The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


Nick Dormer walked away with Biddy, but he had not gone far before he stopped in front of a clever bust, where his mother, in the distance, saw him playing in the air with his hand, carrying out by this gesture, which presumably was applausive, some critical remark he had made to his sister. Lady Agnes raised her glass to her eyes by the long handle to which rather a clanking chain was attached, perceiving that the bust represented an ugly old man with a bald head; at which her ladyship indefinitely sighed, though it was not apparent in what way such an object could be detrimental to her daughter. Nick passed on and quickly paused again; this time, his mother discerned, before the marble image of a strange grimacing woman. Presently she lost sight of him; he wandered behind things, looking at them all round.

“I ought to get plenty of ideas for my modelling, oughtn’t I, Nick?” his sister put to him after a moment.

“Ah my poor child, what shall I say?”

“Don’t you think I’ve any capacity for ideas?” the girl continued ruefully.

“Lots of them, no doubt. But the capacity for applying them, for putting them into practice — how much of that have you?”

“How can I tell till I try?”

“What do you mean by trying, Biddy dear?”

“Why you know — you’ve seen me.”

“Do you call that trying?” her brother amusedly demanded.

“Ah Nick!” she said with sensibility. But then with more spirit: “And please what do you call it?”

“Well, this for instance is a good case.” And her companion pointed to another bust — a head of a young man in terra-cotta, at which they had just arrived; a modern young man to whom, with his thick neck, his little cap and his wide ring of dense curls, the artist had given the air of some sturdy Florentine of the time of Lorenzo.

Biddy looked at the image a moment. “Ah that’s not trying; that’s succeeding.”

“Not altogether; it’s only trying seriously.”

“Well, why shouldn’t I be serious?”

“Mother wouldn’t like it. She has inherited the fine old superstition that art’s pardonable only so long as it’s bad — so long as it’s done at odd hours, for a little distraction, like a game of tennis or of whist. The only thing that can justify it, the effort to carry it as far as one can (which you can’t do without time and singleness of purpose), she regards as just the dangerous, the criminal element. It’s the oddest hind-part-before view, the drollest immorality.”

“She doesn’t want one to be professional,” Biddy returned as if she could do justice to every system.

“Better leave it alone then. There are always duffers enough.”

“I don’t want to be a duffer,” Biddy said. “But I thought you encouraged me.”

“So I did, my poor child. It was only to encourage myself.”

“With your own work — your painting?”

“With my futile, my ill-starred endeavours. Union is strength — so that we might present a wider front, a larger surface of resistance.”

Biddy for a while said nothing and they continued their tour of observation. She noticed how he passed over some things quickly, his first glance sufficing to show him if they were worth another, and then recognised in a moment the figures that made some appeal. His tone puzzled but his certainty of eye impressed her, and she felt what a difference there was yet between them — how much longer in every case she would have taken to discriminate. She was aware of how little she could judge of the value of a thing till she had looked at it ten minutes; indeed modest little Biddy was compelled privately to add “And often not even then.” She was mystified, as I say — Nick was often mystifying, it was his only fault — but one thing was definite: her brother had high ability. It was the consciousness of this that made her bring out at last: “I don’t so much care whether or no I please mamma, if I please you.”

“Oh don’t lean on me. I’m a wretched broken reed — I’m no use really!” he promptly admonished her.

“Do you mean you’re a duffer?” Biddy asked in alarm.

“Frightful, frightful!”

“So that you intend to give up your work — to let it alone, as you advise me?”

“It has never been my work, all that business, Biddy. If it had it would be different. I should stick to it.”

“And you won’t stick to it?” the girl said, standing before him open-eyed.

Her brother looked into her eyes a moment, and she had a compunction; she feared she was indiscreet and was worrying him. “Your questions are much simpler than the elements out of which my answer should come.”

“A great talent — what’s simpler than that?”

“One excellent thing, dear Biddy: no talent at all!”

“Well, yours is so real you can’t help it.”

“We shall see, we shall see,” said Nick Dormer. “Let us go look at that big group.”

“We shall see if your talent’s real?” Biddy went on as she accompanied him.

“No; we shall see if, as you say, I can’t help it. What nonsense Paris makes one talk!” the young man added as they stopped in front of the composition. This was true perhaps, but not in a sense he could find himself tempted to deplore. The present was far from his first visit to the French capital: he had often quitted England and usually made a point of “putting in,” as he called it, a few days there on the outward journey to the Continent or on the return; but at present the feelings, for the most part agreeable, attendant upon a change of air and of scene had been more punctual and more acute than for a long time before, and stronger the sense of novelty, refreshment, amusement, of the hundred appeals from that quarter of thought to which on the whole his attention was apt most frequently, though not most confessedly, to stray. He was fonder of Paris than most of his countrymen, though not so fond perhaps as some other captivated aliens: the place had always had the virtue of quickening in him sensibly the life of reflexion and observation. It was a good while since his impressions had been so favourable to the city by the Seine; a good while at all events since they had ministered so to excitement, to exhilaration, to ambition, even to a restlessness that was not prevented from being agreeable by the excess of agitation in it. Nick could have given the reason of this unwonted glow, but his preference was very much to keep it to himself. Certainly to persons not deeply knowing, or at any rate not deeply curious, in relation to the young man’s history the explanation might have seemed to beg the question, consisting as it did of the simple formula that he had at last come to a crisis. Why a crisis — what was it and why had he not come to it before? The reader shall learn these things in time if he cares enough for them.

Our young man had not in any recent year failed to see the Salon, which the general voice this season pronounced not particularly good. None the less it was the present exhibition that, for some cause connected with his “crisis,” made him think fast, produced that effect he had spoken of to his mother as a sense of artistic life. The precinct of the marbles and bronzes spoke to him especially today; the glazed garden, not florally rich, with its new productions alternating with perfunctory plants and its queer, damp smell, partly the odour of plastic clay, of the studios of sculptors, put forth the voice of old associations, of other visits, of companionships now ended — an insinuating eloquence which was at the same time somehow identical with the general sharp contagion of Paris. There was youth in the air, and a multitudinous newness, for ever reviving, and the diffusion of a hundred talents, ingenuities, experiments. The summer clouds made shadows on the roof of the great building; the white images, hard in their crudity, spotted the place with provocations; the rattle of plates at the restaurant sounded sociable in the distance, and our young man congratulated himself more than ever that he had not missed his chance. He felt how it would help him to settle something. At the moment he made this reflexion his eye fell upon a person who appeared — just in the first glimpse — to carry out the idea of help. He uttered a lively ejaculation, which, however, in its want of finish, Biddy failed to understand; so pertinent, so relevant and congruous, was the other party to this encounter.

The girl’s attention followed her brother’s, resting with it on a young man who faced them without seeing them, engaged as he was in imparting to two companions his ideas about one of the works exposed to view. What Biddy remarked was that this young man was fair and fat and of the middle stature; he had a round face and a short beard and on his crown a mere reminiscence of hair, as the fact that he carried his hat in his hand permitted to be observed. Bridget Dormer, who was quick, placed him immediately as a gentleman, but as a gentleman unlike any other gentleman she had ever seen. She would have taken him for very foreign but that the words proceeding from his mouth reached her ear and imposed themselves as a rare variety of English. It was not that a foreigner might not have spoken smoothly enough, nor yet that the speech of this young man was not smooth. It had in truth a conspicuous and aggressive perfection, and Biddy was sure no mere learner would have ventured to play such tricks with the tongue. He seemed to draw rich effects and wandering airs from it — to modulate and manipulate it as he would have done a musical instrument. Her view of the gentleman’s companions was less operative, save for her soon making the reflexion that they were people whom in any country, from China to Peru, you would immediately have taken for natives. One of them was an old lady with a shawl; that was the most salient way in which she presented herself. The shawl was an ancient much-used fabric of embroidered cashmere, such as many ladies wore forty years ago in their walks abroad and such as no lady wears today. It had fallen half off the back of the wearer, but at the moment Biddy permitted herself to consider her she gave it a violent jerk and brought it up to her shoulders again, where she continued to arrange and settle it, with a good deal of jauntiness and elegance, while she listened to the talk of the gentleman. Biddy guessed that this little transaction took place very frequently, and was not unaware of its giving the old lady a droll, factitious, faded appearance, as if she were singularly out of step with the age. The other person was very much younger — she might have been a daughter — and had a pale face, a low forehead, and thick dark hair. What she chiefly had, however, Biddy rapidly discovered, was a pair of largely-gazing eyes. Our young friend was helped to the discovery by the accident of their resting at this moment for a time — it struck Biddy as very long — on her own. Both these ladies were clad in light, thin, scant gowns, giving an impression of flowered figures and odd transparencies, and in low shoes which showed a great deal of stocking and were ornamented with large rosettes. Biddy’s slightly agitated perception travelled directly to their shoes: they suggested to her vaguely that the wearers were dancers — connected possibly with the old-fashioned exhibition of the shawl-dance. By the time she had taken in so much as this the mellifluous young man had perceived and addressed himself to her brother. He came on with an offered hand. Nick greeted him and said it was a happy chance — he was uncommonly glad to see him.

“I never come across you — I don’t know why,” Nick added while the two, smiling, looked each other up and down like men reunited after a long interval.

“Oh it seems to me there’s reason enough: our paths in life are so different.” Nick’s friend had a great deal of manner, as was evinced by his fashion of saluting Biddy without knowing her.

“Different, yes, but not so different as that. Don’t we both live in London, after all, and in the nineteenth century?”

“Ah my dear Dormer, excuse me: I don’t live in the nineteenth century. Jamais de la vie!” the gentleman declared.

“Nor in London either?”

“Yes — when I’m not at Samarcand! But surely we’ve diverged since the old days. I adore what you burn, you burn what I adore.” While the stranger spoke he looked cheerfully, hospitably, at Biddy; not because it was she, she easily guessed, but because it was in his nature to desire a second auditor — a kind of sympathetic gallery. Her life was somehow filled with shy people, and she immediately knew she had never encountered any one who seemed so to know his part and recognise his cues.

“How do you know what I adore?” Nicholas Dormer asked.

“I know well enough what you used to.”

“That’s more than I do myself. There were so many things.”

“Yes, there are many things — many, many: that’s what makes life so amusing.”

“Do you find it amusing?”

“My dear fellow, c’est à se tordre. Don’t you think so? Ah it was high time I should meet you — I see. I’ve an idea you need me.”

“Upon my word I think I do!” Nick said in a tone which struck his sister and made her wonder still more why, if the gentleman was so important as that, he didn’t introduce him.

“There are many gods and this is one of their temples,” the mysterious personage went on. “It’s a house of strange idols — isn’t it? — and of some strange and unnatural sacrifices.”

To Biddy as much as to her brother this remark might have been offered; but the girl’s eyes turned back to the ladies who for the moment had lost their companion. She felt irresponsive and feared she should pass with this easy cosmopolite for a stiff, scared, English girl, which was not the type she aimed at; but wasn’t even ocular commerce overbold so long as she hadn’t a sign from Nick? The elder of the strange women had turned her back and was looking at some bronze figure, losing her shawl again as she did so; but the other stood where their escort had quitted her, giving all her attention to his sudden sociability with others. Her arms hung at her sides, her head was bent, her face lowered, so that she had an odd appearance of raising her eyes from under her brows; and in this attitude she was striking, though her air was so unconciliatory as almost to seem dangerous. Did it express resentment at having been abandoned for another girl? Biddy, who began to be frightened — there was a moment when the neglected creature resembled a tigress about to spring — was tempted to cry out that she had no wish whatever to appropriate the gentleman. Then she made the discovery that the young lady too had a manner, almost as much as her clever guide, and the rapid induction that it perhaps meant no more than his. She only looked at Biddy from beneath her eyebrows, which were wonderfully arched, but there was ever so much of a manner in the way she did it. Biddy had a momentary sense of being a figure in a ballet, a dramatic ballet — a subordinate motionless figure, to be dashed at to music or strangely capered up to. It would be a very dramatic ballet indeed if this young person were the heroine. She had magnificent hair, the girl reflected; and at the same moment heard Nick say to his interlocutor: “You’re not in London — one can’t meet you there?”

“I rove, drift, float,” was the answer; “my feelings direct me — if such a life as mine may be said to have a direction. Where there’s anything to feel I try to be there!” the young man continued with his confiding laugh.

“I should like to get hold of you,” Nick returned.

“Well, in that case there would be no doubt the intellectual adventure. Those are the currents — any sort of personal relation — that govern my career.”

“I don’t want to lose you this time,” Nick continued in a tone that excited Biddy’s surprise. A moment before, when his friend had said that he tried to be where there was anything to feel, she had wondered how he could endure him.

“Don’t lose me, don’t lose me!” cried the stranger after a fashion which affected the girl as the highest expression of irresponsibility she had ever seen. “After all why should you? Let us remain together unless I interfere”— and he looked, smiling and interrogative, at Biddy, who still remained blank, only noting again that Nick forbore to make them acquainted. This was an anomaly, since he prized the gentleman so. Still, there could be no anomaly of Nick’s that wouldn’t impose itself on his younger sister.

“Certainly, I keep you,” he said, “unless on my side I deprive those ladies —!”

“Charming women, but it’s not an indissoluble union. We meet, we communicate, we part! They’re going — I’m seeing them to the door. I shall come back.” With this Nick’s friend rejoined his companions, who moved away with him, the strange fine eyes of the girl lingering on Biddy’s brother as well as on Biddy herself as they receded.

“Who is he — who are they?” Biddy instantly asked.

“He’s a gentleman,” Nick made answer — insufficiently, she thought, and even with a shade of hesitation. He spoke as if she might have supposed he was not one, and if he was really one why didn’t he introduce him? But Biddy wouldn’t for the world have put this question, and he now moved to the nearest bench and dropped upon it as to await the other’s return. No sooner, however, had his sister seated herself than he said: “See here, my dear, do you think you had better stay?”

“Do you want me to go back to mother?” the girl asked with a lengthening visage.

“Well, what do you think?” He asked it indeed gaily enough.

“Is your conversation to be about — about private affairs?”

“No, I can’t say that. But I doubt if mother would think it the sort of thing that’s ‘necessary to your development.’”

This assertion appeared to inspire her with the eagerness with which she again broke out: “But who are they — who are they?”

“I know nothing of the ladies. I never saw them before. The man’s a fellow I knew very well at Oxford. He was thought immense fun there. We’ve diverged, as he says, and I had almost lost sight of him, but not so much as he thinks, because I’ve read him — read him with interest. He has written a very clever book.”

“What kind of a book?”

“A sort of novel.”

“What sort of novel?”

“Well, I don’t know — with a lot of good writing.” Biddy listened to this so receptively that she thought it perverse her brother should add: “I daresay Peter will have come if you return to mother.”

“I don’t care if he has. Peter’s nothing to me. But I’ll go if you wish it.”

Nick smiled upon her again and then said: “It doesn’t signify. We’ll all go.”

“All?” she echoed.

“He won’t hurt us. On the contrary he’ll do us good.”

This was possible, the girl reflected in silence, but none the less the idea struck her as courageous, of their taking the odd young man back to breakfast with them and with the others, especially if Peter should be there. If Peter was nothing to her it was singular she should have attached such importance to this contingency. The odd young man reappeared, and now that she saw him without his queer female appendages he seemed personally less weird. He struck her moreover, as generally a good deal accounted for by the literary character, especially if it were responsible for a lot of good writing. As he took his place on the bench Nick said to him, indicating her, “My sister Bridget,” and then mentioned his name, “Mr. Gabriel Nash.”

“You enjoy Paris — you’re happy here?” Mr. Nash inquired, leaning over his friend to speak to the girl.

Though his words belonged to the situation it struck her that his tone didn’t, and this made her answer him more dryly than she usually spoke. “Oh yes, it’s very nice.”

“And French art interests you? You find things here that please?”

“Oh yes, I like some of them.”

Mr. Nash considered her kindly. “I hoped you’d say you like the Academy better.”

“She would if she didn’t think you expected it,” said Nicholas Dormer.

“Oh Nick!” Biddy protested.

“Miss Dormer’s herself an English picture,” their visitor pronounced in the tone of a man whose urbanity was a general solvent.

“That’s a compliment if you don’t like them!” Biddy exclaimed.

“Ah some of them, some of them; there’s a certain sort of thing!” Mr. Nash continued. “We must feel everything, everything that we can. We’re here for that.”

“You do like English art then?” Nick demanded with a slight accent of surprise.

Mr. Nash indulged his wonder. “My dear Dormer, do you remember the old complaint I used to make of you? You had formulas that were like walking in one’s hat. One may see something in a case and one may not.”

“Upon my word,” said Nick, “I don’t know any one who was fonder of a generalisation than you. You turned them off as the man at the street-corner distributes hand-bills.”

“They were my wild oats. I’ve sown them all.”

“We shall see that!”

“Oh there’s nothing of them now: a tame, scanty, homely growth. My only good generalisations are my actions.”

“We shall see them then.”

“Ah pardon me. You can’t see them with the naked eye. Moreover, mine are principally negative. People’s actions, I know, are for the most part the things they do — but mine are all the things I don’t do. There are so many of those, so many, but they don’t produce any effect. And then all the rest are shades — extremely fine shades.”

“Shades of behaviour?” Nick inquired with an interest which surprised his sister, Mr. Nash’s discourse striking her mainly as the twaddle of the under-world.

“Shades of impression, of appreciation,” said the young man with his explanatory smile. “All my behaviour consists of my feelings.”

“Well, don’t you show your feelings? You used to!”

“Wasn’t it mainly those of disgust?” Nash asked. “Those operate no longer. I’ve closed that window.”

“Do you mean you like everything?”

“Dear me, no! But I look only at what I do like.”

“Do you mean that you’ve lost the noble faculty of disgust?”

“I haven’t the least idea. I never try it. My dear fellow,” said Gabriel Nash, “we’ve only one life that we know anything about: fancy taking it up with disagreeable impressions! When then shall we go in for the agreeable?”

“What do you mean by the agreeable?” Nick demanded.

“Oh the happy moments of our consciousness — the multiplication of those moments. We must save as many as possible from the dark gulf.”

Nick had excited surprise on the part of his sister, but it was now Biddy’s turn to make him open his eyes a little. She raised her sweet voice in appeal to the stranger.

“Don’t you think there are any wrongs in the world — any abuses and sufferings?”

“Oh so many, so many! That’s why one must choose.”

“Choose to stop them, to reform them — isn’t that the choice?” Biddy asked. “That’s Nick’s,” she added, blushing and looking at this personage.

“Ah our divergence — yes!” Mr. Nash sighed. “There are all kinds of machinery for that — very complicated and ingenious. Your formulas, my dear Dormer, your formulas!”

“Hang ’em, I haven’t got any!” Nick now bravely declared.

“To me personally the simplest ways are those that appeal most,” Mr. Nash went on. “We pay too much attention to the ugly; we notice it, we magnify it. The great thing is to leave it alone and encourage the beautiful.”

“You must be very sure you get hold of the beautiful,” said Nick.

“Ah precisely, and that’s just the importance of the faculty of appreciation. We must train our special sense. It’s capable of extraordinary extension. Life’s none too long for that.”

“But what’s the good of the extraordinary extension if there is no affirmation of it, if it all goes to the negative, as you say? Where are the fine consequences?” Dormer asked.

“In one’s own spirit. One is one’s self a fine consequence. That’s the most important one we have to do with. I am a fine consequence,” said Gabriel Nash.

Biddy rose from the bench at this and stepped away a little as to look at a piece of statuary. But she had not gone far before, pausing and turning, she bent her eyes on the speaker with a heightened colour, an air of desperation and the question, after a moment: “Are you then an æsthete?”

“Ah there’s one of the formulas! That’s walking in one’s hat! I’ve no profession, my dear young lady. I’ve no état civil. These things are a part of the complicated ingenious machinery. As I say, I keep to the simplest way. I find that gives one enough to do. Merely to be is such a métier; to live such an art; to feel such a career!”

Bridget Dormer turned her back and examined her statue, and her brother said to his old friend: “And to write?”

“To write? Oh I shall never do it again!”

“You’ve done it almost well enough to be inconsistent. That book of yours is anything but negative; it’s complicated and ingenious.”

“My dear fellow, I’m extremely ashamed of that book,” said Gabriel Nash.

“Ah call yourself a bloated Buddhist and have done with it!” his companion exclaimed.

“Have done with it? I haven’t the least desire to have done with it. And why should one call one’s self anything? One only deprives other people of their dearest occupation. Let me add that you don’t begin to have an insight into the art of life till it ceases to be of the smallest consequence to you what you may be called. That’s rudimentary.”

“But if you go in for shades you must also go in for names. You must distinguish,” Nick objected. “The observer’s nothing without his categories, his types and varieties.”

“Ah trust him to distinguish!” said Gabriel Nash sweetly. “That’s for his own convenience; he has, privately, a terminology to meet it. That’s one’s style. But from the moment it’s for the convenience of others the signs have to be grosser, the shades begin to go. That’s a deplorable hour! Literature, you see, is for the convenience of others. It requires the most abject concessions. It plays such mischief with one’s style that really I’ve had to give it up.”

“And politics?” Nick asked.

“Well, what about them?” was Mr. Nash’s reply with a special cadence as he watched his friend’s sister, who was still examining her statue. Biddy was divided between irritation and curiosity. She had interposed space, but she had not gone beyond ear-shot. Nick’s question made her curiosity throb as a rejoinder to his friend’s words.

“That, no doubt you’ll say, is still far more for the convenience of others — is still worse for one’s style.”

Biddy turned round in time to hear Mr. Nash answer: “It has simply nothing in life to do with shades! I can’t say worse for it than that.”

Biddy stepped nearer at this and drew still further on her courage. “Won’t mamma be waiting? Oughtn’t we to go to luncheon?”

Both the young men looked up at her and Mr. Nash broke out: “You ought to protest! You ought to save him!”

“To save him?” Biddy echoed.

“He had a style, upon my word he had! But I’ve seen it go. I’ve read his speeches.”

“You were capable of that?” Nick laughed.

“For you, yes. But it was like listening to a nightingale in a brass band.”

“I think they were beautiful,” Biddy declared.

Her brother got up at this tribute, and Mr. Nash, rising too, said with his bright colloquial air: “But, Miss Dormer, he had eyes. He was made to see — to see all over, to see everything. There are so few like that.”

“I think he still sees,” Biddy returned, wondering a little why Nick didn’t defend himself.

“He sees his ‘side,’ his dreadful ‘side,’ dear young lady. Poor man, fancy your having a ‘side’— you, you — and spending your days and your nights looking at it! I’d as soon pass my life looking at an advertisement on a hoarding.”

“You don’t see me some day a great statesman?” said Nick.

“My dear fellow, it’s exactly what I’ve a terror of.”

“Mercy! don’t you admire them?” Biddy cried.

“It’s a trade like another and a method of making one’s way which society certainly condones. But when one can be something better —!”

“Why what in the world is better?” Biddy asked.

The young man gasped and Nick, replying for him, said: “Gabriel Nash is better! You must come and lunch with us. I must keep you — I must!” he added.

“We shall save him yet,” Mr. Nash kept on easily to Biddy while they went and the girl wondered still more what her mother would make of him.

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