The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

V

Lady Agnes’s idea had been that her son should go straight from the Palais de l’Industrie to the Hôtel de Hollande, with or without his mother and his sisters as his humour should seem to recommend. Much as she desired to see their valued Julia, and as she knew her daughters desired it, she was quite ready to put off their visit if this sacrifice should contribute to a speedy confrontation for Nick. She was anxious he should talk with Mrs. Dallow, and anxious he should be anxious himself; but it presently appeared that he was conscious of no pressure of eagerness. His view was that she and the girls should go to their cousin without delay and should, if they liked, spend the rest of the day in her society. He would go later; he would go in the evening. There were lots of things he wanted to do meanwhile.

This question was discussed with some intensity, though not at length, while the little party stood on the edge of the Place de la Concorde, to which they had proceeded on foot; and Lady Agnes noticed that the “lots of things” to which he proposed to give precedence over an urgent duty, a conference with a person who held out full hands to him, were implied somehow in the friendly glance with which he covered the great square, the opposite bank of the Seine, the steep blue roofs of the quay, the bright immensity of Paris. What in the world could be more important than making sure of his seat? — so quickly did the good lady’s imagination travel. And now that idea appealed to him less than a ramble in search of old books and prints — since she was sure this was what he had in his head. Julia would be flattered should she know it, but of course she mustn’t know it. Lady Agnes was already thinking of the least injurious account she could give of the young man’s want of precipitation. She would have liked to represent him as tremendously occupied, in his room at their own hotel, in getting off political letters to every one it should concern, and particularly in drawing up his address to the electors of Harsh. Fortunately she was a woman of innumerable discretions, and a part of the worn look that sat in her face came from her having schooled herself for years, in commerce with her husband and her sons, not to insist unduly. She would have liked to insist, nature had formed her to insist, and the self-control had told in more ways than one. Even now it was powerless to prevent her suggesting that before doing anything else Nick should at least repair to the inn and see if there weren’t some telegrams.

He freely consented to do as much as this, and, having called a cab that she might go her way with the girls, kissed her again as he had done at the exhibition. This was an attention that could never displease her, but somehow when he kissed her she was really the more worried: she had come to recognise it as a sign that he was slipping away from her, and she wished she might frankly take it as his clutch at her to save him. She drove off with a vague sense that at any rate she and the girls might do something toward keeping the place warm for him. She had been a little vexed that Peter had not administered more of a push toward the Hôtel de Hollande, clear as it had become to her now that there was a foreignness in Peter which was not to be counted on and which made him speak of English affairs and even of English domestic politics as local and even “funny.” They were very grandly local, and if one recalled, in public life, an occasional droll incident wasn’t that, liberally viewed, just the warm human comfort of them? As she left the two young men standing together in the middle of the Place de la Concorde, the grand composition of which Nick, as she looked back, appeared to have paused to admire — as if he hadn’t seen it a thousand times! — she wished she might have thought of Peter’s influence with her son as exerted a little more in favour of localism. She had a fear he wouldn’t abbreviate the boy’s ill-timed flânerie. However, he had been very nice: he had invited them all to dine with him that evening at a convenient café, promising to bring Julia and one of his colleagues. So much as this he had been willing to do to make sure Nick and his sister should meet. His want of localism, moreover, was not so great as that if it should turn out that there was anything beneath his manner toward Biddy —! The upshot of this reflexion might have been represented by the circumstance of her ladyship’s remarking after a minute to her younger daughter, who sat opposite her in the voiture de place, that it would do no harm if she should get a new hat and that the search might be instituted that afternoon.

“A French hat, mamma?” said Grace. “Oh do wait till she gets home!”

“I think they’re really prettier here, you know,” Biddy opined; and Lady Agnes said simply: “I daresay they’re cheaper.” What was in her mind in fact was: “I daresay Peter thinks them becoming.” It will be seen she had plenty of inward occupation, the sum of which was not lessened by her learning when she reached the top of the Rue de la Paix that Mrs. Dallow had gone out half an hour before and had left no message. She was more disconcerted by this incident than she could have explained or than she thought was right, as she had taken for granted Julia would be in a manner waiting for them. How could she be sure Nick wasn’t coming? When people were in Paris a few days they didn’t mope in the house, but she might have waited a little longer or have left an explanation. Was she then not so much in earnest about Nick’s standing? Didn’t she recognise the importance of being there to see him about it? Lady Agnes wondered if her behaviour were a sign of her being already tired of the way this young gentleman treated her. Perhaps she had gone out because an instinct told her that the great propriety of their meeting early would make no difference with him — told her he wouldn’t after all come. His mother’s heart sank as she glanced at this possibility that their precious friend was already tired, she having on her side an intuition that there were still harder things in store. She had disliked having to tell Mrs. Dallow that Nick wouldn’t see her till the evening, but now she disliked still more her not being there to hear it. She even resented a little her kinswoman’s not having reasoned that she and the girls would come in any event, and not thought them worth staying in for. It came up indeed that she would perhaps have gone to their hotel, which was a good way up the Rue de Rivoli, near the Palais Royal — on which the cabman was directed to drive to that establishment.

As he jogged along she took in some degree the measure of what that might mean, Julia’s seeking a little to avoid them. Was she growing to dislike them? Did she think they kept too sharp an eye on her, so that the idea of their standing in a still closer relation wouldn’t be enticing? Her conduct up to this time had not worn such an appearance, unless perhaps a little, just a very little, in the matter of her ways with poor Grace. Lady Agnes knew she wasn’t particularly fond of poor Grace, and could even sufficiently guess the reason — the manner in which Grace betrayed most how they wanted to make sure of her. She remembered how long the girl had stayed the last time she had been at Harsh — going for an acceptable week and dragging out her visit to a month. She took a private heroic vow that Grace shouldn’t go near the place again for a year; not, that is, unless Nick and Julia were married within the time. If that were to happen she shouldn’t care. She recognised that it wasn’t absolutely everything Julia should be in love with Nick; it was also better she should dislike his mother and sisters after a probable pursuit of him than before. Lady Agnes did justice to the natural rule in virtue of which it usually comes to pass that a woman doesn’t get on with her husband’s female belongings, and was even willing to be sacrificed to it in her disciplined degree. But she desired not to be sacrificed for nothing: if she was to be objected to as a mother-inlaw she wished to be the mother-inlaw first.

At the hotel in the Rue de Rivoli she had the disappointment of finding that Mrs. Dallow had not called, and also that no telegrams had come. She went in with the girls for half an hour and then straggled out with them again. She was undetermined and dissatisfied and the afternoon was rather a problem; of the kind, moreover, that she disliked most and was least accustomed to: not a choice between different things to do — her life had been full of that — but a want of anything to do at all. Nick had said to her before they separated: “You can knock about with the girls, you know; everything’s amusing here.” That was easily said while he sauntered and gossiped with Peter Sherringham and perhaps went to see more pictures like those in the Salon. He was usually, on such occasions, very good-natured about spending his time with them; but this episode had taken altogether a perverse, profane form. She had no desire whatever to knock about and was far from finding everything in Paris amusing. She had no aptitude for aimlessness, and moreover thought it vulgar. If she had found Julia’s card at the hotel — the sign of a hope of catching them just as they came back from the Salon — she would have made a second attempt to see her before the evening; but now certainly they would leave her alone. Lady Agnes wandered joylessly with the girls in the Palais Royal and the Rue de Richelieu, and emerged upon the Boulevard, where they continued their frugal prowl, as Biddy rather irritatingly called it. They went into five shops to buy a hat for Biddy, and her ladyship’s presumptions of cheapness were woefully belied.

“Who in the world’s your comic friend?” Peter Sherringham was meanwhile asking of his kinsman as they walked together.

“Ah there’s something else you lost by going to Cambridge — you lost Gabriel Nash!”

“He sounds like an Elizabethan dramatist,” Sherringham said. “But I haven’t lost him, since it appears now I shan’t be able to have you without him.”

“Oh, as for that, wait a little. I’m going to try him again, but I don’t know how he wears. What I mean is that you’ve probably lost his freshness, which was the great thing. I rather fear he’s becoming conventional, or at any rate serious.”

“Bless me, do you call that serious?”

“He used to be so gay. He had a real genius for playing with ideas. He was a wonderful talker.”

“It seems to me he does very well now,” said Peter Sherringham.

“Oh this is nothing. He had great flights of old, very great flights; one saw him rise and rise and turn somersaults in the blue — one wondered how far he could go. He’s very intelligent, and I should think it might be interesting to find out what it is that prevents the whole man from being as good as his parts. I mean in case he isn’t so good.”

“I see you more than suspect that. Mayn’t it be simply that he’s too great an ass?”

“That would be the whole — I shall see in time — but it certainly isn’t one of the parts. It may be the effect, but it isn’t the cause, and it’s for the cause I claim an interest. Do you think him an ass for what he said about the theatre — his pronouncing it a coarse art?”

“To differ from you about him that reason would do,” said Sherringham. “The only bad one would be one that shouldn’t preserve our difference. You needn’t tell me you agree with him, for frankly I don’t care.”

“Then your passion still burns?” Nick Dormer asked.

“My passion —?”

“I don’t mean for any individual exponent of the equivocal art: mark the guilty conscience, mark the rising blush, mark the confusion of mind! I mean the old sign one knew you best by; your permanent stall at the Français, your inveterate attendance at premières, the way you ‘follow’ the young talents and the old.”

“Yes, it’s still my little hobby, my little folly if you like,” Sherringham said. “I don’t find I get tired of it. What will you have? Strong predilections are rather a blessing; they’re simplifying. I’m fond of representation — the representation of life: I like it better, I think, than the real thing. You like it too, you’d be ready in other conditions to go in for it, in your way — so you’ve no right to cast the stone. You like it best done by one vehicle and I by another; and our preference on either side has a deep root in us. There’s a fascination to me in the way the actor does it, when his talent — ah he must have that! — has been highly trained. Ah it must be that! The things he can do in this effort at representation, with the dramatist to back him, seem to me innumerable — he can carry it to a point! — and I take great pleasure in observing them, in recognising and comparing them. It’s an amusement like another — I don’t pretend to call it by any exalted name, but in this vale of friction it will serve. One can lose one’s self in it, and it has the recommendation — in common, I suppose, with the study of the other arts — that the further you go in it the more you find. So I go rather far, if you will. But is it the principal sign one knows me by?” Peter abruptly asked.

“Don’t be ashamed of it,” Nick returned —“else it will be ashamed of you. I ought to discriminate. You’re distinguished among my friends and relations by your character of rising young diplomatist; but you know I always want the final touch to the picture, the last fruit of analysis. Therefore I make out that you’re conspicuous among rising young diplomatists for the infatuation you describe in such pretty terms.”

“You evidently believe it will prevent my ever rising very high. But pastime for pastime is it any idler than yours?”

“Than mine?”

“Why you’ve half-a-dozen while I only allow myself the luxury of one. For the theatre’s my sole vice, really. Is this more wanton, say, than to devote weeks to the consideration of the particular way in which your friend Mr. Nash may be most intensely a twaddler and a bore? That’s not my ideal of choice recreation, but I’d undertake to satisfy you about him sooner. You’re a young statesman — who happens to be an en disponibilité for the moment — but you spend not a little of your time in besmearing canvas with bright-coloured pigments. The idea of representation fascinates you, but in your case it’s representation in oils — or do you practise water-colours and pastel too? You even go much further than I, for I study my art of predilection only in the works of others. I don’t aspire to leave works of my own. You’re a painter, possibly a great one; but I’m not an actor.” Nick Dormer declared he would certainly become one — he was so well on the way to it; and Sherringham, without heeding this charge, went on: “Let me add that, considering you are a painter, your portrait of the complicated Nash is lamentably dim.”

“He’s not at all complicated; he’s only too simple to give an account of. Most people have a lot of attributes and appendages that dress them up and superscribe them, and what I like Gabriel for is that he hasn’t any at all. It makes him, it keeps him, so refreshingly cool.”

“By Jove, you match him there! Isn’t it an appendage and an attribute to escape kicking? How does he manage that?” Sherringham asked.

“I haven’t the least idea — I don’t know that he doesn’t rouse the kicking impulse. Besides, he can kick back and I don’t think any one has ever seen him duck or dodge. His means, his profession, his belongings have never anything to do with the question. He doesn’t shade off into other people; he’s as neat as an outline cut out of paper with scissors. I like him, therefore, because in dealing with him you know what you’ve got hold of. With most men you don’t: to pick the flower you must break off the whole dusty, thorny, worldly branch; you find you’re taking up in your grasp all sorts of other people and things, dangling accidents and conditions. Poor Nash has none of those encumbrances: he’s the solitary-fragrant blossom.”

“My dear fellow, you’d be better for a little of the same pruning!” Sherringham retorted; and the young men continued their walk and their gossip, jerking each other this way and that, punching each other here and there, with an amicable roughness consequent on their having, been boys together. Intimacy had reigned of old between the little Sherringhams and the little Dormers, united in the country by ease of neighbouring and by the fact that there was first cousinship, not neglected, among the parents, Lady Agnes standing in this plastic relation to Lady Windrush, the mother of Peter and Julia as well as of other daughters and of a maturer youth who was to inherit, and who since then had inherited, the ancient barony. Many things had altered later on, but not the good reasons for not explaining. One of our young men had gone to Eton and the other to Harrow — the scattered school on the hill was the tradition of the Dormers — and the divergence had rather taken its course in university years. Bricket, however, had remained accessible to Windrush, and Windrush to Bricket, to which estate Percival Dormer had now succeeded, terminating the interchange a trifle rudely by letting out that pleasant white house in the midlands — its expropriated inhabitants, Lady Agnes and her daughters, adored it — to an American reputed rich, who in the first flush of his sense of contrasts considered that for twelve hundred a year he got it at a bargain. Bricket had come to the late Sir Nicholas from his elder brother, dying wifeless and childless. The new baronet, so different from his father — though recalling at some points the uncle after whom he had been named — that Nick had to make it up by cultivating conformity, roamed about the world, taking shots which excited the enthusiasm of society, when society heard of them, at the few legitimate creatures of the chase the British rifle had up to that time spared. Lady Agnes meanwhile settled with her girls in a gabled, latticed house in a mentionable quarter, though it still required a little explaining, of the temperate zone of London. It was not into her lap, poor woman, that the revenues of Bricket were poured. There was no dower-house attached to that moderate property, and the allowance with which the estate was charged on her ladyship’s behalf was not an incitement to grandeur.

Nick had a room under his mother’s roof, which he mainly used to dress for dinner when dining in Calcutta Gardens, and he had “kept on” his chambers in the Temple; for to a young man in public life an independent address was indispensable. Moreover, he was suspected of having a studio in an out-of-the-way district, the indistinguishable parts of South Kensington, incongruous as such a retreat might seem in the case of a member of Parliament. It was an absurd place to see his constituents unless he wanted to paint their portraits, a kind of “representation” with which they would scarce have been satisfied; and in fact the only question of portraiture had been when the wives and daughters of several of them expressed a wish for the picture of their handsome young member. Nick had not offered to paint it himself, and the studio was taken for granted rather than much looked into by the ladies in Calcutta Gardens. Too express a disposition to regard whims of this sort as extravagance pure and simple was known by them to be open to correction; for they were not oblivious that Mr. Carteret had humours which weighed against them in the shape of convenient cheques nestling between the inside pages of legible letters of advice. Mr. Carteret was Nick’s providence, just as Nick was looked to, in a general way, to be that of his mother and sisters, especially since it had become so plain that Percy, who was not subtly selfish, would operate, mainly with a “six-bore,” quite out of that sphere. It was not for studios certainly that Mr. Carteret sent cheques; but they were an expression of general confidence in Nick, and a little expansion was natural to a young man enjoying such a luxury as that. It was sufficiently felt in Calcutta Gardens that he could be looked to not to betray such confidence; for Mr. Carteret’s behaviour could have no name at all unless one were prepared to call it encouraging. He had never promised anything, but he was one of the delightful persons with whom the redemption precedes or dispenses with the vow. He had been an early and lifelong friend of the late right honourable gentleman, a political follower, a devoted admirer, a stanch supporter in difficult hours. He had never married, espousing nothing more reproductive than Sir Nicholas’s views — he used to write letters to the Times in favour of them — and had, so far as was known, neither chick nor child; nothing but an amiable little family of eccentricities, the flower of which was his odd taste for living in a small, steep, clean country town, all green gardens and red walls with a girdle of hedge-rows, all clustered about an immense brown old abbey. When Lady Agnes’s imagination rested upon the future of her second son she liked to remember that Mr. Carteret had nothing to “keep up”: the inference seemed so direct that he would keep up Nick.

The most important event in the life of this young man had been incomparably his success, under his father’s eyes, more than two years before, in the sharp contest for Crockhurst — a victory which his consecrated name, his extreme youth, his ardour in the fray, the marked personal sympathy of the party, and the attention excited by the fresh cleverness of his speeches, tinted with young idealism and yet sticking sufficiently to the question — the burning question which has since burned out — had made quite splendid. There had been leaders in the newspapers about it, half in compliment to her husband, who was known to be failing so prematurely — he was almost as young to die, and to die famous, for Lady Agnes regarded it as famous, as his son had been to stand — tributes the boy’s mother religiously preserved, cut out and tied together with a ribbon, in the innermost drawer of a favourite cabinet. But it had been a barren, or almost a barren triumph, for in the order of importance in Nick’s history another incident had run it, as the phrase is, very close: nothing less than the quick dissolution of the Parliament in which he was so manifestly destined to give symptoms of a future. He had not recovered his seat at the general election, for the second contest was even sharper than the first and the Tories had put forward a loud, vulgar, rattling, bullying, money-spending man. It was to a certain extent a comfort that poor Sir Nicholas, who had been witness of the bright hour, should have passed away before the darkness. He died with all his hopes on his second son’s head, unconscious of near disappointment, handing on the torch and the tradition, after a long, supreme interview with Nick at which Lady Agnes had not been present, but which she knew to have been a thorough paternal dedication, an august communication of ideas on the highest national questions (she had reason to believe he had touched on those of external as well as of domestic and of colonial policy) leaving on the boy’s nature and manner from that moment the most unmistakable traces. If his tendency to reverie increased it was because he had so much to think over in what his pale father had said to him in the hushed dim chamber, laying on him the great mission that death had cut short, breathing into him with unforgettable solemnity the very accents — Sir Nicholas’s voice had been wonderful for richness — that he was to sound again. It was work cut out for a lifetime, and that “coordinating power in relation to detail” which was one of the great characteristics of the lamented statesman’s high distinction — the most analytic of the weekly papers was always talking about it — had enabled him to rescue the prospect from any shade of vagueness or of ambiguity.

Five years before Nick Dormer went up to be questioned by the electors of Crockhurst Peter Sherringham had appeared before a board of examiners who let him off much less easily, though there were also some flattering prejudices in his favour; such influences being a part of the copious, light, unembarrassing baggage with which each of the young men began life. Peter passed, however, passed high, and had his reward in prompt assignment to small, subordinate, diplomatic duties in Germany. Since then he had had his professional adventures, which need not arrest us, inasmuch as they had all paled in the light of his appointment, nearly three years previous to the moment of our making his acquaintance, to a secretaryship of embassy in Paris. He had done well and had gone fast and for the present could draw his breath at ease. It pleased him better to remain in Paris as a subordinate than to go to Honduras as a principal, and Nick Dormer had not put a false colour on the matter in speaking of his stall at the Théâtre Français as a sedative to his ambition. Nick’s inferiority in age to his cousin sat on him more lightly than when they had been in their teens; and indeed no one can very well be much older than a young man who has figured for a year, however imperceptibly, in the House of Commons. Separation and diversity had made them reciprocally strange enough to give a price to what they shared; they were friends without being particular friends; that further degree could always hang before them as a suitable but not oppressive contingency, and they were both conscious that it was in their interest to keep certain differences to “chaff” each other about — so possible was it that they might have quarrelled if they had had everything in common. Peter, as being wide-minded, was a little irritated to find his cousin always so intensely British, while Nick Dormer made him the object of the same compassionate criticism, recognised in him a rare knack with foreign tongues, but reflected, and even with extravagance declared, that it was a pity to have gone so far from home only to remain so homely. Moreover, Nick had his ideas about the diplomatic mind, finding in it, for his own sympathy, always the wrong turn. Dry, narrow, barren, poor he pronounced it in familiar conversation with the clever secretary; wanting in imagination, in generosity, in the finest perceptions and the highest courage. This served as well as anything else to keep the peace between them; it was a necessity of their friendly intercourse that they should scuffle a little, and it scarcely mattered what they scuffled about. Nick Dormer’s express enjoyment of Paris, the shop-windows on the quays, the old books on the parapet, the gaiety of the river, the grandeur of the Louvre, every fine feature of that prodigious face, struck his companion as a sign of insularity; the appreciation of such things having become with Sherringham an unconscious habit, a contented assimilation. If poor Nick, for the hour, was demonstrative and lyrical, it was because he had no other way of sounding the note of farewell to the independent life of which the term seemed now definitely in sight — the sense so pressed upon him that these were the last moments of his freedom. He would waste time till half-past seven, because half-past seven meant dinner, and dinner meant his mother solemnly attended by the strenuous shade of his father and re-enforced by Julia.

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