THE AWKWARD AGE
By Henry James
I recall with perfect ease the idea in which "The Awkward Age" had its origin, but re-perusal gives me pause in respect to naming it. This composition, as it stands, makes, to my vision—and will have made perhaps still more to that of its readers—so considerable a mass beside the germ sunk in it and still possibly distinguishable, that I am half-moved to leave my small secret undivulged. I shall encounter, I think, in the course of this copious commentary, no better example, and none on behalf of which I shall venture to invite more interest, of the quite incalculable tendency of a mere grain of subject-matter to expand and develop and cover the ground when conditions happen to favour it. I say all, surely, when I speak of the thing as planned, in perfect good faith, for brevity, for levity, for simplicity, for jocosity, in fine, and for an accommodating irony. I invoked, for my protection, the spirit of the lightest comedy, but "The Awkward Age" was to belong, in the event, to a group of productions, here re-introduced, which have in common, to their author's eyes, the endearing sign that they asserted in each case an unforeseen principle of growth. They were projected as small things, yet had finally to be provided for as comparative monsters. That is my own title for them, though I should perhaps resent it if applied by another critic—above all in the case of the piece before us, the careful measure of which I have just freshly taken. The result of this consideration has been in the first place to render sharp for me again the interest of the whole process thus illustrated, and in the second quite to place me on unexpectedly good terms with the work itself. As I scan my list I encounter none the "history" of which embodies a greater number of curious truths—or of truths at least by which I find contemplation more enlivened. The thing done and dismissed has ever, at the best, for the ambitious workman, a trick of looking dead, if not buried, so that he almost throbs with ecstasy when, on an anxious review, the flush of life reappears. It is verily on recognising that flush on a whole side of "The Awkward Age" that I brand it all, but ever so tenderly, as monstrous—which is but my way of noting the QUANTITY of finish it stows away. Since I speak so undauntedly, when need is, of the value of composition, I shall not beat about the bush to claim for these pages the maximum of that advantage. If such a feat be possible in this field as really taking a lesson from one's own adventure I feel I have now not failed of it—to so much more demonstration of my profit than I can hope to carry through do I find myself urged. Thus it is that, still with a remnant of self-respect, or at least of sanity, one may turn to complacency, one may linger with pride. Let my pride provoke a frown till I justify it; which—though with more matters to be noted here than I have room for I shall accordingly proceed to do.
Yet I must first make a brave face, no doubt, and present in its native humility my scant but quite ponderable germ. The seed sprouted in that vast nursery of sharp appeals and concrete images which calls itself, for blest convenience, London; it fell even into the order of the minor "social phenomena" with which, as fruit for the observer, that mightiest of the trees of suggestion bristles. It was not, no doubt, a fine purple peach, but it might pass for a round ripe plum, the note one had inevitably had to take of the difference made in certain friendly houses and for certain flourishing mothers by the sometimes dreaded, often delayed, but never fully arrested coming to the forefront of some vague slip of a daughter. For such mild revolutions as these not, to one's imagination, to remain mild one had had, I dare say, to be infinitely addicted to "noticing"; under the rule of that secret vice or that unfair advantage, at any rate, the "sitting downstairs," from a given date, of the merciless maiden previously perched aloft could easily be felt as a crisis. This crisis, and the sense for it in those whom it most concerns, has to confess itself courageously the prime propulsive force of "The Awkward Age." Such a matter might well make a scant show for a "thick book," and no thick book, but just a quite charmingly thin one, was in fact originally dreamt of. For its proposed scale the little idea seemed happy—happy, that is, above all in having come very straight; but its proposed scale was the limit of a small square canvas. One had been present again and again at the exhibition I refer to—which is what I mean by the "coming straight" of this particular London impression; yet one was (and through fallibilities that after all had their sweetness, so that one would on the whole rather have kept them than parted with them) still capable of so false a measurement. When I think indeed of those of my many false measurements that have resulted, after much anguish, in decent symmetries, I find the whole case, I profess, a theme for the philosopher. The little ideas one wouldn't have treated save for the design of keeping them small, the developed situations that one would never with malice prepense have undertaken, the long stories that had thoroughly meant to be short, the short subjects that had underhandedly plotted to be long, the hypocrisy of modest beginnings, the audacity of misplaced middles, the triumph of intentions never entertained—with these patches, as I look about, I see my experience paved: an experience to which nothing is wanting save, I confess, some grasp of its final lesson.
This lesson would, if operative, surely provide some law for the recognition, the determination in advance, of the just limits and the just extent of the situation, ANY situation, that appeals, and that yet, by the presumable, the helpful law of situations, must have its reserves as well as its promises. The storyteller considers it because it promises, and undertakes it, often, just because also making out, as he believes, where the promise conveniently drops. The promise, for instance, of the case I have just named, the case of the account to be taken, in a circle of free talk, of a new and innocent, a wholly unacclimatised presence, as to which such accommodations have never had to come up, might well have appeared as limited as it was lively; and if these pages were not before us to register my illusion I should never have made a braver claim for it. They themselves admonish me, however, in fifty interesting ways, and they especially emphasise that truth of the vanity of the a priori test of what an idee-mere may have to give. The truth is that what a happy thought has to give depends immensely on the general turn of the mind capable of it, and on the fact that its loyal entertainer, cultivating fondly its possible relations and extensions, the bright efflorescence latent in it, but having to take other things in their order too, is terribly at the mercy of his mind. That organ has only to exhale, in its degree, a fostering tropic air in order to produce complications almost beyond reckoning. The trap laid for his superficial convenience resides in the fact that, though the relations of a human figure or a social occurrence are what make such objects interesting, they also make them, to the same tune, difficult to isolate, to surround with the sharp black line, to frame in the square, the circle, the charming oval, that helps any arrangement of objects to become a picture. The storyteller has but to have been condemned by nature to a liberally amused and beguiled, a richly sophisticated, view of relations and a fine inquisitive speculative sense for them, to find himself at moments flounder in a deep warm jungle. These are the moments at which he recalls ruefully that the great merit of such and such a small case, the merit for his particular advised use, had been precisely in the smallness.
I may say at once that this had seemed to me, under the first flush of recognition, the good mark for the pretty notion of the "free circle" put about by having, of a sudden, an ingenuous mind and a pair of limpid searching eyes to count with. Half the attraction was in the current actuality of the thing: repeatedly, right and left, as I have said, one had seen such a drama constituted, and always to the effect of proposing to the interested view one of those questions that are of the essence of drama: what will happen, who suffer, who not suffer, what turn be determined, what crisis created, what issue found? There had of course to be, as a basis, the free circle, but this was material of that admirable order with which the good London never leaves its true lover and believer long unprovided. One could count them on one's fingers (an abundant allowance), the liberal firesides beyond the wide glow of which, in a comparative dimness, female adolescence hovered and waited. The wide glow was bright, was favourable to "real" talk, to play of mind, to an explicit interest in life, a due demonstration of the interest by persons I qualified to feel it: all of which meant frankness and ease, the perfection, almost, as it were, of intercourse, and a tone as far as possible removed from that of the nursery and the schoolroom—as far as possible removed even, no doubt, in its appealing "modernity," from that of supposedly privileged scenes of conversation twenty years ago. The charm was, with a hundred other things, in the freedom—the freedom menaced by the inevitable irruption of the ingenuous mind; whereby, if the freedom should be sacrificed, what would truly BECOME of the charm? The charm might be figured as dear to members of the circle consciously contributing to it, but it was none the less true that some sacrifice in some quarter would have to be made, and what meditator worth his salt could fail to hold his breath while waiting on the event? The ingenuous mind might, it was true, be suppressed altogether, the general disconcertment averted either by some master-stroke of diplomacy or some rude simplification; yet these were ugly matters, and in the examples before one's eyes nothing ugly, nothing harsh or crude, had flourished. A girl might be married off the day after her irruption, or better still the day before it, to remove her from the sphere of the play of mind; but these were exactly not crudities, and even then, at the worst, an interval had to be bridged. "The Awkward Age" is precisely a study of one of these curtailed or extended periods of tension and apprehension, an account of the manner in which the resented interference with ancient liberties came to be in a particular instance dealt with.
I note once again that I had not escaped seeing it actually and traceably dealt with—(I admit) a good deal of friendly suspense; also with the nature and degree of the "sacrifice" left very much to one's appreciation. In circles highly civilised the great things, the real things, the hard, the cruel and even the tender things, the true elements of any tension and true facts of any crisis, have ever, for the outsider's, for the critic's use, to be translated into terms—terms in the distinguished name of which, terms for the right employment of which, more than one situation of the type I glance at had struck me as all irresistibly appealing. There appeared in fact at moments no end to the things they said, the suggestions into which they flowered; one of these latter in especial arriving at the highest intensity. Putting vividly before one the perfect system on which the awkward age is handled in most other European societies, it threw again into relief the inveterate English trick of the so morally well-meant and so intellectually helpless compromise. We live notoriously, as I suppose every age lives, in an "epoch of transition"; but it may still be said of the French for instance, I assume, that their social scheme absolutely provides against awkwardness. That is it would be, by this scheme, so infinitely awkward, so awkward beyond any patching-up, for the hovering female young to be conceived as present at "good" talk, that their presence is, theoretically at least, not permitted till their youth has been promptly corrected by marriage—in which case they have ceased to be merely young. The better the talk prevailing in any circle, accordingly, the more organised, the more complete, the element of precaution and exclusion. Talk—giving the term a wide application—is one thing, and a proper inexperience another; and it has never occurred to a logical people that the interest of the greater, the general, need be sacrificed to that of the less, the particular. Such sacrifices strike them as gratuitous and barbarous, as cruel above all to the social intelligence; also as perfectly preventable by wise arrangement. Nothing comes home more, on the other hand, to the observer of English manners than the very moderate degree in which wise arrangement, in the French sense of a scientific economy, has ever been invoked; a fact indeed largely explaining the great interest of their incoherence, their heterogeneity, their wild abundance. The French, all analytically, have conceived of fifty different proprieties, meeting fifty different cases, whereas the English mind, less intensely at work, has never conceived but of one—the grand propriety, for every case, it should in fairness be said, of just being English. As practice, however, has always to be a looser thing than theory, so no application of that rigour has been possible in the London world without a thousand departures from the grim ideal.
The American theory, if I may "drag it in," would be, I think, that talk should never become "better" than the female young, either actually or constructively present, are minded to allow it. THAT system involves as little compromise as the French; it has been absolutely simple, and the beauty of its success shines out in every record of our conditions of intercourse—premising always our "basic" assumption that the female young read the newspapers. The English theory may be in itself almost as simple, but different and much more complex forces have ruled the application of it; so much does the goodness of talk depend on what there may be to talk about. There are more things in London, I think, than anywhere in the world; hence the charm of the dramatic struggle reflected in my book, the struggle somehow to fit propriety into a smooth general case which is really all the while bristling and crumbling into fierce particular ones. The circle surrounding Mrs. Brookenham, in my pages, is of course nothing if not a particular, even a "peculiar" one—and its rather vain effort (the vanity, the real inexpertness, being precisely part of my tale) is toward the courage of that condition. It has cropped up in a social order where individual appreciations of propriety have not been formally allowed for, in spite of their having very often quite rudely and violently and insolently, rather of course than insidiously, flourished; so that as the matter stands, rightly or wrongly, Nanda's retarded, but eventually none the less real, incorporation means virtually Nanda's exposure. It means this, that is, and many things beside—means them for Nanda herself and, with a various intensity, for the other participants in the action; but what it particularly means, surely, is the failure of successful arrangement and the very moral, sharply pointed, of the fruits of compromise. It is compromise that has suffered her to be in question at all, and that has condemned the freedom of the circle to be self-conscious, compunctious, on the whole much more timid than brave—the consequent muddle, if the term be not too gross, representing meanwhile a great inconvenience for life, but, as I found myself feeling, an immense promise, a much greater one than on the "foreign" showing, for the painted picture of life. Beyond which let me add that here immediately is a prime specimen of the way in which the obscurer, the lurking relations of a motive apparently simple, always in wait for their spring, may by seizing their chance for it send simplicity flying. Poor Nanda's little case, and her mother's, and Mr. Longdon's and Vanderbank's and Mitchy's, to say nothing of that of the others, has only to catch a reflected light from over the Channel in order to double at once its appeal to the imagination. (I am considering all these matters, I need scarce say, only as they are concerned with that faculty. With a relation NOT imaginative to his material the storyteller has nothing whatever to do.)
It exactly happened moreover that my own material here was to profit in a particular way by that extension of view. My idea was to be treated with light irony—it would be light and ironical or it would be nothing; so that I asked myself, naturally, what might be the least solemn form to give it, among recognised and familiar forms. The question thus at once arose: What form so familiar, so recognised among alert readers, as that in which the ingenious and inexhaustible, the charming philosophic "Gyp" casts most of her social studies? Gyp had long struck me as mistress, in her levity, of one of the happiest of forms—the only objection to my use of which was a certain extraordinary benightedness on the part of the Anglo-Saxon reader. One had noted this reader as perverse and inconsequent in respect to the absorption of "dialogue"—observed the "public for fiction" consume it, in certain connexions, on the scale and with the smack of lips that mark the consumption of bread-and-jam by a children's school-feast, consume it even at the theatre, so far as our theatre ever vouchsafes it, and yet as flagrantly reject it when served, so to speak, au naturel. One had seen good solid slices of fiction, well endued, one might surely have thought, with this easiest of lubrications, deplored by editor and publisher as positively not, for the general gullet as known to THEM, made adequately "slick." "'Dialogue,' always 'dialogue'!" I had seemed from far back to hear them mostly cry: "We can't have too much of it, we can't have enough of it, and no excess of it, in the form of no matter what savourless dilution, or what boneless dispersion, ever began to injure a book so much as even the very scantest claim put in for form and substance." This wisdom had always been in one's ears; but it had at the same time been equally in one's eyes that really constructive dialogue, dialogue organic and dramatic, speaking for itself, representing and embodying substance and form, is among us an uncanny and abhorrent thing, not to be dealt with on any terms. A comedy or a tragedy may run for a thousand nights without prompting twenty persons in London or in New York to desire that view of its text which is so desired in Paris, as soon as a play begins to loom at all large, that the number of copies of the printed piece in circulation far exceeds at last the number of performances. But as with the printed piece our own public, infatuated as it may be with the theatre, refuses all commerce—though indeed this can't but be, without cynicism, very much through the infirmity the piece, IF printed, would reveal—so the same horror seems to attach to any typographic hint of the proscribed playbook or any insidious plea for it. The immense oddity resides in the almost exclusively typographic order of the offence. An English, an American Gyp would typographically offend, and that would be the end of her. THERE gloomed at me my warning, as well as shone at me my provocation, in respect to the example of this delightful writer. I might emulate her, since I presumptuously would, but dishonour would await me if, proposing to treat the different faces of my subject in the most completely instituted colloquial form, I should evoke the figure and affirm the presence of participants by the repeated and prefixed name rather than by the recurrent and affixed "said he" and "said she." All I have space to go into here—much as the funny fact I refer to might seem to invite us to dance hand in hand round it—is that I was at any rate duly admonished, that I took my measures accordingly, and that the manner in which I took them has lived again for me ever so arrestingly, so amusingly, on re-examination of the book.
But that I did, positively and seriously—ah so seriously!—emulate the levity of Gyp and, by the same token, of that hardiest of flowers fostered in her school, M. Henri Lavedan, is a contribution to the history of "The Awkward Age" that I shall obviously have had to brace myself in order to make. Vivid enough to me the expression of face of any kindest of critics, even, moved to declare that he would never in the least have suspected it. Let me say at once, in extenuation of the too respectful distance at which I may thus have appeared to follow my model, that my first care HAD to be the covering of my tracks—lest I truly should be caught in the act of arranging, of organising dialogue to "speak for itself." What I now see to have happened is that I organised and arranged but too well—too well, I mean, for any betrayal of the Gyp taint, however faded and feeble. The trouble appears to have been that while I on the one hand exorcised the baleful association, I succeeded in rousing on nobody's part a sense of any other association whatever, or of my having cast myself into any conceivable or calculable form. My private inspiration had been in the Gyp plan (artfully dissimulated, for dear life, and applied with the very subtlest consistency, but none the less kept in secret view); yet I was to fail to make out in the event that the book succeeded in producing the impression of ANY plan on any person. No hint of that sort of success, or of any critical perception at all in relation to the business, has ever come my way; in spite of which when I speak, as just above, of what was to "happen" under the law of my ingenious labour, I fairly lose myself in the vision of a hundred bright phenomena. Some of these incidents I must treat myself to naming, for they are among the best I shall have on any occasion to retail. But I must first give the measure of the degree in which they were mere matters of the study. This composition had originally appeared in "Harper's Weekly" during the autumn of 1898 and the first weeks of the winter, and the volume containing it was published that spring. I had meanwhile been absent from England, and it was not till my return, some time later, that I had from my publisher any news of our venture. But the news then met at a stroke all my curiosity: "I'm sorry to say the book has done nothing to speak of; I've never in all my experience seen one treated with more general and complete disrespect." There was thus to be nothing left me for fond subsequent reference—of which I doubtless give even now so adequate an illustration—save the rich reward of the singular interest attaching to the very intimacies of the effort.
It comes back to me, the whole "job," as wonderfully amusing and delightfully difficult from the first; since amusement deeply abides, I think, in any artistic attempt the basis and groundwork of which are conscious of a particular firmness. On that hard fine floor the element of execution feels it may more or less confidently DANCE; in which case puzzling questions, sharp obstacles, dangers of detail, may come up for it by the dozen without breaking its heart or shaking its nerve. It is the difficulty produced by the loose foundation or the vague scheme that breaks the heart—when a luckless fatuity has over-persuaded an author of the "saving" virtue of treatment. Being "treated" is never, in a workable idea, a mere passive condition, and I hold no subject ever susceptible of help that isn't, like the embarrassed man of our proverbial wisdom, first of all able to help itself. I was thus to have here an envious glimpse, in carrying my design through, of that artistic rage and that artistic felicity which I have ever supposed to be intensest and highest, the confidence of the dramatist strong in the sense of his postulate. The dramatist has verily to BUILD, is committed to architecture, to construction at any cost; to driving in deep his vertical supports and laying across and firmly fixing his horizontal, his resting pieces—at the risk of no matter what vibration from the tap of his master-hammer. This makes the active value of his basis immense, enabling him, with his flanks protected, to advance undistractedly, even if not at all carelessly, into the comparative fairy-land of the mere minor anxiety. In other words his scheme HOLDS, and as he feels this in spite of noted strains and under repeated tests, so he keeps his face to the day. I rejoiced, by that same token, to feel MY scheme hold, and even a little ruefully watched it give me much more than I had ventured to hope. For I promptly found my conceived arrangement of my material open the door wide to ingenuity. I remember that in sketching my project for the conductors of the periodical I have named I drew on a sheet of paper—and possibly with an effect of the cabalistic, it now comes over me, that even anxious amplification may have but vainly attenuated—the neat figure of a circle consisting of a number of small rounds disposed at equal distance about a central object. The central object was my situation, my subject in itself, to which the thing would owe its title, and the small rounds represented so many distinct lamps, as I liked to call them, the function of each of which would be to light with all due intensity one of its aspects. I had divided it, didn't they see? into aspects—uncanny as the little term might sound (though not for a moment did I suggest we should use it for the public), and by that sign we would conquer.
They "saw," all genially and generously—for I must add that I had made, to the best of my recollection, no morbid scruple of not blabbing about Gyp and her strange incitement. I the more boldly held my tongue over this that the more I, by my intelligence, lived in my arrangement and moved about in it, the more I sank into satisfaction. It was clearly to work to a charm and, during this process—by calling at every step for an exquisite management—"to haunt, to startle and waylay." Each of my "lamps" would be the light of a single "social occasion" in the history and intercourse of the characters concerned, and would bring out to the full the latent colour of the scene in question and cause it to illustrate, to the last drop, its bearing on my theme. I revelled in this notion of the Occasion as a thing by itself, really and completely a scenic thing, and could scarce name it, while crouching amid the thick arcana of my plan, with a large enough O. The beauty of the conception was in this approximation of the respective divisions of my form to the successive Acts of a Play—as to which it was more than ever a case for charmed capitals. The divine distinction of the act of a play—and a greater than any other it easily succeeds in arriving at—was, I reasoned, in its special, its guarded objectivity. This objectivity, in turn, when achieving its ideal, came from the imposed absence of that "going behind," to compass explanations and amplifications, to drag out odds and ends from the "mere" storyteller's great property-shop of aids to illusion: a resource under denial of which it was equally perplexing and delightful, for a change, to proceed. Everything, for that matter, becomes interesting from the moment it has closely to consider, for full effect positively to bestride, the law of its kind. "Kinds" are the very life of literature, and truth and strength come from the complete recognition of them, from abounding to the utmost in their respective senses and sinking deep into their consistency. I myself have scarcely to plead the cause of "going behind," which is right and beautiful and fruitful in its place and order; but as the confusion of kinds is the inelegance of letters and the stultification of values, so to renounce that line utterly and do something quite different instead may become in another connexion the true course and the vehicle of effect. Something in the very nature, in the fine rigour, of this special sacrifice (which is capable of affecting the form-lover, I think, as really more of a projected form than any other) lends it moreover a coercive charm; a charm that grows in proportion as the appeal to it tests and stretches and strains it, puts it powerfully to the touch. To make the presented occasion tell all its story itself, remain shut up in its own presence and yet on that patch of staked-out ground become thoroughly interesting and remain thoroughly clear, is a process not remarkable, no doubt, so long as a very light weight is laid on it, but difficult enough to challenge and inspire great adroitness so soon as the elements to be dealt with begin at all to "size up."
The disdainers of the contemporary drama deny, obviously, with all promptness, that the matter to be expressed by its means—richly and successfully expressed that is—CAN loom with any largeness; since from the moment it does one of the conditions breaks down. The process simply collapses under pressure, they contend, proves its weakness as quickly as the office laid on it ceases to be simple. "Remember," they say to the dramatist, "that you have to be, supremely, three things: you have to be true to your form, you have to be interesting, you have to be clear. You have in other words to prove yourself adequate to taking a heavy weight. But we defy you really to conform to your conditions with any but a light one. Make the thing you have to convey, make the picture you have to paint, at all rich and complex, and you cease to be clear. Remain clear—and with the clearness required by the infantine intelligence of any public consenting to see a play—and what becomes of the 'importance' of your subject? If it's important by any other critical measure than the little foot-rule the 'produced' piece has to conform to, it is predestined to be a muddle. When it has escaped being a muddle the note it has succeeded in striking at the furthest will be recognised as one of those that are called high but by the courtesy, by the intellectual provinciality, of theatrical criticism, which, as we can see for ourselves any morning, is—well, an abyss even deeper than the theatre itself. Don't attempt to crush us with Dumas and Ibsen, for such values are from any informed and enlightened point of view, that is measured by other high values, literary, critical, philosophic, of the most moderate order. Ibsen and Dumas are precisely cases of men, men in their degree, in their poor theatrical straight-jacket, speculative, who have HAD to renounce the finer thing for the coarser, the thick, in short, for the thin and the curious for the self-evident. What earthly intellectual distinction, what 'prestige' of achievement, would have attached to the substance of such things as 'Denise,' as 'Monsieur Alphonse,' as 'Francillon' (and we take the Dumas of the supposedly subtler period) in any other form? What virtues of the same order would have attached to 'The Pillars of Society,' to 'An Enemy of the People,' to 'Ghosts,' to 'Rosmersholm' (or taking also Ibsen's 'subtler period') to 'John Gabriel Borkmann,' to 'The Master-Builder'? Ibsen is in fact wonderfully a case in point, since from the moment he's clear, from the moment he's 'amusing,' it's on the footing of a thesis as simple and superficial as that of 'A Doll's House'—while from the moment he's by apparent intention comprehensive and searching it's on the footing of an effect as confused and obscure as 'The Wild Duck.' From which you easily see ALL the conditions can't be met. The dramatist has to choose but those he's most capable of, and by that choice he's known."
So the objector concludes, and never surely without great profit from his having been "drawn." His apparent triumph—if it be even apparent—still leaves, it will be noted, convenient cover for retort in the riddled face of the opposite stronghold. The last word in these cases is for nobody who can't pretend to an ABSOLUTE test. The terms here used, obviously, are matters of appreciation, and there is no short cut to proof (luckily for us all round) either that "Monsieur Alphonse" develops itself on the highest plane of irony or that "Ghosts" simplifies almost to excruciation. If "John Gabriel Borkmann" is but a pennyworth of effect as to a character we can imagine much more amply presented, and if "Hedda Gabler" makes an appeal enfeebled by remarkable vagueness, there is by the nature of the case no catching the convinced, or call him the deluded, spectator or reader in the act of a mistake. He is to be caught at the worst in the act of attention, of the very greatest attention, and that is all, as a precious preliminary at least, that the playwright asks of him, besides being all the very divinest poet can get. I remember rejoicing as much to remark this, after getting launched in "The Awkward Age," as if I were in fact constructing a play—just as I may doubtless appear now not less anxious to keep the philosophy of the dramatist's course before me than if I belonged to his order. I felt, certainly, the support he feels, I participated in his technical amusement, I tasted to the full the bitter-sweetness of his draught—the beauty and the difficulty (to harp again on that string) of escaping poverty EVEN THOUGH the references in one's action can only be, with intensity, to each other, to things exactly on the same plane of exhibition with themselves. Exhibition may mean in a "story" twenty different ways, fifty excursions, alternatives, excrescences, and the novel, as largely practised in English, is the perfect paradise of the loose end. The play consents to the logic of but one way, mathematically right, and with the loose end as gross an impertinence on its surface, and as grave a dishonour, as the dangle of a snippet of silk or wool on the right side of a tapestry. We are shut up wholly to cross-relations, relations all within the action itself; no part of which is related to anything but some other part—save of course by the relation of the total to life. And, after invoking the protection of Gyp, I saw the point of my game all in the problem of keeping these conditioned relations crystalline at the same time that I should, in emulation of life, consent to their being numerous and fine and characteristic of the London world (as the London world was in this quarter and that to be deciphered). All of which was to make in the event for complications.
I see now of course how far, with my complications, I got away from Gyp; but I see to-day so much else too that this particular deflexion from simplicity makes scarce a figure among the others after having once served its purpose, I mean, of lighting my original imitative innocence. For I recognise in especial, with a waking vibration of that interest in which, as I say, the plan of the book is embalmed for me, that my subject was probably condemned in advance to appreciable, or more exactly perhaps to almost preposterously appreciative, over-treatment. It places itself for me thus in a group of small productions exhibiting this perversity, representations of conceived cases in which my process has been to pump the case gaspingly dry, dry not only of superfluous moisture, but absolutely (for I have encountered the charge) of breathable air. I may note, in fine, that coming back to the pages before us with a strong impression of their recording, to my shame, that disaster, even to the extent of its disqualifying them for decent reappearance, I have found the adventure taking, to my relief, quite another turn, and have lost myself in the wonder of what "over-treatment" may, in the detail of its desperate ingenuity, consist of. The revived interest I speak of has been therefore that of following critically, from page to page, even as the red Indian tracks in the forest the pale-face, the footsteps of the systematic loyalty I was able to achieve. The amusement of this constatation is, as I have hinted, in the detail of the matter, and the detail is so dense, the texture of the figured and smoothed tapestry so loose, that the genius of Gyp herself, muse of general looseness, would certainly, once warned, have uttered the first disavowal of my homage. But what has occurred meanwhile is that this high consistency has itself, so to speak, constituted an exhibition, and that an important artistic truth has seemed to me thereby lighted. We brushed against that truth just now in our glance at the denial of expansibility to any idea the mould of the "stage-play" may hope to express without cracking and bursting—and we bear in mind at the same time that the picture of Nanda Brookenham's situation, though perhaps seeming to a careless eye so to wander and sprawl, yet presents itself on absolutely scenic lines, and that each of these scenes in itself, and each as related to each and to all of its companions, abides without a moment's deflexion by the principle of the stage-play. In doing this then it does more—it helps us ever so happily to see the grave distinction between substance and form in a really wrought work of art signally break down. I hold it impossible to say, before "The Awkward Age," where one of these elements ends and the other begins: I have been unable at least myself, on re-examination, to mark any such joint or seam, to see the two DISCHARGED offices as separate. They are separate before the fact, but the sacrament of execution indissolubly marries them, and the marriage, like any other marriage, has only to be a "true" one for the scandal of a breach not to show. The thing "done," artistically, is a fusion, or it has not BEEN done—in which case of course the artist may be, and all deservedly, pelted with any fragment of his botch the critic shall choose to pick up. But his ground once conquered, in this particular field, he knows nothing of fragments and may say in all security: "Detach one if you can. You can analyse in YOUR way, oh yes—to relate, to report, to explain; but you can't disintegrate my synthesis; you can't resolve the elements of my whole into different responsible agents or find your way at all (for your own fell purpose). My mixture has only to be perfect literally to bewilder you—you are lost in the tangle of the forest. Prove this value, this effect, in the air of the whole result, to be of my subject, and that other value, other effect, to be of my treatment, prove that I haven't so shaken them together as the conjurer I profess to be MUST consummately shake, and I consent but to parade as before a booth at the fair." The exemplary closeness of "The Awkward Age" even affects me, on re-perusal, I confess, as treasure quite instinctively and foreseeingly laid up against my present opportunity for these remarks. I have been positively struck by the quantity of meaning and the number of intentions, the extent of GROUND FOR INTEREST, as I may call it, that I have succeeded in working scenically, yet without loss of sharpness, clearness or "atmosphere," into each of my illuminating occasions—where, at certain junctures, the due preservation of all these values took, in the familiar phrase, a good deal of doing.
I should have liked just here to re-examine with the reader some of the positively most artful passages I have in mind—such as the hour of Mr. Longdon's beautiful and, as it were, mystic attempt at a compact with Vanderbank, late at night, in the billiard-room of the country-house at which they are staying; such as the other nocturnal passage, under Mr. Longdon's roof, between Vanderbank and Mitchy, where the conduct of so much fine meaning, so many flares of the exhibitory torch through the labyrinth of mere immediate appearances, mere familiar allusions, is successfully and safely effected; such as the whole array of the terms of presentation that are made to serve, all systematically, yet without a gap anywhere, for the presentation, throughout, of a Mitchy "subtle" no less than concrete and concrete no less than deprived of that officious explanation which we know as "going behind"; such as, briefly, the general service of co-ordination and vivification rendered, on lines of ferocious, of really quite heroic compression, by the picture of the assembled group at Mrs. Grendon's, where the "cross-references" of the action are as thick as the green leaves of a garden, but none the less, as they have scenically to be, counted and disposed, weighted with responsibility. Were I minded to use in this connexion a "loud" word—and the critic in general hates loud words as a man of taste may hate loud colours—I should speak of the composition of the chapters entitled "Tishy Grendon," with all the pieces of the game on the table together and each unconfusedly and contributively placed, as triumphantly scientific. I must properly remind myself, rather, that the better lesson of my retrospect would seem to be really a supreme revision of the question of what it may be for a subject to suffer, to call it suffering, by over-treatment. Bowed down so long by the inference that its product had in this case proved such a betrayal, my artistic conscience meets the relief of having to recognise truly here no traces of suffering. The thing carries itself to my maturer and gratified sense as with every symptom of soundness, an insolence of health and joy. And from this precisely I deduce my moral; which is to the effect that, since our only way, in general, of knowing that we have had too much of anything is by FEELING that too much: so, by the same token, when we don't feel the excess (and I am contending, mind, that in "The Awkward Age" the multiplicity yields to the order) how do we know that the measure not recorded, the notch not reached, does represent adequacy or satiety? The mere feeling helps us for certain degrees of congestion, but for exact science, that is for the criticism of "fine" art, we want the notation. The notation, however, is what we lack, and the verdict of the mere feeling is liable to fluctuate. In other words an imputed defect is never, at the worst, disengageable, or other than matter for appreciation—to come back to my claim for that felicity of the dramatist's case that his synthetic "whole" IS his form, the only one we have to do with. I like to profit in his company by the fact that if our art has certainly, for the impression it produces, to defer to the rise and fall, in the critical temperature, of the telltale mercury, it still hasn't to reckon with the engraved thermometer-face.
THE AWKWARD AGE
BOOK FIRST. LADY JULIA
Save when it happened to rain Vanderbank always walked home, but he usually took a hansom when the rain was moderate and adopted the preference of the philosopher when it was heavy. On this occasion he therefore recognised as the servant opened the door a congruity between the weather and the "four-wheeler" that, in the empty street, under the glazed radiance, waited and trickled and blackly glittered. The butler mentioned it as on such a wild night the only thing they could get, and Vanderbank, having replied that it was exactly what would do best, prepared in the doorway to put up his umbrella and dash down to it. At this moment he heard his name pronounced from behind and on turning found himself joined by the elderly fellow guest with whom he had talked after dinner and about whom later on upstairs he had sounded his hostess. It was at present a clear question of how this amiable, this apparently unassertive person should get home—of the possibility of the other cab for which even now one of the footmen, with a whistle to his lips, craned out his head and listened through the storm. Mr. Longdon wondered to Vanderbank if their course might by any chance be the same; which led our young friend immediately to express a readiness to see him safely in any direction that should accommodate him. As the footman's whistle spent itself in vain they got together into the four-wheeler, where at the end of a few moments more Vanderbank became conscious of having proposed his own rooms as a wind-up to their drive. Wouldn't that be a better finish of the evening than just separating in the wet? He liked his new acquaintance, who struck him as in a manner clinging to him, who was staying at an hotel presumably at that hour dismal, and who, confessing with easy humility to a connexion positively timid with a club at which one couldn't have a visitor, accepted his invitation under pressure. Vanderbank, when they arrived, was amused at the air of added extravagance with which he said he would keep the cab: he so clearly enjoyed to that extent the sense of making a night of it. "You young men, I believe, keep them for hours, eh? At least they did in my time," he laughed—"the wild ones! But I think of them as all wild then. I dare say that when one settles in town one learns how to manage; only I'm afraid, you know, that I've got completely out of it. I do feel really quite mouldy. It's a matter of thirty years—!"
"Since you've been in London?"
"For more than a few days at a time, upon my honour. You won't understand that—any more, I dare say, than I myself quite understand how at the end of all I've accepted this queer view of the doom of coming back. But I don't doubt I shall ask you, if you'll be so good as to let me, for the help of a hint or two: as to how to do, don't you know? and not to—what do you fellows call it?—BE done. Now about one of THESE things—!"
One of these things was the lift in which, at no great pace and with much rumbling and creaking, the porter conveyed the two gentlemen to the alarming eminence, as Mr. Longdon measured their flight, at which Vanderbank perched. The impression made on him by this contrivance showed him as unsophisticated, yet when his companion, at the top, ushering him in, gave a touch to the quick light and, in the pleasant ruddy room, all convenience and character, had before the fire another look at him, it was not to catch in him any protrusive angle. Mr. Longdon was slight and neat, delicate of body and both keen and kind of face, with black brows finely marked and thick smooth hair in which the silver had deep shadows. He wore neither whisker nor moustache and seemed to carry in the flicker of his quick brown eyes and the positive sun-play of his smile even more than the equivalent of what might, superficially or stupidly, elsewhere be missed in him; which was mass, substance, presence—what is vulgarly called importance. He had indeed no presence but had somehow an effect. He might almost have been a priest if priests, as it occurred to Vanderbank, were ever such dandies. He had at all events conclusively doubled the Cape of the years—he would never again see fifty-five: to the warning light of that bleak headland he presented a back sufficiently conscious. Yet though to Vanderbank he couldn't look young he came near—strikingly and amusingly—looking new: this after a minute appeared mainly perhaps indeed in the perfection of his evening dress and the special smartness of the sleeveless overcoat he had evidently had made to wear with it and might even actually be wearing for the first time. He had talked to Vanderbank at Mrs. Brookenham's about Beccles and Suffolk; but it was not at Beccles nor anywhere in the county that these ornaments had been designed. His action had already been, with however little purpose, to present the region to his interlocutor in a favourable light. Vanderbank, for that matter, had the kind of imagination that likes to PLACE an object, even to the point of losing sight of it in the conditions; he already saw the nice old nook it must have taken to keep a man of intelligence so fresh while suffering him to remain so fine. The product of Beccles accepted at all events a cigarette—still much as a joke and an adventure—and looked about him as if even more pleased than he expected. Then he broke, through his double eye-glass, into an exclamation that was like a passing pang of envy and regret. "You young men, you young men—!"
"Well, what about us?" Vanderbank's tone encouraged the courtesy of the reference. "I'm not so young moreover as that comes to."
"How old are you then, pray?"
"Why I'm thirty-four."
"What do you call that? I'm a hundred and three!" Mr. Longdon at all events took out his watch. "It's only a quarter past eleven." Then with a quick change of interest, "What did you say is your public office?" he enquired.
"The General Audit. I'm Deputy Chairman."
"Dear!" Mr. Longdon looked at him as if he had had fifty windows. "What a head you must have!"
"Oh yes—our head's Sir Digby Dence."
"And what do we do for you?"
"Well, you gild the pill—though not perhaps very thick. But it's a decent berth."
"A thing a good many fellows would give a pound of their flesh for?"
Vanderbank's visitor appeared so to deprecate too faint a picture that he dropped all scruples. "I'm the most envied man I know—so that if I were a shade less amiable I should be one of the most hated."
Mr. Longdon laughed, yet not quite as if they were joking. "I see. Your pleasant way carries it off."
Vanderbank was, however, not serious. "Wouldn't it carry off anything?"
Again his friend, through the pince-nez, appeared to crown him with a Whitehall cornice. "I think I ought to let you know I'm studying you. It's really fair to tell you," he continued with an earnestness not discomposed by the indulgence in Vanderbank's face. "It's all right—all right!" he reassuringly added, having meanwhile stopped before a photograph suspended on the wall. "That's your mother!" he brought out with something of the elation of a child making a discovery or guessing a riddle. "I don't make you out in her yet—in my recollection of her, which, as I told you, is perfect; but I dare say I soon shall."
Vanderbank was more and more aware that the kind of amusement he excited would never in the least be a bar to affection. "Please take all your time."
Mr. Longdon looked at his watch again. "Do you think I HAD better keep it?"
"The cab?" Vanderbank liked him so, found in him such a promise of pleasant things, that he was almost tempted to say: "Dear and delightful sir, don't weigh that question; I'll pay, myself, for the man's whole night!" His approval at all events was complete.
"Most certainly. That's the only way not to think of it."
"Oh you young men, you young men!" his guest again murmured. He had passed on to the photograph—Vanderbank had many, too many photographs—of some other relation, and stood wiping the gold-mounted glasses through which he had been darting admirations and catching side-lights for shocks. "Don't talk nonsense," he continued as his friend attempted once more to throw in a protest; "I belong to a different period of history. There have been things this evening that have made me feel as if I had been disinterred—literally dug up from a long sleep. I assure you there have!"—he really pressed the point.
Vanderbank wondered a moment what things in particular these might be; he found himself wanting to get at everything his visitor represented, to enter into his consciousness and feel, as it were, on his side. He glanced with an intention freely sarcastic at an easy possibility. "The extraordinary vitality of Brookenham?"
Mr. Longdon, with nippers in place again, fixed on him a gravity that failed to prevent his discovering in the eyes behind them a shy reflexion of his irony. "Oh Brookenham! You must tell me all about Brookenham."
"I see that's not what you mean."
Mr. Longdon forbore to deny it. "I wonder if you'll understand what I mean." Vanderbank bristled with the wish to be put to the test, but was checked before he could say so. "And what's HIS place—Brookenham's?"
"Oh Rivers and Lakes—an awfully good thing. He got it last year."
Mr. Longdon—but not too grossly—wondered. "How did he get it?"
Vanderbank laughed. "Well, SHE got it."
His friend remained grave. "And about how much now—?"
"Oh twelve hundred—and lots of allowances and boats and things. To do the work!" Vanderbank, still with a certain levity, added.
"And what IS the work?"
The young man had a pause. "Ask HIM. He'll like to tell you."
"Yet he seemed to have but little to say." Mr. Longdon exactly measured it again.
"Ah not about that. Try him."
He looked more sharply at his host, as if vaguely suspicious of a trap; then not less vaguely he sighed. "Well, it's what I came up for—to try you all. But do they live on that?" he continued.
Vanderbank once more debated. "One doesn't quite know what they live on. But they've means—for it was just that fact, I remember, that showed Brookenham's getting the place wasn't a job. It was given, I mean, not to his mere domestic need, but to his notorious efficiency. He has a property—an ugly little place in Gloucestershire—which they sometimes let. His elder brother has the better one, but they make up an income."
Mr. Longdon for an instant lost himself. "Yes, I remember—one heard of those things at the time. And SHE must have had something."
"Yes indeed, she had something—and she always has her intense cleverness. She knows thoroughly how. They do it tremendously well."
"Tremendously well," Mr. Longdon intelligently echoed. "But a house in Buckingham Crescent, with the way they seem to have built through to all sorts of other places—?"
"Oh they're all right," Vanderbank soothingly dropped.
"One likes to feel that of people with whom one has dined. There are four children?" his friend went on.
"The older boy, whom you saw and who in his way is a wonder, the older girl, whom you must see, and two youngsters, male and female, whom you mustn't."
There might by this time, in the growing interest of their talk, have been almost nothing too uncanny for Mr. Longdon to fear it. "You mean the youngsters are—unfortunate?"
"No—they're only, like all the modern young, I think, mysteries, terrible little baffling mysteries." Vanderbank had found amusement again—it flickered so from his friend's face that, really at moments to the point of alarm, his explanations deepened darkness. Then with more interest he harked back. "I know the thing you just mentioned—the thing that strikes you as odd." He produced his knowledge quite with elation. "The talk." Mr. Longdon on this only looked at him in silence and harder, but he went on with assurance: "Yes, the talk—for we do talk, I think." Still his guest left him without relief, only fixing him and his suggestion with a suspended judgement. Whatever the old man was on the point of saying, however, he disposed of in a curtailed murmur; he had already turned afresh to the series of portraits, and as he glanced at another Vanderbank spoke afresh.
"It was very interesting to me to hear from you there, when the ladies had left us, how many old threads you were prepared to pick up."
Mr. Longdon had paused. "I'm an old boy who remembers the mothers," he at last replied.
"Yes, you told me how well you remember Mrs. Brookenham's."
"Oh, oh!"—and he arrived at a new subject. "This must be your sister Mary."
"Yes; it's very bad, but as she's dead—"
"Dead? Dear, dear!"
"Oh long ago"—Vanderbank eased him off. "It's delightful of you," this informant went on, "to have known also such a lot of MY people."
Mr. Longdon turned from his contemplation with a visible effort. "I feel obliged to you for taking it so; it mightn't—one never knows—have amused you. As I told you there, the first thing I did was to ask Fernanda about the company; and when she mentioned your name I immediately said: 'Would he like me to speak to him?'"
"And what did Fernanda say?"
Mr. Longdon stared. "Do YOU call her Fernanda?"
Vanderbank felt ever so much more guilty than he would have expected. "You think it too much in the manner we just mentioned?"
His friend hesitated; then with a smile a trifle strange: "Pardon me; I didn't mention—"
"No, you didn't; and your scruple was magnificent. In point of fact," Vanderbank pursued, "I DON'T call Mrs. Brookenham by her Christian name."
Mr. Longdon's clear eyes were searching. "Unless in speaking of her to others?" He seemed really to wish to know.
Vanderbank was but too ready to satisfy him. "I dare say we seem to you a vulgar lot of people. That's not the way, I can see, you speak of ladies at Beccles."
"Oh if you laugh at me—!" And his visitor turned off.
"Don't threaten me," said Vanderbank, "or I WILL send away the cab. Of course I know what you mean. It will be tremendously interesting to hear how the sort of thing we've fallen into—oh we HAVE fallen in!—strikes your fresh, your uncorrupted ear. Do have another cigarette. Sunk as I must appear to you it sometimes strikes even mine. But I'm not sure as regards Mrs. Brookenham, whom I've known a long time."
Mr. Longdon again took him up. "What do you people call a long time?"
Vanderbank considered. "Ah there you are! And now we're 'we people'! That's right—give it to us. I'm sure that in one way or another it's all earned. Well, I've known her ten years. But awfully well."
"What do you call awfully well?"
"We people?" Vanderbank's enquirer, with his continued restless observation, moving nearer, the young man had laid on his shoulder the lightest of friendly hands. "Don't you perhaps ask too much? But no," he added quickly and gaily, "of course you don't: if I don't look out I shall have exactly the effect on you I don't want. I dare say I don't know HOW well I know Mrs. Brookenham. Mustn't that sort of thing be put in a manner to the proof? What I meant to say just now was that I wouldn't—at least I hope I shouldn't—have named her as I did save to an old friend."
Mr. Longdon looked promptly satisfied and reassured. "You probably heard me address her myself."
"I did, but you've your rights, and that wouldn't excuse me. The only thing is that I go to see her every Sunday."
Mr. Longdon pondered and then, a little to Vanderbank's surprise, at any rate to his deeper amusement, candidly asked: "Only Fernanda? No other lady?"
"Oh yes, several other ladies."
Mr. Longdon appeared to hear this with pleasure. "You're quite right. We don't make enough of Sunday at Beccles."
"Oh we make plenty of it in London!" Vanderbank said. "And I think it's rather in my interest I should mention that Mrs. Brookenham calls ME—"
His visitor covered him now with an attention that just operated as a check. "By your Christian name?"
Before Vanderbank could in any degree attenuate "What IS your Christian name?" Mr. Longdon asked.
Vanderbank felt of a sudden almost guilty—as if his answer could only impute extravagance to the lady. "My Christian name"—he blushed it out—"is Gustavus."
His friend took a droll conscious leap. "And she calls you Gussy?"
"No, not even Gussy. But I scarcely think I ought to tell you," he pursued, "if she herself gave you no glimpse of the fact. Any implication that she consciously avoided it might make you see deeper depths."
He spoke with pointed levity, but his companion showed him after an instant a face just covered—and a little painfully—with the vision of the possibility brushed away by the joke. "Oh I'm not so bad as that!" Mr. Longdon modestly ejaculated.
"Well, she doesn't do it always," Vanderbank laughed, "and it's nothing moreover to what some people are called. Why, there was a fellow there—" He pulled up, however, and, thinking better of it, selected another instance. "The Duchess—weren't you introduced to the Duchess?—never calls me anything but 'Vanderbank' unless she calls me 'caro mio.' It wouldn't have taken much to make her appeal to YOU with an 'I say, Longdon!' I can quite hear her."
Mr. Longdon, focussing the effect of the sketch, pointed its moral with an indulgent: "Oh well, a FOREIGN duchess!" He could make his distinctions.
"Yes, she's invidiously, cruelly foreign," Vanderbank agreed: "I've never indeed seen a woman avail herself so cleverly, to make up for the obloquy of that state, of the benefits and immunities it brings with it. She has bloomed in the hot-house of her widowhood—she's a Neapolitan hatched by an incubator."
"A Neapolitan?"—Mr. Longdon seemed all civilly to wish he had only known it.
"Her husband was one; but I believe that dukes at Naples are as thick as princes at Petersburg. He's dead, at any rate, poor man, and she has come back here to live."
"Gloomily, I should think—after Naples?" Mr. Longdon threw out.
"Oh it would take more than even a Neapolitan past—! However"—and the young man caught himself up—"she lives not in what's behind her, but in what's before—she lives in her precious little Aggie."
"Little Aggie?" Mr. Longdon risked a cautious interest.
"I don't take a liberty there," Vanderbank smiled: "I speak only of the young Agnesina, a little girl, the Duchess's niece, or rather I believe her husband's, whom she has adopted—in the place of a daughter early lost—and has brought to England to marry."
"Ah to some great man of course!"
Vanderbank thought. "I don't know." He gave a vague but expressive sigh. "She's rather lovely, little Aggie."
Mr. Longdon looked conspicuously subtle. "Then perhaps YOU'RE the man!"
"Do I look like a 'great' one?" Vanderbank broke in.
His visitor, turning away from him, again embraced the room. "Oh dear, yes!"
"Well then, to show how right you are, there's the young lady." He pointed to an object on one of the tables, a small photograph with a very wide border of something that looked like crimson fur.
Mr. Longdon took up the picture; he was serious now. "She's very beautiful—but she's not a little girl."
"At Naples they develop early. She's only seventeen or eighteen, I suppose; but I never know how old—or at least how young—girls are, and I'm not sure. An aunt, at any rate, has of course nothing to conceal. She IS extremely pretty—with extraordinary red hair and a complexion to match; great rarities I believe, in that race and latitude. She gave me the portrait—frame and all. The frame is Neapolitan enough and little Aggie's charming." Then Vanderbank subjoined: "But not so charming as little Nanda."
"Little Nanda?—have you got HER?" The old man was all eagerness.
"She's over there beside the lamp—also a present from the original."
Mr. Longdon had gone to the place—little Nanda was in glazed white wood. He took her up and held her out; for a moment he said nothing, but presently, over his glasses, rested on his host a look intenser even than his scrutiny of the faded image. "Do they give their portraits now?"
"Little girls—innocent lambs? Surely—to old friends. Didn't they in your time?"
Mr. Longdon studied the portrait again; after which, with an exhalation of something between superiority and regret, "They never did to me," he returned.
"Well, you can have all you want now!" Vanderbank laughed.
His friend gave a slow droll headshake. "I don't want them 'now'!"
"You could do with them, my dear sir, still," Vanderbank continued in the same manner, "every bit I do!"
"I'm sure you do nothing you oughtn't." Mr. Longdon kept the photograph and continued to look at it. "Her mother told me about her—promised me I should see her next time."
"You must—she's a great friend of mine."
Mr. Longdon was really deep in it. "Is she clever?"
Vanderbank turned it over. "Well, you'll tell me if you think so."
"Ah with a child of seventeen—!" Mr. Longdon murmured it as if in dread of having to pronounce. "This one too IS seventeen?"
Vanderbank again considered. "Eighteen." He just hung fire once more, then brought out: "Well, call it nearly nineteen. I've kept her birthdays," he laughed.
His companion caught at the idea. "Upon my honour I should like to! When is the next?"
"You've plenty of time—the fifteenth of June."
"I'm only too sorry to wait." Laying down the object he had been examining Mr. Longdon took another turn about the room, and his manner was such an appeal to his host to accept his restlessness that as he circulated the latter watched him with encouragement. "I said to you just now that I knew the mothers, but it would have been more to the point to say the grandmothers." He stopped before his young friend, then nodded at the image of Nanda. "I knew HERS. She put it at something less."
Vanderbank rather failed to understand. "The old lady? Put what?"
Mr. Longdon's face showed him as for a moment feeling his way. "I'm speaking of Mrs. Brookenham. She spoke of her daughter as only sixteen."
Vanderbank's amusement at the tone of this broke out. "She usually does! She has done so, I think, for the last year or two."
His visitor dropped upon his sofa as with the weight of something sudden and fresh; then from this place, with a sharp little movement, tossed into the fire the end of a cigarette. Vanderbank offered him another, and as he accepted it and took a light he said: "I don't know what you're doing with me—I never at home smoke so much!" But he puffed away and, seated near, laid his hand on Vanderbank's arm as to help himself to utter something too delicate not to be guarded and yet too important not to be risked. "Now that's the sort of thing I did mean—as one of my impressions." Vanderbank continued at a loss and he went on: "I refer—if you don't mind my saying so—to what you said just now."
Vanderbank was conscious of a deep desire to draw from him whatever might come; so sensible was it somehow that whatever in him was good was also thoroughly personal. But our young friend had to think a minute. "I see, I see. Nothing's more probable than that I've said something nasty; but which of my particular horrors?"
"Well then, your conveying that she makes her daughter out younger—!"
"To make herself out the same?" Vanderbank took him straight up. "It was nasty my doing that? I see, I see. Yes, yes: I rather gave her away, and you're struck by it—as is most delightful you SHOULD be—because you're in every way of a better tradition and, knowing Mrs. Brookenham's my friend, can't conceive of one's playing on a friend a trick so vulgar and odious. It strikes you also probably as the kind of thing we must be constantly doing; it strikes you that right and left, probably, we keep giving each other away. Well, I dare say we do. Yes, 'come to think of it,' as they say in America, we do. But what shall I tell you? Practically we all know it and allow for it and it's as broad as it's long. What's London life after all? It's tit for tat!"
"Ah but what becomes of friendship?" Mr. Longdon earnestly and pleadingly asked, while he still held Vanderbank's arm as if under the spell of the vivid explanation supplied him.
The young man met his eyes only the more sociably. "Friendship?"
"Friendship." Mr. Longdon maintained the full value of the word.
"Well," his companion risked, "I dare say it isn't in London by any means what it is at Beccles. I quite literally mean that," Vanderbank reassuringly added; "I never really have believed in the existence of friendship in big societies—in great towns and great crowds. It's a plant that takes time and space and air; and London society is a huge 'squash,' as we elegantly call it—an elbowing pushing perspiring chattering mob."
"Ah I don't say THAT of you!" the visitor murmured with a withdrawal of his hand and a visible scruple for the sweeping concession he had evoked.
"Do say it then—for God's sake; let some one say it, so that something or other, whatever it may be, may come of it! It's impossible to say too much—it's impossible to say enough. There isn't anything any one can say that I won't agree to."
"That shows you really don't care," the old man returned with acuteness.
"Oh we're past saving, if that's what you mean!" Vanderbank laughed.
"You don't care, you don't care!" his guest repeated, "and—if I may be frank with you—I shouldn't wonder if it were rather a pity."
"A pity I don't care?"
"You ought to, you ought to." And Mr. Longdon paused. "May I say all I think?"
"I assure you I shall! You're awfully interesting."
"So are you, if you come to that. It's just what I've had in my head. There's something I seem to make out in you—!" He abruptly dropped this, however, going on in another way. "I remember the rest of you, but why did I never see YOU?"
"I must have been at school—at college. Perhaps you did know my brothers, elder and younger."
"There was a boy with your mother at Malvern. I was near her there for three months in—what WAS the year?"
"Yes, I know," Vanderbank replied while his guest tried to fix the date. "It was my brother Miles. He was awfully clever, but had no health, poor chap, and we lost him at seventeen. She used to take houses at such places with him—it was supposed to be for his benefit."
Mr. Longdon listened with a visible recovery. "He used to talk to me—I remember he asked me questions I couldn't answer and made me dreadfully ashamed. But I lent him books—partly, upon my honour, to make him think that as I had them I did know something. He read everything and had a lot to say about it. I used to tell your mother he had a great future."
Vanderbank shook his head sadly and kindly. "So he had. And you remember Nancy, who was handsome and who was usually with them?" he went on.
Mr. Longdon looked so uncertain that he explained he meant his other sister; on which his companion said: "Oh her? Yes, she was charming—she evidently had a future too."
"Well, she's in the midst of her future now. She's married."
"And whom did she marry?"
"A fellow called Toovey. A man in the City."
"Oh!" said Mr. Longdon a little blankly. Then as if to retrieve his blankness: "But why do you call her Nancy? Wasn't her name Blanche?"
"Exactly—Blanche Bertha Vanderbank."
Mr. Longdon looked half-mystified and half-distressed. "And now she's Nancy Toovey?"
Vanderbank broke into laughter at his dismay. "That's what every one calls her."
"Nobody knows. You see you were right about her future."
Mr. Longdon gave another of his soft smothered sighs; he had turned back again to the first photograph, which he looked at for a longer time. "Well, it wasn't HER way."
"My mother's? No indeed. Oh my mother's way—!" Vanderbank waited, then added gravely: "She was taken in time."
Mr. Longdon turned half-round as to reply to this, but instead of replying proceeded afresh to an examination of the expressive oval in the red plush frame. He took up little Aggie, who appeared to interest him, and abruptly observed: "Nanda isn't so pretty."
"No, not nearly. There's a great question whether Nanda's pretty at all."
Mr. Longdon continued to inspect her more favoured friend; which led him after a moment to bring out: "She ought to be, you know. Her grandmother was."
"Oh and her mother," Vanderbank threw in. "Don't you think Mrs. Brookenham lovely?"
Mr. Longdon kept him waiting a little. "Not so lovely as Lady Julia. Lady Julia had—!" He faltered; then, as if there were too much to say, disposed of the question. "Lady Julia had everything."
Vanderbank gathered hence an impression that determined him more and more to diplomacy. "But isn't that just what Mrs. Brookenham has?"
This time the old man was prompt. "Yes, she's very brilliant, but it's a totally different thing." He laid little Aggie down and moved away as without a purpose; but his friend presently perceived his purpose to be another glance at the other young lady. As if all accidentally and absently he bent again over the portrait of Nanda. "Lady Julia was exquisite and this child's exactly like her."
Vanderbank, more and more conscious of something working in him, was more and more interested. "If Nanda's so like her, WAS she so exquisite?"
"Oh yes; every one was agreed about that." Mr. Longdon kept his eyes on the face, trying a little, Vanderbank even thought, to conceal his own. "She was one of the greatest beauties of her day."
"Then IS Nanda so like her?" Vanderbank persisted, amused at his friend's transparency.
"Extraordinarily. Her mother told me all about her."
"Told you she's as beautiful as her grandmother?"
Mr. Longdon turned it over. "Well, that she has just Lady Julia's expression. She absolutely HAS it—I see it here." He was delightfully positive. "She's much more like the dead than like the living."
Vanderbank saw in this too many deep things not to follow them up. One of these was, to begin with, that his guest had not more than half-succumbed to Mrs. Brookenham's attraction, if indeed he had by a fine originality not resisted it altogether. That in itself, for an observer deeply versed in this lady, was attaching and beguiling. Another indication was that he found himself, in spite of such a break in the chain, distinctly predisposed to Nanda. "If she reproduces then so vividly Lady Julia," the young man threw out, "why does she strike you as so much less pretty than her foreign friend there, who is after all by no means a prodigy?"
The subject of this address, with one of the photographs in his hand, glanced, while he reflected, at the other. Then with a subtlety that matched itself for the moment with Vanderbank's: "You just told me yourself that the little foreign person—"
"Is ever so much the lovelier of the two? So I did. But you've promptly recognised it. It's the first time," Vanderbank went on, to let him down more gently, "that I've heard Mrs. Brookenham admit the girl's good looks."
"Her own girl's? 'Admit' them?"
"I mean grant them to be even as good as they are. I myself, I must tell you, extremely like Nanda's appearance. I think Lady Julia's granddaughter has in her face, in spite of everything—!"
"What do you mean by everything?" Mr. Longdon broke in with such an approach to resentment that his host's gaiety overflowed.
"You'll see—when you do see. She has no features. No, not one," Vanderbank inexorably pursued; "unless indeed you put it that she has two or three too many. What I was going to say was that she has in her expression all that's charming in her nature. But beauty, in London"—and feeling that he held his visitor's attention he gave himself the pleasure of freely presenting his idea—"staring glaring obvious knock-down beauty, as plain as a poster on a wall, an advertisement of soap or whiskey, something that speaks to the crowd and crosses the footlights, fetches such a price in the market that the absence of it, for a woman with a girl to marry, inspires endless terrors and constitutes for the wretched pair (to speak of mother and daughter alone) a sort of social bankruptcy. London doesn't love the latent or the lurking, has neither time nor taste nor sense for anything less discernible than the red flag in front of the steam-roller. It wants cash over the counter and letters ten feet high. Therefore you see it's all as yet rather a dark question for poor Nanda—a question that in a way quite occupies the foreground of her mother's earnest little life. How WILL she look, what will be thought of her and what will she be able to do for herself? She's at the age when the whole thing—speaking of her 'attractions,' her possible share of good looks—is still to a degree in a fog. But everything depends on it."
Mr. Longdon had by this time come back to him. "Excuse my asking it again—for you take such jumps: what, once more, do you mean by everything?"
"Why naturally her marrying. Above all her marrying early."
Mr. Longdon stood before the sofa. "What do you mean by early?"
"Well, we do doubtless get up later than at Beccles; but that gives us, you see, shorter days. I mean in a couple of seasons. Soon enough," Vanderbank developed, "to limit the strain—!" He was moved to higher gaiety by his friend's expression.
"What do you mean by the strain?"
"Well, the complication of her being there."
"You do put one through!" Vanderbank laughed. But he showed himself perfectly prepared. "Out of the school-room and where she is now. In her mother's drawing-room. At her mother's fireside."
Mr. Longdon stared. "But where else should she be?"
"At her husband's, don't you see?"
He looked as if he quite saw, yet was nevertheless not to be put off from his original challenge. "Ah certainly; but not as if she had been pushed down the chimney. All in good time."
"What do you call good time?"
"Why time to make herself loved."
Vanderbank wondered. "By the men who come to the house?"
Mr. Longdon slightly attenuated this way of putting it. "Yes—and in the home circle. Where's the 'strain' of her being suffered to be a member of it?"
Vanderbank at this left his corner of the sofa and, with his hands in his pockets and a manner so amused that it might have passed for excited, took several paces about the room while his interlocutor, watching him, waited for his response. That gentleman, as this response for a minute hung fire, took his turn at sitting down, and then Vanderbank stopped before him with a face in which something had been still more brightly kindled. "You ask me more things than I can tell you. You ask me more than I think you suspect. You must come and see me again—you must let me come and see you. You raise the most interesting questions and we must sooner or later have them all out."
Mr. Longdon looked happy in such a prospect, but once more took out his watch. "It wants five minutes to midnight. Which means that I must go now."
"Not in the least. There are satisfactions you too must give." His host, with an irresistible hand, confirmed him in his position and pressed upon him another cigarette. His resistance rang hollow—it was clearly, he judged, such an occasion for sacrifices. Vanderbank's view of it meanwhile was quite as marked. "You see there's ever so much more you must in common kindness tell me."
Mr. Longdon sat there like a shy singer invited to strike up. "I told you everything at Mrs. Brookenham's. It comes over me now how I dropped on you."
"What you told me," Vanderbank returned, "was excellent so far as it went; but it was only after all that, having caught my name, you had asked of our friend if I belonged to people you had known years before, and then, from what she had said, had—with what you were so good as to call great pleasure—made out that I did. You came round to me on this, after dinner, and gave me a pleasure still greater. But that only takes us part of the way." Mr. Longdon said nothing, but there was something appreciative in his conscious lapses; they were a tribute to his young friend's frequent felicity. This personage indeed appeared more and more to take them for that—which was not without its effect on his spirits. At last, with a flight of some freedom, he brought their pause to a close. "You loved Lady Julia." Then as the attitude of his guest, who serenely met his eyes, was practically a contribution to the subject, he went on with a feeling that he had positively pleased. "You lost her—and you're unmarried."
Mr. Longdon's smile was beautiful—it supplied so many meanings that when presently he spoke he seemed already to have told half his story. "Well, my life took a form. It had to, or I don't know what would have become of me, and several things that all happened at once helped me out. My father died—I came into the little place in Suffolk. My sister, my only one, who had married and was older than I, lost within a year or two both her husband and her little boy. I offered her, in the country, a home, for her trouble was greater than any trouble of mine. She came, she stayed; it went on and on and we lived there together. We were sorry for each other and it somehow suited us. But she died two years ago."
Vanderbank took all this in, only wishing to show—wishing by this time quite tenderly—that he even read into it deeply enough all the unsaid. He filled out another of his friend's gaps. "And here you are." Then he invited Mr. Longdon himself to make the stride. "Well, you'll be a great success."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Why, that we shall be so infatuated with you that we shall make your life a burden to you. You'll see soon enough what I mean by it."
"Possibly," the old man said; "to understand you I shall have to. You speak of something that as yet—with my race practically run—I know nothing about. I was no success as a young man. I mean of the sort that would have made most difference. People wouldn't look at me—"
"Well, WE shall look at you," Vanderbank declared. Then he added: "What people do you mean?" And before his friend could reply: "Lady Julia?"
Mr. Longdon's assent was mute. "Ah she was not the worst! I mean that what made it so bad," he continued, "was that they all really liked me. Your mother, I think—as to THAT, the dreadful consolatory 'liking'—even more than the others."
"My mother?"—Vanderbank was surprised. "You mean there was a question—?"
"Oh for but half a minute! It didn't take her long. It was five years after your father's death."
This explanation was very delicately made. "She COULD marry again."
"And I suppose you know she did," Vanderbank returned.
"I knew it soon enough!" With this, abruptly, Mr. Longdon pulled himself forward. "Good-night, good-night."
"Good-night," said Vanderbank. "But wasn't that AFTER Lady Julia?"
On the edge of the sofa, his hands supporting him, Mr. Longdon looked straight. "There was nothing after Lady Julia."
"I see." His companion smiled. "My mother was earlier."
"She was extremely good to me. I'm not speaking of that time at Malvern—that came later."
"Precisely—I understand. You're speaking of the first years of her widowhood."
Mr. Longdon just faltered. "I should call them rather the last. Six months later came her second marriage."
Vanderbank's interest visibly improved. "Ah it was THEN? That was about my seventh year." He called things back and pieced them together. "But she must have been older than you."
"Yes—a little. She was kindness itself to me at all events, then and afterwards. That was the charm of the weeks at Malvern."
"I see," the young man laughed. "The charm was that you had recovered."
"Oh dear, no!" Mr. Longdon, rather to his mystification, exclaimed. "I'm afraid I hadn't recovered at all—hadn't, if that's what you mean, got over my misery and my melancholy. She knew I hadn't—and that was what was nice of her. She was a person with whom I could talk about her."
Vanderbank took a moment to clear up the ambiguity. "Oh you mean you could talk about the OTHER. You hadn't got over Lady Julia."
Mr. Longdon sadly smiled at him. "I haven't got over her yet!" Then, however, as if not to look morbid, he took pains to be clear. "The first wound was bad—but from that one always comes round. Your mother, dear woman, had known how to help me. Lady Julia was at that time her intimate friend—it was she who introduced me there. She couldn't help what happened—she did her best. What I meant just now was that in the aftertime, when opportunity occurred, she was the one person with whom I could always talk and who always understood." He lost himself an instant in the deep memories to attest which he had survived alone; then he sighed out as if the taste of it all came back to him with a faint sweetness: "I think they must both have been good to me. At the Malvern time, the particular time I just mentioned to you, Lady Julia was already married, and during those first years she had been whirled out of my ken. Then her own life took a quieter turn; we met again; I went for a good while often to her house. I think she rather liked the state to which she had reduced me, though she didn't, you know, in the least presume on it. The better a woman is—it has often struck me—the more she enjoys in a quiet way some fellow's having been rather bad, rather dark and desperate, about her—for her. I dare say, I mean, that though Lady Julia insisted I ought to marry she wouldn't really have liked it much if I had. At any rate it was in those years I saw her daughter just cease to be a child—the little girl who was to be transformed by time into the so different person with whom we dined to-night. That comes back to me when I hear you speak of the growing up, in turn, of that person's own daughter."
"I follow you with a sympathy—!" Vanderbank replied. "The situation's reproduced."
"Ah partly—not altogether. The things that are unlike—well, are so VERY unlike." Mr. Longdon for a moment, on this, fixed his companion with eyes that betrayed one of the restless little jumps of his mind. "I told you just now that there's something I seem to make out in you."
"Yes, that was meant for better things?"—Vanderbank frankly took him up. "There IS something, I really believe—meant for ever so much better ones. Those are just the sort I like to be supposed to have a real affinity with. Help me to them, Mr. Longdon; help me to them, and I don't know what I won't do for you!"
"Then after all"—and his friend made the point with innocent sharpness—"you're NOT past saving!"
"Well, I individually—how shall I put it to you? If I tell you," Vanderbank went on, "that I've that sort of fulcrum for salvation which consists at least in a deep consciousness and the absence of a rag of illusion, I shall appear to say I'm wholly different from the world I live in and to that extent present myself as superior and fatuous. Try me at any rate. Let me try myself. Don't abandon me. See what can be done with me. Perhaps I'm after all a case. I shall certainly cling to you."