The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

BOOK FIFTH

XXII

Mrs. Dallow came up to London soon after the meeting of Parliament; she made no secret of the fact that she was fond of “town” and that in present conditions it would of course not have become less attractive to her. But she prepared to retreat again for the Easter vacation, not to go back to Harsh, but to pay a couple of country visits. She did not, however, depart with the crowd — she never did anything with the crowd — but waited till the Monday after Parliament rose; facing with composure, in Great Stanhope Street, the horrors, as she had been taught to consider them, of a Sunday out of the session. She had done what she could to mitigate them by asking a handful of “stray men” to dine with her that evening. Several members of this disconsolate class sought comfort in Great Stanhope Street in the afternoon, and them for the most part she also invited to return at eight o’clock. There were accordingly almost too many people at dinner; there were even a couple of wives. Nick Dormer was then present, though he had not been in the afternoon. Each of the other persons had said on coming in, “So you’ve not gone — I’m awfully glad.” Mrs. Dallow had replied, “No, I’ve not gone,” but she had in no case added that she was glad, nor had she offered an explanation. She never offered explanations; she always assumed that no one could invent them so well as those who had the florid taste to desire them.

And in this case she was right, since it is probable that few of her visitors failed to say to themselves that her not having gone would have had something to do with Dormer. That could pass for an explanation with many of Mrs. Dallow’s friends, who as a general thing were not morbidly analytic; especially with those who met Nick as a matter of course at dinner. His figuring at this lady’s entertainments, being in her house whenever a candle was lighted, was taken as a sign that there was something rather particular between them. Nick had said to her more than once that people would wonder why they didn’t marry; but he was wrong in this, inasmuch as there were many of their friends to whom it wouldn’t have occurred that his position could be improved. That they were cousins was a fact not so evident to others as to themselves, in consequence of which they appeared remarkably intimate. The person seeing clearest in the matter was Mrs. Gresham, who lived so much in the world that being left now and then to one’s own company had become her idea of true sociability. She knew very well that if she had been privately engaged to a young man as amiable as Nick Dormer she would have managed that publicity shouldn’t play such a part in their intercourse; and she had her secret scorn for the stupidity of people whose conception of Nick’s relation to Julia rested on the fact that he was always included in her parties. “If he never was there they might talk,” she said to herself. But Mrs. Gresham was supersubtle. To her it would have appeared natural that her friend should celebrate the parliamentary recess by going down to Harsh and securing the young man’s presence there for a fortnight; she recognised Mrs. Dallow’s actual plan as a comparatively poor substitute — the project of spending the holidays in other people’s houses, to which Nick had also promised to come. Mrs. Gresham was romantic; she wondered what was the good of mere snippets and snatches, the chances that any one might have, when large, still days à deux were open to you — chances of which half the sanctity was in what they excluded. However, there were more unsettled matters between Mrs. Dallow and her queer kinsman than even Mrs. Gresham’s fine insight could embrace. She was not on the Sunday evening before Easter among the guests in Great Stanhope Street; but if she had been Julia’s singular indifference to observation would have stopped short of encouraging her to remain in the drawing-room, along with Nick, after the others had gone. I may add that Mrs. Gresham’s extreme curiosity would have emboldened her as little to do so. She would have taken for granted that the pair wished to be alone together, though she would have regarded this only as a snippet. The company had at all events stayed late, and it was nearly twelve o’clock when the last of them, standing before the fire in the room they had quitted, broke out to his companion:

“See here, Julia, how long do you really expect me to endure this kind of thing?” Julia made him no answer; she only leaned back in her chair with her eyes upon his. He met her gaze a moment; then he turned round to the fire and for another moment looked into it. After this he faced his hostess again with the exclamation: “It’s so foolish — it’s so damnably foolish!”

She still said nothing, but at the end of a minute she spoke without answering him. “I shall expect you on Tuesday, and I hope you’ll come by a decent train.”

“What do you mean by a decent train?”

“I mean I hope you’ll not leave it till the last thing before dinner, so that we can have a little walk or something.”

“What’s a little walk or something? Why, if you make such a point of my coming to Griffin, do you want me to come at all?”

She hesitated an instant; then she returned; “I knew you hated it!”

“You provoke me so,” said Nick. “You try to, I think.”

“And Severals is still worse. You’ll get out of that if you can,” Mrs. Dallow went on.

“If I can? What’s to prevent me?”

“You promised Lady Whiteroy. But of course that’s nothing.”

“I don’t care a straw for Lady Whiteroy.”

“And you promised me. But that’s less still.”

“It is foolish — it’s quite idiotic,” said Nick with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ceiling.

There was another silence, at the end of which Julia remarked: “You might have answered Mr. Macgeorge when he spoke to you.”

“Mr. Macgeorge — what has he to do with it?”

“He has to do with your getting on a little. If you think that’s the way —!”

Nick broke into a laugh. “I like lessons in getting on — in other words I suppose you mean in urbanity — from you, Julia!”

“Why not from me?”

“Because you can do nothing base. You’re incapable of putting on a flattering manner to get something by it: therefore why should you expect me to? You’re unflattering — that is, you’re austere — in proportion as there may be something to be got.”

She sprang from her chair, coming toward him. “There’s only one thing I want in the world — you know very well.”

“Yes, you want it so much that you won’t even take it when it’s pressed on you. How long do you seriously expect me to bear it?” Nick repeated.

“I never asked you to do anything base,” she said as she stood in front of him. “If I’m not clever about throwing myself into things it’s all the more reason you should be.”

“If you’re not clever, my dear Julia —?” Nick, close to her, placed his hands on her shoulders and shook her with a mixture of tenderness and passion. “You’re clever enough to make me furious, sometimes!”

She opened and closed her fan looking down at it while she submitted to his mild violence. “All I want is that when a man like Mr. Macgeorge talks to you you shouldn’t appear bored to death. You used to be so charming under those inflictions. Now you appear to take no interest in anything. At dinner to-night you scarcely opened your lips; you treated them all as if you only wished they’d go.”

“I did wish they’d go. Haven’t I told you a hundred times what I think of your salon?”

“How then do you want me to live?” she asked. “Am I not to have a creature in the house?”

“As many creatures as you like. Your freedom’s complete and, as far as I’m concerned, always will be. Only when you challenge me and overhaul me — not justly, I think — I must confess the simple truth, that there are many of your friends I don’t delight in.”

“Oh your idea of pleasant people!” Julia lamented. “I should like once for all to know what it really is.”

“I can tell you what it really isn’t: it isn’t Mr. Macgeorge. He’s a being almost grotesquely limited.”

“He’ll be where you’ll never be-unless you change.”

“To be where Mr. Macgeorge is not would be very much my desire. Therefore why should I change?” Nick demanded. “However, I hadn’t the least intention of being rude to him, and I don’t think I was,” he went on. “To the best of my ability I assume a virtue if I haven’t it; but apparently I’m not enough of a comedian.”

“If you haven’t it?” she echoed. “It’s when you say things like that that you’re so dreadfully tiresome. As if there were anything that you haven’t or mightn’t have!”

Nick turned away from her; he took a few impatient steps in the room, looking at the carpet, his hands always in his pockets. Then he came back to the fire with the observation: “It’s rather hard to be found so wanting when one has tried to play one’s part so beautifully.” He paused with his eyes on her own and then went on with a vibration in his voice: “I’ve imperilled my immortal soul, or at least bemuddled my intelligence, by all the things I don’t care for that I’ve tried to do, and all the things I detest that I’ve tried to be, and all the things I never can be that I’ve tried to look as if I were — all the appearances and imitations, the pretences and hypocrisies in which I’ve steeped myself to the eyes; and at the end of it (it serves me right!) my reward is simply to learn that I’m still not half humbug enough!”

Julia looked away from him as soon as he had spoken these words; she attached her eyes to the clock behind him and observed irrelevantly: “I’m very sorry, but I think you had better go. I don’t like you to stay after midnight.”

“Ah what you like and what you don’t like, and where one begins and the other ends — all that’s an impenetrable mystery!” the young man declared. But he took no further notice of her allusion to his departure, adding in a different tone: “‘A man like Mr. Macgeorge’! When you say a thing of that sort in a certain, particular way I should rather like to suffer you to perish.”

Mrs. Dallow stared; it might have seemed for an instant that she was trying to look stupid. “How can I help it if a few years hence he’s certain to be at the head of any Liberal Government?”

“We can’t help it of course, but we can help talking about it,” Nick smiled. “If we don’t mention it it mayn’t be noticed.”

“You’re trying to make me angry. You’re in one of your vicious moods,” she returned, blowing out on the chimney-piece a guttering candle.

“That I’m exasperated I’ve already had the honour very positively to inform you. All the same I maintain that I was irreproachable at dinner. I don’t want you to think I shall always be as good as that.”

“You looked so out of it; you were as gloomy as if every earthly hope had left you, and you didn’t make a single contribution to any discussion that took place. Don’t you think I observe you?” she asked with an irony tempered by a tenderness unsuccessfully concealed.

“Ah my darling, what you observe —!” Nick cried with a certain bitterness of amusement. But he added the next moment more seriously, as if his tone had been disrespectful: “You probe me to the bottom, no doubt.”

“You needn’t come either to Griffin or to Severals if you don’t want to.”

“Give them up yourself; stay here with me!”

She coloured quickly as he said this, and broke out: “Lord, how you hate political houses!”

“How can you say that when from February to August I spend every blessed night in one?”

“Yes, and hate that worst of all.”

“So do half the people who are in it. You, my dear, must have so many things, so many people, so much mise-enscène and such a perpetual spectacle to live,” Nick went on. “Perpetual motion, perpetual visits, perpetual crowds! If you go into the country you’ll see forty people every day and be mixed up with them all day. The idea of a quiet fortnight in town, when by a happy if idiotic superstition everybody goes out of it, disconcerts and frightens you. It’s the very time, it’s the very place, to do a little work and possess one’s soul.”

This vehement allocution found her evidently somewhat unprepared; but she was sagacious enough, instead of attempting for the moment a general rejoinder, to seize on a single phrase and say: “Work? What work can you do in London at such a moment as this?”

Nick considered. “I might tell you I want to get up a lot of subjects, to sit at home and read blue-books; but that wouldn’t be quite what I mean.”

“Do you mean you want to paint?”

“Yes, that’s it, since you gouge it out of me.”

“Why do you make such a mystery about it? You’re at perfect liberty,” Julia said.

She put out her hand to rest it on the mantel-shelf, but her companion took it on the way and held it in both his own. “You’re delightful, Julia, when you speak in that tone — then I know why it is I love you. But I can’t do anything if I go to Griffin, if I go to Severals.”

“I see — I see,” she answered thoughtfully and kindly.

“I’ve scarcely been inside of my studio for months, and I feel quite homesick for it. The idea of putting in a few quiet days there has taken hold of me: I rather cling to it.”

“It seems so odd your having a studio!” Julia dropped, speaking so quickly that the words were almost incomprehensible.

“Doesn’t it sound absurd, for all the good it does me, or I do in it? Of course one can produce nothing but rubbish on such terms — without continuity or persistence, with just a few days here and there. I ought to be ashamed of myself, no doubt; but even my rubbish interests me. ‘Guenille si l’on veut, ma guenille m’est chère.’ But I’ll go down to Harsh with you in a moment, Julia,” Nick pursued: “that would do as well if we could be quiet there, without people, without a creature; and I should really be perfectly content. You’d beautifully sit for me; it would be the occasion we’ve so often wanted and never found.”

She shook her head slowly and with a smile that had a meaning for him. “Thank you, my dear; nothing would induce me to go to Harsh with you.”

He looked at her hard. “What’s the matter whenever it’s a question of anything of that sort? Are you afraid of me?” She pulled her hand from him quickly, turning away; but he went on: “Stay with me here then, when everything’s so right for it. We shall do beautifully — have the whole place, have the whole day, to ourselves. Hang your engagements! Telegraph you won’t come. We’ll live at the studio — you’ll sit to me every day. Now or never’s our chance — when shall we have so good a one? Think how charming it will be! I’ll make you wish awfully that I may do something.”

“I can’t get out of Griffin — it’s impossible,” Julia said, moving further away and with her back presented to him.

“Then you are afraid of me — simply!”

She turned straight round, very pale. “Of course I am. You’re welcome to know it.”

He went toward her, and for a moment she seemed to make another slight movement of retreat. This, however, was scarcely perceptible, and there was nothing to alarm in the tone of reasonable entreaty in which he spoke as he stood there. “Put an end, Julia, to our absurd situation — it really can’t go on. You’ve no right to expect a man to be happy or comfortable in so false a position. We’re spoken of odiously — of that we may be sure; and yet what good have we of it?”

“Spoken of? Do I care for that?”

“Do you mean you’re indifferent because there are no grounds? That’s just why I hate it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she returned with sharp disdain.

“Be my wife tomorrow — be my wife next week. Let us have done with this fantastic probation and be happy.”

“Leave me now — come back tomorrow. I’ll write to you.” She had the air of pleading with him at present, pleading as he pleaded.

“You can’t resign yourself to the idea of one’s looking ‘out of it’!” Nick laughed.

“Come tomorrow, before lunch,” she went on.

“To be told I must wait six months more and then be sent about my business? Ah, Julia, Julia!” the young man groaned.

Something in this simple lament — it sounded natural and perfectly unstudied — seemed straightway to make a great impression on her. “You shall wait no longer,” she said after a short silence.

“What do you mean by no longer?”

“Give me about five weeks — say till the Whitsuntide recess.”

“Five weeks are a great deal,” smiled Nick.

“There are things to be done — you ought to understand.”

“I only understand how I love you.”

She let herself go —“Dearest Nick!”— and he caught her and kept her in his arms.

“I’ve your promise then for five weeks hence to a day?” he demanded as she at last released herself.

“We’ll settle that — the exact day; there are things to consider and to arrange. Come to luncheon tomorrow.”

“I’ll come early — I’ll come at one,” he said; and for a moment they stood all deeply and intimately taking each other in.

“Do you think I want to wait, any more than you?” she asked in congruity with this.

“I don’t feel so much out of it now!” he declared by way of answer. “You’ll stay of course now — you’ll give up your visits?”

She had hold of the lappet of his coat; she had kept it in her hand even while she detached herself from his embrace. There was a white flower in his buttonhole that she looked at and played with a moment before she said; “I’ve a better idea — you needn’t come to Griffin. Stay in your studio — do as you like — paint dozens of pictures.”

“Dozens? Barbarian!” Nick wailed.

The epithet apparently had an endearing suggestion for her; it at any rate led her to let him possess himself of her head and, so holding it, kiss her — led her to say: “What on earth do I want but that you should do absolutely as you please and be as happy as you can?”

He kissed her in another place at this; but he put it to her; “What dreadful proposition is coming now?”

“I’ll go off and do up my visits and come back.”

“And leave me alone?”

“Don’t be affected! You know you’ll work much better without me. You’ll live in your studio — I shall be well out of the way.”

“That’s not what one wants of a sitter. How can I paint you?”

“You can paint me all the rest of your life. I shall be a perpetual sitter.”

“I believe I could paint you without looking at you”— and his lighted face shone down on her. “You do excuse me then from those dreary places?”

“How can I insist after what you said about the pleasure of keeping these days?” she admirably — it was so all sincerely — asked.

“You’re the best woman on earth — though it does seem odd you should rush away as soon as our little business is settled.”

“We shall make it up. I know what I’m about. And now go!” She ended by almost pushing him out of the room.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2tr/chapter22.html

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