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Chapter 6

"Go to her straight--be nice to her: you must have plenty to say. YOU
stay with me--we have our affair." The latter of these commands the
Duchess addressed to Mr. Mitchett, while their companion, in obedience
to the former and affected, as it seemed, by an unrepressed familiar
accent that stirred a fresh flicker of Mitchy's grin, met the new
arrival in the middle of the room before Mrs. Brookenham had had time to
reach her. The Duchess, quickly reseated, watched an instant the
inexpressive concussion of the tall brother and sister; then while
Mitchy again subsided into his place, "You're not, as a race, clever,
you're not delicate, you're not sane, but you're capable of
extraordinary good looks," she resumed. "Vous avez parfois la grande
beaute."

Mitchy was much amused. "Do you really think Petherton has?"

The Duchess withstood it. "They've got, both outside and in, the same
great general things, only turned, in each, rather different ways, a way
safer for him as a man, and more triumphant for her as--whatever you
choose to call her! What CAN a woman do," she richly mused, "with such
beauty as that--?"

"Except come desperately to advise with Mrs. Brook"--Mitchy undertook to
complete her question--"as to the highest use to make of it? But see,"
he immediately added, "how perfectly competent to instruct her our
friend now looks." Their hostess had advanced to Lady Fanny with an
outstretched hand but with an eagerness of greeting merged a little in
the sweet predominance of wonder as well as in the habit, at such
moments most perceptible, of the languid lily-bend. Nothing in general
could have been less conventionally poor than the kind of reception
given in Mrs. Brookenham's drawing-room to the particular element--the
element of physical splendour void of those disparities that make the
question of others tiresome--comprised in Lady Fanny's presence. It was
a place in which, at all times, before interesting objects, the
unanimous occupants, almost more concerned for each other's vibrations
than for anything else, were apt rather more to exchange sharp and
silent searchings than to fix their eyes on the object itself. In the
case of Lady Fanny, however, the object itself--and quite by the same
law that had worked, though less profoundly, on the entrance of little
Aggie--superseded the usual rapt communion very much in the manner of
some beautiful tame tigress who might really coerce attention. There was
in Mrs. Brookenham's way of looking up at her a dim despairing
abandonment of the idea of any common personal ground. Lady Fanny,
magnificent, simple, stupid, had almost the stature of her brother, a
forehead unsurpassably low and an air of sombre concentration just
sufficiently corrected by something in her movements that failed to give
it a point. Her blue eyes were heavy in spite of being perhaps a couple
of shades too clear, and the wealth of her black hair, the disposition
of the massive coils of which was all her own, had possibly a satin
sheen depreciated by the current fashion. But the great thing in her was
that she was, with unconscious heroism, thoroughly herself; and what
were Mrs. Brook and Mrs. Brook's intimates after all, in their free
surrender to the play of perception, but a happy association for keeping
her so? The Duchess was moved to the liveliest admiration by the grand
simple sweetness of her encounter with Mrs. Donner, a combination indeed
in which it was a question if she or Mrs. Brook appeared to the higher
advantage. It was poor Mrs. Donner--not, like Mrs. Brook, subtle in
sufficiency, nor, like Lady Fanny, almost too simple--who made the
poorest show. The Duchess immediately marked it to Mitchy as infinitely
characteristic that their hostess, instead of letting one of her
visitors go, kept them together by some sweet ingenuity and while Lord
Petherton, dropping his sister, joined Edward and Aggie in the other
angle, sat there between them as if, in pursuance of some awfully clever
line of her own, she were holding a hand of each. Mr. Mitchett of course
did justice all round, or at least, as would have seemed from an enquiry
he presently made, wished not to fail of it. "Is it your real impression
then that Lady Fanny has serious grounds--"

"For jealousy of that preposterous little person? My dear Mitchett," the
Duchess resumed after a moment's reflexion, "if you're so rash as to ask
me in any of these connexions for my 'real' impression you deserve
whatever you may get." The penalty Mitchy had incurred was apparently
grave enough to make his companion just falter in the infliction of it;
which gave him the opportunity of replying that the little person was
perhaps not more preposterous than any one else, that there was
something in her he rather liked, and that there were many different
ways in which a woman could be interesting. This further levity it was
therefore that laid him fully open. "Do you mean to say you've been
living with Petherton so long without becoming aware that he's
shockingly worried?"

"My dear Duchess," Mitchy smiled, "Petherton carries his worries with a
bravery! They're so many that I've long since ceased to count them; and
in general I've been disposed to let those pass that I can't help him to
meet. YOU'VE made, I judge," he went on, "a better use of opportunities
perhaps not so good--such as at any rate enables you to see further than
I into the meaning of the impatience he just now expressed."

The Duchess was admirable, in conversation, for neglecting everything
not essential to her present plausibility. "A woman like Lady Fanny can
have no 'grounds' for anything--for any indignation, I mean, or for any
revenge worth twopence. In this particular case at all events they've
been sacrificed with such extravagance that, as an injured wife, she
hasn't had the gumption to keep back an inch or two to stand on. She can
do absolutely nothing."

"Then you take the view--?" Mitchy, who had, after all, his delicacies,
pulled up as at sight of a name.

"I take the view," said the Duchess, "and I know exactly why. Elle se
les passe--her little fancies! She's a phenomenon, poor dear. And all
with--what shall I call it?--the absence of haunting remorse of a good
house-mother who makes the family accounts balance. She looks--and it's
what they love her for here when they say 'Watch her now!'--like an
angry saint; but she's neither a saint nor, to be perfectly fair to her,
really angry at all. She has only just enough reflexion to make out that
it may some day be a little better for her that her husband shall, on
his side too, have committed himself; and she's only, in secret, too
pleased to be sure whom it has been with. All the same I must tell you,"
the Duchess still more crisply added, "that our little friend Nanda is
of the opinion--which I gather her to be quite ready to defend--that
Lady Fanny's wrong."

Poor Mitchy found himself staring. "But what has our little friend Nanda
to do with it?"

"What indeed, bless her heart? If you WILL ask questions, however, you
must take, as I say, your risks. There are days when between you all you
stupefy me. One of them was when I happened about a month ago to make
some allusion to the charming example of Mr. Cashmore's fine taste that
we have there before us: what was my surprise at the tone taken by Mrs.
Brook to deny on this little lady's behalf the soft impeachment? It was
quite a mistake that anything had happened--Mrs. Donner had pulled
through unscathed. She had been but a day or two at the most in danger,
for her family and friends--the best influences--had rallied to her
support: the flurry was all over. She was now perfectly safe. Do you
think she looks so?" the Duchess asked.

This was not a point that Mitchy was conscious of freedom of mind to
examine. "Do I understand you that Nanda was her mother's authority--?"

"For the exact shade of the intimacy of the two friends and the state of
Mrs. Brook's information? Precisely--it was 'the latest before going to
press.' 'Our own correspondent'! Her mother quoted her."

Mr. Mitchett visibly wondered. "But how should Nanda know--?"

"Anything about the matter? How should she NOT know everything? You've
not, I suppose, lost sight of the fact that this lady and Mrs. Grendon
are sisters. Carrie's situation and Carrie's perils are naturally very
present to the extremely unoccupied Tishy, who is unhappily married into
the bargain, who has no children, and whose house, as you may imagine,
has a good thick atmosphere of partisanship. So, as with Nanda, on HER
side, there's no more absorbing interest than her dear friend Tishy,
with whom she's at present staying and under whose roof she perpetually
meets this victim of unjust aspersions--!"

"I see the whole thing from here, you imply?" Mr. Mitchett, under the
influence of this rapid evocation, had already taken his line. "Well,"
he said bravely, "Nanda's not a fool."

A momentary silence on the part of the Duchess might have been her
tribute to his courage. "No. I don't agree with her, as it happens,
here; but that there are matters as to which she's not in general at all
befogged is exactly the worst I ever said of her. And I hold that in
putting it so--on the basis of my little anecdote--you clearly give out
that you're answered."

Mitchy turned it over. "Answered?"

"In the quarrel that a while back you sought to pick with me. What I
touched on to her mother was the peculiar range of aspects and interests
she's compelled to cultivate by the special intimacies that Mrs. Brook
permits her. There they are--and that's all I said. Judge them for
yourself."

The Duchess had risen as she spoke, which was also what Mrs. Donner and
Mrs. Brookenham had done; and Mr. Mitchett was on his feet as well, to
act on this last admonition. Mrs. Donner was taking leave, and there
occurred among the three ladies in connexion with the circumstance a
somewhat striking exchange of endearments. Mr. Mitchett, observing this,
expressed himself suddenly as diverted. "By Jove, they're kissing--she's
in Lady Fanny's arms!" But his hilarity was still to deepen. "And Lady
Fanny, by Jove, is in Mrs. Brook's!"

"Oh it's all beyond ME!" the Duchess cried; and the little wail of her
baffled imagination had almost the austerity of a complaint.

"Not a bit--they're all right. Mrs. Brook has acted!" Mitchy went on.

"Ah it isn't that she doesn't 'act'!" his interlocutress ejaculated.

Mrs. Donner's face presented, as she now crossed the room, something
that resembled the ravage of a death-struggle between its artificial and
its natural elegance. "Well," Mitchy said with decision as he caught it
--"I back Nanda." And while a whiff of derision reached him from the
Duchess, "Nothing HAS happened!" he murmured.

As to reward him for an indulgence that she must much more have divined
than overheard the visitor approached him with her sweet bravery of
alarm. "I go on Thursday to my sister's, where I shall find Nanda
Brookenham. Can I take her any message from you?"

Mr. Mitchett showed a rosiness that might positively have been
reflected. "Why should you dream of her expecting one?"

"Oh," said the Duchess with a cheer that but half carried off her
asperity, "Mrs. Brook must have told Mrs. Donner to ask you!"

The latter lady, at this, rested strange eyes on the speaker, and they
had perhaps something to do with a quick flare of Mitchy's wit. "Tell
her, please--if, as I suppose, you came here to ask the same of her
mother--that I adore her still more for keeping in such happy relations
with you as enable me thus to meet you."

Mrs. Donner, overwhelmed, took flight with a nervous laugh, leaving Mr.
Mitchett and the Duchess still confronted. Nothing had passed between
the two ladies, yet it was as if there were a trace of something in the
eyes of the elder, which, during a moment's silence, moved from the
retreating visitor, now formally taken over at the door by Edward
Brookenham, to Lady Fanny and her hostess, who, in spite of the embraces
just performed, had again subsided together while Mrs. Brook gazed up in
exalted intelligence. "It's a funny house," said the Duchess at last.
"She makes me such a scene over my not bringing Aggie, and still more
over my very faint hint of my reasons for it, that I fly off, in
compunction, to do what I can, on the spot, to repair my excess of
prudence. I reappear, panting, with my niece--and it's to THIS company I
introduce her!"

Her companion looked at the charming child, to whom Lord Petherton was
talking with evident kindness and gaiety--a conjunction that evidently
excited Mitchy's interest. "May WE then know her?" he asked with an
effect of drollery. "May I--if HE may?"

The Duchess's eyes, turned to him, had taken another light. He even
gaped a little at their expression, which was in a manner carried out by
her tone. "Go and talk to her, you perverse creature, and send him over
to me." Lord Petherton, a minute later, had joined her; old Edward had
left the room with Mrs. Donner; his wife and Lady Fanny were still more
closely engaged; and the young Agnesina, though visibly a little scared
at Mitchy's queer countenance, had begun, after the fashion he had
touched on to Mrs. Brook, politely to invoke the aid of the idea of
habit. "Look here--you must help me," the Duchess said to Petherton.
"You can, perfectly--and it's the first thing I've yet asked of you."

"Oh, oh, oh!" her interlocutor laughed.

"I must have Mitchy," she went on without noticing his particular shade
of humour.

"Mitchy too?"--he appeared to wish to leave her in no doubt of it.

"How low you are!" she simply said. "There are times when I despair of
you. He's in every way your superior, and I like him so that--well, he
must like HER. Make him feel that he does."

Lord Petherton turned it over as something put to him practically. "I
could wish for him that he would. I see in her possibilities--!" he
continued to laugh.

"I dare say you do. I see them in Mitchett, and I trust you'll
understand me when I say I appeal to you."

"Appeal to HIM straight. That's much better," Petherton lucidly
observed.

The Duchess wore for a moment her proudest air, which made her, in the
connexion, exceptionally gentle. "He doesn't like me."

Her interlocutor looked at her with all his bright brutality. "Oh my
dear, I can speak for you--if THAT'S what you want!"

The Duchess met his eyes, and so for an instant they sounded each other.
"You're so abysmally coarse that I often wonder--!" But as the door
reopened she caught herself. It was the effect of a face apparently
directed at her. "Be quiet. Here's old Edward."

Henry James

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