The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXVIII

They spent on their way to Florence several days in Paris, where Peter Sherringham had as much free talk with his sister as it often befell one member of their family to have with another. He enjoyed, that is, on two different occasions, half an hour’s gossip with her in her sitting-room at the hotel. On one of these he took the liberty of asking her whether or no, decidedly, she meant to marry Nick Dormer. Julia expressed to him that she appreciated his curiosity, but that Nick and she were nothing more than relations and good friends. “He tremendously wants it,” Peter none the less observed; to which she simply made answer, “Well then, he may want!”

After this, for a while, they sat as silent as if the subject had been quite threshed out between them. Peter felt no impulse to penetrate further, for it was not a habit of the Sherringhams to talk with each other of their love-affairs; and he was conscious of the particular deterrent that he and Julia entertained in general such different sentiments that they could never go far together in discussion. He liked her and was sorry for her, thought her life lonely and wondered she didn’t make a “great” marriage. Moreover he pitied her for being without the interests and consolations he himself had found substantial: those of the intellectual, the studious order he considered these to be, not knowing how much she supposed she reflected and studied and what an education she had found in her political aspirations, viewed by him as scarce more a personal part of her than the livery of her servants or the jewels George Dallow’s money had bought. Her relations with Nick struck him as queer, but were fortunately none of his business. No business of Julia’s was sufficiently his to justify him in an attempt to understand it. That there should have been a question of her marrying Nick was the funny thing rather than that the question should have been dropped. He liked his clever cousin very well as he was — enough for a vague sense that he might be spoiled by alteration to a brother-inlaw. Moreover, though not perhaps distinctly conscious of this, Peter pressed lightly on Julia’s doings from a tacit understanding that in this case she would let him off as easily. He couldn’t have said exactly what it was he judged it pertinent to be let off from: perhaps from irritating inquiry as to whether he had given any more tea-parties for gross young women connected with the theatre.

Peter’s forbearance, however, brought him not quite all the security he prefigured. After an interval he indeed went so far as to ask Julia if Nick had been wanting in respect to her; but this was an appeal intended for sympathy, not for other intervention. She answered: “Dear no — though he’s very provoking.” Thus Peter guessed that they had had a quarrel in which it didn’t concern him to meddle: he added her epithet and her flight from England together, and they made up to his perception one of the little magnified embroilments which do duty for the real in superficial lives. It was worse to provoke Julia than not, and Peter thought Nick’s doing so not particularly characteristic of his versatility for good. He might wonder why she didn’t marry the member for Harsh if the subject had pressingly come up between them; but he wondered still more why Nick didn’t marry that gentleman’s great backer. Julia said nothing again, as if to give him a chance to address her some challenge that would save her from gushing; but as his impulse appeared to be to change the subject, and as he changed it only by silence, she was reduced to resuming presently:

“I should have thought you’d have come over to see your friend the actress.”

“Which of my friends? I know so many actresses,” Peter pleaded.

“The woman you inflicted on us in this place a year ago — the one who’s in London now.”

“Oh Miriam Rooth? I should have liked to come over, but I’ve been tied fast. Have you seen her there?”

“Yes, I’ve seen her.”

“Do you like her?”

“Not at all.”

“She has a lovely voice,” Peter hazarded after a moment.

“I don’t know anything about her voice — I haven’t heard it.”

“But she doesn’t act in pantomime, does she?”

“I don’t know anything about her acting. I saw her in private — at Nick Dormer’s studio.”

“At Nick’s —?” He was interested now.

“What was she doing there?”

“She was sprawling over the room and — rather insolently — staring at me.”

If Mrs. Dallow had wished to “draw” her brother she must at this point have suspected she succeeded, in spite of his care to divest his tone of all emotion. “Why, does he know her so well? I didn’t know.”

“She’s sitting to him for her portrait — at least she was then.”

“Oh yes, I remember — I put him up to that. I’m greatly interested. Is the portrait good?”

“I haven’t the least idea — I didn’t look at it. I daresay it’s like,” Julia threw off.

“But how in the world”— and Peter’s interest grew franker —“does Nick find time to paint?”

“I don’t know. That horrid man brought her.”

“Which horrid man?”— he spoke as if they had their choice.

“The one Nick thinks so clever — the vulgar little man who was at your place that day and tried to talk to me. I remember he abused theatrical people to me — as if I cared anything about them. But he has apparently something to do with your girl.”

“Oh I recollect him — I had a discussion with him,” Peter patiently said.

“How could you? I must go and dress,” his sister went on more importantly.

“He was clever, remarkably. Miss Rooth and her mother were old friends of his, and he was the first person to speak of them to me.”

“What a distinction! I thought him disgusting!” cried Julia, who was pressed for time and who had now got up.

“Oh you’re severe,” said Peter, still bland; but when they separated she had given him something to think of.

That Nick was painting a beautiful actress was no doubt in part at least the reason why he was provoking and why his most intimate female friend had come abroad. The fact didn’t render him provoking to his kinsman: Peter had on the contrary been quite sincere when he qualified it as interesting. It became indeed on reflexion so interesting that it had perhaps almost as much to do with Sherringham’s now prompt rush over to London as it had to do with Julia’s coming away. Reflexion taught him further that the matter was altogether a delicate one and suggested that it was odd he should be mixed up with it in fact when, as Julia’s own affair, he had but wished to keep out of it. It might after all be his affair a little as well — there was somehow a still more pointed implication of that in his sister’s saying to him the next day that she wished immensely he would take a fancy to Biddy Dormer. She said more: she said there had been a time when she believed he had done so — believed too that the poor child herself had believed the same. Biddy was far away the nicest girl she knew — the dearest, sweetest, cleverest, best, and one of the prettiest creatures in England, which never spoiled anything. She would make as charming a wife as ever a man had, suited to any position, however high, and — Julia didn’t mind mentioning it, since her brother would believe it whether she mentioned it or no — was so predisposed in his favour that he would have no trouble at all. In short she herself would see him through — she’d answer for it that he’d have but to speak. Biddy’s life at home was horrid; she was very sorry for her — the child was worthy of a better fate. Peter wondered what constituted the horridness of Biddy’s life, and gathered that it mainly arose from the fact of Julia’s disliking Lady Agnes and Grace and of her profiting comfortably by that freedom to do so which was a fruit of her having given them a house she had perhaps not felt the want of till they were in possession of it. He knew she had always liked Biddy, but he asked himself — this was the rest of his wonder — why she had taken to liking her so extraordinarily just now. He liked her himself — he even liked to be talked to about her and could believe everything Julia said: the only thing that had mystified him was her motive for suddenly saying it. He had assured her he was perfectly sensible of her goodness in so plotting out his future, but was also sorry if he had put it into any one’s head — most of all into the girl’s own — that he had ever looked at Biddy with a covetous eye. He wasn’t in the least sure she would make a good wife, but liked her quite too much to wish to put any such mystery to the test. She was certainly not offered them for cruel experiments. As it happened, really, he wasn’t thinking of marrying any one — he had ever so many grounds for neglecting that. Of course one was never safe against accidents, but one could at least take precautions, and he didn’t mind telling her that there were several he had taken.

“I don’t know what you mean, but it seems to me quite the best precaution would be to care for a charming, steady girl like Biddy. Then you’d be quite in shelter, you’d know the worst that can happen to you, and it wouldn’t be bad.” The objection he had made to this plea is not important, especially as it was not quite candid; it need only be mentioned that before the pair parted Julia said to him, still in reference to their young friend: “Do go and see her and be nice to her; she’ll save you disappointments.”

These last words reverberated for him — there was a shade of the portentous in them and they seemed to proceed from a larger knowledge of the subject than he himself as yet possessed. They were not absent from his memory when, in the beginning of May, availing himself, to save time, of the night-service, he crossed from Paris to London. He arrived before the breakfast-hour and went to his sister’s house in Great Stanhope Street, where he always found quarters, were she in town or not. When at home she welcomed him, and in her absence the relaxed servants hailed him for the chance he gave them to recover their “form.” In either case his allowance of space was large and his independence complete. He had obtained permission this year to take in scattered snatches rather than as a single draught the quantum of holiday to which he was entitled; and there was, moreover, a question of his being transferred to another capital — in which event he believed he might count on a month or two in England before proceeding to his new post.

He waited, after breakfast, but a very few minutes before jumping into a hansom and rattling away to the north. A part of his waiting indeed consisted of a fidgety walk up Bond Street, during which he looked at his watch three or four times while he paused at shop windows for fear of being a little early. In the cab, as he rolled along, after having given an address — Balaklava Place, Saint John’s Wood — the fear he might be too early took curiously at moments the form of a fear that he should be too late: a symbol of the inconsistencies of which his spirit at present was full. Peter Sherringham was nervously formed, too nervously for a diplomatist, and haunted with inclinations and indeed with designs which contradicted each other. He wanted to be out of it and yet dreaded not to be in it, and on this particular occasion the sense of exclusion was an ache. At the same time he was not unconscious of the impulse to stop his cab and make it turn round and drive due south. He saw himself launched in the breezy fact while morally speaking he was hauled up on the hot sand of the principle, and he could easily note how little these two faces of the same idea had in common. However, as the consciousness of going helped him to reflect, a principle was a poor affair if it merely became a fact. Yet from the hour it did turn to action the action had to be the particular one in which he was engaged; so that he was in the absurd position of thinking his conduct wiser for the reason that it was directly opposed to his intentions.

He had kept away from London ever since Miriam Rooth came over; resisting curiosity, sympathy, importunate haunting passion, and considering that his resistance, founded, to be salutary, on a general scheme of life, was the greatest success he had yet achieved. He was deeply occupied with plucking up the feeling that attached him to her, and he had already, by various little ingenuities, loosened some of its roots. He had suffered her to make her first appearance on any stage without the comfort of his voice or the applause of his hand; saying to himself that the man who could do the more could do the less and that such an act of fortitude was a proof he should keep straight. It was not exactly keeping straight to run over to London three months later and, the hour he arrived, scramble off to Balaklava Place; but after all he pretended only to be human and aimed in behaviour only at the heroic, never at the monstrous. The highest heroism was obviously three parts tact. He had not written to his young friend that he was coming to England and would call upon her at eleven o’clock in the morning, because it was his secret pride that he had ceased to correspond with her. Sherringham took his prudence where he could find it, and in doing so was rather like a drunkard who should flatter himself he had forsworn liquor since he didn’t touch lemonade.

It is a sign of how far he was drawn in different directions at once that when, on reaching Balaklava Place and alighting at the door of a small detached villa of the type of the “retreat,” he learned that Miss Rooth had but a quarter of an hour before quitted the spot with her mother — they had gone to the theatre, to rehearsal, said the maid who answered the bell he had set tinkling behind a stuccoed garden-wall: when at the end of his pilgrimage he was greeted by a disappointment he suddenly found himself relieved and for the moment even saved. Providence was after all taking care of him and he submitted to Providence. He would still be watched over doubtless, even should he follow the two ladies to the theatre, send in his card and obtain admission to the scene of their experiments. All his keen taste for these matters flamed up again, and he wondered what the girl was studying, was rehearsing, what she was to do next. He got back into his hansom and drove down the Edgware Road. By the time he reached the Marble Arch he had changed his mind again, had determined to let Miriam alone for that day. It would be over at eight in the evening — he hardly played fair — and then he should consider himself free. Instead of pursuing his friends he directed himself upon a shop in Bond Street to take a place for their performance. On first coming out he had tried, at one of those establishments strangely denominated “libraries,” to get a stall, but the people to whom he applied were unable to accommodate him — they hadn’t a single seat left. His actual attempt, at another library, was more successful: there was no question of obtaining a stall, but he might by a miracle still have a box. There was a wantonness in paying for a box at a play on which he had already expended four hundred pounds; but while he was mentally measuring this abyss an idea came into his head which flushed the extravagance with the hue of persuasion.

Peter came out of the shop with the voucher for the box in his pocket, turned into Piccadilly, noted that the day was growing warm and fine, felt glad that this time he had no other strict business than to leave a card or two on official people, and asked himself where he should go if he didn’t go after Miriam. Then it was that he found himself attaching a lively desire and imputing a high importance to the possible view of Nick Dormer’s portrait of her. He wondered which would be the natural place at that hour of the day to look for the artist. The House of Commons was perhaps the nearest one, but Nick, inconsequent and incalculable though so many of his steps, probably didn’t keep the picture there; and, moreover, it was not generally characteristic of him to be in the natural place. The end of Peter’s debate was that he again entered a hansom and drove to Calcutta Gardens. The hour was early for calling, but cousins with whom one’s intercourse was mainly a conversational scuffle would accept it as a practical illustration of that method. And if Julia wanted him to be nice to Biddy — which was exactly, even if with a different view, what he wanted himself — how could he better testify than by a visit to Lady Agnes — he would have in decency to go to see her some time — at a friendly, fraternising hour when they would all be likely to be at home?

Unfortunately, as it turned out, they were none of them at home, so that he had to fall back on neutrality and the butler, who was, however, more luckily, an old friend. Her ladyship and Miss Dormer were absent from town, paying a visit; and Mr. Dormer was also away, or was on the point of going away for the day. Miss Bridget was in London, but was out; Peter’s informant mentioned with earnest vagueness that he thought she had gone somewhere to take a lesson. On Peter’s asking what sort of lesson he meant he replied: “Oh I think — a — the a-sculpture, you know, sir.” Peter knew, but Biddy’s lesson in “a-sculpture”— it sounded on the butler’s lips like a fashionable new art — struck him a little as a mockery of the helpful spirit in which he had come to look her up. The man had an air of participating respectfully in his disappointment and, to make up for it, added that he might perhaps find Mr. Dormer at his other address. He had gone out early and had directed his servant to come to Rosedale Road in an hour or two with a portmanteau: he was going down to Beauclere in the course of the day, Mr. Carteret being ill — perhaps Mr. Sherringham didn’t know it. Perhaps too Mr. Sherringham would catch him in Rosedale Road before he took his train — he was to have been busy there for an hour. This was worth trying, and Peter immediately drove to Rosedale Road; where in answer to his ring the door was opened to him by Biddy Dormer.

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