The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


His counsellor had plenty of further opportunity to develop this and other figurative remarks, for he not only spent several of the middle hours of the day at the studio, but came back in the evening — the pair had dined together at a little foreign pothouse in Soho, revealed to Nick on this occasion — and discussed the great question far into the night. The great question was whether, on the showing of those examples of his ability with which the scene of their discourse was now densely bestrewn, Nick Dormer would be justified in “really going in” for the practice of pictorial art. This may strike many readers of his history as a limited and even trivial inquiry, with little of the heroic or the romantic in it; but it was none the less carried to the finest point by our impassioned young men. Nick suspected Nash of exaggerating his encouragement in order to play a malign trick on the political world at whose expense it was his fond fancy to divert himself — without indeed making that organisation perceptibly totter — and reminded him that his present accusation of immorality was strangely inconsistent with the wanton hope expressed by him in Paris, the hope that the Liberal candidate at Harsh would be returned. Nash replied, first, “Oh I hadn’t been in this place then!” but he defended himself later and more effectually by saying that it was not of Nick’s having got elected he complained: it was of his visible hesitancy to throw up his seat. Nick begged that he wouldn’t mention this, and his gallantry failed to render him incapable of saying: “The fact is I haven’t the nerve for it.” They talked then for a while of what he could do, not of what he couldn’t; of the mysteries and miracles of reproduction and representation; of the strong, sane joys of the artistic life. Nick made afresh, with more fulness, his great confession, that his private ideal of happiness was the life of a great painter of portraits. He uttered his thought on that head so copiously and lucidly that Nash’s own abundance was stilled and he listened almost as if he had been listening to something new — difficult as it was to conceive a point of view for such a matter with which he was unacquainted.

“There it is,” said Nick at last —“there’s the naked, preposterous truth: that if I were to do exactly as I liked I should spend my years reproducing the more or less vacuous countenances of my fellow-mortals. I should find peace and pleasure and wisdom and worth, I should find fascination and a measure of success in it — out of the din and the dust and the scramble, the world of party labels, party cries, party bargains and party treacheries: of humbuggery, hypocrisy and cant. The cleanness and quietness of it, the independent effort to do something, to leave something which shall give joy to man long after the howling has died away to the last ghost of an echo — such a vision solicits me in the watches of night with an almost irresistible force.”

As he dropped these remarks he lolled on a big divan with one of his long legs folded up, while his visitor stopped in front of him after moving about the room vaguely and softly, almost on tiptoe, so as not to interrupt him. “You speak,” Nash said, “with the special and dreadful eloquence that rises to a man’s lips when he has practically, whatever his theory may be, renounced the right and dropped hideously into the wrong. Then his regret for the right, a certain exquisite appreciation of it, puts on an accent I know well how to recognise.”

Nick looked up at him a moment. “You’ve hit it if you mean by that that I haven’t resigned my seat and that I don’t intend to.”

“I thought you took it only to give it up. Don’t you remember our talk in Paris?”

“I like to be a part of the spectacle that amuses you,” Nick returned, “but I could scarcely have taken so much trouble as that for it.”

“Isn’t it then an absurd comedy, the life you lead?”

“Comedy or tragedy — I don’t know which; whatever it is I appear to be capable of it to please two or three people.”

“Then you can take trouble?” said Nash.

“Yes, for the woman I’m to marry.”

“Oh you’re to marry?”

“That’s what has come on since we met in Paris,” Nick explained, “and it makes just the difference.”

“Ah my poor friend,” smiled Gabriel, much arrested, “no wonder you’ve an eloquence, an accent!”

“It’s a pity I have them in the wrong place. I’m expected to have them in the House of Commons.”

“You will when you make your farewell speech there — to announce that you chuck it up. And may I venture to ask who’s to be your wife?” the visitor pursued.

“Mrs. Dallow has kindly consented to accept that yoke. I think you saw her in Paris.”

“Ah yes: you spoke of her to me, and I remember asking you even then if you were in love with her.”

“I wasn’t then,” said Nick.

Nash had a grave pause. “And are you now?”

“Oh dear, yes.”

“That would be better — if it wasn’t worse.”

“Nothing could be better,” Nick declared. “It’s the best thing that can happen to me.”

“Well,” his friend continued, “you must let me very respectfully approach this lady. You must let me bring her round.”

“Bring her round to what?”

“To everything. Talk her over.”

“Talk her under!” Nick laughed — but making his joke a little as to gain time. He remembered the effect this adviser had produced on Julia — an effect that scantly ministered to the idea of another meeting. Julia had had no occasion to allude again to Nick’s imperturbable friend; he had passed out of her life at once and for ever; but there flickered up a quick memory of the contempt he had led her to express, together with a sense of how odd she would think it her intended should have thrown over two pleasant visits to cultivate such company.

“Over to a proper pride in what you may do,” Nash returned —“what you may do above all if she’ll help you.”

“I scarcely see how she can help me,” said Nick with an air of thinking.

“She’s extremely handsome as I remember her. You could do great things with her.”

“Ah, there’s the rub,” Nick went on. “I wanted her to sit for me this week, but she wouldn’t hear of it.”

Elle a bien tort. You should attack some fine strong type. Is Mrs. Dallow in London?” Nash inquired.

“For what do you take her? She’s paying visits.”

“Then I’ve a model for you.”

“Then you have —?” Nick stared. “What has that to do with Mrs. Dallow’s being away?”

“Doesn’t it give you more time?”

“Oh the time flies!” sighed Nick with a spontaneity that made his companion again laugh out — a demonstration in which for a moment he himself rather ruefully joined.

“Does she like you to paint?” that personage asked with one of his candid intonations.

“So she says.”

“Well, do something fine to show her.”

“I’d rather show it to you,” Nick confessed.

“My dear fellow, I see it from here — if you do your duty. Do you remember the Tragic Muse?” Nash added for explanation.

“The Tragic Muse?”

“That girl in Paris, whom we heard at the old actress’s and afterwards met at the charming entertainment given by your cousin — isn’t he? — the secretary of embassy.”

“Oh Peter’s girl! Of course I remember her.”

“Don’t call her Peter’s; call her rather mine,” Nash said with easy rectification. “I invented her. I introduced her. I revealed her.”

“I thought you on the contrary ridiculed and repudiated her.”

“As a fine, handsome young woman surely not — I seem to myself to have been all the while rendering her services. I said I disliked tea-party ranters, and so I do; but if my estimate of her powers was below the mark she has more than punished me.”

“What has she done?” Nick asked.

“She has become interesting, as I suppose you know.”

“How should I know?”

“Well, you must see her, you must paint her,” Nash returned. “She tells me something was said about it that day at Madame Carré‘s.”

“Oh I remember — said by Peter.”

“Then it will please Mr. Sherringham — you’ll be glad to do that. I suppose you know all he has done for Miriam?” Gabriel pursued.

“Not a bit, I know nothing about Peter’s affairs,” Nick said, “unless it be in general that he goes in for mountebanks and mimes and that it occurs to me I’ve heard one of my sisters mention — the rumour had come to her — that he has been backing Miss Rooth.”

“Miss Rooth delights to talk of his kindness; she’s charming when she speaks of it. It’s to his good offices that she owes her appearance here.”

“Here?” Nick’s interest rose. “Is she in London?”

D’où tombez-vous? I thought you people read the papers.”

“What should I read, when I sit — sometimes — through the stuff they put into them?”

“Of course I see that — that your engagement at your own variety-show, with its interminable ‘turns,’ keeps you from going to the others. Learn then,” said Gabriel Nash, “that you’ve a great competitor and that you’re distinctly not, much as you may suppose it, the rising comedian. The Tragic Muse is the great modern personage. Haven’t you heard people speak of her, haven’t you been taken to see her?”

Nick bethought himself. “I daresay I’ve heard of her, but with a good many other things on my mind I had forgotten it.”

“Certainly I can imagine what has been on your mind. She remembers you at any rate; she repays neglect with sympathy. She wants,” said Nash, “to come and see you.”

“‘See’ me?” It was all for Nick now a wonder.

“To be seen by you — it comes to the same thing. She’s really worth seeing; you must let me bring her; you’ll find her very suggestive. That idea that you should paint her — she appears to consider it a sort of bargain.”

“A bargain?” Our young man entered, as he believed, into the humour of the thing. “What will she give me?”

“A splendid model. She is splendid.”

“Oh then bring her,” said Nick.

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