The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXIV

The really formidable thing for Nick had been to tell his mother: a truth of which he was so conscious that he had the matter out with her the very morning he returned from Beauclere. She and Grace had come back the afternoon before from their own enjoyment of rural hospitality, and, knowing this — she had written him her intention from the country — he drove straight from the station to Calcutta Gardens. There was a little room on the right of the house-door known as his own room; but in which of a morning, when he was not at home, Lady Agnes sometimes wrote her letters. These were always numerous, and when she heard our young man’s cab she happened to be engaged with them at the big brass-mounted bureau that had belonged to his father, where, amid a margin of works of political reference, she seemed to herself to make public affairs feel the point of her elbow.

She came into the hall to meet her son and to hear about their benefactor, and Nick went straight back into the room with her and closed the door. It would be in the evening paper and she would see it, and he had no right to allow her to wait for that. It proved indeed a terrible hour; and when ten minutes later Grace, who had learned upstairs her brother’s return, went down for further news of him she heard from the hall a sound of voices that made her first pause and then retrace her steps on tiptoe. She mounted to the drawing-room and crept about there, palpitating, looking at moments into the dull street and wondering what on earth had taken place. She had no one to express her wonder to, for Florence Tressilian had departed and Biddy after breakfast betaken herself, in accordance with a custom now inveterate, to Rosedale Road. Her mother was unmistakably and passionately crying — a fact tremendous in its significance, for Lady Agnes had not often been brought so low. Nick had seen her cry, but this almost awful spectacle had seldom been offered to Grace, and it now convinced her that some dreadful thing had happened.

That was of course in order, after Nick’s mysterious quarrel with Julia, which had made his mother so ill and was at present followed up with new horrors. The row, as Grace mentally phrased it, had had something to do with the rupture of the lovers — some deeper depth of disappointment had begun to yawn. Grace asked herself if they were talking about Broadwood; if Nick had demanded that in the conditions so unpleasantly altered Lady Agnes should restore that awfully nice house to its owner. This was very possible, but why should he so suddenly have broken out about it? And, moreover, their mother, though sore to bleeding about the whole business — for Broadwood, in its fresh comfort, was too delightful — wouldn’t have met this pretension with tears: hadn’t she already so perversely declared that they couldn’t decently continue to make use of the place? Julia had said that of course they must go on, but Lady Agnes was prepared with an effective rejoinder to that. It didn’t consist of words — it was to be austerely practical, was to consist of letting Julia see, at the moment she should least expect it, that they quite wouldn’t go on. Lady Agnes was ostensibly waiting for this moment — the moment when her renunciation would be most impressive.

Grace was conscious of how she had for many days been moving with her mother in darkness, deeply stricken by Nick’s culpable — oh he was culpable! — loss of his prize, but feeling an obscure element in the matter they didn’t grasp, an undiscovered explanation that would perhaps make it still worse, though it might make them, poor things, a little better. He had explained nothing, he had simply said, “Dear mother, we don’t hit it off, after all; it’s an awful bore, but we don’t”— as if that were in the dire conditions an adequate balm for two aching hearts. From Julia naturally no flood of light was to be looked for — Julia never humoured curiosity — and, though she very often did the thing you wouldn’t suppose, she was not unexpectedly apologetic in this case. Grace recognised that in such a position it would savour of apology for her to disclose to Lady Agnes her grounds for having let Nick off; and she wouldn’t have liked to be the person to suggest to Julia that any one looked for anything from her. Neither of the disunited pair blamed the other or cast an aspersion, and it was all very magnanimous and superior and impenetrable and exasperating. With all this Grace had a suspicion that Biddy knew something more, that for Biddy the tormenting curtain had been lifted.

Biddy had come and gone in these days with a perceptible air of detachment from the tribulations of home. It had made her, fortunately, very pretty — still prettier than usual: it sometimes happened that at moments when Grace was most angry she had a faint sweet smile which might have been drawn from some source of occult consolation. It was perhaps in some degree connected with Peter Sherringham’s visit, as to which the girl had not been superstitiously silent. When Grace asked her if she had secret information and if it pointed to the idea that everything would be all right in the end, she pretended to know nothing — What should she know? she asked with the loveliest arch of eyebrows over an unblinking candour — and begged her sister not to let Lady Agnes believe her better off than themselves. She contributed nothing to their gropings save a much better patience, but she went with noticeable regularity, on the pretext of her foolish modelling, to Rosedale Road. She was frankly on Nick’s side; not going so far as to say he had been right, but saying distinctly how sure she was that, whatever had happened, he couldn’t have helped it, not a mite. This was striking, because, as Grace knew, the younger of the sisters had been much favoured by Julia and wouldn’t have sacrificed her easily. It associated itself in the irritated mind of the elder with Biddy’s frequent visits to the studio and made Miss Dormer ask herself if the crisis in Nick’s and Julia’s business had not somehow been linked to that unnatural spot.

She had gone there two or three times while Biddy was working, gone to pick up any clue to the mystery that might peep out. But she had put her hand on nothing more — it wouldn’t have occurred to her to say nothing less — than the so dreadfully pointed presence of Gabriel Nash. She once found that odd satellite, to her surprise, paying a visit to her sister — he had come for Nick, who was absent; she remembered how they had met in Paris and how little he had succeeded with them. When she had asked Biddy afterwards how she could receive him that way Biddy had replied that even she, Grace, would have some charity for him if she could hear how fond he was of poor Nick. He had talked to her only of Nick — of nothing else. Grace had observed how she spoke of Nick as injured, and had noted the implication that some one else, ceasing to be fond of him, was thereby condemned in Biddy’s eyes. It seemed to Grace that some one else had at least a right not to like some of his friends. The studio struck her as mean and horrid; and so far from suggesting to her that it could have played a part in making Nick and Julia fall out she only felt how little its dusty want of consequence, could count, one way or the other, for Julia. Grace, who had no opinions on art, saw no merit whatever in those “impressions” on canvas from Nick’s hand with which the place was bestrewn. She didn’t at all wish her brother to have talent in that direction, yet it was secretly humiliating to her that he hadn’t more.

Nick meanwhile felt a pang of almost horrified penitence, in the little room on the right of the hall, the moment after he had made his mother really understand he had thrown up his scat and that it would probably be in the evening papers. That she would take this very ill was an idea that had pressed upon him hard enough, but she took it even worse than he had feared. He measured, in the look she gave him when the full truth loomed upon her, the mortal cruelty of her distress; her face was like that of a passenger on a ship who sees the huge bows of another vessel towering close out of the fog. There are visions of dismay before which the best conscience recoils, and though Nick had made his choice on all the grounds there were a few minutes in which he would gladly have admitted that his wisdom was a dark mistake. His heart was in his throat, he had gone too far; he had been ready to disappoint his mother — he had not been ready to destroy her.

Lady Agnes, I hasten to add, was not destroyed; she made, after her first drowning gasp, a tremendous scene of opposition, in the face of which her son could only fall back on his intrenchments. She must know the worst, he had thought: so he told her everything, including the little story of the forfeiture of his “expectations” from Mr. Carteret. He showed her this time not only the face of the matter, but what lay below it; narrated briefly the incident in his studio which had led to Julia Dallow’s deciding she couldn’t after all put up with him. This was wholly new to Lady Agnes, she had had no clue to it, and he could instantly see how it made the event worse for her, adding a hideous positive to an abominable negative. He noted now that, distressed and distracted as she had been by his rupture with Julia, she had still held to the faith that their engagement would come on again; believing evidently that he had a personal empire over the mistress of Harsh which would bring her back. Lady Agnes was forced to recognise this empire as precarious, to forswear the hope of a blessed renewal from the moment the question was of base infatuations on his own part. Nick confessed to an infatuation, but did his best to show her it wasn’t base; that it wasn’t — since Julia had had faith in his loyalty — for the person of the young lady who had been discovered posturing to him and whom he had seen but half-a-dozen times in his life. He endeavoured to recall to his mother the identity of this young lady, he adverted to the occasion in Paris when they all had seen her together. But Lady Agnes’s mind and memory were a blank on the subject of Miss Miriam Rooth and she wanted to hear nothing whatever about her: it was enough that she was the cause of their ruin and a part of his pitiless folly. She needed to know nothing of her to allude to her as if it were superfluous to give a definite name to the class to which she belonged.

But she gave a name to the group in which Nick had now taken his place, and it made him feel after the lapse of years like a small, scolded, sorry boy again; for it was so far away he could scarcely remember it — besides there having been but a moment or two of that sort in his happy childhood — the time when this parent had slapped him and called him a little fool. He was a big fool now — hugely immeasurable; she repeated the term over and over with high-pitched passion. The most painful thing in this painful hour was perhaps his glimpse of the strange feminine cynicism that lurked in her fine sense of injury. Where there was such a complexity of revolt it would have been difficult to pick out particular wrongs; but Nick could see that, to his mother’s imagination, he was most a fool for not having kept his relations with the actress, whatever they were, better from Julia’s knowledge. He remained indeed freshly surprised at the ardour with which she had rested her hopes on Julia. Julia was certainly a combination — she was accomplished, she was a sort of leading woman and she was rich; but after all — putting aside what she might be to a man in love with her — she was not the keystone of the universe. Yet the form in which the consequences of his apostasy appeared most to come home to Lady Agnes was the loss for the Dormer family of the advantages attached to the possession of Mrs. Dallow. The larger mortification would round itself later; for the hour the damning thing was that Nick had made that lady the gift of an unforgivable grievance. He had clinched their separation by his letter to his electors — and that above all was the wickedness of the letter. Julia would have got over the other woman, but she would never get over his becoming a nobody.

Lady Agnes challenged him upon this low prospect exactly as if he had embraced it with the malignant purpose of making the return of his late intended impossible. She contradicted her premises and lost her way in her wrath. What had made him suddenly turn round if he had been in good faith before? He had never been in good faith — never, never; he had had from his earliest childhood the nastiest hankerings after a vulgar little daubing, trash-talking life; they were not in him, the grander, nobler aspirations — they never had been — and he had been anything but honest to lead her on, to lead them all on, to think he would do something: the fall and the shame would have been less for them if they had come earlier. Moreover, what need under heaven had he to tell Charles Carteret of the cruel folly on his very death-bed? — as if he mightn’t have let it all alone and accepted the benefit the old man was so delighted to confer. No wonder Mr. Carteret would keep his money for his heirs if that was the way Nick proposed to repay him; but where was the common sense, where was the common charity, where was the common decency of tormenting him with such vile news in his last hours? Was he trying what he could invent that would break her heart, that would send her in sorrow down to her grave? Weren’t they all miserable enough and hadn’t he a ray of pity for his wretched sisters?

The relation of effect and cause, in regard to his sisters’ wretchedness, was but dimly discernible to Nick, who, however, perceived his mother genuinely to consider that his action had disconnected them all, still more than she held they were already disconnected, from the good things of life. Julia was money, Mr. Carteret was money — everything else was the absence of it. If these precious people had been primarily money for Nick it after all flattered the distributive impulse in him to have taken for granted that for the rest of the family too the difference would have been so great. For days, for weeks and months to come, the little room on the right of the hall was to vibrate for our young man, as if the very walls and window-panes still suffered, with the odious trial of his true temper.

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