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Chapter 2

"But surely you're not going already?" she asked. "Why in the world then
do you suppose I appealed to you?"

"Bless me, no; I've lots of time." He dropped, laughing for very
eagerness, straight into another chair. "You're too awfully interesting.
Is it really an 'appeal'?" Putting the question indeed he could scarce
even yet allow her a chance to answer it. "It's only that you make me a
little nervous with your account of all the people who are going to
tumble in. And there's one thing more," he quickly went on; "I just want
to make the point in case we should be interrupted. The whole fun is in
seeing you this way alone."

"Is THAT the point?" Nanda, as he took breath, gravely asked.

"That's a part of it--I feel it, I assure you, to be charming. But what
I meant--if you'd only give me time, you know, to put in a word--is what
for that matter I've already told you: that it almost spoils my pleasure
for you to keep reminding me that a bit of luck like this--luck for ME:
I see you coming!--is after all for you but a question of business. Hang
business! Good--don't stab me with that paper-knife. I listen. What IS
the great affair?" Then as it looked for an instant as if the words she
had prepared were just, in the supreme pinch of her need, falling apart,
he once more tried his advantage. "Oh if there's any difficulty about it
let it go--we'll take it for granted. There's one thing at any rate--do
let me say this--that I SHOULD like you to keep before me: I want before
I go to make you light up for me the question of little Aggie. Oh there
are other questions too as to which I regard you as a perfect fountain
of curious knowledge! However, we'll take them one by one--the next some
other time. You always seem to me to hold the strings of such a lot of
queer little dramas. Have something on the shelf for me when we meet
again. THE thing just now is the outlook for Mitchy's affair. One cares
enough for old Mitch to fancy one may feel safer for a lead or two. In
fact I want regularly to turn you on."

"Ah but the thing I happen to have taken it into my head to say to you,"
Nanda now securely enough replied, "hasn't the least bit to do, I assure
you, either with Aggie or with 'old Mitch.' If you don't want to hear
it--want some way of getting off--please believe THEY won't help you a
bit." It was quite in fact that she felt herself at last to have found
the right tone. Nothing less than a conviction of this could have made
her after an instant add: "What in the world, Mr. Van, are you afraid
of?"

Well, that it WAS the right tone a single little minute was sufficient
to prove--a minute, I must yet haste to say, big enough in spite of its
smallness to contain the longest look on any occasion exchanged between
these friends. It was one of those looks--not so frequent, it must be
admitted, as the muse of history, dealing at best in short cuts, is
often by the conditions of her trade reduced to representing them--which
after they have come and gone are felt not only to have changed
relations but absolutely to have cleared the air. It certainly helped
Vanderbank to find his answer. "I'm only afraid, I think, of your
conscience."

He had been indeed for the space more helped than she. "My conscience?"

"Think it over--quite at your leisure--and some day you'll understand.
There's no hurry," he continued--"no hurry. And when you do understand,
it needn't make your existence a burden to you to fancy you must tell
me." Oh he was so kind--kinder than ever now. "The thing is, you see,
that _I_ haven't a conscience. I only want my fun."

They had on this a second look, also decidedly comfortable, though
discounted, as the phrase is, by the other, which had really in its way
exhausted the possibilities of looks. "Oh I want MY fun too," said
Nanda, "and little as it may strike you in some ways as looking like it,
just this, I beg you to believe, is the real thing. What's at the bottom
of it," she went on, "is a talk I had not long ago with mother."

"Oh yes," Van returned with brightly blushing interest. "The fun," he
laughed, "that's to be got out of 'mother'!"

"Oh I'm not thinking so much of that. I'm thinking of any that she
herself may be still in a position to pick up. Mine now, don't you see?
is in making out how I can manage for this. Of course it's rather
difficult," the girl pursued, "for me to tell you exactly what I mean."

"Oh but it isn't a bit difficult for me to understand you!" Vanderbank
spoke, in his geniality, as if this were in fact the veriest trifle.
"You've got your mother on your mind. That's very much what I mean by
your conscience."

Nanda had a fresh hesitation, but evidently unaccompanied at present by
any pain. "Don't you still LIKE mamma?" she at any rate quite
successfully brought out. "I must tell you," she quickly subjoined,
"that though I've mentioned my talk with her as having finally led to my
writing to you, it isn't in the least that she then suggested my putting
you the question. I put it," she explained, "quite off my own bat."

The explanation, as an effect immediately produced, did proportionately
much for the visitor, who sat back in his chair with a pleased--a
distinctly exhilarated--sense both of what he himself and what Nanda had
done. "You're an adorable family!"

"Well then if mother's adorable why give her up? This I don't mind
admitting she did, the day I speak of, let me see that she feels you've
done; but without suggesting either--not a scrap, please believe--that I
should make you any sort of scene about it. Of course in the first place
she knows perfectly that anything like a scene would be no use. You
couldn't make out even if you wanted," Nanda went on, "that THIS is one.
She won't hear us--will she?--smashing the furniture. I didn't think for
a while that I could do anything at all, and I worried myself with that
idea half to death. Then suddenly it came to me that I could do just
what I'm doing now. You said a while ago that we must never be--you and
I--anything but frank and natural. That's what I said to myself also--
why not? Here I am for you therefore as natural as a cold in your head.
I just ask you--I even press you. It's because, as she said, you've
practically ceased coming. Of course I know everything changes. It's the
law--what is it?--'the great law' of something or other. All sorts of
things happen--things come to an end. She has more or less--by his
marriage--lost Mitchy. I don't want her to lose everything. Do stick to
her. What I really wanted to say to you--to bring it straight out--is
that I don't believe you thoroughly know how awfully she likes you. I
hope my saying such a thing doesn't affect you as 'immodest.' One never
knows--but I don't much care if it does. I suppose it WOULD be
immodest if I were to say that I verily believe she's in love with you.
Not, for that matter, that father would mind--he wouldn't mind, as he
says, a tuppenny rap. So"--she extraordinarily kept it up--"you're
welcome to any good the information may have for you: though that, I
dare say, does sound hideous. No matter--if I produce any effect on you.
That's the only thing I want. When I think of her downstairs there so
often nowadays practically alone I feel as if I could scarcely bear it.
She's so fearfully young."

This time at least her speech, while she went from point to point,
completely hushed him, though after a full glimpse of the direction it
was taking he ceased to meet her eyes and only sat staring hard at the
pattern of the rug. Even when at last he spoke it was without looking
up. "You're indeed, as she herself used to say, the modern daughter! It
takes that type to wish to make a career for her parents."

"Oh," said Nanda very simply, "it isn't a 'career' exactly, is it--
keeping hold of an old friend? but it may console a little, mayn't it,
for the absence of one? At all events I didn't want not to have spoken
before it's too late. Of course I don't know what's the matter between
you, or if anything's really the matter at all. I don't care at any rate
WHAT is--it can't be anything very bad. Make it up, make it up--forget
it. I don't pretend that's a career for YOU any more than for her; but
there it is. I know how I sound--most patronising and pushing; but
nothing venture nothing have. You CAN'T know how much you are to her.
You're more to her, I verily believe, than any one EVER was. I hate to
have the appearance of plotting anything about her behind her back; so
I'll just say it once for all. She said once, in speaking of it to a
person who repeated it to me, that you had done more for her than any
one, because it was you who had really brought her out. It WAS. You did.
I saw it at the time myself. I was very small, but I COULD see it.
You'll say I must have been a most uncanny little wretch, and I dare say
I was and am keeping now the pleasant promise. That doesn't prevent
one's feeling that when a person has brought a person out--"

"A person should take the consequences," Vanderbank broke in, "and see a
person through?" He could meet her now perfectly and proceeded admirably
to do it. "There's an immense deal in that, I admit--I admit. I'm bound
to say I don't know quite what I did--one does those things, no doubt,
with a fine unconsciousness: I should have thought indeed it was the
other way round. But I assure you I accept all consequences and all
responsibilities. If you don't know what's the matter between us I'm
sure _I_ don't either. It can't be much--we'll look into it. I don't
mean you and I--YOU mustn't be any more worried; but she and her so
unwittingly faithless one. I HAVEN'T been as often, I know"--Van
pleasantly kept his course. "But there's a tide in the affairs of men--
and of women too, and of girls and of every one. You know what I mean--
you know it for yourself. The great thing is that--bless both your
hearts!--one doesn't, one simply CAN'T if one would, give your mother
up. It's absurd to talk about it. Nobody ever did such a thing in his
life. There she is, like the moon or the Marble Arch. I don't say, mind
you," he candidly explained, "that every one LIKES her equally: that's
another affair. But no one who ever HAS liked her can afford ever again
for any long period to do without her. There are too many stupid people
--there's too much dull company. That, in London, is to be had by the
ton; your mother's intelligence, on the other hand, will always have its
price. One can talk with her for a change. She's fine, fine, fine. So,
my dear child, be quiet. She's a fixed star."

"Oh I know she is," Nanda said. "It's YOU--"

"Who may be only the flashing meteor?" He sat and smiled at her. "I
promise you then that your words have stayed me in my course. You've
made me stand as still as Joshua made the sun." With which he got
straight up. "'Young,' you say she is?"--for as if to make up for it he
all the more sociably continued. "It's not like anything else. She's
youth. She's MY youth--she WAS mine. And if you ever have a chance," he
wound up, "do put in for me that if she wants REALLY to know she's
booked for my old age. She's clever enough, you know"--and Vanderbank,
laughing, went over for his hat--"to understand what you tell her."

Nanda took this in with due attention; she was also now on her feet.
"And then she's so lovely."

"Awfully pretty!"

"I don't say it, as they say, you know," the girl continued, "BECAUSE
she's mother, but I often think when we're out that wherever she is--!"

"There's no one that all round really touches her?" Vanderbank took it
up with zeal. "Oh so every one thinks, and in fact one's appreciation of
the charming things in that way so intensely her own can scarcely
breathe on them all lightly enough. And then, hang it, she has
perceptions--which are not things that run about the streets. She has
surprises." He almost broke down for vividness. "She has little ways."

"Well, I'm glad you do like her," Nanda gravely replied.

At this again he fairly faced her, his momentary silence making it still
more direct. "I like, you know, about as well as I ever liked anything,
this wonderful idea of yours of putting in a plea for her solitude and
her youth. Don't think I do it injustice if I say--which is saying much
--that it's quite as charming as it's amusing. And now good-bye."

He had put out his hand, but Nanda hesitated. "You won't wait for tea?"

"My dear child, I can't." He seemed to feel, however, that something
more must be said. "We shall meet again. But it's getting on, isn't it,
toward the general scatter?"

"Yes, and I hope that this year," she answered, "you'll have a good
holiday."

"Oh we shall meet before that. I shall do what I can, but upon my word I
feel, you know," he laughed, "that such a tuning-up as YOU'VE given me
will last me a long time. It's like the high Alps." Then with his hand
out again he added: "Have you any plans yourself?"

So many, it might have seemed, that she had no time to take for thinking
of them. "I dare say I shall be away a good deal."

He candidly wondered. "With Mr. Longdon?"

"Yes--with him most."

He had another pause. "Really for a long time?"

"A long long one, I hope."

"Your mother's willing again?"

"Oh perfectly. And you see that's why."

"Why?" She had said nothing more, and he failed to understand.

"Why you mustn't too much leave her alone. DON'T!" Nanda brought out.

"I won't. But," he presently added, "there are one or two things."

"Well, what are they?"

He produced in some seriousness the first. "Won't she after all see the
Mitchys?"

"Not so much either. That of course is now very different."

Vanderbank demurred. "But not for YOU, I gather--is it? Don't you expect
to see them?"

"Oh yes--I hope they'll come down."

He moved away a little--not straight to the door. "To Beccles? Funny
place for them, a little though, isn't it?"

He had put the question as if for amusement, but Nanda took it
literally. "Ah not when they're invited so very very charmingly. Not
when he wants them so."

"Mr. Longdon? Then that keeps up?"

"'That'?"--she was at a loss.

"I mean his intimacy--with Mitchy."

"So far as it IS an intimacy."

"But didn't you, by the way"--and he looked again at his watch--"tell me
they're just about to turn up together?"

"Oh not so very particularly together."

"Mitchy first alone?" Vanderbank asked.

She had a smile that was dim, that was slightly strange. "Unless you'll
stay for company."

"Thanks--impossible. And then Mr. Longdon alone?"

"Unless Mitchy stays."

He had another pause. "You haven't after all told me about the
'evolution'--or the evolutions--of his wife."

"How can I if you don't give me time?"

"I see--of course not." He seemed to feel for an instant the return of
his curiosity. "Yet it won't do, will it? to have her out before HIM?
No, I must go." He came back to her and at present she gave him a hand.
"But if you do see Mr. Longdon alone will you do me a service? I mean
indeed not simply today, but with all other good chances?"

She waited. "Any service whatever. But which first?"

"Well," he returned in a moment, "let us call it a bargain. I look after
your mother--"

"And I--?" She had had to wait again.

"Look after my good name. I mean for common decency to HIM. He has been
of a kindness to me that, when I think of my failure to return it, makes
me blush from head to foot. I've odiously neglected him--by a
complication of accidents. There are things I ought to have done that I
haven't. There's one in particular--but it doesn't matter. And I
haven't even explained about THAT. I've been a brute and I didn't mean
it and I couldn't help it. But there it is. Say a good word for me. Make
out somehow or other that I'm NOT a beast. In short," the young man
said, quite flushed once more with the intensity of his thought, "let us
have it that you may quite trust ME if you'll let me a little--just for
my character as a gentleman--trust YOU."

"Ah you may trust me," Nanda replied with her handshake.

"Good-bye then!" he called from the door.

"Good-bye," she said after he had closed it.

Henry James

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