Mrs. Brookenham stopped on the threshold with the sharp surprise of the sight of her son, and there was disappointment, though rather of the afflicted than of the irritated sort, in the question that, slowly advancing, she launched at him. “If you’re still lolling about why did you tell me two hours ago that you were leaving immediately?”
Deep in a large brocaded chair with his little legs stuck out to the fire, he was so much at his ease that he was almost flat on his back. She had evidently roused him from sleep, and it took him a couple of minutes — during which, without again looking at him, she directly approached a beautiful old French secretary, a fine piece of the period of Louis Seize — to justify his presence. “I changed my mind. I couldn’t get off.”
“Do you mean to say you’re not going?”
“Well, I’m thinking it over. What’s a fellow to do?” He sat up a little, staring with conscious solemnity at the fire, and if it had been — as it was not — one of the annoyances she in general expected from him, she might have received the impression that his flush was the heat of liquor.
“He’s to keep out of the way,” she returned —“when he has led one so deeply to hope it.” There had been a bunch of keys dangling from the secretary, of which as she said these words Mrs. Brookenham took possession. Her air on observing them had promptly become that of having been in search of them, and a moment after she had passed across the room they were in her pocket. “If you don’t go what excuse will you give?”
“Do you mean to YOU, mummy?”
She stood before him and now dismally looked at him. “What’s the matter with you? What an extraordinary time to take a nap!”
He had fallen back in the chair, from the depths of which he met her eyes. “Why it’s just THE time, mummy. I did it on purpose. I can always go to sleep when I like. I assure you it sees one through things!”
She turned away with impatience and, glancing about the room, perceived on a small table of the same type as the secretary a somewhat massive book with the label of a circulating library, which she proceeded to pick up as for refuge from the impression made on her by her boy. He watched her do this and watched her then slightly pause at the wide window that, in Buckingham Crescent, commanded the prospect they had ramified rearward to enjoy; a medley of smoky brick and spotty stucco, of other undressed backs, of glass invidiously opaque, of roofs and chimney-pots and stables unnaturally near — one of the private pictures that in London, in select situations, run up, as the phrase is, the rent. There was no indication of value now, however, in the character conferred on the scene by a cold spring rain. The place had moreover a confessed out-of-season vacancy. She appeared to have determined on silence for the present mark of her relation with Harold, yet she soon failed to resist a sufficiently poor reason for breaking it. “Be so good as to get out of my chair.”
“What will you do for me,” he asked, “if I oblige you?”
He never moved — but as if only the more directly and intimately to meet her — and she stood again before the fire and sounded his strange little face. “I don’t know what it is, but you give me sometimes a kind of terror.”
“A terror, mamma?”
She found another place, sinking sadly down and opening her book, and the next moment he got up and came over to kiss her, on which she drew her cheek wearily aside. “You bore me quite to death,” she coldly said, “and I give you up to your fate.”
“What do you call my fate?”
“Oh something dreadful — if only by its being publicly ridiculous.” She turned vaguely the pages of her book. “You’re too selfish — too sickening.”
“Oh dear, dear!” he wonderingly whistled while he wandered back to the hearth-rug, on which, with his hands behind him, he lingered a while. He was small and had a slight stoop which somehow gave him character — character of the insidious sort carried out in the acuteness, difficult to trace to a source, of his smooth fair face, where the lines were all curves and the expression all needles. He had the voice of a man of forty and was dressed — as if markedly not for London — with an air of experience that seemed to match it. He pulled down his waistcoat, smoothing himself, feeling his neat hair and looking at his shoes.
“I took your five pounds. Also two of the sovereigns,” he went on. “I left you two pound ten.” His mother jerked up her head at this, facing him in dismay, and, immediately on her feet, passed back to the secretary. “It’s quite as I say,” he insisted; “you should have locked it BEFORE, don’t you know? It grinned at me there with all its charming brasses, and what was I to do? Darling mummy, I COULDN’T start — that was the truth. I thought I should find something — I had noticed; and I do hope you’ll let me keep it, because if you don’t it’s all up with me. I stopped over on purpose — on purpose, I mean, to tell you what I’ve done. Don’t you call that a sense of honour? And now you only stand and glower at me.”
Mrs. Brookenham was, in her forty-first year, still charmingly pretty, and the nearest approach she made at this moment to meeting her son’s description of her was by looking beautifully desperate. She had about her the pure light of youth — would always have it; her head, her figure, her flexibility, her flickering colour, her lovely silly eyes, her natural quavering tone, all played together toward this effect by some trick that had never yet been exposed. It was at the same time remarkable that — at least in the bosom of her family — she rarely wore an appearance of gaiety less qualified than at the present juncture; she suggested for the most part the luxury, the novelty of woe, the excitement of strange sorrows and the cultivation of fine indifferences. This was her special sign — an innocence dimly tragic. It gave immense effect to her other resources. She opened the secretary with the key she had quickly found, then with the aid of another rattled out a small drawer; after which she pushed the drawer back, closing the whole thing. “You terrify me — you terrify me,” she again said.
“How can you say that when you showed me just now how well you know me? Wasn’t it just on account of what you thought I might do that you took out the keys as soon as you came in?” Harold’s manner had a way of clearing up whenever he could talk of himself.
“You’re too utterly disgusting — I shall speak to your father,” with which, going to the chair he had given up, his mother sank down again with her heavy book. There was no anger, however, in her voice, and not even a harsh plaint; only a detached accepted disenchantment. Mrs. Brookenham’s supreme rebellion against fate was just to show with the last frankness how much she was bored.
“No, darling mummy, you won’t speak to my father — you’ll do anything in the world rather than that,” Harold replied, quite as if he were kindly explaining her to herself. “I thank you immensely for the charming way you take what I’ve done; it was because I had a conviction of that that I waited for you to know it. It was all very well to tell you I’d start on my visit — but how the deuce was I to start without a penny in the world? Don’t you see that if you want me to go about you must really enter into my needs?”
“I wish to heaven you’d leave me — I wish to heaven you’d get out of the house,” Mrs. Brookenham went on without looking up.
Harold took out his watch. “Well, mamma, now I AM ready: I wasn’t in the least before. But it will be going forth, you know, quite to seek my fortune. For do you really think — I must have from you what you do think — that it will be all right for me?”
She fixed him at last with her pretty pathos. “You mean for you to go to Brander?”
“You know,” he answered with his manner as of letting her see her own attitude, “you know you try to make me do things you wouldn’t at all do yourself. At least I hope you wouldn’t. And don’t you see that if I so far oblige you I must at least be paid for it?”
His mother leaned back in her chair, gazed for a moment at the ceiling and then closed her eyes. “You ARE frightful,” she said. “You’re appalling.”
“You’re always wanting to get me out of the house,” he continued; “I think you want to get us ALL out, for you manage to keep Nanda from showing even more than you do me. Don’t you think your children good ENOUGH, mummy dear? At any rate it’s as plain as possible that if you don’t keep us at home you must keep us in other places. One can’t live anywhere for nothing — it’s all bosh that a fellow saves by staying with people. I don’t know how it is for a lady, but a man’s practically let in-”
“Do you know you kill me, Harold?” Mrs. Brookenham woefully interposed. But it was with the same remote melancholy that she asked in the next breath: “It wasn’t an INVITATION— to Brander?”
“It’s as I told you. She said she’d write, fixing a time; but she never did write.”
“But if YOU wrote —”
“It comes to the same thing? DOES it? — that’s the question. If on my note she didn’t write — that’s what I mean. Should one simply take it that one’s wanted? I like to have these things FROM you, mother. I do, I believe, everything you say; but to feel safe and right I must just HAVE them. Any one WOULD want me, eh?”
Mrs. Brookenham had opened her eyes, but she still attached them to the cornice. “If she hadn’t wanted you she’d have written to keep you off. In a great house like that there’s always room.”
The young man watched her a moment. “How you DO like to tuck us in and then sit up yourself! What do you want to do, anyway? What ARE you up to, mummy?”
She rose at this, turning her eyes about the room as if from the extremity of martyrdom or the wistfulness of some deep thought. Yet when she spoke it was with a different expression, an expression that would have served for an observer as a marked illustration of that disconnectedness of her parts which frequently was laughable even to the degree of contributing to her social success. “You’ve spent then more than four pounds in five days. It was on Friday I gave them to you. What in the world do you suppose is going to become of me?”
Harold continued to look at her as if the question demanded some answer really helpful. “Do we live beyond our means?”
She now moved her gaze to the floor. “Will you PLEASE get away?”
“Anything to assist you. Only, if I SHOULD find I’m not wanted —?”
She met his look after an instant, and the wan loveliness and vagueness of her own had never been greater. “BE wanted, and you won’t find it. You’re odious, but you’re not a fool.”
He put his arms about her now for farewell, and she submitted as if it was absolutely indifferent to her to whose bosom she was pressed. “You do, dearest,” he laughed, “say such sweet things!” And with that he reached the door, on opening which he pulled up at a sound from below. “The Duchess! She’s coming up.”
Mrs. Brookenham looked quickly round the room, but she spoke with utter detachment. “Well, let her come.”
“As I’d let her go. I take it as a happy sign SHE won’t be at Brander.” He stood with his hand on the knob; he had another quick appeal. “But after Tuesday?”
Mrs. Brookenham had passed half round the room with the glide that looked languid but that was really a remarkable form of activity, and had given a transforming touch, on sofa and chairs, to three or four crushed cushions. It was all with the hanging head of a broken lily. “You’re to stay till the twelfth.”
“But if I AM kicked out?”
It was as a broken lily that she considered it. “Then go to the Mangers.”
“Happy thought! And shall I write?”
His mother raised a little more a window-blind. “No — I will.”
“Delicious mummy!” And Harold blew her a kiss.
“Yes, rather”— she corrected herself. “Do write — from Brander. It’s the sort of thing for the Mangers. Or even wire.”
“Both?” the young man laughed. “Oh you duck!” he cried. “And from where will YOU let them have it?”
“From Pewbury,” she replied without wincing. “I’ll write on Sunday.”
“Good. How d’ye do, Duchess?”— and Harold, before he disappeared, greeted with a rapid concentration of all the shades of familiarity a large high lady, the visitor he had announced, who rose in the doorway with the manner of a person used to arriving on thresholds very much as people arrive at stations — with the expectation of being “met.”
“Good-bye. He’s off,” Mrs. Brookenham, who had remained quite on her own side of the room, explained to her friend.
“Where’s he off to?” this friend enquired with a casual advance and a look not so much at her hostess as at the cushions just rearranged.
“Oh to some places. To Brander today.”
“How he does run about!” And the Duchess, still with a glance hither and yon, sank upon the sofa to which she had made her way unaided. Mrs. Brookenham knew perfectly the meaning of this glance: she had but three or four comparatively good pieces, whereas the Duchess, rich with the spoils of Italy, had but three or four comparatively bad. This was the relation, as between intimate friends, that the Duchess visibly preferred, and it was quite groundless, in Buckingham Crescent, ever to enter the drawing-room with an expression suspicious of disloyalty. The Duchess was a woman who so cultivated her passions that she would have regarded it as disloyal to introduce there a new piece of furniture in an underhand way — that is without a full appeal to herself, the highest authority, and the consequent bestowal of opportunity to nip the mistake in the bud. Mrs. Brookenham had repeatedly asked herself where in the world she might have found the money to be disloyal. The Duchess’s standard was of a height —! It matched for that matter her other elements, which were wontedly conspicuous as usual as she sat there suggestive of early tea. She always suggested tea before the hour, and her friend always, but with so different a wistfulness, rang for it. “Who’s to be at Brander?” she asked.
“I haven’t the least idea — he didn’t tell me. But they’ve always a lot of people.”
“Oh I know — extraordinary mixtures. Has he been there before?”
Mrs. Brookenham thought. “Oh yes — if I remember — more than once. In fact her note — which he showed me, but which only mentioned ‘some friends’— was a sort of appeal on the ground of something or other that had happened the last time.”
The Duchess dealt with it. “She writes the most extraordinary notes.”
“Well, this was nice, I thought,” Mrs. Brookenham said —“from a woman of her age and her immense position to so young a man.”
Again the Duchess reflected. “My dear, she’s not an American and she’s not on the stage. Aren’t those what you call positions in this country? And she’s also not a hundred.”
“Yes, but Harold’s a mere baby.”
“Then he doesn’t seem to want for nurses!” the Duchess replied. She smiled at her hostess. “Your children are like their mother — they’re eternally young.”
“Well, I’M not a hundred!” moaned Mrs. Brookenham as if she wished with dim perversity she were.
“Every one’s at any rate awfully kind to Harold.” She waited a moment to give her visitor the chance to pronounce that eminently natural, but no pronouncement came — nothing but the footman who had answered her ring and of whom she ordered tea. “And where did you say YOU’RE going?” she enquired after this.
“For Easter?” The Duchess achieved a direct encounter with her charming eyes — which was not in general an easy feat. “I didn’t say I was going anywhere. I haven’t of a sudden changed my habits. You know whether I leave my child — except in the sense of having left her an hour ago at Mr. Garlick’s class in Modern Light Literature. I confess I’m a little nervous about the subjects and am going for her at five.”
“And then where do you take her?”
“Home to her tea. Where should you think?”
Mrs. Brookenham declined, in connexion with the matter, any responsibility of thought; she did indeed much better by saying after a moment: “You ARE devoted!”
“Miss Merriman has her afternoon — I can’t imagine what they do with their afternoons,” the Duchess went on. “But she’s to be back in the school-room at seven.”
“And you have Aggie till then?”
“Till then,” said the Duchess cheerfully. “You’re off for Easter to — where is it?” she continued.
Mrs. Brookenham had received with no flush of betrayal the various discriminations thus conveyed by her visitor, and her only revenge for the moment was to look as sweetly resigned as if she really saw what was in them. Where were they going for Easter? She had to think an instant, but she brought it out. “Oh to Pewbury — we’ve been engaged so long that I had forgotten. We go once a year — one does it for Edward.”
“Ah you spoil him!” smiled the Duchess. “Who’s to be there?”
“Oh the usual thing, I suppose. A lot of my lord’s tiresome supporters.”
“To pay his debt? Then why are you poor things asked?”
Mrs. Brookenham looked, on this, quite adorably — that is most wonderingly — grave. “How do I know, my dear Jane, why in the world we’re ever asked anywhere? Fancy people wanting Edward!” she exhaled with stupefaction. “Yet we can never get off Pewbury.”
“You’re better for getting on, cara mia, than for getting off!” the Duchess blandly returned. She was a person of no small presence, filling her place, however, without ponderosity, with a massiveness indeed rather artfully kept in bounds. Her head, her chin, her shoulders were well aloft, but she had not abandoned the cultivation of a “figure” or any of the distinctively finer reasons for passing as a handsome woman. She was secretly at war moreover, in this endeavour, with a lurking no less than with a public foe, and thoroughly aware that if she didn’t look well she might at times only, and quite dreadfully, look good. There were definite ways of escape, none of which she neglected and from the total of which, as she flattered herself, the air of distinction almost mathematically resulted. This air corresponded superficially with her acquired Calabrian sonorities, from her voluminous title down, but the colourless hair, the passionless forehead, the mild cheek and long lip of the British matron, the type that had set its trap for her earlier than any other, were elements difficult to deal with and were at moments all a sharp observer saw. The battle-ground then was the haunting danger of the bourgeois. She gave Mrs. Brookenham no time to resent her last note before enquiring if Nanda were to accompany the couple.
“Mercy mercy, no — she’s not asked.” Mrs. Brookenham, on Nanda’s behalf, fairly radiated obscurity. “My children don’t go where they’re not asked.”
“I never said they did, love,” the Duchess returned. “But what then do you do with her?”
“If you mean socially”— Mrs. Brookenham looked as if there might be in some distant sphere, for which she almost yearned, a maternal opportunity very different from that —“if you mean socially, I don’t do anything at all. I’ve never pretended to do anything. You know as well as I do, dear Jane, that I haven’t begun yet.” Jane’s hostess now spoke as simply as an earnest anxious child. She gave a vague patient sigh. “I suppose I must begin!”
The Duchess remained for a little rather grimly silent. “How old is she — twenty?”
“Thirty!” said Mrs. Brookenham with distilled sweetness. Then with no transition of tone: “She has gone for a few days to Tishy Grendon.”
“In the country?”
“She stays with her to-night in Hill Street. They go down together tomorrow. Why hasn’t Aggie been?” Mrs. Brookenham went on.
The Duchess handsomely stared. “Been where?”
“Why here, to see Nanda.”
“Here?” the Duchess echoed, fairly looking again about the room. “When is Nanda ever here?”
“Ah you know I’ve given her a room of her own — the sweetest little room in the world.” Mrs. Brookenham never looked so comparatively hopeful as when obliged to explain. “She has everything there a girl can want.”
“My dear woman,” asked the Duchess, “has she sometimes her own mother?”
The men had now come in to place the tea-table, and it was the movements of the red-haired footman that Mrs. Brookenham followed. “You had better ask my child herself.”
The Duchess was frank and jovial. “I would, I promise you, if I could get at her! But isn’t that woman always with her?”
Mrs. Brookenham smoothed the little embroidered tea-cloth. “Do you call Tishy Grendon a woman?”
Again the Duchess had one of her pauses, which were indeed so frequent in her talks with this intimate that an auditor could sometimes wonder what particular form of relief they represented. They might have been a habit proceeding from the fear of undue impatience. If the Duchess had been as impatient with Mrs. Brookenham as she would possibly have seemed without them her frequent visits in the face of irritation would have had to be accounted for. “What do YOU call her?” she demanded.
“Why Nanda’s best friend — if not her only one. That’s the place I SHOULD have liked for Aggie,” Mrs. Brookenham ever so graciously smiled.
The Duchess hereupon, going beyond her, gave way to free mirth. “My dear thing, you’re delightful. Aggie OR Tishy is a sweet thought. Since you’re so good as to ask why Aggie has fallen off you’ll excuse my telling you that you’ve just named the reason. You’ve known ever since we came to England what I feel about the proper persons — and the most improper — for her to meet. The Tishy Grendons are not a bit the proper.”
Mrs. Brookenham continued to assist a little in the preparations for tea. “Why not say at once, Jane”— and her tone, in its appeal, was almost infantine —“that you’ve come at last to placing even poor Nanda, for Aggie’s wonderful purpose, in the same impossible class?”
The Duchess took her time, but at last she accepted her duty. “Well, if you will have it. You know my ideas. If it isn’t my notion of the way to bring up a girl to give her up, in extreme youth, to an intimacy with a young married woman who’s both unhappy and silly, whose conversation has absolutely no limits, who says everything that comes into her head and talks to the poor child about God only knows what — if I should never dream of such an arrangement for my niece I can almost as little face the prospect of throwing her MUCH, don’t you see? with any young person exposed to such an association. It would be in the natural order certainly”— in spite of which natural order the Duchess made the point with but moderate emphasis —“that, since dear Edward is my cousin, Aggie should see at least as much of Nanda as of any other girl of their age. But what will you have? I must recognise the predicament I’m placed in by the more and more extraordinary development of English manners. Many things have altered, goodness knows, since I was Aggie’s age, but nothing’s so different as what you all do with your girls. It’s all a muddle, a compromise, a monstrosity, like everything else you produce; there’s nothing in it that goes on all-fours. I see but one consistent way, which is our fine old foreign way and which makes — in the upper classes, mind you, for it’s with them only I’m concerned — des femmes bien gracieuses. I allude to the immemorial custom of my husband’s race, which was good enough for his mother and his mother’s mother, for Aggie’s own, for his other sisters, for toutes ces dames. It would have been good enough for my child, as I call her — my dear husband called her HIS— if, not losing her parents, she had remained in her own country. She would have been brought up there under an anxious eye — that’s the great point; privately, carefully, tenderly, and with what she was NOT to learn — till the proper time — looked after quite as much as the rest. I can only go on with her in that spirit and make of her, under Providence, what I consider any young person of her condition, of her name, of her particular traditions, should be. Voila, ma chere. Should you put it to me whether I think you’re surrounding Nanda with any such security as that — well, I shouldn’t be able to help it if I offended you by an honest answer. What it comes to, simply stated, is that really she must choose between Aggie and Tishy. I’m afraid I should shock you were I to tell you what I should think of myself for packing MY child, all alone, off for a week with Mrs. Grendon.”
Mrs. Brookenham, who had many talents, had none perhaps that she oftener found useful than that of listening with the appearance of being fairly hypnotised. It was the way she listened to her housekeeper at their regular morning conference, and if the rejoinder ensuing upon it frequently appeared to have nothing to do with her manner this was a puzzle for her interlocutor alone. “Oh of course I know your theory, dear Jane, and I dare say it’s very charming and old-fashioned and, if you like, aristocratic, in a frowsy foolish old way — though even upon that, at the same time, there would be something too to be said. But I can only congratulate you on finding it more workable than there can be any question of MY finding it. If you’re all armed for the sacrifices you speak of I simply am not. I don’t think I’m quite a monster, but I don’t pretend to be a saint. I’m an English wife and an English mother — I live in the mixed English world. My daughter, at any rate, is just my daughter, I thank my stars, and one of a good English bunch: she’s not the unique niece of my dead Italian husband, nor doubtless either, in spite of her excellent birth, of a lineage, like Aggie’s, so very tremendous. I’ve my life to lead and she’s a part of it. Sugar?” she wound up on a still softer note as she handed the cup of tea.
“Never! Well, with ME” said the Duchess with spirit, “she would be all.”
“‘All’ is soon said! Life is composed of many things,” Mrs. Brookenham gently rang out —“of such mingled intertwisted strands!” Then still with the silver bell, “Don’t you really think Tishy nice?” she asked.
“I think little girls should live with little girls and young femmes du monde so immensely initiated should — well,” said the Duchess with a toss of her head, “let them alone. What do they want of them ‘at all at all’?”
“Well, my dear, if Tishy strikes you as ‘initiated’ all one can ask is ‘Initiated into what?’ I should as soon think of applying such a term to a little shivering shorn lamb. Is it your theory,” Mrs. Brookenham pursued, “that our unfortunate unmarried daughters are to have no intelligent friends?”
“Unfortunate indeed,” cried the Duchess, “precisely BECAUSE they’re unmarried, and unmarried, if you don’t mind my saying so, a good deal because they’re unmarriageable. Men, after all, the nice ones — by which I mean the possible ones — are not on the lookout for little brides whose usual associates are so up to snuff. It’s not their idea that the girls they marry shall already have been pitchforked — by talk and contacts and visits and newspapers and by the way the poor creatures rush about and all the extraordinary things they do — quite into EVERYTHING. A girl’s most intelligent friend is her mother — or the relative acting as such. Perhaps you consider that Tishy takes your place!”
Mrs. Brookenham waited so long to say what she considered that before she next spoke the question appeared to have dropped. Then she only replied as if suddenly remembering her manners: “Won’t you eat something?” She indicated a particular plate. “One of the nice little round ones?” The Duchess appropriated a nice little round one and her hostess presently went on: “There’s one thing I mustn’t forget — don’t let us eat them ALL. I believe they’re what Lord Petherton really comes for.”
The Duchess finished her mouthful imperturbably before she took this up. “Does he come so often?”
Mrs. Brookenham might have been, for judicious candour, the Muse of History. “I don’t know what he calls it; but he said yesterday that he’d come today. I’ve had tea earlier for you,” she went on with her most melancholy kindness —“and he’s always late. But we mustn’t, between us, lick the platter clean.”
The Duchess entered very sufficiently into her companion’s tone. “Oh I don’t feel at all obliged to consider him, for he has not of late particularly put himself out for me. He has not been to see me since I don’t know when, and the last time he did come he brought Mr. Mitchett.”
“Here it was the other way round. It was Mr. Mitchett, the other year, who first brought Lord Petherton.”
“And who,” asked the Duchess, “had first brought Mr. Mitchett?”
Mrs. Brookenham, meeting her friend’s eyes, looked for an instant as if trying to recall. “I give it up. I muddle beginnings.”
“That doesn’t matter if you only MAKE them,” the Duchess smiled.
“No, does it?” To which Mrs. Brookenham added: “Did he bring Mr. Mitchett for Aggie?”
“If he did they’ll have been disappointed. Neither of them has seen, in my house, the tip of her nose.” The Duchess announced it with a pomp of pride.
“Ah but with your ideas that doesn’t prevent.”
“Why what I suppose you call the pourparlers.”
“For Aggie’s hand? My dear,” said the Duchess, “I’m glad you do me the justice of feeling that I’m a person to take time by the forelock. It was not, as you seem to remember, with the sight of Mr. Mitchett that the question of Aggie’s hand began to occupy me. I should be ashamed of myself if it weren’t constantly before me and if I hadn’t my feelers out in more quarters than one. But I’ve not so much as thought of Mr. Mitchett — who, rich as he may be, is the son of a shoemaker and superlatively hideous — for a reason I don’t at all mind telling you. Don’t be outraged if I say that I’ve for a long time hoped you yourself would find the right use for him.” She paused — at present with a momentary failure of assurance, from which she rallied, however, to proceed with a burst of earnestness that was fairly noble. “Forgive me if I just tell you once for all how it strikes me, I’m stupefied at your not seeming to recognise either your interest or your duty. Oh I know you want to, but you appear to me — in your perfect good faith of course — utterly at sea. They’re one and the same thing, don’t you make out? your interest and your duty. Why isn’t it convincingly plain to you that the thing to do with Nanda is just to marry her — and to marry her soon? That’s the great thing — do it while you CAN. If you don’t want her downstairs — at which, let me say, I don’t in the least wonder — your remedy is to take the right alternative. Don’t send her to Tishy —”
“Send her to Mr. Mitchett?” Mrs. Brookenham unresentfully quavered. Her colour, during her visitor’s address had distinctly risen, but there was no irritation in her voice. “How do you know, Jane, that I don’t want her downstairs?”
The Duchess looked at her with an audacity confirmed by the absence from her face of everything but the plaintive. “There you are, with your eternal English false positions! J’aime, moi, les situations nettes — je rien comprends pas d’autres. It wouldn’t be to your honour — to that of your delicacy — that with your impossible house you SHOULD wish to plant your girl in your drawing-room. But such a way of keeping her out of it as throwing her into a worse —!”
“Well, Jane, you do say things to me!” Mrs. Brookenham blandly broke in. She had sunk back into her chair; her hands, in her lap pressed themselves together and her wan smile brought a tear into each of her eyes by the very effort to be brighter. It might have been guessed of her that she hated to seem to care, but that she had other dislikes too. “If one were to take up, you know, some of the things you say —!” And she positively sighed for the wealth of amusement at them of which her tears were the sign. Her friend could quite match her indifference. “Well, my child, TAKE them up; if you were to do that with them candidly, one by one, you would do really very much what I should like to bring you to. Do you see?” Mrs. Brookenham’s failure to repudiate the vision appeared to suffice, and her visitor cheerfully took a further jump. “As much of Tishy as she wants — AFTER. But not before.”
“Well — say after Mr. Mitchett. Mr. Mitchett won’t take her after Mrs. Grendon.”
“And what are your grounds for assuming that he’ll take her at all?” Then as the Duchess hung fire a moment: “Have you got it by chance from Lord Petherton?”
The eyes of the two women met for a little on this, and there might have been a consequence of it in the manner of what came. “I’ve got it from not being a fool. Men, I repeat, like the girls they marry —”
“Oh I already know your old song! The way they like the girls they DON’T marry seems to be,” Mrs. Brookenham mused, “what more immediately concerns us. You had better wait till you HAVE made Aggie’s fortune perhaps — to be so sure of the working of your system. Pardon me, darling, if I don’t take you for an example until you’ve a little more successfully become one. I know what the sort of men worth speaking of are not looking for. They ARE looking for smart safe sensible English girls.”
The Duchess glanced at the clock. “What’s Mr. Vanderbank looking for?”
Her companion appeared to oblige her by anxiously thinking. “Oh, HE, I’m afraid, poor dear — for nothing at all!”
The Duchess had taken off a glove to appease her appetite, and now, drawing it on, she smoothed it down. “I think he has his ideas.”
“The same as yours?”
“Well, more like them than like yours.”
“Ah perhaps then — for he and I,” said Mrs. Brookenham, “don’t agree, I feel, on two things in the world. So you think poor Mitchy,” she went on, “who’s the son of a shoemaker and who might be the grandson of a grasshopper, good enough for my child.”
The Duchess appreciated for a moment the superior fit of her glove. “I look facts in the face. It’s exactly what I’m doing for Aggie.” Then she grew easy to extravagance. “What are you giving her?”
But Mrs. Brookenham took without wincing whatever, as between a masterful relative and an exposed frivolity, might have been the sting of it. “That you must ask Edward. I haven’t the least idea.”
“There you are again — the virtuous English mother! I’ve got Aggie’s little fortune in an old stocking and I count it over every night. If you’ve no old stocking for Nanda there are worse fates than shoemakers and grasshoppers. Even WITH one, you know, I don’t at all say that I should sniff at poor Mitchy. We must take what we can get and I shall be the first to take it. You can’t have everything for ninepence.” And the Duchess got up — shining, however, with a confessed light of fantasy. “Speak to him, my dear — speak to him!”
“Do you mean offer him my child?”
She laughed at the intonation. “There you are once more — vous autres! If you’re shocked at the idea you place drolement your delicacy. I’d offer mine to the son of a chimney-sweep if the principal guarantees were there. Nanda’s charming — you don’t do her justice. I don’t say Mr. Mitchett’s either beautiful or noble, and he certainly hasn’t as much distinction as would cover the point of a pin. He doesn’t mind moreover what he says — the lengths he sometimes goes to! — but that,” added the Duchess with decision, “is no doubt much a matter of how he finds you’ll take it. And after marriage what does it signify? He has forty thousand a year, an excellent idea of how to take care of it and a good disposition.”
Mrs. Brookenham sat still; she only looked up at her friend. “Is it by Lord Petherton that you know of his excellent idea?”
The Duchess showed she was challenged, but also that she made allowances. “I go by my impression. But Lord Petherton HAS spoken for him.”
“He ought to do that,” said Mrs. Brookenham —“since he wholly lives on him.”
“Lord Petherton — on Mr. Mitchett?” The Duchess stared, but rather in amusement than in horror. “Why, hasn’t he a — property?”
“The loveliest. Mr. Mitchett’s his property. Didn’t you KNOW?” There was an artless wail in Mrs. Brookenham’s surprise.
“How should I know — still a stranger as I’m often rather happy to feel myself here and choosing my friends and picking my steps very much, I can assure you — how should I know about all your social scandals and things?”
“Oh we don’t call THAT a social scandal!” Mrs. Brookenham inimitably returned.
“Well, if you should wish to you’d have the way I tell you of to stop it. Divert the stream of Mr. Mitchett’s wealth.”
“Oh there’s plenty for every one!”— Mrs. Brookenham kept up her tone. “He’s always giving us things — bonbons and dinners and opera-boxes.”
“He has never given ME any,” the Duchess contentedly declared.
Mrs. Brookenham waited a little. “Lord Petherton has the giving of some. He has never in his life before, I imagine, made so many presents.”
“Ah then it’s a shame one has nothing!” On which before reaching the door, the Duchess changed the subject. “You say I never bring Aggie. If you like I’ll bring her back.”
Mrs. Brookenham wondered. “Do you mean today?”
“Yes, when I’ve picked her up. It will be something to do with her till Miss Merriman can take her.”
“Delighted, dearest; do bring her. And I think she should SEE Mr. Mitchett.”
“Shall I find him here too then?”
“Oh take the chance.”
The two women, on this, exchanged, tacitly and across the room — the Duchess at the door, which a servant had arrived to open for her, and Mrs. Brookenham still at her tea-table — a further stroke of intercourse, over which the latter was not on this occasion the first to lower her lids. “I think I’ve shown high scruples,” the departing guest said, “but I understand then that I’m free.”
“Free as air, dear Jane.”
“Good.” Then just as she was off, “Ah dear old Edward!” the guest exclaimed. Her kinsman, as she was fond of calling him, had reached the top of the staircase, and Mrs. Brookenham, by the fire, heard them meet on the landing — heard also the Duchess protest against his turning to see her down. Mrs. Brookenham, listening to them, hoped Edward would accept the protest and think it sufficient to leave her with the footman. Their common consciousness that she was a kind of cousin, a consciousness not devoid of satisfaction, was quite consistent with a view, early arrived at, of the absurdity of any fuss about her.
When Mr. Brookenham appeared his wife was prompt. “She’s coming back for Lord Petherton.”
“Oh!” he simply said.
“There’s something between them.”
“Oh!” he merely repeated. And it would have taken many such sounds on his part to represent a spirit of response discernible to any one but his mate.
“There have been things before,” she went on, “but I haven’t felt sure. Don’t you know how one has sometimes a flash?”
It couldn’t be said of Edward Brookenham, who seemed to bend for sitting down more hinges than most men, that he looked as if he knew either this or anything else. He had a pale cold face, marked and made regular, made even in a manner handsome, by a hardness of line in which, oddly, there was no significance, no accent. Clean-shaven, slightly bald, with unlighted grey eyes and a mouth that gave the impression of not working easily, he suggested a stippled drawing by an inferior master. Lean moreover and stiff, and with the air of having here and there in his person a bone or two more than his share, he had once or twice, at fancy-balls, been thought striking in a dress copied from one of Holbein’s English portraits. But when once some such meaning as that had been put into him it took a long time to put another, a longer time than even his extreme exposure or anybody’s study of the problem had yet made possible. If anything particular had finally been expected from him it might have been a summary or an explanation of the things he had always not said; but there was something in him that had long since pacified all impatience, drugged all curiosity. He had never in his life answered such a question as his wife had just put him and which she would not have put had she feared a reply. So dry and decent and even distinguished did he look, as if he had positively been created to meet a propriety and match some other piece, that lady, with her famous perceptions, would no more have appealed to him seriously on a general proposition than she would, for such a response, have rung the drawing-room bell. He was none the less held to have a great promiscuous wisdom. “What is it that’s between them?” he demanded.
“What’s between any woman and the man she’s making up to?”
“Why there may often be nothing. I didn’t know she even particularly knew him,” Brookenham added.
“It’s exactly what she would like to prevent any one’s knowing, and her coming here to be with him when she knows I know SHE knows — don’t you see? — that he’s to be here, is just one of those calculations that ARE subtle enough to put off the scent a woman who has but half a nose.” Mrs. Brookenham as she spoke appeared to attest by the pretty star-gazing way she thrust it into the air her own possession of the totality of such a feature. “I don’t know yet quite what I think, but one wakes up to such things soon enough.”
“Do you suppose it’s her idea that he’ll marry her?” Brookenham asked in his colourless way.
“My dear Edward!” his wife murmured for all answer.
“But if she can see him in other places why should she want to see him here?” Edward persisted in a voice destitute of expression.
Mrs. Brookenham now had plenty of that. “Do you mean if she can see him in his own house?”
“No cream, please,” her husband said. “Hasn’t she a house too?”
“Yes, but so pervaded all over by Aggie and Miss Merriman.”
“Oh!” Brookenham commented.
“There has always been some man — I’ve always known there has. And now it’s Petherton,” said his companion.
“But where’s the attraction?”
“In HIM? Why lots of women could tell you. Petherton has had a career.”
“But I mean in old Jane.”
“Well, I dare say lots of men could tell you. She’s no older than any one else. She has also such great elements.”
“Oh I dare say she’s all right,” Brookenham returned as if his interest in the case had dropped. You might have felt you got a little nearer to him on guessing that in so peopled a circle satiety was never far from him.
“I mean for instance she has such a grand idea of duty. She thinks we’re nowhere!”
“With our children — with our home life. She’s awfully down on Tishy.”
“Tishy?”— Edward appeared for a moment at a loss.
“Tishy Grendon — and her craze for Nanda.”
“Has she a craze for Nanda?”
“Surely I told you Nanda’s to be with her for Easter.”
“I believe you did,” he bethought himself, “but you didn’t say anything about a craze. And where’s Harold?” he went on.
“He’s at Brander. That is he will be by dinner. He has just gone.”
“And how does he get there?”
“Why by the South–Western. They’ll send to meet him.”
Brookenham appeared for a moment to view this statement in the dry light of experience. “They’ll only send if there are others too.”
“Of course then there’ll be others — lots. The more the better for Harold.”
This young man’s father was silent a little. “Perhaps — if they don’t play high.”
“Ah,” said his mother, “however Harold plays he has a way of winning.”
“He has a way too of being a hopeless ass. What I meant was how he comes there at all,” Edward explained.
“Why as any one comes — by being invited. She wrote to him — weeks ago.”
Brookenham just traceably took this in, but to what profit was not calculable. “To Harold? Very good-natured.” He had another short reflexion, after which he continued: “If they don’t send he’ll be in for five miles in a fly — and the man will see that he gets his money.”
“They WILL send — after her note.”
“Did it say so?”
Her melancholy eyes seemed, from afar, to run over the page. “I don’t remember — but it was so cordial.”
Again he meditated. “That often doesn’t prevent one’s being let in for ten shillings.”
There was more gloom in this forecast than his wife had desired to produce. “Well, my dear Edward, what do you want me to do? Whatever a young man does, it seems to me, he’s let in for ten shillings.”
“Ah but he needn’t be-that’s my point. I wasn’t at his age.”
Harold’s mother took up her book again. “Perhaps you weren’t the same success! I mean at such places.”
“Well, I didn’t borrow money to make me one — as I’ve a sharp idea our young scamp does.”
Mrs. Brookenham hesitated. “From whom do you mean — the Jews?”
He looked at her as if her vagueness might be assumed. “No. They, I take it, are not quite so cordial to him, since you call it so, as the old ladies. He gets it from Mitchy.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Brookenham. “Are you very sure?” she then demanded.
He had got up and put his empty cup back on the tea-table, wandering afterwards a little about the room and looking out, as his wife had done half an hour before, at the dreary rain and the now duskier ugliness. He reverted in this attitude, with a complete unconsciousness of making for irritation, to an issue they might be supposed to have dropped. “He’ll have a lovely drive for his money!” His companion, however, said nothing and he presently came round again. “No, I’m not absolutely sure — of his having had it from Mitchy. If I were I should do something.”
“What would you do?” She put it as if she couldn’t possibly imagine.
“I’d speak to him.”
“No — that might just put it into his head.” Brookenham walked up and down a little with his hands in his pockets, after which, with a complete concealment of the steps of the transition, “Where are we dining to-night?” he brought out.
“Nowhere, thank heaven. We grace our own board.”
“Oh — with those fellows, as you said, and Jane?”
“That’s not for dinner. The Baggers and Mary Pinthorpe and — upon my word I forget.”
“You’ll see when she comes,” suggested Brookenham, who was again at the window.
“It isn’t a she — it’s two or three he’s, I think,” his wife replied with her indifferent anxiety. “But I don’t know what dinner it is,” she bethought herself; “it may be the one that’s after Easter. Then that one’s this one,” she added with her eyes once more on her book.
“Well, it’s a relief to dine at home”— and Brookenham faced about. “Would you mind finding out?” he asked with some abruptness.
“Do you mean who’s to dine?”
“No, that doesn’t matter. But whether Mitchy HAS come down.”
“I can only find out by asking him.”
“Oh I could ask him.” He seemed disappointed at his wife’s want of resource.
“And you don’t want to?”
He looked coldly, from before the fire, over the prettiness of her brown bent head. “It will be such a beastly bore if he admits it.”
“And you think poor I can make him not admit it?” She put the question as if it were really her own thought too, but they were a couple who could, even face to face and unlike the augurs behind the altar, think these things without laughing. “If he SHOULD admit it,” Mrs. Brookenham threw in, “will you give me the money?”
“To pay Mitchy back.”
She had now raised her eyes to her husband, but, turning away, he failed to meet them. “He’ll deny it.”
“Well, if they all deny it,” she presently remarked, “it’s a simple enough matter. I’m sure I don’t want them to come down on us! But that’s the advantage,” she almost prattled on, “of having so many such charming friends. They DON’T come down.”
This again was a remark of a sweep that there appeared to be nothing in Brookenham’s mind to match; so that, scarcely pausing in the walk he had resumed, he only said: “Who do you mean by ‘all’?”
“Why if he has had anything from Mitchy I dare say he has had something from Van.”
“Oh!” Brookenham returned as if with a still deeper drop of interest.
“They oughtn’t to do it,” she declared; “they ought to tell us, and when they don’t it serves them right.” Even this observation, however, failed to rouse in her husband a response, and, as she had quite formed the habit of doing, she philosophically answered herself. “But I don’t suppose they do it on spec.”
It was less apparent than ever what Edward supposed. “Oh Van hasn’t money to chuck about.”
“Ah I only mean a sovereign here and there.”
“Well,” Brookenham threw out after another turn, “I think Van, you know, is your affair.”
“It ALL seems to be my affair!” she lamented too woefully to have other than a comic effect. “And of course then it will be still more so if he should begin to apply to Mr. Longdon.”
“We must stop that in time.”
“Do you mean by warning Mr. Longdon and requesting him immediately to tell us? That won’t be very pleasant,” Mrs. Brookenham noted.
“Well then wait and see.”
She waited only a minute — it might have appeared she already saw. “I want him to be kind to Harold and can’t help thinking he will.”
“Yes, but I fancy that that will be his notion of it — keeping him from making debts. I dare say one needn’t trouble about him,” Brookenham added. “He can take care of himself.”
“He appears to have done so pretty well all these years,” she mused. “As I saw him in my childhood I see him now, and I see now that I saw then even how awfully in love he was with mamma. He’s too lovely about mamma,” Mrs. Brookenham pursued.
“Oh!” her husband replied.
The vivid past held her a moment. “I see now I must have known a lot as a child.”
“Oh!” her companion repeated.
“I want him to take an interest in us. Above all in the children. He ought to like us”— she followed it up. “It will be a sort of ‘poetic justice.’ He sees the reasons for himself and we mustn’t prevent it.” She turned the possibilities over, but they produced a reserve. “The thing is I don’t see how he CAN like Harold.”
“Then he won’t lend him money,” said Brookenham with all his grimness.
This contingency too she considered. “You make me feel as if I wished he would — which is too dreadful. And I don’t think he really likes ME!” she went on.
“Oh!” her husband again ejaculated. “I mean not utterly REALLY. He has to try to. But it won’t make any difference,” she next remarked. “Do you mean his trying?”
“No, I mean his not succeeding. He’ll be just the same.” She saw it steadily and saw it whole. “On account of mamma.”
Brookenham also, with his perfect propriety, put it before himself. “And will he — on account of your mother — also like ME?”
She weighed it. “No, Edward.” She covered him with her loveliest expression. “No, not really either. But it won’t make any difference.” This time she had pulled him up.
“Not if he doesn’t like Harold or like you or like me?” Edward clearly found himself able to accept only the premise.
“He’ll be perfectly loyal. It will be the advantage of mamma!” Mrs. Brookenham cried. “Mamma, Edward,” she brought out with a flash of solemnity —“mamma WAS wonderful. There have been times when I’ve always felt her still with us, but Mr. Longdon makes it somehow so real. Whether she’s with me or not, at any rate, she’s with HIM; so that when HE’S with me, don’t you see —?”
“It comes to the same thing?” her husband intelligently asked. “I see. And when was he with you last?”
“Not since the day he dined — but that was only last week. He’ll come soon — I know from Van.”
“And what does Van know?”
“Oh all sorts of things. He has taken the greatest fancy to him.”
“The old boy — to Van?”
“Van to Mr. Longdon. And the other way too. Mr. Longdon has been most kind to him.”
Brookenham still moved about. “Well, if he likes Van and doesn’t like US, what good will that do us?”
“You’d understand soon enough if you felt Van’s loyalty.”
“Oh the things you expect me to feel, my dear!” Edward Brookenham lightly moaned.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. But he IS as loyal to me as Mr. Longdon to mamma.”
The statement produced on his part an unusual vision of the comedy of things. “Every Jenny has her Jockey!” Yet perhaps — remarkably enough — there was even more imagination in his next words. “And what sort of means?”
“Mr. Longdon? Oh very good. Mamma wouldn’t have been the loser. Not that she cared. He MUST like Nanda,” Mrs. Brookenham wound up.
Her companion appeared to look at the idea and then meet it. “He’ll have to see her first.”
“Oh he shall see her!” she rang out. “It’s time for her at any rate to sit downstairs.”
“It was time, you know, I thought, a year ago.”
“Yes, I know what you thought. But it wasn’t.”
She had spoken with decision, but he seemed unwilling to concede the point. “You allowed yourself she was all ready.”
“SHE was all ready — yes. But I wasn’t. I am now,” Mrs. Brookenham, with a fine emphasis on her adverb, proclaimed as she turned to meet the opening of the door and the appearance of the butler, whose announcement —“Lord Petherton and Mr. Mitchett”— might for an observer have seemed immediately to offer support to her changed state.
Lord Petherton, a man of five-and-thirty, whose robust but symmetrical proportions gave to his dark blue double-breasted coat an air of tightness that just failed of compromising his tailor, had for his main facial sign a certain pleasant brutality, the effect partly of a bold handsome parade of carnivorous teeth, partly of an expression of nose suggesting that this feature had paid a little, in the heat of youth, for some aggression at the time admired and even publicly commemorated. He would have been ugly, he substantively granted, had he not been happy; he would have been dangerous had he not been warranted. Many things doubtless performed for him this last service, but none so much as the delightful sound of his voice, the voice, as it were, of another man, a nature reclaimed, supercivilised, adjusted to the perpetual “chaff” which kept him smiling in a way that would have been a mistake and indeed an impossibility if he had really been witty. His bright familiarity was that of a young prince whose confidence had never had to falter, and the only thing that at all qualified the resemblance was the equal familiarity excited in his subjects.
Mr. Mitchett had so little intrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted for help in placing him to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from discovery. Dressed on the other hand not as gentlemen dress in London to pay their respects to the fair, he excited by the exhibition of garments that had nothing in common save the violence and the independence of their pattern a belief that in the desperation of humility he wished to render public his having thrown to the winds the effort to please. It was written all over him that he had judged once for all his personal case and that, as his character, superficially disposed to gaiety, deprived him of the resource of shyness and shade, the effect of comedy might not escape him if secured by a real plunge. There was comedy therefore in the form of his pot-hat and the colour of his spotted shirt, in the systematic disagreement, above all, of his coat, waistcoat and trousers. It was only on long acquaintance that his so many ingenious ways of showing he appreciated his commonness could present him as secretly rare.
“And where’s the child this time?” he asked of his hostess as soon as he was seated near her.
“Why do you say ‘this time’ as if it were different from any other time?” she replied as she gave him his tea.
“Only because, as the months and the years elapse, it’s more and more of a wonder, whenever I don’t see her, to think what she does with herself — or what you do with her. What it does show, I suppose,” Mr. Mitchett went on, “is that she takes no trouble to meet me.”
“My dear Mitchy,” said Mrs. Brookenham, “what do YOU know about ‘trouble’— either poor Nanda’s or mine or anybody’s else? You’ve never had to take any in your life, you’re the spoiled child of fortune and you skim over the surface of things in a way that seems often to represent you as supposing everybody else has wings. Most other people are sticking fast in their native mud.”
“Mud, Mrs. Brook — mud, mud!” he protestingly cried as, while he watched his fellow visitor move to a distance with their host, he glanced about the room, taking in afresh the Louis Seize secretary which looked better closed than open and for which he always had a knowing eye. “Remarkably charming — mud!”
“Well, that’s what a great deal of the element really appears today to be thought; and precisely as a specimen, Mitchy dear, those two French books you were so good as to send me and which — really this time, you extraordinary man!” She fell back, intimately reproachful, from the effect produced on her, renouncing all expression save that of the rolled eye.
“Why, were they particularly dreadful?”— Mitchy was honestly surprised. “I rather liked the one in the pink cover — what’s the confounded thing called? — I thought it had a sort of a something-or-other.” He had cast his eye about as if for a glimpse of the forgotten title, and she caught the question as he vaguely and good-humouredly dropped it.
“A kind of a morbid modernity? There IS that,” she dimly conceded.
“Is that what they call it? Awfully good name. You must have got it from old Van!” he gaily declared.
“I dare say I did. I get the good things from him and the bad ones from you. But you’re not to suppose,” Mrs. Brookenham went on, “that I’ve discussed your horrible book with him.”
“Come, I say!” Mr. Mitchett protested; “I’ve seen you with books from Vanderbank which if you HAVE discussed them with him — well,” he laughed, “I should like to have been there!”
“You haven’t seen me with anything like yours — no, no, never, never!” She was particularly positive. “Van on the contrary gives tremendous warnings, makes apologies, in advance, for things that — well, after all, haven’t killed one.”
“That have even perhaps a little, after the warnings, let one down?”
She took no notice of this coarse pleasantry, she simply adhered to her thesis. “One has taken one’s dose and one isn’t such a fool as to be deaf to some fresh true note if it happens to turn up. But for abject horrid unredeemed vileness from beginning to end —”
“So you read to the end?” Mr. Mitchett interposed.
“I read to see what you could possibly have sent such things to me for, and because so long as they were in my hands they were not in the hands of others. Please to remember in future that the children are all over the place and that Harold and Nanda have their nose in everything.”
“I promise to remember,” Mr. Mitchett returned, “as soon as you make old Van do the same.”
“I do make old Van — I pull old Van up much oftener than I succeed in pulling you. I must say,” Mrs. Brookenham went on, “you’re all getting to require among you in general an amount of what one may call editing!” She gave one of her droll universal sighs. “I’ve got your books at any rate locked up and I wish you’d send for them quickly again; one’s too nervous about anything happening and their being perhaps found among one’s relics. Charming literary remains!” she laughed.
The friendly Mitchy was also much amused. “By Jove, the most awful things ARE found! Have you heard about old Randage and what his executors have just come across? The most abominable —”
“I haven’t heard,” she broke in, “and I don’t want to; but you give me a shudder and I beg you’ll have your offerings removed, since I can’t think of confiding them for the purpose to any one in this house. I might burn them up in the dead of night, but even then I should be fearfully nervous.”
“I’ll send then my usual messenger,” said Mitchy, “a person I keep for such jobs, thoroughly seasoned, as you may imagine, and of a discretion — what do you call it? — a toute epreuve. Only you must let me say that I like your terror about Harold! Do you think he spends his time over Dr. Watts’s hymns?”
Mrs. Brookenham just hesitated, and nothing, in general, was so becoming to her as the act of hesitation. “Dear Mitchy, do you know I want awfully to talk to you about Harold?”
“About his French reading, Mrs. Brook?” Mitchy responded with interest. “The worse things are, let me just mention to you about that, the better they seem positively to be for one’s feeling up in the language. They’re more difficult, the bad ones — and there’s a lot in that. All the young men know it — those who are going up for exams.”
She had her eyes for a little on Lord Petherton and her husband; then as if she had not heard what her interlocutor had just said she overcame her last scruple. “Dear Mitchy, has he had money from you?”
He stared with his good goggle eyes — he laughed out. “Why on earth —? But do you suppose I’d tell you if he had?”
“He hasn’t really borrowed the most dreadful sums?”
Mitchy was highly diverted. “Why should he? For what, please?”
“That’s just it — for what? What does he do with it all? What in the world becomes of it?”
“Well,” Mitchy suggested, “he’s saving up to start a business. Harold’s irreproachable — hasn’t a vice. Who knows in these days what may happen? He sees further than any young man I know. Do let him save.”
She looked far away with her sweet world-weariness. “If you weren’t an angel it would be a horror to be talking to you. But I insist on knowing.” She insisted now with her absurdly pathetic eyes on him. “What kind of sums?”
“You shall never, never find out — not if you were never to speak to me again,” Mr. Mitchett replied with extravagant firmness. “Harold’s one of my great amusements — I really have awfully few; and if you deprive me of him you’ll be a fiend. There are only one or two things I want to live for, but one of them is to see how far Harold will go. Please give me some more tea.”
“Do you positively swear?” she asked with intensity as she helped him. Then without waiting for his answer: “You have the common charity to US, I suppose, to see the position you’d put us in. Fancy Edward!” she quite austerely threw off.
Mr. Mitchett, at this, had on his side a wonder. “Does Edward imagine —?”
“My dear man, Edward never ‘imagined’ anything in life.” She still had her eyes on him. “Therefore if he SEES a thing, don’t you know? it must exist.”
Mitchy for a little fixed the person mentioned as he sat with his other guest, but whatever this person saw he failed just then to see his wife’s companion, whose eyes he never met. His face only offered itself after the fashion of a clean domestic vessel, a receptacle with the peculiar property of constantly serving yet never filling, to Lord Petherton’s talkative splash. “Well, only don’t let him take it up. Let it be only between you and me,” Mr. Mitchett pleaded; “keep him quiet — don’t let him speak to me.” He appeared to convey with his pleasant extravagance that Edward looked dangerous, and he went on with a rigour of levity: “It must be OUR little quarrel.”
There were different ways of meeting such a tone, but Mrs. Brookenham’s choice was remarkably prompt. “I don’t think I quite understand what dreadful joke you may be making, but I dare say if you HAD let Harold borrow you’d have another manner, and I was at any rate determined to have the question out with you.”
“Let us always have everything out — that’s quite my own idea. It’s you,” said Mr. Mitchett, “who are by no means always so frank with me as I recognise — oh, I do THAT! — what it must have cost you to be over this little question of Harold. There’s one thing, Mrs. Brook, you do dodge.”
“What do I ever dodge, dear Mitchy?” Mrs. Brook quite tenderly asked.
“Why, when I ask you about your other child you’re off like a frightened fawn. When have you ever, on my doing so, said ‘my darling Mitchy, I’ll ring for her to be asked to come down so that you can see her for yourself’— when have you ever said anything like that?”
“I see,” Mrs. Brookenham mused; “you think I sacrifice her. You’re very interesting among you all, and I’ve certainly a delightful circle. The Duchess has just been letting me have it most remarkably hot, and as she’s presently coming back you’ll be able to join forces with her.”
Mitchy looked a little at a loss. “On the subject of your sacrifice —”
“Of my innocent and helpless, yet somehow at the same time, as a consequence of my cynicism, dreadfully damaged and depraved daughter.” She took in for an instant the slight bewilderment against which, as a result of her speech, even so expert an intelligence as Mr. Mitchett’s had not been proof; then with a small jerk of her head at the other side of the room made the quickest of transitions. “What IS there between her and him?”
Mitchy wondered at the other two. “Between Edward and the girl?”
“Don’t talk nonsense. Between Petherton and Jane.”
Mitchy could only stare, and the wide noonday light of his regard was at such moments really the redemption of his ugliness. “What ‘is’ there? Is there anything?”
“It’s too beautiful,” Mrs. Brookenham appreciatively sighed, “your relation with him! You won’t compromise him.”
“It would be nicer of me,” Mitchy laughed, “not to want to compromise HER!”
“Oh Jane!” Mrs. Brookenham dropped. “DOES he like her?” she continued. “You must know.”
“Ah it’s just my knowing that constitutes the beauty of my loyalty — of my delicacy.” He had his quick jumps too. “Am I never, never to see the child?”
This enquiry appeared only to confirm his friend in the view of what was touching in him. “You’re the most delicate thing I know, and it crops up with effect the oddest in the intervals of your corruption. Your talk’s half the time impossible; you respect neither age nor sex nor condition; one doesn’t know what you’ll say or do next; and one has to return your books — c’est tout dire — under cover of darkness. Yet there’s in the midst of all this and in the general abyss of you a little deepdown delicious niceness, a sweet sensibility, that one has actually one’s self, shocked as one perpetually is at you, quite to hold one’s breath and stay one’s hand for fear of ruffling or bruising. There’s no one in talk with whom,” she balmily continued, “I find myself half so often suddenly moved to pull up short. You’ve more little toes to tread on — though you pretend you haven’t: I mean morally speaking, don’t you know? — than even I have myself, and I’ve so many that I could wish most of them cut off. You never spare me a shock — no, you don’t do that: it isn’t the form your delicacy takes. But you’ll know what I mean, all the same, I think, when I tell you that there are lots I spare YOU!”
Mr. Mitchett fairly glowed with the candour of his attention. “Know what you mean, dearest lady? How can a man handicapped to death, a man of my origin, my appearance, my general weaknesses, drawbacks, immense indebtedness, all round, for the start, as it were, that I feel my friends have been so good as to allow me: how can such a man not be conscious every moment that every one about him goes on tiptoe and winks at every one else? What CAN you all mention in my presence, poor things, that isn’t personal?”
Mrs. Brookenham’s face covered him for an instant as no painted Madonna’s had ever covered the little charge at the breast beneath it. “And the finest thing of all in you is your beautiful, beautiful pride! You’re prouder than all of us put together.” She checked a motion that he had apparently meant as a protest — she went on with her muffled wisdom. “There isn’t a man but YOU whom Petherton wouldn’t have made vulgar. He isn’t vulgar himself — at least not exceptionally; but he’s just one of those people, a class one knows well, who are so fearfully, in this country, the cause of it in others. For all I know he’s the cause of it in me — the cause of it even in poor Edward. For I’m vulgar, Mitchy dear — very often; and the marvel of you is that you never are.”
“Thank you for everything. Thank you above all for ‘marvel’!” Mitchy grinned.
“Oh I know what I say!”— she didn’t in the least blush. “I’ll tell you something,” she pursued with the same gravity, “if you’ll promise to tell no one on earth. If you’re proud I’m not. There! It’s most extraordinary and I try to conceal it even to myself; but there’s no doubt whatever about it — I’m not proud pour deux sous. And some day, on some awful occasion, I shall show it. So — I notify you. Shall you love me still?”
“To the bitter end,” Mitchy loyally responded. “For how CAN, how need, a woman be ‘proud’ who’s so preternaturally clever? Pride’s only for use when wit breaks down — it’s the train the cyclist takes when his tire’s deflated. When that happens to YOUR tire, Mrs. Brook, you’ll let me know. And you do make me wonder just now,” he confessed, “why you’re taking such particular precautions and throwing out such a cloud of skirmishers. If you want to shoot me dead a single bullet will do.” He faltered but an instant before completing his sense. “Where you really want to come out is at the fact that Nanda loathes me and that I might as well give up asking for her.”
“Are you quite serious?” his companion after a moment resumed. “Do you really and truly like her, Mitchy?”
“I like her as much as I dare to — as much as a man can like a girl when from the very first of his seeing her and judging her he has also seen, and seen with all the reasons, that there’s no chance for him whatever. Of course, with all that, he has done his best not to let himself go. But there are moments,” Mr. Mitchett ruefully added, “when it would relieve him awfully to feel free for a good spin.”
“I think you exaggerate,” his hostess replied, “the difficulties in your way. What do you mean by all the ‘reasons’?”
“Why one of them I’ve already mentioned. I make her flesh creep.”
“My own Mitchy!” Mrs. Brookenham protestingly moaned.
“The other is that — very naturally — she’s in love.”
“With whom under the sun?”
Mrs. Brookenham had, with her startled stare, met his eyes long enough to have taken something from him before he next spoke.
“You really have never suspected? With whom conceivably but old Van?”
“Nanda’s in love with old Van?”— the degree to which she had never suspected was scarce to be expressed. “Why he’s twice her age — he has seen her in a pinafore with a dirty face and well slapped for it: he has never thought of her in the world.”
“How can a person of your acuteness, my dear woman,” Mitchy asked, “mention such trifles as having the least to do with the case? How can you possibly have such a fellow about, so beastly good-looking, so infernally well turned out in the way of ‘culture,’ and so bringing them down in short on every side, and expect in the bosom of your family the absence of history of the reigns of the good kings? If YOU were a girl wouldn’t YOU turn purple? If I were a girl shouldn’t I— unless, as is more likely, I turned green?”
Mrs. Brookenham was deeply affected. “Nanda does turn purple —?”
“The loveliest shade you ever saw. It’s too absurd that you haven’t noticed.”
It was characteristic of Mrs. Brookenham’s amiability that, with her sudden sense of the importance of this new light, she should be quite ready to abase herself. “There are so many things in one’s life. One follows false scents. One doesn’t make out everything at once. If you’re right you must help me. We must see more of her.”
“But what good will that do me?” Mitchy appealed.
“Don’t you care enough for her to want to help HER?” Then before he could speak, “Poor little darling dear!” his hostess tenderly ejaculated. “What does she think or dream? Truly she’s laying up treasure!”
“Oh he likes her,” said Mitchy. “He likes her in fact extremely.”
“Do you mean he has told you so?”
“Oh no — we never mention it! But he likes her,” Mr. Mitchett stubbornly repeated. “And he’s thoroughly straight.”
Mrs. Brookenham for a moment turned these things over; after which she came out in a manner that visibly surprised him. “It isn’t as if you wished to be nasty about him, is it? — because I know you like him yourself. You’re so wonderful to your friends”— oh she could let him see that she knew! —“and in such different and exquisite ways. There are those like HIM”— she signified her other visitor —“who get everything out of you and whom you really appear fond of, or at least to put up with, just FOR that. Then there are those who ask nothing — and whom you’re fond of in spite of it.”
Mitchy leaned back from this, fist within fist, watching her with a certain disguised emotion. He grinned almost too much for mere amusement. “That’s the class to which YOU belong.”
“It’s the best one,” she returned, “and I’m careful to remain in it. You try to get us, by bribery, into the inferior place, because, proud as you are, it bores you a little that you like us so much. But we won’t go — at least I won’t. You may make Van,” she wonderfully continued. “There’s nothing you wouldn’t do for him or give him.” Mitchy admired her from his position, slowly shaking his head with it. “He’s the man — with no fortune and just as he is, to the smallest particular — whom you would have liked to be, whom you intensely envy, and yet to whom you’re magnanimous enough for almost any sacrifice.”
Mitchy’s appreciation had fairly deepened to a flush. “Magnificent, magnificent Mrs. Brook! What ARE you in thunder up to?”
“Therefore, as I say,” she imperturbably went on, “it’s not to do him an ill turn that you make a point of what you’ve just told me.”
Mr. Mitchett for a minute gave no sign but his high colour and his queer glare. “How could it do him an ill turn?”
“Oh it WOULD be a way, don’t you see? to put before me the need of getting rid of him. For he may ‘like’ Nanda as much as you please: he’ll never, never,” Mrs. Brookenham resolutely quavered —“he’ll never come to the scratch. And to feel that as I do,” she explained, “can only be, don’t you also see? to want to save her.”
It would have appeared at last that poor Mitchy did see. “By taking it in time? By forbidding him the house?”
She seemed to stand with little nipping scissors in a garden of alternatives. “Or by shipping HER off. Will you help me to save her?” she broke out again after a moment. “It isn’t true,” she continued, “that she has any aversion to you.”
“Have you charged her with it?” Mitchy demanded with a courage that amounted to high gallantry.
It inspired on the spot his interlocutress, and her own pluck, of as fine a quality now as her diplomacy, which was saying much, fell but little below. “Yes, my dear friend — frankly.”
“Good. Then I know what she said.”
“She absolutely denied it.”
“Oh yes — they always do, because they pity me,” Mitchy smiled. “She said what they always say — that the effect I produce is, though at first upsetting, one that little by little they find it possible to get used to. The world’s full of people who are getting used to me,” Mr. Mitchett concluded.
“It’s what I shall never do, for you’re quite too great a luxury!” Mrs. Brookenham declared. “If I haven’t threshed you out really MORE with Nanda,” she continued, “it has been from a scruple of a sort you people never do a woman the justice to impute. You’re the object of views that have so much more to set them off.”
Mr. Mitchett on this jumped up; he was clearly conscious of his nerves; he fidgeted away a few steps and then, his hands in his pockets, fixed on his hostess a countenance more controlled. “What does the Duchess mean by your daughter’s being — as I understood you to quote her just now —‘damaged and depraved’?”
Mrs. Brookenham came up — she literally rose — smiling. “You fit the cap. You know how she’d like you for little Aggie!”
“What does she mean, what does she mean?” Mitchy repeated.
The door, as he spoke, was thrown open; Mrs. Brookenham glanced round. “You’ve the chance to find out from herself!” The Duchess had come back and little Aggie was in her wake.
That young lady, in this relation, was certainly a figure to have offered a foundation for the highest hopes. As slight and white, as delicately lovely, as a gathered garden lily, her admirable training appeared to hold her out to them all as with precautionary finger-tips. She presumed, however, so little on any introduction that, shyly and submissively, waiting for the word of direction, she stopped short in the centre of the general friendliness till Mrs. Brookenham fairly became, to meet her, also a shy little girl — put out a timid hand with wonder-struck innocent eyes that hesitated whether a kiss of greeting might be dared. “Why you dear good strange ‘ickle’ thing, you haven’t been here for ages, but it IS a joy to see you and I do hope you’ve brought your doll!”— such might have been the sense of our friend’s fond murmur while, looking at her up and down with pure pleasure, she drew the rare creature to a sofa. Little Aggie presented, up and down, an arrangement of dress exactly in the key of her age, her complexion, her emphasised virginity. She might have been prepared for her visit by a cluster of doting nuns, cloistered daughters of ancient houses and educators of similar products, whose taste, hereditarily good, had grown, out of the world and most delightfully, so queer as to leave on everything they touched a particular shade of distinction. The Duchess had brought in with the child an air of added confidence for which an observer would in a moment have seen the grounds, the association of the pair being so markedly favourable to each. Its younger member carried out the style of her aunt’s presence quite as one of the accessory figures effectively thrown into old portraits. The Duchess on the other hand seemed, with becoming blandness, to draw from her niece the dignity of a kind of office of state — hereditary governess of the children of the blood. Little Aggie had a smile as softly bright as a Southern dawn, and the friends of her relative looked at each other, according to a fashion frequent in Mrs. Brookenham’s drawing-room, in free exchange of their happy impression. Mr. Mitchett was none the less scantly diverted from his estimate of the occasion Mrs. Brookenham had just named to him.
“My dear Duchess,” he promptly asked, “do you mind explaining to me an opinion I’ve just heard of your — with marked originality — holding?”
The Duchess, her head all in the air, considered an instant her little ivory princess. “I’m always ready, Mr. Mitchett, to defend my opinions; but if it’s a question of going much into the things that are the subjects of some of them perhaps we had better, if you don’t mind, choose our time and our place.”
“No ‘time,’ gracious lady, for my impatience,” Mr. Mitchett replied, “could be better than the present — but if you’ve reasons for wanting a better place why shouldn’t we go on the spot into another room?”
Lord Petherton, at this enquiry, broke into instant mirth. “Well, of all the coolness, Mitchy! — he does go at it, doesn’t he, Mrs. Brook? What do you want to do in another room?” he demanded of his friend. “Upon my word, Duchess, under the nose of those —”
The Duchess, on the first blush, lent herself to the humour of the case. “Well, Petherton, of ‘those’? — I defy him to finish his sentence!” she smiled to the others.
“Of those,” said his lordship, “who flatter themselves that when you do happen to find them somewhere your first idea is not quite to jump at a pretext for getting off somewhere else. Especially,” he continued to jest, “with a man of Mitchy’s vile reputation.”
“Oh!” Edward Brookenham exclaimed at this, but only as with quiet relief.
“Mitchy’s offer is perfectly safe, I may let him know,” his wife remarked, “for I happen to be sure that nothing would really induce Jane to leave Aggie five minutes among us here without remaining herself to see that we don’t become improper.”
“Well then if we’re already pretty far on the way to it,” Lord Petherton resumed, “what on earth MIGHT we arrive at in the absence of your control? I warn you, Duchess,” he joyously pursued, “that if you go out of the room with Mitchy I shall rapidly become quite awful.”
The Duchess during this brief passage never took her eyes from her niece, who rewarded her attention with the sweetness of consenting dependence. The child’s foreign origin was so delicately but unmistakeably written in all her exquisite lines that her look might have expressed the modest detachment of a person to whom the language of her companions was unknown. Her protectress then glanced round the circle. “You’re very odd people all of you, and I don’t think you quite know how ridiculous you are. Aggie and I are simple stranger-folk; there’s a great deal we don’t understand, yet we’re none the less not easily frightened. In what is it, Mr. Mitchett,” the Duchess asked, “that I’ve wounded your susceptibilities?”
Mr. Mitchett cast about; he had apparently found time to reflect on his precipitation. “I see what Petherton’s up to, and I won’t, by drawing you aside just now, expose your niece to anything that might immediately oblige Mrs. Brook to catch her up and flee with her. But the first time I find you more isolated — well,” he laughed, though not with the clearest ring, “all I can say is Mind your eyes dear Duchess!”
“It’s about your thinking, Jane,” Mrs. Brookenham placidly explained, “that Nanda suffers — in her morals, don’t you know? — by my neglect. I wouldn’t say anything about you that I can’t bravely say TO you; therefore since he has plumped out with it I do confess that I’ve appealed to him on what, as so good an old friend, HE thinks of your contention.”
“What in the world IS Jane’s contention?” Edward Brookenham put the question as if they were “stuck” at cards.
“You really all of you,” the Duchess replied with excellent coolness, “choose extraordinary conditions for the discussion of delicate matters. There are decidedly too many things on which we don’t feel alike. You’re all inconceivable just now. Je ne peux pourtant pas la mettre a la porte, cette cherie”— whom she covered again with the gay solicitude that seemed to have in it a vibration of private entreaty: “Don’t understand, my own darling — don’t understand!”
Little Aggie looked about with an impartial politeness that, as an expression of the general blind sense of her being as to every particular in hands at full liberty either to spot or to spare her, was touching enough to bring tears to all eyes. It perhaps had to do with the sudden emotion with which — using now quite a different manner — Mrs. Brookenham again embraced her, and even with this lady’s equally abrupt and altogether wonderful address to her: “Between you and me straight, my dear, and as from friend to friend, I know you’ll never doubt that everything must be all right! — What I spoke of to poor Mitchy,” she went on to the Duchess, “is the dreadful view you take of my letting Nanda go to Tishy — and indeed of the general question of any acquaintance between young unmarried and young married females. Mr. Mitchett’s sufficiently interested in us, Jane, to make it natural of me to take him into our confidence in one of our difficulties. On the other hand we feel your solicitude, and I needn’t tell you at this time of day what weight in every respect we attach to your judgement. Therefore it WILL be a difficulty for us, cara mia, don’t you see? if we decide suddenly, under the spell of your influence, that our daughter must break off a friendship — it WILL be a difficulty for us to put the thing to Nanda herself in such a way as that she shall have some sort of notion of what suddenly possesses us. Then there’ll be the much stiffer job of putting it to poor Tishy. Yet if her house IS an impossible place what else is one to do? Carrie Donner’s to be there, and Carrie Donner’s a nature apart; but how can we ask even a little lamb like Tishy to give up her own sister?”
The question had been launched with an argumentative sharpness that made it for a moment keep possession of the air, and during this moment, before a single member of the circle could rally, Mrs. Brookenham’s effect was superseded by that of the reappearance of the butler. “I say, my dear, don’t shriek!”— Edward Brookenham had only time to sound this warning before a lady, presenting herself in the open doorway, followed close on the announcement of her name. “Mrs. Beach Donner!”— the impression was naturally marked. Every one betrayed it a little but Mrs. Brookenham, who, more than the others, appeared to have the help of seeing that by a merciful stroke her visitor had just failed to hear. This visitor, a young woman of striking, of startling appearance, who, in the manner of certain shiny house-doors and railings, instantly created a presumption of the lurking label “Fresh paint,” found herself, with an embarrassment oddly opposed to the positive pitch of her complexion, in the presence of a group in which it was yet immediately evident that every one was a friend. Every one, to show no one had been caught, said something extremely easy; so that it was after a moment only poor Mrs. Donner who, seated close to her hostess, seemed to be in any degree in the wrong. This moreover was essentially her fault, so extreme was the anomaly of her having, without the means to back it up, committed herself to a “scheme of colour” that was practically an advertisement of courage. Irregularly pretty and painfully shy, she was retouched from brow to chin like a suburban photograph — the moral of which was simply that she should either have left more to nature or taken more from art. The Duchess had quickly reached her kinsman with a smothered hiss, an “Edward dear, for God’s sake take Aggie!” and at the end of a few minutes had formed for herself in one of Mrs. Brookenham’s admirable “corners” a society consisting of Lord Petherton and Mr. Mitchett, the latter of whom regarded Mrs. Donner across the room with articulate wonder and compassion.
“It’s all right, it’s all right — she’s frightened only at herself!”
The Duchess watched her as from a box at the play, comfortably shut in, as in the old operatic days at Naples, with a pair of entertainers. “You’re the most interesting nation in the world. One never gets to the end of your hatred of the nuance. The sense of the suitable, the harmony of parts — what on earth were you doomed to do that, to be punished sufficiently in advance, you had to be deprived of it in your very cradles? Look at her little black dress — rather good, but not so good as it ought to be, and, mixed up with all the rest, see her type, her beauty, her timidity, her wickedness, her notoriety and her impudeur. It’s only in this country that a woman is both so shocking and so shaky.” The Duchess’s displeasure overflowed. “If she doesn’t know how to be good —”
“Let her at least know how to be bad? Ah,” Mitchy replied, “your irritation testifies more than anything else could do to our peculiar genius or our peculiar want of it. Our vice is intolerably clumsy — if it can possibly be a question of vice in regard to that charming child, who looks like one of the new-fashioned bill-posters, only, in the way of ‘morbid modernity,’ as Mrs. Brook would say, more extravagant and funny than any that have yet been risked. I remember,” he continued, “Mrs. Brook’s having spoken of her to me lately as ‘wild.’ Wild? — why, she’s simply tameness run to seed. Such an expression shows the state of training to which Mrs. Brook has reduced the rest of us.”
“It doesn’t prevent at any rate, Mrs. Brook’s training, some of the rest of you from being horrible,” the Duchess declared. “What did you mean just now, really, by asking me to explain before Aggie this so serious matter of Nanda’s exposure?” Then instantly taking herself up before Mr. Mitchett could answer: “What on earth do you suppose Edward’s saying to my darling?”
Brookenham had placed himself, side by side with the child, on a distant little settee, but it was impossible to make out from the countenance of either if a sound had passed between them. Aggie’s little manner was too developed to show, and her host’s not developed enough. “Oh he’s awfully careful,” Lord Petherton reassuringly observed. “If you or I or Mitchy say anything bad it’s sure to be before we know it and without particularly meaning it. But old Edward means it —”
“So much that as a general thing he doesn’t dare to say it?” the Duchess asked. “That’s a pretty picture of him, inasmuch as for the most part he never speaks. What therefore must he mean?”
“He’s an abyss — he’s magnificent!” Mr. Mitchett laughed. “I don’t know a man of an understanding more profound, and he’s equally incapable of uttering and of wincing. If by the same token I’m ‘horrible,’ as you call me,” he pursued, “it’s only because I’m in everyway so beastly superficial. All the same I do sometimes go into things, and I insist on knowing,” he again broke out, “what it exactly was you had in mind in saying to Mrs. Brook the things about Nanda and myself that she repeated to me.”
“You ‘insist,’ you silly man?”— the Duchess had veered a little to indulgence. “Pray on what ground of right, in such a connexion, do you do anything of the sort?”
Poor Mitchy showed but for a moment that he felt pulled up. “Do you mean that when a girl liked by a fellow likes him so little in return —?”
“I don’t mean anything,” said the Duchess, “that may provoke you to suppose me vulgar and odious enough to try to put you out of conceit of a most interesting and unfortunate creature; and I don’t quite as yet see — though I dare say I shall soon make out! — what our friend has in her head in tattling to you on these matters as soon as my back’s turned. Petherton will tell you — I wonder he hasn’t told you before — why Mrs. Grendon, though not perhaps herself quite the rose, is decidedly in these days too near it.”
“Oh Petherton never tells me anything!” Mitchy’s answer was brisk and impatient, but evidently quite as sincere as if the person alluded to had not been there.
The person alluded to meanwhile, fidgeting frankly in his chair, alternately stretching his legs and resting his elbows on his knees, had reckoned as small the profit he might derive from this colloquy. His bored state indeed — if he was bored — prompted in him the honest impulse to clear, as he would have perhaps considered it, the atmosphere. He indicated Mrs. Donner with a remarkable absence of precautions. “Why, what the Duchess alludes to is my poor sister Fanny’s stupid grievance — surely you know about that.” He made oddly vivid for a moment the nature of his relative’s allegation, his somewhat cynical treatment of which became peculiarly derisive in the light of the attitude and expression, at that minute, of the figure incriminated. “My brother-inlaw’s too thick with her. But Cashmore’s such a fine old ass. It’s excessively unpleasant,” he added, “for affairs are just in that position in which, from one day to another, there may be something that people will get hold of. Fancy a man,” he robustly reflected while the three took in more completely the subject of Mrs. Brookenham’s attention —“fancy a man with THAT odd piece on his hands! The beauty of it is that the two women seem never to have broken off. Blest if they don’t still keep seeing each other!”
The Duchess, as on everything else, passed succinctly on this. “Ah how can hatreds comfortably flourish without the nourishment of such regular ‘seeing’ as what you call here bosom friendship alone supplies? What are parties given for in London but — that enemies may meet? I grant you it’s inconceivable that the husband of a superb creature like your sister should find his requirements better met by an object comme cette petite, who looks like a pen-wiper — an actress’s idea of one — made up for a theatrical bazaar. At the same time, if you’ll allow me to say so, it scarcely strikes one that your sister’s prudence is such as to have placed all the cards in her hands. She’s the most beautiful woman in England, but her esprit de conduite isn’t quite on a level. One can’t have everything!” she philosophically sighed.
Lord Petherton met her comfortably enough on this assumption of his detachments. “If you mean by that her being the biggest fool alive I’m quite ready to agree with you. It’s exactly what makes me afraid. Yet how can I decently say in especial,” he asked, “of what?”
The Duchess still perched on her critical height. “Of what but one of your amazing English periodical public washings of dirty linen? There’s not the least necessity to ‘say’!” she laughed. “If there’s anything more remarkable than these purifications it’s the domestic comfort with which, when all has come and gone, you sport the articles purified.”
“It comes back, in all that sphere,” Mr. Mitchett instructively opined, “to our national, our fatal want of style. We can never, dear Duchess, take too many lessons, and there’s probably at the present time no more useful function to be performed among us than that dissemination of neater methods to which you’re so good as to contribute.”
He had had another idea, but before he reached it his companion had gaily broken in. “Awfully good one for you, Duchess — and I’m bound to say that, for a clever woman, you exposed yourself! I’ve at any rate a sense of comfort,” Lord Petherton pursued, “in the good relations now more and more established between poor Fanny and Mrs. Brook. Mrs. Brook’s awfully kind to her and awfully sharp, and Fanny will take things from her that she won’t take from me. I keep saying to Mrs. Brook — don’t you know? —‘Do keep hold of her and let her have it strong.’ She hasn’t, upon my honour, any one in the world but me.”
“And we know the extent of THAT resource!” the Duchess freely commented.
“That’s exactly what Fanny says — that SHE knows it,” Petherton good-humouredly agreed. “She says my beastly hypocrisy makes her sick. There are people,” he pleasantly rambled on, “who are awfully free with their advice, but it’s mostly fearful rot. Mrs. Brook’s isn’t, upon my word — I’ve tried some myself!”
“You talk as if it were something nasty and homemade — gooseberry wine!” the Duchess laughed; “but one can’t know the dear soul, of course, without knowing that she has set up, for the convenience of her friends, a little office for consultations. She listens to the case, she strokes her chin and prescribes —”
“And the beauty of it is,” cried Lord Petherton, “that she makes no charge whatever!”
“She doesn’t take a guinea at the time, but you may still get your account,” the Duchess returned. “Of course we know that the great business she does is in husbands and wives.”
“This then seems the day of the wives!” Mr. Mitchett interposed as he became aware, the first, of the illustration the Duchess’s image was in the act of receiving. “Lady Fanny Cashmore!”— the butler was already in the field, and the company, with the exception of Mrs. Donner, who remained seated, was apparently conscious of a vibration that brought it afresh, but still more nimbly than on Aggie’s advent, to its feet.
“Go to her straight — be nice to her: you must have plenty to say. YOU stay with me — we have our affair.” The latter of these commands the Duchess addressed to Mr. Mitchett, while their companion, in obedience to the former and affected, as it seemed, by an unrepressed familiar accent that stirred a fresh flicker of Mitchy’s grin, met the new arrival in the middle of the room before Mrs. Brookenham had had time to reach her. The Duchess, quickly reseated, watched an instant the inexpressive concussion of the tall brother and sister; then while Mitchy again subsided into his place, “You’re not, as a race, clever, you’re not delicate, you’re not sane, but you’re capable of extraordinary good looks,” she resumed. “Vous avez parfois la grande beaute.”
Mitchy was much amused. “Do you really think Petherton has?”
The Duchess withstood it. “They’ve got, both outside and in, the same great general things, only turned, in each, rather different ways, a way safer for him as a man, and more triumphant for her as — whatever you choose to call her! What CAN a woman do,” she richly mused, “with such beauty as that —?”
“Except come desperately to advise with Mrs. Brook”— Mitchy undertook to complete her question —“as to the highest use to make of it? But see,” he immediately added, “how perfectly competent to instruct her our friend now looks.” Their hostess had advanced to Lady Fanny with an outstretched hand but with an eagerness of greeting merged a little in the sweet predominance of wonder as well as in the habit, at such moments most perceptible, of the languid lily-bend. Nothing in general could have been less conventionally poor than the kind of reception given in Mrs. Brookenham’s drawing-room to the particular element — the element of physical splendour void of those disparities that make the question of others tiresome — comprised in Lady Fanny’s presence. It was a place in which, at all times, before interesting objects, the unanimous occupants, almost more concerned for each other’s vibrations than for anything else, were apt rather more to exchange sharp and silent searchings than to fix their eyes on the object itself. In the case of Lady Fanny, however, the object itself — and quite by the same law that had worked, though less profoundly, on the entrance of little Aggie — superseded the usual rapt communion very much in the manner of some beautiful tame tigress who might really coerce attention. There was in Mrs. Brookenham’s way of looking up at her a dim despairing abandonment of the idea of any common personal ground. Lady Fanny, magnificent, simple, stupid, had almost the stature of her brother, a forehead unsurpassably low and an air of sombre concentration just sufficiently corrected by something in her movements that failed to give it a point. Her blue eyes were heavy in spite of being perhaps a couple of shades too clear, and the wealth of her black hair, the disposition of the massive coils of which was all her own, had possibly a satin sheen depreciated by the current fashion. But the great thing in her was that she was, with unconscious heroism, thoroughly herself; and what were Mrs. Brook and Mrs. Brook’s intimates after all, in their free surrender to the play of perception, but a happy association for keeping her so? The Duchess was moved to the liveliest admiration by the grand simple sweetness of her encounter with Mrs. Donner, a combination indeed in which it was a question if she or Mrs. Brook appeared to the higher advantage. It was poor Mrs. Donner — not, like Mrs. Brook, subtle in sufficiency, nor, like Lady Fanny, almost too simple — who made the poorest show. The Duchess immediately marked it to Mitchy as infinitely characteristic that their hostess, instead of letting one of her visitors go, kept them together by some sweet ingenuity and while Lord Petherton, dropping his sister, joined Edward and Aggie in the other angle, sat there between them as if, in pursuance of some awfully clever line of her own, she were holding a hand of each. Mr. Mitchett of course did justice all round, or at least, as would have seemed from an enquiry he presently made, wished not to fail of it. “Is it your real impression then that Lady Fanny has serious grounds —”
“For jealousy of that preposterous little person? My dear Mitchett,” the Duchess resumed after a moment’s reflexion, “if you’re so rash as to ask me in any of these connexions for my ‘real’ impression you deserve whatever you may get.” The penalty Mitchy had incurred was apparently grave enough to make his companion just falter in the infliction of it; which gave him the opportunity of replying that the little person was perhaps not more preposterous than any one else, that there was something in her he rather liked, and that there were many different ways in which a woman could be interesting. This further levity it was therefore that laid him fully open. “Do you mean to say you’ve been living with Petherton so long without becoming aware that he’s shockingly worried?”
“My dear Duchess,” Mitchy smiled, “Petherton carries his worries with a bravery! They’re so many that I’ve long since ceased to count them; and in general I’ve been disposed to let those pass that I can’t help him to meet. YOU’VE made, I judge,” he went on, “a better use of opportunities perhaps not so good — such as at any rate enables you to see further than I into the meaning of the impatience he just now expressed.”
The Duchess was admirable, in conversation, for neglecting everything not essential to her present plausibility. “A woman like Lady Fanny can have no ‘grounds’ for anything — for any indignation, I mean, or for any revenge worth twopence. In this particular case at all events they’ve been sacrificed with such extravagance that, as an injured wife, she hasn’t had the gumption to keep back an inch or two to stand on. She can do absolutely nothing.”
“Then you take the view —?” Mitchy, who had, after all, his delicacies, pulled up as at sight of a name.
“I take the view,” said the Duchess, “and I know exactly why. Elle se les passe — her little fancies! She’s a phenomenon, poor dear. And all with — what shall I call it? — the absence of haunting remorse of a good house-mother who makes the family accounts balance. She looks — and it’s what they love her for here when they say ‘Watch her now!’— like an angry saint; but she’s neither a saint nor, to be perfectly fair to her, really angry at all. She has only just enough reflexion to make out that it may some day be a little better for her that her husband shall, on his side too, have committed himself; and she’s only, in secret, too pleased to be sure whom it has been with. All the same I must tell you,” the Duchess still more crisply added, “that our little friend Nanda is of the opinion — which I gather her to be quite ready to defend — that Lady Fanny’s wrong.”
Poor Mitchy found himself staring. “But what has our little friend Nanda to do with it?”
“What indeed, bless her heart? If you WILL ask questions, however, you must take, as I say, your risks. There are days when between you all you stupefy me. One of them was when I happened about a month ago to make some allusion to the charming example of Mr. Cashmore’s fine taste that we have there before us: what was my surprise at the tone taken by Mrs. Brook to deny on this little lady’s behalf the soft impeachment? It was quite a mistake that anything had happened — Mrs. Donner had pulled through unscathed. She had been but a day or two at the most in danger, for her family and friends — the best influences — had rallied to her support: the flurry was all over. She was now perfectly safe. Do you think she looks so?” the Duchess asked.
This was not a point that Mitchy was conscious of freedom of mind to examine. “Do I understand you that Nanda was her mother’s authority —?”
“For the exact shade of the intimacy of the two friends and the state of Mrs. Brook’s information? Precisely — it was ‘the latest before going to press.’ ‘Our own correspondent’! Her mother quoted her.”
Mr. Mitchett visibly wondered. “But how should Nanda know —?”
“Anything about the matter? How should she NOT know everything? You’ve not, I suppose, lost sight of the fact that this lady and Mrs. Grendon are sisters. Carrie’s situation and Carrie’s perils are naturally very present to the extremely unoccupied Tishy, who is unhappily married into the bargain, who has no children, and whose house, as you may imagine, has a good thick atmosphere of partisanship. So, as with Nanda, on HER side, there’s no more absorbing interest than her dear friend Tishy, with whom she’s at present staying and under whose roof she perpetually meets this victim of unjust aspersions —!”
“I see the whole thing from here, you imply?” Mr. Mitchett, under the influence of this rapid evocation, had already taken his line. “Well,” he said bravely, “Nanda’s not a fool.”
A momentary silence on the part of the Duchess might have been her tribute to his courage. “No. I don’t agree with her, as it happens, here; but that there are matters as to which she’s not in general at all befogged is exactly the worst I ever said of her. And I hold that in putting it so — on the basis of my little anecdote — you clearly give out that you’re answered.”
Mitchy turned it over. “Answered?”
“In the quarrel that a while back you sought to pick with me. What I touched on to her mother was the peculiar range of aspects and interests she’s compelled to cultivate by the special intimacies that Mrs. Brook permits her. There they are — and that’s all I said. Judge them for yourself.”
The Duchess had risen as she spoke, which was also what Mrs. Donner and Mrs. Brookenham had done; and Mr. Mitchett was on his feet as well, to act on this last admonition. Mrs. Donner was taking leave, and there occurred among the three ladies in connexion with the circumstance a somewhat striking exchange of endearments. Mr. Mitchett, observing this, expressed himself suddenly as diverted. “By Jove, they’re kissing — she’s in Lady Fanny’s arms!” But his hilarity was still to deepen. “And Lady Fanny, by Jove, is in Mrs. Brook’s!”
“Oh it’s all beyond ME!” the Duchess cried; and the little wail of her baffled imagination had almost the austerity of a complaint.
“Not a bit — they’re all right. Mrs. Brook has acted!” Mitchy went on.
“Ah it isn’t that she doesn’t ‘act’!” his interlocutress ejaculated.
Mrs. Donner’s face presented, as she now crossed the room, something that resembled the ravage of a death-struggle between its artificial and its natural elegance. “Well,” Mitchy said with decision as he caught it —“I back Nanda.” And while a whiff of derision reached him from the Duchess, “Nothing HAS happened!” he murmured.
As to reward him for an indulgence that she must much more have divined than overheard the visitor approached him with her sweet bravery of alarm. “I go on Thursday to my sister’s, where I shall find Nanda Brookenham. Can I take her any message from you?”
Mr. Mitchett showed a rosiness that might positively have been reflected. “Why should you dream of her expecting one?”
“Oh,” said the Duchess with a cheer that but half carried off her asperity, “Mrs. Brook must have told Mrs. Donner to ask you!”
The latter lady, at this, rested strange eyes on the speaker, and they had perhaps something to do with a quick flare of Mitchy’s wit. “Tell her, please — if, as I suppose, you came here to ask the same of her mother — that I adore her still more for keeping in such happy relations with you as enable me thus to meet you.”
Mrs. Donner, overwhelmed, took flight with a nervous laugh, leaving Mr. Mitchett and the Duchess still confronted. Nothing had passed between the two ladies, yet it was as if there were a trace of something in the eyes of the elder, which, during a moment’s silence, moved from the retreating visitor, now formally taken over at the door by Edward Brookenham, to Lady Fanny and her hostess, who, in spite of the embraces just performed, had again subsided together while Mrs. Brook gazed up in exalted intelligence. “It’s a funny house,” said the Duchess at last. “She makes me such a scene over my not bringing Aggie, and still more over my very faint hint of my reasons for it, that I fly off, in compunction, to do what I can, on the spot, to repair my excess of prudence. I reappear, panting, with my niece — and it’s to THIS company I introduce her!”
Her companion looked at the charming child, to whom Lord Petherton was talking with evident kindness and gaiety — a conjunction that evidently excited Mitchy’s interest. “May WE then know her?” he asked with an effect of drollery. “May I— if HE may?”
The Duchess’s eyes, turned to him, had taken another light. He even gaped a little at their expression, which was in a manner carried out by her tone. “Go and talk to her, you perverse creature, and send him over to me.” Lord Petherton, a minute later, had joined her; old Edward had left the room with Mrs. Donner; his wife and Lady Fanny were still more closely engaged; and the young Agnesina, though visibly a little scared at Mitchy’s queer countenance, had begun, after the fashion he had touched on to Mrs. Brook, politely to invoke the aid of the idea of habit. “Look here — you must help me,” the Duchess said to Petherton. “You can, perfectly — and it’s the first thing I’ve yet asked of you.”
“Oh, oh, oh!” her interlocutor laughed.
“I must have Mitchy,” she went on without noticing his particular shade of humour.
“Mitchy too?”— he appeared to wish to leave her in no doubt of it.
“How low you are!” she simply said. “There are times when I despair of you. He’s in every way your superior, and I like him so that — well, he must like HER. Make him feel that he does.”
Lord Petherton turned it over as something put to him practically. “I could wish for him that he would. I see in her possibilities —!” he continued to laugh.
“I dare say you do. I see them in Mitchett, and I trust you’ll understand me when I say I appeal to you.”
“Appeal to HIM straight. That’s much better,” Petherton lucidly observed.
The Duchess wore for a moment her proudest air, which made her, in the connexion, exceptionally gentle. “He doesn’t like me.”
Her interlocutor looked at her with all his bright brutality. “Oh my dear, I can speak for you — if THAT’S what you want!”
The Duchess met his eyes, and so for an instant they sounded each other. “You’re so abysmally coarse that I often wonder —!” But as the door reopened she caught herself. It was the effect of a face apparently directed at her. “Be quiet. Here’s old Edward.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10