The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

L

One day toward the end of March of the following year, in other words more than six months after Mr. Nash’s disappearance, Bridget Dormer came into her brother’s studio and greeted him with the effusion that accompanies a return from an absence. She had been staying at Broadwood — she had been staying at Harsh. She had various things to tell him about these episodes, about his mother, about Grace, about her small subterraneous self, and about Percy’s having come, just before, over to Broadwood for two days; the longest visit with which, almost since they could remember, the head of the family had honoured their common parent. Nick noted indeed that this demonstration had apparently been taken as a great favour, and Biddy loyally testified to the fact that her elder brother was awfully jolly and that his presence had been a pretext for tremendous fun. Nick accordingly asked her what had passed about his marriage — what their mother had said to him.

“Oh nothing,” she replied; and Percy had said nothing to Lady Agnes and not a word to herself. This partly explained, for his junior, the consequent beatitude — none but cheerful topics had been produced; but he questioned the girl further — to a point which led her to say: “Oh I daresay that before long she’ll write to her.”

“Who’ll write to whom?”

“Mamma’ll write to Percy’s wife. I’m sure he’d like it. Of course we shall end by going to see her. He was awfully disappointed at what he found in Spain — he didn’t find anything.”

Biddy spoke of his disappointment almost with commiseration, for she was evidently inclined this morning to a fresh and kindly view of things. Nick could share her feeling but so far as was permitted by a recognition merely general of what his brother must have looked for. It might have been snipe and it might have been bristling boars. Biddy was indeed brief at first about everything, in spite of all the weeks that had gone since their last meeting; for he quickly enough saw she had something behind — something that made her gay and that she wanted to come to quickly. He was vaguely vexed at her being, fresh from Broadwood, so gay as that; for — it was impossible to shut one’s eyes to the fact — what had practically come to pass in regard to that rural retreat was exactly what he had desired to avert. All winter, while it had been taken for granted his mother and sisters were doing what he wished, they had been doing precisely what he hated. He held Biddy perhaps least responsible, and there was no one he could exclusively blame. He washed his hands of the matter and succeeded fairly well, for the most part, in forgetting he was not pleased. Julia herself in truth appeared to have been the most active member of the little group united to make light of his decencies. There had been a formal restitution of Broadwood, but the three ladies were there more than ever, with the slight difference that they were mainly there with its mistress. Mahomet had declined to go any more to the mountain, so the mountain had virtually come to Mahomet.

After their long visit in the autumn Lady Agnes and her girls had come back to town; but they had gone down again for Christmas and Julia had taken this occasion to write to Nick that she hoped very much he wouldn’t refuse them all his own company for just a little scrap of the supremely sociable time. Nick, after reflexion, judged it best not to refuse, so that he passed, in the event, four days under his cousin’s roof. The “all” proved a great many people, for she had taken care to fill the house. She took the largest view of hospitality and Nick had never seen her so splendid, so free-handed, so gracefully active. She was a perfect mistress of the revels; she had arranged some ancient bravery for every day and for every night. The Dormers were so much in it, as the phrase was, that after all their discomfiture their fortune seemed in an hour to have come back. There had been a moment when, in extemporised charades, Lady Agnes, an elderly figure being required, appeared on the point of undertaking the part of the housekeeper at a castle, who, dropping her h’s, showed sheeplike tourists about; but she waived the opportunity in favour of her daughter Grace. Even Grace had a great success; Grace dropped her h’s as with the crash of empires. Nick of course was in the charades and in everything, but Julia was not; she only invented, directed, led the applause. When nothing else was forward Nick “sketched” the whole company: they followed him about, they waylaid him on staircases, clamouring to be allowed to sit. He obliged them so far as he could, all save Julia, who didn’t clamour; and, growing rather red, he thought of Gabriel Nash while he bent over the paper. Early in the new year he went abroad for six weeks, but only as far as Paris. It was a new Paris for him then; a Paris of the Rue Bonaparte and three or four professional friends — he had more of these there than in London; a Paris of studios and studies and models, of researches and revelations, comparisons and contrasts, of strong impressions and long discussions and rather uncomfortable economies, small cafés, bad fires and the general sense of being twenty again.

While he was away his mother and sisters — Lady Agnes now sometimes wrote to him — returned to London for a month, and before he was again established in Rosedale Road they went back for a third course of Broadwood. After they had been there five days — and this was the salt of the whole feast — Julia took herself off to Harsh, leaving them in undisturbed possession. They had remained so — they wouldn’t come up to town till after Easter. The trick was played, and Biddy, as I have mentioned, was now very content. Her brother presently learned, however, that the reason of this was not wholly the success of the trick; unless indeed her further ground were only a continuation of it. She was not in London as a forerunner of her mother; she was not even as yet in Calcutta Gardens. She had come to spend a week with Florry Tressilian, who had lately taken the dearest little flat in a charming new place, just put up, on the other side of the Park, with all kinds of lifts and tubes and electricities. Florry had been awfully nice to her — had been with them ever so long at Broadwood while the flat was being painted and prepared — and mamma had then let her, let Biddy, promise to come to her, when everything was ready, so that they might have a happy old maids’ (for they were, old maids now!) house-warming together. If Florry could by this time do without a chaperon — she had two latchkeys and went alone on the top of omnibuses, and her name was in the Red Book — she was enough of a duenna for another girl. Biddy referred with sweet cynical eyes to the fine happy stride she had thus taken in the direction of enlightened spinsterhood; and Nick hung his head, immensely abashed and humiliated, for, modern as he had fatuously supposed himself, there were evidently currents more modern yet.

It so happened that on this particular morning he had drawn out of a corner his interrupted study of Gabriel Nash; on no further curiosity — he had only been looking round the room in a rummaging spirit — than to see how much or how little of it remained. It had become to his view so dim an adumbration — he was sure of this, and it pressed some spring of melancholy mirth — that it didn’t seem worth putting away, and he left it leaning against a table as if it had been a blank canvas or a “preparation” to be painted over. In this posture it attracted Biddy’s attention, for on a second glance it showed distinguishable features. She had not seen it before and now asked whom it might represent, remarking also that she could almost guess, yet not quite: she had known the original but couldn’t name him.

“Six months ago, for a few days, it represented Gabriel Nash,” Nick replied. “But it isn’t anybody or anything now.”

“Six months ago? What’s the matter with it and why don’t you go on?”

“What’s the matter with it is more than I can tell you. But I can’t go on because I’ve lost my model.”

She had an almost hopeful stare. “Is he beautifully dead?”

Her brother laughed out at the candid cheerfulness, hopefulness almost, with which this inquiry broke from her. “He’s only dead to me. He has gone away.”

“Where has he gone?”

“I haven’t the least idea.”

“Why, have you quarrelled?”— Biddy shone again.

“Quarrelled? For what do you take us? Docs the nightingale quarrel with the moon?”

“I needn’t ask which of you is the moon,” she said.

“Of course I’m the nightingale. But, more literally,” Nick continued, “Nash has melted back into the elements — he’s part of the great air of the world.” And then as even with this lucidity he saw the girl still mystified: “I’ve a notion he has gone to India and at the present moment is reclining on a bank of flowers in the vale of Cashmere.”

Biddy had a pause, after which she dropped: “Julia will be glad — she dislikes him so.”

“If she dislikes him why should she be glad he’s so enviably placed?”

“I mean about his going away. She’ll be glad of that.”

“My poor incorrigible child,” Nick cried, “what has Julia to do with it?”

“She has more to do with things than you think,” Biddy returned with all her bravery. Yet she had no sooner uttered the words than she perceptibly blushed. Hereupon, to attenuate the foolishness of her blush — only it had the opposite effect — she added: “She thinks he has been a bad element in your life.”

Nick emitted a long strange sound. “She thinks perhaps, but she doesn’t think enough; otherwise she’d arrive at this better thought — that she knows nothing whatever about my life.”

“Ah brother,” the girl pleaded with solemn eyes, “you don’t imagine what an interest she takes in it. She has told me many times — she has talked lots to me about it.” Biddy paused and then went on, an anxious little smile shining through her gravity as if from a cautious wonder as to how much he would take: “She has a conviction it was Mr. Nash who made trouble between you.”

“Best of little sisters,” Nick pronounced, “those are thoroughly second-rate ideas, the result of a perfectly superficial view. Excuse my possibly priggish tone, but they really attribute to my dear detached friend a part he’s quite incapable of playing. He can neither make trouble nor take trouble; no trouble could ever either have come out of him or have got into him. Moreover,” our young man continued, “if Julia has talked to you so much about the matter there’s no harm in my talking to you a little. When she threw me over in an hour it was on a perfectly definite occasion. That occasion was the presence in my studio of a dishevelled, an abandoned actress.”

“Oh Nick, she has not thrown you over!” Biddy protested. “She has not — I’ve proof.”

He felt at this direct denial a certain stir of indignation and looked at the girl with momentary sternness. “Has she sent you here to tell me this? What do you mean by proof?”

Biddy’s eyes, at these questions, met her brother’s with a strange expression, and for a few seconds, while she looked entreatingly into them, she wavered there with parted lips and vaguely stretched out her hands. The next minute she had burst into tears — she was sobbing on his breast. He said “Hallo!” and soothed her; but it was very quickly over. Then she told him what she meant by her proof and what she had had on her mind ever since her present arrival. It was a message from Julia, but not to say — not to say what he had questioned her about just before; though indeed, more familiar now that he had his arm round her, she boldly expressed the hope it might in the end come to the same thing. Julia simply wanted to know —— she had instructed her to sound him discreetly — if Nick would undertake her portrait; and she wound up this experiment in “sounding” by the statement that their beautiful kinswoman was dying to sit.

“Dying to sit?” echoed Nick, whose turn it was this time to feel his colour rise.

“At any moment you like after Easter, when she comes up. She wants a full-length and your very best, your most splendid work.”

Nick stared, not caring that he had blushed. “Is she serious?”

“Ah Nick — serious!” Biddy reasoned tenderly. She came nearer again and he thought her again about to weep. He took her by the shoulders, looking into her eyes.

“It’s all right if she knows I am. But why doesn’t she come like any one else? I don’t refuse people!”

“Nick, dearest Nick!” she went on, her eyes conscious and pleading. He looked into them intently — as well as she could he play at sounding — and for a moment, between these young persons, the air was lighted by the glimmer of mutual searchings and suppressed confessions. Nick read deep and then, suddenly releasing his sister, turned away. She didn’t see his face in that movement, but an observer to whom it had been presented might have fancied it denoted a foreboding that was not exactly a dread, yet was not exclusively a joy.

The first thing he made out in the room, when he could distinguish, was Gabriel Nash’s portrait, which suddenly filled him with an unreasoning rancour. He seized it and turned it about, jammed it back into its corner with its face against the wall. This small diversion might have served to carry off the embarrassment with which he had finally averted himself from Biddy. The embarrassment, however, was all his own; none of it was reflected in the way she resumed, after a silence in which she had followed his disposal of the picture:

“If she’s so eager to come here — for it’s here she wants to sit, not in Great Stanhope Street, never! — how can she prove better that she doesn’t care a bit if she meets Miss Rooth?”

“She won’t meet Miss Rooth,” Nick replied rather dryly.

“Oh I’m sorry!” said Biddy. She was as frank as if she had achieved a virtual victory, and seemed to regret the loss of a chance for Julia to show an equal mildness. Her tone made her brother laugh, but she went on with confidence: “She thought it was Mr. Nash who made Miss Rooth come.”

“So he did, by the way,” said Nick.

“Well then, wasn’t that making trouble?”

“I thought you admitted there was no harm in her being here.”

“Yes, but he hoped there’d be.”

“Poor Nash’s hopes!” Nick laughed. “My dear child, it would take a cleverer head than you or me, or even Julia, who must have invented that wise theory, to say what they were. However, let us agree that even if they were perfectly fiendish my good sense has been a match for them.”

“Oh Nick, that’s delightful!” chanted Biddy. Then she added: “Do you mean she doesn’t come any more?”

“The dishevelled actress? She hasn’t been near me for months.”

“But she’s in London — she’s always acting? I’ve been away so much I’ve scarcely observed,” Biddy explained with a slight change of note.

“The same silly part, poor creature, for nearly a year. It appears that that’s ‘success’— in her profession. I saw her in the character several times last summer, but haven’t set foot in her theatre since.”

Biddy took this in; then she suggested; “Peter wouldn’t have liked that.”

“Oh Peter’s likes —!” Nick at his easel, beginning to work, conveniently sighed.

“I mean her acting the same part for a year.”

“I’m sure I don’t know; he has never written me a word.”

“Nor me either,” Biddy returned.

There was another short silence, during which Nick brushed at a panel. It ended in his presently saying: “There’s one thing certainly Peter would like — that is simply to be here to-night. It’s a great night — another great night — for the abandoned one. She’s to act Juliet for the first time.”

“Ah how I should like to see her!” the girl cried.

Nick glanced at her; she sat watching him. “She has sent me a stall; I wish she had sent me two. I should have been delighted to take you.”

“Don’t you think you could get another?” Biddy quavered.

“They must be in tremendous demand. But who knows after all?” Nick added, at the same moment looking round. “Here’s a chance — here’s quite an extraordinary chance!”

His servant had opened the door and was ushering in a lady whose identity was indeed justly reflected in those words. “Miss Rooth!” the man announced; but he was caught up by a gentleman who came next and who exclaimed, laughing and with a gesture gracefully corrective: “No, no — no longer Miss Rooth!”

Miriam entered the place with her charming familiar grandeur — entered very much as she might have appeared, as she appeared every night, early in her first act, at the back of the stage, by the immemorial middle door. She might exactly now have been presenting herself to the house, taking easy possession, repeating old movements, looking from one to the other of the actors before the footlights. The rich “Good-morning” she threw into the air, holding out her right hand to Biddy and then giving her left to Nick — as she might have given it to her own brother — had nothing to tell of intervals or alienations. She struck Biddy as still more terrible in her splendid practice than when she had seen her before — the practice and the splendour had now something almost royal. The girl had had occasion to make her curtsey to majesties and highnesses, but the flutter those effigies produced was nothing to the way in which at the approach of this young lady the agitated air seemed to recognise something supreme. So the deep mild eyes she bent on Biddy were not soothing, though for that matter evidently intended to soothe. Biddy wondered Nick could have got so used to her — he joked at her as she loomed — and later in the day, still under the great impression of this incident, she even wondered that Peter could have full an impunity. It was true that Peter apparently didn’t quite feel one.

“You never came — you never came,” Miriam said to her kindly and sadly; and Biddy, recognising the allusion, the invitation to visit the actress at home, had to explain how much she had been absent from London and then even that her brother hadn’t proposed to take her.

“Very true — he hasn’t come himself. What’s he doing now?” asked Miss Rooth, standing near her young friend but looking at Nick, who had immediately engaged in conversation with his other visitor, a gentleman whose face came back to the girl. She had seen this gentleman on the stage with the great performer — that was it, the night Peter took her to the theatre with Florry Tressilian. Oh that Nick would only do something of that sort now! This desire, quickened by the presence of the strange, expressive woman, by the way she scattered sweet syllables as if she were touching the piano-keys, combined with other things to make our young lady’s head swim — other things too mingled to name, admiration and fear and dim divination and purposeless pride and curiosity and resistance, the impulse to go away and the determination to (as she would have liked fondly to fancy it) “hold her ground.” The actress courted her with a wondrous voice — what was the matter with the actress and what did she want? — and Biddy tried in return to give an idea of what Nick was doing. Not succeeding very well she was about to appeal to her brother, but Miriam stopped her with the remark that it didn’t signify; besides, Dashwood was telling Nick something — something they wanted him to know. “We’re in a great excitement — he has taken a theatre,” Miriam added.

“Taken a theatre?” Biddy was vague.

“We’re going to set up for ourselves. He’s going to do for me altogether. It has all been arranged only within a day or two. It remains to be seen how it will answer,” Miriam smiled. Biddy murmured some friendly hope, and the shining presence went on: “Do you know why I’ve broken in here today after a long absence — interrupting your poor brother so basely, taking up his precious time? It’s because I’m so nervous.”

“About your first night?” Biddy risked.

“Do you know about that — are you coming?” Miriam had caught at it.

“No, I’m not coming — I haven’t a place.”

“Will you come if I send you one?”

“Oh but really it’s too beautiful of you!” breathed the girl.

“You shall have a box; your brother shall bring you. They can’t squeeze in a pin, I’m told; but I’ve kept a box, I’ll manage it. Only if I do, you know, mind you positively come!” She sounded it as the highest of favours, resting her hand on Biddy’s.

“Don’t be afraid. And may I bring a friend — the friend with whom I’m staying?”

Miriam now just gloomed. “Do you mean Mrs. Dallow?”

“No, no — Miss Tressilian. She puts me up, she has got a flat. Did you ever see a flat?” asked Biddy expansively. “My cousin’s not in London.” Miriam replied that she might bring whom she liked and Biddy broke out to her brother: “Fancy what kindness, Nick: we’re to have a box to-night and you’re to take me!”

Nick turned to her a face of levity which struck her even at the time as too cynically free, but which she understood when the finer sense of it subsequently recurred to her. Mr. Dashwood interposed with the remark that it was all very well to talk about boxes, but that he didn’t see how at that time of day the miracle was to be worked.

“You haven’t kept one as I told you?” Miriam demanded.

“As you told me, my dear? Tell the lamb to keep its tenderest mutton from the wolves!”

“You shall have one: we’ll arrange it,” Miriam went on to Biddy.

“Let me qualify that statement a little, Miss Dormer,” said Basil Dashwood. “We’ll arrange it if it’s humanly possible.”

“We’ll arrange it even if it’s inhumanly impossible — that’s just the point,” Miriam declared to the girl. “Don’t talk about trouble — what’s he meant for but to take it? Cela s’annonce bien, you see,” she continued to Nick: “doesn’t it look as if we should pull beautifully together?” And as he answered that he heartily congratulated her — he was immensely interested in what he had been told — she exclaimed after resting her eyes on him a moment: “What will you have? It seemed simpler! It was clear there had to be some one.” She explained further to Nick what had led her to come in at that moment, while Dashwood approached Biddy with a civil assurance that they would see, they would leave no stone unturned, though he would not have taken upon himself to promise.

Miriam reminded Nick of the blessing he had been to her nearly a year before, on her other first night, when she was all impatient and on edge; how he had let her come and sit there for hours — helped her to possess her soul till the evening and to keep out of harm’s way. The case was the same at present, with the aggravation indeed that he would understand — Dashwood’s nerves as well as her own: Dashwood’s were a great deal worse than hers. Everything was ready for Juliet; they had been rehearsing for five months — it had kept her from going mad from the treadmill of the other piece — and he, Nick, had occurred to her again, in the last intolerable hours, as the friend in need, the salutary stop-gap, no matter how much she worried him. She shouldn’t be turned out? Biddy broke away from Basil Dashwood: she must go, she must hurry off to Miss Tressilian with her news. Florry might make some other stupid engagement for the evening: she must be warned in time. The girl took a flushed, excited leave after having received a renewal of Miriam’s pledge and even heard her say to Nick that he must now give back the seat already sent him — they should be sure to have another use for it.

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