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Chapter 4

Lord Petherton, a man of five-and-thirty, whose robust but symmetrical
proportions gave to his dark blue double-breasted coat an air of
tightness that just failed of compromising his tailor, had for his main
facial sign a certain pleasant brutality, the effect partly of a bold
handsome parade of carnivorous teeth, partly of an expression of nose
suggesting that this feature had paid a little, in the heat of youth,
for some aggression at the time admired and even publicly commemorated.
He would have been ugly, he substantively granted, had he not been
happy; he would have been dangerous had he not been warranted. Many
things doubtless performed for him this last service, but none so much
as the delightful sound of his voice, the voice, as it were, of another
man, a nature reclaimed, supercivilised, adjusted to the perpetual
"chaff" which kept him smiling in a way that would have been a mistake
and indeed an impossibility if he had really been witty. His bright
familiarity was that of a young prince whose confidence had never had to
falter, and the only thing that at all qualified the resemblance was the
equal familiarity excited in his subjects.

Mr. Mitchett had so little intrinsic appearance that an observer would
have felt indebted for help in placing him to the rare prominence of his
colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the
precipitation of its retreat from discovery. Dressed on the other hand
not as gentlemen dress in London to pay their respects to the fair, he
excited by the exhibition of garments that had nothing in common save
the violence and the independence of their pattern a belief that in the
desperation of humility he wished to render public his having thrown to
the winds the effort to please. It was written all over him that he had
judged once for all his personal case and that, as his character,
superficially disposed to gaiety, deprived him of the resource of
shyness and shade, the effect of comedy might not escape him if secured
by a real plunge. There was comedy therefore in the form of his pot-hat
and the colour of his spotted shirt, in the systematic disagreement,
above all, of his coat, waistcoat and trousers. It was only on long
acquaintance that his so many ingenious ways of showing he appreciated
his commonness could present him as secretly rare.

"And where's the child this time?" he asked of his hostess as soon as he
was seated near her.

"Why do you say 'this time' as if it were different from any other
time?" she replied as she gave him his tea.

"Only because, as the months and the years elapse, it's more and more of
a wonder, whenever I don't see her, to think what she does with herself
--or what you do with her. What it does show, I suppose," Mr. Mitchett
went on, "is that she takes no trouble to meet me."

"My dear Mitchy," said Mrs. Brookenham, "what do YOU know about
'trouble'--either poor Nanda's or mine or anybody's else? You've never
had to take any in your life, you're the spoiled child of fortune and
you skim over the surface of things in a way that seems often to
represent you as supposing everybody else has wings. Most other people
are sticking fast in their native mud."

"Mud, Mrs. Brook--mud, mud!" he protestingly cried as, while he watched
his fellow visitor move to a distance with their host, he glanced about
the room, taking in afresh the Louis Seize secretary which looked better
closed than open and for which he always had a knowing eye. "Remarkably
charming--mud!"

"Well, that's what a great deal of the element really appears to-day to
be thought; and precisely as a specimen, Mitchy dear, those two French
books you were so good as to send me and which--really this time, you
extraordinary man!" She fell back, intimately reproachful, from the
effect produced on her, renouncing all expression save that of the
rolled eye.

"Why, were they particularly dreadful?"--Mitchy was honestly surprised.
"I rather liked the one in the pink cover--what's the confounded thing
called?--I thought it had a sort of a something-or-other." He had cast
his eye about as if for a glimpse of the forgotten title, and she caught
the question as he vaguely and good-humouredly dropped it.

"A kind of a morbid modernity? There IS that," she dimly conceded.

"Is that what they call it? Awfully good name. You must have got it from
old Van!" he gaily declared.

"I dare say I did. I get the good things from him and the bad ones from
you. But you're not to suppose," Mrs. Brookenham went on, "that I've
discussed your horrible book with him."

"Come, I say!" Mr. Mitchett protested; "I've seen you with books from
Vanderbank which if you HAVE discussed them with him--well," he
laughed, "I should like to have been there!"

"You haven't seen me with anything like yours--no, no, never, never!"
She was particularly positive. "Van on the contrary gives tremendous
warnings, makes apologies, in advance, for things that--well, after
all, haven't killed one."

"That have even perhaps a little, after the warnings, let one down?"

She took no notice of this coarse pleasantry, she simply adhered to her
thesis. "One has taken one's dose and one isn't such a fool as to be
deaf to some fresh true note if it happens to turn up. But for abject
horrid unredeemed vileness from beginning to end--"

"So you read to the end?" Mr. Mitchett interposed.

"I read to see what you could possibly have sent such things to me for,
and because so long as they were in my hands they were not in the hands
of others. Please to remember in future that the children are all over
the place and that Harold and Nanda have their nose in everything."

"I promise to remember," Mr. Mitchett returned, "as soon as you make old
Van do the same."

"I do make old Van--I pull old Van up much oftener than I succeed in
pulling you. I must say," Mrs. Brookenham went on, "you're all getting
to require among you in general an amount of what one may call
editing!" She gave one of her droll universal sighs. "I've got your
books at any rate locked up and I wish you'd send for them quickly
again; one's too nervous about anything happening and their being
perhaps found among one's relics. Charming literary remains!" she
laughed.

The friendly Mitchy was also much amused. "By Jove, the most awful
things ARE found! Have you heard about old Randage and what his
executors have just come across? The most abominable--"

"I haven't heard," she broke in, "and I don't want to; but you give me a
shudder and I beg you'll have your offerings removed, since I can't
think of confiding them for the purpose to any one in this house. I
might burn them up in the dead of night, but even then I should be
fearfully nervous."

"I'll send then my usual messenger," said Mitchy, "a person I keep for
such jobs, thoroughly seasoned, as you may imagine, and of a discretion
--what do you call it?--a toute epreuve. Only you must let me say that I
like your terror about Harold! Do you think he spends his time over Dr.
Watts's hymns?"

Mrs. Brookenham just hesitated, and nothing, in general, was so becoming
to her as the act of hesitation. "Dear Mitchy, do you know I want
awfully to talk to you about Harold?"

"About his French reading, Mrs. Brook?" Mitchy responded with interest.
"The worse things are, let me just mention to you about that, the better
they seem positively to be for one's feeling up in the language. They're
more difficult, the bad ones--and there's a lot in that. All the young
men know it--those who are going up for exams."

She had her eyes for a little on Lord Petherton and her husband; then as
if she had not heard what her interlocutor had just said she overcame
her last scruple. "Dear Mitchy, has he had money from you?"

He stared with his good goggle eyes--he laughed out. "Why on earth--?
But do you suppose I'd tell you if he had?"

"He hasn't really borrowed the most dreadful sums?"

Mitchy was highly diverted. "Why should he? For what, please?"

"That's just it--for what? What does he do with it all? What in the
world becomes of it?"

"Well," Mitchy suggested, "he's saving up to start a business. Harold's
irreproachable--hasn't a vice. Who knows in these days what may happen?
He sees further than any young man I know. Do let him save."

She looked far away with her sweet world-weariness. "If you weren't an
angel it would be a horror to be talking to you. But I insist on
knowing." She insisted now with her absurdly pathetic eyes on him. "What
kind of sums?"

"You shall never, never find out--not if you were never to speak to me
again," Mr. Mitchett replied with extravagant firmness. "Harold's one of
my great amusements--I really have awfully few; and if you deprive me of
him you'll be a fiend. There are only one or two things I want to live
for, but one of them is to see how far Harold will go. Please give me
some more tea."

"Do you positively swear?" she asked with intensity as she helped him.
Then without waiting for his answer: "You have the common charity to US,
I suppose, to see the position you'd put us in. Fancy Edward!" she quite
austerely threw off.

Mr. Mitchett, at this, had on his side a wonder. "Does Edward imagine--?"

"My dear man, Edward never 'imagined' anything in life." She still had
her eyes on him. "Therefore if he SEES a thing, don't you know? it must
exist."

Mitchy for a little fixed the person mentioned as he sat with his other
guest, but whatever this person saw he failed just then to see his
wife's companion, whose eyes he never met. His face only offered itself
after the fashion of a clean domestic vessel, a receptacle with the
peculiar property of constantly serving yet never filling, to Lord
Petherton's talkative splash. "Well, only don't let him take it up. Let
it be only between you and me," Mr. Mitchett pleaded; "keep him quiet--
don't let him speak to me." He appeared to convey with his pleasant
extravagance that Edward looked dangerous, and he went on with a rigour
of levity: "It must be OUR little quarrel."

There were different ways of meeting such a tone, but Mrs. Brookenham's
choice was remarkably prompt. "I don't think I quite understand what
dreadful joke you may be making, but I dare say if you HAD let Harold
borrow you'd have another manner, and I was at any rate determined to
have the question out with you."

"Let us always have everything out--that's quite my own idea. It's you,"
said Mr. Mitchett, "who are by no means always so frank with me as I
recognise--oh, I do THAT!--what it must have cost you to be over this
little question of Harold. There's one thing, Mrs. Brook, you do dodge."

"What do I ever dodge, dear Mitchy?" Mrs. Brook quite tenderly asked.

"Why, when I ask you about your other child you're off like a frightened
fawn. When have you ever, on my doing so, said 'my darling Mitchy, I'll
ring for her to be asked to come down so that you can see her for
yourself'--when have you ever said anything like that?"

"I see," Mrs. Brookenham mused; "you think I sacrifice her. You're very
interesting among you all, and I've certainly a delightful circle. The
Duchess has just been letting me have it most remarkably hot, and as
she's presently coming back you'll be able to join forces with her."

Mitchy looked a little at a loss. "On the subject of your sacrifice--"

"Of my innocent and helpless, yet somehow at the same time, as a
consequence of my cynicism, dreadfully damaged and depraved daughter."
She took in for an instant the slight bewilderment against which, as a
result of her speech, even so expert an intelligence as Mr. Mitchett's
had not been proof; then with a small jerk of her head at the other side
of the room made the quickest of transitions. "What IS there between her
and him?"

Mitchy wondered at the other two. "Between Edward and the girl?"

"Don't talk nonsense. Between Petherton and Jane."

Mitchy could only stare, and the wide noonday light of his regard was at
such moments really the redemption of his ugliness. "What 'is' there? Is
there anything?"

"It's too beautiful," Mrs. Brookenham appreciatively sighed, "your
relation with him! You won't compromise him."

"It would be nicer of me," Mitchy laughed, "not to want to compromise
HER!"

"Oh Jane!" Mrs. Brookenham dropped. "DOES he like her?" she continued.
"You must know."

"Ah it's just my knowing that constitutes the beauty of my loyalty--of
my delicacy." He had his quick jumps too. "Am I never, never to see the
child?"

This enquiry appeared only to confirm his friend in the view of what was
touching in him. "You're the most delicate thing I know, and it crops up
with effect the oddest in the intervals of your corruption. Your talk's
half the time impossible; you respect neither age nor sex nor condition;
one doesn't know what you'll say or do next; and one has to return your
books--c'est tout dire--under cover of darkness. Yet there's in the
midst of all this and in the general abyss of you a little deepdown
delicious niceness, a sweet sensibility, that one has actually one's
self, shocked as one perpetually is at you, quite to hold one's breath
and stay one's hand for fear of ruffling or bruising. There's no one in
talk with whom," she balmily continued, "I find myself half so often
suddenly moved to pull up short. You've more little toes to tread on--
though you pretend you haven't: I mean morally speaking, don't you
know?--than even I have myself, and I've so many that I could wish most
of them cut off. You never spare me a shock--no, you don't do that: it
isn't the form your delicacy takes. But you'll know what I mean, all the
same, I think, when I tell you that there are lots I spare YOU!"

Mr. Mitchett fairly glowed with the candour of his attention. "Know what
you mean, dearest lady? How can a man handicapped to death, a man of my
origin, my appearance, my general weaknesses, drawbacks, immense
indebtedness, all round, for the start, as it were, that I feel my
friends have been so good as to allow me: how can such a man not be
conscious every moment that every one about him goes on tiptoe and winks
at every one else? What CAN you all mention in my presence, poor things,
that isn't personal?"

Mrs. Brookenham's face covered him for an instant as no painted
Madonna's had ever covered the little charge at the breast beneath it.
"And the finest thing of all in you is your beautiful, beautiful pride!
You're prouder than all of us put together." She checked a motion that
he had apparently meant as a protest--she went on with her muffled
wisdom. "There isn't a man but YOU whom Petherton wouldn't have made
vulgar. He isn't vulgar himself--at least not exceptionally; but he's
just one of those people, a class one knows well, who are so fearfully,
in this country, the cause of it in others. For all I know he's the
cause of it in me--the cause of it even in poor Edward. For I'm vulgar,
Mitchy dear--very often; and the marvel of you is that you never are."

"Thank you for everything. Thank you above all for 'marvel'!" Mitchy
grinned.

"Oh I know what I say!"--she didn't in the least blush. "I'll tell you
something," she pursued with the same gravity, "if you'll promise to
tell no one on earth. If you're proud I'm not. There! It's most
extraordinary and I try to conceal it even to myself; but there's no
doubt whatever about it--I'm not proud pour deux sous. And some day, on
some awful occasion, I shall show it. So--I notify you. Shall you love
me still?"

"To the bitter end," Mitchy loyally responded. "For how CAN, how need, a
woman be 'proud' who's so preternaturally clever? Pride's only for use
when wit breaks down--it's the train the cyclist takes when his tire's
deflated. When that happens to YOUR tire, Mrs. Brook, you'll let me
know. And you do make me wonder just now," he confessed, "why you're
taking such particular precautions and throwing out such a cloud of
skirmishers. If you want to shoot me dead a single bullet will do." He
faltered but an instant before completing his sense. "Where you really
want to come out is at the fact that Nanda loathes me and that I might
as well give up asking for her."

"Are you quite serious?" his companion after a moment resumed. "Do you
really and truly like her, Mitchy?"

"I like her as much as I dare to--as much as a man can like a girl when
from the very first of his seeing her and judging her he has also seen,
and seen with all the reasons, that there's no chance for him whatever.
Of course, with all that, he has done his best not to let himself go.
But there are moments," Mr. Mitchett ruefully added, "when it would
relieve him awfully to feel free for a good spin."

"I think you exaggerate," his hostess replied, "the difficulties in your
way. What do you mean by all the 'reasons'?"

"Why one of them I've already mentioned. I make her flesh creep."

"My own Mitchy!" Mrs. Brookenham protestingly moaned.

"The other is that--very naturally--she's in love."

"With whom under the sun?"

Mrs. Brookenham had, with her startled stare, met his eyes long enough
to have taken something from him before he next spoke.

"You really have never suspected? With whom conceivably but old Van?"

"Nanda's in love with old Van?"--the degree to which she had never
suspected was scarce to be expressed. "Why he's twice her age--he has
seen her in a pinafore with a dirty face and well slapped for it: he has
never thought of her in the world."

"How can a person of your acuteness, my dear woman," Mitchy asked,
"mention such trifles as having the least to do with the case? How can
you possibly have such a fellow about, so beastly good-looking, so
infernally well turned out in the way of 'culture,' and so bringing them
down in short on every side, and expect in the bosom of your family the
absence of history of the reigns of the good kings? If YOU were a girl
wouldn't YOU turn purple? If I were a girl shouldn't I--unless, as is
more likely, I turned green?"

Mrs. Brookenham was deeply affected. "Nanda does turn purple--?"

"The loveliest shade you ever saw. It's too absurd that you haven't
noticed."

It was characteristic of Mrs. Brookenham's amiability that, with her
sudden sense of the importance of this new light, she should be quite
ready to abase herself. "There are so many things in one's life. One
follows false scents. One doesn't make out everything at once. If you're
right you must help me. We must see more of her."

"But what good will that do me?" Mitchy appealed.

"Don't you care enough for her to want to help HER?" Then before he
could speak, "Poor little darling dear!" his hostess tenderly
ejaculated. "What does she think or dream? Truly she's laying up
treasure!"

"Oh he likes her," said Mitchy. "He likes her in fact extremely."

"Do you mean he has told you so?"

"Oh no--we never mention it! But he likes her," Mr. Mitchett stubbornly
repeated. "And he's thoroughly straight."

Mrs. Brookenham for a moment turned these things over; after which she
came out in a manner that visibly surprised him. "It isn't as if you
wished to be nasty about him, is it?--because I know you like him
yourself. You're so wonderful to your friends"--oh she could let him
see that she knew!--"and in such different and exquisite ways. There are
those like HIM"--she signified her other visitor--"who get everything
out of you and whom you really appear fond of, or at least to put up
with, just FOR that. Then there are those who ask nothing--and whom
you're fond of in spite of it."

Mitchy leaned back from this, fist within fist, watching her with a
certain disguised emotion. He grinned almost too much for mere
amusement. "That's the class to which YOU belong."

"It's the best one," she returned, "and I'm careful to remain in it. You
try to get us, by bribery, into the inferior place, because, proud as
you are, it bores you a little that you like us so much. But we won't
go--at least I won't. You may make Van," she wonderfully continued.
"There's nothing you wouldn't do for him or give him." Mitchy admired
her from his position, slowly shaking his head with it. "He's the man--
with no fortune and just as he is, to the smallest particular--whom you
would have liked to be, whom you intensely envy, and yet to whom you're
magnanimous enough for almost any sacrifice."

Mitchy's appreciation had fairly deepened to a flush. "Magnificent,
magnificent Mrs. Brook! What ARE you in thunder up to?"

"Therefore, as I say," she imperturbably went on, "it's not to do him an
ill turn that you make a point of what you've just told me."

Mr. Mitchett for a minute gave no sign but his high colour and his queer
glare. "How could it do him an ill turn?"

"Oh it WOULD be a way, don't you see? to put before me the need of
getting rid of him. For he may 'like' Nanda as much as you please: he'll
never, never," Mrs. Brookenham resolutely quavered--"he'll never come
to the scratch. And to feel that as _I_ do," she explained, "can only
be, don't you also see? to want to save her."

It would have appeared at last that poor Mitchy did see. "By taking it
in time? By forbidding him the house?"

She seemed to stand with little nipping scissors in a garden of
alternatives. "Or by shipping HER off. Will you help me to save her?"
she broke out again after a moment. "It isn't true," she continued,
"that she has any aversion to you."

"Have you charged her with it?" Mitchy demanded with a courage that
amounted to high gallantry.

It inspired on the spot his interlocutress, and her own pluck, of as
fine a quality now as her diplomacy, which was saying much, fell but
little below. "Yes, my dear friend--frankly."

"Good. Then I know what she said."

"She absolutely denied it."

"Oh yes--they always do, because they pity me," Mitchy smiled. "She said
what they always say--that the effect I produce is, though at first
upsetting, one that little by little they find it possible to get used
to. The world's full of people who are getting used to me," Mr. Mitchett
concluded.

"It's what _I_ shall never do, for you're quite too great a luxury!"
Mrs. Brookenham declared. "If I haven't threshed you out really MORE
with Nanda," she continued, "it has been from a scruple of a sort you
people never do a woman the justice to impute. You're the object of
views that have so much more to set them off."

Mr. Mitchett on this jumped up; he was clearly conscious of his nerves;
he fidgeted away a few steps and then, his hands in his pockets, fixed
on his hostess a countenance more controlled. "What does the Duchess
mean by your daughter's being--as I understood you to quote her just
now--'damaged and depraved'?"

Mrs. Brookenham came up--she literally rose--smiling. "You fit the cap.
You know how she'd like you for little Aggie!"

"What does she mean, what does she mean?" Mitchy repeated.

The door, as he spoke, was thrown open; Mrs. Brookenham glanced round.
"You've the chance to find out from herself!" The Duchess had come back
and little Aggie was in her wake.

Henry James

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