The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

BOOK SIXTH

XXXII

It mattered not so much what the doctors thought — and Sir Matthew Hope, the greatest of them all, had been down twice in one week — as that Mr. Chayter, the omniscient butler, declared with all the authority of his position and his experience that Mr. Carteret was very bad indeed. Nick Dormer had a long talk with him — it lasted six minutes — the day he hurried to Beauclere in response to a telegram. It was Mr. Chayter who had taken upon himself to telegraph in spite of the presence in the house of Mr. Carteret’s nearest relation and only surviving sister, Mrs. Lendon. This lady, a large, mild, healthy woman with a heavy tread, a person who preferred early breakfasts, uncomfortable chairs and the advertisement-sheet of the Times, had arrived the week before and was awaiting the turn of events. She was a widow and occupied in Cornwall a house nine miles from a station, which had, to make up for this inconvenience as she had once told Nick, a fine old herbaceous garden. She was extremely fond of an herbaceous garden — her main consciousness was of herbaceous possibilities. Nick had often seen her — she had always come to Beauclere once or twice a year. Her sojourn there made no great difference; she was only an “Urania dear” for Mr. Carteret to look across the table at when, on the close of dinner, it was time for her to retire. She went out of the room always as if it were after some one else; and on the gentlemen’s “joining” her later — the junction was not very close — she received them with an air of gratified surprise.

Chayter honoured Nick with a regard which approached, though not improperly competing with it, the affection his master had placed on the same young head, and Chayter knew a good many things. Among them he knew his place; but it was wonderful how little that knowledge had rendered him inaccessible to other kinds. He took upon himself to send for Nick without speaking to Mrs. Lendon, whose influence was now a good deal like that of some large occasional piece of furniture introduced on a contingency. She was one of the solid conveniences that a comfortable house would have, but you couldn’t talk with a mahogany sofa or a folding screen. Chayter knew how much she had “had” from her brother, and how much her two daughters had each received on marriage; and he was of the opinion that it was quite enough, especially considering the society in which they — you could scarcely call it — moved. He knew beyond this that they would all have more, and that was why he hesitated little about communicating with Nick. If Mrs. Lendon should be ruffled at the intrusion of a young man who neither was the child of a cousin nor had been formally adopted, Chayter was parliamentary enough to see that the forms of debate were observed. He had indeed a slightly compassionate sense that Mrs. Lendon was not easily ruffled. She was always down an extraordinary time before breakfast — Chayter refused to take it as in the least admonitory — but usually went straight into the garden as if to see that none of the plants had been stolen in the night, and had in the end to be looked for by the footman in some out-of-the-way spot behind the shrubbery, where, plumped upon the ground, she was mostly doing something “rum” to a flower.

Mr. Carteret himself had expressed no wishes. He slept most of the time — his failure at the last had been sudden, but he was rheumatic and seventy-seven — and the situation was in Chayter’s hands. Sir Matthew Hope had opined even on a second visit that he would rally and go on, in rudimentary comfort, some time longer; but Chayter took a different and a still more intimate view. Nick was embarrassed: he scarcely knew what he was there for from the moment he could give his good old friend no conscious satisfaction. The doctors, the nurses, the servants, Mrs. Lendon, and above all the settled equilibrium of the square thick house, where an immutable order appeared to slant through the polished windows and tinkle in the quieter bells, all these things represented best the kind of supreme solace to which the master was most accessible.

It was judged best that for the first day Nick should not be introduced into the darkened room. This was the decision of the two decorous nurses, of whom the visitor had had a glimpse and who, with their black uniforms and fresh faces of business, suggested the barmaid emulating the nun. He was depressed and restless, felt himself in a false position, and thought it lucky Mrs. Lendon had powers of placid acceptance. They were old acquaintances: she treated him formally, anxiously, but it was not the rigour of mistrust. It was much more an expression of remote Cornish respect for young abilities and distinguished connexions, inasmuch as she asked him rather yearningly about Lady Agnes and about Lady Flora and Lady Elizabeth. He knew she was kind and ungrudging, and his main regret was for his meagre knowledge and poor responses in regard to his large blank aunts. He sat in the garden with newspapers and looked at the lowered blinds in Mr. Carteret’s windows; he wandered round the abbey with cigarettes and lightened his tread and felt grave, wishing everything might be over. He would have liked much to see Mr. Carteret again, but had no desire that Mr. Carteret should see him. In the evening he dined with Mrs. Lendon, and she talked to him at his request and as much as she could about her brother’s early years, his beginnings of life. She was so much younger that they appeared to have been rather a tradition of her own youth; but her talk made Nick feel how tremendously different Mr. Carteret had been at that period from what he, Nick, was today. He had published at the age of thirty a little volume, thought at the time wonderfully clever, called The Incidence of Rates; but Nick had not yet collected the material for any such treatise. After dinner Mrs. Lendon, who was in merciless full dress, retired to the drawing-room, where at the end of ten minutes she was followed by Nick, who had remained behind only because he thought Chayter would expect it. Mrs. Lendon almost shook hands with him again and then Chayter brought in coffee. Almost in no time afterwards he brought in tea, and the occupants of the drawing-room sat for a slow half-hour, during which the lady looked round at the apartment with a sigh and said: “Don’t you think poor Charles had exquisite taste?”

Fortunately the “local man” was at this moment ushered in. He had been upstairs and he smiled himself in with the remark: “It’s quite wonderful, quite wonderful.” What was wonderful was a marked improvement in the breathing, a distinct indication of revival. The doctor had some tea and chatted for a quarter of an hour in a way that showed what a “good” manner and how large an experience a local man could have. When he retired Nick walked out with him. The doctor’s house was near by and he had come on foot. He left the visitor with the assurance that in all probability Mr. Carteret, who was certainly picking up, would be able to see him on the morrow. Our young man turned his steps again to the abbey and took a stroll about it in the starlight. It never looked so huge as when it reared itself into the night, and Nick had never felt more fond of it than on this occasion, more comforted and confirmed by its beauty. When he came back he was readmitted by Chayter, who surveyed him in respectful deprecation of the frivolity which had led him to attempt to help himself through such an evening in such a way.

He went to bed early and slept badly, which was unusual with him; but it was a pleasure to him to be told almost as soon as he appeared that Mr. Carteret had asked for him. He went in to see him and was struck with the change in his appearance. He had, however, spent a day with him just after the New Year and another at the beginning of March, and had then noted in him the menace of the final weakness. A week after Julia Dallow’s departure for the Continent he had again devoted several hours to the place and to the intention of telling his old friend how the happy event had been brought to naught — the advantage he had been so good as to desire for him and to make the condition of a splendid gift. Before this, for a few days, he had been keeping back, to announce it personally, the good news that Julia had at last set their situation in order: he wanted to enjoy the old man’s pleasure — so sore a trial had her arbitrary behaviour been for a year. If she had offered Mr. Carteret a conciliatory visit before Christmas, had come down from London one day to lunch with him, this had but contributed to make him subsequently exhibit to poor Nick, as the victim of her elegant perversity, a great deal of earnest commiseration in a jocose form. Upon his honour, as he said, she was as clever and “specious” a woman — this was his odd expression — as he had ever seen in his life. The merit of her behaviour on that occasion, as Nick knew, was that she had not been specious at her lover’s expense: she had breathed no doubt of his public purpose and had had the strange grace to say that in truth she was older than he, so that it was only fair to give his affections time to mature. But when Nick saw their hopeful host after the rupture at which we have been present he found him in no state to deal with worries: he was seriously ailing, it was the beginning of worse things and not a time to put his attention to the stretch. After this excursion Nick had gone back to town saddened by his patient’s now unmistakably settled decline, but rather relieved that he had had himself to make no confession. It had even occurred to him that the need for making one at all might never come up. Certainly it wouldn’t if the ebb of Mr. Carteret’s strength should continue unchecked. He might pass away in the persuasion that everything would happen as he wished it, though indeed without enriching Nick on his wedding-day to the tune he had promised. Very likely he had made legal arrangements in virtue of which his bounty would take effect in case of the right event and in that case alone. At present Nick had a bigger, an uglier truth to tell — the last three days had made the difference; but, oddly enough, though his responsibility had increased his reluctance to speak had vanished: he was positively eager to clear up a situation over which it was not consistent with his honour to leave a shade.

The doctor had been right on coming in after dinner; it was clear in the morning that they had not seen the last of Mr. Carteret’s power of picking up. Chayter, who had waited on him, refused austerely to change his opinion with every change in his master’s temperature; but the nurses took the cheering view that it would do their charge good for Mr. Dormer to sit with him a little. One of them remained in the room in the deep window-seat, and Nick spent twenty minutes by the bedside. It was not a case for much conversation, but his helpless host seemed still to like to look at him. There was life in his kind old eyes, a stir of something that would express itself yet in some further wise provision. He laid his liberal hand on Nick’s with a confidence that showed how little it was really disabled. He said very little, and the nurse had recommended that the visitor himself should not overflow in speech; but from time to time he murmured with a faint smile: “To-night’s division, you know — you mustn’t miss it.” There was probably to be no division that night, as happened, but even Mr. Carteret’s aberrations were parliamentary. Before Nick withdrew he had been able to assure him he was rapidly getting better and that such valuable hours, the young man’s own, mustn’t be wasted. “Come back on Friday if they come to the second reading.” These were the words with which Nick was dismissed, and at noon the doctor said the invalid was doing very well, but that Nick had better leave him quiet for that day. Our young man accordingly determined to go up to town for the night, and even, should he receive no summons, for the next day. He arranged with Chayter that he should be telegraphed to if Mr. Carteret were either better or worse.

“Oh he can’t very well be worse, sir,” Chayter replied inexorably; but he relaxed so far as to remark that of course it wouldn’t do for Nick to neglect the House.

“Oh the House!”— Nick was ambiguous and avoided the butler’s eye. It would be easy enough to tell Mr. Carteret, but nothing would have sustained him in the effort to make a clean breast to Chayter.

He might equivocate about the House, but he had the sense of things to be done awaiting him in London. He telegraphed to his servant and spent that night in Rosedale Road. The things to be done were apparently to be done in his studio: his servant met him there with a large bundle of letters. He failed that evening to stray within two miles of Westminster, and the legislature of his country reassembled without his support. The next morning he received a telegram from Chayter, to whom he had given Rosedale Road as an address. This missive simply informed him that Mr. Carteret wished to see him; it seemed a sign that he was better, though Chayter wouldn’t say so. Nick again accordingly took his place in the train to Beauclere. He had been there very often, but it was present to him that now, after a little, he should go only once more — for a particular dismal occasion. All that was over, everything that belonged to it was over. He learned on his arrival — he saw Mrs. Lendon immediately — that his old friend had continued to pick up. He had expressed a strong and a perfectly rational desire to talk with his expected visitor, and the doctor had said that if it was about anything important they should forbear to oppose him. “He says it’s about something very important,” Mrs. Lendon remarked, resting shy eyes on him while she added that she herself was now sitting with her dear brother. She had sent those wonderful young ladies out to see the abbey. Nick paused with her outside Mr. Carteret’s door. He wanted to say something rather intimate and all soothing to her in return for her homely charity — give her a hint, for which she was far from looking, that practically he had now no interest in her brother’s estate. This was of course impossible; her lack of irony, of play of mind, gave him no pretext, and such a reference would be an insult to her simple discretion. She was either not thinking of his interest at all, or was thinking of it with the tolerance of a nature trained to a hundred decent submissions. Nick looked a little into her mild, uninvestigating eyes, and it came over him supremely that the goodness of these people was singularly pure: they were a part of what was cleanest and sanest and dullest in humanity. There had been just a little mocking inflexion in Mrs. Lendon’s pleasant voice; but it was dedicated to the young ladies in the black uniforms — she could perhaps be humorous about them — and not to the theory of the “importance” of Nick’s interview with her brother. His arrested desire to let her know he was not greedy translated itself into a vague friendliness and into the abrupt, rather bewildering words: “I can’t tell you half the good I think of you.” As he passed into Mr. Carteret’s room it occurred to him that she would perhaps interpret this speech as an acknowledgment of obligation — of her good nature in not keeping him away from the rich old man.

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