The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXVIII

He wouldn’t for a moment have admitted that he was jealous of his old comrade, but would almost have liked to be accused of it: for this would have given him a chance he rather lacked and missed, the right occasion to declare with plausibility that motives he couldn’t avow had no application to his case. How could a man be jealous when he was not a suitor? how could he pretend to guard a property which was neither his own nor destined to become his own? There could be no question of loss when one had nothing at stake, and no question of envy when the responsibility of possession was exactly what one prayed to be delivered from. The measure of one’s susceptibility was one’s pretensions, and Peter was not only ready to declare over and over again that, thank God, he had none: his spiritual detachment was still more complete — he literally suffered from the fact that nobody appeared to care to hear him say it. He connected an idea of virtue and honour with his attitude, since surely it was a high case of conduct to have quenched a personal passion for the good of the public service. He had gone over the whole question at odd, irrepressible hours; he had returned, spiritually speaking, the buffet administered to him all at once, that day in Rosedale Road, by the spectacle of the crânerie with which Nick could let worldly glories slide. Resolution for resolution he preferred after all another sort, and his own crânerie would be shown in the way he should stick to his profession and stand up for British interests. If Nick had leaped over a wall he would leap over a river. The course of his river was already traced and his loins were already girded. Thus he was justified in holding that the measure of a man’s susceptibility was a man’s attitude: that was the only thing he was bound to give an account of.

He was perpetually giving an account of it to his own soul in default of other listeners. He was quite angry at having tasted a sweetness in Miriam’s assurance at the carriage — door, bestowed indeed with very little solemnity, that Nick didn’t care for her. Wherein did it concern him that Nick cared for her or that Nick didn’t? Wherein did it signify to him that Gabriel Nash should have taken upon himself to disapprove of a union between the young actress and the young painter and to frustrate an accident that might perhaps prove fortunate? For those had also been cooling words at the hour, though Peter blushed on the morrow to think that he felt in them anything but Nash’s personal sublimity. He was ashamed of having been refreshed, and refreshed by so sickly a draught — it being all his theory that he was not in a fever. As for keeping an eye on Nick, it would soon become clear to that young man and that young man’s charming friend that he had quite other uses for his eyes. The pair, with Nash to help, might straighten out their complications according to their light. He would never speak to Nick of Miriam; he felt indeed just now as if he should never speak to Nick of anything. He had traced the course of his river, as I say, and the real proof would be in the way he should, clearing the air, land on the opposite bank. It was a case for action — for vigorous, unmistakable action. He had done very little since his arrival in London but moon round a fille de théâtre who was taken up partly, though she bluffed it off, with another man, and partly with arranging new petticoats for a beastly old “poetic drama”; but this little waste of time should instantly be made up. He had given himself a definite rope, and he had danced to the end of his rope, and now he would dance back. That was all right — so right that Peter could only express to himself how right it was by whistling with extravagance.

He whistled as he went to dine with a great personage the day after his meeting with Nick in Balaklava Place; a great personage to whom he had originally paid his respects — it was high time — the day before that meeting, the previous Monday. The sense of omissions to repair, of a superior line to take, perhaps made him study with more zeal to please the personage, who gave him ten minutes and asked him five questions. A great many doors were successively opened before any palpitating pilgrim who was about to enter the presence of this distinguished man; but they were discreetly closed again behind Sherringham, and I must ask the reader to pause with me at the nearer end of the momentary vista. This particular pilgrim fortunately felt he could count on recognition not only as a faithful if obscure official in the great hierarchy, but as a clever young man who happened to be connected by blood with people his lordship had intimately known. No doubt it was simply as the clever young man that Peter received the next morning, from the dispenser of his lordship’s hospitality, a note asking him to dine on the morrow. Such cards had come to him before, and he had always obeyed their call; he did so at present, however, with a sense of unusual intention. In due course his intention was translated into words; before the gentlemen left the dining-room he respectfully asked his noble host for some further brief and benevolent hearing.

“What is it you want? Tell me now,” the master of his fate replied, motioning to the rest of the company to pass out and detaining him where they stood.

Peter’s excellent training covered every contingency: he could always be as concise or as diffuse as the occasion required. Even he himself, however, was surprised at the quick felicity of the terms in which he was conscious of conveying that, were it compatible with higher conveniences, he should extremely like to be transferred to duties in a more distant quarter of the globe. Indeed, fond as he was of thinking himself a man of emotions controlled by civility, it is not impossible that a greater candour than he knew glimmered through Peter’s expression and trembled through his tone as he presented this petition. He had aimed at a good manner in presenting it, but perhaps the best of the effect produced for his interlocutor was just where it failed, where it confessed a secret that the highest diplomacy would have guarded. Sherringham remarked to the minister that he didn’t care in the least where the place might be, nor how little coveted a post; the further away the better, and the climate didn’t matter. He would only prefer of course that there should be really something to do, though he would make the best of it even if there were not. He stopped in time, or at least thought he did, not to betray his covertly seeking relief from minding his having been jilted in a flight to latitudes unfavourable to human life. His august patron gave him a sharp look which for a moment seemed the precursor of a sharper question; but the moment elapsed and the question failed to come. This considerate omission, characteristic of a true man of the world and representing quick guesses and still quicker indifferences, made our gentleman from that moment his lordship’s ardent partisan. What did come was a good-natured laugh and the exclamation: “You know there are plenty of swamps and jungles, if you want that sort of thing,” Peter replied that it was very much that sort of thing he did want; whereupon his chief continued: “I’ll see — I’ll see. If anything turns up you shall hear.”

Something turned up the very next day: our young man, taken at his word, found himself indebted to the postman for a note of concise intimation that the high position of minister to the smallest of Central American republics would be apportioned him. The republic, though small, was big enough to be “shaky,” and the position, though high, not so exalted that there were not much greater altitudes above it to which it was a stepping-stone. Peter, quite ready to take one thing with another, rejoiced at his easy triumph, reflected that he must have been even more noticed at headquarters than he had hoped, and, on the spot, consulting nobody and waiting for nothing, signified his unqualified acceptance of the place. Nobody with a grain of sense would have advised him to do anything else. It made him happier than he had supposed he should ever be again; it made him feel professionally in the train, as they said in Paris; it was serious, it was interesting, it was exciting, and his imagination, letting itself loose into the future, began once more to scale the crowning eminence. It was very simple to hold one’s course if one really tried, and he blessed the variety of peoples. Further communications passed, the last enjoining on him to return to Paris for a short interval a week later, after which he would be advised of the date for his proceeding to his remoter duties.

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