The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


While, after leaving Mrs. Gresham, he was hesitating which way to go and was on the point of hailing a gardener to ask if Mrs. Dallow had been seen, he noticed, as a spot of colour in an expanse of shrubbery, a far-away parasol moving in the direction of the lake. He took his course toward it across the park, and as the bearer of the parasol strolled slowly it was not five minutes before he had joined her. He went to her soundlessly, on the grass — he had been whistling at first, but as he got nearer stopped — and it was not till he was at hand that she looked round. He had watched her go as if she were turning things over in her mind, while she brushed the smooth walks and the clean turf with her dress, slowly made her parasol revolve on her shoulder and carried in the other hand a book which he perceived to be a monthly review.

“I came out to get away,” she said when he had begun to walk with her.

“Away from me?”

“Ah that’s impossible.” Then she added: “The day’s so very nice.”

“Lovely weather,” Nick dropped. “You want to get away from Mrs. Gresham, I suppose.”

She had a pause. “From everything!”

“Well, I want to get away too.”

“It has been such a racket. Listen to the dear birds.”

“Yes, our noise isn’t so good as theirs,” said Nick. “I feel as if I had been married and had shoes and rice thrown after me,” he went on. “But not to you, Julia — nothing so good as that.”

Julia made no reply; she only turned her eyes on the ornamental water stretching away at their right. In a moment she exclaimed, “How nasty the lake looks!” and Nick recognised in her tone a sign of that odd shyness — a perverse stiffness at a moment when she probably but wanted to be soft — which, taken in combination with her other qualities, was so far from being displeasing to him that it represented her nearest approach to extreme charm. He was not shy now, for he considered this morning that he saw things very straight and in a sense altogether superior and delightful. This enabled him to be generously sorry for his companion — if he were the reason of her being in any degree uncomfortable, and yet left him to enjoy some of the motions, not in themselves without grace, by which her discomfort was revealed. He wouldn’t insist on anything yet: so he observed that her standard in lakes was too high, and then talked a little about his mother and the girls, their having gone home, his not having seen them that morning, Lady Agnes’s deep satisfaction in his victory, and the fact that she would be obliged to “do something” for the autumn — take a house or something or other.

“I’ll lend her a house,” said Mrs. Dallow.

“Oh Julia, Julia!” Nick half groaned.

But she paid no attention to his sound; she only held up her review and said: “See what I’ve brought with me to read — Mr. Hoppus’s article.”

“That’s right; then I shan’t have to. You’ll tell me about it.” He uttered this without believing she had meant or wished to read the article, which was entitled “The Revision of the British Constitution,” in spite of her having encumbered herself with the stiff, fresh magazine. He was deeply aware she was not in want of such inward occupation as periodical literature could supply. They walked along and he added: “But is that what we’re in for, reading Mr. Hoppus? Is it the sort of thing constituents expect? Or, even worse, pretending to have read him when one hasn’t? Oh what a tangled web we weave!”

“People are talking about it. One has to know. It’s the article of the month.”

Nick looked at her askance. “You say things every now and then for which I could really kill you. ‘The article of the month,’ for instance: I could kill you for that.”

“Well, kill me!” Mrs. Dallow returned.

“Let me carry your book,” he went on irrelevantly. The hand in which she held it was on the side of her on which he was walking, and he put out his own hand to take it. But for a couple of minutes she forbore to give it up, so that they held it together, swinging it a little. Before she surrendered it he asked where she was going.

“To the island,” she answered.

“Well, I’ll go with you — and I’ll kill you there.”

“The things I say are the right things,” Julia declared.

“It’s just the right things that are wrong. It’s because you’re so political,” Nick too lightly explained. “It’s your horrible ambition. The woman who has a salon should have read the article of the month. See how one dreadful thing leads to another.”

“There are some things that lead to nothing,” said Mrs. Dallow.

“No doubt — no doubt. And how are you going to get over to your island?”

“I don’t know.”

“Isn’t there a boat?”

“I don’t know.”

Nick had paused to look round for the boat, but his hostess walked on without turning her head. “Can you row?” he then asked.

“Don’t you know I can do everything?”

“Yes, to be sure. That’s why I want to kill you. There’s the boat.”

“Shall you drown me?” she asked.

“Oh let me perish with you!” Nick answered with a sigh. The boat had been hidden from them by the bole of a great tree which rose from the grass at the water’s edge. It was moored to a small place of embarkation and was large enough to hold as many persons as were likely to wish to visit at once the little temple in the middle of the lake, which Nick liked because it was absurd and which Mrs. Dallow had never had a particular esteem for. The lake, fed by a natural spring, was a liberal sheet of water, measured by the scale of park scenery; and though its principal merit was that, taken at a distance, it gave a gleam of abstraction to the concrete verdure, doing the office of an open eye in a dull face, it could also be approached without derision on a sweet summer morning when it made a lapping sound and reflected candidly various things that were probably finer than itself — the sky, the great trees, the flight of birds. A man of taste, coming back from Rome a hundred years before, had caused a small ornamental structure to be raised, from artificial foundations, on its bosom, and had endeavoured to make this architectural pleasantry as nearly as possible a reminiscence of the small ruined rotunda which stands on the bank of the Tiber and is pronounced by ciceroni once sacred to Vesta. It was circular, roofed with old tiles, surrounded by white columns and considerably dilapidated. George Dallow had taken an interest in it — it reminded him not in the least of Rome, but of other things he liked — and had amused himself with restoring it. “Give me your hand — sit there and I’ll ferry you,” Nick said.

Julia complied, placing herself opposite him in the boat; but as he took up the paddles she declared that she preferred to remain on the water — there was too much malice prepense in the temple. He asked her what she meant by that, and she said it was ridiculous to withdraw to an island a few feet square on purpose to meditate. She had nothing to meditate about that required so much scenery and attitude.

“On the contrary, it would be just to change the scene and the pose. It’s what we have been doing for a week that’s attitude; and to be for half an hour where nobody’s looking and one hasn’t to keep it up is just what I wanted to put in an idle irresponsible day for. I’m not keeping it up now — I suppose you’ve noticed,” Nick went on as they floated and he scarcely dipped the oars.

“I don’t understand you”— and Julia leaned back in the boat.

He gave no further explanation than to ask in a minute: “Have you people to dinner to-night?”

“I believe there are three or four, but I’ll put them off if you like.”

“Must you always live in public, Julia?” he continued.

She looked at him a moment and he could see how she coloured. “We’ll go home — I’ll put them off.”

“Ah no, don’t go home; it’s too jolly here. Let them come, let them come, poor wretches!”

“How little you know me,” Julia presently broke out, “when, ever so many times, I’ve lived here for months without a creature!”

“Except Mrs. Gresham, I suppose.”

“I have had to have the house going, I admit.”

“You’re perfect, you’re admirable, and I don’t criticise you.”

“I don’t understand you!” she tossed back.

“That only adds to the generosity of what you’ve done for me,” Nick returned, beginning to pull faster. He bent over the oars and sent the boat forward, keeping this up for a succession of minutes during which they both remained silent. His companion, in her place, motionless, reclining — the seat in the stern was most comfortable — looked only at the water, the sky, the trees. At last he headed for the little temple, saying first, however, “Shan’t we visit the ruin?”

“If you like. I don’t mind seeing how they keep it.”

They reached the white steps leading up to it. He held the boat and his companion got out; then, when he had made it fast, they mounted together to the open door. “They keep the place very well,” Nick said, looking round. “It’s a capital place to give up everything in.”

“It might do at least for you to explain what you mean.” And Julia sat down.

“I mean to pretend for half an hour that I don’t represent the burgesses of Harsh. It’s charming — it’s very delicate work. Surely it has been retouched.”

The interior of the pavilion, lighted by windows which the circle of columns was supposed outside and at a distance to conceal, had a vaulted ceiling and was occupied by a few pieces of last-century furniture, spare and faded, of which the colours matched with the decoration of the walls. These and the ceiling, tinted and not exempt from indications of damp, were covered with fine mouldings and medallions. It all made a very elegant little tea-house, the mistress of which sat on the edge of a sofa rolling her parasol and remarking, “You ought to read Mr. Hoppus’s article to me.”

“Why, is this your salon?” Nick smiled.

“What makes you always talk of that? My salon’s an invention of your own.”

“But isn’t it the idea you’re most working for?”

Suddenly, nervously, she put up her parasol and sat under it as if not quite sensible of what she was doing. “How much you know me! I’m not ‘working’ for anything — that you’ll ever guess.”

Nick wandered about the room and looked at various things it contained — the odd volumes on the tables, the bits of quaint china on the shelves. “They do keep it very well. You’ve got charming things.”

“They’re supposed to come over every day and look after them.”

“They must come over in force.”

“Oh no one knows.”

“It’s spick and span. How well you have everything done!”

“I think you’ve some reason to say so,” said Mrs. Dallow. Her parasol was now down and she was again rolling it tight.

“But you’re right about my not knowing you. Why were you so ready to do so much for me?”

He stopped in front of her and she looked up at him. Her eyes rested long on his own; then she broke out: “Why do you hate me so?”

“Was it because you like me personally?” Nick pursued as if he hadn’t heard her. “You may think that an odd or positively an odious question; but isn’t it natural, my wanting to know?”

“Oh if you don’t know!” Julia quite desperately sighed.

“It’s a question of being sure.”

“Well then if you’re not sure ——!”

“Was it done for me as a friend, as a man?”

“You’re not a man — you’re a child,” his hostess declared with a face that was cold, though she had been smiling the moment before.

“After all I was a good candidate,” Nick went on.

“What do I care for candidates?”

“You’re the most delightful woman, Julia,” he said as he sat down beside her, “and I can’t imagine what you mean by my hating you.”

“If you haven’t discovered that I like you, you might as well.”

“Might as well discover it?”

She was grave — he had never seen her so pale and never so beautiful. She had stopped rolling her parasol; her hands were folded in her lap and her eyes bent on them. Nick sat looking at them as well — a trifle awkwardly. “Might as well have hated me,” she said.

“We’ve got on so beautifully together all these days: why shouldn’t we get on as well for ever and ever?” he brought out. She made no answer, and suddenly he said: “Ah Julia, I don’t know what you’ve done to me, but you’ve done it. You’ve done it by strange ways, but it will serve. Yes, I hate you,” he added in a different tone and with his face all nearer.

“Dear Nick, dear Nick ——!” she began. But she stopped, feeling his nearness and its intensity, a nearness now so great that his arm was round her, that he was really in possession of her. She closed her eyes but heard him ask again, “Why shouldn’t it be for ever, for ever?” in a voice that had for her ear a vibration none had ever had.

“You’ve done it, you’ve done it,” Nick repeated.

“What do you want of me?” she appealed.

“To stay with me — this way — always.”

“Ah not this way,” she answered softly, but as if in pain and making an effort, with a certain force, to detach herself.

“This way then — or this!” He took such pressing advantage of her that he had kissed her with repetition. She rose while he insisted, but he held her yet, and as he did so his tenderness turned to beautiful words. “If you’ll marry me, why shouldn’t it be so simple, so right and good?” He drew her closer again, too close for her to answer. But her struggle ceased and she rested on him a minute; she buried her face in his breast.

“You’re hard, and it’s cruel!” she then exclaimed, shaking herself free.

“Hard — cruel?”

“You do it with so little!” And with this, unexpectedly to Nick, Julia burst straight into tears. Before he could stop her she was at the door of the pavilion as if she wished to get immediately away. There, however, he stayed her, bending over her while she sobbed, unspeakably gentle with her.

“So little? It’s with everything — with everything I have.”

“I’ve done it, you say? What do you accuse me of doing?” Her tears were already over.

“Of making me yours; of being so precious, Julia, so exactly what a man wants, as it seems to me. I didn’t know you could,” he went on, smiling down at her. “I didn’t — no, I didn’t.”

“It’s what I say — that you’ve always hated me.”

“I’ll make it up to you!” he laughed.

She leaned on the doorway with her forehead against the lintel. “You don’t even deny it.”

“Contradict you now? I’ll admit it, though it’s rubbish, on purpose to live it down.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said slowly; “for however much you might have liked me you’d never have done so half as much as I’ve cared for you.”

“Oh I’m so poor!” Nick murmured cheerfully.

With her eyes looking at him as in a new light she slowly shook her head. Then she declared: “You never can live it down.”

“I like that! Haven’t I asked you to marry me? When did you ever ask me?”

“Every day of my life! As I say, it’s hard — for a proud woman.”

“Yes, you’re too proud even to answer me.”

“We must think of it, we must talk of it.”

“Think of it? I’ve thought of it ever so much.”

“I mean together. There are many things in such a question.”

“The principal thing is beautifully to give me your word.”

She looked at him afresh all strangely; then she threw off: “I wish I didn’t adore you!” She went straight down the steps.

“You don’t adore me at all, you know, if you leave me now. Why do you go? It’s so charming here and we’re so delightfully alone.”

“Untie the boat; we’ll go on the water,” Julia said.

Nick was at the top of the steps, looking down at her. “Ah stay a little — do stay!” he pleaded.

“I’ll get in myself, I’ll pull off,” she simply answered.

At this he came down and bent a little to undo the rope. He was close to her and as he raised his head he felt it caught; she had seized it in her hands and she pressed her lips, as he had never felt lips pressed, to the first place they encountered. The next instant she was in the boat.

This time he dipped the oars very slowly indeed; and, while for a period that was longer than it seemed to them they floated vaguely, they mainly sat and glowed at each other as if everything had been settled. There were reasons enough why Nick should be happy; but it is a singular fact that the leading one was the sense of his having escaped a great and ugly mistake. The final result of his mother’s appeal to him the day before had been the idea that he must act with unimpeachable honour. He was capable of taking it as an assurance that Julia had placed him under an obligation a gentleman could regard but in one way. If she herself had understood it so, putting the vision, or at any rate the appreciation, of a closer tie into everything she had done for him, the case was conspicuously simple and his course unmistakably plain. That is why he had been gay when he came out of the house to look for her: he could be gay when his course was plain. He could be all the gayer, naturally, I must add, that, in turning things over as he had done half the night, what he had turned up oftenest was the recognition that Julia now had a new personal power with him. It was not for nothing that she had thrown herself personally into his life. She had by her act made him live twice as intensely, and such an office, such a service, if a man had accepted and deeply tasted it, was certainly a thing to put him on his honour. He took it as distinct that there was nothing he could do in preference that wouldn’t be spoiled for him by any deflexion from that point. His mother had made him uncomfortable by bringing it so heavily up that Julia was in love with him — he didn’t like in general to be told such things; but the responsibility seemed easier to carry and he was less shy about it when once he was away from other eyes, with only Julia’s own to express that truth and with indifferent nature all about. Besides, what discovery had he made this morning but that he also was in love?

“You’ve got to be a very great man, you know,” she said to him in the middle of the lake. “I don’t know what you mean about my salon, but I am ambitious.”

“We must look at life in a large, bold way,” he concurred while he rested his oars.

“That’s what I mean. If I didn’t think you could I wouldn’t look at you.”

“I could what?”

“Do everything you ought — everything I imagine, I dream of. You are clever: you can never make me believe the contrary after your speech on Tuesday, Don’t speak to me! I’ve seen, I’ve heard, and I know what’s in you. I shall hold you to it. You’re everything you pretend not to be.”

Nick looked at the water while she talked. “Will it always be so amusing?” he asked.

“Will what always be?”

“Why my career.”

“Shan’t I make it so?”

“Then it will be yours — it won’t be mine,” said Nick.

“Ah don’t say that — don’t make me out that sort of woman! If they should say it’s me I’d drown myself.”

“If they should say what’s you?”

“Why your getting on. If they should say I push you and do things for you. Things I mean that you can’t do yourself.”

“Well, won’t you do them? It’s just what I count on.”

“Don’t be dreadful,” Julia said. “It would be loathsome if I were thought the cleverest. That’s not the sort of man I want to marry.”

“Oh I shall make you work, my dear!”

“Ah that ——!” she sounded in a tone that might come back to a man after years.

“You’ll do the great thing, you’ll make my life the best life,” Nick brought out as if he had been touched to deep conviction. “I daresay that will keep me in heart.”

“In heart? Why shouldn’t you be in heart?” And her eyes, lingering on him, searching him, seemed to question him still more than her lips.

“Oh it will be all right!” he made answer.

“You’ll like success as well as any one else. Don’t tell me — you’re not so ethereal!”

“Yes, I shall like success.”

“So shall I! And of course I’m glad you’ll now be able to do things,” Julia went on. “I’m glad you’ll have things. I’m glad I’m not poor.”

“Ah don’t speak of that,” Nick murmured. “Only be nice to my mother. We shall make her supremely happy.”

“It wouldn’t be for your mother I’d do it — yet I’m glad I like your people,” Mrs. Dallow rectified. “Leave them to me!”

“You’re generous — you’re noble,” he stammered.

“Your mother must live at Broadwood; she must have it for life. It’s not at all bad.”

“Ah Julia,” her companion replied, “it’s well I love you!”

“Why shouldn’t you?” she laughed; and after this no more was said between them till the boat touched shore. When she had got out she recalled that it was time for luncheon; but they took no action in consequence, strolling in a direction which was not that of the house. There was a vista that drew them on, a grassy path skirting the foundations of scattered beeches and leading to a stile from which the charmed wanderer might drop into another division of Mrs. Dallow’s property. She said something about their going as far as the stile, then the next instant exclaimed: “How stupid of you — you’ve forgotten Mr. Hoppus!”

Nick wondered. “We left him in the temple of Vesta. Darling, I had other things to think of there.”

“I’ll send for him,” said Julia.

“Lord, can you think of him now?” he asked.

“Of course I can — more than ever.”

“Shall we go back for him?”— and he pulled up.

She made no direct answer, but continued to walk, saying they would go as far as the stile. “Of course I know you’re fearfully vague,” she presently resumed.

“I wasn’t vague at all. But you were in such a hurry to get away.”

“It doesn’t signify. I’ve another at home.”

“Another summer-house?” he more lightly suggested.

“A copy of Mr. Hoppus.”

“Mercy, how you go in for him! Fancy having two!”

“He sent me the number of the magazine, and the other’s the one that comes every month.”

“Every month; I see”— but his manner justified considerably her charge of vagueness. They had reached the stile and he leaned over it, looking at a great mild meadow and at the browsing beasts in the distance.

“Did you suppose they come every day?” Julia went on.

“Dear no, thank God!” They remained there a little; he continued to look at the animals and before long added: “Delightful English pastoral scene. Why do they say it won’t paint?”

“Who says it won’t?”

“I don’t know — some of them. It will in France; but somehow it won’t here.”

“What are you talking about?” Mrs. Dallow demanded.

He appeared unable to satisfy her on this point; instead of answering her directly he at any rate said: “Is Broadwood very charming?”

“Have you never been there? It shows how you’ve treated me. We used to go there in August. George had ideas about it,” she added. She had never affected not to speak of her late husband, especially with Nick, whose kinsman he had in a manner been and who had liked him better than some others did.

“George had ideas about a great many things.”

Yet she appeared conscious it would be rather odd on such an occasion to take this up. It was even odd in Nick to have said it. “Broadwood’s just right,” she returned at last. “It’s neither too small nor too big, and it takes care of itself. There’s nothing to be done: you can’t spend a penny.”

“And don’t you want to use it?”

“We can go and stay with them,” said Julia.

“They’ll think I bring them an angel.” And Nick covered her white hand, which was resting on the stile, with his own large one.

“As they regard you yourself as an angel they’ll take it as natural of you to associate with your kind.”

“Oh my kind!” he quite wailed, looking at the cows.

But his very extravagance perhaps saved it, and she turned away from him as if starting homeward, while he began to retrace his steps with her. Suddenly she said: “What did you mean that night in Paris?”

“That night ——?”

“When you came to the hotel with me after we had all dined at that place with Peter.”

“What did I mean ——?”

“About your caring so much for the fine arts. You seemed to want to frighten me.”

“Why should you have been frightened? I can’t imagine what I had in my head: not now.”

“You are vague,” said Julia with a little flush.

“Not about the great thing.”

“The great thing?”

“That I owe you everything an honest man has to offer. How can I care about the fine arts now?”

She stopped with lighted eyes on him. “Is it because you think you owe it —” and she paused, still with the heightened colour in her cheek, then went on —“that you’ve spoken to me as you did there?” She tossed her head toward the lake.

“I think I spoke to you because I couldn’t help it.”

“You are vague!” And she walked on again.

“You affect me differently from any other woman.”

“Oh other women ——! Why shouldn’t you care about the fine arts now?” she added.

“There’ll be no time. All my days and my years will be none too much for what you expect of me.”

“I don’t expect you to give up anything. I only expect you to do more.”

“To do more I must do less. I’ve no talent.”

“No talent?”

“I mean for painting.”

Julia pulled up again. “That’s odious! You have — you must.”

He burst out laughing. “You’re altogether delightful. But how little you know about it — about the honourable practice of any art!”

“What do you call practice? You’ll have all our things — you’ll live in the midst of them.”

“Certainly I shall enjoy looking at them, being so near them.”

“Don’t say I’ve taken you away then.”

“Taken me away ——?”

“From the love of art. I like them myself now, poor George’s treasures. I didn’t of old so much, because it seemed to me he made too much of them — he was always talking.”

“Well, I won’t always talk,” said Nick.

“You may do as you like — they’re yours.”

“Give them to the nation,” Nick went on.

“I like that! When we’ve done with them.”

“We shall have done with them when your Vandykes and Moronis have cured me of the delusion that I may be of their family. Surely that won’t take long.”

“You shall paint me,” said Julia.

“Never, never, never!” He spoke in a tone that made his companion stare — then seemed slightly embarrassed at this result of his emphasis. To relieve himself he said, as they had come back to the place beside the lake where the boat was moored, “Shan’t we really go and fetch Mr. Hoppus?”

She hesitated. “You may go; I won’t, please.”

“That’s not what I want.”

“Oblige me by going. I’ll wait here.” With which she sat down on the bench attached to the little landing.

Nick, at this, got into the boat and put off; he smiled at her as she sat there watching him. He made his short journey, disembarked and went into the pavilion; but when he came out with the object of his errand he saw she had quitted her station, had returned to the house without him. He rowed back quickly, sprang ashore and followed her with long steps. Apparently she had gone fast; she had almost reached the door when he overtook her.

“Why did you basely desert me?” he asked, tenderly stopping her there.

“I don’t know. Because I’m so happy.”

“May I tell mother then?”

“You may tell her she shall have Broadwood.”

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