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The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter II Post by :JerseyDave Category :Long Stories Author :Henry James Date :June 2011 Read :1252

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The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter II


"Good-bye. He's off," Mrs. Brookenham, who had remained quite on her own
side of the room, explained to her friend.

"Where's he off to?" this friend enquired with a casual advance and a
look not so much at her hostess as at the cushions just rearranged.

"Oh to some places. To Brander to-day."

"How he does run about!" And the Duchess, still with a glance hither and
yon, sank upon the sofa to which she had made her way unaided. Mrs.
Brookenham knew perfectly the meaning of this glance: she had but three
or four comparatively good pieces, whereas the Duchess, rich with the
spoils of Italy, had but three or four comparatively bad. This was the
relation, as between intimate friends, that the Duchess visibly
preferred, and it was quite groundless, in Buckingham Crescent, ever to
enter the drawing-room with an expression suspicious of disloyalty. The
Duchess was a woman who so cultivated her passions that she would have
regarded it as disloyal to introduce there a new piece of furniture in
an underhand way--that is without a full appeal to herself, the highest
authority, and the consequent bestowal of opportunity to nip the mistake
in the bud. Mrs. Brookenham had repeatedly asked herself where in the
world she might have found the money to be disloyal. The Duchess's
standard was of a height--! It matched for that matter her other
elements, which were wontedly conspicuous as usual as she sat there
suggestive of early tea. She always suggested tea before the hour, and
her friend always, but with so different a wistfulness, rang for it.
"Who's to be at Brander?" she asked.

"I haven't the least idea--he didn't tell me. But they've always a lot
of people."

"Oh I know--extraordinary mixtures. Has he been there before?"

Mrs. Brookenham thought. "Oh yes--if I remember--more than once. In fact
her note--which he showed me, but which only mentioned 'some friends'--
was a sort of appeal on the ground of something or other that had
happened the last time."

The Duchess dealt with it. "She writes the most extraordinary notes."

"Well, this was nice, I thought," Mrs. Brookenham said--"from a woman of
her age and her immense position to so young a man."

Again the Duchess reflected. "My dear, she's not an American and she's
not on the stage. Aren't those what you call positions in this country?
And she's also not a hundred."

"Yes, but Harold's a mere baby."

"Then he doesn't seem to want for nurses!" the Duchess replied. She
smiled at her hostess. "Your children are like their mother--they're
eternally young."

"Well, I'M not a hundred!" moaned Mrs. Brookenham as if she wished with
dim perversity she were.

"Every one's at any rate awfully kind to Harold." She waited a moment to
give her visitor the chance to pronounce that eminently natural, but no
pronouncement came--nothing but the footman who had answered her ring
and of whom she ordered tea. "And where did you say YOU'RE going?" she
enquired after this.

"For Easter?" The Duchess achieved a direct encounter with her charming
eyes--which was not in general an easy feat. "I didn't say I was going
anywhere. I haven't of a sudden changed my habits. You know whether I
leave my child--except in the sense of having left her an hour ago at
Mr. Garlick's class in Modern Light Literature. I confess I'm a little
nervous about the subjects and am going for her at five."

"And then where do you take her?"

"Home to her tea. Where should you think?"

Mrs. Brookenham declined, in connexion with the matter, any
responsibility of thought; she did indeed much better by saying after a
moment: "You ARE devoted!"

"Miss Merriman has her afternoon--I can't imagine what they do with
their afternoons," the Duchess went on. "But she's to be back in the
school-room at seven."

"And you have Aggie till then?"

"Till then," said the Duchess cheerfully. "You're off for Easter to--
where is it?" she continued.

Mrs. Brookenham had received with no flush of betrayal the various
discriminations thus conveyed by her visitor, and her only revenge for
the moment was to look as sweetly resigned as if she really saw what was
in them. Where were they going for Easter? She had to think an instant,
but she brought it out. "Oh to Pewbury--we've been engaged so long that
I had forgotten. We go once a year--one does it for Edward."

"Ah you spoil him!" smiled the Duchess. "Who's to be there?"

"Oh the usual thing, I suppose. A lot of my lord's tiresome supporters."

"To pay his debt? Then why are you poor things asked?"

Mrs. Brookenham looked, on this, quite adorably--that is most
wonderingly--grave. "How do I know, my dear Jane, why in the world we're
ever asked anywhere? Fancy people wanting Edward!" she exhaled with
stupefaction. "Yet we can never get off Pewbury."

"You're better for getting on, cara mia, than for getting off!" the
Duchess blandly returned. She was a person of no small presence, filling
her place, however, without ponderosity, with a massiveness indeed
rather artfully kept in bounds. Her head, her chin, her shoulders were
well aloft, but she had not abandoned the cultivation of a "figure" or
any of the distinctively finer reasons for passing as a handsome woman.
She was secretly at war moreover, in this endeavour, with a lurking no
less than with a public foe, and thoroughly aware that if she didn't
look well she might at times only, and quite dreadfully, look good.
There were definite ways of escape, none of which she neglected and from
the total of which, as she flattered herself, the air of distinction
almost mathematically resulted. This air corresponded superficially with
her acquired Calabrian sonorities, from her voluminous title down, but
the colourless hair, the passionless forehead, the mild cheek and long
lip of the British matron, the type that had set its trap for her
earlier than any other, were elements difficult to deal with and were at
moments all a sharp observer saw. The battle-ground then was the
haunting danger of the bourgeois. She gave Mrs. Brookenham no time to
resent her last note before enquiring if Nanda were to accompany the

"Mercy mercy, no--she's not asked." Mrs. Brookenham, on Nanda's behalf,
fairly radiated obscurity. "My children don't go where they're not

"I never said they did, love," the Duchess returned. "But what then do
you do with her?"

"If you mean socially"--Mrs. Brookenham looked as if there might be in
some distant sphere, for which she almost yearned, a maternal
opportunity very different from that--"if you mean socially, I don't do
anything at all. I've never pretended to do anything. You know as well
as I do, dear Jane, that I haven't begun yet." Jane's hostess now spoke
as simply as an earnest anxious child. She gave a vague patient sigh. "I
suppose I must begin!"

The Duchess remained for a little rather grimly silent. "How old is she

"Thirty!" said Mrs. Brookenham with distilled sweetness. Then with no
transition of tone: "She has gone for a few days to Tishy Grendon."

"In the country?"

"She stays with her to-night in Hill Street. They go down together
to-morrow. Why hasn't Aggie been?" Mrs. Brookenham went on.

The Duchess handsomely stared. "Been where?"

"Why here, to see Nanda."

"Here?" the Duchess echoed, fairly looking again about the room. "When
is Nanda ever here?"

"Ah you know I've given her a room of her own--the sweetest little room
in the world." Mrs. Brookenham never looked so comparatively hopeful as
when obliged to explain. "She has everything there a girl can want."

"My dear woman," asked the Duchess, "has she sometimes her own mother?"

The men had now come in to place the tea-table, and it was the movements
of the red-haired footman that Mrs. Brookenham followed. "You had better
ask my child herself."

The Duchess was frank and jovial. "I would, I promise you, if I could
get at her! But isn't that woman always with her?"

Mrs. Brookenham smoothed the little embroidered tea-cloth. "Do you call
Tishy Grendon a woman?"

Again the Duchess had one of her pauses, which were indeed so frequent
in her talks with this intimate that an auditor could sometimes wonder
what particular form of relief they represented. They might have been a
habit proceeding from the fear of undue impatience. If the Duchess had
been as impatient with Mrs. Brookenham as she would possibly have seemed
without them her frequent visits in the face of irritation would have
had to be accounted for. "What do YOU call her?" she demanded.

"Why Nanda's best friend--if not her only one. That's the place I SHOULD
have liked for Aggie," Mrs. Brookenham ever so graciously smiled.

The Duchess hereupon, going beyond her, gave way to free mirth. "My dear
thing, you're delightful. Aggie OR Tishy is a sweet thought. Since
you're so good as to ask why Aggie has fallen off you'll excuse my
telling you that you've just named the reason. You've known ever since
we came to England what I feel about the proper persons--and the most
improper--for her to meet. The Tishy Grendons are not a bit the proper."

Mrs. Brookenham continued to assist a little in the preparations for
tea. "Why not say at once, Jane"--and her tone, in its appeal, was
almost infantine--"that you've come at last to placing even poor Nanda,
for Aggie's wonderful purpose, in the same impossible class?"

The Duchess took her time, but at last she accepted her duty. "Well, if
you will have it. You know my ideas. If it isn't my notion of the way to
bring up a girl to give her up, in extreme youth, to an intimacy with a
young married woman who's both unhappy and silly, whose conversation has
absolutely no limits, who says everything that comes into her head and
talks to the poor child about God only knows what--if I should never
dream of such an arrangement for my niece I can almost as little face
the prospect of throwing her MUCH, don't you see? with any young person
exposed to such an association. It would be in the natural order
certainly"--in spite of which natural order the Duchess made the point
with but moderate emphasis--"that, since dear Edward is my cousin, Aggie
should see at least as much of Nanda as of any other girl of their age.
But what will you have? I must recognise the predicament I'm placed in
by the more and more extraordinary development of English manners. Many
things have altered, goodness knows, since I was Aggie's age, but
nothing's so different as what you all do with your girls. It's all a
muddle, a compromise, a monstrosity, like everything else you produce;
there's nothing in it that goes on all-fours. _I see but one consistent
way, which is our fine old foreign way and which makes--in the upper
classes, mind you, for it's with them only I'm concerned--des femmes
bien gracieuses. I allude to the immemorial custom of my husband's race,
which was good enough for his mother and his mother's mother, for
Aggie's own, for his other sisters, for toutes ces dames. It would have
been good enough for my child, as I call her--my dear husband called her
HIS--if, not losing her parents, she had remained in her own country.
She would have been brought up there under an anxious eye--that's the
great point; privately, carefully, tenderly, and with what she was NOT
to learn--till the proper time--looked after quite as much as the rest.
I can only go on with her in that spirit and make of her, under
Providence, what I consider any young person of her condition, of her
name, of her particular traditions, should be. Voila, ma chere. Should
you put it to me whether I think you're surrounding Nanda with any such
security as that--well, I shouldn't be able to help it if I offended you
by an honest answer. What it comes to, simply stated, is that really she
must choose between Aggie and Tishy. I'm afraid I should shock you were
I to tell you what I should think of myself for packing MY child, all
alone, off for a week with Mrs. Grendon."

Mrs. Brookenham, who had many talents, had none perhaps that she oftener
found useful than that of listening with the appearance of being fairly
hypnotised. It was the way she listened to her housekeeper at their
regular morning conference, and if the rejoinder ensuing upon it
frequently appeared to have nothing to do with her manner this was a
puzzle for her interlocutor alone. "Oh of course I know your theory,
dear Jane, and I dare say it's very charming and old-fashioned and, if
you like, aristocratic, in a frowsy foolish old way--though even upon
that, at the same time, there would be something too to be said. But I
can only congratulate you on finding it more workable than there can be
any question of MY finding it. If you're all armed for the sacrifices
you speak of I simply am not. I don't think I'm quite a monster, but I
don't pretend to be a saint. I'm an English wife and an English mother--
I live in the mixed English world. My daughter, at any rate, is just my
daughter, I thank my stars, and one of a good English bunch: she's not
the unique niece of my dead Italian husband, nor doubtless either, in
spite of her excellent birth, of a lineage, like Aggie's, so very
tremendous. I've my life to lead and she's a part of it. Sugar?" she
wound up on a still softer note as she handed the cup of tea.

"Never! Well, with ME" said the Duchess with spirit, "she would be all."

"'All' is soon said! Life is composed of many things," Mrs. Brookenham
gently rang out--"of such mingled intertwisted strands!" Then still with
the silver bell, "Don't you really think Tishy nice?" she asked.

"I think little girls should live with little girls and young femmes du
monde so immensely initiated should--well," said the Duchess with a toss
of her head, "let them alone. What do they want of them 'at all at

"Well, my dear, if Tishy strikes you as 'initiated' all one can ask is
'Initiated into what?' I should as soon think of applying such a term to
a little shivering shorn lamb. Is it your theory," Mrs. Brookenham
pursued, "that our unfortunate unmarried daughters are to have no
intelligent friends?"

"Unfortunate indeed," cried the Duchess, "precisely BECAUSE they're
unmarried, and unmarried, if you don't mind my saying so, a good deal
because they're unmarriageable. Men, after all, the nice ones--by which
I mean the possible ones--are not on the lookout for little brides whose
usual associates are so up to snuff. It's not their idea that the girls
they marry shall already have been pitchforked--by talk and contacts and
visits and newspapers and by the way the poor creatures rush about and
all the extraordinary things they do--quite into EVERYTHING. A girl's
most intelligent friend is her mother--or the relative acting as such.
Perhaps you consider that Tishy takes your place!"

Mrs. Brookenham waited so long to say what she considered that before
she next spoke the question appeared to have dropped. Then she only
replied as if suddenly remembering her manners: "Won't you eat
something?" She indicated a particular plate. "One of the nice little
round ones?" The Duchess appropriated a nice little round one and her
hostess presently went on: "There's one thing I mustn't forget--don't
let us eat them ALL. I believe they're what Lord Petherton really comes

The Duchess finished her mouthful imperturbably before she took this up.
"Does he come so often?"

Mrs. Brookenham might have been, for judicious candour, the Muse of
History. "I don't know what he calls it; but he said yesterday that he'd
come today. I've had tea earlier for you," she went on with her most
melancholy kindness--"and he's always late. But we mustn't, between us,
lick the platter clean."

The Duchess entered very sufficiently into her companion's tone. "Oh I
don't feel at all obliged to consider him, for he has not of late
particularly put himself out for me. He has not been to see me since I
don't know when, and the last time he did come he brought Mr. Mitchett."

"Here it was the other way round. It was Mr. Mitchett, the other year,
who first brought Lord Petherton."

"And who," asked the Duchess, "had first brought Mr. Mitchett?"

Mrs. Brookenham, meeting her friend's eyes, looked for an instant as if
trying to recall. "I give it up. I muddle beginnings."

"That doesn't matter if you only MAKE them," the Duchess smiled.

"No, does it?" To which Mrs. Brookenham added: "Did he bring Mr.
Mitchett for Aggie?"

"If he did they'll have been disappointed. Neither of them has seen, in
my house, the tip of her nose." The Duchess announced it with a pomp of

"Ah but with your ideas that doesn't prevent."

"Prevent what?"

"Why what I suppose you call the pourparlers."

"For Aggie's hand? My dear," said the Duchess, "I'm glad you do me the
justice of feeling that I'm a person to take time by the forelock. It
was not, as you seem to remember, with the sight of Mr. Mitchett that
the question of Aggie's hand began to occupy me. I should be ashamed of
myself if it weren't constantly before me and if I hadn't my feelers out
in more quarters than one. But I've not so much as thought of Mr.
Mitchett--who, rich as he may be, is the son of a shoemaker and
superlatively hideous--for a reason I don't at all mind telling you.
Don't be outraged if I say that I've for a long time hoped you yourself
would find the right use for him." She paused--at present with a
momentary failure of assurance, from which she rallied, however, to
proceed with a burst of earnestness that was fairly noble. "Forgive me
if I just tell you once for all how it strikes me, I'm stupefied at your
not seeming to recognise either your interest or your duty. Oh I know
you want to, but you appear to me--in your perfect good faith of course
--utterly at sea. They're one and the same thing, don't you make out?
your interest and your duty. Why isn't it convincingly plain to you that
the thing to do with Nanda is just to marry her--and to marry her soon?
That's the great thing--do it while you CAN. If you don't want her
downstairs--at which, let me say, I don't in the least wonder--your
remedy is to take the right alternative. Don't send her to Tishy--"

"Send her to Mr. Mitchett?" Mrs. Brookenham unresentfully quavered. Her
colour, during her visitor's address had distinctly risen, but there was
no irritation in her voice. "How do you know, Jane, that I don't want
her downstairs?"

The Duchess looked at her with an audacity confirmed by the absence from
her face of everything but the plaintive. "There you are, with your
eternal English false positions! J'aime, moi, les situations nettes--je
rien comprends pas d'autres. It wouldn't be to your honour--to that of
your delicacy--that with your impossible house you SHOULD wish to plant
your girl in your drawing-room. But such a way of keeping her out of it
as throwing her into a worse--!"

"Well, Jane, you do say things to me!" Mrs. Brookenham blandly broke in.
She had sunk back into her chair; her hands, in her lap pressed
themselves together and her wan smile brought a tear into each of her
eyes by the very effort to be brighter. It might have been guessed of
her that she hated to seem to care, but that she had other dislikes too.
"If one were to take up, you know, some of the things you say--!" And
she positively sighed for the wealth of amusement at them of which her
tears were the sign. Her friend could quite match her indifference.
"Well, my child, TAKE them up; if you were to do that with them
candidly, one by one, you would do really very much what I should like
to bring you to. Do you see?" Mrs. Brookenham's failure to repudiate the
vision appeared to suffice, and her visitor cheerfully took a further
jump. "As much of Tishy as she wants--AFTER. But not before."

"After what?"

"Well--say after Mr. Mitchett. Mr. Mitchett won't take her after Mrs.

"And what are your grounds for assuming that he'll take her at all?"
Then as the Duchess hung fire a moment: "Have you got it by chance from
Lord Petherton?"

The eyes of the two women met for a little on this, and there might have
been a consequence of it in the manner of what came. "I've got it from
not being a fool. Men, I repeat, like the girls they marry--"

"Oh I already know your old song! The way they like the girls they DON'T
marry seems to be," Mrs. Brookenham mused, "what more immediately
concerns us. You had better wait till you HAVE made Aggie's fortune
perhaps--to be so sure of the working of your system. Pardon me,
darling, if I don't take you for an example until you've a little more
successfully become one. I know what the sort of men worth speaking of
are not looking for. They ARE looking for smart safe sensible English

The Duchess glanced at the clock. "What's Mr. Vanderbank looking for?"

Her companion appeared to oblige her by anxiously thinking. "Oh, HE, I'm
afraid, poor dear--for nothing at all!"

The Duchess had taken off a glove to appease her appetite, and now,
drawing it on, she smoothed it down. "I think he has his ideas."

"The same as yours?"

"Well, more like them than like yours."

"Ah perhaps then--for he and I," said Mrs. Brookenham, "don't agree, I
feel, on two things in the world. So you think poor Mitchy," she went
on, "who's the son of a shoemaker and who might be the grandson of a
grasshopper, good enough for my child."

The Duchess appreciated for a moment the superior fit of her glove. "I
look facts in the face. It's exactly what I'm doing for Aggie." Then she
grew easy to extravagance. "What are you giving her?"

But Mrs. Brookenham took without wincing whatever, as between a
masterful relative and an exposed frivolity, might have been the sting
of it. "That you must ask Edward. I haven't the least idea."

"There you are again--the virtuous English mother! I've got Aggie's
little fortune in an old stocking and I count it over every night. If
you've no old stocking for Nanda there are worse fates than shoemakers
and grasshoppers. Even WITH one, you know, I don't at all say that I
should sniff at poor Mitchy. We must take what we can get and I shall be
the first to take it. You can't have everything for ninepence." And the
Duchess got up--shining, however, with a confessed light of fantasy.
"Speak to him, my dear--speak to him!"

"Do you mean offer him my child?"

She laughed at the intonation. "There you are once more--vous autres! If
you're shocked at the idea you place drolement your delicacy. I'd offer
mine to the son of a chimney-sweep if the principal guarantees were
there. Nanda's charming--you don't do her justice. I don't say Mr.
Mitchett's either beautiful or noble, and he certainly hasn't as much
distinction as would cover the point of a pin. He doesn't mind moreover
what he says--the lengths he sometimes goes to!--but that," added the
Duchess with decision, "is no doubt much a matter of how he finds you'll
take it. And after marriage what does it signify? He has forty thousand
a year, an excellent idea of how to take care of it and a good

Mrs. Brookenham sat still; she only looked up at her friend. "Is it by
Lord Petherton that you know of his excellent idea?"

The Duchess showed she was challenged, but also that she made
allowances. "I go by my impression. But Lord Petherton HAS spoken for

"He ought to do that," said Mrs. Brookenham--"since he wholly lives on

"Lord Petherton--on Mr. Mitchett?" The Duchess stared, but rather in
amusement than in horror. "Why, hasn't he a--property?"

"The loveliest. Mr. Mitchett's his property. Didn't you KNOW?" There was
an artless wail in Mrs. Brookenham's surprise.

"How should I know--still a stranger as I'm often rather happy to feel
myself here and choosing my friends and picking my steps very much, I
can assure you--how should I know about all your social scandals and

"Oh we don't call THAT a social scandal!" Mrs. Brookenham inimitably

"Well, if you should wish to you'd have the way I tell you of to stop
it. Divert the stream of Mr. Mitchett's wealth."

"Oh there's plenty for every one!"--Mrs. Brookenham kept up her tone.
"He's always giving us things--bonbons and dinners and opera-boxes."

"He has never given ME any," the Duchess contentedly declared.

Mrs. Brookenham waited a little. "Lord Petherton has the giving of some.
He has never in his life before, I imagine, made so many presents."

"Ah then it's a shame one has nothing!" On which before reaching the
door, the Duchess changed the subject. "You say I never bring Aggie. If
you like I'll bring her back."

Mrs. Brookenham wondered. "Do you mean today?"

"Yes, when I've picked her up. It will be something to do with her till
Miss Merriman can take her."

"Delighted, dearest; do bring her. And I think she should SEE Mr.

"Shall I find him here too then?"

"Oh take the chance."

The two women, on this, exchanged, tacitly and across the room--the
Duchess at the door, which a servant had arrived to open for her, and
Mrs. Brookenham still at her tea-table--a further stroke of intercourse,
over which the latter was not on this occasion the first to lower her
lids. "I think I've shown high scruples," the departing guest said, "but
I understand then that I'm free."

"Free as air, dear Jane."

"Good." Then just as she was off, "Ah dear old Edward!" the guest
exclaimed. Her kinsman, as she was fond of calling him, had reached the
top of the staircase, and Mrs. Brookenham, by the fire, heard them meet
on the landing--heard also the Duchess protest against his turning to
see her down. Mrs. Brookenham, listening to them, hoped Edward would
accept the protest and think it sufficient to leave her with the
footman. Their common consciousness that she was a kind of cousin, a
consciousness not devoid of satisfaction, was quite consistent with a
view, early arrived at, of the absurdity of any fuss about her.

Content of BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE: CHAPTER II (Henry James' novel: The Awkward Age)

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The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter III The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter III

The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter III
BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE#CHAPTER IIIWhen Mr. Brookenham appeared his wife was prompt. "She's coming back forLord Petherton.""Oh!" he simply said."There's something between them.""Oh!" he merely repeated. And it would have taken many such sounds onhis part to represent a spirit of response discernible to any one buthis mate."There have been things before," she went on, "but I haven't felt sure.Don't you know how one has sometimes a flash?"It couldn't be said of Edward Brookenham, who seemed to bend for sittingdown more hinges than most men, that he looked as if he knew either thisor anything else. He had a pale

The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter I The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter I

The Awkward Age - BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE - Chapter I
BOOK SECOND - LITTLE AGGIE#CHAPTER IMrs. Brookenham stopped on the threshold with the sharp surprise of thesight of her son, and there was disappointment, though rather of theafflicted than of the irritated sort, in the question that, slowlyadvancing, she launched at him. "If you're still lolling about why didyou tell me two hours ago that you were leaving immediately?"Deep in a large brocaded chair with his little legs stuck out to thefire, he was so much at his ease that he was almost flat on his back.She had evidently roused him from sleep, and it took him a couple ofminutes--during which,