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Chapter 4

Many things at Mertle were strange for her interlocutor, but nothing
perhaps as yet had been so strange as the sight of this arrangement for
little Aggie's protection; an arrangement made in the interest of her
remaining as a young person of her age and her monde--so her aunt would
have put it--should remain. The strangest part of the impression too was
that the provision might really have its happy side and his lordship
understand definitely better than any one else his noble friend's whole
theory of perils and precautions. The child herself, the spectator of
the incident was sure enough, understood nothing; but the understandings
that surrounded her, filling all the air, made it a heavier compound to
breathe than any Mr. Longdon had yet tasted. This heaviness had grown
for him through the long sweet summer day, and there was something in
his at last finding himself ensconced with the Duchess that made it
supremely oppressive. The contact was one that, none the less, he would
not have availed himself of a decent pretext to avoid. With so many fine
mysteries playing about him there was relief, at the point he had
reached, rather than alarm, in the thought of knowing the worst; which
it pressed upon him somehow that the Duchess must not only altogether
know but must in any relation quite naturally communicate. It fluttered
him rather that a person who had an understanding with Lord Petherton
should so single him out as to wish for one also with himself; such a
person must either have great variety of mind or have a wonderful idea
of HIS variety. It was true indeed that Mr. Mitchett must have the most
extraordinary understanding, and yet with Mr. Mitchett he now found
himself quite pleasantly at his ease. Their host, however, was a person
sui generis, whom he had accepted, once for all, the inconsequence of
liking in conformity with the need he occasionally felt to put it on
record that he was not narrow-minded. Perhaps at bottom he most liked
Mitchy because Mitchy most liked Nanda; there hung about him still
moreover the faded fragrance of the superstition that hospitality not
declined is one of the things that "oblige." It obliged the thoughts,
for Mr. Longdon, as well as the manners, and in the especial form in
which he was now committed to it would have made him, had he really
thought any ill, ask himself what the deuce then he was doing in the
man's house. All of which didn't prevent some of Mitchy's queer
condonations--if condonations in fact they were--from not wholly, by
themselves, soothing his vague unrest, an unrest which never had been so
great as at the moment he heard the Duchess abruptly say to him: "Do you
know my idea about Nanda? It's my particular desire you should--the
reason, really, why I've thus laid violent hands on you. Nanda, my dear
man, should marry at the very first moment."

This was more interesting than he had expected, and the effect produced
by his interlocutress, as well as doubtless not lost on her, was shown
in his suppressed start. "There has been no reason why I should
attribute to you any judgement of the matter; but I've had one myself,
and I don't see why I shouldn't say frankly that it's very much the one
you express. It would be a very good thing."

"A very good thing, but none of my business?"--the Duchess's vivacity
was not unamiable.

It was on this circumstance that her companion for an instant perhaps
meditated. "It's probably not in my interest to say that. I should give
you too easy a retort. It would strike any one as quite as much your
business as mine."

"Well, it ought to be somebody's, you know. One would suppose it to be
her mother's--her father's; but in this country the parents are even
more emancipated than the children. Suppose, really, since it appears to
be nobody's affair, that you and I do make it ours. We needn't either of
us," she continued, "be concerned for the other's reasons, though I'm
perfectly ready, I assure you, to put my cards on the table. You've your
feelings--we know they're beautiful. I, on my side, have mine--for which
I don't pretend anything but that they're strong. They can dispense with
being beautiful when they're so perfectly settled. Besides, I may
mention, they're rather nice than otherwise. Edward and I have a
cousinage, though for all he does to keep it up--! If he leaves his
children to play in the street I take it seriously enough to make an
occasional dash for them before they're run over. And I want for Nanda
simply the man she herself wants--it isn't as if I wanted for her a
dwarf or a hunchback or a coureur or a drunkard. Vanderbank's a man whom
any woman, don't you think? might be--whom more than one woman IS--glad
of for herself: beau comme le jour, awfully conceited and awfully
patronising, but clever and successful and yet liked, and without, so
far as I know, any of the terrific appendages which in this country so
often diminish the value of even the pleasantest people. He hasn't five
horrible unmarried sisters for his wife to have always on a visit. The
way your women don't marry is the ruin here of society, and I've been
assured in good quarters--though I don't know so much about that--the
ruin also of conversation and of literature. Isn't it precisely just a
little to keep Nanda herself from becoming that kind of appendage--say
to poor Harold, say, one of these days, to her younger brother and
sister--that friends like you and me feel the importance of bestirring
ourselves in time? Of course she's supposedly young, but she's really
any age you like: your London world so fearfully batters and bruises
them." She had gone fast and far, but it had given Mr. Longdon time to
feel himself well afloat. There were so many things in it all to take up
that he laid his hand--of which, he was not unconscious, the feebleness
exposed him--on the nearest. "Why I'm sure her mother--after twenty
years of it--is fresh enough."

"Fresh? You find Mrs. Brook fresh?" The Duchess had a manner that, in
its all-knowingness, rather humiliated than encouraged; but he was all
the more resolute for being conscious of his own reserves. "It seems to
me it's fresh to look about thirty."

"That indeed would be perfect. But she doesn't--she looks about three.
She simply looks a baby."

"Oh Duchess, you're really too particular!" he retorted, feeling that,
as the trodden worm will turn, anxiety itself may sometimes tend to wit.

She met him in her own way. "I know what I mean. My niece is a person
_I_ call fresh. It's warranted, as they say in the shops. Besides," she
went on, "if a married woman has been knocked about that's only a part
of her condition. Elle l'a lien voulu, and if you're married you're
married; it's the smoke--or call it the soot!--of the fire. You know,
yourself," she roundly pursued, "that Nanda's situation appals you."

"Oh 'appals'!" he restrictively murmured.

It even tried a little his companion's patience. "There you are, you
English--you'll never face your own music. It's amazing what you'd
rather do with a thing--anything not to shoot at or to make money with--
than look at its meaning. If I wished to save the girl as YOU wish it I
should know exactly from what. But why differ about reasons," she asked,
"when we're at one about the fact? I don't mention the greatest of
Vanderbank's merits," she added--"his having so delicious a friend. By
whom, let me hasten to assure you," she laughed, "I don't in the least
mean Mrs. Brook! She IS delicious if you like, but believe me when I
tell you, caro mio--if you need to be told--that for effective action on
him you're worth twenty of her."

What was most visible in Mr. Longdon was that, however it came to him,
he had rarely before, all at once, had so much given him to think about.
Again the only way to manage was to take what came uppermost. "By
effective action you mean action on the matter of his proposing for
Nanda?"

The Duchess's assent was noble. "You can make him propose--you can make,
I mean, a sure thing of it. You can doter the bride." Then as with the
impulse to meet benevolently and more than halfway her companion's
imperfect apprehension: "You can settle on her something that will make
her a parti." His apprehension was perhaps imperfect, but it could still
lead somehow to his flushing all over, and this demonstration the
Duchess as quickly took into account. "Poor Edward, you know, won't give
her a penny."

Decidedly she went fast, but Mr. Longdon in a moment had caught up. "Mr.
Vanderbank--your idea is--would require on the part of his wife
something of that sort?"

"Pray who wouldn't--in the world we all move in--require it quite as
much? Mr. Vanderbank, I'm assured, has no means of his own at all, and
if he doesn't believe in impecunious marriages it's not I who shall be
shocked at him. For myself I simply despise them. He has nothing but a
poor official salary. If it's enough for one it would be little for two,
and would be still less for half a dozen. They're just the people to
have, that blessed pair, a fine old English family."

Mr. Longdon was now fairly abreast of it. "What it comes to then, the
idea you're so good as to put before me, is to bribe him to take her."

The Duchess remained bland, but she fixed him. "You say that as if you
were scandalised, but if you try Mr. Van with it I don't think he'll be.
And you won't persuade me," she went on finely, "that you haven't
yourself thought of it." She kept her eyes on him, and the effect of
them, soon enough visible in his face, was such as presently to make her
exult at her felicity. "You're of a limpidity, dear man--you've only to
be said 'bo!' to and you confess. Consciously or unconsciously--the
former, really, I'm inclined to think--you've wanted him for her." She
paused an instant to enjoy her triumph, after which she continued: "And
you've wanted her for him. I make you out, you'll say--for I see you
coming--one of those horrible benevolent busy-bodies who are the worst
of the class, but you've only to think a little--if I may go so far--to
see that no 'making' at all is required. You've only one link with the
Brooks, but that link is golden. How can we, all of us, by this time,
not have grasped and admired the beauty of your feeling for Lady Julia?
There it is--I make you wince: to speak of it is to profane it. Let us
by all means not speak of it then, but let us act on it." He had at last
turned his face from her, and it now took in, from the vantage of his
high position, only the loveliness of the place and the hour, which
included a glimpse of Lord Petherton and little Aggie, who, down in the
garden, slowly strolled in familiar union. Each had a hand in the
other's, swinging easily as they went; their talk was evidently of
flowers and fruits and birds; it was quite like father and daughter. One
could see half a mile off in short that THEY weren't flirting. Our
friend's bewilderment came in odd cold gusts: these were unreasoned and
capricious; one of them, at all events, during his companion's pause,
must have roared in his ears. Was it not therefore through some
continuance of the sound that he heard her go on speaking? "Of course
you know the poor child's own condition."

It took him a good while to answer. "Do YOU know it?" he asked with his
eyes still away.

"If your question's ironical," she laughed, "your irony's perfectly
wasted. I should be ashamed of myself if, with my relationship and my
interest, I hadn't made sure. Nanda's fairly sick--as sick as a little
cat--with her passion." It was with an intensity of silence that he
appeared to accept this; he was even so dumb for a minute that the
oddity of the image could draw from him no natural sound. The Duchess
once more, accordingly, recognised an occasion. "It has doubtless
already occurred to you that, since your sentiment for the living is the
charming fruit of your sentiment for the dead, there would be a
sacrifice to Lady Julia's memory more exquisite than any other."

At this finally Mr. Longdon turned. "The effort--on the lines you speak
of--for Nanda's happiness?"

She fairly glowed with hope. "And by the same token such a piece of
poetic justice! Quite the loveliest it would be, I think, one had ever
heard of."

So, for some time more, they sat confronted. "I don't quite see your
difficulty," he said at last. "I do happen to know, I confess, that
Nanda herself extremely desires the execution of your project."

His friend's smile betrayed no surprise at this effect of her eloquence.
"You're bad at dodging. Nanda's desire is inevitably to stop off for
herself every question of any one but Vanderbank. If she wants me to
succeed in arranging with Mr. Mitchett can you ask for a plainer sign of
her private predicament? But you've signs enough, I see"--she caught
herself up: "we may take them all for granted. I've known perfectly from
the first that the only difficulty would come from her mother--but also
that that would be stiff."

The movement with which Mr. Longdon removed his glasses might have
denoted a certain fear to participate in too much of what the Duchess
had known. "I've not been ignorant that Mrs. Brookenham favours Mr.
Mitchett."

But he was not to be let off with that. "Then you've not been blind, I
suppose, to her reason for doing so." He might not have been blind, but
his vision, at this, scarce showed sharpness, and it determined in his
interlocutress the shortest of short cuts. "She favours Mr. Mitchett
because she wants 'old Van' herself."

He was evidently conscious of looking at her hard. "In what sense--
herself?"

"Ah you must supply the sense; I can give you only the fact--and it's
the fact that concerns us. Voyons" she almost impatiently broke out;
"don't try to create unnecessary obscurities by being unnecessarily
modest. Besides, I'm not touching your modesty. Supply any sense
whatever that may miraculously satisfy your fond English imagination: I
don't insist in the least on a bad one. She does want him herself--
that's all I say. 'Pourquoi faires' you ask--or rather, being too shy,
don't ask, but would like to if you dared or didn't fear I'd be shocked.
I CAN'T be shocked, but frankly I can't tell you either. The situation
belongs, I think, to an order I don't understand. I understand either
one thing or the other--I understand taking a man up or letting him
alone. But I don't really get at Mrs. Brook. You must judge at any rate
for yourself. Vanderbank could of course tell you if he would--but it
wouldn't be right that he should. So the one thing we have to do with is
that she's in fact against us. I can only work Mitchy through Petherton,
but Mrs. Brook can work him straight. On the other hand that's the way
you, my dear man, can work Vanderbank."

One thing evidently beyond the rest, as a result of this vivid
demonstration, disengaged itself to our old friend's undismayed sense,
but his consternation needed a minute or two to produce it. "I can
absolutely assure you that Mr. Vanderbank entertains no sentiment for
Mrs. Brookenham--!"

"That he may not keep under by just setting his teeth and holding on? I
never dreamed he does, and have nothing so alarming in store for you--
rassurez-vous bien!--as to propose that he shall be invited to sink a
feeling for the mother in order to take one up for the child. Don't,
please, flutter out of the whole question by a premature scare. I never
supposed it's he who wants to keep HER. He's not in love with her--be
comforted! But she's amusing--highly amusing. I do her perfect justice.
As your women go she's rare. If she were French she'd be a femme
d'esprit. She has invented a nuance of her own and she has done it all
by herself, for Edward figures in her drawing-room only as one of those
queer extinguishers of fire in the corridors of hotels. He's just a
bucket on a peg. The men, the young and the clever ones, find it a
house--and heaven knows they're right--with intellectual elbow-room,
with freedom of talk. Most English talk is a quadrille in a sentry-box.
You'll tell me we go further in Italy, and I won't deny it, but in Italy
we have the common sense not to have little girls in the room. The young
men hang about Mrs. Brook, and the clever ones ply her with the
uproarious appreciation that keeps her up to the mark. She's in a
prodigious fix--she must sacrifice either her daughter or what she once
called to me her intellectual habits. Mr. Vanderbank, you've seen for
yourself, is of these one of the most cherished, the most confirmed.
Three months ago--it couldn't be any longer kept off--Nanda began
definitely to 'sit'; to be there and look, by the tea-table, modestly
and conveniently abstracted."

"I beg your pardon--I don't think she looks that, Duchess," Mr. Longdon
lucidly broke in. How much she had carried him with her in spite of
himself was betrayed by the very terms of his dissent. "I don't think it
would strike any one that she looks 'convenient.'"

His companion, laughing, gave a shrug. "Try her and perhaps you'll find
her so!" But his objection had none the less pulled her up a little. "I
don't say she's a hypocrite, for it would certainly be less decent for
her to giggle and wink. It's Mrs. Brook's theory moreover, isn't it?
that she has, from five to seven at least, lowered the pitch. Doesn't
she pretend that she bears in mind every moment the tiresome difference
made by the presence of sweet virginal eighteen?"

"I haven't, I'm afraid, a notion of what she pretends!"

Mr. Longdon had spoken with a curtness to which his friend's particular
manner of overlooking it only added significance. "They've become," she
pursued, "superficial or insincere or frivolous, but at least they've
become, with the way the drag's put on, quite as dull as other people."

He showed no sign of taking this up; instead of it he said abruptly:
"But if it isn't Mr. Mitchett's own idea?"

His fellow visitor barely hesitated. "It would be his own if he were
free--and it would be Lord Petherton's FOR him. I mean by his being free
Nanda's becoming definitely lost to him. Then it would be impossible for
Mrs. Brook to continue to persuade him, as she does now, that by a
waiting game he'll come to his chance. His chance will cease to exist,
and he wants so, poor darling, to marry. You've really now seen my
niece," she went on. "That's another reason why I hold you can help me."

"Yes--I've seen her."

"Well, there she is." It was as if in the pause that followed this they
sat looking at little absent Aggie with a wonder that was almost equal.
"The good God has given her to me," the Duchess said at last.

"It seems to me then that she herself is, in her remarkable loveliness,
really your help."

"She'll be doubly so if you give me proofs that you believe in her." And
the Duchess, appearing to consider that with this she had made herself
clear and her interlocutor plastic, rose in confident majesty. "I leave
it to you."

Mr. Longdon did the same, but with more consideration now. "Is it your
expectation that I shall speak to Mr. Mitchett?"

"Don't flatter yourself he won't speak to YOU!"

Mr. Longdon made it out. "As supposing me, you mean, an interested
party?"

She clapped her gloved hands for joy. "It's a delight to hear you
practically admit that you ARE one! Mr. Mitchett will take anything from
you--above all perfect candour. It isn't every day one meets YOUR kind,
and he's a connoisseur. I leave it to you--I leave it to you."

She spoke as if it were something she had thrust bodily into his hands
and wished to hurry away from. He put his hands behind him--
straightening himself a little, half-kindled, still half-confused.
"You're all extraordinary people!"

She gave a toss of her head that showed her as not so dazzled. "You're
the best of us, caro mio--you and Aggie: for Aggie's as good as you.
Mitchy's good too, however--Mitchy's beautiful. You see it's not only
his money. He's a gentleman. So are you. There aren't so many. But we
must move fast," she added more sharply.

"What do you mean by fast?"

"What should I mean but what I say? If Nanda doesn't get a husband early
in the business--"

"Well?" said Mr. Longdon, as she appeared to pause with the weight of
her idea.

"Why she won't get one late--she won't get one at all. One, I mean, of
the kind she'll take. She'll have been in it over-long for THEIR taste."

She had moved, looking off and about her--little Aggie always on her
mind--to the flight of steps, where she again hung fire; and had really
ended by producing in him the manner of keeping up with her to challenge
her. "Been in what?"

She went down a few steps while he stood with his face full of
perceptions strained and scattered. "Why in the air they themselves have
infected for her!"


Henry James

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