The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXVII

Nick went to Great Stanhope Street at five o’clock and learned, rather to his surprise, that Julia was not at home — to his surprise because he had told her he would come at that hour, and he attributed to her, with a certain simplicity, an eager state of mind in regard to his explanation. Apparently she was not eager; the eagerness was his own — he was eager to explain. He recognised, not without a certain consciousness of magnanimity in doing so, that there had been some reason for her quick withdrawal from his studio or at any rate for her extreme discomposure there. He had a few days before put in a plea for a snatch of worship in that sanctuary and she had accepted and approved it; but the worship, when the curtain happened to blow back, showed for that of a magnificent young woman, an actress with disordered hair, who wore in a singular degree the appearance of a person settled for many hours. The explanation was easy: it dwelt in the simple truth that when one was painting, even very badly and only for a moment, one had to have models. Nick was impatient to give it with frank, affectionate lips and a full, pleasant admission that it was natural Julia should have been startled; and he was the more impatient that, though he would not in the least have expected her to like finding a strange woman intimately installed with him, she had disliked it even more than would have seemed probable or natural. That was because, not having heard from him about the matter, the impression was for the moment irresistible with her that a trick had been played her. But three minutes with him alone would make the difference.

They would indeed have a considerable difference to make, Nick reflected, as minutes much more numerous elapsed without bringing Mrs. Dallow home. For he had said to the butler that he would come in and wait — though it was odd she should not have left a message for him: she would doubtless return from one moment to the other. He had of course full licence to wait anywhere he preferred; and he was ushered into Julia’s particular sitting-room and supplied with tea and the evening papers. After a quarter of an hour, however, he gave little attention to these beguilements, thanks to his feeling still more acutely that since she definitely knew he was coming she might have taken the trouble to be at home. He walked up and down and looked out of the window, took up her books and dropped them again, and then, as half an hour had elapsed, became aware he was really sore. What could she be about when, with London a thankless void, she was of course not paying visits? A footman came in to attend to the fire, whereupon Nick questioned him as to the manner in which she was possibly engaged. The man disclosed the fact that his mistress had gone out but a quarter of an hour before Nick’s arrival, and, as if appreciating the opportunity for a little decorous conversation, gave him still more information than he invited. From this it appeared that, as Nick knew, or could surmise, she had the evening before, from the country, wired for the victoria to meet her in the morning at Paddington and then gone straight from the station to the studio, while her maid, with her luggage, proceeded in a cab to Great Stanhope Street. On leaving the studio, however, she had not come directly home; she had chosen this unusual season for an hour’s drive in the Park. She had finally re-entered her house, but had remained upstairs all day, seeing no one and not coming down to luncheon. At four o’clock she had ordered the brougham for four forty-five, and had got into it punctually, saying, “To the Park!” as she did so.

Nick, after the footman had left him, made what he could of Julia’s sudden passion for the banks of the Serpentine, forsaken and foggy now, inasmuch as the afternoon had come on grey and the light was waning. She usually hated the Park and hated a closed carriage. He had a gruesome vision of her, shrunken into a corner of her brougham and veiled as if in consequence of tears, revolving round the solitude of the Drive. She had of course been deeply displeased and was not herself; the motion of the carriage soothed her, had an effect on her nerves. Nick remembered that in the morning, at his door, she had appeared to be going home; so she had plunged into the drearier resort on second thoughts and as she noted herself near it. He lingered another half-hour, walked up and down the room many times and thought of many things. Had she misunderstood him when he said he would come at five? Couldn’t she be sure, even if she had, that he would come early rather than late, and mightn’t she have left a message for him on the chance? Going out that way a few minutes before he was to come had even a little the air of a thing done on purpose to offend him; as if she had been so displeased that she had taken the nearest occasion of giving him a sign she meant to break with him. But were these the things Julia did and was that the way she did them — his fine, proud, delicate, generous Julia?

When six o’clock came poor Nick felt distinctly resentful; but he stayed ten minutes longer on the possibility that she would in the morning have understood him to mention that hour. The April dusk began to gather and the unsociability of her behaviour, especially if she were still rumbling round the Park, became absurd. Anecdotes came back to him, vaguely remembered, heard he couldn’t have said when or where, of poor artists for whom life had been rendered difficult by wives who wouldn’t allow them the use of the living female model and who made scenes if they encountered on the staircase such sources of inspiration. These ladies struck him as vulgar and odious persons, with whom it seemed grotesque that Julia should have anything in common. Of course she was not his wife yet, and of course if she were he should have washed his hands of every form of activity requiring the services of the sitter; but even these qualifications left him with a power to wince at the way in which the woman he was so sure he loved just escaped ranking herself with the Philistines.

At a quarter past six he rang a bell and told the servant who answered it that he was going and that Mrs. Dallow was to be informed as soon as she came in that he had expected to find her and had waited an hour and a quarter. But he had just reached the doorstep of departure when her brougham, emerging from the evening mist, stopped in front of the house. Nick stood there hanging back till she got out, allowing the servants only to help her. She saw him — she was less veiled than his mental vision of her; but this didn’t prevent her pausing to give an order to the coachman, a matter apparently requiring some discussion. When she came to the door her visitor remarked that he had been waiting an eternity; to which she replied that he must make no grievance of that — she was too unwell to do him justice. He immediately professed regret and sympathy, adding, however, that in that case she had much better not have gone out. She made no answer to this — there were three servants in the hall who looked as if they might understand at least what was not said to them; only when he followed her in she asked if his idea had been to stay longer.

“Certainly, if you’re not too ill to see me.”

“Come in then,” Julia said, turning back after having gone to the foot of the stairs.

This struck him immediately as a further restriction of his visit: she wouldn’t readmit him to the drawing-room or to her boudoir; she would receive him in the impersonal apartment downstairs where she saw people on business. What did she want to do to him? He was prepared by this time for a scene of jealousy, since he was sure he had learned to read her character justly in feeling that if she had the appearance of a cold woman a forked flame in her was liable on occasion to break out. She was very still, but from time to time she would fire off a pistol. As soon as he had closed the door she said without sitting down:

“I daresay you saw I didn’t like that at all.”

“My having a sitter in that professional way? I was very much annoyed at it myself,” Nick answered.

“Why were you annoyed? She’s very handsome,” Mrs. Dallow perversely said.

“I didn’t know you had looked at her!” Nick laughed.

Julia had a pause. “Was I very rude?”

“Oh it was all right; it was only awkward for me because you didn’t know,” he replied.

“I did know; that’s why I came.”

“How do you mean? My letter couldn’t have reached you.”

“I don’t know anything about your letter,” Julia cast about her for a chair and then seated herself on the edge of a sofa with her eyes on the floor.

“She sat to me yesterday; she was there all the morning; but I didn’t write to tell you. I went at her with great energy and, absurd as it may seem to you, found myself very tired afterwards. Besides, in the evening I went to see her act.”

“Does she act?” asked Mrs. Dallow.

“She’s an actress: it’s her profession. Don’t you remember her that day at Peter’s in Paris? She’s already a celebrity; she has great talent; she’s engaged at a theatre here and is making a sensation. As I tell you, I saw her last night.”

“You needn’t tell me,” Julia returned, looking up at him with a face of which the intense, the tragic sadness startled him.

He had been standing before her, but at this he instantly sat down close, taking her passive hand. “I want to, please; otherwise it must seem so odd to you. I knew she was coming when I wrote to you the day before yesterday. But I didn’t tell you then because I didn’t know how it would turn out, and I didn’t want to exult in advance over a poor little attempt that might come to nothing. Moreover, it was no use speaking of the matter at all unless I told you exactly how it had come about,” Nick went on, explaining kindly and copiously. “It was the result of a visit unexpectedly paid me by Gabriel Nash.”

“That man — the man who spoke to me?” Her memory of him shuddered into life.

“He did what he thought would please you, but I daresay it didn’t. You met him in Paris and didn’t like him; so I judged best to hold my tongue about him.”

“Do you like him?”

“Very much.”

“Great heaven!” Julia ejaculated, almost under her breath.

“The reason I was annoyed was because, somehow, when you came in, I suddenly had the air of having got out of those visits and shut myself up in town to do something that I had kept from you. And I have been very unhappy till I could explain.”

“You don’t explain — you can’t explain,” Mrs Dallow declared, turning on her companion eyes which, in spite of her studied stillness, expressed deep excitement. “I knew it — I knew everything; that’s why I came.”

“It was a sort of second-sight — what they call a brainwave,” Nick smiled.

“I felt uneasy, I felt a kind of call; it came suddenly, yesterday. It was irresistible; nothing could have kept me this morning.”

“That’s very serious, but it’s still more delightful. You mustn’t go away again,” said Nick. “We must stick together — forever and ever.”

He put his arm round her, but she detached herself as soon as she felt its pressure. She rose quickly, moving away, while, mystified, he sat looking up at her as she had looked a few moments before at him. “I’ve thought it all over; I’ve been thinking of it all day,” she began. “That’s why I didn’t come in.”

“Don’t think of it too much; it isn’t worth it.”

“You like it more than anything else. You do — you can’t deny it,” she went on.

“My dear child, what are you talking about?” Nick asked, gently . . .

“That’s what you like — doing what you were this morning; with women lolling, with their things off, to be painted, and people like that man.”

Nick slowly got up, hesitating. “My dear Julia, apart from the surprise this morning, do you object to the living model?”

“Not a bit, for you.”

“What’s the inconvenience then, since in my studio they’re only for me?”

“You love it, you revel in it; that’s what you want — the only thing you want!” Julia broke out.

“To have models, lolling undressed women, do you mean?”

“That’s what I felt, what I knew,” she went on —“what came over me and haunted me yesterday so that I couldn’t throw it off. It seemed to me that if I could see it with my eyes and have the perfect proof I should feel better, I should be quiet. And now I am quiet — after a struggle of some hours, I confess. I have seen; the whole thing’s before me and I’m satisfied.”

“I’m not — to me neither the whole thing nor half of it is before me. What exactly are you talking about?” Nick demanded.

“About what you were doing this morning. That’s your innermost preference, that’s your secret passion.”

“A feeble scratch at something serious? Yes, it was almost serious,” he said. “But it was an accident, this morning and yesterday: I got on less wretchedly than I intended.”

“I’m sure you’ve immense talent,” Julia returned with a dreariness that was almost droll.

“No, no, I might have had. I’ve plucked it up: it’s too late for it to flower. My dear Julia, I’m perfectly incompetent and perfectly resigned.”

“Yes, you looked so this morning, when you hung over her. Oh she’ll bring back your talent!”

“She’s an obliging and even an intelligent creature, and I’ve no doubt she would if she could,” Nick conceded. “But I’ve received from you all the help any woman’s destined to give me. No one can do for me again what you’ve done.”

“I shouldn’t try it again; I acted in ignorance. Oh I’ve thought it all out!” Julia declared. And then with a strange face of anguish resting on his own: “Before it’s too late — before it’s too late!”

“Too late for what?”

“For you to be free — for you to be free. And for me — for me to be free too. You hate everything I like!” she flashed out. “Don’t pretend, don’t pretend!” she went on as a sound of protest broke from him.

“I thought you so awfully wanted me to paint,” he gasped, flushed and staring.

“I do — I do. That’s why you must be free, why we must part?”

“Why we must part —?”

“Oh I’ve turned it well over. I’ve faced the hard truth. It wouldn’t do at all!” Julia rang out.

“I like the way you talk of it — as if it were a trimming for your dress!” Nick retorted with bitterness. “Won’t it do for you to be loved and cherished as well as any woman in England?”

She turned away from him, closing her eyes as not to see something dangerous. “You mustn’t give anything up for me. I should feel it all the while and I should hate it. I’m not afraid of the truth, but you are.”

“The truth, dear Julia? I only want to know it,” Nick insisted. “It seems to me in fact just what I’ve got hold of. When two persons are united by the tenderest affection and are sane and generous and just, no difficulties that occur in the union their life makes for them are insurmountable, no problems are insoluble.”

She appeared for a moment to reflect upon this: it was spoken in a tone that might have touched her. Yet at the end of the moment, lifting her eyes, she brought out: “I hate art, as you call it. I thought I did, I knew I did; but till this morning I didn’t know how much.”

“Bless your dear soul, that wasn’t art,” Nick pleaded. “The real thing will be a thousand miles away from us; it will never come into the house, soyez tranquille. It knows where to look in and where to flee shrieking. Why then should you worry?”

“Because I want to understand, I want to know what I’m doing. You’re an artist: you are, you are!” Julia cried, accusing him passionately.

“My poor Julia, it isn’t so easy as that, nor a character one can take on from one day to the other. There are all sorts of things; one must be caught young and put through the mill — one must see things as they are. There are very few professions that goes with. There would be sacrifices I never can make.”

“Well then, there are sacrifices for both of us, and I can’t make them either. I daresay it’s all right for you, but for me it would be a terrible mistake. When I think I’m doing a certain thing I mustn’t do just the opposite,” she kept on as for true lucidity. “There are things I’ve thought of, the things I like best; and they’re not what you mean. It would be a great deception, and it’s not the way I see my life, and it would be misery if we don’t understand.”

He looked at her with eyes not lighted by her words. “If we don’t understand what?”

“That we’re utterly different — that you’re doing it all for me.”

“And is that an objection to me — what I do for you?” he asked.

“You do too much. You’re awfully good, you’re generous, you’re a dear, oh yes — a dear. But that doesn’t make me believe in it. I didn’t at bottom, from the first — that’s why I made you wait, why I gave you your freedom. Oh I’ve suspected you,” Julia continued, “I had my ideas. It’s all right for you, but it won’t do for me: I’m different altogether. Why should it always be put upon me when I hate it? What have I done? I was drenched with it before.” These last words, as they broke forth, were attended with a quick blush; so that Nick could as quickly discern in them the uncalculated betrayal of an old irritation, an old shame almost — her late husband’s flat, inglorious taste for pretty things, his indifference to every chance to play a public part. This had been the humiliation of her youth, and it was indeed a perversity of fate that a new alliance should contain for her even an oblique demand for the same spirit of accommodation, impose on her the secret bitterness of the same concessions. As Nick stood there before her, struggling sincerely with the force that he now felt to be strong in her, the intense resolution to break with him, a force matured in a few hours, he read a riddle that hitherto had baffled him, saw a great mystery become simple. A personal passion for him had all but thrown her into his arms (the sort of thing that even a vain man — and Nick was not especially vain — might hesitate to recognise the strength of); held in check at moments, with a strain of the cord that he could still feel vibrate, by her deep, her rare ambition, and arrested at the last only just in time to save her calculations. His present glimpse of the immense extent of these calculations didn’t make him think her cold or poor; there was in fact a positive strange heat in them and they struck him rather as grand and high. The fact that she could drop him even while she longed for him — drop him because it was now fixed in her mind that he wouldn’t after all serve her resolve to be associated, so far as a woman could, with great affairs; that she could postpone, and postpone to an uncertainty, the satisfaction of an aching tenderness and plan for the long run — this exhibition of will and courage, of the larger scheme that possessed her, commanded his admiration on the spot. He paid the heavy price of the man of imagination; he was capable of far excursions of the spirit, disloyalties to habit and even to faith, he was open to rare communications. He ached, on his side, for the moment, to convince her that he would achieve what he wouldn’t, for the vision of his future she had tried to entertain shone before him as a bribe and a challenge. It struck him there was nothing he couldn’t work for enough with her to be so worked with by her. Presently he said:

“You want to be sure the man you marry will be prime minister of England. But how can you be really sure with any one?”

“I can be really sure some men won’t!” Julia returned.

“The only safe thing perhaps would be to-marry Mr. Macgeorge,” he suggested.

“Possibly not even him.”

“You’re a prime minister yourself,” Nick made answer. “To hold fast to you as I hold, to be determined to be of your party — isn’t that political enough, since you’re the incarnation of politics?”

“Ah how you hate them!” she wailed again. “I saw that when I saw you this morning. The whole place reeked of your aversion.”

“My dear child, the greatest statesmen have had their distractions. What do you make of my hereditary talent? That’s a tremendous force.”

“It wouldn’t carry you far.” Then she terribly added, “You must be a great artist.” He tossed his head at the involuntary contempt of this, but she went on: “It’s beautiful of you to want to give up anything, and I like you for it. I shall always like you. We shall be friends, and I shall always take an interest —!”

But he stopped her there, made a movement which interrupted her phrase, and she suffered him to hold her hand as if she were not afraid of him now. “It isn’t only for you,” he argued gently; “you’re a great deal, but you’re not everything. Innumerable vows and pledges repose upon my head. I’m inextricably committed and dedicated. I was brought up in the temple like an infant Samuel; my father was a high-priest and I’m a child of the Lord. And then the life itself — when you speak of it I feel stirred to my depths; it’s like a herald’s trumpet. Fight with me, Julia — not against me! Be on my side and we shall do everything. It is uplifting to be a great man before the people — to be loved by them, to be followed by them. An artist isn’t — never, never. Why should he be? Don’t forget how clever I am.”

“Oh if it wasn’t for that!” she panted, pale with the effort to resist his tone. Then she put it to him: “Do you pretend that if I were to die tomorrow you’d stay in the House?”

“If you were to die? God knows! But you do singularly little justice to my incentives,” he pursued. “My political career’s everything to my mother.”

This but made her say after a moment: “Are you afraid of your mother?”

“Yes, immensely; for she represents ever so many possibilities of disappointment and distress. She represents all my father’s as well as all her own, and in them my father tragically lives again. On the other hand I see him in bliss, as I see my mother, over our marriage and our life of common aspirations — though of course that’s not a consideration that I can expect to have power with you.”

She shook her head slowly, even smiling with her recovered calmness and lucidity. “You’ll never hold high office.”

“But why not take me as I am?”

“Because I’m abominably keen about that sort of thing — I must recognise my keenness. I must face the ugly truth. I’ve been through the worst; it’s all settled.”

“The worst, I suppose, was when you found me this morning.”

“Oh that was all right — for you.”

“You’re magnanimous, Julia; but evidently what’s good enough for me isn’t good enough for you.” Nick spoke with bitterness.

“I don’t like you enough — that’s the obstacle,” she held herself in hand to say.

“You did a year ago; you confessed to it.”

“Well, a year ago was a year ago. Things are changed today.”

“You’re very fortunate — to be able to throw away a real devotion,” Nick returned.

She had her pocket-handkerchief in her hand, and at this she quickly pressed it to her lips as to check an exclamation. Then for an instant she appeared to be listening to some sound from outside. He interpreted her movement as an honourable impulse to repress the “Do you mean the devotion I was witness of this morning?” But immediately afterwards she said something very different: “I thought I heard a ring. I’ve telegraphed for Mrs. Gresham.”

He wondered. “Why did you do that?”

“Oh I want her.”

He walked to the window, where the curtains had not been drawn, and saw in the dusk a cab at the door. When he turned back he went on: “Why won’t you trust me to make you like me, as you call it, better? If I make you like me as well as I like you it will be about enough, I think.”

“Oh I like you enough for your happiness. And I don’t throw away a devotion,” Mrs. Dallow continued. “I shall be constantly kind to you. I shall be beautiful to you.”

“You’ll make me lose a fortune,” Nick after a moment said.

It brought a slight convulsion, instantly repressed, into her face. “Ah you may have all the money you want!”

“I don’t mean yours,” he answered with plenty of expression of his own. He had determined on the instant, since it might serve, to tell her what he had never breathed to her before. “Mr. Carteret last year promised me a pot of money on the day we should be man and wife. He has thoroughly set his heart on it.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint Mr. Carteret,” said Julia. “I’ll go and see him. I’ll make it all right,” she went on. “Then your work, you know, will bring you an income. The great men get a thousand just for a head.”

“I’m only joking,” Nick returned with sombre eyes that contradicted this profession. “But what things you deserve I should do!”

“Do you mean striking likenesses?”

He watched her a moment. “You do hate it! Pushed to that point, it’s curious,” he audibly mused.

“Do you mean you’re joking about Mr. Carteret’s promise?”

“No — the promise is real, but I don’t seriously offer it as a reason.”

“I shall go to Beauclere,” Julia said. “You’re an hour late,” she added in a different tone; for at that moment the door of the room was thrown open and Mrs. Gresham, the butler pronouncing her name, ushered in.

“Ah don’t impugn my punctuality — it’s my character!” the useful lady protested, putting a sixpence from the cabman into her purse. Nick went off at this with a simplified farewell — went off foreseeing exactly what he found the next day, that the useful lady would have received orders not to budge from her hostess’s side. He called on the morrow, late in the afternoon, and Julia saw him liberally, in the spirit of her assurance that she would be “beautiful” to him, that she had not thrown away his devotion; but Mrs. Gresham remained, with whatever delicacies of deprecation, a spectator of her liberality. Julia looked at him kindly, but her companion was more benignant still; so that what Nick did with his own eyes was not to appeal to her to see him a moment alone, but to solicit, in the name of this luxury, the second occupant of the drawing-room. Mrs. Gresham seemed to say, while Julia said so little, “I understand, my poor friend, I know everything — she has told me only her side, but I’m so competent that I know yours too — and I enter into the whole thing deeply. But it would be as much as my place is worth to accommodate you.” Still, she didn’t go so far as to give him an inkling of what he learned on the third day and what he had not gone so far as to suspect — that the two ladies had made rapid arrangements for a scheme of foreign travel. These arrangements had already been carried out when, at the door of the house in Great Stanhope Street, the announcement was made him that the subtle creatures had started that morning for Paris.

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