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Chapter 5

Late that night, in the smoking room, when the smokers--talkers and
listeners alike--were about to disperse, Mr. Longdon asked Vanderbank to
stay, and then it was that the young man, to whom all the evening he had
not addressed a word, could make out why, a little unnaturally, he had
prolonged his vigil. "I've something particular to say to you and I've
been waiting. I hope you don't mind. It's rather important." Vanderbank
expressed on the spot the liveliest desire to oblige him and, quickly
lighting another cigarette, mounted again to the deep divan with which a
part of the place was furnished. The smoking-room at Mertle was not
unworthy of the general nobleness, and the fastidious spectator had
clearly been reckoned on in the great leather-covered lounge that,
raised by a step or two above the floor, applied its back to two
quarters of the wall and enjoyed most immediately a view of the
billiard-table. Mr. Longdon continued for a minute to roam with the air
of dissimulated absence that, during the previous hour and among the
other men, his companion's eye had not lost; he pushed a ball or two
about, examined the form of an ash-stand, swung his glasses almost with
violence and declined either to smoke or to sit down. Vanderbank,
perched aloft on the bench and awaiting developments, had a little the
look of some prepossessing criminal who, in court, should have changed
places with the judge. He was unlike many a man of marked good looks in
that the effect of evening dress was not, with a perversity often
observed in such cases, to over-emphasise his fineness. His type was
rather chastened than heightened, and he sat there moreover with a
primary discretion quite in the note of the deference that from the
first, with his friend of the elder fashion, he had taken as imposed. He
had a strong sense for shades of respect and was now careful to loll
scarcely more than with an official superior. "If you ask me," Mr.
Longdon presently continued, "why at this hour of the night--after a day
at best too heterogeneous--I don't keep over till to-morrow whatever I
may have to say, I can only tell you that I appeal to you now because
I've something on my mind that I shall sleep the better for being rid
of."

There was space to circulate in front of the haut-pas, where he had
still paced and still swung his glasses; but with these words he had
paused, leaning against the billiard-table, to meet the interested
urbanity of the answer they produced. "Are you very sure that having got
rid of it you WILL sleep? Is it a pure confidence," Vanderbank said,
"that you do me the honour to make me? Is it something terrific that
requires a reply, so that I shall have to take account on my side of the
rest I may deprive you of?"

"Don't take account of anything--I'm myself a man who always takes too
much. It isn't a matter about which I press you for an immediate answer.
You can give me no answer probably without a good deal of thought. I'VE
thought a good deal--otherwise I wouldn't speak. I only want to put
something before you and leave it there."

"I never see you," said Vanderbank, "that you don't put something before
me."

"That sounds," his friend returned, "as if I rather overloaded--what's
the sort of thing you fellows nowadays say?--your intellectual board. If
there's a congestion of dishes sweep everything without scruple away.
I've never put before you anything like this."

He spoke with a weight that in the great space, where it resounded a
little, made an impression--an impression marked by the momentary pause
that fell between them. He partly broke the silence first by beginning
to walk again, and then Vanderbank broke it as through the apprehension
of their becoming perhaps too solemn. "Well, you immensely interest me
and you really couldn't have chosen a better time. A secret--for we
shall make it that of course, shan't we?--at this witching hour, in this
great old house, is all my visit here will have required to make the
whole thing a rare remembrance. So I assure you the more you put before
me the better."

Mr. Longdon took up another ash-tray, but with the air of doing so as a
direct consequence of Vanderbank's tone. After he had laid it down he
put on his glasses; then fixing his companion he brought out: "Have you
no idea at all--?"

"Of what you have in your head? Dear Mr. Longdon, how SHOULD I have?"

"Well, I'm wondering if I shouldn't perhaps have a little in your place.
There's nothing that in the circumstances occurs to you as likely I
should want to say?"

Vanderbank gave a laugh that might have struck an auditor as a trifle
uneasy. "When you speak of 'the circumstances' you do a thing that--
unless you mean the simple thrilling ones of this particular moment--
always of course opens the door of the lurid for a man of any
imagination. To such a man you've only to give a nudge for his
conscience to jump. That's at any rate the case with mine. It's never
quite on its feet--so it's now already on its back." He stopped a
little--his smile was even strained. "Is what you want to put before me
something awful I've done?"

"Excuse me if I press this point." Mr. Longdon spoke kindly, but if his
friend's anxiety grew his own thereby diminished. "Can you think of
nothing at all?"

"Do you mean that I've done?"

"No, but that--whether you've done it or not--I may have become aware
of."

There could have been no better proof than Vanderbank's expression, on
this, of his having mastered the secret of humouring without appearing
to patronise. "I think you ought to give me a little more of a clue."

Mr. Longdon took off his glasses. "Well--the clue's Nanda Brookenham."

"Oh I see." His friend had responded quickly, but for a minute said
nothing more, and the great marble clock that gave the place the air of
a club ticked louder in the stillness. Mr. Longdon waited with a
benevolent want of mercy, yet with a look in his face that spoke of what
depended for him--though indeed very far within--on the upshot of his
patience. The hush between them, for that matter, became a conscious
public measure of the young man's honesty. He evidently at last felt it
as such, and there would have been for an observer of his handsome
controlled face a study of some sharp things. "I judge that you ask me
for such an utterance," he finally said, "as very few persons at any
time have the right to expect of a man. Think of the people--and very
decent ones--to whom on so many a question one must only reply that it's
none of their business."

"I see you know what I mean," said Mr. Longdon.

"Then you know also the distinguished exception I make of you. There
isn't another man with whom I'd talk of it."

"And even to me you don't! But I'm none the less obliged to you," Mr.
Longdon added.

"It isn't only the gravity," his companion went on; "it's the ridicule
that inevitably attaches--!"

The manner in which Mr. Longdon indicated the empty room was in itself
an interruption. "Don't I sufficiently spare you?"

"Thank you, thank you," said Vanderbank.

"Besides, it's not for nothing."

"Of course not!" the young man returned, though with a look of noting
the next moment a certain awkwardness in his concurrence. "But don't
spare me now."

"I don't mean to." Mr. Longdon had his back to the table again, on which
he rested with each hand on the rim. "I don't mean to," he repeated.

His victim gave a laugh that betrayed at least the drop of a tension.
"Yet I don't quite see what you can do to me."

"It's just what for some time past I've been trying to think."

"And at last you've discovered?"

"Well--it has finally glimmered out a little in this extraordinary
place."

Vanderbank frankly wondered. "In consequence of anything particular that
has happened?"

Mr. Longdon had a pause. "For an old idiot who notices as much as I
something particular's always happening. If you're a man of imagination--"

"Oh," Vanderbank broke in, "I know how much more in that case you're
one! It only makes me regret," he continued, "that I've not attended
more since yesterday to what you've been about."

"I've been about nothing but what among you people I'm always about.
I've been seeing, feeling, thinking. That makes no show, of course I'm
aware, for any one but myself, and it's wholly my own affair. Except
indeed," he added, "so far as I've taken into my head to make, on it
all, this special appeal. There are things that have come home to me."

"Oh I see, I see," Vanderbank showed the friendliest alertness. "I'm to
take it from you then, with all the avidity of my vanity, that I strike
you as the person best able to understand what they are."

Mr. Longdon appeared to wonder an instant if his intelligence now had
not almost too much of a glitter: he kept the same position, his back
against the table, and while Vanderbank, on the settee, pressed upright
against the wall, they recognised in silence that they were trying each
other. "You're much the best of them. I've my ideas about you. You've
great gifts."

"Well then, we're worthy of each other. When Greek meets Greek--!" and
the young man laughed while, a little with the air of bracing himself,
he folded his arms. "Here we are."

His companion looked at him a moment longer, then, turning away, went
slowly round the table. On the further side of it he stopped again and,
after a minute, with a nervous movement, set a ball or two in motion.
"It's beautiful--but it's terrible!" he finally murmured. He hadn't his
eyes on Vanderbank, who for a minute said nothing, and he presently went
on: "To see it and not to want to try to help--well, I can't do that."
Vanderbank, still neither speaking nor moving, remained as if he might
interrupt something of high importance, and his friend, passing along
the opposite edge of the table, continued to produce in the stillness,
without the cue, the small click of the ivory. "How long--if you don't
mind my asking--have you known it?"

Even for this at first Vanderbank had no answer--none but to rise from
his place, come down to the floor and, standing there, look at Mr.
Longdon across the table. He was serious now, but without being solemn.
"How can one tell? One can never be sure. A man may fancy, may wonder;
but about a girl, a person so much younger than himself and so much more
helpless, he feels a--what shall I call it?"

"A delicacy?" Mr. Longdon suggested. "It may be that; the name doesn't
matter; at all events he's embarrassed. He wants not to be an ass on
the one side and yet not some other kind of brute on the other."

Mr. Longdon listened with consideration--with a beautiful little air
indeed of being, in his all but finally benighted state, earnestly open
to information on such points from a magnificent young man. "He doesn't
want, you mean, to be a coxcomb?--and he doesn't want to be cruel?"

Vanderbank, visibly preoccupied, produced a faint kind smile. "Oh you
KNOW!"

"I? I should know less than any one." Mr. Longdon had turned away from
the table on this, and the eyes of his companion, who after an instant
had caught his meaning, watched him move along the room and approach
another part of the divan. The consequence of the passage was that
Vanderbank's only rejoinder was presently to say: "I can't tell you how
long I've imagined--have asked myself. She's so charming, so
interesting, and I feel as if I had known her always. I've thought of
one thing and another to do--and then, on purpose, haven't thought at
all. That has mostly seemed to me best."

"Then I gather," said Mr. Longdon, "that your interest in her--?"

"Hasn't the same character as her interest in ME?" Vanderbank had taken
him up responsively, but after speaking looked about for a match and
lighted a new cigarette. "I'm sure you understand," he broke out, "what
an extreme effort it is to me to talk of such things!"

"Yes, yes. But it's just effort only? It gives you no pleasure? I mean
the fact of her condition," Mr. Longdon explained.

Vanderbank had really to think a little. "However much it might give me
I should probably not be a fellow to gush. I'm a self-conscious stick of
a Briton."

"But even a stick of a Briton--!" Mr. Longdon faltered and hovered.
"I've gushed in short to YOU."

"About Lady Julia?" the young man frankly asked. "Is gushing what you
call what you've done?"

"Say then we're sticks of Britons. You're not in any degree at all in
love?"

There fell between them, before Vanderbank replied, another pause, of
which he took advantage to move once more round the table. Mr. Longdon
meanwhile had mounted to the high bench and sat there as if the judge
were now in his proper place. At last his companion spoke. "What you're
coming to is of course that you've conceived a desire."

"That's it--strange as it may seem. But believe me, it has not been
precipitate. I've watched you both."

"Oh I knew you were watching HER," said Vanderbank.

"To such a tune that I've made up my mind. I want her so to marry--!"
But on the odd little quaver of longing with which he brought it out the
elder man fairly hung.

"Well?" said Vanderbank.

"Well, so that on the day she does she'll come into the interest of a
considerable sum of money--already very decently invested--that I've
determined to settle on her."

Vanderbank's instant admiration flushed across the room. "How awfully
jolly of you--how beautiful!"

"Oh there's a way to show practically your appreciation of it."

But Vanderbank, for enthusiasm, scarcely heard him. "I can't tell you
how admirable I think you." Then eagerly, "Does Nanda know it?" he
demanded.

Mr. Longdon, after a wait, spoke with comparative dryness. "My idea has
been that for the present you alone shall."

Vanderbank took it in. "No other man?"

His companion looked still graver. "I need scarcely say that I depend on
you to keep the fact to yourself."

"Absolutely then and utterly. But that won't prevent what I think of it.
Nothing for a long time has given me such joy."

Shining and sincere, he had held for a minute Mr. Longdon's eyes. "Then
you do care for her?"

"Immensely. Never, I think, so much as now. That sounds of a grossness,
doesn't it?" the young man laughed. "But your announcement really lights
up the mind."

His friend for a moment almost glowed with his pleasure. "The sum I've
fixed upon would be, I may mention, substantial, and I should of course
be prepared with a clear statement--a very definite pledge--of my
intentions."

"So much the better! Only"--Vanderbank suddenly pulled himself up--"to
get it she MUST marry?"

"It's not in my interest to allow you to suppose she needn't, and it's
only because of my intensely wanting her marriage that I've spoken to
you."

"And on the ground also with it"--Vanderbank so far concurred--"of your
quite taking for granted my only having to put myself forward?"

If his friend seemed to cast about it proved but to be for the fullest
expression. Nothing in fact could have been more charged than the quiet
way in which he presently said: "My dear boy, I back you."

Vanderbank clearly was touched by it. "How extraordinarily kind you are
to me!" Mr. Longdon's silence appeared to reply that he was willing to
let it go for that, and the young man next went on: "What it comes to
then--as you put it--is that it's a way for me to add something handsome
to my income."

Mr. Longdon sat for a little with his eyes attached to the green field
of the billiard-table, vivid in the spreading suspended lamplight. "I
think I ought to tell you the figure I have in mind."

Another person present might have felt rather taxed either to determine
the degree of provocation represented by Vanderbank's considerate smile,
or to say if there was an appreciable interval before he rang out: "I
think, you know, you oughtn't to do anything of the sort. Let that
alone, please. The great thing is the interest--the great thing is the
wish you express. It represents a view of me, an attitude toward me--!"
He pulled up, dropping his arms and turning away before the complete
image.

"There's nothing in those things that need overwhelm you. It would be
odd if you hadn't yourself, about your value and your future a feeling
quite as lively as any feeling of mine. There IS mine at all events. I
can't help it. Accept it. Then of the other feeling--how SHE moves me--I
won't speak."

"You sufficiently show it!"

Mr. Longdon continued to watch the bright circle on the table, lost in
which a moment he let his friend's answer pass. "I won't begin to you on
Nanda."

"Don't," said Vanderbank. But in the pause that ensued each, in one way
or another, might have been thinking of her for himself.

It was broken by Mr. Longdon's presently going on: "Of course what it
superficially has the air of is my offering to pay you for taking a
certain step. It's open to you to be grand and proud--to wrap yourself
in your majesty and ask if I suppose you bribeable. I haven't spoken
without having thought of that."

"Yes," said Vanderbank all responsively, "but it isn't as if you
proposed to me, is it, anything dreadful? If one cares for a girl one's
deucedly glad she has money. The more of anything good she has the
better. I may assure you," he added with the brightness of his friendly
intelligence and quite as if to show his companion the way to be least
concerned--"I may assure you that once I were disposed to act on your
suggestion I'd make short work of any vulgar interpretation of my
motive. I should simply try to be as fine as yourself." He smoked, he
moved about, then came up in another place. "I dare say you know that
dear old Mitchy, under whose blessed roof we're plotting this midnight
treason, would marry her like a shot and without a penny."

"I think I know everything--I think I've thought of everything. Mr.
Mitchett," Mr. Longdon added, "is impossible."

Vanderbank appeared for an instant to wonder. "Wholly then through HER
attitude?"

"Altogether."

Again he hesitated. "You've asked her?"

"I've asked her."

Once more Vanderbank faltered. "And that's how you know?"

"About YOUR chance? That's how I know."

The young man, consuming his cigarette with concentration, took again
several turns. "And your idea IS to give one time?"

Mr. Longdon had for a minute to turn his idea over. "How much time do
you want?"

Vanderbank gave a headshake that was both restrictive and indulgent. "I
must live into it a little. Your offer has been before me only these few
minutes, and it's too soon for me to commit myself to anything whatever.
Except," he added gallantly, "to my gratitude."

Mr. Longdon, at this, on the divan, got up, as Vanderbank had previously
done, under the spring of emotion; only, unlike Vanderbank, he still
stood there, his hands in his pockets and his face, a little paler,
directed straight. There was disappointment in him even before he spoke.
"You've no strong enough impulse--?"

His friend met him with admirable candour. "Wouldn't it seem that if I
had I would by this time have taken the jump?"

"Without waiting, you mean, for anybody's money?" Mr. Longdon cultivated
for a little a doubt. "Of course she has struck one as--till now--
tremendously young."

Vanderbank looked about once more for matches and occupied a time with
relighting. "Till now--yes. But it's not," he pursued, "only because
she's so young that--for each of us, and for dear old Mitchy too--she's
so interesting." Mr. Longdon had restlessly stepped down, and
Vanderbank's eyes followed him till he stopped again. "I make out that
in spite of what you said to begin with you're conscious of a certain
pressure."

"In the matter of time? Oh yes, I do want it DONE. That," Nanda's patron
simply explained, "is why I myself put on the screw." He spoke with the
ring of impatience. "I want her got out."

"'Out'?"

"Out of her mother's house."

Vanderbank laughed though--more immediately--he had coloured. "Why, her
mother's house is just where I see her!"

"Precisely; and if it only weren't we might get on faster."

Vanderbank, for all his kindness, looked still more amused. "But if it
only weren't, as you say, I seem to understand you wouldn't have your
particular vision of urgency."

Mr. Longdon, through adjusted glasses, took him in with a look that was
sad as well as sharp, then jerked the glasses off. "Oh you do
understand."

"Ah," said Vanderbank, "I'm a mass of corruption!"

"You may perfectly be, but you shall not," Mr. Longdon returned with
decision, "get off on any such plea. If you're good enough for me you're
good enough, as you thoroughly know, on whatever head, for any one."

"Thank you." But Vanderbank, for all his happy appreciation, thought
again. "We ought at any rate to remember, oughtn't we? that we should
have Mrs. Brook against us."

His companion faltered but an instant. "Ah that's another thing I know.
But it's also exactly why. Why I want Nanda away."

"I see, I see."

The response had been prompt, yet Mr. Longdon seemed suddenly to show
that he suspected the superficial. "Unless it's with Mrs. Brook you're
in love." Then on his friend's taking the idea with a mere headshake of
negation, a repudiation that might even have astonished by its own lack
of surprise, "Or unless Mrs. Brook's in love with you," he amended.

Vanderbank had for this any decent gaiety. "Ah that of course may
perfectly be!"

"But IS it? That's the question."

He continued light. "If she had declared her passion shouldn't I rather
compromise her--?"

"By letting me know?" Mr. Longdon reflected. "I'm sure I can't say--it's
a sort of thing for which I haven't a measure or a precedent. In my time
women didn't declare their passion. I'm thinking of what the meaning is
of Mrs. Brookenham's wanting you--as I've heard it called--herself."

Vanderbank, still with his smile, smoked a minute. "That's what you've
heard it called?"

"Yes, but you must excuse me from telling you by whom."

He was amused at his friend's discretion. "It's unimaginable. But it
doesn't matter. We all call everything--anything. The meaning of it, if
you and I put it so, is--well, a modern shade."

"You must deal then yourself," said Mr. Longdon, "with your modern
shades." He spoke now as if the case simply awaited such dealing.

But at this his young friend was more grave. "YOU could do nothing?--to
bring, I mean, Mrs. Brook round."

Mr. Longdon fairly started. "Propose on your behalf for her daughter?
With your authority--tomorrow. Authorise me and I instantly act."

Vanderbank's colour again rose--his flush was complete. "How awfully you
want it!"

Mr. Longdon, after a look at him, turned away. "How awfully YOU don't!"

The young man continued to blush. "No--you must do me justice. You've
not made a mistake about me--I see in your proposal, I think, all you
can desire I should. Only YOU see it much more simply--and yet I can't
just now explain. If it WERE so simple I should say to you in a moment
'do speak to them for me'--I should leave the matter with delight in
your hands. But I require time, let me remind you, and you haven't yet
told me how much I may take."

This appeal had brought them again face to face, and Mr. Longdon's first
reply to it was a look at his watch. "It's one o'clock."

"Oh I require"--Vanderbank had recovered his pleasant humour--"more
than to-night!"

Mr. Longdon went off to the smaller table that still offered to view two
bedroom candles. "You must take of course the time you need. I won't
trouble you--I won't hurry you. I'm going to bed."

Vanderbank, overtaking him, lighted his candle for him; after which,
handing it and smiling: "Shall we have conduced to your rest?"

Mr. Longdon looked at the other candle. "You're not coming to bed?"

"To MY rest we shall not have conduced. I stay up a while longer."

"Good." Mr. Longdon was pleased. "You won't forget then, as we promised,
to put out the lights?"

"If you trust me for the greater you can trust me for the less. Good-
night."

Vanderbank had offered his hand. "Good-night." But Mr. Longdon kept him
a moment. "You DON'T care for my figure?"

"Not yet--not yet. PLEASE." Vanderbank seemed really to fear it, but on
Mr. Longdon's releasing him with a little drop of disappointment they
went together to the door of the room, where they had another pause.

"She's to come down to me--alone--in September."

Vanderbank appeared to debate and conclude. "Then may I come?"

His friend, on this footing, had to consider. "Shall you know by that
time?"

"I'm afraid I can't promise--if you must regard my coming as a pledge."

Mr. Longdon thought on; then raising his eyes: "I don't quite see why
you won't suffer me to tell you--!"

"The detail of your intention? I do then. You've said quite enough. If
my visit must commit me," Vanderbank pursued, "I'm afraid I can't come."

Mr. Longdon, who had passed into the corridor, gave a dry sad little
laugh. "Come then--as the ladies say--'as you are'!"

On which, rather softly closing the door, the young man remained alone
in the great emptily lighted billiard-room.

Henry James

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