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Chapter 3

"Would you" the Duchess said to him the next day, "be for five minutes
awfully kind to my poor little niece?" The words were spoken in charming
entreaty as he issued from the house late on the Sunday afternoon--the
second evening of his stay, which the next morning was to bring to an
end--and on his meeting the speaker at one of the extremities of the
wide cool terrace. There was at this point a subsidiary flight of steps
by which she had just mounted from the grounds, one of her purposes
being apparently to testify afresh to the anxious supervision of little
Aggie she had momentarily suffered herself to be diverted from. This
young lady, established in the pleasant shade on a sofa of light
construction designed for the open air, offered the image of a patience
of which it was a questionable kindness to break the spell. It was that
beautiful hour when, toward the close of the happiest days of summer,
such places as the great terrace at Mertle present to the fancy a recall
of the banquet-hall deserted--deserted by the company lately gathered
at tea and now dispersed, according to affinities and combinations
promptly felt and perhaps quite as promptly criticised, either in
quieter chambers where intimacy might deepen or in gardens and under
trees where the stillness knew the click of balls and the good humour of
games. There had been chairs, on the terrace, pushed about; there were
ungathered teacups on the level top of the parapet; the servants in
fact, in the manner of "hands" mustered by a whistle on the deck of a
ship, had just arrived to restore things to an order soon again to be
broken. There were scattered couples in sight below and an idle group on
the lawn, out of the midst of which, in spite of its detachment,
somebody was sharp enough sometimes to cry "Out!" The high daylight was
still in the sky, but with just the foreknowledge already of the long
golden glow in which the many-voiced caw of the rooks would sound at
once sociable and sad. There was a great deal all about to be aware of
and to look at, but little Aggie had her eyes on a book over which her
pretty head was bent with a docility visible even from afar. "I've a
friend--down there by the lake--to go back to," the Duchess went on,
"and I'm on my way to my room to get a letter that I've promised to show
him. I shall immediately bring it down and then in a few minutes be able
to relieve you,--I don't leave her alone too much--one doesn't, you
know, in a house full of people, a child of that age. Besides"--and Mr.
Longdon's interlocutress was even more confiding--"I do want you so very
intensely to know her. You, par exemple, you're what I SHOULD like to
give her." Mr. Longdon looked the noble lady, in acknowledgement of her
appeal, straight in the face, and who can tell whether or no she acutely
guessed from his expression that he recognised this particular juncture
as written on the page of his doom?--whether she heard him inaudibly say
"Ah here it is: I knew it would have to come!" She would at any rate
have been astute enough, had this miracle occurred, quite to complete
his sense for her own understanding and suffer it to make no difference
in the tone in which she still confronted him. "Oh I take the bull by
the horns--I know you haven't wanted to know me. If you had you'd have
called on me--I've given you plenty of hints and little coughs. Now, you
see, I don't cough any more--I just rush at you and grab you. You don't
call on me--so I call on YOU. There isn't any indecency moreover that I
won't commit for my child."

Mr. Longdon's impenetrability crashed like glass at the elbow-touch of
this large handsome practised woman, who walked for him, like some
brazen pagan goddess, in a cloud of queer legend. He looked off at her
child, who, at a distance and not hearing them, had not moved. "I know
she's a great friend of Nanda's."

"Has Nanda told you that?"

"Often--taking such an interest in her."

"I'm glad she thinks so then--though really her interests are so
various. But come to my baby. I don't make HER come," she explained as
she swept him along, "because I want you just to sit down by her there
and keep the place, as one may say--!"

"Well, for whom?" he demanded as she stopped. It was her step that had
checked itself as well as her tongue, and again, suddenly, they stood
quite consciously and vividly opposed. "Can I trust you?" the Duchess
brought out. Again then she took herself up. "But as if I weren't
already doing it! It's because I do trust you so utterly that I haven't
been able any longer to keep my hands off you. The person I want the
place for is none other than Mitchy himself, and half my occupation now
is to get it properly kept for him. Lord Petherton's immensely kind, but
Lord Petherton can't do everything. I know you really like our host--!"

Mr. Longdon, at this, interrupted her with a certain coldness. "How, may
I ask, do you know it?"

But with a brazen goddess to deal with--! This personage had to fix him
but an instant. "Because, you dear honest man, you're here. You wouldn't
be if you hated him, for you don't practically condone--!"

This time he broke in with his eyes on the child. "I feel on the
contrary, I assure you, that I condone a great deal."

"Well, don't boast of your cynicism," she laughed, "till you're sure of
all it covers. Let the right thing for you be," she went on, "that Nanda
herself wants it."

"Nanda herself?" He continued to watch little Aggie, who had never yet
turned her head. "I'm afraid I don't understand you."

She swept him on again. "I'll come to you presently and explain. I MUST
get my letter for Petherton; after which I'll give up Mitchy, whom I was
going to find, and since I've broken the ice--if it isn't too much to
say to such a polar bear!--I'll show you le fond de ma pensee. Baby
darling," she said to her niece, "keep Mr. Longdon. Show him," she
benevolently suggested, "what you've been reading." Then again to her
fellow guest, as arrested by this very question: "Caro signore, have YOU
a possible book?"

Little Aggie had got straight up and was holding out her volume, which
Mr. Longdon, all courtesy for her, glanced at. "Stories from English
History. Oh!"

His ejaculation, though vague, was not such as to prevent the girl from
venturing gently: "Have you read it?"

Mr. Longdon, receiving her pure little smile, showed he felt he had
never so taken her in as at this moment, as well as also that she was a
person with whom he should surely get on. "I think I must have."

Little Aggie was still more encouraged, but not to the point of keeping
anything back. "It hasn't any author. It's anonymous."

The Duchess borrowed, for another question to Mr. Longdon, not a little
of her gravity. "Is it all right?"

"I don't know"--his answer was to Aggie. "There have been some horrid
things in English history."

"Oh horrid--HAVEN'T there?" Aggie, whose speech had the prettiest
faintest foreignness, sweetly and eagerly quavered.

"Well, darling, Mr. Longdon will recommend to you some nice historical
work--for we love history, don't we?--that leaves the horrors out. We
like to know," the Duchess explained to the authority she invoked, "the
cheerful happy RIGHT things. There are so many, after all, and this is
the place to remember them. A tantot."

As she passed into the house by the nearest of the long windows that
stood open Mr. Longdon placed himself beside her little charge, whom he
treated, for the next ten minutes, with an exquisite courtesy. A person
who knew him well would, if present at the scene, have found occasion in
it to be freshly aware that he was in his quiet way master of two
distinct kinds of urbanity, the kind that added to distance and the kind
that diminished it. Such an analyst would furthermore have noted, in
respect to the aunt and the niece, of which kind each had the benefit,
and might even have gone so far as to detect in him some absolute
betrayal of the impression produced on him by his actual companion, some
irradiation of his certitude that, from the point of view under which
she had been formed, she was a remarkable, a rare success. Since to
create a particular little rounded and tinted innocence had been aimed
at, the fruit had been grown to the perfection of a peach on a sheltered
wall, and this quality of the object resulting from a process might
well make him feel himself in contact with something wholly new. Little
Aggie differed from any young person he had ever met in that she had
been deliberately prepared for consumption and in that furthermore the
gentleness of her spirit had immensely helped the preparation. Nanda,
beside her, was a Northern savage, and the reason was partly that the
elements of that young lady's nature were already, were publicly, were
almost indecorously active. They were practically there for good or for
ill; experience was still to come and what they might work out to still
a mystery; but the sum would get itself done with the figures now on the
slate. On little Aggie's slate the figures were yet to be written; which
sufficiently accounted for the difference of the two surfaces. Both the
girls struck him as lambs with the great shambles of life in their
future; but while one, with its neck in a pink ribbon, had no
consciousness but that of being fed from the hand with the small sweet
biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge, the other struggled with instincts
and forebodings, with the suspicion of its doom and the far-borne scent,
in the flowery fields, of blood.

"Oh Nanda, she's my best friend after three or four others."

"After so many?" Mr. Longdon laughed. "Don't you think that's rather a
back seat, as they say, for one's best?"

"A back seat?"--she wondered with a purity!

"If you don't understand," said her companion, "it serves me right, as
your aunt didn't leave me with you to teach you the slang of the day."

"The 'slang'?"--she again spotlessly speculated.

"You've never even heard the expression? I should think that a great
compliment to our time if it weren't that I fear it may have been only
the name that has been kept from you."

The light of ignorance in the child's smile was positively golden. "The
name?" she again echoed.

She understood too little--he gave it up. "And who are all the other
best friends whom poor Nanda comes after?"

"Well, there's my aunt, and Miss Merriman, and Gelsomina, and Dr.
Beltram."

"And who, please, is Miss Merriman?"

"She's my governess, don't you know?--but such a deliciously easy
governess."

"That, I suppose, is because she has such a deliciously easy pupil. And
who is Gelsomina?" Mr. Longdon enquired.

"She's my old nurse--my old maid."

"I see. Well, one must always be kind to old maids. But who's Dr.
Beltram?"

"Oh the most intimate friend of all. We tell him everything."

There was for Mr. Longdon in this, with a slight incertitude, an effect
of drollery. "Your little troubles?"

"Ah they're not always so little! And he takes them all away."

"Always?--on the spot?"

"Sooner or later," said little Aggie with serenity. "But why not?"

"Why not indeed?" he laughed. "It must be very plain sailing." Decidedly
she was, as Nanda had said, an angel, and there was a wonder in her
possession on this footing of one of the most expressive little faces
that even her expressive race had ever shown him. Formed to express
everything, it scarce expressed as yet even a consciousness. All the
elements of play were in it, but they had nothing to play with. It was a
rest moreover, after so much that he had lately been through, to be with
a person for whom questions were so simple. "But he sounds all the same
like the kind of doctor whom, as soon as one hears of him, one wants to
send for."

The young girl had at this a small light of confusion. "Oh I don't mean
he's a doctor for medicine. He's a clergyman--and my aunt says he's a
saint. I don't think you've many in England," little Aggie continued to
explain.

"Many saints? I'm afraid not. Your aunt's very happy to know one. We
should call Dr. Beltram in England a priest."

"Oh but he's English. And he knows everything we do--and everything we
think."

"'We'--your aunt, your governess and your nurse? What a varied wealth of
knowledge!"

"Ah Miss Merriman and Gelsomina tell him only what they like."

"And do you and the Duchess tell him what you DON'T like?"

"Oh often--but we always like HIM--no matter what we tell him. And we
know that just the same he always likes us."

"I see then of course," said Mr. Longdon, very gravely now, "what a
friend he must be. So it's after all this," he continued in a moment,
"that Nanda comes in?"

His companion had to consider, but suddenly she caught assistance. "This
one, I think, comes before." Lord Petherton, arriving apparently from
the garden, had drawn near unobserved by Mr. Longdon and the next moment
was within hail. "I see him very often," she continued--"oftener than
Nanda. Oh but THEN Nanda. And then," little Aggie wound up, "Mr.
Mitchy."

"Oh I'm glad HE comes in," Mr. Longdon returned, "though rather far down
in the list." Lord Petherton was now before them, there being no one
else on the terrace to speak to, and, with the odd look of an excess of
physical power that almost blocked the way, he seemed to give them in
the flare of his big teeth the benefit of a kind of brutal geniality. It
was always to be remembered for him that he could scarce show without
surprising you an adjustment to the smaller conveniences; so that when
he took up a trifle it was not perforce in every case the sign of an
uncanny calculation. When the elephant in the show plays the fiddle it
must be mainly with the presumption of consequent apples; which was why,
doubtless, this personage had half the time the air of assuring you
that, really civilised as his type had now become, no apples were
required. Mr. Longdon viewed him with a vague apprehension and as if
quite unable to meet the question of what he would have called for such
a personage the social responsibility. Did this specimen of his class
pull the tradition down or did he just take it where he found it--in the
very different place from that in which, on ceasing so long ago to "go
out," Mr. Longdon had left it? Our friend doubtless averted himself from
the possibility of a mental dilemma; if the man didn't lower the
position was it the position then that let down the man? Somehow he
wasn't positively up. More evidence would be needed to decide; yet it
was just of more evidence that one remained rather in dread. Lord
Petherton was kind to little Aggie, kind to her companion, kind to every
one, after Mr. Longdon had explained that she was so good as to be
giving him the list of her dear friends. "I'm only a little dismayed,"
the elder man said, "to find Mr. Mitchett at the bottom."

"Oh but it's an awfully short list, isn't it? If it consists only of me
and Mitchy he's not so very low down. We don't allow her very MANY
friends; we look out too well for ourselves." He addressed the child as
on an easy jocose understanding. "Is the question, Aggie, whether we
shall allow you Mr. Longdon? Won't that rather 'do' for us--for Mitchy
and me? I say, Duchess," he went on as this lady reappeared, "ARE we
going to allow her Mr. Longdon and do we quite realise what we're about?
We mount guard awfully, you know"--he carried the joke back to the
person he had named. "We sift and we sort, we pick the candidates over,
and I should like to hear any one say that in this case at least I don't
keep a watch on my taste. Oh we close in!"

The Duchess, the object of her quest in her hand, had come back. "Well
then Mr. Longdon will close WITH us--you'll consider henceforth that
he's as safe as yourself. Here's the letter I wanted you to read--with
which you'll please take a turn, in strict charge of the child, and then
restore her to us. If you don't come I shall know you've found Mitchy
and shall be at peace. Go, little heart," she continued to the child,
"but leave me your book to look over again. I don't know that I'm quite
sure!" She sent them off together, but had a grave protest as her friend
put out his hand for the volume. "No, Petherton--not for books; for her
reading I can't say I do trust you. But for everything else--quite!" she
declared to Mr. Longdon with a look of conscientious courage as their
companion withdrew. "I do believe," she pursued in the same spirit, "in
a certain amount of intelligent confidence. Really nice men are steadied
by the sense of your having had it. But I wouldn't," she added gaily,
"trust him all round!"

Henry James

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