The footman, opening the door, mumbled his name without sincerity, and Vanderbank, passing in, found in fact — for he had caught the symptom — the chairs and tables, the lighted lamps and the flowers alone in possession. He looked at his watch, which exactly marked eight, then turned to speak again to the servant, who had, however, without another sound and as if blushing for the house, already closed him in. There was nothing indeed but Mrs. Grendon’s want of promptness that failed of a welcome: her drawing-room, on the January night, showed its elegance through a suffusion of pink electricity which melted, at the end of the vista, into the faintly golden glow of a retreat still more sacred. Vanderbank walked after a moment into the second room, which also proved empty and which had its little globes of white fire — discreetly limited in number — coated with lemon-coloured silk. The walls, covered with delicate French mouldings, were so fair that they seemed vaguely silvered; the low French chimney had a French fire. There was a lemon-coloured stuff on the sofa and chairs, a wonderful polish on the floor that was largely exposed, and a copy of a French novel in blue paper on one of the spindle-legged tables. Vanderbank looked about him an instant as if generally struck, then gave himself to something that had particularly caught his eye. This was simply his own name written rather large on the cover of the French book and endowed, after he had taken the volume up, with the power to hold his attention the more closely the longer he looked at it. He uttered, for a private satisfaction, before letting the matter pass, a low confused sound; after which, flinging the book down with some emphasis in another place, he moved to the chimney-piece, where his eyes for a little intently fixed the small ashy wood-fire. When he raised them again it was, on the observation that the beautiful clock on the mantel was wrong, to consult once more his watch and then give a glance, in the chimney-glass, at the state of his moustache, the ends of which he twisted for a moment with due care. While so engaged he became aware of something else and, quickly facing about, recognised in the doorway of the room the other figure the glass had just reflected.
“Oh YOU?” he said with a quick handshake. “Mrs. Grendon’s down?” But he had already passed with Nanda, on their greeting, back into the first room, which contained only themselves, and she had mentioned that she believed Tishy to have said 8.15, which meant of course anything people liked.
“Oh then there’ll be nobody till nine. I didn’t, I suppose, sufficiently study my note; which didn’t mention to me, by the way,” Vanderbank added, “that you were to be here.”
“Ah but why SHOULD it?” Nanda spoke again, however, before he could reply. “I dare say that when she wrote to you she didn’t know.”
“Know you’d come bang up to meet me?” Vanderbank laughed. “Jolly at any rate, thanks to my mistake, to have in this way a quiet moment with you. You came on ahead of your mother?”
“Oh no — I’m staying here.”
“Oh!” said Vanderbank.
“Mr. Longdon came up with me — I came here, Friday last, straight.”
“You parted at the door?” he asked with marked gaiety.
She thought a moment — she was more serious. “Yes — but only for a day or two. He’s coming tonight.”
“Good. How delightful!”
“He’ll be glad to see you,” Nanda said, looking at the flowers.
“Awfully kind of him when I’ve been such a brute.”
“How — a brute?”
“Well, I mean not writing — nor going back.”
“Oh I see,” Nanda simply returned.
It was a simplicity that, clearly enough, made her friend a little awkward. “Has he — a — minded? Hut he can’t have complained!” he quickly added.
“Oh he never complains.”
“No, no — it isn’t in him. But it’s just that,” said Vanderbank, “that makes one feel so base. I’ve been ferociously busy.”
“He knows that — he likes it,” Nanda returned. “He delights in your work. And I’ve done what I can for him.”
“Ah,” said her companion, “you’ve evidently brought him round. I mean to this lady.”
“To Tishy? Oh of course I can’t leave her — with nobody.”
“No”— Vanderbank became jocose again —“that’s a London necessity. You can’t leave anybody with nobody — exposed to everybody.”
Mild as it was, however, Nanda missed the pleasantry. “Mr. Grendon’s not here.”
“Where is he then?”
“Yachting — but she doesn’t know.”
“Then she and you are just doing this together?”
“Well,” said Nanda, “she’s dreadfully frightened.”
“Oh she mustn’t allow herself,” he returned, “to be too much carried away by it. But we’re to have your mother?”
“Yes, and papa. It’s really for Mitchy and Aggie,” the girl went on —“before they go abroad.”
“Ah then I see what you’ve come up for! Tishy and I aren’t in it. It’s all for Mitchy.”
“If you mean there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him you’re quite right. He has always been of a kindness to me —!”
“That culminated in marrying your friend?” Vanderbank asked. “It was charming certainly, and I don’t mean to diminish the merit of it. But Aggie herself, I gather, is of a charm now —!”
“Isn’t she?”— Nanda was eager. “Hasn’t she come out?”
“With a bound — into the arena. But when a young person’s out with Mitchy —!”
“Oh you mustn’t say anything against that. I’ve been out with him myself.”
“Ah but my dear child —!” Van frankly argued.
It was not, however, a thing to notice. “I knew it would be just so. It always is when they’ve been like that.”
“Do you mean as she apparently WAS? But doesn’t it make one wonder a little IF she was?”
“Oh she was — I know she was. And we’re also to have Harold,” Nanda continued —“another of Mitchy’s beneficiaries. It WOULD be a banquet, wouldn’t it? if we were to have them all.”
Vanderbank hesitated, and the look he fixed on the door might have suggested a certain open attention to the arrival of their hostess or the announcement of other guests. “If you haven’t got them all, the beneficiaries, you’ve got, in having me, I should suppose, about the biggest.”
“Ah what has he done for you?” Nanda asked.
Again her friend hung fire. “Do you remember something you said to me down there in August?”
She looked vague but quite unembarrassed. “I remember but too well that I chattered.”
“You declared to me that you knew everything.”
“Oh yes — and I said so to Mitchy too.”
“Well, my dear child, you don’t.”
“Because I don’t know —?”
“Yes, what makes ME the victim of his insatiable benevolence.”
“Ah well, if you’ve no doubt of it yourself that’s all that’s required. I’m quite GLAD to hear of something I don’t know,” Nanda pursued. “And we’re to have Harold too,” she repeated.
“As a beneficiary? Then we SHALL fill up! Harold will give us a stamp.”
“Won’t he? I hear of nothing but his success. Mother wrote me that people are frantic for him; and,” said the girl after an instant, “do you know what Cousin Jane wrote me?”
“What WOULD she now? I’m trying to think.”
Nanda relieved him of this effort. “Why that mother has transferred to him all the scruples she felt —‘even to excess’— in MY time, about what we might pick up among you all that wouldn’t be good for us.”
“That’s a neat one for ME!” Vanderbank declared. “And I like your talk about your antediluvian ‘time.’”
“Oh it’s all over.”
“What exactly is it,” Vanderbank presently demanded, “that you describe in that manner?”
“Well, my little hour. And the danger of picking up.”
“There’s none of it here?”
Nanda appeared frankly to judge. “No — because, really, Tishy, don’t you see? is natural. We just talk.”
Vanderbank showed his interest. “Whereas at your mother’s —?”
“Well, you were all afraid.”
Vanderbank laughed straight out. “Do you mind my telling her that?”
“Oh she knows it. I’ve heard her say herself you were.”
“Ah I was,” he concurred. “You know we’ve spoken of that before.”
“I’m speaking now of all of you,” said Nanda. “But it was she who was most so, for she tried — I know she did, she told me so — to control you. And it was when, you were most controlled —!”
Van’s amusement took it up. “That we were most detrimental?”
“Yes, because of course what’s so awfully unutterable is just what we most notice. Tishy knows that,” Nanda wonderfully observed.
As the reflexion of her tone might have been caught by an observer in Vanderbank’s face it was in all probability caught by his interlocutress, who superficially, however, need have recognised there — what was all she showed — but the right manner of waiting for dinner. “The better way then is to dash right in? That’s what our friend here does?”
“Oh you know what she does!” the girl replied as with a sudden drop of interest in the question. She turned at the moment to the opening of the door.
It was Tishy who at last appeared, and her guest had his greeting ready. “We’re talking of the delicate matters as to which you think it’s better to dash right in; but I’m bound to say your inviting a hungry man to dinner doesn’t appear to be one of them.”
The sign of Tishy Grendon — as it had been often called in a society in which variety of reference had brought to high perfection, for usual safety, the sense of signs — was a retarded facial glimmer that, in respect to any subject, closed up the rear of the procession. It had been said of her indeed that when processions were at all rapid she was usually to be found, on a false impression of her whereabouts, mixed up with the next; so that now, for instance, by the time she had reached the point of saying to Vanderbank “Are you REALLY hungry?” Nanda had begun to appeal to him for some praise of their hostess’s appearance. This was of course with soft looks up and down at her clothes. “Isn’t she too nice? Did you ever see anything so lovely?”
“I’m so faint with inanition,” Van replied to Mrs. Grendon, “that — like the traveller in the desert, isn’t it? — I only make out, as an oasis or a mirage, a sweet green rustling blur. I don’t trust you.”
“I don’t trust YOU,” Nanda said on her friend’s behalf. “She isn’t ‘green’— men are amazing: they don’t know the dearest old blue that ever was seen.”
“IS it your ‘OLD blue’?” Vanderbank, monocular, very earnestly asked. “I can imagine it was ‘dear,’ but I should have thought —!”
“It was yellow”— Nanda helped him out —“if I hadn’t kindly told you.” Tishy’s figure showed the confidence of objects consecrated by publicity; bodily speaking a beautiful human plant, it might have taken the last November gale to account for the completeness with which, in some quarters, she had shed her leaves. Her companions could only emphasise by the direction of their eyes the nature of the responsibility with which a spectator would have seen them saddled — a choice, as to consciousness, between the effect of her being and the effect of her not being dressed. “Oh I’m hideous — of course I know it,” said Tishy. “I’m only just clean. Here’s Nanda now, who’s beautiful,” she vaguely continued, “and Nanda —”
“Oh but, darling, Nanda’s clean too!” the young lady in question interrupted; on which her fellow guest could only laugh with her as in relief from the antithesis of which her presence of mind had averted the completion, little indeed as in Mrs. Grendon’s talk that element of style was usually involved.
“There’s nothing in such a matter,” Vanderbank observed as if it were the least he could decently say, “like challenging enquiry; and here’s Harold, precisely,” he went on in the next breath, “as clear and crisp and undefiled as a fresh five-pound note.”
“A fresh one?”— Harold had passed in a flash from his hostess. “A man who like me hasn’t seen one for six months could perfectly do, I assure you, with one that has lost its what-do-you-call it.” He kissed Nanda with a friendly peck, then, more completely aware, had a straighter apprehension for Tishy. “My dear child, YOU seem to have lost something, though I’ll say for you that one doesn’t miss it.”
Mrs. Grendon looked from him to Nanda. “Does he mean anything very nasty? I can only understand you when Nanda explains,” she returned to Harold. “In fact there’s scarcely anything I understand except when Nanda explains. It’s too dreadful her being away so much now with strange people, whom I’m sure she can’t begin to do for what she does for me; it makes me miss her all round. And the only thing I’ve come across that she CAN’T explain,” Tishy bunched straight at her friend, “is what on earth she’s doing there.”
“Why she’s working Mr. Longdon, like a good fine girl,” Harold said; “like a good true daughter and even, though she doesn’t love me nearly so much as I love HER, I will say, like a good true sister. I’m bound to tell you, my dear Tishy,” he went on, “that I think it awfully happy, with the trend of manners, for any really nice young thing to be a bit lost to sight. London, upon my honour, is quite too awful for girls, and any big house in the country is as much worse — with the promiscuities and opportunities and all that — as you know for yourselves. I know some places,” Harold declared, “where, if I had any girls, I’d see ’em shot before I’d take ’em.”
“Oh you know too much, my dear boy!” Vanderbank remarked with commiseration.
“Ah my brave old Van,” the youth returned, “don’t speak as if YOU had illusions. I know,” he pursued to the ladies, “just where some of Van’s must have perished, and some of the places I’ve in mind are just where he has left his tracks. A man must be wedded to sweet superstitions not nowadays to HAVE to open his eyes. Nanda love,” he benevolently concluded, “stay where you are. So at least I shan’t blush for you. That you’ve the good fortune to have reached your time of life with so little injury to your innocence makes you a case by yourself, of which we must recognise the claims. If Tishy can’t make you gasp, that’s nothing against you nor against HER— Tishy comes of one of the few innocent English families that are left. Yes, you may all cry ‘Oho!’— but I defy you to name me say five, or at most seven, in which some awful thing or other hasn’t happened. Of course ours is one, and Tishy’s is one, and Van’s is one, and Mr. Longdon’s is one, and that makes you, bang off, four. So there you are!” Harold gaily wound up.
“I see now why he’s the rage!” Vanderbank observed to Nanda.
But Mrs. Grendon expressed to their young friend a lingering wonder. “Do you mean you go in for the adoption —?”
“Oh Tishy!” Nanda mildly murmured.
Harold, however, had his own tact. “The dear man’s taking her quite over? Not altogether unreservedly. I’m with the governor: I think we ought to GET something. ‘Oh yes, dear man, but what do you GIVE us for her?’— that’s what I should say to him. I mean, don’t you know, that I don’t think she’s making quite the bargain she might. If he were to want ME I don’t say he mightn’t have me, but I should have it on my conscience to make it in one way or another a good thing for my parents. You ARE nice, old woman”— he turned to his sister —“and one can still feel for the flower of your youth something of the wonderful ‘reverence’ that we were all brought up on. For God’s sake therefore — all the more — don’t really close with him till you’ve had another word or two with me. I’ll be hanged”— he appealed to the company again —“if he shall have her for nothing!”
“See rather,” Vanderbank said to Mrs. Grendon, “how little it’s like your really losing her that she should be able this evening fairly to bring the dear man to you. At this rate we don’t lose her — we simply get him as well.”
“Ah but is it quite the dear man’s COMPANY we want?”— and Harold looked anxious and acute. “If that’s the best arrangement Nanda can make —!”
“If he hears us talking in this way, which strikes me as very horrible,” Nanda interposed very simply and gravely, “I don’t think we’re likely to get anything.”
“Oh Harold’s talk,” Vanderbank protested, “offers, I think, an extraordinary interest; only I’m bound to say it crushes me to the earth. I’ve to make at least, as I listen to him, a big effort to bear up. It doesn’t seem long ago,” he pursued to his young friend, “that I used to feel I was in it; but the way you bring home to me, dreadful youth, that I’m already NOT—!”
Harold looked earnest to understand. “The hungry generations tread you down — is that it?”
Vanderbank gave a pleasant tragic headshake. “We speak a different language.”
“Ah but I think I perfectly understand yours!”
“That’s just my anguish — and your advantage. It’s awfully curious,” Vanderbank went on to Nanda, “but I feel as if I must figure to him, you know, very much as Mr. Longdon figures to me. Mr. Longdon doesn’t somehow get into me. Yet I do, I think, into him. But we don’t matter!”
“‘We’?”— Nanda, with her eyes on him, echoed it.
“Mr. Longdon and I. It can’t be helped, I suppose,” he went on, for Tishy, with sociable sadness, “but it IS short innings.”
Mrs. Grendon, who was clearly credulous, looked positively frightened. “Ah but, my dear, thank you! I haven’t begun to LIVE.”
“Well, I have — that’s just where it is,” said Harold. “Thank you all the more, old Van, for the tip.”
There was an announcement just now at the door, and Tishy turned to meet the Duchess, with Harold, almost as if he had been master of the house, figuring but a step behind her. “Don’t mind HER,” Vanderbank immediately said to the companion with whom he was left, “but tell me, while I still have hold of you, who wrote my name on the French novel that I noticed a few minutes since in the other room?”
Nanda at first only wondered. “If it’s there — didn’t YOU?”
He just hesitated. “If it were here you’d see if it’s my hand.”
Nanda faltered, and for somewhat longer. “How should I see? What do I know of your hand?”
He looked at her hard. “You HAVE seen it.”
“Oh — so little!” she replied with a faint smile.
“Do you mean I’ve not written to you for so long? Surely I did in-when was it?”
“Yes, when? But why SHOULD you?” she asked in quite a different tone.
He was not prepared on this with the right statement, and what he did after a moment bring out had for the occasion a little the sound of the wrong. “The beauty of YOU is that you’re too good; which for me is but another way of saying you’re too clever. You make no demands. You let things go. You don’t allow in particular for the human weakness that enjoys an occasional glimpse of the weakness of others.”
She had deeply attended to him. “You mean perhaps one doesn’t show enough what one wants?”
“I think that must be it. You’re so fiendishly proud.”
She appeared again to wonder. “Not too much so, at any rate, only to want from YOU—”
“Why, what’s pleasant for yourself,” she simply said.
“Oh dear, that’s poor bliss!” he returned. “How does it come then,” he next said, “that with this barrenness of our intercourse I know so well YOUR hand?”
A series of announcements had meanwhile been made, with guests arriving to match them, and Nanda’s eyes at this moment engaged themselves with Mr. Longdon and her mother, who entered the room together. When she looked back to her companion she had had time to drop a consciousness of his question. “If I’m proud, to you, I’m not good,” she said, “and if I’m good — always to you — I’m not proud. I know at all events perfectly how immensely you’re occupied, what a quantity of work you get through and how every minute counts for you. Don’t make it a crime to me that I’m reasonable.”
“No, that would show, wouldn’t it? that there isn’t much else. But how it all comes back —!”
“Well, to what?” she asked.
“To the old story. You know how I’m occupied. You know how I work. You know how I manage my time.”
“Oh I see,” said Nanda. “It IS my knowing, after all, everything.”
“Everything. The book I just mentioned is one that, months ago —— I remember now — I lent your mother.”
“Oh a thing in a blue cover? I remember then too.” Nanda’s face cleared up. “I had forgotten it was lying about here, but I must have brought it — in fact I remember I did — for Tishy. And I wrote your name on it so that we might know —”
“That I hadn’t lent it to either of you? It didn’t occur to you to write your own?” Vanderbank went on.
“Well, but if it isn’t mine? It ISN’T mine, I’m sure.”
“Therefore also if it can’t be Tishy’s —”
“The thing’s simple enough — it’s mother’s.”
“‘Simple’?” Vanderbank laughed. “I like you! And may I ask if you’ve read the remarkable work?”
“Oh yes.” Then she wonderfully said: “For Tishy.”
“To see if it would do?”
“I’ve often done that,” the girl returned.
“And she takes your word?”
“Generally. I think I remember she did that time.”
“And read the confounded thing?”
“Oh no!” said Nanda.
He looked at her a moment longer. “You’re too particular!” he rather oddly sounded, turning away with it to meet Mr. Longdon.
When after dinner the company was restored to the upper rooms the Duchess was on her feet as soon as the door opened for the entrance of the gentlemen. Then it might have been seen that she had a purpose, for as soon as the elements had again, with a due amount of the usual shuffling and mismatching, been mixed, her case proved the first to have been settled. She had got Mr. Longdon beside her on a sofa that was just right for two. “I’ve seized you without a scruple,” she frankly said, “for there are things I want to say to you as well as very particularly to ask. More than anything else of course I want again to thank you.”
No collapse of Mr. Longdon’s was ever incompatible with his sitting well forward. “‘Again’?”
“Do you look so blank,” she demanded, “because you’ve really forgotten the gratitude I expressed to you when you were so good as to bring Nanda up for Aggie’s marriage? — or because you don’t think it a matter I should trouble myself to return to? How can I help it,” she went on without waiting for his answer, “if I see your hand in everything that has happened since the so interesting talk I had with you last summer at Mertle? There have been times when I’ve really thought of writing to you; I’ve even had a bold bad idea of proposing myself to you for a Sunday. Then the crisis, my momentary alarm, has struck me as blowing over, and I’ve felt I could wait for some luck like this, which would sooner or later come.” Her companion, however, appeared to leave the luck so on her hands that she could only snatch up, to cover its nudity, the next handsomest assumption. “I see you cleverly guess that what I’ve been worried about is the effect on Mrs. Brook of the loss of her dear Mitchy. If you’ve not at all events had your own impression of this effect, isn’t that only because these last months you’ve seen so little of her? I’VE seen,” said the Duchess, “enough and to spare.” She waited as if for her vision, on this, to be flashed back at her, but the only result of her speech was that her friend looked hard at somebody else. It was just this symptom indeed that perhaps sufficed her, for in a minute she was again afloat. “Things have turned out so much as I desire them that I should really feel wicked not to have a humble heart. There’s a quarter indeed,” she added with a noble unction, “to which I don’t fear to say for myself that no day and no night pass without my showing it. However, you English, I know, don’t like one to speak of one’s religion. I’m just as simply thankful for mine — I mean with as little sense of indecency or agony about it — as I am for my health or my carriage. My point is at any rate that I say in no cruel spirit of triumph, yet do none the less very distinctly say, that the person Mr. Mitchett’s marriage has inevitably pleased least may be now rather to be feared.” These words had the sound of a climax, and she had brought them out as if, with her duty done, to leave them; but something that took place, for her eye, in the face Mr. Longdon had half-averted gave her after an instant what he might have called her second wind. “Oh I know you think she always HAS been! But you’ve exaggerated — as to that; and I don’t say that even at present it’s anything we shan’t get the better of. Only we must keep our heads. We must remember that from her own point of view she has her grievance, and we must at least look as if we trusted her. That, you know, is what you’ve never quite done.”
He gave out a murmur of discomfort which produced in him a change of position, and the sequel to the change was that he presently accepted from his cushioned angle of the sofa the definite support it could offer. If his eyes moreover had not met his companion’s they had been brought by the hand he repeatedly and somewhat distressfully passed over them closer to the question of which of the alien objects presented to his choice it would cost him least to profess to handle. What he had already paid, a spectator would easily have gathered from the long, the suppressed wriggle that had ended in his falling back, was some sacrifice of his habit of not privately depreciating those to whom he was publicly civil. It was plain, however, that when he presently spoke his thought had taken a stretch. “I’m sure I’ve fully intended to be everything that’s proper. But I don’t think Mr. Vanderbank cares for her.”
It kindled in the Duchess an immediate light. “Vous avez bien de l’esprit. You put one at one’s ease. I’ve been vaguely groping while you’re already there. It’s really only for Nanda he cares?”
“Yes — really.”
The Duchess debated. “And yet exactly how much?”
“I haven’t asked him.”
She had another, a briefer pause. “Don’t you think it about time you SHOULD?” Once more she waited, then seemed to feel her opportunity wouldn’t. “We’ve worked a bit together, but you don’t take me into your confidence. I dare say you don’t believe I’m quite straight. Don’t you really see how I MUST be?” She had a pleading note which made him at last more consentingly face her. “Don’t you see,” she went on with the advantage of it, “that, having got all I want for myself, I haven’t a motive in the world for spoiling the fun of another? I don’t want in the least, I assure you, to spoil even Mrs. Brook’s; for how will she get a bit less out of him — I mean than she does now — if what you desire SHOULD take place? Honestly, my dear man, that’s quite what I desire, and I only want, over and above, to help you. What I feel for Nanda, believe me, is pure pity. I won’t say I’m frantically grateful to her, because in the long run — one way or another — she’ll have found her account. It nevertheless worries me to see her; and all the more because of this very certitude, which you’ve so kindly just settled for me, that our young man hasn’t really with her mother —”
Whatever the certitude Mr. Longdon had kindly settled, it was in another interest that he at this moment broke in. “Is he YOUR young man too?”
She was not too much amused to cast about her.
“Aren’t such marked ornaments of life a little the property of all who admire and enjoy them?”
“You ‘enjoy’ him?” Mr. Longdon asked in the same straightforward way.
His silence for a little seemed the sign of a plan. “What is it he hasn’t done with Mrs. Brook?”
“Well, the thing that WOULD be the complication. He hasn’t gone beyond a certain point. You may ask how one knows such matters, but I’m afraid I’ve not quite a receipt for it. A woman knows, but she can’t tell. They haven’t done, as it’s called, anything wrong.”
Mr. Longdon frowned. “It would be extremely horrid if they had.”
“Ah but, for you and me who know life, it isn’t THAT that — if other things had made for it — would have prevented! As it happens, however, we’ve got off easily. She doesn’t speak to him —!”
She had forms he could only take up. “‘Speak’ to him —?”
“Why as much as she would have liked to be able to believe.”
“Then where’s the danger of which you appear to wish to warn me?”
“Just in her feeling in the case as most women would feel. You see she did what she could for her daughter. She did, I’m bound to say, as that sort of thing goes among you people, a good deal. She treasured up, she nursed along Mitchy, whom she would also, though of course not so much, have liked herself. Nanda could have kept him on with a word, becoming thereby so much the less accessible for YOUR plan. That would have thoroughly obliged her mother, but your little English girls, in these altered times — oh I know how you feel them! — don’t stand on such trifles; and — even if you think it odd of me — I can’t defend myself, though I’ve so directly profited, against a certain compassion also for Mrs. Brook’s upset. As a good-natured woman I feel in short for both of them. I deplore all round what’s after all a rather sad relation. Only, as I tell you, Nanda’s the one, I naturally say to myself, for me now most to think of; if I don’t assume too much, that is, that you don’t suffer by my freedom.”
Mr. Longdon put by with a mere drop of his eyes the question of his suffering: there was so clearly for him an issue more relevant. “What do you know of my ‘plan’?”
“Why, my dear man, haven’t I told you that ever since Mertle I’ve made out your hand? What on earth for other people can your action look like but an adoption?”
“Of — a — HIM?”
“You’re delightful. Of — a — HER! If it does come to the same thing for you, so much the better. That at any rate is what we’re all taking it for, and Mrs. Brook herself en tete. She sees — through your generosity — Nanda’s life more or less, at the worst, arranged for, and that’s just what gives her a good conscience.”
If Mr. Longdon breathed rather hard it seemed to show at least that he followed. “What does she want of a good conscience?”
From under her high tiara an instant she almost looked down at him. “Ah you do hate her!”
He coloured, but held his ground. “Don’t you tell me yourself she’s to be feared?”
“Yes, and watched. But — if possible — with amusement.”
“Amusement?” Mr. Longdon faintly gasped.
“Look at her now,” his friend went on with an indication that was indeed easy to embrace. Separated from them by the width of the room, Mrs. Brook was, though placed in profile, fully presented; the satisfaction with which she had lately sunk upon a light gilt chair marked itself as superficial and was moreover visibly not confirmed by the fact that Vanderbank’s high-perched head, arrested before her in a general survey of opportunity, kept her eyes too far above the level of talk. Their companions were dispersed, some in the other room, and for the occupants of the Duchess’s sofa they made, as a couple in communion, a picture, framed and detached, vaguely reduplicated in the high polish of the French floor. “She IS tremendously pretty.” The Duchess appeared to drop this as a plea for indulgence and to be impelled in fact by the interlocutor’s silence to carry it further. “I’ve never at all thought, you know, that Nanda touches her.”
Mr. Longdon demurred. “Do you mean for beauty?”
His friend, for his simplicity, discriminated. “Ah they’ve neither of them ‘beauty.’ That’s not a word to make free with. But the mother has grace.”
“And the daughter hasn’t
“Not a line. You answer me of course, when I say THAT, you answer me with your adored Lady Julia, and will want to know what then becomes of the lucky resemblance. I quite grant you that Lady Julia must have had the thing we speak of. But that dear sweet blessed thing is very much the same lost secret as the dear sweet blessed OTHER thing that went away with it — the decent leisure that, for the most part, we’ve also seen the last of. It’s the thing at any rate that poor Nanda and all her kind have most effectually got rid of. Oh if you’d trust me a little more you’d see that I’m quite at one with you on all the changes for the worse. I bear up, but I’m old enough to have known. All the same Mrs. Brook has something — say what you like — when she bends that little brown head. Dieu sait comme elle se coiffe, but what she gets out of it! Only look.”
Mr. Longdon conveyed in an indescribable manner that he had retired to a great distance; yet even from this position he must have launched a glance that arrived at a middle way. “They both know you’re watching them.”
“And don’t they know YOU are? Poor Mr. Van has a consciousness!”
“So should I if two terrible women —”
“Were admiring you both at once?” The Duchess folded the big feathered fan that had partly protected their vision. “Well, SHE, poor dear, can’t help it. She wants him herself.”
At the drop of the Duchess’s fan he restored his nippers. “And he doesn’t — not a bit — want HER!”
“There it is. She has put down her money, as it were, without a return. She has given Mitchy up and got nothing instead.”
There was delicacy, yet there was distinctness, in Mr. Longdon’s reserve. “Do you call ME nothing?”
The Duchess, at this, fairly swelled with her happy stare. “Then it IS an adoption?” She forbore to press, however; she only went on: “It isn’t a question, my dear man, of what I call it. YOU don’t make love to her.”
“Dear me,” said Mr. Longdon, “what would she have had?”
“That could be more charming, you mean, than your famous ‘loyalty’? Oh, caro mio, she wants it straighter! But I shock you,” his companion quickly added.
The manner in which he firmly rose was scarce a denial; yet he stood for a moment in place. “What after all can she do?”
“She can KEEP Mr. Van.”
Mr. Longdon wondered. “Where?”
“I mean till it’s too late. She can work on him.”
Covertly again the Duchess had followed the effect of her friend’s perceived movement on Mrs. Brook, who also got up. She gave a rap with her fan on his leg. “Sit down — you’ll see.”
He mechanically obeyed her although it happened to lend him the air of taking Mrs. Brook’s approach for a signal to resume his seat. She came over to them, Vanderbank followed, and it was without again moving, with a vague upward gape in fact from his place, that Mr. Longdon received as she stood before him a challenge of a sort to flash a point into what the Duchess had just said. “Why do you hate me so?”
Vanderbank, who, beside Mrs. Brook, looked at him with attention, might have suspected him of turning a trifle pale; though even Vanderbank, with reasons of his own for an observation of the sharpest, could scarce have read into the matter the particular dim vision that would have accounted for it — the flicker of fear of what Mrs. Brook, whether as daughter or as mother, was at last so strangely and differently to show herself.
“I should warn you, sir,” the young man threw off, “how little we consider that — in Buckingham Crescent certainly — a fair question. It isn’t playing the game — it’s hitting below the belt. We hate and we love — the latter especially; but to tell each other why is to break that little tacit rule of finding out for ourselves which is the delight of our lives and the source of our triumphs. You can say, you know, if you like, but you’re not obliged.”
Mr. Longdon transferred to him something of the same colder apprehension, looking at him manifestly harder than ever before and finding in his eyes also no doubt a consciousness more charged. He presently got up, but, without answering Vanderbank, fixed again Mrs. Brook, to whom he echoed without expression: “Hate you?”
The next moment, while he remained in presence with Vanderbank, Mrs. Brook was pointing out her meaning to him from the cushioned corner he had quitted. “Why, when you come back to town you come straight, as it were, here.”
“Ah what’s that,” the Duchess asked in his interest, “but to follow Nanda as closely as possible, or at any rate to keep well with her?”
Mrs. Brook, however, had no ear for this plea. “And when I, coming here too and thinking only of my chance to ‘meet’ you, do my very sweetest to catch your eye, you’re entirely given up —!”
“To trying of course,” the Duchess broke in afresh, “to keep well with ME!”
Mrs. Brook now had a smile for her. “Ah that takes precautions then that I shall perhaps fail of if I too much interrupt your conversation.”
“Isn’t she nice to me,” the Duchess asked of Mr. Longdon, “when I was in the very act of praising her to the skies?”
Their interlocutor’s reply was not too rapid to anticipate Mrs. Brook herself. “My dear Jane, that only proves his having reached some extravagance in the other sense that you had in mere decency to match. The truth is probably in the ‘mean’— isn’t that what they call it? — between you. Don’t YOU now take him away,” she went on to Vanderbank, who had glanced about for some better accommodation.
He immediately pushed forward the nearest chair, which happened to be by the Duchess’s side of the sofa. “Will you sit here, sir?”
“If you’ll stay to protect me.”
“That was really what I brought him over to you for,” Mrs. Brook said while Mr. Longdon took his place and Vanderbank looked out for another seat. “But I didn’t know,” she observed with her sweet free curiosity, “that he called you ‘sir.’” She often made discoveries that were fairly childlike. “He has done it twice.”
“Isn’t that only your inevitable English surprise,” the Duchess demanded, “at the civility quite the commonest in other societies? — so that one has to come here to find it regarded, in the way of ceremony, as the very end of the world!”
“Oh,” Mr. Longdon remarked, “it’s a word I rather like myself even to employ to others.”
“I always ask here,” the Duchess continued to him, “what word they’ve got instead. And do you know what they tell me?”
Mrs. Brook wondered, then again, before he was ready, charmingly suggested: “Our pretty manner?” Quickly too she appealed to Mr. Longdon. “Is THAT what you miss from me?”
He wondered, however, more than Mrs. Brook. “Your ‘pretty manner’?”
“Well, these grand old forms that the Duchess is such a mistress of.” Mrs. Brook had with this one of her eagerest visions. “Did mamma say ‘sir’ to you? Ought I? Do you really get it, in private, out of Nanda? SHE has such depths of discretion,” she explained to the Duchess and to Vanderbank, who had come back with his chair, “that it’s just the kind of racy anecdote she never in the world gives me.”
Mr. Longdon looked across at Van, placed now, after a moment’s talk with Tishy in sight of them all, by Mrs. Brook’s arm of the sofa. “You haven’t protected — you’ve only exposed me.”
“Oh there’s no joy without danger”— Mrs. Brook took it up with spirit. “Perhaps one should even say there’s no danger without joy.”
Vanderbank’s eyes had followed Mrs. Grendon after his brief passage with her, terminated by some need of her listless presence on the other side of the room. “What do you say then, on that theory, to the extraordinary gloom of our hostess? Her safety, by such a rule, must be deep.”
The Duchess was this time the first to know what they said. “The expression of Tishy’s face comes precisely from our comparing it so unfavourably with that of her poor sister Carrie, who, though she isn’t here to-night with the Cashmores — amazing enough even as coming WITHOUT that! — has so often shown us that an ame en peine, constantly tottering, but, as Nanda guarantees us, usually recovering, may look after all as beatific as a Dutch doll.”
Mrs. Brook’s eyes had, on Tishy’s passing away, taken the same course as Vanderbank’s, whom she had visibly not neglected moreover while the pair stood there. “I give you Carrie, as you know, and I throw Mr. Cashmore in; but I’m lost in admiration to-night, as I always have been, of the way Tishy makes her ugliness serve. I should call it, if the word weren’t so for ladies’-maids, the most ‘elegant’ thing I know.”
“My dear child,” the Duchess objected, “what you describe as making her ugliness serve is what I should describe as concealing none of her beauty. There’s nothing the matter surely with ‘elegant’ as applied to Tishy save that as commonly used it refers rather to a charm that’s artificial than to a state of pure nature. There should be for elegance a basis of clothing. Nanda rather stints her.”
Mrs. Brook, perhaps more than usually thoughtful, just discriminated. “There IS, I think, one little place. I’ll speak to her.”
“To Tishy?” Vanderbank asked.
“Oh THAT would do no good. To Nanda. All the same,” she continued, “it’s an awfully superficial thing of you not to see that her dreariness — on which moreover I’ve set you right before — is a mere facial accident and doesn’t correspond or, as they say, ‘rhyme’ to anything within her that might make it a little interesting. What I like it for is just that it’s so funny in itself. Her low spirits are nothing more than her features. Her gloom, as you call it, is merely her broken nose.”
“HAS she a broken nose?” Mr. Longdon demanded with an accent that for some reason touched in the others the spring of laughter.
“Has Nanda never mentioned it?” Mrs. Brook profited by this gaiety to ask.
“That’s the discretion you just spoke of,” said the Duchess. “Only I should have expected from the cause you refer to rather the comic effect.”
“Mrs. Grendon’s broken nose, sir,” Vanderbank explained to Mr. Longdon, “is only the kinder way taken by these ladies to speak of Mrs. Grendon’s broken heart. You must know all about that.”
“Oh yes — ALL.” Mr. Longdon spoke very simply, with the consequence this time, on the part of his companions, of a silence of some minutes, which he himself had at last to break. “Mr. Grendon doesn’t like her.” The addition of these words apparently made the difference — as if they constituted a fresh link with the irresistible comedy of things. That he was unexpectedly diverting was, however, no check to Mr. Longdon’s delivering his full thought. “Very horrid of two sisters to be both, in their marriages, so wretched.”
“Ah but Tishy, I maintain,” Mrs. Brook returned, “ISN’T wretched at all. If I were satisfied that she’s really so I’d never let Nanda come to her.”
“That’s the most extraordinary doctrine, love,” the Duchess interposed. “When you’re satisfied a woman’s ‘really’ poor you never give her a crust?”
“Do you call Nanda a crust, Duchess?” Vanderbank amusedly asked.
“She’s all at any rate, apparently, just now, that poor Tishy has to live on.”
“You’re severe then,” the young man said, “on our dinner of to-night.”
“Oh Jane,” Mrs. Brook declared, “is never severe: she’s only uncontrollably witty. It’s only Tishy moreover who gives out that her husband doesn’t like her. HE, poor man, doesn’t say anything of the sort.”
“Yes, but, after all, you know”— Vanderbank just put it to her —“where the deuce, all the while, IS he?”
“Heaven forbid,” the Duchess remarked, “that we should too rashly ascertain.”
“There it is — exactly,” Mr. Longdon subjoined.
He had once more his success of hilarity, though not indeed to the injury of the Duchess’s next word. “It’s Nanda, you know, who speaks, and loud enough, for Harry Grendon’s dislikes.”
“That’s easy for her,” Mrs. Brook declared, “when she herself isn’t one of them.”
“She isn’t surely one of anybody’s,” Mr. Longdon gravely observed.
Mrs. Brook gazed across at him. “You ARE too dear! But I’ve none the less a crow to pick with you.”
Mr. Longdon returned her look, but returned it somehow to Van. “You frighten me, you know, out of my wits.”
“I do?” said Vanderbank.
Mr. Longdon just hesitated. “Yes.”
“It must be the sacred terror,” Mrs. Brook suggested to Van, “that Mitchy so often speaks of. I’M not trying with you,” she went on to Mr. Longdon, “for anything of that kind, but only for the short half-hour in private that I think you won’t for the world grant me. Nothing will induce you to find yourself alone with me.”
“Why what on earth,” Vanderbank asked, “do you suspect him of supposing you want to do?”
“Oh it isn’t THAT,” Mrs. Brook sadly said.
“It isn’t what?” laughed the Duchess.
“That he fears I may want in any way to — what do you call it? — make up to him.” She spoke as if she only wished it had been. “He has a deeper thought.”
“Well then what in goodness is it?” the Duchess pressed.
Mr. Longdon had said nothing more, but Mrs. Brook preferred none the less to treat the question as between themselves. She WAS, as the others said, wonderful. “You can’t help thinking me”— she spoke to him straight —“rather tortuous.” The pause she thus momentarily produced was so intense as to give a sharpness that was almost vulgar to the little “Oh!” by which it was presently broken and the source of which neither of her three companions could afterwards in the least have named. Neither would have endeavoured to fix an infelicity of which each doubtless had been but too capable. “It’s only as a mother,” she added, “that I want my chance.”
But the Duchess was at this again in the breach. “Take it, for mercy’s sake then, my dear, over Harold, who’s an example to Nanda herself in the way that, behind the piano there, he’s keeping it up with Lady Fanny.”
If this had been a herring that, in the interest of peace, the Duchess had wished to draw across the scent, it could scarce have been more effective. Mrs. Brook, whose position had made just the difference that she lost the view of the other side of the piano, took a slight but immediate stretch. “IS Harold with Lady Fanny?”
“You ask it, my dear child,” said the Duchess, “as if it were too grand to be believed. It’s the note of eagerness,” she went on for Mr. Longdon’s benefit —“it’s almost the note of hope: one of those that ces messieurs, that we all in fact delight in and find so matchless. She desires for Harold the highest advantages.”
“Well then,” declared Vanderbank, who had achieved a glimpse, “he’s clearly having them. It brings home to one his success.”
“His success is true,” Mrs. Brook insisted. “How he does it I don’t know.”
“Oh DON’T you?” trumpeted the Duchess.
“He’s amazing,” Mrs. Brook pursued. “I watch — I hold my breath. But I’m bound to say also I rather admire. He somehow amuses them.”
“She’s as pleased as Punch,” said the Duchess.
“Those great calm women — they like slighter creatures.”
“The great calm whales,” the Duchess laughed, “swallow the little fishes.”
“Oh my dear,” Mrs. Brook returned, “Harold can be tasted, if you like —”
“If I like?” the Duchess parenthetically jeered. “Thank you, love!”
“But he can’t, I think, be eaten. It all works out,” Mrs. Brook expounded, “to the highest end. If Lady Fanny’s amused she’ll be quiet.”
“Bless me,” cried the Duchess, “of all the immoral speeches —! I put it to you, Longdon. Does she mean”— she appealed to their friend —“that if she commits murder she won’t commit anything else?”
“Oh it won’t be murder,” said Mrs. Brook. “I mean that if Harold, in one way and another, keeps her along, she won’t get off.”
“Off where?” Mr. Longdon risked.
Vanderbank immediately informed him. “To one of the smaller Italian towns. Don’t you know?”
“Oh yes. Like — who is it? I forget.”
“Anna Karenine? You know about Anna?”
“Nanda,” said the Duchess, “has told him. But I thought,” she went on to Mrs. Brook, “that Lady Fanny, by this time, MUST have gone.”
“Petherton then,” Mrs. Brook returned, “doesn’t keep you au courant?”
The Duchess blandly wondered. “I seem to remember he had positively said so. And that she had come back.”
“Because this looks so like a fresh start? No. WE know. You assume besides,” Mrs. Brook asked, “that Mr. Cashmore would have received her again?”
The Duchess fixed a little that gentleman and his actual companion. “What will you have? He mightn’t have noticed.”
“Oh you’re out of step, Duchess,” Vanderbank said. “We used all to march abreast, but we’re falling to pieces. It’s all, saving your presence, Mitchy’s marriage.”
“Ah,” Mrs. Brook concurred, “how thoroughly I feel that! Oh I knew. The spell’s broken; the harp has lost a string. We’re not the same thing. HE’S not the same thing.”
“Frankly, my dear,” the Duchess answered, “I don’t think that you personally are either.”
“Oh as for that — which is what matters least — we shall perhaps see.” With which Mrs. Brook turned again to Mr. Longdon. “I haven’t explained to you what I meant just now. We want Nanda.”
Mr. Longdon stared. “At home again?”
“In her little old nook. You must give her back.”
“Do you mean altogether?”
“Ah that will be for you in a manner to arrange. But you’ve had her practically these five months, and with no desire to be unreasonable we yet have our natural feelings.”
This interchange, to which circumstances somehow gave a high effect of suddenness and strangeness, was listened to by the others in a quick silence that was like the sense of a blast of cold air, though with the difference between the spectators that Vanderbank attached his eyes hard to Mrs. Brook and that the Duchess looked as straight at Mr. Longdon, to whom clearly she wished to convey that if he had wondered a short time before how Mrs. Brook would do it he must now be quite at his ease. He indulged in fact, after this lady’s last words, in a pause that might have signified some of the fulness of a new light. He only said very quietly: “I thought you liked it.”
At this his neighbour broke in. “The care you take of the child? They DO!” The Duchess, as she spoke, became aware of the nearer presence of Edward Brookenham, who within a minute had come in from the other room; and her decision of character leaped forth in her quick signal to him. “Edward will tell you.” He was already before their semicircle. “DO you, dear,” she appealed, “want Nanda back from Mr. Longdon?”
Edward plainly could be trusted to feel in his quiet way that the oracle must be a match for the priestess. “‘Want’ her, Jane? We wouldn’t TAKE her.” And as if knowing quite what he was about he looked at his wife only after he had spoken.
His reply had complete success, to which there could scarce have afterwards been a positive denial that some sound of amusement even from Mr. Longdon himself had in its degree contributed. Certain it was that Mrs. Brook found, as she exclaimed that her husband was always so awfully civil, just the right note of resigned understanding; whereupon he for a minute presented to them blankly enough his fine dead face. “‘Civil’ is just what I was afraid I wasn’t. I mean, you know,” he continued to Mr. Longdon, “that you really mustn’t look to us to let you off —!”
“From a week or a day”— Mr. Longdon took him up —“of the time to which you consider I’ve pledged myself? My dear sir, please don’t imagine it’s for ME the Duchess appeals.”
“It’s from your wife, you delicious dull man,” that lady elucidated. “If you wished to be stiff with our friend here you’ve really been so with HER; which comes, no doubt, from the absence between you of proper preconcerted action. You spoke without your cue.”
“Oh!” said Edward Brookenham.
“That’s it, Jane”— Mrs. Brook continued to take it beautifully. “We dressed today in a hurry and hadn’t time for our usual rehearsal. Edward, when we dine out, generally brings three pocket-handkerchiefs and six jokes. I leave the management of the handkerchiefs to his own taste, but we mostly try together in advance to arrange a career for the other things. It’s some charming light thing of my own that’s supposed to give him the sign.”
“Only sometimes he confounds”— Vanderbank helped her out —“your light and your heavy!” He had got up to make room for his host of so many occasions and, having forced him into the empty chair, now moved vaguely off to the quarter of the room occupied by Nanda and Mr. Cashmore.
“That’s very well,” the Duchess resumed, “but it doesn’t at all clear you, cara mia, of the misdemeanour of setting up as a felt domestic need something of which Edward proves deeply unconscious. He has put his finger on Nanda’s true interest. He doesn’t care a bit how it would LOOK for you to want her.”
“Don’t you mean rather, Jane, how it looks for us NOT to want her?” Mrs. Brook amended with a detachment now complete. “Of course, dear old friend,” she continued to Mr. Longdon, “she quite puts me with my back to the wall when she helps you to see — what you otherwise mightn’t guess — that Edward and I work it out between us to show off as tender parents and yet to get from you everything you’ll give. I do the sentimental and he the practical; so that we, after one fashion and another, deck ourselves in the glory of our sacrifice without forfeiting the ‘keep’ of our daughter. This must appeal to you as another useful illustration of what London manners have come to; unless indeed,” Mrs. Brook prattled on, “it only strikes you still more — and to a degree that blinds you to its other possible bearings — as the last proof that I’m too tortuous for you to know what I’d be at!”
Mr. Longdon faced her, across his interval, with his original terror represented now only by such a lingering flush as might have formed a natural tribute to a brilliant scene. “I haven’t the glimmering of an idea of what you’d be at. But please understand,” he added, “that I don’t at all refuse you the private half-hour you referred to a while since.”
“Are you really willing to put the child up for the rest of the year?” Edward placidly demanded, speaking as if quite unaware that anything else had taken place.
His wife fixed her eyes on him. “The ingenuity of your companions, love, plays in the air like the lightning, but flashes round your head only, by good fortune, to leave it unscathed. Still, you have after all your own strange wit, and I’m not sure that any of ours ever compares with it. Only, confronted also with ours, how can poor Mr. Longdon really choose which of the two he’ll meet?”
Poor Mr. Longdon now looked hard at Edward. “Oh Mr. Brookenham’s, I feel, any day. It’s even with YOU, I confess,” he said to him, “that I’d rather have that private half-hour.”
“Done!” Mrs. Brook declared. “I’ll send him to you. But we HAVE, you know, as Van says, gone to pieces,” she went on, twisting her pretty head and tossing it back over her shoulder to an auditor of whose approach to her from behind, though it was impossible she should have seen him, she had visibly within a minute become aware. “It’s your marriage, Mitchy, that has darkened our old bright air, changed us more than we even yet know, and most grossly and horribly, my dear man, changed YOU. You steal up in a way that gives one the creeps, whereas in the good time that’s gone you always burst in with music and song. Go round where I can see you: I mayn’t love you now, but at least, I suppose, I may look at you. Direct your energies,” she pursued while Mitchy obeyed her, “as much as possible, please, against our uncanny chill. Pile on the fire and close up the ranks; this WAS our best hour, you know — and all the more that Tishy, I see, is getting rid of her superfluities. Here comes back old Van,” she wound up, “vanquished, I judge, in the attempt to divert Nanda from her prey. Won’t Nanda sit with poor US?” she asked of Vanderbank, who now, meeting Mitchy in range of the others, remained standing with him and as at her commands.
“I didn’t of course ask her,” the young man replied.
“Then what did you do?”
“I only took a little walk.”
Mrs. Brook, on this, was woeful at Mitchy. “See then what we’ve come to. When did we ever ‘walk’ in YOUR time save as a distinct part of the effect of our good things? Please return to Nanda,” she said to Vanderbank, “and tell her I particularly wish her to come in for this delightful evening’s end.”
“She’s joining us of herself now,” the Duchess noted, “and so’s Mr. Cashmore and so’s Tishy — VOYEZ! — who has kept on —(bless her little bare back!)— no one she oughtn’t to keep. As nobody else will now arrive it would be quite cosey if she locked the door.”
“But what on earth, my dear Jane,” Mrs. Brook plaintively wondered, “are you proposing we should do?”
Mrs. Brook, in her apprehension, had looked expressively at their friends, but the eye of the Duchess wandered no further than Harold and Lady Fanny. “It would perhaps serve to keep that pair a little longer from escaping together.”
Mrs. Brook took a pause no greater. “But wouldn’t it be, as regards another pair, locking the stable-door after — what do you call it? Don’t Petherton and Aggie appear already to have escaped together? Mitchy, man, where in the world’s your wife?”
“I quite grant you,” said the Duchess gaily, “that my niece is wherever Petherton is. This I’m sure of, for THERE’S a friendship, if you please, that has not been interrupted. Petherton’s not gone, is he?” she asked in her turn of Mitchy.
But again before he could speak it was taken up. “Mitchy’s silent, Mitchy’s altered, Mitchy’s queer!” Mrs. Brook proclaimed, while the new recruits to the circle, Tishy and Nanda and Mr. Cashmore, Lady Fanny and Harold too after a minute and on perceiving the movement of the others, ended by enlarging it, with mutual accommodation and aid, to a pleasant talkative ring in which the subject of their companion’s demonstration, on a low ottoman and glaring in his odd way in almost all directions at once, formed the conspicuous attractive centre. Tishy was nearest Mr. Longdon, and Nanda, still flanked by Mr. Cashmore, between that gentleman and his wife, who had Harold on her other side. Edward Brookenham was neighboured by his son and by Vanderbank, who might easily have felt himself, in spite of their separation and given, as it happened, their places in the group, rather publicly confronted with Mr. Longdon. “Is his wife in the other room?” Mrs. Brook now put to Tishy.
Tishy, after a stare about, recovered the acuter consciousness to account for this guest. “Oh yes — she’s playing with him.”
“But with whom, dear?”
“Why, with Petherton. I thought you knew.”
“Knew they’re playing ——?” Mrs. Brook was almost Socratic.
“The Missus is regularly wound up,” her husband meanwhile, without resonance, observed to Vanderbank.
“Brilliant indeed!” Vanderbank replied.
“But she’s rather naughty, you know,” Edward after a pause continued.
“Oh fiendish!” his interlocutor said with a short smothered laugh that might have represented for a spectator a sudden start at such a flash of analysis from such a quarter.
When Vanderbank’s attention at any rate was free again their hostess, assisted to the transition, was describing the play, as she had called it, of the absentees. “She has hidden a book and he’s trying to find it.”
“Hide and seek? Why, isn’t it innocent, Mitch!” Mrs. Brook exclaimed.
Mitchy, speaking for the first time, faced her with extravagant gloom. “Do you really think so?”
“That’s HER innocence!” the Duchess laughed to him.
“And don’t you suppose he has found it YET?” Mrs. Brook pursued earnestly to Tishy. “Isn’t it something we might ALL play at if —?” On which however, abruptly checking herself, she changed her note. “Nanda love, please go and invite them to join us.”
Mitchy, at this, on his ottoman, wheeled straight round to the girl, who looked at him before speaking. “I’ll go if Mitchy tells me.”
“But if he does fear,” said her mother, “that there may be something in it —?”
Mitchy jerked back to Mrs. Brook. “Well, you see, I don’t want to give way to my fear. Suppose there SHOULD be something! Let me not know.”
She dealt with him tenderly. “I see. You couldn’t — so soon — bear it.”
“Ah but, savez-vous,” the Duchess interposed with some majesty, “you’re horrid!”
“Let them alone,” Mitchy continued. “We don’t want at all events a general romp.”
“Oh I thought just that,” said Mrs. Brook, “was what the Duchess wished the door locked for! Perhaps moreover”— she returned to Tishy —“he hasn’t yet found the book.”
“He can’t,” Tishy said with simplicity.
“But why in the world —?”
“You see she’s sitting on it”— Tishy felt, it was plain, the responsibility of explanation. “So that unless he pulls her off —”
“He can’t compass his desperate end? Ah I hope he won’t pull her off!” Mrs. Brook wonderfully murmured. It was said in a manner that stirred the circle, and unanimous laughter seemed already to have crowned her invocation, lately uttered, to the social spirit. “But what in the world,” she pursued, “is the book selected for such a position? I hope it’s not a very big one.”
“Oh aren’t the books that are sat upon,” Mr. Cashmore freely speculated, “as a matter of course the bad ones?”
“Not a bit as a matter of course,” Harold as freely replied to him. “They sit, all round, nowadays — I mean in the papers and places — on some awfully good stuff. Why I myself read books that I couldn’t — upon my honour I wouldn’t risk it! — read out to you here.”
“What a pity,” his father dropped with the special shade of dryness that was all Edward’s own, “what a pity you haven’t got one of your favourites to try on us!”
Harold looked about as if it might have been after all a happy thought. “Well, Nanda’s the only girl.”
“And one’s sister doesn’t count,” said the Duchess.
“It’s just because the thing’s bad,” Tishy resumed for Mrs. Brook’s more particular benefit, “that Lord Petherton’s trying to wrest it.”
Mrs. Brook’s pale interest deepened. “Then it’s a real hand-to-hand struggle?”
“He says she shan’t read it — she says she will.”
“Ah that’s because — isn’t it, Jane?” Mrs. Brook appealed —“he so long overlooked and advised her in those matters. Doesn’t he feel by this time — so awfully clever as he is — the extraordinary way she has come out?”
“‘By this time’?” Harold echoed. “Dearest mummy, you’re too sweet. It’s only about ten weeks — isn’t it, Mitch? You don’t mind my saying that, I hope,” he solicitously added.
Mitchy had his back to him and, bending it a little, sat with head dropped and knees pressing his hands together. “I don’t mind any one’s saying anything.”
“Lord, are you already past that?” Harold sociably laughed.
“He used to vibrate to everything. My dear man, what IS the matter?” Mrs. Brook demanded. “Does it all move too fast for you?”
“Mercy on us, what ARE you talking about? That’s what I want to know!” Mr. Cashmore vivaciously declared.
“Well, she HAS gone at a pace — if Mitchy doesn’t mind,” Harold interposed in the tone of tact and taste. “But then don’t they always — I mean when they’re like Aggie and they once get loose — go at a pace? That’s what I want to know. I don’t suppose mother did, nor Tishy, nor the Duchess,” he communicated to the rest; “but mother and Tishy and the Duchess, it strikes me, must either have been of the school that knew, don’t you know? a deuce of a deal before, or of the type that takes it all more quietly after.”
“I think a woman can only speak for herself. I took it all quietly enough both before and after,” said Mrs. Brook. Then she addressed to Mr. Cashmore with a small formal nod one of her lovely wan smiles. “What I’m talking about, s’il vous plait, is marriage.”
“I wonder if you know,” the Duchess broke out on this, “how silly you all sound! When did it ever, in any society that could call itself decently ‘good,’ NOT make a difference that an innocent young creature, a flower tended and guarded, should find from one day to the other her whole consciousness changed? People pull long faces and look wonderful looks and punch each other, in your English fashion, in the sides, and say to each other in corners that my poor darling has ‘come out.’ Je crois bien, she has come out! I married her — I don’t mind saying it now — exactly that she SHOULD come out, and I should be mightily ashamed of every one concerned if she hadn’t. I didn’t marry her, I give you to believe, that she should stay ‘in,’ and if any of you think to frighten Mitchy with it I imagine you’ll do so as little as you frighten ME. If it has taken her a very short time — as Harold so vividly puts it — to which of you did I ever pretend, I should like to know, that it would take her a very long one? I dare say there are girls it would have taken longer, just as there are certainly others who wouldn’t have required so much as an hour. It surely isn’t news to you that if some young persons among us all are very stupid and others very wise, MY dear child was never either, but only perfectly bred and deliciously clever. Ah THAT— rather! If she’s so clever that you don’t know what to do with her it’s scarcely HER fault. But add to it that Mitchy’s very kind, and you have the whole thing. What more do you want?”
Mrs. Brook, who looked immensely struck, replied with the promptest sympathy, yet as if there might have been an alternative. “I don’t think”— and her eyes appealed to the others —“that we want ANY more, do we? than the whole thing.”
“Gracious, I should hope not!” her husband remarked as privately as before to Vanderbank. “Jane — for a mixed company — does go into it.”
Vanderbank, for a minute and with a special short arrest, took in the circle. “Should you call us ‘mixed’? There’s only ONE girl.”
Edward Brookenham glanced at his daughter. “Yes, but I wish there were more.”
“DO you?” And Vanderbank’s laugh at this odd view covered, for a little, the rest of the talk. But when he again began to follow no victory had yet been snatched.
It was Mrs. Brook naturally who rattled the standard. “When you say, dearest, that we don’t know what to ‘do’ with Aggie’s cleverness, do you quite allow for the way we bow down before it and worship it? I don’t quite see what else we — in here — can do with it, even though we HAVE gathered that, just over there, Petherton’s finding for it a different application. We can only each in our way do our best. Don’t therefore succumb, Jane, to the delusive harm of a grievance. There would be nothing in it. You haven’t got one. The beauty of the life that so many of us have so long led together”— and she showed that it was for Mr. Longdon she more particularly brought this out —“is precisely that nobody has ever had one. Nobody has dreamed of it — it would have been such a rough false note, a note of violence out of all keeping. Did YOU ever hear of one, Van? Did you, my poor Mitchy? But you see for yourselves,” she wound up with a sigh and before either could answer, “how inferior we’ve become when we have even in our defence to assert such things.”
Mitchy, who for a while past had sat gazing at the floor, now raised his good natural goggles and stretched his closed mouth to its widest. “Oh I think we’re pretty good still!” he then replied.
Mrs. Brook indeed appeared, after a pause and addressing herself again to Tishy, to give a reluctant illustration of it, coming back as from an excursion of the shortest to the question momentarily dropped. “I’m bound to say — all the more you know — that I don’t quite see what Aggie mayn’t now read.” Suddenly, however, her look at their informant took on an anxiety. “Is the book you speak of something VERY awful?”
Mrs. Grendon, with so much these past minutes to have made her so, was at last visibly more present. “That’s what Lord Petherton says of it. From what he knows of the author.”
“So that he wants to keep her —?”
“Well, from trying it first. I think he wants to see if it’s good for her.”
“That’s one of the most charming soins, I think,” the Duchess said, “that a gentleman may render a young woman to whom he desires to be useful. I won’t say that Petherton always knows how good a book may be, but I’d trust him any day to say how bad.”
Mr. Longdon, who had sat throughout silent and still, quitted his seat at this and evidently in so doing gave Mrs. Brook as much occasion as she required. She also got up and her movement brought to her view at the door of the further room something that drew from her a quick exclamation. “He can tell us now then — for here they come!” Lord Petherton, arriving with animation and followed so swiftly by his young companion that she presented herself as pursuing him, shook triumphantly over his head a small volume in blue paper. There was a general movement at the sight of them, and by the time they had rejoined their friends the company, pushing back seats and causing a variety of mute expression smoothly to circulate, was pretty well on its feet. “See — he HAS pulled her off!” said Mrs. Brook. “Little Aggie, to whom plenty of pearls were singularly becoming, met it as pleasant sympathy. Yes, and it was a REAL pull. But of course,” she continued with the prettiest humour and as if Mrs. Brook would quite understand, “from the moment one has a person’s nails, and almost his teeth, in one’s flesh —!”
Mrs. Brook’s sympathy passed, however, with no great ease from Aggie’s pearls to her other charms; fixing the former indeed so markedly that Harold had a quick word about it for Lady Fanny. “When poor mummy thinks, you know, that Nanda might have had them —!”
Lady Fanny’s attention, for that matter, had resisted them as little. “Well, I dare say that if I had wanted I might!”
“Lord — COULD you have stood him?” the young man returned. “But I believe women can stand anything!” he profoundly concluded. His mother meanwhile, recovering herself, had begun to ejaculate on the prints in Aggie’s arms, and he was then diverted from the sense of what he “personally,” as he would have said, couldn’t have stood, by a glance at Lord Petherton’s trophy, for which he made a prompt grab. “The bone of contention?” Lord Petherton had let it go and Harold remained arrested by the cover. “Why blest if it hasn’t Van’s name!”
“Van’s?”— his mother was near enough to effect her own snatch, after which she swiftly faced the proprietor of the volume. “Dear man, it’s the last thing you lent me! But I don’t think,” she added, turning to Tishy, “that I ever passed such a production on to YOU.”
“It was just seeing Mr. Van’s hand,” Aggie conscientiously explained, “that made me think one was free —!”
“But it isn’t Mr. Van’s hand!”— Mrs. Brook quite smiled at the error. She thrust the book straight at Mr. Longdon. “IS that Mr. Van’s hand?”
Holding the disputed object, which he had put on his nippers to glance at, he presently, without speaking, looked over these aids straight at Nanda, who looked as straight back at him. “It was I who wrote Mr. Van’s name.” The girl’s eyes were on Mr. Longdon, but her words as for the company. “I brought the book here from Buckingham Crescent and left it by accident in the other room.”
“By accident, my dear,” her mother replied, “I do quite hope. But what on earth did you bring it for? It’s too hideous.”
Nanda seemed to wonder. “Is it?” she murmured.
“Then you haven’t read it?”
She just hesitated. “One hardly knows now, I think, what is and what isn’t.”
“She brought it only for ME to read,” Tishy gravely interposed.
Mrs. Brook looked strange. “Nanda RECOMMENDED it?”
“Oh no — the contrary.” Tishy, as if scared by so much publicity, floundered a little. “She only told me —”
“The awful subject?” Mrs. Brook wailed.
There was so deepening an echo of the drollery of this last passage that it was a minute before Vanderbank could be heard saying: “The responsibility’s wholly mine for setting the beastly thing in motion. Still,” he added good-humouredly and as to minimise if not the cause at least the consequence, “I think I agree with Nanda that it’s no worse than anything else.”
Mrs. Brook had recovered the volume from Mr. Longdon’s relaxed hand and now, without another glance at it, held it behind her with an unusual air of firmness. “Oh how can you say that, my dear man, of anything so revolting?”
The discussion kept them for the instant well face to face. “Then did YOU read it?”
She debated, jerking the book into the nearest empty chair, where Mr. Cashmore quickly pounced on it. “Wasn’t it for that you brought it me?” she demanded. Yet before he could answer she again challenged her child. “Have you read this work, Nanda?”
“Oh I say!” cried Mr. Cashmore, hilarious and turning the leaves.
Mr. Longdon had by this time ceremoniously approached Tishy. “Good-night.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51