The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXV

That evening — the evening of his return from Beauclere — he was conscious of a keen desire to get away, to go abroad, to leave behind him the little chatter his resignation would be sure to produce in an age of publicity which never discriminated as to the quality of events. Then he felt it decidedly better to stay, to see the business through on the spot. Besides, he would have to meet his constituents — would a parcel of cheese-eating burgesses ever have been “met” on so queer an occasion? — and when that was over the incident would practically be closed. Nick had an idea he knew in advance how it would affect him to be pointed at as a person who had given up a considerable chance of eventual “office” to take likenesses at so much a head. He wouldn’t attempt down at Harsh to touch on the question of motive; for, given the nature of the public mind of Harsh, that would be a strain on his faculty of exposition. But as regards the chaff of the political world and of society he had a hope he should find chaff enough for retorts. It was true that when his mother twitted him in her own effective way he had felt rather flattened out; but then one’s mother might have a heavier hand than any one else. He had not thrown up the House of Commons to amuse himself; he had thrown it up to work, to sit quietly down and bend over his task. If he should go abroad his parent might think he had some weak-minded view of joining Julia and trying, with however little hope, to win her back — an illusion it would be singularly pernicious to encourage. His desire for Julia’s society had succumbed for the present at any rate to a dire interruption — he had become more and more aware of their speaking a different language. Nick felt like a young man who has gone to the Rhineland to “get up” his German for an examination — committed to talk, to read, to dream only in the new idiom. Now that he had taken his jump everything was simplified, at the same time that everything was pitched in a higher and intenser key; and he wondered how in the absence of a common dialect he had conversed on the whole so happily with Mrs. Dallow. Then he had aftertastes of understandings tolerably independent of words. He was excited because every fresh responsibility is exciting, and there was no manner of doubt he had accepted one. No one knew what it was but himself — Gabriel Nash scarcely counted, his whole attitude on the question of responsibility being so fantastic — and he would have to ask his dearest friends to take him on trust. Rather indeed he would ask nothing of any one, but would cultivate independence, mulishness, and gaiety, and fix his thoughts on a bright if distant morrow. It was disagreeable to have to remember that his task would not be sweetened by a sense of heroism; for if it might be heroic to give up the muses for the strife of great affairs, no romantic glamour worth speaking of would ever gather round an Englishman who in the prime of his strength had given up great or even small affairs for the muses. Such an original might himself privately and perversely regard certain phases of this inferior commerce as a great affair; but who would give him the benefit of that sort of confidence — except indeed a faithful, clever, exalted little sister Biddy, if he should have the good luck to have one? Biddy was in fact all ready for heroic flights and eager to think she might fight the battle of the beautiful by her brother’s side; so that he had really to moderate her and remind her how little his actual job was a crusade with bugles and banners and how much a grey, sedentary grind, the charm of which was all at the core. You might have an emotion about it, and an emotion that would be a help, but this was not the sort of thing you could show — the end in view would seem so disproportionately small. Nick put it to her that one really couldn’t talk to people about the “responsibility” of what she would see him pottering at in his studio.

He therefore didn’t “run,” as he would have said, to winged words any more than he was forced to, having, moreover, a sense that apologetic work (if apology it should be called to carry the war straight into the enemy’s country) might be freely left to Gabriel Nash. He laid the weight of explanation on his commentators, meeting them all on the firm ground of his own amusement. He saw he should live for months in a thick cloud of irony, not the finest air of the season, and he adopted the weapon to which a person whose use of tobacco is only occasional resorts when every one else produces a cigar — he puffed the spasmodic, defensive cigarette. He accepted as to what he had done the postulate of the obscurely tortuous, abounding so in that sense that his critics were themselves bewildered. Some of them felt that they got, as the phrase is, little out of him — he rose in his good humour so much higher than the “rise” they had looked for — on his very first encounter with the world after his scrimmage with his mother. He went to a dinner-party — he had accepted the invitation many days before — having seen his resignation, in the form of a telegram from Harsh, announced in the evening papers. The people he found there had seen it as well, and the wittiest wanted to know what he was now going to do. Even the most embarrassed asked if it were true he had changed his politics. He gave different answers to different persons, but left most of them under the impression that he had strange scruples of conscience. This, however, was not a formidable occasion, for there had happened to be no one present he would have desired, on the old basis, especially to gratify. There were real good friends it would be less easy to meet — Nick was almost sorry for an hour that he had so many real good friends. If he had had more enemies the case would have been simpler, and he was fully aware that the hardest thing of all would be to be let off too easily. Then he would appear to himself to have been put, all round, on his generosity, and his deviation would thus wear its ugliest face.

When he left the place at which he had been dining he betook himself to Rosedale Road: he saw no reason why he should go down to the House, though he knew he had not done with that yet. He had a dread of behaving as if he supposed he should be expected to make a farewell speech, and was thankful his eminence was not of a nature to create on such an occasion a demand for his oratory. He had in fact nothing whatever to say in public — not a vain word, not a sorry syllable. Though the hour was late he found Gabriel Nash established in his studio, drawn thither by the fine exhilaration of having seen an evening paper. Trying it late, on the chance, he had been told by Nick’s servant that Nick would sleep there that night, and he had come in to wait, he was so eager to congratulate him. Nick submitted with a good grace to his society — he was tired enough to go to bed, but was restless too — in spite of noting now, oddly enough, that Nash’s congratulations could add little to his fortitude. He had felt a good deal, before, as if he were in this philosopher’s hands; but since making his final choice he had begun to strike himself as all in his own. Gabriel might have been the angel of that name, but no angel could assist him much henceforth.

Nash indeed was as true as ever to his genius while he lolled on a divan and emitted a series of reflexions that were even more ingenious than opportune. Nick walked up and down the room, and it might have been supposed from his manner that he was impatient for his friend to withdraw. This idea would have been contradicted, however, by the fact that subsequently, after the latter had quitted him, he continued to perambulate. He had grown used to Gabriel and must now have been possessed of all he had to say. That was one’s penalty with persons whose main gift was for talk, however inspiring; talk engendered a sense of sameness much sooner than action. The things a man did were necessarily more different from each other than the things he said, even if he went in for surprising you. Nick felt Nash could never surprise him any more save by mere plain perpetration.

He talked of his host’s future, talked of Miriam Rooth and of Peter Sherringham, whom he had seen at that young woman’s and whom he described as in a predicament delightful to behold. Nick put a question about Peter’s predicament and learned, rather to his disappointment, that it consisted only of the fact that he was in love with Miriam. He appealed to his visitor to do better than this, and Nash then added the touch that Sherringham wouldn’t be able to have her. “Oh they’ve ideas!” he said when Nick asked him why.

“What ideas? So has he, I suppose.”

“Yes, but they’re not the same.”

“Well, they’ll nevertheless arrange something,” Nick opined.

“You’ll have to help them a bit. She’s in love with another man,” Nash went on.

“Do you mean with you?”

“Oh, I’m never another man — I’m always more the wrong one than the man himself. It’s you she’s after.” And on his friend’s asking him what he meant by this Nash added: “While you were engaged in transferring her image to the tablet of your genius you stamped your own on that of her heart.”

Nick stopped in his walk, staring. “Ah, what a bore!”

“A bore? Don’t you think her formed to please?”

Nick wondered, but didn’t conclude. “I wanted to go on with her — now I can’t.”

Nash himself, however, jumped straight to what really mattered. “My dear fellow, it only makes her handsomer. I wondered what happy turn she had taken.”

“Oh, that’s twaddle,” said Nick, turning away. “Besides, has she told you?”

“No, but her mother has.”

“Has she told her mother?”

“Mrs. Rooth says not. But I’ve known Mrs. Rooth to say that which isn’t.”

“Apply that rule then to the information you speak of.”

“Well, since you press me, I know more,” Gabriel said. “Miriam knows you’re engaged to a wonderful, rich lady; she told me as much, told me she had seen her here. That was enough to set her off — she likes forbidden fruit.”

“I’m not engaged to any lady whatever. I was,” Nick handsomely conceded, “but we’ve altered our minds.”

“Ah, what a pity!” his friend wailed.

“Mephistopheles!”— and he stopped again with the point of this.

“Pray then whom do you call Margaret? May I ask if your failure of interest in the political situation is the cause of this change in your personal one?” Nash went on. Nick signified that he mightn’t; whereupon he added: “I’m not in the least devilish — I only mean it’s a pity you’ve altered your minds, since Miriam may in consequence alter hers. She goes from one thing to another. However, I won’t tell her.”

“I will then!” Nick declared between jest and earnest.

“Would that really be prudent?” his companion asked more completely in the frolic key.

“At any rate,” he resumed, “nothing would induce me to interfere with Peter Sherringham. That sounds fatuous, but to you I don’t mind appearing an ass.”

“The thing would be to get Sherringham, out of spite,” Nash threw off, “to entangle himself with another woman.”

“What good would that do?”

“Ah, Miriam would then begin to think of him.”

“Spite surely isn’t a conceivable motive — for a healthy man.”

The plea, however, found Gabriel ready. “Sherringham’s just precisely not a healthy man. He’s too much in love.”

“Then he won’t care for another woman.”

“He would try to, and that would produce its effect — its effect on Miriam.”

“You talk like an American novel. Let him try, and God keep us all straight.” Nick adverted in extreme silence to his poor little Biddy and greatly hoped — he would have to see to it a little — that Peter wouldn’t “try” on her. He changed the subject and before Nash withdrew took occasion to remark — the occasion was offered by some new allusion of the visitor’s to the sport he hoped to extract from seeing Nick carry out everything to which he stood committed — that the comedy of the matter would fall flat and the incident pass unnoticed.

But Nash lost no heart. “Oh, if you’ll simply do your part I’ll take care of the rest.”

“If you mean by doing my part minding my business and working like a beaver I shall easily satisfy you,” Nick replied.

“Ah, you reprobate, you’ll become another Sir Joshua, a mere P.R.A.!” his companion railed, getting up to go.

When he had gone Nick threw himself back on the cushions of the divan and, with his hands locked above his head, sat a long time lost in thought. He had sent his servant to bed; he was unmolested. He gazed before him into the gloom produced by the unheeded burning-out of the last candle. The vague outer light came in through the tall studio window and the painted images, ranged about, looked confused in the dusk. If his mother had seen him she might have thought he was staring at his father’s ghost.

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