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Chapter 2

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.

"Immensely."

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."

"But how?"

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."

Henry James

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