The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XIV

The next morning brought the young man many letters and telegrams, and his coffee was placed beside him in his room, where he remained until noon answering these communications. When he came out he learned that his mother and sisters had left the house. This information was given him by Mrs. Gresham, whom he found dealing with her own voluminous budget at one of the tables in the library. She was a lady who received thirty letters a day, the subject-matter of which, as well as of her punctual answers in a hand that would have been “ladylike” in a manageress, was a puzzle to those who observed her.

She told Nick that Lady Agnes had not been willing to disturb him at his work to say good-bye, knowing she should see him in a day or two in town. He was amused at the way his mother had stolen off — as if she feared further conversation might weaken the spell she believed herself to have wrought. The place was cleared, moreover, of its other visitors, so that, as Mrs. Gresham said, the fun was at an end. This lady expressed the idea that the fun was after all rather a bore. At any rate now they could rest, Mrs. Dallow and Nick and she, and she was glad Nick was going to stay for a little quiet. She liked Harsh best when it was not en fête: then one could see what a sympathetic old place it was. She hoped Nick was not dreadfully fagged — she feared Julia was completely done up. Julia, however, had transported her exhaustion to the grounds — she was wandering about somewhere. She thought more people would be coming to the house, people from the town, people from the country, and had gone out so as not to have to see them. She had not gone far — Nick could easily find her. Nick intimated that he himself was not eager for more people, whereupon Mrs. Gresham rather archly smiled. “And of course you hate me for being here.” He made some protest and she added: “But I’m almost part of the house, you know — I’m one of the chairs or tables.” Nick declared that he had never seen a house so well furnished, and Mrs. Gresham said: “I believe there are to be some people to dinner; rather an interference, isn’t it? Julia lives so in public. But it’s all for you.” And after a moment she added: “It’s a wonderful constitution.” Nick at first failed to seize her allusion — he thought it a retarded political reference, a sudden tribute to the great unwritten instrument by which they were all governed and under the happy operation of which his fight had been so successful. He was on the point of saying, “The British? Wonderful!” when he gathered that the intention of his companion had been simply to praise Mrs. Dallow’s fine robustness. “The surface so delicate, the action so easy, yet the frame of steel.”

He left Mrs. Gresham to her correspondence and went out of the house; wondering as he walked if she wanted him to do the same thing his mother wanted, so that her words had been intended for a prick — whether even the two ladies had talked over their desire together. Mrs. Gresham was a married woman who was usually taken for a widow, mainly because she was perpetually “sent for” by her friends, who in no event sent for Mr. Gresham. She came in every case, with her air of being répandue at the expense of dingier belongings. Her figure was admired — that is it was sometimes mentioned — and she dressed as if it was expected of her to be smart, like a young woman in a shop or a servant much in view. She slipped in and out, accompanied at the piano, talked to the neglected visitors, walked in the rain, and after the arrival of the post usually had conferences with her hostess, during which she stroked her chin and looked familiarly responsible. It was her peculiarity that people were always saying things to her in a lowered voice. She had all sorts of acquaintances and in small establishments sometimes wrote the menus. Great ones, on the other hand, had no terrors for her — she had seen too many. No one had ever discovered whether any one else paid her. People only knew what they did.

If Lady Agnes had in the minor key discussed with her the propriety of a union between the mistress of Harsh and the hope of the Dormers this last personage could take the circumstance for granted without irritation and even with cursory indulgence; for he was got unhappy now and his spirit was light and clear. The summer day was splendid and the world, as he looked at it from the terrace, offered no more worrying ambiguity than a vault of airy blue arching over a lap of solid green. The wide, still trees in the park appeared to be waiting for some daily inspection, and the rich fields, with their official frill of hedges, to rejoice in the light that smiled upon them as named and numbered acres. Nick felt himself catch the smile and all the reasons of it: they made up a charm to which he had perhaps not hitherto done justice — something of the impression he had received when younger from showy “views” of fine country-seats that had pressed and patted nature, as by the fat hands of “benches” of magistrates and landlords, into supreme respectability and comfort. There were a couple of peacocks on the terrace, and his eye was caught by the gleam of the swans on a distant lake, where was also a little temple on an island; and these objects fell in with his humour, which at another time might have been ruffled by them as aggressive triumphs of the conventional.

It was certainly a proof of youth and health on his part that his spirits had risen as the plot thickened and that after he had taken his jump into the turbid waters of a contested election he had been able to tumble and splash not only without a sense of awkwardness but with a considerable capacity for the frolic. Tepid as we saw him in Paris he had found his relation to his opportunity surprisingly altered by his little journey across the Channel, had seen things in a new perspective and breathed an air that set him and kept him in motion. There had been something in it that went to his head — an element that his mother and his sisters, his father from beyond the grave, Julia Dallow, the Liberal party and a hundred friends, were both secretly and overtly occupied in pumping into it. If he but half-believed in victory he at least liked the wind of the onset in his ears, and he had a general sense that when one was “stuck” there was always the nearest thing at which one must pull. The embarrassment, that is the revival of scepticism, which might produce an inconsistency shameful to exhibit and yet difficult to conceal, was safe enough to come later. Indeed at the risk of presenting our young man as too whimsical a personage I may hint that some such sickly glow had even now begun to tinge one quarter of his inward horizon.

I am afraid, moreover, that I have no better excuse for him than the one he had touched on in that momentous conversation with his mother which I have thought it useful to reproduce in full. He was conscious of a double nature; there were two men in him, quite separate, whose leading features had little in common and each of whom insisted on having an independent turn at life. Meanwhile then, if he was adequately aware that the bed of his moral existence would need a good deal of making over if he was to lie upon it without unseemly tossing, he was also alive to the propriety of not parading his inconsistencies, not letting his unregulated passions become a spectacle to the vulgar. He had none of that wish to appear deep which is at the bottom of most forms of fatuity; he was perfectly willing to pass for decently superficial; he only aspired to be decently continuous. When you were not suitably shallow this presented difficulties; but he would have assented to the proposition that you must be as subtle as you can and that a high use of subtlety is in consuming the smoke of your inner fire. The fire was the great thing, not the chimney. He had no view of life that counted out the need of learning; it was teaching rather as to which he was conscious of no particular mission. He enjoyed life, enjoyed it immensely, and was ready to pursue it with patience through as many channels as possible. He was on his guard, however, against making an ass of himself, that is against not thinking out his experiments before trying them in public. It was because, as yet, he liked life in general better than it was clear to him he liked particular possibilities that, on the occasion of a constituency’s holding out a cordial hand to him while it extended another in a different direction, a certain bloom of boyhood that was on him had not paled at the idea of a match.

He had risen to the fray as he had risen to matches at school, for his boyishness could still take a pleasure in an inconsiderate show of agility. He could meet electors and conciliate bores and compliment women and answer questions and roll off speeches and chaff adversaries — he could do these things because it was amusing and slightly dangerous, like playing football or ascending an Alp, pastimes for which nature had conferred on him an aptitude not so very different in kind from a due volubility on platforms. There were two voices to admonish him that all this was not really action at all, but only a pusillanimous imitation of it: one of them fitfully audible in the depths of his own spirit and the other speaking, in the equivocal accents of a very crabbed hand, from a letter of four pages by Gabriel Nash. However, Nick carried the imitation as far as possible, and the flood of sound floated him. What more could a working faith have done? He had not broken with the axiom that in a case of doubt one should hold off, for this applied to choice, and he had not at present the slightest pretension to choosing. He knew he was lifted along, that what he was doing was not first-rate, that nothing was settled by it and that if there was a hard knot in his life it would only grow harder with keeping. Doing one’s sum tomorrow instead of today doesn’t make the sum easier, but at least makes today so.

Sometimes in the course of the following fortnight it seemed to him he had gone in for Harsh because he was sure he should lose; sometimes he foresaw that he should win precisely to punish him for having tried and for his want of candour; and when presently he did win he was almost scared at his success. Then it appeared to him he had done something even worse than not choose — he had let others choose for him. The beauty of it was that they had chosen with only their own object in their eye, for what did they know about his strange alternative? He was rattled about so for a fortnight — Julia taking care of this — that he had no time to think save when he tried to remember a quotation or an American story, and all his life became an overflow of verbiage. Thought couldn’t hear itself for the noise, which had to be pleasant and persuasive, had to hang more or less together, without its aid. Nick was surprised at the airs he could play, and often when, the last thing at night, he shut the door of his room, found himself privately exclaiming that he had had no idea he was such a mountebank.

I must add that if this reflexion didn’t occupy him long, and if no meditation, after his return from Paris, held him for many moments, there was a reason better even than that he was tired, that he was busy, that he appreciated the coincidence of the hit and the hurrah, the hurrah and the hit. That reason was simply Mrs. Dallow, who had suddenly become a still larger fact in his consciousness than his having turned actively political. She was indeed his being so — in the sense that if the politics were his, how little soever, the activity was hers. She had better ways of showing she was clever than merely saying clever things — which in general only prove at the most that one would be clever if one could. The accomplished fact itself was almost always the demonstration that Mrs. Dallow could; and when Nick came to his senses after the proclamation of the victor and the drop of the uproar her figure was, of the whole violent dance of shadows, the only thing that came back, that stayed. She had been there at each of the moments, passing, repassing, returning, before him, beside him, behind him. She had made the business infinitely prettier than it would have been without her, added music and flowers and ices, a finer charm, converting it into a kind of heroic “function,” the form of sport most dangerous. It had been a garden-party, say, with one’s life at stake from pressure of the crowd. The concluded affair had bequeathed him thus not only a seat in the House of Commons, but a perception of what may come of women in high embodiments and an abyss of intimacy with one woman in particular.

She had wrapped him up in something, he didn’t know what — a sense of facility, an overpowering fragrance — and they had moved together in an immense fraternity. There had been no love-making, no contact that was only personal, no vulgarity of flirtation: the hurry of the days and the sharpness with which they both tended to an outside object had made all that irrelevant. It was as if she had been too near for him to see her separate from himself; but none the less, when he now drew breath and looked back, what had happened met his eyes as a composed picture — a picture of which the subject was inveterately Julia and her ponies: Julia wonderfully fair and fine, waving her whip, cleaving the crowd, holding her head as if it had been a banner, smiling up into second-storey windows, carrying him beside her, carrying him to his doom. He had not reckoned at the time, in the few days, how much he had driven about with her; but the image of it was there, in his consulted conscience, as well as in a personal glow not yet chilled: it looked large as it rose before him. The things his mother had said to him made a rich enough frame for it all, and the whole impression had that night kept him much awake.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38