The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXIII

The rich old man was propped up on pillows, and in this attitude, beneath the high, spare canopy of his bed, presented himself to Nick’s picture-seeking vision as a figure in a clever composition or a “story.” He had gathered strength, though this strength was not much in his voice; it was mainly in his brighter eyes and his air of being pleased with himself. He put out his hand and said, “I daresay you know why I sent for you”; on which Nick sank into the seat he had occupied the day before, replying that he had been delighted to come, whatever the reason. Mr. Carteret said nothing more about the division or the second reading; he only murmured that they were keeping the newspapers for him. “I’m rather behind — I’m rather behind,” he went on; “but two or three quiet mornings will make it all right. You can go back to-night, you know — you can easily go back.” This was the only thing not quite straight that Nick found in him — his making light of his young friend’s flying to and fro. The young friend sat looking at him with a sense that was half compunction and half the idea of the rare beauty of his face, to which, strangely, the waste of illness now seemed to have restored something of its youth. Mr. Carteret was evidently conscious that this morning he shouldn’t be able to go on long, so that he must be practical and concise. “I daresay you know — you’ve only to remember,” he continued.

“I needn’t tell you what a pleasure it is to me to see you — there can be no better reason than that,” was what Nick could say.

“Hasn’t the year come round — the year of that foolish arrangement?”

Nick thought a little, asking himself if it were really necessary to disturb his companion’s earnest faith. Then the consciousness of the falsity of his own position surged over him again and he replied: “Do you mean the period for which Mrs. Dallow insisted on keeping me dangling? Oh that’s over!” he almost gaily brought out.

“And are you married — has it come off?” the old man asked eagerly. “How long have I been ill?”

“We’re uncomfortable, unreasonable people, not deserving of your interest. We’re not married,” Nick said.

“Then I haven’t been ill so long?” his host quavered with vague relief.

“Not very long — but things are different,” he went on.

The old man’s eyes rested on his — he noted how much larger they appeared. “You mean the arrangements are made — the day’s at hand?”

“There are no arrangements,” Nick smiled. “But why should it trouble you?”

“What then will you do — without arrangements?” The inquiry was plaintive and childlike.

“We shall do nothing — there’s nothing to be done. We’re not to be married — it’s all off,” said poor Nick. Then he added: “Mrs. Dallow has gone abroad.”

The old man, motionless among his pillows, gave a long groan. “Ah I don’t like that.”

“No more do I, sir.”

“What’s the matter? It was so good — so good.”

“It wasn’t good enough for Julia,” Nick declared.

“For Julia? Is Julia so great as that? She told me she had the greatest regard for you. You’re good enough for the best, my dear boy,” Mr. Carteret pursued.

“You don’t know me: I am disappointing. She had, I believe, a great regard for me, but I’ve forfeited her good opinion.”

The old man stared at this cynical announcement: he searched his visitor’s face for some attenuation of the words. But Nick apparently struck him as unashamed, and a faint colour coming into his withered cheek indicated his mystification and alarm. “Have you been unfaithful to her?” he still considerately asked.

“She thinks so — it comes to the same thing. As I told you a year ago, she doesn’t believe in me.”

“You ought to have made her — you ought to have made her,” said Mr. Carteret. Nick was about to plead some reason when he continued: “Do you remember what I told you I’d give you if you did? Do you remember what I told you I’d give you on your wedding-day?”

“You expressed the most generous intentions; and I remember them as much as a man may do who has no wish to remind you of them.”

“The money’s there — I’ve put it aside.”

“I haven’t earned it — I haven’t earned a penny of it. Give it to those who deserve it more,” said Nick.

“I don’t understand, I don’t understand,” Mr. Carteret whimpered, the tears of weakness in his eyes. His face flushed and he added: “I’m not good for much discussion; I’m very much disappointed.”

“I think I may say it’s not my fault — I’ve done what I can,” Nick declared.

“But when people are in love they do more than that.”

“Oh it’s all over!” said our young man; not caring much now, for the moment, how disconcerted his companion might be, so long as he disabused him of the idea that they were partners to a bargain. “We’ve tormented each other and we’ve tormented you — and that’s all that has come of it.”

His companion’s eyes seemed to stare at strange things. “Don’t you care for what I’d have done for you — shouldn’t you have liked it?”

“Of course one likes kindness — one likes money. But it’s all over,” Nick repeated. Then he added: “I fatigue you, I knock you up, with telling you these troubles. I only do so because it seems to me right you should know. But don’t be worried — everything’s for the best.”

He patted the pale hand reassuringly, inclined himself affectionately, but Mr. Carteret was not easily soothed. He had practised lucidity all his life, had expected it of others and had never given his assent to an indistinct proposition. He was weak, yet not too weak to recognise that he had formed a calculation now vitiated by a wrong factor — put his name to a contract of which the other side had not been carried out. More than fifty years of conscious success pressed him to try to understand; he had never muddled his affairs and he couldn’t muddle them now. At the same time he was aware of the necessity of economising his effort, and he would gather that inward force, patiently and almost cunningly, for the right question and the right induction. He was still able to make his agitation reflective, and it could still consort with his high hopes of Nick that he should find himself regarding mere vague, verbal comfort, words in the air, as an inadequate guarantee. So after he had attached his dim vision to his young friend’s face a moment he brought out: “Have you done anything bad?”

“Nothing worse than usual,” Nick laughed.

“Ah everything should have been better than usual.”

“Well, it hasn’t been that — that I must say.”

“Do you sometimes think of your father?” Mr. Carteret continued.

Nick had a decent pause. “You make me think of him — you’ve always that pleasant effect.”

“His name would have lived — it mustn’t be lost.”

“Yes, but the competition today is terrible,” Nick returned.

His host considered this as if he found a serious flaw in it; after which he began again: “I never supposed you a trifler.”

“I’m determined not to be.”

“I thought her charming. Don’t you love Mrs. Dallow?” Mr. Carteret profoundly asked.

“Don’t put it to me so today, for I feel sore and injured. I don’t think she has treated me well.”

“You should have held her — you shouldn’t have let her go,” the old man returned with unexpected fire.

His visitor flushed at this, so strange was it to receive a lesson in energy from a dying octogenarian. Yet after an instant Nick answered with due modesty: “I haven’t been clever enough, no doubt.”

“Don’t say that, don’t say that —!” Mr. Carteret shrunk from the thought. “Don’t think I can allow you any easing-off of that sort. I know how well you’ve done. You’re taking your place. Several gentlemen have told me. Hasn’t she felt a scruple, knowing my settlement on you to depend ——?” he pursued.

“Oh she hasn’t known — hasn’t known anything about it.”

“I don’t understand; though I think you explained somewhat a year ago”— the poor gentleman gave it up. “I think she wanted to speak to me — of any intentions I might have in regard to you — the day she was here. Very nicely, very properly she’d have done it, I’m sure. I think her idea was that I ought to make any settlement quite independent of your marrying her or not marrying her. But I tried to convey to her — I don’t know whether she understood me — that I liked her too much for that, I wanted too much to make sure of her.”

“To make sure of me, you mean,” said Nick. “And now after all you see you haven’t.”

“Well, perhaps it was that,” sighed the old man confusedly.

“All this is very bad for you — we’ll talk again,” Nick urged.

“No, no — let us finish it now. I like to know what I’m doing. I shall rest better when I do know. There are great things to be done; the future will be full — the future will be fine,” Mr. Carteret wandered.

“Let me be distinct about this for Julia: that if we hadn’t been sundered her generosity to me would have been complete — she’d have put her great fortune absolutely at my disposal,” Nick said after a moment. “Her consciousness of all that naturally carries her over any particular distress in regard to what won’t come to me now from another source.”

“Ah don’t lose it!” the old man painfully pleaded.

“It’s in your hands, sir,” Nick returned.

“I mean Mrs. Dallow’s fortune. It will be of the highest utility. That was what your father missed.”

“I shall miss more than my father did,” said Nick.

“Shell come back to you — I can’t look at you and doubt that.”

Nick smiled with a slow headshake. “Never, never, never! You look at me, my grand old friend, but you don’t see me. I’m not what you think.”

“What is it — what is it? Have you been bad?” Mr. Carteret panted.

“No, no; I’m not bad. But I’m different.”

“Different ——?”

“Different from my father. Different from Mrs. Dallow. Different from you.”

“Ah why do you perplex me?” the old man moaned. “You’ve done something.”

“I don’t want to perplex you, but I have done something,” said Nick, getting up.

He had heard the door open softly behind him and Mrs. Lendon come forward with precautions. “What has he done — what has he done?” quavered Mr. Carteret to his sister. She, however, after a glance at the patient, motioned their young friend away and, bending over the bed, replied, in a voice expressive at that moment of an ample provision of vital comfort:

“He has only excited you, I’m afraid, a little more than is good for you. Isn’t your dear old head a little too high?” Nick regarded himself as justly banished, and he quitted the room with a ready acquiescence in any power to carry on the scene of which Mrs. Lendon might find herself possessed. He felt distinctly brutal as he heard his host emit a weak exhalation of assent to some change of position. But he would have reproached himself more if he had wished less to guard against the acceptance of an equivalent for duties unperformed. Mr. Carteret had had in his mind, characteristically, the idea of a fine high contract, and there was something more to be said about that.

Nick went out of the house and stayed away for two or three hours, quite ready to regard the place as quieter and safer without him. He haunted the abbey as usual and sat a long time in its simplifying stillness, turning over many things. He came back again at the luncheon-hour, through the garden, and heard, somewhat to his surprise and greatly to his relief, that his host had composed himself promptly enough after their agitating interview. Mrs. Lendon talked at luncheon much as if she expected her brother to be, as she said, really quite fit again. She asked Nick no awkward question; which was uncommonly good of her, he thought, considering that she might have said, “What in the world were you trying to get out of him?” She only reported to our young man that the invalid had every hope of a short interview about half-past seven, a very short one: this gentle emphasis was Mrs. Lendon’s single tribute to the critical spirit. Nick divined that Mr. Carteret’s desire for further explanations was really strong and had been capable of sustaining him through a bad morning, capable even of helping him — it would have been a secret and wonderful momentary conquest of weakness — to pass it off for a good one. He wished he might make a sketch of him, from the life, as he had seen him after breakfast; he had a conviction he could make a strong one, which would be a precious memento. But he shrank from proposing this — the dear man might think it unparliamentary. The doctor had called while Nick was out, and he came again at five o’clock without that inmate’s seeing him. The latter was busy in his room at that hour: he wrote a short letter which took him a long time. But apparently there had been no veto on a resumption of talk, for at half-past seven his friend sent for him. The nurse at the door said, “Only a moment, I hope, sir?” but took him in and then withdrew.

The prolonged daylight was in the room and its occupant again established on his pile of pillows, but with his head a little lower. Nick sat down by him and expressed the hope of not having upset him in the morning; but the old man, with fixed, enlarged eyes, took up their conversation exactly where they had left it. “What have you done — what have you done? Have you associated yourself with some other woman?”

“No, no; I don’t think she can accuse me of that.”

“Well then she’ll come back to you if you take the right way with her.”

It might have been droll to hear the poor gentleman, in his situation, give his views on the right way with women; but Nick was not moved to enjoy that diversion. “I’ve taken the wrong way. I’ve done something that must spoil my prospects in that direction for ever. I’ve written a letter,” the visitor went on; but his companion had already interrupted him.

“You’ve written a letter?”

“To my constituents, informing them of my determination to resign my seat.”

“To resign your seat?”

“I’ve made up my mind, after no end of reflexion, dear Mr. Carteret, to work on quite other lines. I’ve a plan of becoming a painter. So I’ve given up the idea of a political life.”

“A painter?” Mr. Carteret seemed to turn whiter. “I’m going in for the portrait in oils. It sounds absurd, I know, and I’m thus specific only to show you I don’t in the least expect you to count on me.” The invalid had continued to stare at first; then his eyes slowly closed and he lay motionless and blank. “Don’t let it trouble you now; it’s a long story and rather a poor one; when you get better I’ll tell you all about it. Well talk it over amicably and I’ll bring you to my view,” Nick went on hypocritically. He had laid his hand again on the hand beside him; it felt cold, and as the old man remained silent he had a moment of exaggerated fear.

“This is dreadful news”— and Mr. Carteret opened his eyes.

“Certainly it must seem so to you, for I’ve always kept from you — I was ashamed, and my present confusion is a just chastisement — the great interest I have always taken in the ——!” But Nick broke down with a gasp, to add presently, with an intention of the pleasant and a sense of the foolish: “In the pencil and the brush.” He spoke of his current confusion, though his manner might have been thought to show it but little. He was himself surprised at his brazen assurance and had to recognise that at the point things had come to now he was profoundly obstinate and quiet.

“The pencil — the brush? They’re not the weapons of a gentleman,” Mr. Carteret pronounced.

“I was sure that would be your feeling. I repeat that I mention them only because you once said you intended to do something for me, as the phrase is, and I thought you oughtn’t to do it in ignorance.”

“My ignorance was better. Such knowledge isn’t good for me.”

“Forgive me, my dear old friend,” Nick kept it bravely up. “When you’re better you’ll see it differently.”

“I shall never be better now.”

“Ah no,” Nick insisted; “it will really do you good after a little. Think it over quietly and you’ll be glad I’ve stopped humbugging.”

“I loved you — I loved you as my son,” the old man wailed.

He sank on his knee beside the bed and leaned over him tenderly. “Get better, get better, and I’ll be your son for the rest of your life.”

“Poor Dormer — poor Dormer!” Mr. Carteret continued to lament.

“I admit that if he had lived I probably shouldn’t have done it,” said Nick. “I daresay I should have deferred to his prejudices even though thinking them narrow.”

“Do you turn against your father?” his host asked, making, to disengage his arm from the young man’s touch, an effort betraying the irritation of conscious weakness. Nick got up at this and stood a moment looking down at him while he went on: “Do you give up your name, do you give up your country?”

“If I do something good my country may like it.” Nick spoke as if he had thought that out.

“Do you regard them as equal, the two glories?”

“Here comes your nurse to blow me up and turn me out,” said Nick.

The nurse had come in, but Mr. Carteret directed to her an audible dry, courteous “Be so good as to wait till I send for you,” which arrested her in the large room at some distance from the bed and then had the effect of making her turn on her heel with a professional laugh. She clearly judged that an old gentleman with the fine manner of his prime might still be trusted to take care of himself. When she had gone that personage addressed to his visitor the question for which his deep displeasure lent him strength. “Do you pretend there’s a nobler life than a high political career?”

“I think the noble life’s doing one’s work well. One can do it very ill and be very base and mean in what you call a high political career. I haven’t been in the House so many months without finding that out. It contains some very small souls.”

“You should stand against them — you should expose them!” stammered Mr. Carteret.

“Stand against them, against one’s own party!”

The old man contended a moment with this and then broke out: “God forgive you, are you a Tory, are you a Tory?”

“How little you understand me!” laughed Nick with a ring of bitterness.

“Little enough — little enough, my boy. Have you sent your electors your dreadful letter?”

“Not yet; but it’s all ready and I shan’t change my mind.”

“You will — you will. You’ll think better of it. You’ll see your duty,” said the invalid almost coaxingly.

“That seems very improbable, for my determination, crudely and abruptly as, to my great regret, it comes to you here, is the fruit of a long and painful struggle. The difficulty is that I see my duty just in this other effort.”

“An effort? Do you call it an effort to fall away, to sink far down, to give up every effort? What does your mother say, heaven help her?” Mr. Carteret went on before Nick could answer the other question.

“I haven’t told her yet.”

“You’re ashamed, you’re ashamed!” Nick only looked out of the west window now — he felt his ears turn hot. “Tell her it would have been sixty thousand. I had the money all ready.”

“I shan’t tell her that,” said Nick, redder still.

“Poor woman — poor dear woman!” Mr. Carteret woefully cried.

“Yes indeed — she won’t like it.”

“Think it all over again; don’t throw away a splendid future!” These words were uttered with a final flicker of passion — Nick had never heard such an accent on his old friend’s lips. But he next began to murmur, “I’m tired — I’m very tired,” and sank back with a groan and with closed lips. His guest gently assured him that he had but too much cause to be exhausted and that the worst was over now. He smoothed his pillows for him and said he must leave him, would send in the nurse. “Come back, come back,” Mr. Carteret pleaded against that; “come back and tell me it’s a horrible dream.”

Nick did go back very late that evening; his host had sent a message to his room. But one of the nurses was on the ground this time and made good her opposition watch in hand. The sick-room was shrouded and darkened; the shaded candle left the bed in gloom. Nick’s interview with his venerable friend was the affair of but a moment; the nurse interposed, impatient and not understanding. She heard Nick say that he had posted his letter now and their companion flash out with an acerbity still savouring of the sordid associations of a world he had not done with: “Then of course my settlement doesn’t take effect!”

“Oh that’s all right,” Nick answered kindly; and he went off next morning by the early train — his injured host was still sleeping. Mrs. Lendon’s habits made it easy for her to be present in matutinal bloom at the young man’s hasty breakfast, and she sent a particular remembrance to Lady Agnes and (when he should see them) to the Ladies Flora and Elizabeth. Nick had a prevision of the spirit in which his mother at least would now receive hollow compliments from Beauclere.

The night before, as soon as he had quitted Mr. Carteret, the old man said to the nurse that he wished Mr. Chayter instructed to go and fetch Mr. Mitton the first thing in the morning. Mr. Mitton was the leading solicitor at Beauclere.

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