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Chapter 5

That young lady, in this relation, was certainly a figure to have
offered a foundation for the highest hopes. As slight and white, as
delicately lovely, as a gathered garden lily, her admirable training
appeared to hold her out to them all as with precautionary finger-tips.
She presumed, however, so little on any introduction that, shyly and
submissively, waiting for the word of direction, she stopped short in
the centre of the general friendliness till Mrs. Brookenham fairly
became, to meet her, also a shy little girl--put out a timid hand with
wonder-struck innocent eyes that hesitated whether a kiss of greeting
might be dared. "Why you dear good strange 'ickle' thing, you haven't
been here for ages, but it IS a joy to see you and I do hope you've
brought your doll!"--such might have been the sense of our friend's fond
murmur while, looking at her up and down with pure pleasure, she drew
the rare creature to a sofa. Little Aggie presented, up and down, an
arrangement of dress exactly in the key of her age, her complexion, her
emphasised virginity. She might have been prepared for her visit by a
cluster of doting nuns, cloistered daughters of ancient houses and
educators of similar products, whose taste, hereditarily good, had
grown, out of the world and most delightfully, so queer as to leave on
everything they touched a particular shade of distinction. The Duchess
had brought in with the child an air of added confidence for which an
observer would in a moment have seen the grounds, the association of the
pair being so markedly favourable to each. Its younger member carried
out the style of her aunt's presence quite as one of the accessory
figures effectively thrown into old portraits. The Duchess on the other
hand seemed, with becoming blandness, to draw from her niece the dignity
of a kind of office of state--hereditary governess of the children of
the blood. Little Aggie had a smile as softly bright as a Southern dawn,
and the friends of her relative looked at each other, according to a
fashion frequent in Mrs. Brookenham's drawing-room, in free exchange of
their happy impression. Mr. Mitchett was none the less scantly diverted
from his estimate of the occasion Mrs. Brookenham had just named to him.

"My dear Duchess," he promptly asked, "do you mind explaining to me an
opinion I've just heard of your--with marked originality--holding?"

The Duchess, her head all in the air, considered an instant her little
ivory princess. "I'm always ready, Mr. Mitchett, to defend my opinions;
but if it's a question of going much into the things that are the
subjects of some of them perhaps we had better, if you don't mind,
choose our time and our place."

"No 'time,' gracious lady, for my impatience," Mr. Mitchett replied,
"could be better than the present--but if you've reasons for wanting a
better place why shouldn't we go on the spot into another room?"

Lord Petherton, at this enquiry, broke into instant mirth. "Well, of all
the coolness, Mitchy!--he does go at it, doesn't he, Mrs. Brook? What do
you want to do in another room?" he demanded of his friend. "Upon my
word, Duchess, under the nose of those--"

The Duchess, on the first blush, lent herself to the humour of the case.
"Well, Petherton, of 'those'?--I defy him to finish his sentence!" she
smiled to the others.

"Of those," said his lordship, "who flatter themselves that when you do
happen to find them somewhere your first idea is not quite to jump at a
pretext for getting off somewhere else. Especially," he continued to
jest, "with a man of Mitchy's vile reputation."

"Oh!" Edward Brookenham exclaimed at this, but only as with quiet
relief.

"Mitchy's offer is perfectly safe, I may let him know," his wife
remarked, "for I happen to be sure that nothing would really induce Jane
to leave Aggie five minutes among us here without remaining herself to
see that we don't become improper."

"Well then if we're already pretty far on the way to it," Lord Petherton
resumed, "what on earth MIGHT we arrive at in the absence of your
control? I warn you, Duchess," he joyously pursued, "that if you go out
of the room with Mitchy I shall rapidly become quite awful."

The Duchess during this brief passage never took her eyes from her
niece, who rewarded her attention with the sweetness of consenting
dependence. The child's foreign origin was so delicately but
unmistakeably written in all her exquisite lines that her look might
have expressed the modest detachment of a person to whom the language of
her companions was unknown. Her protectress then glanced round the
circle. "You're very odd people all of you, and I don't think you quite
know how ridiculous you are. Aggie and I are simple stranger-folk;
there's a great deal we don't understand, yet we're none the less not
easily frightened. In what is it, Mr. Mitchett," the Duchess asked,
"that I've wounded your susceptibilities?"

Mr. Mitchett cast about; he had apparently found time to reflect on his
precipitation. "I see what Petherton's up to, and I won't, by drawing
you aside just now, expose your niece to anything that might immediately
oblige Mrs. Brook to catch her up and flee with her. But the first time
I find you more isolated--well," he laughed, though not with the
clearest ring, "all I can say is Mind your eyes dear Duchess!"

"It's about your thinking, Jane," Mrs. Brookenham placidly explained,
"that Nanda suffers--in her morals, don't you know?--by my neglect. I
wouldn't say anything about you that I can't bravely say TO you;
therefore since he has plumped out with it I do confess that I've
appealed to him on what, as so good an old friend, HE thinks of your
contention."

"What in the world IS Jane's contention?" Edward Brookenham put the
question as if they were "stuck" at cards.

"You really all of you," the Duchess replied with excellent coolness,
"choose extraordinary conditions for the discussion of delicate matters.
There are decidedly too many things on which we don't feel alike. You're
all inconceivable just now. Je ne peux pourtant pas la mettre a la
porte, cette cherie"--whom she covered again with the gay solicitude
that seemed to have in it a vibration of private entreaty: "Don't
understand, my own darling--don't understand!"

Little Aggie looked about with an impartial politeness that, as an
expression of the general blind sense of her being as to every
particular in hands at full liberty either to spot or to spare her, was
touching enough to bring tears to all eyes. It perhaps had to do with
the sudden emotion with which--using now quite a different manner--Mrs.
Brookenham again embraced her, and even with this lady's equally abrupt
and altogether wonderful address to her: "Between you and me straight,
my dear, and as from friend to friend, I know you'll never doubt that
everything must be all right!--What I spoke of to poor Mitchy," she went
on to the Duchess, "is the dreadful view you take of my letting Nanda go
to Tishy--and indeed of the general question of any acquaintance between
young unmarried and young married females. Mr. Mitchett's sufficiently
interested in us, Jane, to make it natural of me to take him into our
confidence in one of our difficulties. On the other hand we feel your
solicitude, and I needn't tell you at this time of day what weight in
every respect we attach to your judgement. Therefore it WILL be a
difficulty for us, cara mia, don't you see? if we decide suddenly, under
the spell of your influence, that our daughter must break off a
friendship--it WILL be a difficulty for us to put the thing to Nanda
herself in such a way as that she shall have some sort of notion of what
suddenly possesses us. Then there'll be the much stiffer job of putting
it to poor Tishy. Yet if her house IS an impossible place what else is
one to do? Carrie Donner's to be there, and Carrie Donner's a nature
apart; but how can we ask even a little lamb like Tishy to give up her
own sister?"

The question had been launched with an argumentative sharpness that made
it for a moment keep possession of the air, and during this moment,
before a single member of the circle could rally, Mrs. Brookenham's
effect was superseded by that of the reappearance of the butler. "I say,
my dear, don't shriek!"--Edward Brookenham had only time to sound this
warning before a lady, presenting herself in the open doorway, followed
close on the announcement of her name. "Mrs. Beach Donner!"--the
impression was naturally marked. Every one betrayed it a little but Mrs.
Brookenham, who, more than the others, appeared to have the help of
seeing that by a merciful stroke her visitor had just failed to hear.
This visitor, a young woman of striking, of startling appearance, who,
in the manner of certain shiny house-doors and railings, instantly
created a presumption of the lurking label "Fresh paint," found herself,
with an embarrassment oddly opposed to the positive pitch of her
complexion, in the presence of a group in which it was yet immediately
evident that every one was a friend. Every one, to show no one had been
caught, said something extremely easy; so that it was after a moment
only poor Mrs. Donner who, seated close to her hostess, seemed to be in
any degree in the wrong. This moreover was essentially her fault, so
extreme was the anomaly of her having, without the means to back it up,
committed herself to a "scheme of colour" that was practically an
advertisement of courage. Irregularly pretty and painfully shy, she was
retouched from brow to chin like a suburban photograph--the moral of
which was simply that she should either have left more to nature or
taken more from art. The Duchess had quickly reached her kinsman with a
smothered hiss, an "Edward dear, for God's sake take Aggie!" and at the
end of a few minutes had formed for herself in one of Mrs. Brookenham's
admirable "corners" a society consisting of Lord Petherton and Mr.
Mitchett, the latter of whom regarded Mrs. Donner across the room with
articulate wonder and compassion.

"It's all right, it's all right--she's frightened only at herself!"

The Duchess watched her as from a box at the play, comfortably shut in,
as in the old operatic days at Naples, with a pair of entertainers.
"You're the most interesting nation in the world. One never gets to the
end of your hatred of the nuance. The sense of the suitable, the harmony
of parts--what on earth were you doomed to do that, to be punished
sufficiently in advance, you had to be deprived of it in your very
cradles? Look at her little black dress--rather good, but not so good as
it ought to be, and, mixed up with all the rest, see her type, her
beauty, her timidity, her wickedness, her notoriety and her impudeur.
It's only in this country that a woman is both so shocking and so
shaky." The Duchess's displeasure overflowed. "If she doesn't know how
to be good--"

"Let her at least know how to be bad? Ah," Mitchy replied, "your
irritation testifies more than anything else could do to our peculiar
genius or our peculiar want of it. Our vice is intolerably clumsy--if it
can possibly be a question of vice in regard to that charming child, who
looks like one of the new-fashioned bill-posters, only, in the way of
'morbid modernity,' as Mrs. Brook would say, more extravagant and funny
than any that have yet been risked. I remember," he continued, "Mrs.
Brook's having spoken of her to me lately as 'wild.' Wild?--why, she's
simply tameness run to seed. Such an expression shows the state of
training to which Mrs. Brook has reduced the rest of us."

"It doesn't prevent at any rate, Mrs. Brook's training, some of the rest
of you from being horrible," the Duchess declared. "What did you mean
just now, really, by asking me to explain before Aggie this so serious
matter of Nanda's exposure?" Then instantly taking herself up before Mr.
Mitchett could answer: "What on earth do you suppose Edward's saying to
my darling?"

Brookenham had placed himself, side by side with the child, on a distant
little settee, but it was impossible to make out from the countenance of
either if a sound had passed between them. Aggie's little manner was too
developed to show, and her host's not developed enough. "Oh he's awfully
careful," Lord Petherton reassuringly observed. "If you or I or Mitchy
say anything bad it's sure to be before we know it and without
particularly meaning it. But old Edward means it--"

"So much that as a general thing he doesn't dare to say it?" the Duchess
asked. "That's a pretty picture of him, inasmuch as for the most part he
never speaks. What therefore must he mean?"

"He's an abyss--he's magnificent!" Mr. Mitchett laughed. "I don't know a
man of an understanding more profound, and he's equally incapable of
uttering and of wincing. If by the same token I'm 'horrible,' as you
call me," he pursued, "it's only because I'm in everyway so beastly
superficial. All the same I do sometimes go into things, and I insist on
knowing," he again broke out, "what it exactly was you had in mind in
saying to Mrs. Brook the things about Nanda and myself that she repeated
to me."

"You 'insist,' you silly man?"--the Duchess had veered a little to
indulgence. "Pray on what ground of right, in such a connexion, do you
do anything of the sort?"

Poor Mitchy showed but for a moment that he felt pulled up. "Do you mean
that when a girl liked by a fellow likes him so little in return--?"

"I don't mean anything," said the Duchess, "that may provoke you to
suppose me vulgar and odious enough to try to put you out of conceit of
a most interesting and unfortunate creature; and I don't quite as yet
see--though I dare say I shall soon make out!--what our friend has in
her head in tattling to you on these matters as soon as my back's
turned. Petherton will tell you--I wonder he hasn't told you before--why
Mrs. Grendon, though not perhaps herself quite the rose, is decidedly in
these days too near it."

"Oh Petherton never tells me anything!" Mitchy's answer was brisk and
impatient, but evidently quite as sincere as if the person alluded to
had not been there.

The person alluded to meanwhile, fidgeting frankly in his chair,
alternately stretching his legs and resting his elbows on his knees, had
reckoned as small the profit he might derive from this colloquy. His
bored state indeed--if he was bored--prompted in him the honest impulse
to clear, as he would have perhaps considered it, the atmosphere. He
indicated Mrs. Donner with a remarkable absence of precautions. "Why,
what the Duchess alludes to is my poor sister Fanny's stupid grievance--
surely you know about that." He made oddly vivid for a moment the nature
of his relative's allegation, his somewhat cynical treatment of which
became peculiarly derisive in the light of the attitude and expression,
at that minute, of the figure incriminated. "My brother-in-law's too
thick with her. But Cashmore's such a fine old ass. It's excessively
unpleasant," he added, "for affairs are just in that position in which,
from one day to another, there may be something that people will get
hold of. Fancy a man," he robustly reflected while the three took in
more completely the subject of Mrs. Brookenham's attention--"fancy a man
with THAT odd piece on his hands! The beauty of it is that the two women
seem never to have broken off. Blest if they don't still keep seeing
each other!"

The Duchess, as on everything else, passed succinctly on this. "Ah how
can hatreds comfortably flourish without the nourishment of such regular
'seeing' as what you call here bosom friendship alone supplies? What are
parties given for in London but--that enemies may meet? I grant you it's
inconceivable that the husband of a superb creature like your sister
should find his requirements better met by an object comme cette petite,
who looks like a pen-wiper--an actress's idea of one--made up for a
theatrical bazaar. At the same time, if you'll allow me to say so, it
scarcely strikes one that your sister's prudence is such as to have
placed all the cards in her hands. She's the most beautiful woman in
England, but her esprit de conduite isn't quite on a level. One can't
have everything!" she philosophically sighed.

Lord Petherton met her comfortably enough on this assumption of his
detachments. "If you mean by that her being the biggest fool alive I'm
quite ready to agree with you. It's exactly what makes me afraid. Yet
how can I decently say in especial," he asked, "of what?"

The Duchess still perched on her critical height. "Of what but one of
your amazing English periodical public washings of dirty linen? There's
not the least necessity to 'say'!" she laughed. "If there's anything
more remarkable than these purifications it's the domestic comfort with
which, when all has come and gone, you sport the articles purified."

"It comes back, in all that sphere," Mr. Mitchett instructively opined,
"to our national, our fatal want of style. We can never, dear Duchess,
take too many lessons, and there's probably at the present time no more
useful function to be performed among us than that dissemination of
neater methods to which you're so good as to contribute."

He had had another idea, but before he reached it his companion had
gaily broken in. "Awfully good one for you, Duchess--and I'm bound to
say that, for a clever woman, you exposed yourself! I've at any rate a
sense of comfort," Lord Petherton pursued, "in the good relations now
more and more established between poor Fanny and Mrs. Brook. Mrs.
Brook's awfully kind to her and awfully sharp, and Fanny will take
things from her that she won't take from me. I keep saying to Mrs.
Brook--don't you know?--'Do keep hold of her and let her have it
strong.' She hasn't, upon my honour, any one in the world but me."

"And we know the extent of THAT resource!" the Duchess freely commented.

"That's exactly what Fanny says--that SHE knows it," Petherton good-
humouredly agreed. "She says my beastly hypocrisy makes her sick. There
are people," he pleasantly rambled on, "who are awfully free with their
advice, but it's mostly fearful rot. Mrs. Brook's isn't, upon my word--
I've tried some myself!"

"You talk as if it were something nasty and homemade--gooseberry wine!"
the Duchess laughed; "but one can't know the dear soul, of course,
without knowing that she has set up, for the convenience of her friends,
a little office for consultations. She listens to the case, she strokes
her chin and prescribes--"

"And the beauty of it is," cried Lord Petherton, "that she makes no
charge whatever!"

"She doesn't take a guinea at the time, but you may still get your
account," the Duchess returned. "Of course we know that the great
business she does is in husbands and wives."

"This then seems the day of the wives!" Mr. Mitchett interposed as he
became aware, the first, of the illustration the Duchess's image was in
the act of receiving. "Lady Fanny Cashmore!"--the butler was already in
the field, and the company, with the exception of Mrs. Donner, who
remained seated, was apparently conscious of a vibration that brought it
afresh, but still more nimbly than on Aggie's advent, to its feet.


Henry James

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