The Tragic Muse, by Henry James



The drive from Harsh to the Place, as it was called thereabouts, could be achieved by swift horses in less than ten minutes; and if Mrs. Dallow’s ponies were capital trotters the general high pitch of the occasion made it all congruous they should show their speed. The occasion was the polling-day an hour after the battle. The ponies had kept pace with other driven forces for the week before, passing and repassing the neat windows of the flat little town — Mrs. Dallow had the complacent belief that there was none in the kingdom in which the flower-stands looked more respectable between the stiff muslin curtains — with their mistress behind them on her all but silver wheels. Very often she was accompanied by the Liberal candidate, but even when she was not the equipage seemed scarce less to represent his easy, friendly confidence. It moved in a radiance of ribbons and hand-bills and hand-shakes and smiles; of quickened commerce and sudden intimacy; of sympathy which assumed without presuming and gratitude which promised without soliciting. But under Julia’s guidance the ponies pattered now, with no indication of a loss of freshness, along the firm, wide avenue which wound and curved, to make up in large effect for not undulating, from the gates opening straight on the town to the Palladian mansion, high, square, grey, and clean, which stood among terraces and fountains in the centre of the park. A generous steed had been sacrificed to bring the good news from Ghent to Aix, but no such extravagance was after all necessary for communicating with Lady Agnes.

She had remained at the house, not going to the Wheatsheaf, the Liberal inn, with the others; preferring to await in privacy and indeed in solitude the momentous result of the poll. She had come down to Harsh with the two girls in the course of the proceedings. Julia hadn’t thought they would do much good, but she was expansive and indulgent now and had generously asked them. Lady Agnes had not a nice canvassing manner, effective as she might have been in the character of the high, benignant, affable mother — looking sweet participation but not interfering — of the young and handsome, the shining, convincing, wonderfully clever and certainly irresistible aspirant. Grace Dormer had zeal without art, and Lady Agnes, who during her husband’s lifetime had seen their affairs follow the satisfactory principle of a tendency to defer to supreme merit, had never really learned the lesson that voting goes by favour. However, she could pray God if, she couldn’t make love to the cheesemonger, and Nick felt she had stayed at home to pray for him. I must add that Julia Dallow was too happy now, flicking her whip in the bright summer air, to say anything so ungracious even to herself as that her companion had been returned in spite of his nearest female relatives. Besides, Biddy had been a rosy help: she had looked persuasively pretty, in white and blue, on platforms and in recurrent carriages, out of which she had tossed, blushing and making people feel they would remember her eyes, several words that were telling for their very simplicity.

Mrs. Dallow was really too glad for any definite reflexion, even for personal exultation, the vanity of recognising her own large share of the work. Nick was in and was now beside her, tired, silent, vague, beflowered and beribboned, and he had been splendid from beginning to end, beautifully good-humoured and at the same time beautifully clever — still cleverer than she had supposed he could be. The sense of her having quickened his cleverness and been repaid by it or by his gratitude — it came to the same thing — in a way she appreciated was not assertive and jealous: it was lost for the present in the general happy break of the long tension. So nothing passed between them in their progress to the house; there was no sound in the park but the pleasant rustle of summer — it seemed an applausive murmur — and the swift roll of the vehicle.

Lady Agnes already knew, for as soon as the result was declared Nick had despatched a mounted man to her, carrying the figures on a scrawled card. He himself had been far from getting away at once, having to respond to the hubbub of acclamation, to speak yet again, to thank his electors individually and collectively, to chaff the Tories without cheap elation, to be carried hither and yon, and above all to pretend that the interest of the business was now greater for him than ever. If he had said never a word after putting himself in Julia’s hands to go home it was partly perhaps because the consciousness had begun to glimmer within him, on the contrary, of some sudden shrinkage of that interest. He wanted to see his mother because he knew she wanted to fold him close in her arms. They had been open there for this purpose the last half-hour, and her expectancy, now no longer an ache of suspense, was the reason of Julia’s round pace. Yet this very impatience in her somehow made Nick wince a little. Meeting his mother was like being elected over again.

The others had not yet come back, and Lady Agnes was alone in the large, bright drawing-room. When Nick went in with Julia he saw her at the further end; she had evidently been walking up and down the whole length of it, and her tall, upright, black figure seemed in possession of the fair vastness after the manner of an exclamation-point at the bottom of a blank page. The room, rich and simple, was a place of perfection as well as of splendour in delicate tints, with precious specimens of French furniture of the last century ranged against walls of pale brocade, and here and there a small, almost priceless picture. George Dallow had made it, caring for these things and liking to talk about them — scarce ever about anything else; so that it appeared to represent him still, what was best in his kindly, limited nature, his friendly, competent, tiresome insistence on harmony — on identity of “period.” Nick could hear him yet, and could see him, too fat and with a congenital thickness in his speech, lounging there in loose clothes with his eternal cigarette. “Now my dear fellow, that’s what I call form: I don’t know what you call it”— that was the way he used to begin. All round were flowers in rare vases, but it looked a place of which the beauty would have smelt sweet even without them.

Lady Agnes had taken a white rose from one of the clusters and was holding it to her face, which was turned to the door as Nick crossed the threshold. The expression of her figure instantly told him — he saw the creased card he had sent her lying on one of the beautiful bare tables — how she had been sailing up and down in a majesty of satisfaction. The inflation of her long plain dress and the brightened dimness of her proud face were still in the air. In a moment he had kissed her and was being kissed, not in quick repetition, but in tender prolongation, with which the perfume of the white rose was mixed. But there was something else too — her sweet smothered words in his ear: “Oh my boy, my boy — oh your father, your father!” Neither the sense of pleasure nor that of pain, with Lady Agnes — as indeed with most of the persons with whom this history is concerned — was a liberation of chatter; so that for a minute all she said again was, “I think of Sir Nicholas and wish he were here”; addressing the words to Julia, who had wandered forward without looking at the mother and son.

“Poor Sir Nicholas!” said Mrs. Dallow vaguely.

“Did you make another speech?” Lady Agnes asked.

“I don’t know. Did I?” Nick appealed.

“I don’t know!”— and Julia spoke with her back turned, doing something to her hat before the glass.

“Oh of course the confusion, the bewilderment!” said Lady Agnes in a tone rich in political reminiscence.

“It was really immense fun,” Mrs. Dallow went so far as to drop.

“Dearest Julia!” Lady Agnes deeply breathed. Then she added: “It was you who made it sure.”

“There are a lot of people coming to dinner,” said Julia.

“Perhaps you’ll have to speak again,” Lady Agnes smiled at her son.

“Thank you; I like the way you talk about it!” cried Nick. “I’m like Iago: ‘from this time forth I never will speak word!’”

“Don’t say that, Nick,” said his mother gravely.

“Don’t be afraid — he’ll jabber like a magpie!” And Julia went out of the room.

Nick had flung himself on a sofa with an air of weariness, though not of completely extinct cheer; and Lady Agnes stood fingering her rose and looking down at him. His eyes kept away from her; they seemed fixed on something she couldn’t see. “I hope you’ve thanked Julia handsomely,” she presently remarked.

“Why of course, mother.”

“She has done as much as if you hadn’t been sure.”

“I wasn’t in the least sure — and she has done everything.”

“She has been too good — but we’ve done something. I hope you don’t leave out your father,” Lady Agnes amplified as Nick’s glance appeared for a moment to question her “we.”

“Never, never!” Nick uttered these words perhaps a little mechanically, but the next minute he added as if suddenly moved to think what he could say that would give his mother most pleasure: “Of course his name has worked for me. Gone as he is he’s still a living force.” He felt a good deal of a hypocrite, but one didn’t win such a seat every day in the year. Probably indeed he should never win another.

“He hears you, he watches you, he rejoices in you,” Lady Agnes opined.

This idea was oppressive to Nick — that of the rejoicing almost as much as of the watching. He had made his concession, but, with a certain impulse to divert his mother from following up her advantage, he broke out: “Julia’s a tremendously effective woman.”

“Of course she is!” said Lady Agnes knowingly.

“Her charming appearance is half the battle”— Nick explained a little coldly what he meant. But he felt his coldness an inadequate protection to him when he heard his companion observe with something of the same sapience:

“A woman’s always effective when she likes a person so much.”

It discomposed him to be described as a person liked, and so much, and by a woman; and he simply said abruptly: “When are you going away?”

“The first moment that’s civil — tomorrow morning. You’ll stay on I hope.”

“Stay on? What shall I stay on for?”

“Why you might stay to express your appreciation.”

Nick considered. “I’ve everything to do.”

“I thought everything was done,” said Lady Agnes.

“Well, that’s just why,” her son replied, not very lucidly. “I want to do other things — quite other things. I should like to take the next train,” And he looked at his watch.

“When there are people coming to dinner to meet you?”

“They’ll meet you — that’s better.”

“I’m sorry any one’s coming,” Lady Agnes said in a tone unencouraging to a deviation from the reality of things. “I wish we were alone — just as a family. It would please Julia today to feel that we are one. Do stay with her tomorrow.”

“How will that do — when she’s alone?”

“She won’t be alone, with Mrs. Gresham.”

“Mrs. Gresham doesn’t count.”

“That’s precisely why I want you to stop. And her cousin, almost her brother: what an idea that it won’t do! Haven’t you stayed here before when there has been no one?”

“I’ve never stayed much, and there have always been people. At any rate it’s now different.”

“It’s just because it’s different. Besides, it isn’t different and it never was,” said Lady Agnes, more incoherent in her earnestness than it often happened to her to be. “She always liked you and she likes you now more than ever — if you call that different!” Nick got up at this and, without meeting her eyes, walked to one of the windows, where he stood with his back turned and looked out on the great greenness. She watched him a moment and she might well have been wishing, while he appeared to gaze with intentness, that it would come to him with the same force as it had come to herself — very often before, but during these last days more than ever — that the level lands of Harsh, stretching away before the window, the French garden with its symmetry, its screens and its statues, and a great many more things of which these were the superficial token, were Julia’s very own to do with exactly as she liked. No word of appreciation or envy, however, dropped from the young man’s lips, and his mother presently went on: “What could be more natural than that after your triumphant contest you and she should have lots to settle and to talk about — no end of practical questions, no end of urgent business? Aren’t you her member, and can’t her member pass a day with her, and she a great proprietor?”

Nick turned round at this with an odd expression. “Her member — am I hers?”

Lady Agnes had a pause — she had need of all her tact. “Well, if the place is hers and you represent the place —!” she began. But she went no further, for Nick had interrupted her with a laugh.

“What a droll thing to ‘represent,’ when one thinks of it! And what does it represent, poor stupid little borough with its strong, though I admit clean, smell of meal and its curiously fat-faced inhabitants? Did you ever see such a collection of fat faces turned up at the hustings? They looked like an enormous sofa, with the cheeks for the gathers and the eyes for the buttons.”

“Oh well, the next time you shall have a great town,” Lady Agnes returned, smiling and feeling that she was tactful.

“It will only be a bigger sofa! I’m joking, of course?” Nick pursued, “and I ought to be ashamed of myself. They’ve done me the honour to elect me and I shall never say a word that’s not civil about them, poor dears. But even a new member may blaspheme to his mother.”

“I wish you’d be serious to your mother”— and she went nearer him.

“The difficulty is that I’m two men; it’s the strangest thing that ever was,” Nick professed with his bright face on her. “I’m two quite distinct human beings, who have scarcely a point in common; not even the memory, on the part of one, of the achievements or the adventures of the other. One man wins the seat but it’s the other fellow who sits in it.”

“Oh Nick, don’t spoil your victory by your perversity!” she cried as she clasped her hands to him.

“I went through it with great glee — I won’t deny that: it excited me, interested me, amused me. When once I was in it I liked it. But now that I’m out of it again ——!”

“Out of it?” His mother stared. “Isn’t the whole point that you’re in?”

“Ah now I’m only in the House of Commons.”

For an instant she seemed not to understand and to be on the point of laying her finger quickly to her lips with a “Hush!”— as if the late Sir Nicholas might have heard the “only.” Then while a comprehension of the young man’s words promptly superseded that impulse she replied with force: “You’ll be in the Lords the day you determine to get there.”

This futile remark made Nick laugh afresh, and not only laugh, but kiss her, which was always an intenser form of mystification for poor Lady Agnes and apparently the one he liked best to inflict; after which he said: “The odd thing is, you know, that Harsh has no wants. At least it’s not sharply, not articulately conscious of them. We all pretended to talk them over together, and I promised to carry them in my heart of hearts. But upon my honour I can’t remember one of them. Julia says the wants of Harsh are simply the national wants — rather a pretty phrase for Julia. She means she does everything for the place; she’s really their member and this house in which we stand their legislative chamber. Therefore the lacunae I’ve undertaken to fill out are the national wants. It will be rather a job to rectify some of them, won’t it? I don’t represent the appetites of Harsh — Harsh is gorged. I represent the ideas of my party. That’s what Julia says.”

“Oh never mind what Julia says!” Lady Agnes broke out impatiently. This impatience made it singular that the very next word she uttered should be: “My dearest son, I wish to heaven you’d marry her. It would be so fitting now!” she added.

“Why now?” Nick frowned.

“She has shown you such sympathy, such devotion.”

“Is it for that she has shown it?”

“Ah you might feel — I can’t tell you!” said Lady Agnes reproachfully.

He blushed at this, as if what he did feel was the reproach. “Must I marry her because you like her?”

“I? Why we’re all as fond of her as we can be.”

“Dear mother, I hope that any woman I ever may marry will be a person agreeable not only to you, but also, since you make a point of it, to Grace and Biddy. But I must tell you this — that I shall marry no woman I’m not unmistakably in love with.”

“And why are you not in love with Julia — charming, clever, generous as she is?” Lady Agnes laid her hands on him — she held him tight. “Dearest Nick, if you care anything in the world to make me happy you’ll stay over here tomorrow and be nice to her.”

He waited an instant. “Do you mean propose to her?”

“With a single word, with the glance of an eye, the movement of your little finger”— and she paused, looking intensely, imploringly up into his face —“in less time than it takes me to say what I say now, you may have it all.” As he made no answer, only meeting her eyes, she added insistently: “You know she’s a fine creature — you know she is!”

“Dearest mother, what I seem to know better than anything else in the world is that I love my freedom. I set it far above everything.”

“Your freedom? What freedom is there in being poor?” Lady Agnes fiercely demanded. “Talk of that when Julia puts everything she possesses at your feet!”

“I can’t talk of it, mother — it’s too terrible an idea. And I can’t talk of her, nor of what I think of her. You must leave that to me. I do her perfect justice.”

“You don’t or you’d marry her tomorrow,” she passionately argued. “You’d feel the opportunity so beautifully rare, with everything in the world to make it perfect. Your father would have valued it for you beyond everything. Think a little what would have given him pleasure. That’s what I meant when I spoke just now of us all. It wasn’t of Grace and Biddy I was thinking — fancy! — it was of him. He’s with you always; he takes with you, at your side, every step you take yourself. He’d bless devoutly your marriage to Julia; he’d feel what it would be for you and for us all. I ask for no sacrifice and he’d ask for none. We only ask that you don’t commit the crime ——!”

Nick Dormer stopped her with another kiss; he murmured “Mother, mother, mother!” as he bent over her. He wished her not to go on, to let him off; but the deep deprecation in his voice didn’t prevent her saying:

“You know it — you know it perfectly. All and more than all that I can tell you you know.” He drew her closer, kissed her again, held her as he would have held a child in a paroxysm, soothing her silently till it could abate. Her vehemence had brought with it tears; she dried them as she disengaged herself. The next moment, however, she resumed, attacking him again: “For a public man she’d be the perfect companion. She’s made for public life — she’s made to shine, to be concerned in great things, to occupy a high position and to help him on. She’d back you up in everything as she has backed you in this. Together there’s nothing you couldn’t do. You can have the first house in England — yes, the very first! What freedom is there in being poor? How can you do anything without money, and what money can you make for yourself — what money will ever come to you? That’s the crime — to throw away such an instrument of power, such a blessed instrument of good.”

“It isn’t everything to be rich, mother,” said Nick, looking at the floor with a particular patience — that is with a provisional docility and his hands in his pockets. “And it isn’t so fearful to be poor.”

“It’s vile — it’s abject. Don’t I know?”

“Are you in such acute want?” he smiled.

“Ah don’t make me explain what you’ve only to look at to see!” his mother returned as if with a richness of allusion to dark elements in her fate.

“Besides,” he easily went on, “there’s other money in the world than Julia’s. I might come by some of that.”

“Do you mean Mr. Carteret’s?” The question made him laugh as her feeble reference five minutes before to the House of Lords had done. But she pursued, too full of her idea to take account of such a poor substitute for an answer: “Let me tell you one thing, for I’ve known Charles Carteret much longer than you and I understand him better. There’s nothing you could do that would do you more good with him than to marry Julia. I know the way he looks at things and I know exactly how that would strike him. It would please him, it would charm him; it would be the thing that would most prove to him that you’re in earnest. You need, you know, to do something of that sort,” she said as for plain speaking.

“Haven’t I come in for Harsh?” asked Nick.

“Oh he’s very canny. He likes to see people rich. Then he believes in them — then he’s likely to believe more. He’s kind to you because you’re your father’s son; but I’m sure your being poor takes just so much off.”

“He can remedy that so easily,” said Nick, smiling still. “Is my being kept by Julia what you call my making an effort for myself?”

Lady Agnes hesitated; then “You needn’t insult Julia!” she replied.

“Moreover, if I’ve her money I shan’t want his,” Nick unheedingly remarked.

Again his mother waited before answering; after which she produced: “And pray wouldn’t you wish to be independent?”

“You’re delightful, dear mother — you’re very delightful! I particularly like your conception of independence. Doesn’t it occur to you that at a pinch I might improve my fortune by some other means than by making a mercenary marriage or by currying favour with a rich old gentleman? Doesn’t it occur to you that I might work?”

“Work at politics? How does that make money, honourably?”

“I don’t mean at politics.”

“What do you mean then?”— and she seemed to challenge him to phrase it if he dared. This demonstration of her face and voice might have affected him, for he remained silent and she continued: “Are you elected or not?”

“It seems a dream,” he rather flatly returned.

“If you are, act accordingly and don’t mix up things that are as wide asunder as the poles!” She spoke with sternness and his silence appeared again to represent an admission that her sternness counted for him. Possibly she was touched by it; after a few moments, at any rate, during which nothing more passed between them, she appealed to him in a gentler and more anxious key, which had this virtue to touch him that he knew it was absolutely the first time in her life she had really begged for anything. She had never been obliged to beg; she had got on without it and most things had come to her. He might judge therefore in what a light she regarded this boon for which in her bereft old age she humbled herself to be a suitor. There was such a pride in her that he could feel what it cost her to go on her knees even to her son. He did judge how it was in his power to gratify her; and as he was generous and imaginative he was stirred and shaken as it came over him in a wave of figurative suggestion that he might make up to her for many things. He scarcely needed to hear her ask with a pleading wail that was almost tragic: “Don’t you see how things have turned out for us? Don’t you know how unhappy I am, don’t you know what a bitterness ——?” She stopped with a sob in her voice and he recognised vividly this last tribulation, the unhealed wound of her change of life and her lapse from eminence to flatness. “You know what Percival is and the comfort I have of him. You know the property and what he’s doing with it and what comfort I get from that! Everything’s dreary but what you can do for us. Everything’s odious, down to living in a hole with one’s girls who don’t marry. Grace is impossible — I don’t know what’s the matter with her; no one will look at her, and she’s so conceited with it — sometimes I feel as if I could beat her! And Biddy will never marry, and we’re three dismal women in a filthy house, and what are three dismal women, more or less, in London?”

So with an unexpected rage of self-exposure she poured out her disappointments and troubles, tore away the veil from her sadness and soreness. It almost scared him to see how she hated her life, though at another time it might have been amusing to note how she despised her gardenless house. Of course it wasn’t a country-house, and she couldn’t get used to that. Better than he could do — for it was the sort of thing into which in any case a woman enters more than a man — she felt what a lift into brighter air, what a regilding of his sisters’ possibilities, his marriage to Julia would effect for them. He couldn’t trace the difference, but his mother saw it all as a shining picture. She hung the bright vision before him now — she stood there like a poor woman crying for a kindness. What was filial in him, all the piety he owed, especially to the revived spirit of his father, more than ever present on a day of such public pledges, became from one moment to the other as the very handle to the door of the chamber of concessions. He had the impulse, so embarrassing when it is a question of consistent action, to see in a touching, an interesting light any forcibly presented side of the life of another: such things effected a union with something in his life, and in the recognition of them was no soreness of sacrifice and no consciousness of merit.

Rapidly, at present, this change of scene took place before his spiritual eye. He found himself believing, because his mother communicated the belief, that it depended but on his own conduct richly to alter the social outlook of the three women who clung to him and who declared themselves forlorn. This was not the highest kind of motive, but it contained a spring, it touched into life again old injunctions and appeals. Julia’s wide kingdom opened out round him and seemed somehow to wear the face of his own possible future. His mother and sisters floated in the rosy element as if he had breathed it about them. “The first house in England” she had called it; but it might be the first house in Europe, the first in the world, by the fine air and the high humanities that should fill it. Everything beautiful in his actual, his material view seemed to proclaim its value as never before; the house rose over his head as a museum of exquisite rewards, and the image of poor George Dallow hovered there obsequious, expressing that he had only been the modest, tasteful organiser, or even upholsterer, appointed to set it all in order and punctually retire. Lady Agnes’s tone in fine penetrated further than it had done yet when she brought out with intensity: “Don’t desert us — don’t desert us.”

“Don’t desert you ——?”

“Be great — be great. I’m old, I’ve lived, I’ve seen. Go in for a great material position. That will simplify everything else.”

“I’ll do what I can for you — anything, everything I can. Trust me — leave me alone,” Nick went on.

“And you’ll stay over — you’ll spend the day with her?”

“I’ll stay till she turns me out!”

His mother had hold of his hand again now: she raised it to her lips and kissed it. “My dearest son, my only joy!” Then: “I don’t see how you can resist her,” she added.

“No more do I!”

She looked about — there was so much to look at — with a deep exhalation. “If you’re so fond of art, what art is equal to all this? The joy of living in the midst of it — of seeing the finest works every day! You’ll have everything the world can give.”

“That’s exactly what was just passing in my own mind. It’s too much,” Nick reasoned.

“Don’t be selfish!”

“Selfish?” he echoed.

“Unselfish then. You’ll share it with us.”

“And with Julia a little, I hope,” he said.

“God bless you!” cried his mother, looking up at him. Her eyes were detained by the sudden sense of something in his own that was not clear to her; but before she could challenge it he asked abruptly:

“Why do you talk so of poor Biddy? Why won’t she marry?”

“You had better ask Peter Sherringham,” said Lady Agnes.

“What has he to do with it?”

“How odd of you not to know — when it’s so plain how she thinks of him that it’s a matter of common gossip.”

“Yes, if you will — we’ve made it so, and she takes it as an angel. But Peter likes her.”

“Does he? Then it’s the more shame to him to behave as he does. He had better leave his wretched actresses alone. That’s the love of art too!” mocked Lady Agnes.

But Nick glossed it all over. “Biddy’s so charming she’ll easily marry some one else.”

“Never, if she loves him. However, Julia will bring it about — Julia will help her,” his mother pursued more cheerfully. “That’s what you’ll do for us — that she’ll do everything!”

“Why then more than now?” he asked.

“Because we shall be yours.”

“You’re mine already.”

“Yes, but she isn’t. However, she’s as good!” Lady Agnes exulted.

“She’ll turn me out of the house,” said Nick.

“Come and tell me when she does! But there she is — go to her!” And she gave him a push toward one of the windows that stood open to the terrace. Their hostess had become visible outside; she passed slowly along the terrace with her long shadow. “Go to her,” his mother repeated —“she’s waiting for you.”

Nick went out with the air of a man as ready to pass that way as another, and at the same moment his two sisters, still flushed with participation, appeared in a different quarter.

“We go home tomorrow, but Nick will stay a day or two,” Lady Agnes said to them.

“Dear old Nick!” Grace ejaculated looking at her with intensity.

“He’s going to speak,” she went on. “But don’t mention it.”

“Don’t mention it?” Biddy asked with a milder stare. “Hasn’t he spoken enough, poor fellow?”

“I mean to Julia,” Lady Agnes replied.

“Don’t you understand, you goose?”— and Grace turned on her sister.

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