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Chapter 1

Nanda Brookenham, for a fortnight after Mr. Longdon's return, had found
much to think of; but the bustle of business became, visibly for us,
particularly great with her on a certain Friday afternoon in June. She
was in unusual possession of that chamber of comfort in which so much of
her life had lately been passed, the redecorated and rededicated room
upstairs in which she had enjoyed a due measure both of solitude and of
society. Passing the objects about her in review she gave especial
attention to her rather marked wealth of books; changed repeatedly, for
five minutes, the position of various volumes, transferred to tables
those that were on shelves and rearranged shelves with an eye to the
effect of backs. She was flagrantly engaged throughout indeed in the
study of effect, which moreover, had the law of an extreme freshness not
inveterately prevailed there, might have been observed to be traceable
in the very detail of her own appearance. "Company" in short was in the
air and expectation in the picture. The flowers on the little tables
bloomed with a consciousness sharply taken up by the glitter of nick-
nacks and reproduced in turn in the light exuberance of cushions on
sofas and the measured drop of blinds in windows. The numerous
photographed friends in particular were highly prepared, with small
intense faces, each, that happened in every case to be turned to the
door. The pair of eyes most dilated perhaps was that of old Van, present
under a polished glass and in a frame of gilt-edged morocco that spoke
out, across the room, of Piccadilly and Christmas, and visibly widening
his gaze at the opening of the door, at the announcement of a name by a
footman and at the entrance of a gentleman remarkably like him save as
the resemblance was on the gentleman's part flattered. Vanderbank had
not been in the room ten seconds before he showed ever so markedly that
he had arrived to be kind. Kindness therefore becomes for us, by a quick
turn of the glass that reflects the whole scene, the high pitch of the
concert--a kindness that almost immediately filled the place, to the
exclusion of everything else, with a familiar friendly voice, a
brightness of good looks and good intentions, a constant though perhaps
sometimes misapplied laugh, a superabundance almost of interest,
inattention and movement.

The first thing the young man said was that he was tremendously glad she
had written. "I think it was most particularly nice of you." And this
thought precisely seemed, as he spoke, a flower of the general bloom--as
if the niceness he had brought in was so great that it straightway
converted everything to its image. "The only thing that upset me a
little," he went on, "was your saying that before writing it you had so
hesitated and waited. I hope very much, you know, that you'll never do
anything of that kind again. If you've ever the slightest desire to see
me--for no matter what reason, if there's ever the smallest thing of any
sort that I can do for you, I promise you I shan't easily forgive you if
you stand on ceremony. It seems to me that when people have known each
other as long as you and I there's one comfort at least they may treat
themselves to. I mean of course," Van developed, "that of being easy and
frank and natural. There are such a lot of relations in which one isn't,
in which it doesn't pay, in which 'ease' in fact would be the greatest
of troubles and 'nature' the greatest of falsities. However," he
continued while he suddenly got up to change the place in which he had
put his hat, "I don't really know why I'm preaching at such a rate, for
I've a perfect consciousness of not myself requiring it. One does half
the time preach more or less for one's self, eh? I'm not mistaken at all
events, I think, about the right thing with YOU. And a hint's enough for
you, I'm sure, on the right thing with me." He had been looking all
round while he talked and had twice shifted his seat; so that it was
quite in consonance with his general admiring notice that the next
impression he broke out with should have achieved some air of relevance.
"What extraordinarily lovely flowers you have and how charming you've
made everything! You're always doing something--women are always
changing the position of their furniture. If one happens to come in in
the dark, no matter how well one knows the place, one sits down on a hat
or a puppy-dog. But of course you'll say one doesn't come in in the
dark, or at least, if one does, deserves what one gets. Only you know
the way some women keep their rooms. I'm bound to say YOU don't, do
you?--you don't go in for flower-pots in the windows and half a dozen
blinds. Why SHOULD you? You HAVE got a lot to show!" He rose with this
for the third time, as the better to command the scene. "What I mean is
that sofa--which by the way is awfully good: you do, my dear Nanda, go
it! It certainly was HERE the last time, wasn't it? and this thing was
there. The last time--I mean the last time I was up here--was fearfully
long ago: when, by the way, WAS it? But you see I HAVE been and that I
remember it. And you've a lot more things now. You're laying up
treasure. Really the increase of luxury--! What an awfully jolly lot of
books--have you read them all? Where did you learn so much about
bindings?"

He continued to talk; he took things up and put them down; Nanda sat in
her place, where her stillness, fixed and colourless, contrasted with
his rather flushed freedom, and appeared only to wait, half in surprise,
half in surrender, for the flow of his suggestiveness to run its course,
so that, having herself provoked the occasion, she might do a little
more to meet it. It was by no means, however, that his presence in any
degree ceased to prevail; for there were minutes during which her face,
the only thing in her that moved, turning with his turns and following
his glances, actually had a look inconsistent with anything but
submission to almost any accident. It might have expressed a desire for
his talk to last and last, an acceptance of any treatment of the hour or
any version, or want of version, of her act that would best suit his
ease, even in fact a resigned prevision of the occurrence of something
that would leave her, quenched and blank, with the appearance of having
made him come simply that she might look at him. She might indeed well
have been aware of an inability to look at him little enough to make it
flagrant that she had appealed to him for something quite different.
Keeping the situation meanwhile thus in his hands he recognised over the
chimney a new alteration. "There used to be a big print--wasn't there? a
thing of the fifties--we had lots of them at home; some place or other
'in the olden time.' And now there's that lovely French glass. So you
see." He spoke as if she had in some way gainsaid him, whereas he had
not left her time even to answer a question. But he broke out anew on
the beauty of her flowers. "You have awfully good ones--where do you get
them? Flowers and pictures and--what are the other things people have
when they're happy and superior?--books and birds. You ought to have a
bird or two, though I dare say you think that by the noise I make I'm as
good myself as a dozen. Isn't there some girl in some story--it isn't
Scott; what is it?--who had domestic difficulties and a cage in her
window and whom one associates with chickweed and virtue? It isn't
Esmeralda--Esmeralda had a poodle, hadn't she?--or have I got my
heroines mixed? You're up here yourself like a heroine; you're perched
in your tower or what do you call it?--your bower. You quite hang over
the place, you know--the great wicked city, the wonderful London sky and
the monuments looming through: or am I again only muddling up my Zola?
You must have the sunsets--haven't you? No--what am I talking about? Of
course you look north. Well, they strike me as about the only thing you
haven't. At the same time it's not only because I envy you that I feel
humiliated. I ought to have sent you some flowers." He smote himself
with horror, throwing back his head with a sudden thought. "Why in
goodness when I got your note didn't I for once in my life do something
really graceful? I simply liked it and answered it. Here I am. But I've
brought nothing. I haven't even brought a box of sweets. I'm not a man
of the world."

"Most of the flowers here," Nanda at last said, "come from Mr. Longdon.
Don't you remember his garden?"

Vanderbank, in quick response, called it up. "Dear yes--wasn't it
charming? And that morning you and I spent there"--he was so careful to
be easy about it--"talking under the trees."

"You had gone out to be quiet and read--!"

"And you came out to look after me. Well, I remember," Van went on,
"that we had some good talk."

The talk, Nanda's face implied, had become dim to her; but there were
other things. "You know he's a great gardener--I mean really one of the
greatest. His garden's like a dinner in a house where the person--the
person of the house--thoroughly knows and cares."

"I see. And he sends you dishes from the table."

"Often--every week. It comes to the same thing--now that he's in town
his gardener does it."

"Charming of them both!" Vanderbank exclaimed. "But his gardener--that
extraordinarily tall fellow with the long red beard--was almost as nice
as himself. I had talks with HIM too and remember every word he said. I
remember he told me you asked questions that showed 'a deal of study.'
But I thought I had never seen all round such a charming lot of people--
I mean as those down there that our friend has got about him. It's an
awfully good note for a man, pleasant servants, I always think, don't
you? Mr. Longdon's--and quite without their saying anything; just from
the sort of type and manner they had--struck me as a kind of chorus of
praise. The same with Mitchy's at Mertle, I remember," Van rambled on.
"Mitchy's the sort of chap who might have awful ones, but I recollect
telling him that one quite felt as if it were with THEM one had come to
stay. Good note, good note," he cheerfully repeated. "I'm bound to say,
you know," he continued in this key, "that you've a jolly sense for
getting in with people who make you comfortable. Then, by the way, he's
still in town?"

Nanda waited. "Do you mean Mr. Mitchy?"

"Oh HE is, I know--I met them two nights ago; and by the way again--
don't let me forget--I want to speak to you about his wife. But I've not
seen, do you know? Mr. Longdon--which is really too awful. Twice, thrice
I think, have I at moments like this one snatched myself from pressure;
but there's no finding the old demon at any earthly hour. When do YOU
go--or does he only come here? Of course I see you've got the place
arranged for him. When I asked at his hotel at what hour he ever IS in,
blest if the fellow didn't say 'very often, sir, about ten!' And when I
said 'Ten P. M.?' he quite laughed at my innocence over a person of such
habits. What ARE his habits then now, and what are you putting him up
to? Seriously," Vanderbank pursued, "I AM awfully sorry and I wonder if,
the first time you've a chance, you'd kindly tell him you've heard me
say so and that I mean yet to run him to earth. The same really with the
dear Mitchys. I didn't somehow, the other night, in such a lot of
people, get at them. But I sat opposite to Aggie all through dinner, and
that puts me in mind. I should like volumes from you about Aggie,
please. It's too revolting of me not to go to see her. But every one
knows I'm busy. We're up to our necks!"

"I can't tell you," said Nanda, "how kind I think it of you to have
found, with all you have to do, a moment for THIS. But please, without
delay, let me tell you--!"

Practically, however, he would let her tell him nothing; his almost
aggressive friendly optimism clung so to references of short range.
"Don't mention it, please. It's too charming of you to squeeze me in. To
see YOU moreover does me good. Quite distinct good. And your writing me
touched me--oh but really. There were all sorts of old things in it."
Then he broke out once more on her books, one of which for some minutes
past he had held in his hand. "I see you go in for sets--and, my dear
child, upon my word, I see, BIG sets. What's this?--'Vol. 23: The
British Poets.' Vol. 23 is delightful--do tell me about Vol. 23. Are you
doing much in the British Poets? But when the deuce, you wonderful
being, do you find time to read? _I_ don't find any--it's too hideous.
One relapses in London into such illiteracy and barbarism. I have to
keep up a false glitter to hide in conversation my rapidly increasing
ignorance: I should be so ashamed after all to see other people NOT
shocked by it. But teach me, teach me!" he gaily went on.

"The British Poets," Nanda immediately answered, "were given me by Mr.
Longdon, who has given me all the good books I have except a few--those
in that top row--that have been given me at different times by Mr.
Mitchy. Mr. Mitchy has sent me flowers too, as well as Mr. Longdon. And
they're both--since we've spoken of my seeing them--coming by
appointment this afternoon; not together, but Mr. Mitchy at 5.30 and Mr.
Longdon at 6.30."

She had spoken as with conscious promptitude, making up for what she had
not yet succeeded in saying by a quick, complete statement of her case.
She was evidently also going on with more, but her actual visitor had
already taken her up with a laugh. "You ARE making a day of it and you
run us like railway-trains!" He looked at his watch. "Have _I_ then
time?"

"It seems to me I should say 'Have _I_?' But it's not half-past four,"
Nanda went on, "and though I've something very particular of course to
say to you it won't take long. They don't bring tea till five, and you
must surely stay till that. I had already written to you when they each,
for the same reason, proposed this afternoon. They go out of town
to-morrow for Sunday."

"Oh I see--and they have to see you first. What an influence you exert,
you know, on people's behaviour!"

She continued as literal as her friend was facetious. "Well, it just
happened so, and it didn't matter, since, on my asking you, don't you
know? to choose your time, you had taken, as suiting you best, this
comparatively early hour."

"Oh perfectly." But he again had his watch out. "I've a job, perversely
--that was my reason--on the other side of the world; which, by the way,
I'm afraid, won't permit me to wait for tea. My tea doesn't matter." The
watch went back to his pocket. "I'm sorry to say I must be off before
five. It has been delightful at all events to see you again."

He was on his feet as he spoke, and though he had been half the time on
his feet his last words gave the effect of his moving almost immediately
to the door. It appeared to come out with them rather clearer than
before that he was embarrassed enough really to need help, and it was
doubtless the measure she after an instant took of this that enabled
Nanda, with a quietness all her own, to draw to herself a little more of
the situation. The quietness was plainly determined for her by a quick
vision of its being the best assistance she could show. Had he an inward
terror that explained his superficial nervousness, the incoherence of a
loquacity designed, it would seem, to check in each direction her
advance? He only fed it in that case by allowing his precautionary
benevolence to put him in so much deeper. Where indeed could he have
supposed she wanted to come out, and what that she could ever do for him
would really be so beautiful as this present chance to smooth his
confusion and add as much as possible to that refined satisfaction with
himself which would proceed from his having dealt with a difficult hour
in a gallant and delicate way? To force upon him an awkwardness was like
forcing a disfigurement or a hurt, so that at the end of a minute,
during which the expression of her face became a kind of uplifted view
of her opportunity, she arrived at the appearance of having changed
places with him and of their being together precisely in order that he--
not she--should be let down easily.


Henry James

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