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Chapter 4

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 to-day 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?"

"Yes mamma."

"Oh I say!" cried Mr. Cashmore, hilarious and turning the leaves.

Mr. Longdon had by this time ceremoniously approached Tishy.
"Good-night."


Henry James

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