The Tragic Muse, by Henry James



The people of France have made it no secret that those of England, as a general thing, are to their perception an inexpressive and speechless race, perpendicular and unsociable, unaddicted to enriching any bareness of contact with verbal or other embroidery. This view might have derived encouragement, a few years ago, in Paris, from the manner in which four persons sat together in silence, one fine day about noon, in the garden, as it is called, of the Palais de l’Industrie — the central court of the great glazed bazaar where, among plants and parterres, gravelled walks and thin fountains, are ranged the figures and groups, the monuments and busts, which form in the annual exhibition of the Salon the department of statuary. The spirit of observation is naturally high at the Salon, quickened by a thousand artful or artless appeals, but it need have put forth no great intensity to take in the characters I mention. As a solicitation of the eye on definite grounds these visitors too constituted a successful plastic fact; and even the most superficial observer would have marked them as products of an insular neighbourhood, representatives of that tweed-and-waterproof class with which, on the recurrent occasions when the English turn out for a holiday — Christmas and Easter, Whitsuntide and the autumn — Paris besprinkles itself at a night’s notice. They had about them the indefinable professional look of the British traveller abroad; the air of preparation for exposure, material and moral, which is so oddly combined with the serene revelation of security and of persistence, and which excites, according to individual susceptibility, the ire or the admiration of foreign communities. They were the more unmistakable as they presented mainly the happier aspects of the energetic race to which they had the honour to belong. The fresh diffused light of the Salon made them clear and important; they were finished creations, in their way, and, ranged there motionless on their green bench, were almost as much on exhibition as if they had been hung on the line.

Three ladies and a young man, they were obviously a family — a mother, two daughters and a son; a circumstance which had the effect at once of making each member of the group doubly typical and of helping to account for their fine taciturnity. They were not, with each other, on terms of ceremony, and also were probably fatigued with their course among the pictures, the rooms on the upper floor. Their attitude, on the part of visitors who had superior features even if they might appear to some passers-by to have neglected a fine opportunity for completing these features with an expression, was after all a kind of tribute to the state of exhaustion, of bewilderment, to which the genius of France is still capable of reducing the proud.

“En v’là des abrutis!” more than one of their fellow-gazers might have been heard to exclaim; and certain it is that there was something depressed and discouraged in this interesting group, who sat looking vaguely before them, not noticing the life of the place, somewhat as if each had a private anxiety. It might have been finely guessed, however, that though on many questions they were closely united this present anxiety was not the same for each. If they looked grave, moreover, this was doubtless partly the result of their all being dressed in such mourning as told of a recent bereavement. The eldest of the three ladies had indeed a face of a fine austere mould which would have been moved to gaiety only by some force more insidious than any she was likely to recognise in Paris. Cold, still, and considerably worn, it was neither stupid nor hard — it was firm, narrow and sharp. This competent matron, acquainted evidently with grief but not weakened by it, had a high forehead to which the quality of the skin gave a singular polish — it glittered even when seen at a distance; a nose which achieved a high free curve; and a tendency to throw back her head and carry it well above her, as if to disengage it from the possible entanglements of the rest of her person. If you had seen her walk you would have felt her to tread the earth after a fashion suggesting that in a world where she had long since discovered that one couldn’t have one’s own way one could never tell what annoying aggression might take place, so that it was well, from hour to hour, to save what one could. Lady Agnes saved her head, her white triangular forehead, over which her close-crinkled flaxen hair, reproduced in different shades in her children, made a looped silken canopy like the marquee at a garden-party. Her daughters were as tall as herself — that was visible even as they sat there — and one of them, the younger evidently, altogether pretty; a straight, slender, grey-eyed English girl of the sort who show “good” figures and fresh complexions. The sister, who was not pretty, was also straight and slender and grey-eyed. But the grey in this case was not so pure, nor were the straightness and the slenderness so maidenly. The brother of these young ladies had taken off his hat as if he felt the air of the summer day heavy in the great pavilion. He was a lean, strong, clear-faced youth, with a formed nose and thick light-brown hair which lay continuously and profusely back from his forehead, so that to smooth it from the brow to the neck but a single movement of the hand was required. I cannot describe him better than by saying that he was the sort of young Englishman who looks particularly well in strange lands and whose general aspect — his inches, his limbs, his friendly eyes, the modulation of his voice, the cleanness of his flesh-tints and the fashion of his garments — excites on the part of those who encounter him in far countries on the ground of a common speech a delightful sympathy of race. This sympathy may sometimes be qualified by the seen limits of his apprehension, but it almost revels as such horizons recede. We shall see quickly enough how accurate a measure it might have taken of Nicholas Dormer. There was food for suspicion perhaps in the wandering blankness that sat at moments in his eyes, as if he had no attention at all, not the least in the world, at his command; but it is no more than just to add without delay that this discouraging symptom was known among those who liked him by the indulgent name of dreaminess. By his mother and sisters, for instance, his dreaminess was constantly noted. He is the more welcome to the benefit of such an interpretation as there is always held to be something engaging in the combination of the muscular and the musing, the mildness of strength.

After some time, an interval during which these good people might have appeared to have come, individually, to the Palais de l’Industrie much less to see the works of art than to think over their domestic affairs, the young man, rousing himself from his reverie, addressed one of the girls.

“I say, Biddy, why should we sit moping here all day? Come and take a turn about with me.”

His younger sister, while he got up, leaned forward a little, looking round her, but she gave for the moment no further sign of complying with his invitation.

“Where shall we find you, then, if Peter comes?” asked the other Miss Dormer, making no movement at all.

“I daresay Peter won’t come. He’ll leave us here to cool our heels.”

“Oh Nick dear!” Biddy exclaimed in a small sweet voice of protest. It was plainly her theory that Peter would come, and even a little her fond fear that she might miss him should she quit that spot.

“We shall come back in a quarter of an hour. Really I must look at these things,” Nick declared, turning his face to a marble group which stood near them on the right — a man with the skin of a beast round his loins, tussling with a naked woman in some primitive effort of courtship or capture.

Lady Agnes followed the direction of her son’s eyes and then observed: “Everything seems very dreadful. I should think Biddy had better sit still. Hasn’t she seen enough horrors up above?”

“I daresay that if Peter comes Julia’ll be with him,” the elder girl remarked irrelevantly.

“Well then he can take Julia about. That will be more proper,” said Lady Agnes.

“Mother dear, she doesn’t care a rap about art. It’s a fearful bore looking at fine things with Julia,” Nick returned.

“Won’t you go with him, Grace?”— and Biddy appealed to her sister.

“I think she has awfully good taste!” Grace exclaimed, not answering this inquiry.

Don’t say nasty things about her!” Lady Agnes broke out solemnly to her son after resting her eyes on him a moment with an air of reluctant reprobation.

“I say nothing but what she’d say herself,” the young man urged. “About some things she has very good taste, but about this kind of thing she has no taste at all.”

“That’s better, I think,” said Lady Agnes, turning her eyes again to the “kind of thing” her son appeared to designate.

“She’s awfully clever — awfully!” Grace went on with decision.

“Awfully, awfully!” her brother repeated, standing in front of her and smiling down at her.

“You are nasty, Nick. You know you are,” said the young lady, but more in sorrow than in anger.

Biddy got up at this, as if the accusatory tone prompted her to place herself generously at his side. “Mightn’t you go and order lunch — in that place, you know?” she asked of her mother. “Then we’d come back when it was ready.”

“My dear child, I can’t order lunch,” Lady Agnes replied with a cold impatience which seemed to intimate that she had problems far more important than those of victualling to contend with.

“Then perhaps Peter will if he comes. I’m sure he’s up in everything of that sort.”

“Oh hang Peter!” Nick exclaimed. “Leave him out of account, and do order lunch, mother; but not cold beef and pickles.”

“I must say — about him — you’re not nice,” Biddy ventured to remark to her brother, hesitating and even blushing a little.

“You make up for it, my dear,” the young man answered, giving her chin — a very charming, rotund, little chin — a friendly whisk with his forefinger.

“I can’t imagine what you’ve got against him,” her ladyship said gravely.

“Dear mother, it’s disappointed fondness,” Nick argued. “They won’t answer one’s notes; they won’t let one know where they are nor what to expect. ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’; nor like a man either.”

“Peter has such a tremendous lot to do — it’s a very busy time at the embassy; there are sure to be reasons,” Biddy explained with her pretty eyes.

“Reasons enough, no doubt!” said Lady Agnes — who accompanied these words with an ambiguous sigh, however, as if in Paris even the best reasons would naturally be bad ones.

“Doesn’t Julia write to you, doesn’t she answer you the very day?” Grace asked, looking at Nick as if she were the bold one.

He waited, returning her glance with a certain severity. “What do you know about my correspondence? No doubt I ask too much,” he went on; “I’m so attached to them. Dear old Peter, dear old Julia!”

“She’s younger than you, my dear!” cried the elder girl, still resolute.

“Yes, nineteen days.”

“I’m glad you know her birthday.”

“She knows yours; she always gives you something,” Lady Agnes reminded her son.

“Her taste is good then, isn’t it, Nick?” Grace Dormer continued.

“She makes charming presents; but, dear mother, it isn’t her taste. It’s her husband’s.”

“How her husband’s?”

“The beautiful objects of which she disposes so freely are the things he collected for years laboriously, devotedly, poor man!”

“She disposes of them to you, but not to others,” said Lady Agnes. “But that’s all right,” she added, as if this might have been taken for a complaint of the limitations of Julia’s bounty. “She has to select among so many, and that’s a proof of taste,” her ladyship pursued.

“You can’t say she doesn’t choose lovely ones,” Grace remarked to her brother in a tone of some triumph.

“My dear, they’re all lovely. George Dallow’s judgement was so sure, he was incapable of making a mistake,” Nicholas Dormer returned.

“I don’t see how you can talk of him, he was dreadful,” said Lady Agnes.

“My dear, if he was good enough for Julia to marry he’s good enough for us to talk of.”

“She did him a very great honour.”

“I daresay, but he was not unworthy of it. No such enlightened collection of beautiful objects has been made in England in our time.”

“You think too much of beautiful objects!” Lady Agnes sighed.

“I thought you were just now lamenting that I think too little.”

“It’s very nice — his having left Julia so well off,” Biddy interposed soothingly, as if she foresaw a tangle.

“He treated her en grand seigneur, absolutely,” Nick went on.

“He used to look greasy, all the same”— Grace bore on it with a dull weight. “His name ought to have been Tallow.”

“You’re not saying what Julia would like, if that’s what you are trying to say,” her brother observed.

“Don’t be vulgar, Grace,” said Lady Agnes.

“I know Peter Sherringham’s birthday!” Biddy broke out innocently, as a pacific diversion. She had passed her hand into Nick’s arm, to signify her readiness to go with him, while she scanned the remoter reaches of the garden as if it had occurred to her that to direct their steps in some such sense might after all be the shorter way to get at Peter.

“He’s too much older than you, my dear,” Grace answered without encouragement.

“That’s why I’ve noticed it — he’s thirty-four. Do you call that too old? I don’t care for slobbering infants!” Biddy cried.

“Don’t be vulgar,” Lady Agnes enjoined again.

“Come, Bid, we’ll go and be vulgar together; for that’s what we are, I’m afraid,” her brother said to her. “We’ll go and look at all these low works of art.”

“Do you really think it’s necessary to the child’s development?” Lady Agnes demanded as the pair turned away. And then while her son, struck as by a challenge, paused, lingering a moment with his little sister on his arm: “What we’ve been through this morning in this place, and what you’ve paraded before our eyes — the murders, the tortures, all kinds of disease and indecency!”

Nick looked at his mother as if this sudden protest surprised him, but as if also there were lurking explanations of it which he quickly guessed. Her resentment had the effect not so much of animating her cold face as of making it colder, less expressive, though visibly prouder. “Ah dear mother, don’t do the British matron!” he replied good-humouredly.

“British matron’s soon said! I don’t know what they’re coming to.”

“How odd that you should have been struck only with the disagreeable things when, for myself, I’ve felt it to be most interesting, the most suggestive morning I’ve passed for ever so many months!”

“Oh Nick, Nick!” Lady Agnes cried with a strange depth of feeling.

“I like them better in London — they’re much less unpleasant,” said Grace Dormer.

“They’re things you can look at,” her ladyship went on. “We certainly make the better show.”

“The subject doesn’t matter, it’s the treatment, the treatment!” Biddy protested in a voice like the tinkle of a silver bell.

“Poor little Bid!”— her brother broke into a laugh.

“How can I learn to model, mamma dear, if I don’t look at things and if I don’t study them?” the girl continued.

This question passed unheeded, and Nicholas Dormer said to his mother, more seriously, but with a certain kind explicitness, as if he could make a particular allowance: “This place is an immense stimulus to me; it refreshes me, excites me — it’s such an exhibition of artistic life. It’s full of ideas, full of refinements; it gives one such an impression of artistic experience. They try everything, they feel everything. While you were looking at the murders, apparently, I observed an immense deal of curious and interesting work. There are too many of them, poor devils; so many who must make their way, who must attract attention. Some of them can only taper fort, stand on their heads, turn somersaults or commit deeds of violence, to make people notice them. After that, no doubt, a good many will be quieter. But I don’t know; today I’m in an appreciative mood — I feel indulgent even to them: they give me an impression of intelligence, of eager observation. All art is one — remember that, Biddy dear,” the young man continued, smiling down from his height. “It’s the same great many-headed effort, and any ground that’s gained by an individual, any spark that’s struck in any province, is of use and of suggestion to all the others. We’re all in the same boat.”

“‘We,’ do you say, my dear? Are you really setting up for an artist?” Lady Agnes asked.

Nick just hesitated. “I was speaking for Biddy.”

“But you are one, Nick — you are!” the girl cried.

Lady Agnes looked for an instant as if she were going to say once more “Don’t be vulgar!” But she suppressed these words, had she intended them, and uttered sounds, few in number and not completely articulate, to the effect that she hated talking about art. While her son spoke she had watched him as if failing to follow; yet something in the tone of her exclamation hinted that she had understood him but too well.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Biddy repeated with cheerful zeal.

“Not me, if you please!” Lady Agnes replied. “It’s horrid messy work, your modelling.”

“Ah but look at the results!” said the girl eagerly — glancing about at the monuments in the garden as if in regard even to them she were, through that unity of art her brother had just proclaimed, in some degree an effective cause.

“There’s a great deal being done here — a real vitality,” Nicholas Dormer went on to his mother in the same reasonable informing way. “Some of these fellows go very far.”

“They do indeed!” said Lady Agnes.

“I’m fond of young schools — like this movement in sculpture,” Nick insisted with his slightly provoking serenity.

“They’re old enough to know better!”

“Mayn’t I look, mamma? It is necessary to my development,” Biddy declared.

“You may do as you like,” said Lady Agnes with dignity.

“She ought to see good work, you know,” the young man went on.

“I leave it to your sense of responsibility.” This statement was somewhat majestic, and for a moment evidently it tempted Nick, almost provoked him, or at any rate suggested to him an occasion for some pronouncement he had had on his mind. Apparently, however, he judged the time on the whole not quite right, and his sister Grace interposed with the inquiry —

“Please, mamma, are we never going to lunch?”

“Ah mother, mother!” the young man murmured in a troubled way, looking down at her with a deep fold in his forehead.

For Lady Agnes also, as she returned his look, it seemed an occasion; but with this difference that she had no hesitation in taking advantage of it. She was encouraged by his slight embarrassment, for ordinarily Nick was not embarrassed. “You used to have so much sense of responsibility,” she pursued; “but sometimes I don’t know what has become of it — it seems all, all gone!”

“Ah mother, mother!” he exclaimed again — as if there were so many things to say that it was impossible to choose. But now he stepped closer, bent over her and in spite of the publicity of their situation gave her a quick expressive kiss. The foreign observer whom I took for granted in beginning to sketch this scene would have had to admit that the rigid English family had after all a capacity for emotion. Grace Dormer indeed looked round her to see if at this moment they were noticed. She judged with satisfaction that they had escaped.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56