The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXIX

The next thing he meanwhile did was to call with his news on Lady Agnes Dormer; it is not unworthy of note that he took on the other hand no step to make his promotion known to Miriam Rooth. To render it probable he should find his aunt he went at the luncheon-hour; and she was indeed on the point of sitting down to that repast with Grace. Biddy was not at home — Biddy was never at home now, her mother said: she was always at Nick’s place, she spent her life there, she ate and drank there, she almost slept there. What she contrived to do there for so many hours and what was the irresistible spell Lady Agnes couldn’t pretend she had succeeded in discovering. She spoke of this baleful resort only as “Nick’s place,” and spoke of it at first as little as possible. She judged highly probable, however, that Biddy would come in early that afternoon: there was something or other, some common social duty, she had condescended to promise she would perform with Grace. Poor Lady Agnes, whom Peter found somehow at once grim and very prostrate — she assured her nephew her nerves were all gone — almost abused her younger daughter for two minutes, having evidently a deep-seated need of abusing some one. I must yet add that she didn’t wait to meet Grace’s eye before recovering, by a rapid gyration, her view of the possibilities of things — those possibilities from which she still might squeeze, as a parent almost in despair, the drop that would sweeten her cup. “Dear child,” she had the presence of mind to subjoin, “her only fault is after all that she adores her brother. She has a capacity for adoration and must always take her gospel from some one.”

Grace declared to Peter that her sister would have stayed at home if she had dreamed he was coming, and Lady Agnes let him know that she had heard all about the hour he had spent with the poor child at Nick’s place and about his extraordinary good nature in taking the two girls to the play. Peter lunched in Calcutta Gardens, spending an hour there which proved at first unexpectedly and, as seemed to him, unfairly dismal. He knew from his own general perceptions, from what Biddy had told him and from what he had heard Nick say in Balaklava Place, that his aunt would have been wounded by her son’s apostasy; but it was not till he saw her that he appreciated the dark difference this young man’s behaviour had made in the outlook of his family. Evidently that behaviour had sprung a dreadful leak in the great vessel of their hopes. These were things no outsider could measure, and they were none of an outsider’s business; it was enough that Lady Agnes struck him really as a woman who had received her death-blow. She looked ten years older; she was white and haggard and tragic. Her eyes burned with a strange fitful fire that prompted one to conclude her children had better look out for her. When not filled with this unnatural flame they were suffused with comfortless tears; and altogether the afflicted lady was, as he viewed her, very bad, a case for anxiety. It was because he had known she would be very bad that he had, in his kindness, called on her exactly in this manner; but he recognised that to undertake to be kind to her in proportion to her need might carry one very far. He was glad he had not himself a wronged mad mother, and he wondered how Nick could bear the burden of the home he had ruined. Apparently he didn’t bear it very far, but had taken final, convenient refuge in Rosedale Road.

Peter’s judgement of his perverse cousin was considerably confused, and not the less so for the consciousness that he was perhaps just now not in the best state of mind for judging him at all. At the same time, though he held in general that a man of sense has always warrant enough in his sense for doing the particular thing he prefers, he could scarcely help asking himself whether, in the exercise of a virile freedom, it had been absolutely indispensable Nick should work such domestic woe. He admitted indeed that that was an anomalous figure for Nick, the worker of domestic woe. Then he saw that his aunt’s grievance — there came a moment, later, when she asserted as much — was not quite what her recreant child, in Balaklava Place, had represented it — with questionable taste perhaps — to a mocking actress; was not a mere shocked quarrel with his adoption of a “low” career, or a horror, the old-fashioned horror, of the louches licences taken by artists under pretext of being conscientious: the day for this was past, and English society thought the brush and the fiddle as good as anything else — with two or three exceptions. It was not what he had taken up but what he had put down that made the sorry difference, and the tragedy would have been equally great if he had become a wine-merchant or a horse-dealer. Peter had gathered at first that Lady Agnes wouldn’t trust herself to speak directly of her trouble, and he had obeyed what he supposed the best discretion in making no allusion to it. But a few minutes before they rose from table she broke out, and when he attempted to utter a word of mitigation there was something that went to his heart in the way she returned: “Oh you don’t know — you don’t know!” He felt Grace’s eyes fixed on him at this instant in a mystery of supplication, and was uncertain as to what she wanted — that he should say something more to console her mother or should hurry away from the subject. Grace looked old and plain and — he had thought on coming in-rather cross, but she evidently wanted something. “You don’t know,” Lady Agnes repeated with a trembling voice, “you don’t know.” She had pushed her chair a little away from her place; she held her pocket-handkerchief pressed hard to her mouth, almost stuffed into it, and her eyes were fixed on the floor. She made him aware he did virtually know — know what towering piles of confidence and hope had been dashed to the earth. Then she finished her sentence unexpectedly —“You don’t know what my life with my great husband was.” Here on the other hand Peter was slightly at fault — he didn’t exactly see what her life with her great husband had to do with it. What was clear to him, however, was that they literally had looked for things all in the very key of that greatness from Nick. It was not quite easy to see why this had been the case — it had not been precisely Peter’s own prefigurement. Nick appeared to have had the faculty of planting that sort of flattering faith in women; he had originally given Julia a tremendous dose of it, though she had since shaken off the effects.

“Do you really think he would have done such great things, politically speaking?” Peter risked. “Do you consider that the root of the matter was so essentially in him?”

His hostess had a pause, looking at him rather hard. “I only think what all his friends — all his father’s friends — have thought. He was his father’s son after all. No young man ever had a finer training, and he gave from the first repeated proof of the highest ability, the highest ambition. See how he got in everywhere. Look at his first seat — look at his second,” Lady Agnes continued. “Look at what every one says at this moment.”

“Look at all the papers!” said Grace. “Did you ever hear him speak?” she asked. And when Peter reminded her how he had spent his life in foreign lands, shut out from such pleasures, she went on: “Well, you lost something.”

“It was very charming,” said Lady Agnes quietly and poignantly.

“Of course he’s charming, whatever he does,” Peter returned. “He’ll be a charming artist.”

“Oh God help us!” the poor lady groaned, rising quickly.

“He won’t — that’s the worst,” Grace amended. “It isn’t as if he’d do things people would like, I’ve been to his place, and I never saw such a horrid lot of things — not at all clever or pretty.”

Yet her mother, at this, turned upon her with sudden asperity. “You know nothing whatever about the matter!” Then she added for Peter that, as it happened, her children did have a good deal of artistic taste: Grace was the only one who was totally deficient in it. Biddy was very clever — Biddy really might learn to do pretty things. And anything the poor child could learn was now no more than her duty — there was so little knowing what the future had in store for them all.

“You think too much of the future — you take terribly gloomy views,” said Peter, looking for his hat.

“What other views can one take when one’s son has deliberately thrown away a fortune?”

“Thrown one away? Do you mean through not marrying ——?”

“I mean through killing by his perversity the best friend he ever had.”

Peter stared a moment; then with laughter: “Ah but Julia isn’t dead of it!”

“I’m not talking of Julia,” said his aunt with a good deal of majesty. “Nick isn’t mercenary, and I’m not complaining of that.”

“She means Mr. Carteret,” Grace explained with all her competence. “He’d have done anything if Nick had stayed in the House.”

“But he’s not dead?”

“Charles Carteret’s dying,” said Lady Agnes —“his end’s dreadfully near. He has been a sort of providence to us — he was Sir Nicholas’s second self. But he won’t put up with such insanity, such wickedness, and that chapter’s closed.”

“You mean he has dropped Nick out of his will?”

“Cut him off utterly. He has given him notice.”

“The old scoundrel!”— Peter couldn’t keep this back. “But Nick will work the better for that — he’ll depend on himself.”

“Yes, and whom shall we depend on?” Grace spoke up.

“Don’t be vulgar, for God’s sake!” her mother ejaculated with a certain inconsequence.

“Oh leave Nick alone — he’ll make a lot of money,” Peter declared cheerfully, following his two companions into the hall.

“I don’t in the least care if he does or not,” said Lady Agnes. “You must come upstairs again — I’ve lots to say to you yet,” she went on, seeing him make for his hat. “You must arrange to come and dine with us immediately; it’s only because I’ve been so steeped in misery that I didn’t write to you the other day — directly after you had called. We don’t give parties, as you may imagine, but if you’ll come just as we are, for old acquaintance’ sake —”

“Just with Nick — if Nick will come — and dear Biddy,” Grace interposed.

“Nick must certainly come, as well as dear Biddy, whom I hoped so much to find,” Peter pronounced. “Because I’m going away — I don’t know when I, shall see them again.”

“Wait with mamma. Biddy will come in now at any moment,” Grace urged.

“You’re going away?” said Lady Agnes, pausing at the foot of the stairs and turning her white face upon him. Something in her voice showed she had been struck by his own tone.

“I’ve had promotion and you must congratulate me. They’re sending me out as minister to a little hot hole in Central America — six thousand miles away. I shall have to go rather soon.”

“Oh I’m so glad!” Lady Agnes breathed. Still she paused at the foot of the stair and still she gazed.

“How very delightful — it will lead straight off to all sorts of other good things!” Grace a little coarsely commented.

“Oh I’m crawling up — I’m an excellency,” Peter laughed.

“Then if you dine with us your excellency must have great people to meet you.”

“Nick and Biddy — they’re great enough.”

“Come upstairs — come upstairs,” said Lady Agnes, turning quickly and beginning to ascend.

“Wait for Biddy — I’m going out,” Grace continued, extending her hand to her kinsman. “I shall see you again — not that you care; but good-bye now. Wait for Biddy,” the girl repeated in a lower tone, fastening her eyes on his with the same urgent mystifying gleam he thought he had noted at luncheon.

“Oh I’ll go and see her in Rosedale Road,” he threw off.

“Do you mean today — now?”

“I don’t know about today, but before I leave England.”

“Well, she’ll be in immediately,” said Grace. “Good-bye to your excellency.”

“Come up, Peter — please come up,” called Lady Agnes from the top of the stairs.

He mounted and when he found himself in the drawing-room with her and the door closed she expressed her great interest in his fine prospects and position, which she wished to hear all about. She rang for coffee and indicated the seat he would find most comfortable: it shone before him for a moment that she would tell him he might if he wished light a cigar. For Peter had suddenly become restless — too restless to occupy a comfortable chair; he seated himself in it only to jump up again, and he went to the window, while he imparted to his hostess the very little he knew about his post, on hearing a vehicle drive up to the door. A strong light had just been thrown into his mind, and it grew stronger when, looking out, he saw Grace Dormer issue from the house in a hat and a jacket which had all the air of having been assumed with extraordinary speed. Her jacket was unbuttoned and her gloves still dangling from the hands with which she was settling her hat. The vehicle into which she hastily sprang was a hansom-cab which had been summoned by the butler from the doorstep and which rolled away with her after she had given an address.

“Where’s Grace going in such a hurry?” he asked of Lady Agnes; to which she replied that she hadn’t the least idea — her children, at the pass they had all come to, knocked about as they liked.

Well, he sat down again; he stayed a quarter of an hour and then he stayed longer, and during this time his appreciation of what she had in her mind gathered force. She showed him that precious quantity clearly enough, though she showed it by no clumsy, no voluntary arts. It looked out of her sombre, conscious eyes and quavered in her preoccupied, perfunctory tones. She took an extravagant interest in his future proceedings, the probable succession of events in his career, the different honours he would be likely to come in for, the salary attached to his actual appointment, the salary attached to the appointments that would follow — they would be sure to, wouldn’t they? — and what he might reasonably expect to save. Oh he must save — Lady Agnes was an advocate of saving; and he must take tremendous pains and get on and be clever and fiercely ambitious: he must make himself indispensable and rise to the top. She was urgent and suggestive and sympathetic; she threw herself into the vision of his achievements and emoluments as if to appease a little the sore hunger with which Nick’s treachery had left her. This was touching to her nephew, who didn’t remain unmoved even at those more importunate moments when, as she fell into silence, fidgeting feverishly with a morsel of fancy-work she had plucked from a table, her whole presence became an intense, repressed appeal to him. What that appeal would have been had it been uttered was: “Oh Peter, take little Biddy; oh my dear young friend, understand your interests at the same time that you understand mine; be kind and reasonable and clever; save me all further anxiety and tribulation and accept my lovely, faultless child from my hands.”

That was what Lady Agnes had always meant, more or less, that was what Grace had meant, and they meant it with singular lucidity on the present occasion, Lady Agnes meant it so much that from one moment to another he scarce knew what she might do; and Grace meant it so much that she had rushed away in a hansom to fetch her sister from the studio. Grace, however, was a fool, for Biddy certainly wouldn’t come. The news of his promotion had started them off, adding point to their idea of his being an excellent match; bringing home to them sharply the sense that if he were going away to strange countries he must take Biddy with him — that something at all events must be settled about Biddy before he went. They had suddenly begun to throb, poor things, with alarm at the ebbing hours.

Strangely enough the perception of all this hadn’t the effect of throwing him on the defensive and still less that of making him wish to bolt. When once he had made sure what was in the air he recognised a propriety, a real felicity in it; couldn’t deny that he was in certain ways a good match, since it was quite probable he would go far; and was even generous enough — as he had no fear of being materially dragged to the altar — to enter into the conception that he might offer some balm to a mother who had had a horrid disappointment. The feasibility of marrying Biddy was not exactly augmented by the idea that his doing so would be a great offset to what Nick had made Lady Agnes suffer; but at least Peter didn’t dislike his strenuous aunt so much as to wish to punish her for her nature. He was not afraid of her, whatever she might do; and though unable to grasp the practical relevancy of Biddy’s being produced on the instant was willing to linger half an hour on the chance of successful production.

There was meanwhile, moreover, a certain contagion in Lady Agnes’s appeal — it made him appeal sensibly to himself, since indeed, as it is time to say, the glass of our young man’s spirit had been polished for that reflexion. It was only at this moment really that he became inwardly candid. While making up his mind that his only safety was in flight and taking the strong measure of a request for help toward it, he was yet very conscious that another and probably still more effectual safeguard — especially if the two should be conjoined — lay in the hollow of his hand. His sister’s words in Paris had come back to him and had seemed still wiser than when uttered: “She’ll save you disappointments; you’d know the worst that can happen to you, and it wouldn’t be bad.” Julia had put it into a nutshell — Biddy would probably save him disappointments. And then she was — well, she was Biddy. Peter knew better what that was since the hour he had spent with her in Rosedale Road. But he had brushed away the sense of it, though aware that in doing so he took only half-measures and was even guilty of a sort of fraud upon himself. If he was sincere in wishing to put a gulf between his future and that sad expanse of his past and present over which Miriam had cast her shadow there was a very simple way to do so. He had dodged this way, dishonestly fixing on another which, taken alone, was far from being so good; but Lady Agnes brought him back to it. She held him in well-nigh confused contemplation of it, during which the safety, as Julia had called it, of the remedy wrought upon him as he wouldn’t have believed beforehand, and not least to the effect of sweetening, of prettily colouring, the pill. It would be simple and it would deal with all his problems; it would put an end to all alternatives, which, as alternatives were otherwise putting an end to him, would be an excellent thing. It would settle the whole question of his future, and it was high time this should be settled.

Peter took two cups of coffee while he made out his future with Lady Agnes, but though he drank them slowly he had finished them before Biddy turned up. He stayed three-quarters of an hour, saying to himself she wouldn’t come — why should she come? Lady Agnes stooped to no avowal; she really stooped, so far as bald words went, to no part of the business; but she made him fix the next day save one for coming to dinner, and her repeated declaration that there would be no one else, not another creature but themselves, had almost the force of the supplied form for a promise to pay. In giving his word that he would come without fail, and not write the next day to throw them over for some function he should choose to dub obligatory, he felt quite as if he were putting his name to such a document. He went away at half-past three; Biddy of course hadn’t come, and he had been sure she wouldn’t. He couldn’t imagine what Grace’s idea had been, nor what pretext she had put forward to her sister. Whatever these things Biddy had seen through them and hated them. Peter could but like her the more for that.

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