The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLIX

She had guessed happily in saying to him that to offer to paint Gabriel Nash would be the way to get rid of that visitant. It was with no such invidious purpose indeed that our young man proposed to his intermittent friend to sit; rather, as August was dusty in the London streets, he had too little hope that Nash would remain in town at such a time to oblige him. Nick had no wish to get rid of his private philosopher; he liked his philosophy, and though of course premeditated paradox was the light to read him by he yet had frequently and incidentally an inspired unexpectedness. He remained in Rosedale Road the man who most produced by his presence the effect of company. All the other men of Nick’s acquaintance, all his political friends, represented, often very communicatively, their own affairs, their own affairs alone; which when they did it well was the most their host could ask of them. But Nash had the rare distinction that he seemed somehow to figure his affairs, the said host’s, and to show an interest in them unaffected by the ordinary social limitations of capacity. This relegated him to the class of high luxuries, and Nick was well aware that we hold our luxuries by a fitful and precarious tenure. If a friend without personal eagerness was one of the greatest of these it would be evident to the simplest mind that by the law of distribution of earthly boons such a convenience should be expected to forfeit in duration what it displayed in intensity. He had never been without a suspicion that Nash was too good to last, though for that matter nothing had yet confirmed a vague apprehension that his particular manner of breaking up or breaking down would be by his wishing to put so fresh a recruit in relation with other disciples.

That would practically amount to a catastrophe, Nick felt; for it was odd that one could both have a great kindness for him and not in the least, when it came to the point, yearn for a view of his personal extensions. His originality had always been that he appeared to have none; and if in the first instance he had introduced his bright, young, political prodigy to Miriam and her mother, that was an exception for which Peter Sherringham’s interference had been mainly responsible. All the same, however, it was some time before Nick ceased to view it as perhaps on the awkward books that, to complete his education as it were, Gabriel would wish him to converse a little with spirits formed by a like tonic discipline. Nick had an instinct, in which there was no consciousness of detriment to Nash, that the pupils, possibly even the imitators, of such a genius would be, as he mentally phrased it, something awful. He could be sure, even Gabriel himself could be sure, of his own reservations, but how could either of them be sure of those of others? Imitation is a fortunate homage only in proportion as it rests on measurements, and there was an indefinable something in Nash’s doctrine that would have been discredited by exaggeration or by zeal. Providence happily appeared to have spared it this ordeal; so that Nick had after months still to remind himself how his friend had never pressed on his attention the least little group of fellow-mystics, never offered to produce them for his edification. It scarcely mattered now that he was just the man to whom the superficial would attribute that sort of tail: it would probably have been hard, for example, to persuade Lady Agnes or Julia Dallow or Peter Sherringham that he was not most at home in some dusky, untidy, dimly-imagined suburb of “culture,” a region peopled by unpleasant phrasemongers who thought him a gentleman and who had no human use but to be held up in the comic press — which was, moreover, probably restrained by decorum from touching upon the worst of their aberrations.

Nick at any rate never ran his academy to earth nor so much as skirted the suburb in question; never caught from the impenetrable background of his life the least reverberation of flitting or of flirting, the fainting esthetic ululation. There had been moments when he was even moved to anxiety by the silence that poor Gabriel’s own faculty of sound made all about him — when at least it reduced to plainer elements (the mere bald terms of lonely singleness and thrift, of the lean philosophic life) the mystery he could never wholly dissociate from him, the air as of the transient and occasional, the likeness to curling vapour or murmuring wind or shifting light. It was, for instance, a symbol of this unclassified state, the lack of all position as a name in cited lists, that Nick in point of fact had no idea where he lived, would not have known how to go and see him or send him a doctor if he had heard he was ill. He had never walked with him to any door of Gabriel’s own, even to pause at the threshold, though indeed Nash had a club, the Anonymous, in some improbable square, of which he might be suspected of being the only member — one had never heard of another — where it was vaguely understood letters would some day or other find him. Fortunately he pressed with no sharpness the spring of pity — his whole “form” was so easy a grasp of the helm of consciousness, which he would never let go. He would never consent to any deformity, but would steer his course straight through the eventual narrow pass and simply go down over the horizon.

He in any case turned up Rosedale Road one day after Miriam had left London; he had just come back from a fortnight in Brittany, where he had drawn refreshment from the tragic sweetness of — well, of everything. He was on his way somewhere else — was going abroad for the autumn but was not particular what he did, professing that he had come back just to get Nick utterly off his mind. “It’s very nice, it’s very nice; yes, yes, I see,” he remarked, giving a little, general, assenting sigh as his eyes wandered over the simple scene — a sigh which for a suspicious ear would have testified to an insidious reaction.

Nick’s ear, as we know, was already suspicious; a fact accounting for the expectant smile — it indicated the pleasant apprehension of a theory confirmed — with which he returned: “Do you mean my pictures are nice?”

“Yes, yes, your pictures and the whole thing.”

“The whole thing?”

“Your existence in this little, remote, independent corner of the great city. The disinterestedness of your attitude, the persistence of your effort, the piety, the beauty, in short the edification, of the whole spectacle.”

Nick laughed a little ruefully. “How near to having had enough of me you must be when you speak of me as edifying!” Nash changed colour slightly at this; it was the first time in his friend’s remembrance that he had given a sign of embarrassment. “Vous allez me lâcher, I see it coming; and who can blame you? — for I’ve ceased to be in the least spectacular. I had my little hour; it was a great deal, for some people don’t even have that. I’ve given you your curious case and I’ve been generous; I made the drama last for you as long as I could. You’ll ‘slope,’ my dear fellow — you’ll quietly slope; and it will be all right and inevitable, though I shall miss you greatly at first. Who knows whether without you I shouldn’t still have been ‘representing’ Harsh, heaven help me? You rescued me; you converted me from a representative into an example — that’s a shade better. But don’t I know where you must be when you’re reduced to praising my piety?”

“Don’t turn me away,” said Nash plaintively; “give me a cigarette.”

“I shall never dream of turning you away; I shall cherish you till the latest possible hour. I’m only trying to keep myself in tune with the logic of things. The proof of how I cling is that precisely I want you to sit to me.”

“To sit to you?” With which Nick could fancy his visitor a little blank.

“Certainly, for after all it isn’t much to ask. Here we are and the hour’s peculiarly propitious — long light days with no one coming near me, so that I’ve plenty of time. I had a hope I should have some orders: my younger sister, whom you know and who’s a great optimist, plied me with that vision. In fact we invented together a charming little sordid theory that there might be rather a ‘run’ on me from the chatter (such as it was) produced by my taking up this line. My sister struck out the idea that a good many of the pretty ladies would think me interesting and would want to be done. Perhaps they do, but they’ve controlled themselves, for I can’t say the run has commenced. They haven’t even come to look, but I daresay they don’t yet quite take it in. Of course it’s a bad time — with every one out of town; though you know they might send for me to come and do them at home. Perhaps they will when they settle down. A portrait-tour of a dozen country-houses for the autumn and winter — what do you say to that for the ardent life? I know I excruciate you,” Nick added, “but don’t you see how it’s in my interest to try how much you’ll still stand?”

Gabriel puffed his cigarette with a serenity so perfect that it might have been assumed to falsify these words. “Mrs. Dallow will send for you — vous allez voir ça,” he said in a moment, brushing aside all vagueness.

“She’ll send for me?”

“To paint her portrait; she’ll recapture you on that basis. She’ll get you down to one of the country-houses, and it will all go off as charmingly — with sketching in the morning, on days you can’t hunt, and anything you like in the afternoon, and fifteen courses in the evening; there’ll be bishops and ambassadors staying — as if you were a ‘well-known,’ awfully clever amateur. Take care, take care, for, fickle as you may think me, I can read the future: don’t imagine you’ve come to the end of me yet. Mrs. Dallow and your sister, of both of whom I speak with the greatest respect, are capable of hatching together the most conscientious, delightful plan for you. Your differences with the beautiful lady will be patched up and you’ll each come round a little and meet the other halfway. The beautiful lady will swallow your profession if you’ll swallow hers. She’ll put up with the palette if you’ll put up with the country-house. It will be a very unusual one in which you won’t find a good north room where you can paint. You’ll go about with her and do all her friends, all the bishops and ambassadors, and you’ll eat your cake and have it, and every one, beginning with your wife, will forget there’s anything queer about you, and everything will be for the best in the best of worlds; so that, together — you and she — you’ll become a great social institution and every one will think she has a delightful husband; to say nothing of course of your having a delightful wife. Ah my dear fellow, you turn pale, and with reason!” Nash went lucidly on: “that’s to pay you for having tried to make me let you have it. You have it then there! I may be a bore”— the emphasis of this, though a mere shade, testified to the first personal resentment Nick had ever heard his visitor express —“I may be a bore, but once in a while I strike a light, I make things out. Then I venture to repeat, ‘Take care, take care.’ If, as I say, I respect ces dames infinitely it’s because they will be acting according to the highest wisdom of their sex. That’s the sort of thing women do for a man — the sort of thing they invent when they’re exceptionally good and clever. When they’re not they don’t do so well; but it’s not for want of trying. There’s only one thing in the world better than their incomparable charm: it’s their abysmal conscience. Deep calleth unto deep — the one’s indeed a part of the other. And when they club together, when they earnestly consider, as in the case we’re supposing,” Nash continued, “then the whole thing takes a lift; for it’s no longer the virtue of the individual, it’s that of the wondrous sex.”

“You’re so remarkable that, more than ever, I must paint you,” Nick returned, “though I’m so agitated by your prophetic words that my hand trembles and I shall doubtless scarcely be able to hold my brush. Look how I rattle my easel trying to put it into position. I see it all there just as you show it. Yes, it will be a droll day, and more modern than anything yet, when the conscience of women makes out good reasons for men’s not being in love with them. You talk of their goodness and cleverness, and it’s certainly much to the point. I don’t know what else they themselves might do with those graces, but I don’t see what man can do with them but be fond of them where he finds them.”

“Oh you’ll do it — you’ll do it!” cried Nash, brightly jubilant.

“What is it I shall do?”

“Exactly what I just said; if not next year then the year after, or the year after that. You’ll go halfway to meet her and she’ll drag you about and pass you off. You’ll paint the bishops and become a social institution. That is, you’ll do it if you don’t take great care.”

“I shall, no doubt, and that’s why I cling to you. You must still look after me,” Nick went on. “Don’t melt away into a mere improbable reminiscence, a delightful, symbolic fable — don’t if you can possibly help it. The trouble is, you see, that you can’t really keep hold very tight, because at bottom it will amuse you much more to see me in another pickle than to find me simply jogging down the vista of the years on the straight course. Let me at any rate have some sort of sketch of you as a kind of feather from the angel’s wing or a photograph of the ghost — to prove to me in the future that you were once a solid sociable fact, that I didn’t invent you, didn’t launch you as a deadly hoax. Of course I shall be able to say to myself that you can’t have been a fable — otherwise you’d have a moral; but that won’t be enough, because I’m not sure you won’t have had one. Some day you’ll peep in here languidly and find me in such an attitude of piety — presenting my bent back to you as I niggle over some interminable botch — that I shall give cruelly on your nerves and you’ll just draw away, closing the door softly. You’ll be gentle and considerate about it and spare me, you won’t even make me look round. You’ll steal off on tiptoe, never, never to return.”

Gabriel consented to sit; he professed he should enjoy it and be glad to give up for it his immediate foreign commerce, so vague to Nick, so definite apparently to himself; and he came back three times for the purpose. Nick promised himself a deal of interest from this experiment, for with the first hour of it he began to feel that really as yet, given the conditions under which he now studied him, he had never at all thoroughly explored his friend. His impression had been that Nash had a head quite fine enough to be a challenge, and that as he sat there day by day all sorts of pleasant and paintable things would come out in his face. This impression was not gainsaid, but the whole tangle grew denser. It struck our young man that he had never seen his subject before, and yet somehow this revelation was not produced by the sense of actually seeing it. What was revealed was the difficulty — what he saw was not the measurable mask but the ambiguous meaning. He had taken things for granted which literally were not there, and he found things there — except that he couldn’t catch them — which he had not hitherto counted in or presumed to handle. This baffling effect, eminently in the line of the mystifying, so familiar to Nash, might have been the result of his whimsical volition, had it not appeared to our artist, after a few hours of the job, that his sitter was not the one who enjoyed it most. He was uncomfortable, at first vaguely and then definitely so — silent, restless, gloomy, dim, as if on the test the homage of a directer attention than he had ever had gave him less pleasure than he would have supposed. He had been willing to judge of this in good faith; but frankly he rather suffered. He wasn’t cross, but was clearly unhappy, and Nick had never before felt him contract instead of expanding.

It was all accordingly as if a trap had been laid for him, and our young man asked himself if it were really fair. At the same time there was something richly rare in such a relation between the subject and the artist, and Nick was disposed to go on till he should have to stop for pity or for shame. He caught eventually a glimmer of the truth underlying the strangeness, guessed that what upset his friend was simply the reversal, in such a combination, of his usual terms of intercourse. He was so accustomed to living upon irony and the interpretation of things that it was new to him to be himself interpreted and — as a gentleman who sits for his portrait is always liable to be-interpreted all ironically. From being outside of the universe he was suddenly brought into it, and from the position of a free commentator and critic, an easy amateurish editor of the whole affair, reduced to that of humble ingredient and contributor. It occurred afterwards to Nick that he had perhaps brought on a catastrophe by having happened to throw off as they gossiped or languished, and not alone without a cruel intention, but with an impulse of genuine solicitude: “But, my dear fellow, what will you do when you’re old?”

“Old? What do you call old?” Nash had replied bravely enough, but with another perceptible tinge of irritation. “Must I really remind you at this time of day that that term has no application to such a condition as mine? It only belongs to you wretched people who have the incurable superstition of ‘doing’; it’s the ignoble collapse you prepare for yourselves when you cease to be able to do. For me there’ll be no collapse, no transition, no clumsy readjustment of attitude; for I shall only be, more and more, with all the accumulations of experience, the longer I live.”

“Oh I’m not particular about the term,” said Nick. “If you don’t call it old, the ultimate state, call it weary — call it final. The accumulations of experience are practically accumulations of fatigue.”

“I don’t know anything about weariness. I live freshly — it doesn’t fatigue me.”

“Then you need never die,” Nick declared.

“Certainly; I daresay I’m indestructible, immortal.”

Nick laughed out at this — it would be such fine news to some people. But it was uttered with perfect gravity, and it might very well have been in the spirit of that gravity that Nash failed to observe his agreement to sit again the next day. The next and the next and the next passed, but he never came back.

True enough, punctuality was not important for a man who felt that he had the command of all time. Nevertheless his disappearance “without a trace,” that of a personage in a fairy-tale or a melodrama, made a considerable impression on his friend as the months went on; so that, though he had never before had the least difficulty about entering into the play of Gabriel’s humour, Nick now recalled with a certain fanciful awe the special accent with which he had ranked himself among imperishable things. He wondered a little if he hadn’t at last, balancing always on the stretched tight-rope of his wit, fallen over on the wrong side. He had never before, of a truth, been so nearly witless, and would have to have gone mad in short to become so singularly simple. Perhaps indeed he was acting only more than usual in his customary spirit — thoughtfully contributing, for Nick’s enlivenment, a purple rim of mystery to an horizon now so dreadfully let down. The mystery at any rate remained; another shade of purple in fact was virtually added to it. Nick had the prospect, for the future, of waiting to see, all curiously, when Nash would turn up, if ever, and the further diversion — it almost consoled him for the annoyance of being left with a second unfinished thing on his hands — of imagining in the portrait he had begun an odd tendency to fade gradually from the canvas. He couldn’t catch it in the act, but he could have ever a suspicion on glancing at it that the hand of time was rubbing it away little by little — for all the world as in some delicate Hawthorne tale — and making the surface indistinct and bare of all resemblance to the model. Of course the moral of the Hawthorne tale would be that his personage would come back in quaint confidence on the day his last projected shadow should have vanished.

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