The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


After her companions left her Lady Agnes rested for five minutes in silence with her elder daughter, at the end of which time she observed: “I suppose one must have food at any rate,” and, getting up, quitted the place where they had been sitting. “And where are we to go? I hate eating out of doors,” she went on.

“Dear me, when one comes to Paris —!” Grace returned in a tone apparently implying that in so rash an adventure one must be prepared for compromises and concessions. The two ladies wandered to where they saw a large sign of “Buffet” suspended in the air, entering a precinct reserved for little white-clothed tables, straw-covered chairs and long-aproned waiters. One of these functionaries approached them with eagerness and with a “Mesdames sont seules?“ receiving in return from her ladyship the slightly snappish announcement “Non; nous sommes beaucoup!“ He introduced them to a table larger than most of the others, and under his protection they took their places at it and began rather languidly and vaguely to consider the question of the repast. The waiter had placed a carte in Lady Agnes’s hands and she studied it, through her eye-glass, with a failure of interest, while he enumerated with professional fluency the resources of the establishment and Grace watched the people at the other tables. She was hungry and had already broken a morsel from a long glazed roll.

“Not cold beef and pickles, you know,” she observed to her mother. Lady Agnes gave no heed to this profane remark, but dropped her eye-glass and laid down the greasy document. “What does it signify? I daresay it’s all nasty,” Grace continued; and she added inconsequently: “If Peter comes he’s sure to be particular.”

“Let him first be particular to come!” her ladyship exclaimed, turning a cold eye upon the waiter.

“Poulet chasseur, filets mignons sauce bearnaise,“ the man suggested.

“You’ll give us what I tell you,” said Lady Agnes; and she mentioned with distinctness and authority the dishes of which she desired that the meal should be composed. He interjected three or four more suggestions, but as they produced absolutely no impression on her he became silent and submissive, doing justice apparently to her ideas. For Lady Agnes had ideas, and, though it had suited her humour ten minutes before to profess herself helpless in such a case, the manner in which she imposed them on the waiter as original, practical, and economical, showed the high executive woman, the mother of children, the daughter of earls, the consort of an official, the dispenser of hospitality, looking back upon a lifetime of luncheons. She carried many cares, and the feeding of multitudes — she was honourably conscious of having fed them decently, as she had always done everything — had ever been one of them. “Everything’s absurdly dear,” she remarked to her daughter as the waiter went away. To this remark Grace made no answer. She had been used for a long time back to hearing that everything was very dear; it was what one always expected. So she found the case herself, but she was silent and inventive about it, and nothing further passed, in the way of conversation with her mother, while they waited for the latter’s orders to be executed, till Lady Agnes reflected audibly: “He makes me unhappy, the way he talks about Julia.”

“Sometimes I think he does it to torment one. One can’t mention her!” Grace responded.

“It’s better not to mention her, but to leave it alone.”

“Yet he never mentions her of himself.”

“In some cases that’s supposed to show that people like people — though of course something more’s required to prove it,” Lady Agnes continued to meditate. “Sometimes I think he’s thinking of her, then at others I can’t fancy what he’s thinking of.”

“It would be awfully suitable,” said Grace, biting her roll.

Her companion had a pause, as if looking for some higher ground to put it upon. Then she appeared to find this loftier level in the observation: “Of course he must like her — he has known her always.”

“Nothing can be plainer than that she likes him,” Grace opined.

“Poor Julia!” Lady Agnes almost wailed; and her tone suggested that she knew more about that than she was ready to state.

“It isn’t as if she wasn’t clever and well read,” her daughter went on. “If there were nothing else there would be a reason in her being so interested in politics, in everything that he is.”

“Ah what Nick is — that’s what I sometimes wonder!”

Grace eyed her parent in some despair: “Why, mother, isn’t he going to be like papa?” She waited for an answer that didn’t come; after which she pursued: “I thought you thought him so like him already.”

“Well, I don’t,” said Lady Agnes quietly.

“Who is then? Certainly Percy isn’t.”

Lady Agnes was silent a space. “There’s no one like your father.”

“Dear papa!” Grace handsomely concurred. Then with a rapid transition: “It would be so jolly for all of us — she’d be so nice to us.”

“She’s that already — in her way,” said Lady Agnes conscientiously, having followed the return, quick as it was. “Much good does it do her!” And she reproduced the note of her bitterness of a moment before.

“It does her some good that one should look out for her. I do, and I think she knows it,” Grace declared. “One can at any rate keep other women off.”

“Don’t meddle — you’re very clumsy,” was her mother’s not particularly sympathetic rejoinder. “There are other women who are beautiful, and there are others who are clever and rich.”

“Yes, but not all in one: that’s what’s so nice in Julia. Her fortune would be thrown in; he wouldn’t appear to have married her for it.”

“If he does he won’t,” said Lady Agnes a trifle obscurely.

“Yes, that’s what’s so charming. And he could do anything then, couldn’t he?”

“Well, your father had no fortune to speak of.”

“Yes, but didn’t Uncle Percy help him?”

“His wife helped him,” said Lady Agnes.

“Dear mamma!”— the girl was prompt. “There’s one thing,” she added: “that Mr. Carteret will always help Nick.”

“What do you mean by ‘always’?”

“Why whether he marries Julia or not.”

“Things aren’t so easy,” Lady Agnes judged. “It will all depend on Nick’s behaviour. He can stop it tomorrow.”

Grace Dormer stared; she evidently thought Mr. Carteret’s beneficence a part of the scheme of nature. “How could he stop it?”

“By not being serious. It isn’t so hard to prevent people giving you money.”

“Serious?” Grace repeated. “Does he want him to be a prig like Lord Egbert?”

“Yes — that’s exactly what he wants. And what he’ll do for him he’ll do for him only if he marries Julia.”

“Has he told you?” Grace inquired. And then, before her mother could answer, “I’m delighted at that!” she cried.

“He hasn’t told me, but that’s the way things happen.” Lady Agnes was less optimistic than her daughter, and such optimism as she cultivated was a thin tissue with the sense of things as they are showing through. “If Nick becomes rich Charles Carteret will make him more so. If he doesn’t he won’t give him a shilling.”

“Oh mamma!” Grace demurred.

“It’s all very well to say that in public life money isn’t as necessary as it used to be,” her ladyship went on broodingly. “Those who say so don’t know anything about it. It’s always intensely necessary.”

Her daughter, visibly affected by the gloom of her manner, felt impelled to evoke as a corrective a more cheerful idea. “I daresay; but there’s the fact — isn’t there? — that poor papa had so little.”

“Yes, and there’s the fact that it killed him!”

These words came out with a strange, quick, little flare of passion. They startled Grace Dormer, who jumped in her place and gasped, “Oh mother!” The next instant, however, she added in a different voice, “Oh Peter!” for, with an air of eagerness, a gentleman was walking up to them.

“How d’ye do, Cousin Agnes? How d’ye do, little Grace?” Peter Sherringham laughed and shook hands with them, and three minutes later was settled in his chair at their table, on which the first elements of the meal had been placed. Explanations, on one side and the other, were demanded and produced; from which it appeared that the two parties had been in some degree at cross-purposes. The day before Lady Agnes and her companions travelled to Paris Sherringham had gone to London for forty-eight hours on private business of the ambassador’s, arriving, on his return by the night-train, only early that morning. There had accordingly been a delay in his receiving Nick Dormer’s two notes. If Nick had come to the embassy in person — he might have done him the honour to call — he would have learned that the second secretary was absent. Lady Agnes was not altogether successful in assigning a motive to her son’s neglect of this courteous form; she could but say: “I expected him, I wanted him to go; and indeed, not hearing from you, he would have gone immediately — an hour or two hence, on leaving this place. But we’re here so quietly — not to go out, not to seem to appeal to the ambassador. Nick put it so —‘Oh mother, we’ll keep out of it; a friendly note will do.’ I don’t know definitely what he wanted to keep out of, unless anything like gaiety. The embassy isn’t gay, I know. But I’m sure his note was friendly, wasn’t it? I daresay you’ll see for yourself. He’s different directly he gets abroad; he doesn’t seem to care.” Lady Agnes paused a moment, not carrying out this particular elucidation; then she resumed: “He said you’d have seen Julia and that you’d understand everything from her. And when I asked how she’d know he said, ‘Oh she knows everything!’”

“He never said a word to me about Julia,” Peter Sherringham returned. Lady Agnes and her daughter exchanged a glance at this: the latter had already asked three times where Julia was, and her ladyship dropped that they had been hoping she would be able to come with Peter. The young man set forth that she was at the moment at an hotel in the Rue de la Paix, but had only been there since that morning; he had seen her before proceeding to the Champs Elysées. She had come up to Paris by an early train —— she had been staying at Versailles, of all places in the world. She had been a week in Paris on her return from Cannes — her stay there had been of nearly a month: fancy! — and then had gone out to Versailles to see Mrs. Billinghurst. Perhaps they’d remember her, poor Dallow’s sister. She was staying there to teach her daughters French — she had a dozen or two! — and Julia had spent three days with her. She was to return to England about the twenty-fifth. It would make seven weeks she must have been away from town — a rare thing for her; she usually stuck to it so in summer.

“Three days with Mrs. Billinghurst — how very good-natured of her!” Lady Agnes commented.

“Oh they’re very nice to her,” Sherringham said.

“Well, I hope so!” Grace Dormer exhaled. “Why didn’t you make her come here?”

“I proposed it, but she wouldn’t.” Another eye-beam, at this, passed between the two ladies and Peter went on: “She said you must come and see her at the Hôtel de Hollande.”

“Of course we’ll do that,” Lady Agnes declared. “Nick went to ask about her at the Westminster.”

“She gave that up; they wouldn’t give her the rooms she wanted, her usual set.”

“She’s delightfully particular!” Grace said complacently. Then she added: “She does like pictures, doesn’t she?”

Peter Sherringham stared. “Oh I daresay. But that’s not what she has in her head this morning. She has some news from London — she’s immensely excited.”

“What has she in her head?” Lady Agnes asked.

“What’s her news from London?” Grace added.

“She wants Nick to stand.”

“Nick to stand?” both ladies cried.

“She undertakes to bring him in for Harsh. Mr. Pinks is dead — the fellow, you know, who got the seat at the general election. He dropped down in London — disease of the heart or something of that sort. Julia has her telegram, but I see it was in last night’s papers.”

“Imagine — Nick never mentioned it!” said Lady Agnes.

“Don’t you know, mother? — abroad he only reads foreign papers.”

“Oh I know. I’ve no patience with him,” her ladyship continued. “Dear Julia!”

“It’s a nasty little place, and Pinks had a tight squeeze — 107 or something of that sort; but if it returned a Liberal a year ago very likely it will do so again. Julia at any rate believes it can be made to — if the man’s Nick — and is ready to take the order to put him in.”

“I’m sure if she can do it she will,” Grace pronounced.

“Dear, dear Julia! And Nick can do something for himself,” said the mother of this candidate.

“I’ve no doubt he can do anything,” Peter Sherringham returned good-naturedly. Then, “Do you mean in expenses?” he inquired.

“Ah I’m afraid he can’t do much in expenses, poor dear boy! And it’s dreadful how little we can look to Percy.”

“Well, I daresay you may look to Julia. I think that’s her idea.”

“Delightful Julia!” Lady Agnes broke out. “If poor Sir Nicholas could have known! Of course he must go straight home,” she added.

“He won’t like that,” said Grace.

“Then he’ll have to go without liking it.”

“It will rather spoil your little excursion, if you’ve only just come,” Peter suggested; “to say nothing of the great Biddy’s, if she’s enjoying Paris.”

“We may stay perhaps — with Julia to protect us,” said Lady Agnes.

“Ah she won’t stay; she’ll go over for her man.”

“Her man ——?”

“The fellow who stands, whoever he is — especially if he’s Nick.” These last words caused the eyes of Peter Sherringham’s companions to meet again, and he went on: “She’ll go straight down to Harsh.”

“Wonderful Julia!” Lady Agnes panted. “Of course Nick must go straight there too.”

“Well, I suppose he must see first if they’ll have him.”

“If they’ll have him? Why how can he tell till he tries?”

“I mean the people at headquarters, the fellows who arrange it.”

Lady Agnes coloured a little. “My dear Peter, do you suppose there will be the least doubt of their ‘having’ the son of his father?”

“Of course it’s a great name, Cousin Agnes — a very great name.”

“One of the greatest, simply,” Lady Agnes smiled.

“It’s the best name in the world!” said Grace more emphatically.

“All the same it didn’t prevent his losing his seat.”

“By half-a-dozen votes: it was too odious!” her ladyship cried.

“I remember — I remember. And in such a case as that why didn’t they immediately put him in somewhere else?”

“How one sees you live abroad, dear Peter! There happens to have been the most extraordinary lack of openings — I never saw anything like it — for a year. They’ve had their hand on him, keeping him all ready. I daresay they’ve telegraphed him.”

“And he hasn’t told you?”

Lady Agnes faltered. “He’s so very odd when he’s abroad!”

“At home too he lets things go,” Grace interposed. “He does so little — takes no trouble.” Her mother suffered this statement to pass unchallenged, and she pursued philosophically: “I suppose it’s because he knows he’s so clever.”

“So he is, dear old man. But what does he do, what has he been doing, in a positive way?”

“He has been painting.”

“Ah not seriously!” Lady Agnes protested.

“That’s the worst way,” said Peter Sherringham. “Good things?”

Neither of the ladies made a direct response to this, but Lady Agnes said: “He has spoken repeatedly. They’re always calling on him.”

“He speaks magnificently,” Grace attested.

“That’s another of the things I lose, living in far countries. And he’s doing the Salon now with the great Biddy?”

“Just the things in this part. I can’t think what keeps them so long,” Lady Agnes groaned. “Did you ever see such a dreadful place?”

Sherringham stared. “Aren’t the things good? I had an idea ——!”

“Good?” cried Lady Agnes. “They’re too odious, too wicked.”

“Ah,” laughed Peter, “that’s what people fall into if they live abroad. The French oughtn’t to live abroad!”

“Here they come,” Grace announced at this point; “but they’ve got a strange man with them.”

“That’s a bore when we want to talk!” Lady Agnes sighed.

Peter got up in the spirit of welcome and stood a moment watching the others approach. “There will be no difficulty in talking, to judge by the gentleman,” he dropped; and while he remains so conspicuous our eyes may briefly rest on him. He was middling high and was visibly a representative of the nervous rather than of the phlegmatic branch of his race. He had an oval face, fine firm features, and a complexion that tended to the brown. Brown were his eyes, and women thought them soft; dark brown his hair, in which the same critics sometimes regretted the absence of a little undulation. It was perhaps to conceal this plainness that he wore it very short. His teeth were white, his moustache was pointed, and so was the small beard that adorned the extremity of his chin. His face expressed intelligence and was very much alive; it had the further distinction that it often struck superficial observers with a certain foreignness of cast. The deeper sort, however, usually felt it latently English enough. There was an idea that, having taken up the diplomatic career and gone to live in strange lands, he cultivated the mask of an alien, an Italian or a Spaniard; of an alien in time even — one of the wonderful ubiquitous diplomatic agents of the sixteenth century. In fact, none the less, it would have been impossible to be more modern than Peter Sherringham — more of one’s class and one’s country. But this didn’t prevent several stray persons — Bridget Dormer for instance — from admiring the hue of his cheek for its olive richness and his moustache and beard for their resemblance to those of Charles I. At the same time — she rather jumbled her comparisons — she thought he recalled a Titian.

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