The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

BOOK EIGHTH

XLVII

When Mrs. Dallow returned to London just before London broke up the fact was immediately known in Calcutta Gardens and was promptly communicated to Nick Dormer by his sister Bridget. He had learnt it in no other way — he had had no correspondence with Julia during her absence. He gathered that his mother and sisters were not ignorant of her whereabouts — he never mentioned her name to them — but as to this he was not sure if the source of their information had been the Morning Post or a casual letter received by the inscrutable Biddy. He knew Biddy had some epistolary commerce with Julia; he had an impression Grace occasionally exchanged letters with Mrs. Gresham. Biddy, however, who, as he was also well aware, was always studying what he would like, forbore to talk to him about the absent mistress of Harsh beyond once dropping the remark that she had gone from Florence to Venice and was enjoying gondolas and sunsets too much to leave them. Nick’s comment on this was that she was a happy woman to have such a go at Titian and Tintoret: as he spoke, and for some time afterwards, the sense of how he himself should enjoy a like “go” made him ache with ineffectual longing.

He had forbidden himself at the present to think of absence, not only because it would be inconvenient and expensive, but because it would be a kind of retreat from the enemy, a concession to difficulty. The enemy was no particular person and no particular body of persons: not his mother; not Mr. Carteret, who, as he heard from the doctor at Beauclere, lingered on, sinking and sinking till his vitality appeared to have the vertical depth of a gold-mine; not his pacified constituents, who had found a healthy diversion in returning another Liberal wholly without Mrs. Dallow’s aid (she had not participated even to the extent of a responsive telegram in the election); not his late colleagues in the House, nor the biting satirists of the newspapers, nor the brilliant women he took down at dinner-parties — there was only one sense in which he ever took them down; not in short his friends, his foes, his private thoughts, the periodical phantom of his shocked father: the enemy was simply the general awkwardness of his situation. This awkwardness was connected with the sense of responsibility so greatly deprecated by Gabriel Nash, Gabriel who had ceased to roam of late on purpose to miss as few scenes as possible of the drama, rapidly growing dull alas, of his friend’s destiny; but that compromising relation scarcely drew the soreness from it. The public flurry produced by his collapse had only been large enough to mark the flatness of our young man’s position when it was over. To have had a few jokes cracked audibly at your expense wasn’t an ordeal worth talking of; the hardest thing about it was merely that there had not been enough of them to yield a proportion of good ones. Nick had felt in fine the benefit of living in an age and in a society where number and pressure have, for the individual figure, especially when it’s a zero, compensations almost equal to their cruelties.

No, the pinch for his conscience after a few weeks had passed was simply an acute mistrust of the superficiality of performance into which the desire to justify himself might hurry him. That desire was passionate as regards Julia Dallow; it was ardent also as regards his mother; and, to make it absolutely uncomfortable, it was complicated with the conviction that neither of them would know his justification even when she should see it. They probably couldn’t know it if they would, and very certainly wouldn’t if they could. He assured himself, however, that this limitation wouldn’t matter; it was their affair — his own was simply to have the right sort of thing to show. The work he was now attempting wasn’t the right sort of thing, though doubtless Julia, for instance, would dislike it almost as much as if it were. The two portraits of Miriam, after the first exhilaration of his finding himself at large, filled him with no private glee; they were not in the direction in which he wished for the present really to move. There were moments when he felt almost angry, though of course he held his tongue, when by the few persons who saw them they were pronounced wonderfully clever. That they were wonderfully clever was just the detestable thing in them, so active had that cleverness been in making them seem better than they were. There were people to whom he would have been ashamed to show them, and these were the people whom it would give him most pleasure some day to please. Not only had he many an hour of disgust at his actual work, but he thought he saw as in an ugly revelation that nature had cursed him with an odious facility and that the lesson of his life, the sternest and wholesomest, would be to keep out of the trap it had laid for him. He had fallen into this trap on the threshold and had only scrambled out with his honour. He had a talent for appearance, and that was the fatal thing; he had a damnable suppleness and a gift of immediate response, a readiness to oblige, that made him seem to take up causes which he really left lying, enabled him to learn enough about them in an hour to have all the air of having converted them to his use. Many people used them — that was the only thing to be said — who had taken them in much less. He was at all events too clever by half, since this pernicious overflow had wrecked most of his attempts. He had assumed a virtue and enjoyed assuming it, and the assumption had cheated his father and his mother and his affianced wife and his rich benefactor and the candid burgesses of Harsh and the cynical reporters of the newspapers. His enthusiasms had been but young curiosity, his speeches had been young agility, his professions and adhesions had been like postage-stamps without glue: the head was all right, but they wouldn’t stick. He stood ready now to wring the neck of the irrepressible vice that certainly would tend to nothing so much as to get him into further trouble. His only real justification would be to turn patience — his own of course — inside out; yet if there should be a way to misread that recipe his humbugging genius could be trusted infallibly to discover it. Cheap and easy results would dangle before him, little amateurish conspicuities at exhibitions helped by his history; putting it in his power to triumph with a quick “What do you say to that?” over those he had wounded. The fear of this danger was corrosive; it poisoned even lawful joys. If he should have a striking picture at the Academy next year it wouldn’t be a crime; yet he couldn’t help suspecting any conditions that would enable him to be striking so soon. In this way he felt quite enough how Gabriel Nash had “had” him whenever railing at his fever for proof, and how inferior as a productive force the desire to win over the ill-disposed might be to the principle of quiet growth. Nash had a foreign manner of lifting up his finger and waving it before him, as if to put an end to everything, whenever it became, in conversation or discussion, to any extent a question whether any one would “like” anything.

It was presumably in some degree at least a due respect for the principle of quiet growth that kept Nick on the spot at present, made him stick fast to Rosedale Road and Calcutta Gardens and deny himself the simplifications of absence. Do what he would he couldn’t despoil himself of the impression that the disagreeable was somehow connected with the salutary, and the “quiet” with the disagreeable, when stubbornly borne; so he resisted a hundred impulses to run away to Paris or to Florence, coarse forms of the temptation to persuade himself by material motion that he was launched. He stayed in London because it seemed to him he was there more conscious of what he had undertaken, and he had a horror of shirking the consciousness. One element in it indeed was his noting how little convenience he could have found in a foreign journey even had his judgement approved such a subterfuge. The stoppage of his supplies from Beauclere had now become an historic fact, with something of the majesty of its class about it: he had had time to see what a difference this would make in his life. His means were small and he had several old debts, the number of which, as he believed, loomed large to his mother’s imagination. He could never tell her she exaggerated, because he told her nothing of that sort in these days: they had no intimate talk, for an impenetrable partition, a tall, bristling hedge of untrimmed misconceptions, had sprung up between them. Poor Biddy had made a hole in it through which she squeezed from side to side, to keep up communications, at the cost of many rents and scratches; but Lady Agnes walked straight and stiff, never turning her head, never stopping to pluck the least little daisy of consolation. It was in this manner she wished to signify that she had accepted her wrongs. She draped herself in them as in a Roman mantle and had never looked so proud and wasted and handsome as now that her eyes rested only on ruins.

Nick was extremely sorry for her, though he marked as a dreadful want of grace her never setting a foot in Rosedale Road — she mentioned his studio no more than if it had been a private gambling-house or something worse; sorry because he was well aware that for the hour everything must appear to her to have crumbled. The luxury of Broadwood would have to crumble: his mind was very clear about that. Biddy’s prospects had withered to the finest, dreariest dust, and Biddy indeed, taking a lesson from her brother’s perversities, seemed little disposed to better a bad business. She professed the most peace-making sentiments, but when it came really to doing something to brighten up the scene she showed herself portentously corrupt. After Peter Sherringham’s heartless flight she had wantonly slighted an excellent opportunity to repair her misfortune. Lady Agnes had reason to infer, about the end of June, that young Mr. Grindon, the only son — the other children being girls — of an immensely rich industrial and political baronet in the north, was literally waiting for the faintest sign. This reason she promptly imparted to her younger daughter, whose intelligence had to take it in but who had shown it no other consideration. Biddy had set her charming face as a stone; she would have nothing to do with signs, and she, practically speaking, wilfully, wickedly refused a magnificent offer, so that the young man carried his high expectations elsewhere. How much in earnest he had been was proved by the fact that before Goodwood had come and gone he was captured by Lady Muriel Macpherson. It was superfluous to insist on the frantic determination to get married written on such an accident as that. Nick knew of this episode only through Grace, and he deplored its having occurred in the midst of other disasters.

He knew or he suspected something more as well — something about his brother Percival which, should it come to light, no phase of their common history would be genial enough to gloss over. It had usually been supposed that Percy’s store of comfort against the ills of life was confined to the infallibility of his rifle. He was not sensitive, and his use of that weapon represented a resource against which common visitations might have spent themselves. It had suddenly come to Nick’s ears, however, that he cultivated a concurrent support in the person of a robust countrywoman, housed in an ivied corner of Warwickshire, in whom he had long been interested and whom, without any flourish of magnanimity, he had ended by making his wife. The situation of the latest born of the pledges of this affection, a blooming boy — there had been two or three previously — was therefore perfectly regular and of a nature to make a difference in the worldly position, as the phrase ran, of his moneyless uncle. If there be degrees in the absolute and Percy had an heir — others, moreover, supposedly following — Nick would have to regard himself as still more moneyless than before. His brother’s last step was doubtless, given the case, to be commended; but such discoveries were enlivening only when made in other families, and Lady Agnes would scarcely enjoy learning to what tune she had become a grandmother.

Nick forbore from delicacy to intimate to Biddy that he thought it a pity she couldn’t care for Mr. Grindon; but he had a private sense that if she had been capable of such a feat it would have lightened a little the weight he himself had to carry. He bore her a slight grudge, which lasted till Julia Dallow came back; when the circumstance of the girl’s being summoned immediately down to Harsh created a diversion that was perhaps after all only fanciful. Biddy, as we know, entertained a theory, which Nick had found occasion to combat, that Mrs. Dallow had not treated him perfectly well; therefore in going to Harsh the very first time that relative held out a hand to her so jealous a little sister must have recognised a special inducement. The inducement might have been that the relative had comfort for her, that she was acting by her cousin’s direct advice, that they were still in close communion on the question of the offers Biddy was not to accept, that in short Peter’s sister had taken upon herself to see that their young friend should remain free for the day of the fugitive’s inevitable return. Once or twice indeed Nick wondered if Julia had herself been visited, in a larger sense, by the thought of retracing her steps — if she wished to draw out her young friend’s opinion as to how she might do that gracefully. During the few days she was in town Nick had seen her twice in Great Stanhope Street, but neither time alone. She had said to him on one of these occasions in her odd, explosive way: “I should have thought you’d have gone away somewhere — it must be such a bore.” Of course she firmly believed he was staying for Miriam, which he really was not; and probably she had written this false impression off to Peter, who, still more probably, would prefer to regard it as just. Nick was staying for Miriam only in the sense that he should very glad of the money he might receive for the portrait he was engaged in painting. That money would be a great convenience to him in spite of the obstructive ground Miriam had taken in pretending — she had blown half a gale about it — that he had had no right to dispose of such a production without her consent. His answer to this was simply that the purchaser was so little of a stranger that it didn’t go, so to speak, out of the family, out of hers. It didn’t matter, Miriam’s retort that if Mr. Sherringham had formerly been no stranger he was utterly one now, so that nothing would ever less delight him than to see her hated image on his wall. He would back out of the bargain and Nick be left with the picture on his hands. Nick jeered at this shallow theory and when she came to sit the question served as well as another to sprinkle their familiar silences with chaff. He already knew something, as we have seen, of the conditions in which his distracted kinsman had left England; and this connected itself, in casual meditation, with some of the calculations imputable to Julia and to Biddy. There had naturally been a sequel to the queer behaviour perceptible in Peter, at the theatre, on the eve of his departure — a sequel lighted by a word of Miriam’s in the course of her first sitting to Nick after her great night. “Fancy”— so this observation ran —“fancy the dear man finding time in the press of all his last duties to ask me to marry him!”

“He told me you had found time in the press of all yours to say you would,” Nick replied. And this was pretty much all that had passed on the subject between them — save of course her immediately making clear that Peter had grossly misinformed him. What had happened was that she had said she would do nothing of the sort. She professed a desire not to be confronted again with this obnoxious theme, and Nick easily fell in with it — quite from his own settled inclination not to handle that kind of subject with her. If Julia had false ideas about him, and if Peter had them too, his part of the business was to take the simplest course to establish the falsity. There were difficulties indeed attached even to the simplest course, but there would be a difficulty the less if one should forbear to meddle in promiscuous talk with the general, suggestive topic of intimate unions. It is certain that in these days Nick cultivated the practice of forbearances for which he didn’t receive, for which perhaps he never would receive, due credit.

He had been convinced for some time that one of the next things he should hear would be that Julia Dallow had arranged to marry either Mr. Macgeorge or some other master of multitudes. He could think of that now, he found — think of it with resignation even when Julia, before his eyes, looked so handsomely forgetful that her appearance had to be taken as referring still more to their original intimacy than to his comparatively superficial offence. What made this accomplishment of his own remarkable was that there was something else he thought of quite as much — the fact that he had only to see her again to feel by how great a charm she had in the old days taken possession of him. This charm operated apparently in a very direct, primitive way: her presence diffused it and fully established it, but her absence left comparatively little of it behind. It dwelt in the very facts of her person — it was something she happened physically to be; yet — considering that the question was of something very like loveliness — its envelope of associations, of memories and recurrences, had no great destiny. She packed it up and took it away with her quite as if she had been a woman who had come to sell a set of laces. The laces were as wonderful as ever when taken out of the box, but to admire again their rarity you had to send for the woman. What was above all remarkable for our young man was that Miriam Rooth fetched a fellow, vulgarly speaking, very much less than Julia at the times when, being on the spot, Julia did fetch. He could paint Miriam day after day without any agitating blur of vision; in fact the more he saw of her the clearer grew the atmosphere through which she blazed, the more her richness became one with that of the flowering work. There are reciprocities and special sympathies in such a relation; mysterious affinities they used to be called, divinations of private congruity. Nick had an unexpressed conviction that if, according to his defeated desire, he had embarked with Mrs. Dallow in this particular quest of a great prize, disaster would have overtaken them on the deep waters. Even with the limited risk indeed disaster had come; but it was of a different kind and it had the advantage for him that now she couldn’t reproach and denounce him as the cause of it — couldn’t do so at least on any ground he was obliged to recognise. She would never know how much he had cared for her, how much he cared for her still; inasmuch as the conclusive proof for himself was his conscious reluctance to care for another woman — evidence she positively misread. Some day he would doubtless try to do that; but such a day seemed as yet far off, and he had meanwhile no spite, no vindictive impulse, to help him. The soreness that mingled with his liberation, the sense of indignity even, as of a full cup suddenly dashed by a blundering hand from his lips, demanded certainly a balm; but it found the balm, for the time, in another passion, not in a rancorous exercise of the same — a passion strong enough to make him forget what a pity it was he was not so formed as to care for two women at once.

As soon as Julia returned to England he broke ground to his mother on the subject of her making the mistress of Broadwood understand that she and the girls now regarded their occupancy of that estate as absolutely over. He had already, several weeks before, picked a little at the arid tract of that indicated surrender, but in the interval the soil appeared to have formed again to a considerable thickness. It was disagreeable to him to call his parent’s attention to the becoming course, and especially disagreeable to have to emphasise it and discuss it and perhaps clamour for it. He would have liked the whole business to be tacit — a little triumph of silent delicacy. But he found reasons to suspect that what in fact would be most tacit was Julia’s certain endurance of any chance failure of that charm. Lady Agnes had a theory that they had virtually —“practically” as she said — given up the place, so that there was no need of making a splash about it; but Nick discovered in the course of an exploration of Biddy’s view more rigorous perhaps than any to which he had ever subjected her, that none of their property had been removed from the delightful house — none of the things (there were ever so many things) heavily planted there when their mother took possession. Lady Agnes was the proprietor of innumerable articles of furniture, relics and survivals of her former greatness, and moved about the world with a train of heterogeneous baggage; so that her quiet overflow into the spaciousness of Broadwood had had all the luxury of a final subsidence. What Nick had to propose to her now was a dreadful combination, a relapse into the conditions she most hated — seaside lodgings, bald storehouses in the Marylebone Road, little London rooms crammed with objects that caught the dirt and made them stuffy. He was afraid he should really finish her, and he himself was surprised in a degree at his insistence. He wouldn’t have supposed he should have cared so much, but he found he did care intensely. He cared enough — it says everything — to explain to his mother that her retention of Broadwood would show “practically” (since that was her great word) for the violation of an agreement. Julia had given them the place on the understanding that he was to marry her, and once he was definitely not to marry her they had no right to keep the place. “Yes, you make the mess and we pay the penalty!” the poor lady flashed out; but this was the only overt protest she made — except indeed to contend that their withdrawal would be an act ungracious and offensive to Julia. She looked as she had looked during the months that succeeded his father’s death, but she gave a general, a final grim assent to the proposition that, let their kinswoman take it as she would, their own duty was unmistakably clear.

It was Grace who was principal representative of the idea that Julia would be outraged by such a step; she never ceased to repeat that she had never heard of anything so “nasty.” Nick would have expected this of Grace, but he felt rather bereft and betrayed when Biddy murmured to him that she knew — that there was really no need of their sacrificing their mother’s comfort to an extravagant scruple. She intimated that if Nick would only consent to their going on with Broadwood as if nothing had happened — or rather as if everything had happened — she would answer for the feelings of the owner. For almost the first time in his life Nick disliked what Biddy said to him, and he gave her a sharp rejoinder, a taste of the general opinion that they all had enough to do to answer for themselves. He remembered afterwards the way she looked at him — startled, even frightened and with rising tears — before turning away. He held that they should judge better how Julia would take it after they had thrown up the place; and he made it his duty to arrange that his mother should formally advise her, by letter, of their intending to depart at once. Julia could then protest to her heart’s content. Nick was aware that for the most part he didn’t pass for practical; he could imagine why, from his early years, people should have joked him about it. But this time he was determined to rest on a rigid view of things as they were. He didn’t sec his mother’s letter, but he knew that it went. He felt she would have been more loyal if she had shown it to him, though of course there could be but little question of loyalty now. That it had really been written, however, very much on the lines he dictated was clear to him from the subsequent surprise which Lady Agnes’s blankness didn’t prevent his divining.

Julia acknowledged the offered news, but in unexpected terms: she had apparently neither resisted nor protested; she had simply been very glad to get her house back again and had not accused any of them of nastiness. Nick saw no more of her letter than he had seen of his mother’s, but he was able to say to Grace — to their parent he was studiously mute —“My poor child, you see after all that we haven’t kicked up such a row.” Grace shook her head and looked gloomy and deeply wise, replying that he had no cause to triumph — they were so far from having seen the end of it yet. Thus he guessed that his mother had complied with his wish on the calculation that it would be a mere form, that Julia would entreat them not to be so fantastic and that he himself would then, in the presence of her wounded surprise, consent to a quiet continuance, so much in the interest — the air of Broadwood had a purity! — of the health of all of them. But since Julia jumped at their sacrifice he had no chance to be mollified: he had all grossly to persist in having been right.

At bottom probably he was a little surprised at Julia’s so prompt assent. Literally speaking, it was not perfectly graceful. He was sorry his mother had been so deceived, but was sorrier still for Biddy’s mistake — it showed she might be mistaken about other things. Nothing was left now but for Lady Agnes to say, as she did substantially whenever she saw him: “We’re to prepare to spend the autumn at Worthing then or some other horrible place? I don’t know their names: it’s the only thing we can afford.” There was an implication in this that if he expected her to drag her girls about to country-houses in a continuance of the fidgety effort to work them off he must understand at once that she was now too weary and too sad and too sick. She had done her best for them and it had all been vain and cruel — now therefore the poor creatures must look out for themselves. To the grossness of Biddy’s misconduct she needn’t refer, nor to the golden opportunity that young woman had forfeited by her odious treatment of Mr. Grindon. It was clear that this time Lady Agnes was incurably discouraged; so much so as to fail to glean the dimmest light from the fact that the girl was really making a long stay at Harsh. Biddy went to and fro two or three times and then in August fairly settled there; and what her mother mainly saw in her absence was the desire to keep out of the way of household reminders of her depravity. In fact, as turned out, Lady Agnes and Grace gathered themselves together in the first days of that month for another visit to the very old lady who had been Sir Nicholas’s godmother; after which they went somewhere else — so that the question of Worthing had not immediately to be faced.

Nick stayed on in London with the obsession of work humming in his ears; he was joyfully conscious that for three or four months, in the empty Babylon, he would have ample stores of time. But toward the end of August he got a letter from Grace in which she spoke of her situation and of her mother’s in a manner that seemed to impose on him the doing of something tactful. They were paying a third visit — he knew that in Calcutta Gardens lady’s-maids had been to and fro with boxes, replenishments of wardrobes — and yet somehow the outlook for the autumn was dark. Grace didn’t say it in so many words, but what he read between the lines was that they had no more invitations. What, therefore, in pity’s name was to become of them? People liked them well enough when Biddy was with them, but they didn’t care for her mother and her, that prospect tout pur, and Biddy was cooped up indefinitely with Julia. This was not the manner in which Grace had anciently alluded to her sister’s happy visits at Harsh, and the change of tone made Nick wince with a sense of all that had collapsed. Biddy was a little fish worth landing in short, scantly as she seemed disposed to bite, and Grace’s rude probity could admit that she herself was not.

Nick had an inspiration: by way of doing something tactful he went down to Brighton and took lodgings, for several weeks, in the general interest, the very quietest and sunniest he could find. This he intended as a kindly surprise, a reminder of how he had his mother’s and sisters’ comfort at heart, how he could exert himself and save them trouble. But he had no sooner concluded his bargain — it was a more costly one than he had at first calculated — than he was bewildered and befogged to learn that the persons on whose behalf he had so exerted himself were to pass the autumn at Broadwood with Julia. That daughter of privilege had taken the place into familiar use again and was now correcting their former surprise at her crude indifference — this was infinitely characteristic of Julia — by inviting them to share it with her. Nick wondered vaguely what she was “up to”; but when his mother treated herself to the line irony of addressing him an elaborately humble request for his consent to their accepting the merciful refuge — she repeated this expression three times — he replied that she might do exactly as she liked: he would only mention that he shouldn’t feel himself at liberty to come and see her there. This condition proved apparently to Lady Agnes’s mind no hindrance, and she and her daughters were presently reinstated in the very apartments they had learned so to love. This time in fact it was even better than before — they had still fewer expenses. The expenses were Nick’s: he had to pay a forfeit to the landlady at Brighton for backing out of his contract. He said nothing to his mother about that bungled business — he was literally afraid; but a sad event just then reminded him afresh how little it was the moment for squandering money. Mr. Carteret drew his last breath; quite painlessly it seemed, as the closing scene was described at Beauclere when the young man went down to the funeral. Two or three weeks later the contents of his will were made public in the Illustrated London News, where it definitely appeared that he left a very large fortune, not a penny of which was to go to Nick. The provision for Mr. Chayter’s declining years was remarkably handsome.

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