand gave her a rare strained smile. “I mustn’t make — as a request from him — too much of it, and I’ve not a doubt that, rather than that you should think any ill of him for wishing me to say a word, he would gladly be left with whatever bad appearance he may actually happen to have.” She pulled up on these words as with a quick sense of their really, by their mere sound, putting her in deeper; and could only give her friend one of the looks that expressed: “If I could trust you not to assent even more than I want, I should say ‘You know what I mean!’” She allowed him at all events — or tried to allow him — no time for uttered irony before going on: “He was everything you could have wished; quite as beautiful about YOU—”

“As about you?”— Mr. Longdon took her up.

She demurred. “As about mother.” With which she turned away as if it handsomely settled the question.

But it only left him, as she went to the window, sitting there sombre. “I like, you know,” he brought out as his eyes followed her, “your saying you’re not proud! Thank God you ARE, my dear. Yes — it’s better for us.”

At this, after a moment, in her place, she turned round to him. “I’m glad I’m anything — whatever you may call it and though I can’t call it the same — that’s good for YOU.”

He said nothing more for a little, as if by such a speech something in him were simplified and softened. “It would be good for me — by which I mean it would be easier for me — if you didn’t quite so immensely care for him.”

“Oh!” came from Nanda with an accent of attenuation at once so precipitate and so vague that it only made her attitude at first rather awkward. “Oh!” she immediately repeated, but with an increase of the same effect. After which, conscious, she made, as if to save herself, a quick addition. “Dear Mr. Longdon, isn’t it rather yourself most —?”

“It would be easier for me,” he went on, heedless, “if you didn’t, my poor child, so wonderfully love him.”

“Ah but I don’t — please believe me when I assure you I DON’T!” she broke out. It burst from her, flaring up, in a queer quaver that ended in something queerer still — in her abrupt collapse, on the spot, into the nearest chair, where she choked with a torrent of tears. Her buried face could only after a moment give way to the flood, and she sobbed in a passion as sharp and brief as the flurry of a wild thing for an instant uncaged; her old friend meantime keeping his place in the silence broken by her sound and distantly — across the room — closing his eyes to his helplessness and her shame. Thus they sat together while their trouble both conjoined and divided them. She recovered herself, however, with an effort worthy of her fall and was on her feet again as she stammeringly spoke and angrily brushed at her eyes. “What difference in the world does it make — what difference ever?” Then clearly, even with the words, her checked tears suffered her to see how it made the difference that he too had been crying; so that “I don’t know why you mind!” she thereupon wailed with extravagance.

“You don’t know what I would have done for him. You don’t know, you don’t know!” he repeated — while she looked as if she naturally couldn’t — as with a renewal of his dream of beneficence and of the soreness of his personal wound.

“Well, but HE does you justice — he knows. So it shows, so it shows —!”

But in this direction too, unable to say what it showed, she had again broken down and again could only hold herself and let her companion sit there. “Ah Nanda, Nanda!” he deeply murmured; and the depth of the pity was, vainly and blindly, as the depth of a reproach.

“It’s I— it’s I, therefore,” she said as if she must then so look at it with him; “it’s I who am the horrible impossible and who have covered everything else with my own impossibility. For some different person you COULD have done what you speak of, and for some different person you can do it still.”

He stared at her with his barren sorrow. “A person different from him?”

“A person different from ME!”

“And what interest have I in any such person?”

“But your interest in me — you see well enough where THAT lands us.”

Mr. Longdon now got to his feet and somewhat stiffly remained; after which, for all answer, “You say you WILL come then?” he asked. Then as — seemingly with her last thought — she kept silent: “You understand clearly, I take it, that this time it’s never again to leave me — or to BE left.”

“I understand,” she presently replied. “Never again. That,” she continued, “is why I asked you for these days.”

“Well then, since you’ve taken them —”

“Ah but have YOU?” said Nanda. They were close to each other now, and with a tenderness of warning that was helped by their almost equal stature she laid her hand on his shoulder. “What I did more than anything else write to him for,” she had now regained her clearness enough to explain, “was that — with whatever idea you had — you should see for yourself how he could come and go.”

“And what good was that to do me? HADN’T I seen for myself?”

“Well — you’ve seen once more. Here he was. I didn’t care what he thought. Here I brought him. And his reasons remain.”

She kept her eyes on her companion’s face, but his own now and afterwards seemed to wander far. “What do I care for his reasons so long as they’re not mine?”

She thought an instant, still holding him gently and as if for successful argument. “But perhaps you don’t altogether understand them.”

“And why the devil, altogether, SHOULD I?”

“Ah because you distinctly want to,” said Nanda ever so kindly. “You’ve admitted as much when we’ve talked —”

“Oh but when HAVE we talked?” he sharply interrupted.

This time he had challenged her so straight that it was her own look that strayed. “When?”

“When.”

She hesitated. “When HAVEN’T we?”

“Well, YOU may have: if that’s what you call talking — never saying a word. But I haven’t. I’ve only to do at any rate, in the way of reasons, with my own.”

“And yours too then remain? Because, you know,” the girl pursued, “I AM like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like what he thinks.” Then so gravely that it was almost a supplication, “Don’t tell me,” she added, “that you don’t KNOW what he thinks. You do know.”

Their eyes, on that strange ground, could meet at last, and the effect of it was presently for Mr. Longdon. “I do know.”

“Well?”

“Well!” He raised his hands and took her face, which he drew so close to his own that, as she gently let him, he could kiss her with solemnity on the forehead. “Come!” he then very firmly said — quite indeed as if it were a question of their moving on the spot.

It literally made her smile, which, with a certain compunction, she immediately corrected by doing for him in the pressure of her lips to his cheek what he had just done for herself. “To-day?” she more seriously asked.

He looked at his watch. “To-morrow.”

She paused, but clearly for assent. “That’s what I mean by your taking me as I am. It IS, you know, for a girl — extraordinary.”

“Oh I know what it is!” he exclaimed with an odd fatigue in his tenderness.

But she continued, with the shadow of her scruple, to explain. “We’re many of us, we’re most of us — as you long ago saw and showed you felt — extraordinary now. We can’t help it. It isn’t really our fault. There’s so much else that’s extraordinary that if we’re in it all so much we must naturally be.” It was all obviously clearer to her than ever yet, and her sense of it found renewed expression; so that she might have been, as she wound up, a very much older person than her friend. “Everything’s different from what it used to be.”

“Yes, everything,” he returned with an air of final indoctrination. “That’s what he ought to have recognised.”

“As YOU have?” Nanda was once more — and completely now — enthroned in high justice. “Oh he’s more old-fashioned than you.”

“Much more,” said Mr. Longdon with a queer face.

“He tried,” the girl went on —“he did his best. But he couldn’t. And he’s so right — for himself.”

Her visitor, before meeting this, gathered in his hat and stick, which for a minute occupied his attention. “He ought to have married —!”

“Little Aggie? Yes,” said Nanda.

They had gained the door, where Mr. Longdon again met her eyes. “And then Mitchy —!”

But she checked him with a quick gesture. “No — not even then!”

So again before he went they were for a minute confronted. “Are you anxious about Mitchy?”

She faltered, but at last brought it out. “Yes. Do you see? There I am.”

“I see. There we are. Well,” said Mr. Longdon —“tomorrow.”

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