The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XVI

He lost no time in going down to see Mr. Carteret, to whom he had written immediately after the election and who had answered him in twelve revised pages of historical parallel. He used often to envy Mr. Carteret’s leisure, a sense of which came to him now afresh, in the summer evening, as he walked up the hill toward the quiet house where enjoyment had ever been mingled for him with a vague oppression. He was a little boy again, under Mr. Carteret’s roof — a little boy on whom it had been duly impressed that in the wide, plain, peaceful rooms he was not to “touch.” When he paid a visit to his father’s old friend there were in fact many things — many topics — from which he instinctively kept his hands. Even Mr. Chayter, the immemorial blank butler, who was so like his master that he might have been a twin brother, helped to remind him that he must be good. Mr. Carteret seemed to Nick a very grave person, but he had the sense that Chayter thought him rather frivolous.

Our young man always came on foot from the station, leaving his portmanteau to be carried: the direct way was steep and he liked the slow approach, which gave him a chance to look about the place and smell the new-mown hay. At this season the air was full of it — the fields were so near that it was in the clean, still streets. Nick would never have thought of rattling up to Mr. Carteret’s door, which had on an old brass plate the proprietor’s name, as if he had been the principal surgeon. The house was in the high part, and the neat roofs of other houses, lower down the hill, made an immediate prospect for it, scarcely counting, however, since the green country was just below these, familiar and interpenetrating, in the shape of small but thick-tufted gardens. Free garden-growths flourished in all the intervals, but the only disorder of the place was that there were sometimes oats on the pavements. A crooked lane, with postern doors and cobble-stones, opened near Mr. Carteret’s house and wandered toward the old abbey; for the abbey was the secondary fact of Beauclere — it came after Mr. Carteret. Mr. Carteret sometimes went away and the abbey never did; yet somehow what was most of the essence of the place was that it could boast of the resident in the squarest of the square red houses, the one with the finest of the arched hall-windows, in three divisions, over the widest of the last-century doorways. You saw the great church from the doorstep, beyond gardens of course, and in the stillness you could hear the flutter of the birds that circled round its huge short towers. The towers had been finished only as time finishes things, by lending assurances to their lapses. There is something right in old monuments that have been wrong for centuries: some such moral as that was usually in Nick’s mind as an emanation of Beauclere when he saw the grand line of the roof ride the sky and draw out its length.

When the door with the brass plate was opened and Mr. Chayter appeared in the middle distance — he always advanced just to the same spot, as a prime minister receives an ambassador — Nick felt anew that he would be wonderfully like Mr. Carteret if he had had an expression. He denied himself this freedom, never giving a sign of recognition, often as the young man had been at the house. He was most attentive to the visitor’s wants, but apparently feared that if he allowed a familiarity it might go too far. There was always the same question to be asked — had Mr. Carteret finished his nap? He usually had not finished it, and this left Nick what he liked — time to smoke a cigarette in the garden or even to take before dinner a turn about the place. He observed now, every time he came, that Mr. Carteret’s nap lasted a little longer. There was each year a little more strength to be gathered for the ceremony of dinner: this was the principal symptom — almost the only one — that the clear-cheeked old gentleman gave of not being so fresh as of yore. He was still wonderful for his age. To-day he was particularly careful: Chayter went so far as to mention to Nick that four gentlemen were expected to dinner — an exuberance perhaps partly explained by the circumstance that Lord Bottomley was one of them.

The prospect of Lord Bottomley was somehow not stirring; it only made the young man say to himself with a quick, thin sigh, “This time I am in for it!” And he immediately had the unpolitical sense again that there was nothing so pleasant as the way the quiet bachelor house had its best rooms on the big garden, which seemed to advance into them through their wide windows and ruralise their dulness.

“I expect it will be a lateish eight, sir,” said Mr. Chayter, superintending in the library the production of tea on a large scale. Everything at Mr. Carteret’s seemed to Nick on a larger scale than anywhere else — the tea-cups, the knives and forks, the door-handles, the chair-backs, the legs of mutton, the candles, and the lumps of coal: they represented and apparently exhausted the master’s sense of pleasing effect, for the house was not otherwise decorated. Nick thought it really hideous, but he was capable at any time of extracting a degree of amusement from anything strongly characteristic, and Mr. Carteret’s interior expressed a whole view of life. Our young man was generous enough to find in it a hundred instructive intimations even while it came over him — as it always did at Beauclere — that this was the view he himself was expected to take. Nowhere were the boiled eggs at breakfast so big or in such big receptacles; his own shoes, arranged in his room, looked to him vaster there than at home. He went out into the garden and remembered what enormous strawberries they should have for dinner. In the house was a great deal of Landseer, of oilcloth, of woodwork painted and “grained.”

Finding there would be time before the evening meal or before Mr. Carteret was likely to see him he quitted the house and took a stroll toward the abbey. It covered acres of ground on the summit of the hill, and there were aspects in which its vast bulk reminded him of the ark left high and dry upon Ararat. It was the image at least of a great wreck, of the indestructible vessel of a faith, washed up there by a storm centuries before. The injury of time added to this appearance — the infirmities round which, as he knew, the battle of restoration had begun to be fought. The cry had been raised to save the splendid pile, and the counter-cry by the purists, the sentimentalists, whatever they were, to save it from being saved. They were all exchanging compliments in the morning papers.

Nick sauntered about the church — it took a good while; he leaned against low things and looked up at it while he smoked another cigarette. It struck him as a great pity such a pile should be touched: so much of the past was buried there that it was like desecrating, like digging up a grave. Since the years were letting it down so gently why jostle the elbow of slow-fingering time? The fading afternoon was exquisitely pure; the place was empty; he heard nothing but the cries of several children, which sounded sweet, who were playing on the flatness of the very old tombs. He knew this would inevitably be one of the topics at dinner, the restoration of the abbey; it would give rise to a considerable deal of orderly debate. Lord Bottomley, oddly enough, would probably oppose the expensive project, but on grounds that would be characteristic of him even if the attitude were not. Nick’s nerves always knew on this spot what it was to be soothed; but he shifted his position with a slight impatience as the vision came over him of Lord Bottomley’s treating a question of esthetics. It was enough to make one want to take the other side, the idea of having the same taste as his lordship: one would have it for such different reasons.

Dear Mr. Carteret would be deliberate and fair all round and would, like his noble friend, exhibit much more architectural knowledge than he, Nick, possessed: which would not make it a whit less droll to our young man that an artistic idea, so little really assimilated, should be broached at that table and in that air. It would remain so outside of their minds and their minds would remain so outside of it. It would be dropped at last, however, after half an hour’s gentle worrying, and the conversation would incline itself to public affairs. Mr. Carteret would find his natural level — the production of anecdote in regard to the formation of early ministries. He knew more than any one else about the personages of whom certain cabinets would have consisted if they had not consisted of others. His favourite exercise was to illustrate how different everything might have been from what it was, and how the reason of the difference had always been somebody’s inability to “see his way” to accept the view of somebody else — a view usually at the time discussed in strict confidence with Mr. Carteret, who surrounded his actual violation of that confidence thirty years later with many precautions against scandal. In this retrospective vein, at the head of his table, the old gentleman enjoyed a hearing, or at any rate commanded a silence, often intense. Every one left it to some one else to ask another question; and when by chance some one else did so every one was struck with admiration at any one’s being able to say anything. Nick knew the moment when he himself would take a glass of a particular port and, surreptitiously looking at his watch, perceive it was ten o’clock. That timepiece might as well mark 1830.

All this would be a part of the suggestion of leisure that invariably descended upon him at Beauclere — the image of a sloping shore where the tide of time broke with a ripple too faint to be a warning. But there was another admonition almost equally sure to descend upon his spirit during a stroll in a summer hour about the grand abbey; to sink into it as the light lingered on the rough red walls and the local accent of the children sounded soft in the churchyard. It was simply the sense of England — a sort of apprehended revelation of his country. The dim annals of the place were sensibly, heavily in the air — foundations bafflingly early, a great monastic life, wars of the Roses, with battles and blood in the streets, and then the long quietude of the respectable centuries, all corn-fields and magistrates and vicars — and these things were connected with an emotion that arose from the green country, the rich land so infinitely lived in, and laid on him a hand that was too ghostly to press and yet somehow too urgent to be light. It produced a throb he couldn’t have spoken of, it was so deep, and that was half imagination and half responsibility. These impressions melted together and made a general appeal, of which, with his new honours as a legislator, he was the sentient subject. If he had a love for that particular scene of life mightn’t it have a love for him and expect something of him? What fate could be so high as to grow old in a national affection? What a fine sort of reciprocity, making mere soreness of all the balms of indifference!

The great church was still open and he turned into it and wandered a little in the twilight that had gathered earlier there. The whole structure, with its immensity of height and distance, seemed to rest on tremendous facts — facts of achievement and endurance — and the huge Norman pillars to loom through the dimness like the ghosts of heroes. Nick was more struck with its thick earthly than with its fine spiritual reference, and he felt the oppression of his conscience as he walked slowly about. It was in his mind that nothing in life was really clear, all things were mingled and charged, and that patriotism might be an uplifting passion even if it had to allow for Lord Bottomley and for Mr. Carteret’s blindness on certain sides. He presently noticed that half-past seven was about to strike, and as he went back to his old friend’s he couldn’t have said if he walked in gladness or in gloom.

“Mr. Carteret will be in the drawing-room at a quarter to eight, sir,” Chayter mentioned, and Nick as he went to dress asked himself what was the use of being a member of Parliament if one was still sensitive to an intimation on the part of such a functionary that one ought already to have begun that business. Chayter’s words but meant that Mr. Carteret would expect to have a little comfortable conversation with him before dinner. Nick’s usual rapidity in dressing was, however, quite adequate to the occasion, so that his host had not appeared when he went down. There were flowers in the unfeminine saloon, which contained several paintings in addition to the engravings of pictures of animals; but nothing could prevent its reminding Nick of a comfortable committee-room.

Mr. Carteret presently came in with his gold-headed stick, a laugh like a series of little warning coughs and the air of embarrassment that our young man always perceived in him at first. He was almost eighty but was still shy — he laughed a great deal, faintly and vaguely, at nothing, as if to make up for the seriousness with which he took some jokes. He always began by looking away from his interlocutor, and it was only little by little that his eyes came round; after which their limpid and benevolent blue made you wonder why they should ever be circumspect. He was clean-shaven and had a long upper lip. When he had seated himself he talked of “majorities” and showed a disposition to converse on the general subject of the fluctuation of Liberal gains. He had an extraordinary memory for facts of this sort, and could mention the figures relating to the returns from innumerable places in particular years. To many of these facts he attached great importance, in his simple, kindly, presupposing way; correcting himself five minutes later if he had said that in 1857 some one had had 6014 instead of 6004.

Nick always felt a great hypocrite as he listened to him, in spite of the old man’s courtesy — a thing so charming in itself that it would have been grossness to speak of him as a bore. The difficulty was that he took for granted all kinds of positive assent, and Nick, in such company, found himself steeped in an element of tacit pledges which constituted the very medium of intercourse and yet made him draw his breath a little in pain when for a moment he measured them. There would have been no hypocrisy at all if he could have regarded Mr. Carteret as a mere sweet spectacle, the last or almost the last illustration of a departing tradition of manners. But he represented something more than manners; he represented what he believed to be morals and ideas, ideas as regards which he took your personal deference — not discovering how natural that was — for participation. Nick liked to think that his father, though ten years younger, had found it congruous to make his best friend of the owner of so nice a nature: it gave a softness to his feeling for that memory to be reminded that Sir Nicholas had been of the same general type — a type so pure, so disinterested, so concerned for the public good. Just so it endeared Mr. Carteret to him to perceive that he considered his father had done a definite work, prematurely interrupted, which had been an absolute benefit to the people of England. The oddity was, however, that though both Mr. Carteret’s aspect and his appreciation were still so fresh this relation of his to his late distinguished friend made the latter appear to Nick even more irrecoverably dead. The good old man had almost a vocabulary of his own, made up of old-fashioned political phrases and quite untainted with the new terms, mostly borrowed from America; indeed his language and his tone made those of almost any one who might be talking with him sound by contrast rather American. He was, at least nowadays, never severe nor denunciatory; but sometimes in telling an anecdote he dropped such an expression as “the rascal said to me” or such an epithet as “the vulgar dog.”

Nick was always struck with the rare simplicity — it came out in his countenance — of one who had lived so long and seen so much of affairs that draw forth the passions and perversities of men. It often made him say to himself that Mr. Carteret must have had many odd parts to have been able to achieve with his means so many things requiring cleverness. It was as if experience, though coming to him in abundance, had dealt with him so clean-handedly as to leave no stain, and had moreover never provoked him to any general reflexion. He had never proceeded in any ironic way from the particular to the general; certainly he had never made a reflexion upon anything so unparliamentary as Life. He would have questioned the taste of such an extravagance and if he had encountered it on the part of another have regarded it as an imported foreign toy with the uses of which he was unacquainted. Life, for him, was a purely practical function, not a question of more or less showy phrasing. It must be added that he had to Nick’s perception his variations — his back windows opening into grounds more private. That was visible from the way his eye grew cold and his whole polite face rather austere when he listened to something he didn’t agree with or perhaps even understand; as if his modesty didn’t in strictness forbid the suspicion that a thing he didn’t understand would have a probability against it. At such times there was something rather deadly in the silence in which he simply waited with a lapse in his face, not helping his interlocutor out. Nick would have been very sorry to attempt to communicate to him a matter he wouldn’t be likely to understand. This cut off of course a multitude of subjects.

The evening passed exactly as he had foreseen, even to the markedly prompt dispersal of the guests, two of whom were “local” men, earnest and distinct, though not particularly distinguished. The third was a young, slim, uninitiated gentleman whom Lord Bottomley brought with him and concerning whom Nick was informed beforehand that he was engaged to be married to the Honourable Jane, his lordship’s second daughter. There were recurrent allusions to Nick’s victory, as to which he had the fear that he might appear to exhibit less interest in it than the company did. He took energetic precautions against this and felt repeatedly a little spent with them, for the subject always came up once more. Yet it was not as his but as theirs that they liked the triumph. Mr. Carteret took leave of him for the night directly after the other guests had gone, using at this moment the words he had often used before:

“You may sit up to any hour you like. I only ask that you don’t read in bed.”

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