Presenting himself at Buckingham Crescent three days after the Sunday spent at Mertle, Vanderbank found Lady Fanny Cashmore in the act of taking leave of Mrs. Brook and found Mrs. Brook herself in the state of muffled exaltation that was the mark of all her intercourse — and most of all perhaps of her farewells — with Lady Fanny. This splendid creature gave out, as it were, so little that Vanderbank was freshly struck with all Mrs. Brook could take in, though nothing, for that matter, in Buckingham Crescent, had been more fully formulated on behalf of the famous beauty than the imperturbable grandeur of her almost total absence of articulation. Every aspect of the phenomenon had been freely discussed there and endless ingenuity lavished on the question of how exactly it was that so much of what the world would in another case have called complete stupidity could be kept by a mere wonderful face from boring one to death. It was Mrs. Brook who, in this relation as in many others, had arrived at the supreme expression of the law, had thrown off, happily enough, to whomever it might have concerned: “My dear thing, it all comes back, as everything always does, simply to personal pluck. It’s only a question, no matter when or where, of having enough. Lady Fanny has the courage of all her silence — so much therefore that it sees her completely through and is what really makes her interesting. Not to be afraid of what may happen to you when you’ve no more to say for yourself than a steamer without a light — that truly is the highest heroism, and Lady Fanny’s greatness is that she’s never afraid. She takes the risk every time she goes out — takes, as you may say, her life in her hand. She just turns that glorious mask upon you and practically says: ‘No, I won’t open my lips — to call it really open — for the forty minutes I shall stay; but I calmly defy you, all the same, to kill me for it.’ And we don’t kill her — we delight in her; though when either of us watches her in a circle of others it’s like seeing a very large blind person in the middle of Oxford Street. One fairly looks about for the police.” Vanderbank, before his fellow visitor withdrew it, had the benefit of the glorious mask and could scarce have failed to be amused at the manner in which Mrs. Brook alone showed the stress of thought. Lady Fanny, in the other scale, sat aloft and Olympian, so that though visibly much had happened between the two ladies it had all happened only to the hostess. The sense in the air in short was just of Lady Fanny herself, who came to an end like a banquet or a procession. Mrs. Brook left the room with her and, on coming back, was full of it. “She’ll go, she’ll go!”
“Go where?” Vanderbank appeared to have for the question less attention than usual.
“Well, to the place her companion will propose. Probably — like Anna Karenine — to one of the smaller Italian towns.”
“Anna Karenine? She isn’t a bit like Anna.”
“Of course she isn’t so clever,” said Mrs. Brook. “But that would spoil her. So it’s all right.”
“I’m glad it’s all right,” Vanderbank laughed. “But I dare say we shall still have her with us a while.”
“We shall do that, I trust, whatever happens. She’ll come up again — she’ll remain, I feel, one of those enormous things that fate seems somehow to have given me as the occupation of my odd moments. I don’t see,” Mrs. Brook added, “what still keeps her on the edge, which isn’t an inch wide.”
Vanderbank looked this time as if he only tried to wonder. “Isn’t it YOU?”
Mrs. Brook mused more deeply. “Sometimes I think so. But I don’t know.”
“Yes, how CAN you of course know, since she can’t tell you?”
“Oh if I depended on her telling —!” Mrs. Brook shook out with this a sofa-cushion or two and sank into the corner she had arranged. The August afternoon was hot and the London air heavy; the room moreover, though agreeably bedimmed, gave out the staleness of the season’s end. “If you hadn’t come today,” she went on, “you’d have missed me till I don’t know when, for we’ve let the Hovel again — wretchedly, but still we’ve let it — and I go down on Friday to see that it isn’t too filthy. Edward, who’s furious at what I’ve taken for it, had his idea that we should go there this year ourselves.”
“And now”— Vanderbank took her up —“that fond fancy has become simply the ghost of a dead thought, a ghost that, in company with a thousand predecessors, haunts the house in the twilight and pops at you out of odd corners.”
“Oh Edward’s dead thoughts are indeed a cheerful company and worthy of the perpetual mental mourning we seem to go about in. They’re worse than the relations we’re always losing without seeming to have any fewer, and I expect every day to hear that the Morning Post regrets to have to announce in that line too some new bereavement. The apparitions following the deaths of so many thoughts ARE particularly awful in the twilight, so that at this season, while the day drags and drags, I’m glad to have any one with me who may keep them at a distance.”
Vanderbank had not sat down; slowly, familiarly he turned about. “And where’s Nanda?”
“Oh SHE doesn’t help — she attracts rather the worst of the bogies. Edward and Nanda and Harold and I seated together are fairly a case for that — what do you call it? — investigating Society. Deprived of the sweet resource of the Hovel,” Mrs. Brook continued, “we shall each, from about the tenth on, forage somehow or other for ourselves. Mitchy perhaps,” she added, “will insist on taking us to Baireuth.”
“That will be the form, you mean, of his own forage?”
Mrs. Brook just hesitated. “Unless you should prefer to take it as the form of yours.”
Vanderbank appeared for a moment obligingly enough to turn this over, but with the effect of noting an objection. “Oh I’m afraid I shall have to grind straight through the month and that by the time I’m free every Ring at Baireuth will certainly have been rung. Is it your idea to take Nanda?” he asked.
She reached out for another cushion. “If it’s impossible for you to manage what I suggest why should that question interest you?”
“My dear woman”— and her visitor dropped into a chair —“do you suppose my interest depends on such poverties as what I can ‘manage’? You know well enough,” he went on in another tone, “why I care for Nanda and enquire about her.”
She was perfectly ready. “I know it, but only as a bad reason. Don’t be too sure!”
For a moment they looked at each other. “Don’t be so sure, you mean, that the elation of it may go to my head? Are you really warning me against vanity?”
“Your ‘reallys,’ my dear Van, are a little formidable, but it strikes me that before I tell you there’s something I’ve a right to ask. Are you ‘really’ what they call thinking of my daughter?”
“Your asking,” Vanderbank returned, “exactly shows the state of your knowledge of the matter. I don’t quite see moreover why you speak as if I were paying an abrupt and unnatural attention. What have I done the last three months but talk to you about her? What have you done but talk to ME about her? From the moment you first spoke to me —‘monstrously,’ I remember you called it — of the difference made in your social life by her finally established, her perpetual, her inexorable participation: from that moment what have we both done but put our heads together over the question of keeping the place tidy, as you called it — or as I called it, was it? — for the young female mind?”
Mrs. Brook faced serenely enough the directness of this challenge. “Well, what are you coming to? I spoke of the change in my life of course; I happen to be so constituted that my life has something to do with my mind and my mind something to do with my talk. Good talk: you know — no one, dear Van, should know better — what part for me that plays. Therefore when one has deliberately to make one’s talk bad —!”
“‘Bad’?” Vanderbank, in his amusement, fell back in his chair. “Dear Mrs. Brook, you’re too delightful!”
“You know what I mean — stupid, flat, fourth-rate. When one has to haul in sail to that degree — and for a perfectly outside reason — there’s nothing strange in one’s taking a friend sometimes into the confidence of one’s irritation.”
“Ah,” Vanderbank protested, “you do yourself injustice. Irritation hasn’t been for you the only consequence of the affair.”
Mrs. Brook gloomily thought. “No, no — I’ve had my calmness: the calmness of deep despair. I’ve seemed to see everything go.”
“Oh how can you say that,” her visitor demanded, “when just what we’ve most been agreed upon so often is the practical impossibility of making any change? Hasn’t it seemed as if we really can’t overcome conversational habits so thoroughly formed?”
Again Mrs. Brook reflected. “As if our way of looking at things were too serious to be trifled with? I don’t know — I think it’s only you who have denied our sacrifices, our compromises and concessions. I myself have constantly felt smothered in them. But there it is,” she impatiently went on. “What I don’t admit is that you’ve given me ground to take for a proof of your ‘intentions’— to use the odious term — your association with me on behalf of the preposterous fiction, as it after all is, of Nanda’s blankness of mind.”
Vanderbank’s head, in his chair, was thrown back; his eyes ranged over the top of the room. “There never has been any mystery about my thinking her — all in her own way — the nicest girl in London. She IS.”
His companion was silent a little. “She is, by all means. Well,” she then added, “so far as I may have been alive to the fact of any one’s thinking her so, it’s not out of place I should mention to you the difference made in my appreciation of it by our delightful little stay at Mertle. My views for Nanda,” said Mrs. Brook, “have somehow gone up.”
Vanderbank was prompt to show how he could understand it. “So that you wouldn’t consider even Mitchy now?”
But his friend took no notice of the question. “The way Mr. Longdon distinguishes her is quite the sort of thing that gives a girl, as Harold says, a ‘leg up.’ It’s awfully curious and has made me think: he isn’t anything whatever, as London estimates go, in himself — so that what is it, pray, that makes him, when ‘added on’ to her, so double Nanda’s value? I somehow or other see, through his being known to back her and through the pretty story of his loyalty to mamma and all the rest of it (oh if one chose to WORK that!) ever so much more of a chance for her.”
Vanderbank’s eyes were on the ceiling. “It IS curious, isn’t it? — though I think he’s rather more ‘in himself,’ even for the London estimate, than you quite understand.” He appeared to give her time to take this up, but as she said nothing he pursued: “I dare say that if even I now WERE to enter myself it would strike you as too late.”
Her attention to this was but indirect. “It’s awfully vulgar to be talking about it, but I can’t help feeling that something possibly rather big will come of Mr. Longdon.”
“Ah we’ve touched on that before,” said Vanderbank, “and you know you did think something might come even for me.”
She continued however, as if she scarce heard him, to work out her own vision. “It’s very true that up to now —”
“Well, up to now?” he asked as she faltered.
She faltered still a little. “I do say the most hideous things. But we HAVE said worse, haven’t we? Up to now, I mean, he hasn’t given her anything. Unless indeed,” she mused, “she may have had something without telling me.”
Vanderbank went much straighter. “What sort of thing have you in mind? Are you thinking of money?”
“Yes. Isn’t it awful?”
“That you should think of it?”
“That I should talk this way.” Her friend was apparently not prepared with an assent, and she quickly enough pursued: “If he HAD given her any it would come out somehow in her expenditure. She has tremendous liberty and is very secretive, but still it would come out.”
“He wouldn’t give her any without letting you know. Nor would she, without doing so,” Vanderbank added, “take it.”
“Ah,” Mrs. Brook quietly said, “she hates me enough for anything.”
“That’s only your romantic theory.”
Once more she appeared not to hear him; she gave the discussion another turn. “Has he given YOU anything?”
Her visitor smiled. “Not so much as a cigarette. I’ve always my pockets full of them, and HE never: so he only takes mine. Oh Mrs. Brook,” he continued, “with me too — though I’ve also tremendous liberty! — it would come out.”
“I think you’d let me know,” she returned.
“Yes, I’d let you know.”
Silence, upon this, fell between them a little; which she was the first to break. “She has gone with him this afternoon — by solemn appointment — to the South Kensington Museum.”
There was something in Mrs. Brook’s dolorous drop that yet presented the news as a portent so great that he was moved again to mirth. “Ah that’s where she is? Then I confess she has scored. He has never taken ME to the South Kensington Museum.”
“You were asking what we’re going to do,” she went on. “What I meant was — about Baireuth — that the question for Nanda’s simplified. He has pressed her so to pay him a visit.”
Vanderbank’s assent was marked. “I see: so that if you do go abroad she’ll be provided for by that engagement.”
“And by lots of other invitations.”
These were such things as, for the most part, the young man could turn over. “Do you mean you’d let her go alone —?”
“To wherever she’s asked?” said Mrs. Brook. “Why not? Don’t talk like the Duchess.”
Vanderbank seemed for a moment to try not to. “Couldn’t Mr. Longdon take her? Why not?”
His friend looked really struck with it. “That WOULD be working him. But to a beautiful end!” she meditated. “The only thing would be to get him also asked.”
“Ah but there you are, don’t you see? Fancy ‘getting’ Mr. Longdon anything or anywhere whatever! Don’t you feel,” Vanderbank threw out, “how the impossibility of exerting that sort of patronage for him immediately places him?”
Mrs. Brook gave her companion one of those fitful glances of almost grateful appreciation with which their intercourse was even at its darkest hours frequently illumined. “As if he were the Primate or the French Ambassador? Yes, you’re right — one couldn’t do it; though it’s very odd and one doesn’t quite see why. It does place him. But he becomes thereby exactly the very sort of person with whom it would be most of an advantage for her to go about. What a pity,” Mrs. Brook sighed, “he doesn’t know more people!”
“Ah well, we ARE, in our way, bringing that to pass. Only we mustn’t rush it. Leave it to Nanda herself,” Vanderbank presently added; on which his companion so manifestly left it that she touched after a moment’s silence on quite a different matter. “I dare say he’d tell YOU— wouldn’t he? — if he were to give her any considerable sum.”
She had only obeyed his injunction, but he stared at the length of her jump. “He might attempt to do so, but I shouldn’t at all like it.” He was moved immediately to dismiss this branch of the subject and, apparently to help himself, take up another. “Do you mean she understands he has asked her down for a regular long stay?”
Mrs. Brook barely hesitated. “She understands, I think, that what I expect of her is to make it as long as possible.”
Vanderbank laughed out — as it was even after ten years still possible to laugh — at the childlike innocence with which her voice could invest the hardest teachings of life; then with something a trifle nervous in the whole sound and manner he sprang up from his chair. “What a blessing he is to us all!”
“Yes, but think what we must be to HIM.”
“An immense interest, no doubt.” He took a few aimless steps and, stooping over a basket of flowers, inhaled it with violence, almost buried his face. “I dare say we ARE interesting.” He had spoken rather vaguely, but Mrs. Brook knew exactly why. “We render him no end of a service. We keep him in touch with old memories.”
Vanderbank had reached one of the windows, shaded from without by a great striped sun-blind beneath which and between the flower-pots of the balcony he could see a stretch of hot relaxed street. He looked a minute at these things. “I do so like your phrases!”
She had a pause that challenged his tone. “Do you call mamma a ‘phrase’?”
He went off again, quite with extravagance, but quickly, leaving the window, pulled himself up. “I dare say we MUST put things for him — he does it, cares or is able to do it, so little himself.”
“Precisely. He just quietly acts. That’s his nature, dear thing. We must LET him act.”
Vanderbank seemed to stifle again too vivid a sense of her particular emphasis. “Yes, yes — we must let him.”
“Though it won’t prevent Nanda, I imagine,” his hostess pursued, “from finding the fun of a whole month at Beccles — or whatever she puts in-not exactly fast and furious.”
Vanderbank had the look of measuring what the girl might “put in.” “The place will be quiet, of course, but when a person’s so fond of a person —!”
“As she is of him, you mean?”
He hesitated. “Yes. Then it’s all right.”
“She IS fond of him, thank God!” said Mrs. Brook.
He was before her now with the air of a man who had suddenly determined on a great blind leap. “Do you know what he has done? He wants me so to marry her that he has proposed a definite basis.”
Mrs. Brook got straight up. “‘Proposed’? To HER?”
“No, I don’t think he has said a word to Nanda — in fact I’m sure that, very properly, he doesn’t mean to. But he spoke to me on Sunday night at Mertle — I had a big talk with him there alone, very late, in the smoking-room.” Mrs. Brook’s stare was serious, and Vanderbank now went on as if the sound of his voice helped him to meet it. “We had things out very much and his kindness was extraordinary — he’s the most beautiful old boy that ever lived. I don’t know, now that I come to think of it, if I’m within my rights in telling you — and of course I shall immediately let him know that I HAVE told you; but I feel I can’t arrive at any respectable sort of attitude in the matter without taking you into my confidence. Which is really what I came here today to do, though till this moment I’ve funked it.”
It was either, as her friends chose to think it, an advantage or a drawback of intercourse with Mrs. Brook that, her face being at any moment charged with the woe of the world, it was unavoidable to remain rather in the dark as to the effect there of particular strokes. Something in Vanderbank’s present study of the signs accordingly showed he had had to learn to feel his way and had more or less mastered the trick. That she had turned a little pale was really the one fresh mark. “‘Funked’ it? Why in the world —?” His own colour deepened at her accent, which was a sufficient light on his having been stupid. “Do you mean you’ve declined the arrangement?”
He only, with a smile somewhat strained, continued for a moment to look at her; clearly, however, at last feeling, and not much caring, that he got in still deeper. “You’re magnificent. You’re magnificent.”
Her lovely gaze widened out. “Comment donc? Where — why? You HAVE declined her?” she went on. After which, as he replied only with a slow head-shake that seemed to say it was not for the moment all so simple as that, she had one of the inspirations to which she was constitutionally subject. “Do you imagine I want you myself?”
“Dear Mrs. Brook, you’re so admirable,” he returned with gaiety, “that if by any chance you did, upon my honour, I don’t see how I should be able not to say ‘All right.’” But he spoke too more responsibly. “I was shy of really bringing out to you what has happened to me, for a reason that I’ve of course to look in the face. Whatever you want yourself, for Nanda you want Mitchy.”
“I see, I see.” She did full justice to his explanation. “And what did you say about a ‘basis’? The blessed man offers to settle —?”
“You’re a real prodigy,” her visitor answered, “and your imagination takes its fences in a way that, when I’m out with you, quite puts mine to shame. When he mentioned it to me I was quite surprised.”
“And I,” Mrs. Brook asked, “am not surprised a bit? Isn’t it only,” she modestly suggested, “because I’ve taken him in more than you? Didn’t you know he WOULD?” she quavered.
Vanderbank thought or at least pretended to. “Make ME the condition? How could I be sure of it?”
But the point of his question was lost for her in the growing light. “Oh then the condition’s ‘you’ only —?”
“That, at any rate, is all I have to do with. He’s ready to settle if I’m ready to do the rest.”
“To propose to her straight, you mean?” She waited, but as he said nothing she went on: “And you’re not ready. Is that it?”
“I’m taking my time.”
“Of course you know,” said Mrs. Brook, “that she’d jump at you.”
He turned away from her now, but after some steps came back. “Then you do admit it.”
She hesitated. “To YOU.”
He had a strange faint smile. “Well, as I don’t speak of it —!”
“No — only to me. What is it he settles?” Mrs. Brook demanded.
“I can’t tell you.”
“You didn’t ask?”
“On the contrary I stopped him off.”
“Oh then,” Mrs. Brook exclaimed, “that’s what I call declining.”
The words appeared for an instant to strike her companion. “Is it? Is it?” he almost musingly repeated. But he shook himself the next moment free of his wonder, was more what would have been called in Buckingham Crescent on the spot. “Isn’t there rather something in my having thus thought it my duty to warn you that I’m definitely his candidate?”
Mrs. Brook turned impatiently away. “You’ve certainly — with your talk about ‘warning’— the happiest expressions!” She put her face into the flowers as he had done just before; then as she raised it: “What kind of a monster are you trying to make me out?”
“My dear lady”— Vanderbank was prompt —“I really don’t think I say anything but what’s fair. Isn’t it just my loyalty to you in fact that has in this case positively strained my discretion?”
She shook her head in mere mild despair. “‘Loyalty’ again is exquisite. The tact of men has a charm quite its own. And you’re rather good,” she continued, “as men go.”
His laugh was now a little awkward, as if she had already succeeded in making him uncomfortable. “I always become aware with you sooner or later that they don’t go at all — in your sense: but how am I, after all, so far out if you HAVE put your money on another man?”
“You keep coming back to that?” she wearily sighed.
He thought a little. “No, then. You’ve only to tell me not to, and I’ll never speak of it again.”
“You’ll be in an odd position for speaking of it if you do really go in. You deny that you’ve declined,” said Mrs. Brook; “which means then that you’ve allowed our friend to hope.”
Vanderbank met it bravely. “Yes, I think he hopes.”
“And communicates his hope to my child?”
This arrested the young man, but only for a moment. “I’ve the most perfect faith in his wisdom with her. I trust his particular delicacy. He cares more for her,” he presently added, “even than we do.”
Mrs. Brook gazed away at the infinite of space. “‘We,’ my dear Van,” she at last returned, “is one of your own real, wonderful touches. But there’s something in what you say: I HAVE, as between ourselves — between me and him — been backing Mitchy. That is I’ve been saying to him ‘Wait, wait: don’t at any rate do anything else.’ Only it’s just from the depth of my thought for my daughter’s happiness that I’ve clung to this resource. He would so absolutely, so unreservedly do anything for her.” She had reached now, with her extraordinary self-control, the pitch of quiet bland demonstration. “I want the poor thing, que diable, to have another string to her bow and another loaf, for her desolate old age, on the shelf. When everything else is gone Mitchy will still be there. Then it will be at least her own fault —!” Mrs. Brook continued. “What can relieve me of the primary duty of taking precautions,” she wound up, “when I know as well as that I stand here and look at you —”
“Yes, what?” he asked as she just paused.
“Why that so far as they count on you they count, my dear Van, on a blank.” Holding him a minute as with the soft low voice of his fate, she sadly but firmly shook her head. “You won’t do it.”
“Oh!” he almost too loudly protested.
“You won’t do it,” she went on.
“I SAY!”— he made a joke of it.
“You won’t do it,” she repeated.
It was as if he couldn’t at last but show himself really struck; yet what he exclaimed on was what might in truth most have impressed him. “You ARE magnificent, really!”
“Mr. Mitchett!” the butler, appearing at the door, almost familiarly dropped; after which Vanderbank turned straight to the person announced.
Mr. Mitchett was there, and, anticipating Mrs. Brook in receiving him, her companion passed it straighten. “She’s magnificent!”
Mitchy was already all interest. “Rather! But what’s her last?”
It had been, though so great, so subtle, as they said in Buckingham Crescent, that Vanderbank scarce knew how to put it. “Well, she’s so thoroughly superior.”
“Oh to whom do you say it?” Mitchy cried as he greeted her.
The subject of this eulogy had meanwhile returned to her sofa, where she received the homage of her new visitor. “It’s not I who am magnificent a bit — it’s dear Mr. Longdon. I’ve just had from Van the most wonderful piece of news about him — his announcement of his wish to make it worth somebody’s while to marry my child.”
“‘Make it’?”— Mitchy stared. “But ISN’T it?”
“My dear friend, you must ask Van. Of course you’ve always thought so. But I must tell you all the same,” Mrs. Brook went on, “that I’m delighted.”
Mitchy had seated himself, but Vanderbank remained erect and became perhaps even slightly stiff. He was not angry — no member of the inner circle at Buckingham Crescent was ever angry — but he looked grave and rather troubled. “Even if it IS decidedly fine”— he addressed his hostess straight —“I can’t make out quite why you’re doing THIS— I mean immediately making it known.”
“Ah but what do we keep from Mitchy?” Mrs. Brook asked.
“What CAN you keep? It comes to the same thing,” Mitchy said. “Besides, here we are together, share and share alike — one beautiful intelligence. Mr. Longdon’s ‘somebody’ is of course Van. Don’t try to treat me as an outsider.”
Vanderbank looked a little foolishly, though it was but the shade of a shade, from one of them to the other. “I think I’ve been rather an ass!”
“What then by the terms of our friendship — just as Mitchy says — can he and I have a better right to know and to feel with you about? You’ll want, Mitchy, won’t you?” Mrs. Brook went on, “to hear all about THAT?”
“Oh I only mean,” Vanderbank explained, “in having just now blurted my tale out to you. However, I of course do know,” he pursued to Mitchy, “that whatever’s really between us will remain between us. Let me then tell you myself exactly what’s the matter.” The length of his pause after these words showed at last that he had stopped short; on which his companions, as they waited, exchanged a sympathetic look. They waited another minute, and then he dropped into a chair where, leaning forward, his elbows on the arms and his gaze attached to the carpet, he drew out the silence. Finally he looked at Mrs. Brook. “YOU make it clear.”
The appeal called up for some reason her most infantine manner. “I don’t think I CAN, dear Van — really CLEAR. You know however yourself,” she continued to Mitchy, “enough by this time about Mr. Longdon and mamma.”
“Oh rather!” Mitchy laughed.
“And about mamma and Nanda.”
“Oh perfectly: the way Nanda reminds him, and the ‘beautiful loyalty’ that has made him take such a fancy to her. But I’ve already embraced the facts — you needn’t dot any i’s.” With another glance at his fellow visitor Mitchy jumped up and stood there florid. “He has offered you money to marry her.” He said this to Vanderbank as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Oh NO” Mrs. Brook interposed with promptitude: “he has simply let him know before any one else that the money’s there FOR Nanda, and that therefore —!”
“First come first served?” Mitchy had already taken her up. “I see, I see. Then to make her sure of the money,” he put to Vanderbank, “you MUST marry her?”
“If it depends upon that she’ll never get it,” Mrs. Brook returned. “Dear Van will think conscientiously a lot about it, but he won’t do it.”
“Won’t you, Van, really?” Mitchy asked from the hearth-rug.
“Never, never. We shall be very kind to him, we shall help him, hope and pray for him, but we shall be at the end,” said Mrs. Brook, “just where we are now. Dear Van will have done his best, and we shall have done ours. Mr. Longdon will have done his — poor Nanda even will have done hers. But it will all have been in vain. However,” Mrs. Brook continued to expound, “she’ll probably have the money. Mr. Longdon will surely consider that she’ll want it if she doesn’t marry still more than if she does. So we shall be SO much at least,” she wound up —“I mean Edward and I and the child will be-to the good.”
Mitchy, for an equal certainty, required but an instant’s thought. “Oh there can be no doubt about THAT. The things about which your mind may now be at ease —!” he cheerfully exclaimed.
“It does make a great difference!” Mrs. Brook comfortably sighed. Then in a different tone: “What dear Van will find at the end that he can’t face will be, don’t you see? just this fact of appearing to have accepted a bribe. He won’t want, on the one hand — out of kindness for Nanda — to have the money suppressed; and yet he won’t want to have the pecuniary question mixed up with the matter: to look in short as if he had had to be paid. He’s like you, you know — he’s proud; and it will be there we shall break down.”
Mitchy had been watching his friend, who, a few minutes before perceptibly embarrassed, had quite recovered himself and, at his ease, though still perhaps with a smile a trifle strained, leaned back and let his eyes play everywhere but over the faces of the others. Vanderbank evidently wished now to show a good-humoured detachment.
“See here,” Mitchy said to him: “I remember your once submitting to me a case of some delicacy.”
“Oh he’ll submit it to you — he’ll submit it even to ME” Mrs. Brook broke in. “He’ll be charming, touching, confiding — above all he’ll be awfully INTERESTING about it. But he’ll make up his mind in his own way, and his own way won’t be to accommodate Mr. Longdon.”
Mitchy continued to study their companion in the light of these remarks, then turned upon his hostess his sociable glare. “Splendid, isn’t it, the old boy’s infatuation with him?”
Mrs. Brook just delayed. “From the point of view of the immense interest it — just now, for instance — makes for you and me? Oh yes, it’s one of our best things yet. It places him a little with Lady Fanny —‘He will, he won’t; he won’t, he will!’ Only, to be perfect, it lacks, as I say, the element of real suspense.”
Mitchy frankly wondered. “It does, you think? Not for me — not wholly.” He turned again quite pleadingly to their friend. “I hope it doesn’t for yourself totally either?”
Vanderbank, cultivating his detachment, made at first no more reply than if he had not heard, and the others meanwhile showed faces that testified perhaps less than their respective speeches had done to the absence of anxiety. The only token he immediately gave was to get up and approach Mitchy, before whom he stood a minute laughing kindly enough, though not altogether gaily. As if then for a better proof of gaiety he presently seized him by the shoulders and, still without speaking, pushed him backward into the chair he himself had just quitted. Mrs. Brook’s eyes, from the sofa, while this went on, attached themselves to her visitors. It took Vanderbank, as he moved about and his companions waited, a minute longer to produce what he had in mind. “What IS splendid, as we call it, is this extraordinary freedom and good humour of our intercourse and the fact that we do care — so independently of our personal interests, with so little selfishness or other vulgarity — to get at the idea of things. The beautiful specimen Mrs. Brook had just given me of that,” he continued to Mitchy, “was what made me break out to you about her when you came in.” He spoke to one friend, but he looked at the other. “What’s really ‘superior’ in her is that, though I suddenly show her an interference with a favourite plan, her personal resentment’s nothing — all she wants is to see what may really happen, to take in the truth of the case and make the best of that. She offers me the truth, as she sees it, about myself, and with no nasty elation if it does chance to be the truth that suits her best. It was a charming, charming stroke.”
Mitchy’s appreciation was no bar to his amusement. “You’re wonderfully right about us. But still it was a stroke.”
If Mrs. Brook was less diverted she followed perhaps more closely. “If you do me so much justice then, why did you put to me such a cold cruel question? — I mean when you so oddly challenged me on my handing on your news to Mitchy. If the principal beauty of our effort to live together is — and quite according to your own eloquence — in our sincerity, I simply obeyed the impulse to do the sincere thing. If we’re not sincere we’re nothing.”
“Nothing!”— it was Mitchy who first responded. “But we ARE sincere.”
“Yes, we ARE sincere,” Vanderbank presently said. “It’s a great chance for us not to fall below ourselves: no doubt therefore we shall continue to soar and sing. We pay for it, people who don’t like us say, in our self-consciousness —”
“But people who don’t like us,” Mitchy broke in, “don’t matter. Besides, how can we be properly conscious of each other —?”
“That’s it!”— Vanderbank completed his idea: “without my finding myself for instance in you and Mrs. Brook? We see ourselves reflected — we’re conscious of the charming whole. I thank you,” he pursued after an instant to Mrs. Brook —“I thank you for your sincerity.”
It was a business sometimes really to hold her eyes, but they had, it must be said for her, their steady moments. She exchanged with Vanderbank a somewhat remarkable look, then, with an art of her own, broke short off without appearing to drop him. “The thing is, don’t you think?”— she appealed to Mitchy —“for us not to be so awfully clever as to make it believed that we can never be simple. We mustn’t see TOO tremendous things — even in each other.” She quite lost patience with the danger she glanced at. “We CAN be simple!”
“We CAN, by God!” Mitchy laughed.
“Well, we are now — and it’s a great comfort to have it settled,” said Vanderbank.
“Then you see,” Mrs. Brook returned, “what a mistake you’d make to see abysses of subtlety in my having been merely natural.”
“We CAN be natural,” Mitchy declared.
“We can, by God!” Vanderbank laughed.
Mrs. Brook had turned to Mitchy. “I just wanted you to know. So I spoke. It’s not more complicated than that. As for WHY I wanted you to know —!”
“What better reason could there be,” Mitchy interrupted, “than your being filled to the finger-tips with the sense of how I would want it myself, and of the misery, the absolute pathos, of my being left out? Fancy, my dear chap”— he had only to put it to Van —“my NOT knowing!”.
Vanderbank evidently couldn’t fancy it, but he said quietly enough: “I should have told you myself.”
“Well, what’s the difference?”
“Oh there IS a difference,” Mrs. Brook loyally said. Then she opened an inch or two, for Vanderbank, the door of her dim radiance. “Only I should have thought it a difference for the better. Of course,” she added, “it remains absolutely with us three alone, and don’t you already feel from it the fresh charm — with it here between us — of our being together?”
It was as if each of the men had waited for the other to assent better than he himself could and Mitchy then, as Vanderbank failed, had gracefully, to cover him, changed the subject. “But isn’t Nanda, the person most interested, to know?”
Vanderbank gave on this a strange sound of hilarity. “Ah that would finish it off!”
It produced for a few seconds something like a chill, a chill that had for consequence a momentary pause which in its turn added weight to the words next uttered. “It’s not I who shall tell her,” Mrs. Brook said gently and gravely. “There! — you may be sure. If you want a promise, it’s a promise. So that if Mr. Longdon’s silent,” she went on, “and you are, Mitchy, and I am, how in the world shall she have a suspicion?”
“You mean of course except by Van’s deciding to mention it himself.”
Van might have been, from the way they looked at him, some beautiful unconscious object; but Mrs. Brook was quite ready to answer. “Oh poor man, HE’LL never breathe.”
“I see. So there we are.”
To this discussion the subject of it had for the time nothing to contribute, even when Mitchy, rising with the words he had last uttered from the chair in which he had been placed, took sociably as well, on the hearth-rug, a position before their hostess. This move ministered apparently to Vanderbank’s mere silence, for it was still without speaking that, after a little, he turned away from his friend and dropped once more into the same seat. “I’ve shown you already, you of course remember,” Vanderbank presently said to him, “that I’m perfectly aware of how much better Mrs. Brook would like YOU for the position.”
“He thinks I want him myself,” Mrs. Brook blandly explained.
She was indeed, as they always thought her, “wonderful,” but she was perhaps not even now so much so as Mitchy found himself able to be. “But how would you lose old Van — even at the worst?” he earnestly asked of her.
She just hesitated. “What do you mean by the worst?”
“Then even at the best,” Mitchy smiled. “In the event of his falsifying your prediction; which, by the way, has the danger, hasn’t it? — I mean for your intellectual credit — of making him, as we all used to be called by our nursemaids, ‘contrairy.’”
“Oh I’ve thought of that,” Mrs. Brook returned. “But he won’t do, on the whole, even for the sweetness of spiting me, what he won’t want to do. I haven’t said I should lose him,” she went on; “that’s only the view he himself takes — or, to do him perfect justice, the idea he candidly imputes to me; though without, I imagine — for I don’t go so far as that — attributing to me anything so unutterably bete as a feeling of jealousy.”
“You wouldn’t dream of my supposing anything inept of you,” Vanderbank said on this, “if you understood to the full how I keep on admiring you. Only what stupefies me a little,” he continued, “is the extraordinary critical freedom — or we may call it if we like the high intellectual detachment — with which we discuss a question touching you, dear Mrs. Brook, so nearly and engaging so your private and most sacred sentiments. What are we playing with, after all, but the idea of Nanda’s happiness?”
“Oh I’m not playing!” Mrs. Brook declared with a little rattle of emotion.
“She’s not playing”— Mr. Mitchett gravely confirmed it. “Don’t you feel in the very air the vibration of the passion that she’s simply too charming to shake at the window as the housemaid shakes the tablecloth or the jingo the flag?” Then he took up what Vanderbank had previously said. “Of course, my dear man, I’m ‘aware,’ as you just now put it, of everything, and I’m not indiscreet, am I, Mrs. Brook? in admitting for you as well as for myself that there WAS an impossibility you and I used sometimes to turn over together. Only — Lord bless us all! — it isn’t as if I hadn’t long ago seen that there’s nothing at all FOR me.”
“Ah wait, wait!” Mrs. Brook put in. “She has a theory”— Vanderbank, from his chair, lighted it up for Mitchy, who hovered before them —“that your chance WILL come, later on, after I’ve given my measure.”
“Oh but that’s exactly,” Mitchy was quick to respond, “what you’ll never do! You won’t give your measure the least little bit. You’ll walk in magnificent mystery ‘later on’ not a bit less than you do today; you’ll continue to have the benefit of everything that our imagination, perpetually engaged, often baffled and never fatigued, will continue to bedeck you with. Nanda, in the same way, to the end of all her time, will simply remain exquisite, or genuine, or generous — whatever we choose to call it. It may make a difference to us, who are comparatively vulgar, but what difference will it make to HER whether you do or you don’t decide for her? You can’t belong to her more, for herself, than you do already — and that’s precisely so much that there’s no room for any one else. Where therefore, without that room, do I come in?”
“Nowhere, I see,” Vanderbank seemed obligingly to muse.
Mrs. Brook had followed Mitchy with marked admiration, but she gave on this a glance at Van that was like the toss of a blossom from the same branch. “Oh then shall I just go on with you BOTH? That WILL be joy!” She had, however, the next thing, a sudden drop which shaded the picture. “You’re so divine, Mitchy, that how can you not in the long-run break ANY woman down?”
It was not as if Mitchy was struck — it was only that he was courteous. “What do you call the long-run? Taking about till I’m eighty?”
“Ah your genius is of a kind to which middle life will be particularly favourable. You’ll reap then somehow, one feels, everything you’ve sown.”
Mitchy still accepted the prophecy only to control it. “Do you call eighty middle life? Why, my moral beauty, my dear woman — if that’s what you mean by my genius — is precisely my curse. What on earth — is left for a man just rotten with goodness? It renders necessary the kind of liking that renders unnecessary anything else.”
“Now that IS cheap paradox!” Vanderbank patiently sighed. “You’re down for a fine.”
It was with less of the patience perhaps that Mrs. Brook took this up. “Yes, on that we ARE stiff. Five pounds, please.”
Mitchy drew out his pocket-book even though he explained. “What I mean is that I don’t give out the great thing.” With which he produced a crisp banknote.
“DON’T you?” asked Vanderbank, who, having taken it from him to hand to Mrs. Brook, held it a moment, delicately, to accentuate the doubt.
“The great thing’s the sacred terror. It’s you who give THAT out.”
“Oh!”— and Vanderbank laid the money on the small stand at Mrs. Brook’s elbow.
“Ain’t I right, Mrs. Brook? — doesn’t he, tremendously, and isn’t that more than anything else what does it?”
The two again, as if they understood each other, gazed in a unity of interest at their companion, who sustained it with an air clearly intended as the happy mean between embarrassment and triumph. Then Mrs. Brook showed she liked the phrase. “The sacred terror! Yes, one feels it. It IS that.”
“The finest case of it,” Mitchy pursued, “that I’ve ever met. So my moral’s sufficiently pointed.”
“Oh I don’t think it can be said to be that,” Vanderbank returned, “till you’ve put the whole thing into a box by doing for Nanda what she does most want you to do.”
Mitchy caught on without a shade of wonder. “Oh by proposing to the Duchess for little Aggie?” He took but an instant to turn it over. “Well, I WOULD propose — to please Nanda. Only I’ve never yet quite made out the reason of her wish.”
“The reason is largely,” his friend answered, “that, being very fond of Aggie and in fact extremely admiring her, she wants to do something good for her and to keep her from anything bad. Don’t you know — it’s too charming — she regularly believes in her?” Mitchy, with all his recognition, vibrated to the touch. “Isn’t it too charming?”
“Well then,” Vanderbank went on, “she secures for her friend a phoenix like you, and secures for you a phoenix like her friend. It’s hard to say for which of you she desires most to do the handsome thing. She loves you both in short”— he followed it up —“though perhaps when one thinks of it the price she puts on you, Mitchy, in the arrangement, is a little the higher. Awfully fine at any rate — and yet awfully odd too — her feeling for Aggie’s type, which is divided by such abysses from her own.”
“Ah,” laughed Mitchy, “but think then of her feeling for mine!”
Vanderbank, still more at his ease now and with his head back, had his eyes aloft and far. “Oh there are things in Nanda —!” The others exchanged a glance at this, while their companion added: “Little Aggie’s really the sort of creature she would have liked to be able to be.”
“Well,” Mitchy said, “I should have adored her even if she HAD been able.”
Mrs. Brook had for some minutes played no audible part, but the acute observer we are constantly taking for granted would perhaps have detected in her, as one of the effects of the special complexion today of Vanderbank’s presence, a certain smothered irritation. “She couldn’t possibly have been able,” she now interposed, “with so loose — or rather, to express it more properly, with so perverse — a mother.”
“And yet, my dear lady,” Mitchy promptly qualified, “how if in little Aggie’s case the Duchess hasn’t prevented —?”
Mrs. Brook was full of wisdom. “Well, it’s a different thing. I’m not, as a mother — am I, Van? — bad ENOUGH. That’s what’s the matter with me. Aggie, don’t you see? is the Duchess’s morality, her virtue; which, by having it that way outside of you, as one may say, you can make a much better thing of. The child has been for Jane, I admit, a capital little subject, but Jane has kept her on hand and finished her like some wonderful piece of stitching. Oh as work it’s of a soigne! There it is — to show. A woman like me has to be HERSELF, poor thing, her virtue and her morality. What will you have? It’s our lumbering English plan.”
“So that her daughter,” Mitchy sympathised, “can only, by the arrangement, hope to become at the best her immorality and her vice?”
But Mrs. Brook, without an answer for the question, appeared suddenly to have plunged into a sea of thought. “The only way for Nanda to have been REALLY nice —!”
“Would have been for YOU to be like Jane?”
Mitchy and his hostess seemed for a minute, on this, to gaze together at the tragic truth. Then she shook her head. “We see our mistakes too late.” She repeated the movement, but as if to let it all go, and Vanderbank meanwhile, pulling out his watch, had got up with a laugh that showed some inattention and made to Mitchy a remark about their walking away together. Mitchy, engaged for the instant with Mrs. Brook, had assented only with a nod, but the attitude of the two men had become that of departure. Their friend looked at them as if she would like to keep one of them, and for a purpose connected somehow with the other, but was oddly, almost ludicrously, embarrassed to choose. What was in her face indeed during this short passage might prove to have been, should we penetrate, the flicker of a sense that in spite of all intimacy and amiability they could, at bottom and as things commonly turned out, only be united against her. Yet she made at the end a sort of choice in going on to Mitchy: “He hasn’t at all told you the real reason of Nanda’s idea that you should go in for Aggie.”
“Oh I draw the line there,” said Vanderbank. “Besides, he understands that too.”
Mitchy, on the spot, did himself and every one justice. “Why it just disposes of me, doesn’t it?”
It made Vanderbank, restless now and turning about the room, stop with a smile at Mrs. Brook. “We understand too well!”
“Not if he doesn’t understand,” she replied after a moment while she turned to Mitchy, “that his real ‘combination’ can in the nature of the case only be-!”
“Oh yes”— Mitchy took her straight up —“with the young thing who is, as you say, positively and helplessly modern and the pious fraud of whose classic identity with a sheet of white paper has been — ah tacitly of course, but none the less practically! — dropped. You’ve so often reminded me. I do understand. If I were to go in for Aggie it would only be to oblige. The modern girl, the product of our hard London facts and of her inevitable consciousness of them just as they are — she, wonderful being, IS, I fully recognise, my real affair, and I’m not ashamed to say that when I like the individual I’m not afraid of the type. She knows too much — I don’t say; but she doesn’t know after all a millionth part of what I do.”
“I’m not sure!” Mrs. Brook earnestly exclaimed.
He had rung out and he kept it up with a limpidity unusual. “And product for product, when you come to that, I’m a queerer one myself than any other. The traditions I smash!” Mitchy laughed.
Mrs. Brook had got up and Vanderbank had gone again to the window. “That’s exactly why,” she returned. “You’re a pair of monsters and your monstrosity fits. She does know too much,” she added.
“Well,” said Mitchy with resolution, “it’s all my fault.”
“Not ALL— unless,” Mrs. Brook returned, “that’s only a sweet way of saying that it’s mostly mine.”
“Oh yours too — immensely; in fact every one’s. Even Edward’s, I dare say; and certainly, unmistakably, Harold’s. Ah and Van’s own — rather!” Mitchy continued; “for all he turns his back and will have nothing to say to it.”
It was on the back Vanderbank turned that Mrs. Brook’s eyes now rested. “That’s precisely why he shouldn’t be afraid of her.”
He faced straight about. “Oh I don’t deny my part.”
He shone at them brightly enough, and Mrs. Brook, thoughtful, wistful, candid, took in for a moment the radiance. “And yet to think that after all it has been mere TALK!”
Something in her tone again made her hearers laugh out; so it was still with the air of good humour that Vanderbank answered: “Mere, mere, mere. But perhaps it’s exactly the ‘mere’ that has made us range so wide.”
Mrs. Brook’s intelligence abounded. “You mean that we haven’t had the excuse of passion?”
Her companions once more gave way to mirth, but “There you are!” Vanderbank said after an instant less sociably. With it too he held out his hand.
“You ARE afraid,” she answered as she gave him her own; on which, as he made no rejoinder, she held him before her. “Do you mean you REALLY don’t know if she gets it?”
“The money, if he DOESN’T go in?”— Mitchy broke almost with an air of responsibility into Vanderbank’s silence. “Ah but, as we said, surely —!”
It was Mitchy’s eyes that Vanderbank met. “Yes, I should suppose she gets it.”
“Perhaps then, as a compensation, she’ll even get MORE—!”
“If I don’t go in? Oh!” said Vanderbank. And he changed colour.
He was by this time off, but Mrs. Brook kept Mitchy a moment. “Now — by that suggestion — he has something to show. He won’t go in.”
Her visitors had been gone half an hour, but she was still in the drawing-room when Nanda came back. The girl found her, on the sofa, in a posture that might have represented restful oblivion, but that, after a glance, our young lady appeared to interpret as mere intensity of thought. It was a condition from which at all events Mrs. Brook was quickly roused by her daughter’s presence: she opened her eyes and put down her feet, so that the two were confronted as closely as persons may be when it is only one of them who looks at the other. Nanda, gazing vaguely about and not seeking a seat, slowly drew off her gloves while her mother’s sad eyes considered her from top to toe. “Tea’s gone,” Mrs. Brook then said as if there were something in the loss peculiarly irretrievable. “But I suppose,” she added, “he gave you all you want.”
“Oh dear yes, thank you — I’ve had lots.”
Nanda hovered there slim and charming, feathered and ribboned, dressed in thin fresh fabrics and faint colours, with something in the effect of it all to which the sweeter deeper melancholy in her mother’s eyes seemed happily to testify. “Just turn round, dear.” The girl immediately obeyed, and Mrs. Brook once more took everything in. “The back’s best — only she didn’t do what she said she would. How they do lie!” she gently quavered.
“Yes, but we lie so to THEM.” Nanda had swung round again, producing evidently on her mother’s part, by the admirable “hang” of her light skirts, a still deeper peace. “Do you mean the middle fold? — I knew she wouldn’t. I don’t want my back to be best — I don’t walk backward.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Brook resignedly mused; “you dress for yourself.”
“Oh how can you say that,” the girl asked, “when I never stick in a pin but what I think of YOU!”
“Well,” Mrs. Brook moralised, “one must always, I consider, think, as a sort of point de repere, of some one good person. Only it’s best if it’s a person one’s afraid of. You do very well, but I’m not enough. What one really requires is a kind of salutary terror. I never stick in a pin without thinking of your Cousin Jane. What is it that some one quotes somewhere about some one’s having said that ‘Our antagonist is our helper — he prevents our being superficial’? The extent to which with my poor clothes the Duchess prevents ME—!” It was a measure Mrs. Brook could give only by the general soft wail of her submission to fate.
“Yes, the Duchess isn’t a woman, is she? She’s a standard.”
The speech had for Nanda’s companion, however, no effect of pleasantry or irony, and it was a mark of the special intercourse of these good friends that though they showed each other, in manner and tone, such sustained consideration as might almost have given it the stamp of diplomacy, there was yet in it also something of that economy of expression which is the result of a common experience. The recurrence of opportunity to observe them together would have taught a spectator that — on Mrs. Brook’s side doubtless more particularly — their relation was governed by two or three remarkably established and, as might have been said, refined laws, the spirit of which was to guard against the vulgarity so often coming to the surface between parent and child. That they WERE as good friends as if Nanda had not been her daughter was a truth that no passage between them might fail in one way or another to illustrate. Nanda had gathered up, for that matter, early in life, a flower of maternal wisdom: “People talk about conscience, but it seems to me one must just bring it up to a certain point and leave it there. You can let your conscience alone if you’re nice to the second housemaid.” Mrs. Brook was as “nice” to Nanda as she was to Sarah Curd — which involved, as may easily be imagined, the happiest conditions for Sarah. “Well,” she resumed, reverting to the Duchess on a final appraisement of the girl’s air, “I really think I do well by you and that Jane wouldn’t have anything to say today. You look awfully like mamma,” she then threw off as if for the first time of mentioning it.
“Oh Cousin Jane doesn’t care for that,” Nanda returned. “What I don’t look like is Aggie, for all I try.”
“Ah you shouldn’t try — you can do nothing with it. One must be what one is.”
Mrs. Brook was almost sententious, but Nanda, with civility, let it pass. “No one in London touches her. She’s quite by herself. When one sees her one feels her to be the real thing.”
Mrs. Brook, without harshness, wondered. “What do you mean by the real thing?”
Even Nanda, however, had to think a moment.
“Well, the real young one. That’s what Lord Petherton calls her,” she mildly joked —”‘the young ’un’”
Her mother’s echo was not for the joke, but for something else. “I know what you mean. What’s the use of being good?”
“Oh I didn’t mean that,” said Nanda. “Besides, isn’t Aggie of a goodness —?”
“I wasn’t talking of her. I was asking myself what’s the use of MY being.”
“Well, you can’t help it any more than the Duchess can help —!”
“Ah but she could if she would!” Mrs. Brook broke in with a sharper ring than she had yet given. “We can’t help being good perhaps, if that burden’s laid on us — but there are lengths in other directions we’re not absolutely obliged to go. And what I think of when I stick in the pins,” she went on, “is that Jane seems to me really never to have had to pay.” She appeared for a minute to brood on this till she could no longer bear it; after which she jerked out: “Why she has never had to pay for ANYthing!”
Nanda had by this time seated herself, taking her place, under the interest of their talk, on her mother’s sofa, where, except for the removal of her long soft gloves, which one of her hands again and again drew caressingly through the other, she remained very much as if she were some friendly yet circumspect young visitor to whom Mrs. Brook had on some occasion dropped “DO come.” But there was something perhaps more expressly conciliatory in the way she had kept everything on: as if, in particular serenity and to confirm kindly Mrs. Brook’s sense of what had been done for her, she had neither taken off her great feathered hat nor laid down her parasol of pale green silk, the “match” of hat and ribbons and which had an expensive precious knob. Our spectator would possibly have found too much earnestness in her face to be sure if there was also candour. “And do you mean that YOU have had to pay —?”
“Oh yes — all the while.” With this Mrs. Brook was a little short, and also as she added as if to banish a slight awkwardness: “But don’t let it discourage you.”
Nanda seemed an instant to weigh the advice, and the whole thing would have been striking as another touch in the picture of the odd want, on the part of each, of any sense of levity in the other. Whatever escape, face to face, mother or daughter might ever seek would never be the humorous one — a circumstance, notwithstanding, that would not in every case have failed to make their interviews droll for a third person. It would always indeed for such a person have produced an impression of tension beneath the surface. “I could have done much better at the start and have lost less time,” the girl at last said, “if I hadn’t had the drawback of not really remembering Granny.”
“Oh well, I remember her!” Mrs. Brook moaned with an accent that evidently struck her the next moment as so much out of place that she slightly deflected. She took Nanda’s parasol and held it as if — a more delicate thing much than any one of hers — she simply liked to have it. “Her clothes — at your age at least — must have been hideous. Was it at the place he took you to that he gave you tea?” she then went on.
“Yes, at the Museum. We had an orgy in the refreshment-room. But he took me afterwards to Tishy’s, where we had another.”
“He went IN with you?” Mrs. Brook had suddenly flashed into eagerness.
“Oh yes — I made him.”
“He didn’t want to?”
“On the contrary — very much. But he doesn’t do everything he wants,” said Nanda.
Mrs. Brook seemed to wonder. “You mean you’ve also to want it?”
“Oh no — THAT isn’t enough. What I suppose I mean,” Nanda continued, “is that he doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want. But he does quite enough,” she added.
“And who then was at Tishy’s?”
“Oh poor old Tish herself, naturally, and Carrie Donner.”
“And no one else?”
The girl just waited. “Yes, Mr. Cashmore came in.”
Her mother gave a groan of impatience. “Ah AGAIN?”
Nanda thought an instant. “How do you mean, ‘again’? He just lives there as much as he ever did, and Tishy can’t prevent him.”
“I was thinking of Mr. Longdon — of THEIR meeting. When he met him here that time he liked it so little. Did he like it any more today?” Mrs. Brook quavered.
“Oh no, he hated it.”
“But hadn’t he — if he should go in-known he WOULD?”
“Yes, perfectly. But he wanted to see.”
“To see —?” Mrs. Brook just threw out.
“Well, where I go so much. And he knew I wished it.”
“I don’t quite see why,” Mrs. Brook mildly observed. And then as her daughter said nothing to help her: “At any rate he did loathe it?”
Nanda, for a reply, simply after an instant put a question. “Well, how can he understand?”
“You mean, like me, why you do go there so much? How can he indeed?”
“I don’t mean that,” the girl returned —“it’s just that he understands perfectly, because he saw them all, in such an extraordinary way — well, what can I ever call it? — clutch me and cling to me.”
Mrs. Brook, with full gravity, considered this picture. “And was Mr. Cashmore today so ridiculous?”
“Ah he’s not ridiculous, mamma — he’s very unhappy. He thinks now Lady Fanny probably won’t go, but he feels that may be after all only the worse for him.”
“She WILL go,” Mrs. Brook answered with one of her roundabout approaches to decision. “He IS too great an idiot. She was here an hour ago, and if ever a woman was packed —!”
“Well,” Nanda objected, “but doesn’t she spend her time in packing and unpacking?”
This enquiry, however, scarce pulled up her mother. “No — though she HAS, no doubt, hitherto wasted plenty of labour. She has now a dozen boxes — I could see them there in her wonderful eyes — just waiting to be called for. So if you’re counting on her not going, my dear —!” Mrs. Brook gave a head-shake that was the warning of wisdom.
“Oh I don’t care what she does!” Nanda replied. “What I meant just now was that Mr. Longdon couldn’t understand why, with so much to make them so, they couldn’t be decently happy.”
“And did he wish you to explain?”
“I tried to, but I didn’t make it any better. He doesn’t like them. He doesn’t even care for Tish.”
“He told you so — right out?”
“Oh,” Nanda said, “of course I asked him. I didn’t press him, because I never do —!”
“You never do?” Mrs. Brook broke in as with the glimpse of a new light.
The girl showed an indulgence for this interest that was for a moment almost elderly. “I enjoy awfully with him seeing just how to take him.”
Her tone and her face evidently put forth for her companion at this juncture something freshly, even quite supremely suggestive; and yet the effect of them on Mrs. Brook’s part was only a question so off-hand that it might already often have been asked. The mother’s eyes, to ask it, we may none the less add, attached themselves closely to the daughter’s, and her face just glowed. “You like him so very awfully?”
It was as if the next instant Nanda felt herself on her guard. Yet she spoke with a certain surrender. “Well, it’s rather intoxicating to be one’s self —!” She had only a drop over the choice of her term.
“So tremendously made up to, you mean — even by a little fussy ancient man? But DOESN’T he, my dear,” Mrs. Brook continued with encouragement, “make up to you?”
A supposititious spectator would certainly on this have imagined in the girl’s face the delicate dawn of a sense that her mother had suddenly become vulgar, together with a general consciousness that the way to meet vulgarity was always to be frank and simple and above all to ignore. “He makes one enjoy being liked so much — liked better, I do think, than I’ve ever been liked by any one.”
If Mrs. Brook hesitated it was, however, clearly not because she had noticed. “Not better surely than by dear Mitchy? Or even if you come to that by Tishy herself.”
Nanda’s simplicity maintained itself. “Oh Mr. Longdon’s different from Tishy.”
Her mother again hesitated. “You mean of course he knows more?”
The girl considered it. “He doesn’t know MORE. But he knows other things. And he’s pleasanter than Mitchy.”
“You mean because he doesn’t want to marry you?”
It was as if she had not heard that Nanda continued: “Well, he’s more beautiful.”
“O-oh!” cried Mrs. Brook, with a drawn-out extravagance of comment that amounted to an impugnment of her taste even by herself.
It contributed to Nanda’s quietness. “He’s one of the most beautiful people in the world.”
Her companion at this, with a quick wonder, fixed her. “DOES he, my dear, want to marry you?”
“Yes — to all sorts of ridiculous people.”
“But I mean — would you take HIM?”
Nanda, rising, met the question with a short ironic “Yes!” that showed her first impatience. “It’s so charming being liked without being approved.”
But Mrs. Brook only wanted to know. “He doesn’t approve —?”
“No, but it makes no difference. It’s all exactly right — it doesn’t matter.”
Mrs. Brook seemed to wonder, however, exactly how these things could be. “He doesn’t want you to give up anything?” She looked as if swiftly thinking what Nanda MIGHT give up.
“Oh yes, everything.”
It was as if for an instant she found her daughter inscrutable; then she had a strange smile. “Me?”
The girl was perfectly prompt. “Everything. But he wouldn’t like me nearly so much if I really did.”
Her mother had a further pause. “Does he want to ADOPT you?” Then more quickly and sadly, though also a little as if lacking nerve to push the research: “We couldn’t give you up, Nanda.”
“Thank you so much, mamma. But we shan’t be very much tried,” Nanda said, “because what it comes to seems to be that I’m really what you may call adopting HIM. I mean I’m little by little changing him — gradually showing him that, as I couldn’t possibly have been different, and as also of course one can’t keep giving up, the only way is for him not to mind, and to take me just as I am. That, don’t you see? is what he would never have expected to do.”
Mrs. Brook recognised in a manner the explanation, but still had her wistfulness. “But — a — to take you, ‘as you are,’ WHERE?”
“Well, to the South Kensington Museum.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Brook. Then, however, in a more exemplary tone: “Do you enjoy so very much your long hours with him?”
Nanda appeared for an instant to think how to express it. “Well, we’re great friends.”
“And always talking about Granny?”
“Oh no — really almost never now.”
“He doesn’t think so awfully much of her?” There was an oddity of eagerness in the question — a hope, a kind of dash, for something that might have been in Nanda’s interest.
The girl met these things only with obliging gravity. “I think he’s losing any sense of my likeness. He’s too used to it — or too many things that are too different now cover it up.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Brook as she took this in, “I think it’s awfully clever of you to get only the good of him and have none of the worry.”
Nanda wondered. “The worry?”
“You leave that all to ME,” her mother went on, but quite forgivingly. “I hope at any rate that the good, for you, will be real.”
“Real?” the girl, remaining vague, again echoed.
Mrs. Brook showed for this not perhaps an irritation, but a flicker of austerity. “You must remember we’ve a great many things to think about. There are things we must take for granted in each other — we must all help in our way to pull the coach. That’s what I mean by worry, and if you don’t have any so much the better for you. For me it’s in the day’s work. Your father and I have most to think about always at this time, as you perfectly know — when we have to turn things round and manage somehow or other to get out of town, have to provide and pinch, to meet all the necessities, with money, money, money at every turn running away like water. The children this year seem to fit into nothing, into nowhere, and Harold’s more dreadful than he has ever been, doing nothing at all for himself and requiring everything to be done for him. He talks about his American girl, with millions, who’s so awfully taken with him, but I can’t find out anything about her: the only one, just now, that people seem to have heard of is the one Booby Manger’s engaged to. The Mangers literally snap up everything,” Mrs. Brook quite wailingly now continued: “the Jew man, so gigantically rich — who is he? Baron Schack or Schmack — who has just taken Cumberland House and who has the awful stammer — or what is it? no roof to his mouth — is to give that horrid little Algie, to do his conversation for him, four hundred a year, which Harold pretended to me that, of all the rush of young men — dozens! — HE was most in the running for. Your father’s settled gloom is terrible, and I bear all the brunt of it; we get literally nothing this year for the Hovel, yet have to spend on it heaven knows what; and everybody, for the next three months, in Scotland and everywhere, has asked us for the wrong time and nobody for the right: so that I assure you I don’t know where to turn — which doesn’t however in the least prevent every one coming to me with their own selfish troubles.” It was as if Mrs. Brook had found the cup of her secret sorrows suddenly jostled by some touch of which the perversity, though not completely noted at the moment, proved, as she a little let herself go, sufficient to make it flow over; but she drew, the next thing, from her daughter’s stillness a reflexion of the vanity of such heat and speedily recovered herself as if in order with more dignity to point the moral. “I can carry my burden and shall do so to the end; but we must each remember that we shall fall to pieces if we don’t manage to keep hold of some little idea of responsibility. I positively can’t arrange without knowing when it is you go to him.”
“To Mr. Longdon? Oh whenever I like,” Nanda replied very gently and simply.
“And when shall you be so good as to like?”
“Well, he goes himself on Saturday, and if I want I can go a few days later.”
“And what day can you go if I want?” Mrs. Brook spoke as with a small sharpness — just softened indeed in time — produced by the sight of a freedom in her daughter’s life that suddenly loomed larger than any freedom of her own. It was still a part of the unsteadiness of the vessel of her anxieties; but she never after all remained publicly long subject to the influence she often comprehensively designated to others as well as to herself as “nastiness.” “What I mean is that you might go the same day, mightn’t you?”
“With him — in the train? I should think so if you wish it.”
“But would HE wish it? I mean would he hate it?”
“I don’t think so at all, but I can easily ask him.”
Mrs. Brook’s head inclined to the chimney and her eyes to the window. “Easily?”
Nanda looked for a moment mystified by her mother’s insistence. “I can at any rate perfectly try it.”
“Remembering even that mamma would never have pushed so?”
Nanda’s face seemed to concede even that condition. “Well,” she at all events serenely replied, “I really think we’re good friends enough for anything.”
It might have been, for the light it quickly produced, exactly what her mother had been working to make her say. “What do you call that then, I should like to know, but his adopting you?”
“Ah I don’t know that it matters much what it’s called.”
“So long as it brings with it, you mean,” Mrs. Brook asked, “all the advantages?”
“Well yes,” said Nanda, who had now begun dimly to smile —“call them advantages.”
Mrs. Brook had a pause. “One would be quite ready to do that if one only knew a little more exactly what they’re to consist of.”
“Oh the great advantage, I feel, is doing something for HIM.”
Nanda’s companion, at this, hesitated afresh. “But doesn’t that, my dear, put the extravagance of your surrender to him on rather an odd footing? Charity, love, begins at home, and if it’s a question of merely GIVING, you’ve objects enough for your bounty without going so far.”
The girl, as her stare showed, was held a moment by her surprise, which presently broke out. “Why, I thought you wanted me so to be nice to him!”
“Well, I hope you won’t think me very vulgar,” said Mrs. Brook, “if I tell you that I want you still more to have some idea of what you’ll get by it. I’ve no wish,” she added, “to keep on boring you with Mitchy —”
“Don’t, don’t!” Nanda pleaded.
Her mother stopped as short as if there had been something in her tone to set the limit the more utterly for being unstudied. Yet poor Mrs. Brook couldn’t leave it there. “Then what do you get instead?”
“Instead of Mitchy? Oh,” said Nanda, “I shall never marry.”
Mrs. Brook at this turned away, moving over to the window with quickened weariness. Nanda, on her side, as if their talk had ended, went across to the sofa to take up her parasol before leaving the room, an impulse rather favoured than arrested by the arrival of her brother Harold, who came in at the moment both his relatives had turned a back to the door and who gave his sister, as she faced him, a greeting that made their mother look round. “Hallo, Nan — you ARE lovely! Ain’t she lovely, mother?”
“No!” Mrs. Brook answered, not, however, otherwise noticing him. Her domestic despair centred at this instant all in her daughter. “Well then, we shall consider — your father and I— that he must take the consequence.”
Nanda had now her hand on the door, while Harold had dropped on the sofa. “‘He’?” she just sounded.
“I mean Mr. Longdon.”
“And what do you mean by the consequence?”
“Well, it will do for the beginning of it that you’ll please go down WITH him.”
“On Saturday then? Thanks, mamma,” the girl returned.
She was instantly gone, on which Mrs. Brook had more attention for her son. This, after an instant, as she approached the sofa and raised her eyes from the little table beside it, came straight out. “Where in the world is that five-pound note?”
Harold looked vacantly about him. “What five-pound note?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10