The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


When he arrived with the three members of his family at the restaurant of their choice Peter Sherringham was already seated there by one of the immaculate tables, but Mrs. Dallow was not yet on the scene, and they had time for a sociable settlement — time to take their places and unfold their napkins, crunch their rolls, breathe the savoury air, and watch the door, before the usual raising of heads and suspension of forks, the sort of stir that accompanied most of this lady’s movements, announced her entrance. The dame de comptoir ducked and re-ducked, the people looked round, Peter and Nick got up, there was a shuffling of chairs — Julia had come. Peter was relating how he had stopped at her hotel to bring her with him and had found her, according to her custom, by no means ready; on which, fearing his guests would arrive first at the rendezvous and find no proper welcome, he had come off without her, leaving her to follow. He had not brought a friend, as he intended, having divined that Julia would prefer a pure family party if she wanted to talk about her candidate. Now she stood looking down at the table and her expectant kinsfolk, drawing off her gloves, letting her brother draw off her jacket, lifting her hands for some rearrangement of her hat. She looked at Nick last, smiling, but only for a moment. She said to Peter: “Are we going to dine here? Oh dear, why didn’t you have a private room?”

Nick had not seen her at all for several weeks and had seen her but little for a year, but her off-hand cursory manner had not altered in the interval. She spoke remarkably fast, as if speech were not in itself a pleasure — to have it over as soon as possible; and her brusquerie was of the dark shade friendly critics account for by pleading shyness. Shyness had never appeared to him an ultimate quality or a real explanation of anything; it only explained an effect by another effect, neither with a cause to boast of. What he suspected in Julia was that her mind was less pleasing than her person; an ugly, a really blighting idea, which as yet he had but half accepted. It was a case in which she was entitled to the benefit of every doubt and oughtn’t to be judged without a complete trial. Nick meanwhile was afraid of the trial — this was partly why he had been of late to see her so little — because he was afraid of the sentence, afraid of anything that might work to lessen the charm it was actually in the power of her beauty to shed. There were people who thought her rude, and he hated rude women. If he should fasten on that view, or rather if that view should fasten on him, what could still please and what he admired in her would lose too much of its sweetness. If it be thought odd that he had not yet been able to read the character of a woman he had known since childhood the answer is that this character had grown faster than Nick’s observation. The growth was constant, whereas the observation was but occasional, though it had begun early. If he had attempted inwardly to phrase the matter, as he probably had not, he might have pronounced the effect she produced upon him too much a compulsion; not the coercion of design, of importunity, nor the vulgar pressure of family expectation, a betrayed desire he should like her enough to marry her, but a mixture of divers urgent things; of the sense that she was imperious and generous — probably more the former than the latter — and of a certain prevision of doom, the influence of the idea that he should come to it, that he was predestined.

This had made him shrink from knowing the worst about her; not the wish to get used to it in time, but what was more characteristic of him, the wish to interpose a temporary illusion. Illusions and realities and hopes and fears, however, fell into confusion whenever he met her after a separation. The separation, so far as seeing her alone or as continuous talk was concerned, had now been tolerably long; had lasted really ever since his failure to regain his seat. An impression had come to him that she judged that failure rather stiffly, had thought, and had somewhat sharply said, that he ought to have done better. This was a part of her imperious way, and a part not all to be overlooked on a mere present basis. If he were to marry her he should come to an understanding with her: he should give her his own measure as well as take hers. But the understanding might in the actual case suggest too much that he was to marry her. You could quarrel with your wife because there were compensations — for her; but you mightn’t be prepared to offer these compensations as prepayment for the luxury of quarrelling.

It was not that such a luxury wouldn’t be considerable, our young man none the less thought as Julia Dallow’s fine head poised itself before him again; a high spirit was of course better than a mawkish to be mismated with, any day in the year. She had much the same colour as her brother, but as nothing else in her face was the same the resemblance was not striking. Her hair was of so dark a brown that it was commonly regarded as black, and so abundant that a plain arrangement was required to keep it in natural relation to the rest of her person. Her eyes were of a grey sometimes pronounced too light, and were not sunken in her face, but placed well on the surface. Her nose was perfect, but her mouth was too small; and Nick Dormer, and doubtless other persons as well, had sometimes wondered how with such a mouth her face could have expressed decision. Her figure helped it, for she appeared tall — being extremely slender — yet was not; and her head took turns and positions which, though a matter of but half an inch out of the common this way or that, somehow contributed to the air of resolution and temper. If it had not been for her extreme delicacy of line and surface she might have been called bold; but as it was she looked refined and quiet — refined by tradition and quiet for a purpose. And altogether she was beautiful, with the gravity of her elegant head, her hair like the depths of darkness, her eyes like its earlier clearing, her mouth like a rare pink flower.

Peter said he had not taken a private room because he knew Biddy’s tastes; she liked to see the world — she had told him so — the curious people, the coming and going of Paris. “Oh anything for Biddy!” Julia replied, smiling at the girl and taking her place. Lady Agnes and her elder daughter exchanged one of their looks, and Nick exclaimed jocosely that he didn’t see why the whole party should be sacrificed to a presumptuous child. The presumptuous child blushingly protested she had never expressed any such wish to Peter, upon which Nick, with broader humour, revealed that Peter had served them so out of stinginess: he had pitchforked them together in the public room because he wouldn’t go to the expense of a cabinet. He had brought no guest, no foreigner of distinction nor diplomatic swell, to honour them, and now they would see what a paltry dinner he would give them. Peter stabbed him indignantly with a long roll, and Lady Agnes, who seemed to be waiting for some manifestation on Mrs. Dallow’s part which didn’t come, concluded, with a certain coldness, that they quite sufficed to themselves for privacy as well as for society. Nick called attention to this fine phrase of his mother’s and said it was awfully neat, while Grace and Biddy looked harmoniously at Julia’s clothes. Nick felt nervous and joked a good deal to carry it off — a levity that didn’t prevent Julia’s saying to him after a moment: “You might have come to see me today, you know. Didn’t you get my message from Peter?”

“Scold him, Julia — scold him well. I begged him to go,” said Lady Agnes; and to this Grace added her voice with an “Oh Julia, do give it to him!” These words, however, had not the effect they suggested, since Mrs. Dallow only threw off for answer, in her quick curt way, that that would be making far too much of him. It was one of the things in her that Nick mentally pronounced ungraceful, the perversity of pride or of shyness that always made her disappoint you a little if she saw you expected a thing. She snubbed effusiveness in a way that yet gave no interesting hint of any wish to keep it herself in reserve. Effusiveness, however, certainly, was the last thing of which Lady Agnes would have consented to be accused; and Nick, while he replied to Julia that he was sure he shouldn’t have found her, was not unable to perceive the operation on his mother of that shade of manner. “He ought to have gone; he owed you that,” she went on; “but it’s very true he would have had the same luck as we. I went with the girls directly after luncheon. I suppose you got our card.”

“He might have come after I came in,” said Mrs. Dallow.

“Dear Julia, I’m going to see you to-night. I’ve been waiting for that,” Nick returned.

“Of course we had no idea when you’d come in,” said Lady Agnes.

“I’m so sorry. You must come tomorrow. I hate calls at night,” Julia serenely added.

“Well then, will you roam with me? Will you wander through Paris on my arm?” Nick asked, smiling. “Will you take a drive with me?”

“Oh that would be perfection!” cried Grace.

“I thought we were all going somewhere — to the Hippodrome, Peter,” Biddy said.

“Oh not all; just you and me!” laughed Peter.

“I’m going home to my bed. I’ve earned my rest,” Lady Agnes sighed.

“Can’t Peter take us?” demanded Grace. “Nick can take you home, mamma, if Julia won’t receive him, and I can look perfectly after Peter and Biddy.”

“Take them to something amusing; please take them,” Mrs. Dallow said to her brother. Her voice was kind, but had the expectation of assent in it, and Nick observed both the good nature and the pressure. “You’re tired, poor dear,” she continued to Lady Agnes. “Fancy your being dragged about so! What did you come over for?”

“My mother came because I brought her,” Nick said. “It’s I who have dragged her about. I brought her for a little change. I thought it would do her good. I wanted to see the Salon.”

“It isn’t a bad time. I’ve a carriage and you must use it; you must use nothing else. It shall take you everywhere. I’ll drive you about tomorrow.” Julia dropped these words with all her air of being able rather than of wanting; but Nick had already noted, and he noted now afresh and with pleasure, that her lack of unction interfered not a bit with her always acting. It was quite sufficiently manifest to him that for the rest of the time she might be near his mother she would do for her numberless good turns. She would give things to the girls — he had a private adumbration of that; expensive Parisian, perhaps not perfectly useful, things.

Lady Agnes was a woman who measured outlays and returns, but she was both too acute and too just not to recognise the scantest offer from which an advantage could proceed. “Dear Julia!” she exclaimed responsively; and her tone made this brevity of acknowledgment adequate. Julia’s own few words were all she wanted. “It’s so interesting about Harsh,” she added. “We’re immensely excited.”

“Yes, Nick looks it. Merci, pas de vin. It’s just the thing for you, you know,” Julia said to him.

“To be sure he knows it. He’s immensely grateful. It’s really very kind of you.”

“You do me a very great honour, Julia,” Nick hastened to add.

“Don’t be tiresome, please,” that lady returned.

“We’ll talk about it later. Of course there are lots of points,” Nick pursued. “At present let’s be purely convivial. Somehow Harsh is such a false note here. Nous causerons de ça.”

“My dear fellow, you’ve caught exactly the tone of Mr. Gabriel Nash,” Peter Sherringham declared on this.

“Who’s Mr. Gabriel Nash?” Mrs. Dallow asked.

“Nick, is he a gentleman? Biddy says so,” Grace Dormer interposed before this inquiry was answered.

“It’s to be supposed that any one Nick brings to lunch with us —!” Lady Agnes rather coldly sighed.

“Ah Grace, with your tremendous standard!” her son said; while Peter Sherringham explained to his sister that Mr. Nash was Nick’s new Mentor or oracle — whom, moreover, she should see if she would come and have tea with him.

“I haven’t the least desire to see him,” Julia made answer, “any more than I have to talk about Harsh and bore poor Peter.”

“Oh certainly, dear, you’d bore me,” her brother rang out.

“One thing at a time then. Let us by all means be convivial. Only you must show me how,” Mrs. Dallow went on to Nick. “What does he mean, Cousin Agnes? Does he want us to drain the wine-cup, to flash with repartee?”

“You’ll do very well,” said Nick. “You’re thoroughly charming to-night.”

“Do go to Peter’s, Julia, if you want something exciting. You’ll see a wonderful girl,” Biddy broke in with her smile on Peter.

“Wonderful for what?”

“For thinking she can act when she can’t,” said the roguish Biddy.

“Dear me, what people you all know! I hate Peter’s theatrical people.”

“And aren’t you going home, Julia?” Lady Agnes inquired.

“Home to the hotel?”

“Dear, no, to Harsh — to see about everything.”

“I’m in the midst of telegrams. I don’t know yet.”

“I suppose there’s no doubt they’ll have him,” Lady Agnes decided to pursue.

“Who’ll have whom?”

“Why, the local people and the party managers. I’m speaking of the question of my son’s standing.”

“They’ll have the person I want them to have, I daresay. There are so many people in it, in one way or another — it’s dreadful. I like the way you sit there,” Julia went on to Nick.

“So do I,” he smiled back at her; and he thought she was charming now, because she was gay and easy and willing really, though she might plead incompetence, to understand how jocose a dinner in a pothouse in a foreign town might be. She was in good humour or was going to be, and not grand nor stiff nor indifferent nor haughty nor any of the things people who disliked her usually found her and sometimes even a little made him believe her. The spirit of mirth in some cold natures manifests itself not altogether happily, their effort of recreation resembles too much the bath of the hippopotamus; but when Mrs. Dallow put her elbows on the table one felt she could be trusted to get them safely off again.

For a family in mourning the dinner was lively; the more so that before it was half over Julia had arranged that her brother, eschewing the inferior spectacle, should take the girls to the Théâtre Français. It was her idea, and Nick had a chance to observe how an idea was apt to be not successfully controverted when it was Julia’s. Even the programme appeared to have been prearranged to suit it, just the thing for the cheek of the young person — Il ne Faut Jurer de Rien and Mademoiselle de la Seiglière. Peter was all willingness, but it was Julia who settled it, even to sending for the newspaper — he was by a rare accident unconscious of the evening’s bill — and to reassuring Biddy, who was happy but anxious, on the article of their being too late for good places. Peter could always get good places: a word from him and the best box was at his disposal. She made him write the word on a card and saw a messenger despatched with it to the Rue de Richelieu; and all this without loudness or insistence, parenthetically and authoritatively. The box was bespoken and the carriage, as soon as they had had their coffee, found to be in attendance. Peter drove off in it with the girls, understanding that he was to send it back, and Nick waited for it over the finished repast with the two ladies. After this his mother was escorted to it and conveyed to her apartments, and all the while it had been Julia who governed the succession of events. “Do be nice to her,” Lady Agnes breathed to him as he placed her in the vehicle at the door of the café; and he guessed it gave her a comfort to have left him sitting there with Mrs. Dallow.

He had every disposition to be nice to his charming cousin; if things went as she liked them it was the proof of a certain fine force in her — the force of assuming they would. Julia had her differences — some of them were much for the better; and when she was in a mood like this evening’s, liberally dominant, he was ready to encourage most of what she took for granted. While they waited for the return of the carriage, which had rolled away with his mother, she sat opposite him with her elbows on the table, playing first with one and then with another of the objects that encumbered it; after five minutes of which she exclaimed, “Oh I say, well go!” and got up abruptly, asking for her jacket. He said something about the carriage and its order to come back for them, and she replied, “Well, it can go away again. I don’t want a carriage,” she added: “I want to walk”— and in a moment she was out of the place, with the people at the tables turning round again and the caissière swaying in her high seat. On the pavement of the boulevard she looked up and down; there were people at little tables by the door; there were people all over the broad expanse of the asphalt; there was a profusion of light and a pervasion of sound; and everywhere, though the establishment at which they had been dining was not in the thick of the fray, the tokens of a great traffic of pleasure, that night-aspect of Paris which represents it as a huge market for sensations. Beyond the Boulevard des Capucines it flared through the warm evening like a vast bazaar, and opposite the Café Durand the Madeleine rose theatrical, a high artful décor before the footlights of the Rue Royale. “Where shall we go, what shall we do?” Mrs. Dallow asked, looking at her companion and somewhat to his surprise, as he had supposed she wanted but to go home.

“Anywhere you like. It’s so warm we might drive instead of going indoors. We might go to the Bois. That would be agreeable.”

“Yes, but it wouldn’t be walking. However, that doesn’t matter. It’s mild enough for anything — for sitting out like all these people. And I’ve never walked in Paris at night. It would amuse me.”

Nick hesitated. “So it might, but it isn’t particularly recommended to ladies.”

“I don’t care for that if it happens to suit me.”

“Very well then, we’ll walk to the Bastille if you like.”

Julia hesitated, on her side, still looking about. “It’s too far; I’m tired; we’ll sit here.” And she dropped beside an empty table on the “terrace” of M. Durand. “This will do; it’s amusing enough and we can look at the Madeleine — that’s respectable. If we must have something we’ll have a madère — is that respectable? Not particularly? So much the better. What are those people having? Bocks? Couldn’t we have bocks? Are they very low? Then I shall have one. I’ve been so wonderfully good — I’ve been staying at Versailles: je me dois bien cela.”

She insisted, but pronounced the thin liquid in the tall glass very disgusting when it was brought. Nick was amazed, reflecting that it was not for such a discussion as this that his mother had left him with hands in his pockets. He had been looking out, but as his eloquence flowed faster he turned to his friend, who had dropped upon a sofa with her face to the window. She had given her jacket and gloves to her maid, but had kept on her hat; and she leaned forward a little as she sat, clasping her hands together in her lap and keeping her eyes on him. The lamp, in a corner, was so thickly veiled that the room was in tempered obscurity, lighted almost equally from the street and the brilliant shop-fronts opposite. “Therefore why be sapient and solemn about it, like an editorial in a newspaper?” Nick added with a smile.

She continued to look at him after he had spoken, then she said: “If you don’t want to stand you’ve only to say so. You needn’t give your reasons.”

“It’s too kind of you to let me off that! And then I’m a tremendous fellow for reasons; that’s my strong point, don’t you know? I’ve a lot more besides those I’ve mentioned, done up and ready for delivery. The odd thing is that they don’t always govern my behaviour. I rather think I do want to stand.”

“Then what you said just now was a speech,” Julia declared.

“A speech?”

“The ‘rot,’ the humbug of the hustings.”

“No, those great truths remain, and a good many others. But an inner voice tells me I’m in for it. And it will be much more graceful to embrace this opportunity, accepting your cooperation, than to wait for some other and forfeit that advantage.”

“I shall be very glad to help you anywhere,” she went on.

“Thanks awfully,” he returned, still standing there with his hands in his pockets. “You’d do it best in your own place, and I’ve no right to deny myself such a help.”

Julia calmly considered. “I don’t do it badly.”

“Ah you’re so political!”

“Of course I am; it’s the only decent thing to be. But I can only help you if you’ll help yourself. I can do a good deal, but I can’t do everything. If you’ll work I’ll work with you; but if you’re going into it with your hands in your pockets I’ll have nothing to do with you.” Nick instantly changed the position of these members and sank into a seat with his elbows on his knees. “You’re very clever, but you must really take a little trouble. Things don’t drop into people’s mouths.”

“I’ll try — I’ll try. I’ve a great incentive,” he admitted.

“Of course you have.”

“My mother, my poor mother.” Julia breathed some vague sound and he went on: “And of course always my father, dear good man. My mother’s even more political than you.”

“I daresay she is, and quite right!” said Mrs. Dallow.

“And she can’t tell me a bit more than you can what she thinks, what she believes, what she wants.”

“Pardon me, I can tell you perfectly. There’s one thing I always immensely want — to keep out a Tory.”

“I see. That’s a great philosophy.”

“It will do very well. And I desire the good of the country. I’m not ashamed of that.”

“And can you give me an idea of what it is — the good of the country?”

“I know perfectly what it isn’t. It isn’t what the Tories want to do.”

“What do they want to do?”

“Oh it would take me long to tell you. All sorts of trash.”

“It would take you long, and it would take them longer! All they want to do is to prevent us from doing. On our side we want to prevent them from preventing us. That’s about as clearly as we all see it. So on both sides it’s a beautiful, lucid, inspiring programme.”

“I don’t believe in you,” Mrs. Dallow replied to this, leaning back on her sofa.

“I hope not, Julia, indeed!” He paused a moment, still with his face toward her and his elbows on his knees; then he pursued: “You’re a very accomplished woman and a very zealous one; but you haven’t an idea, you know — not to call an idea. What you mainly want is to be at the head of a political salon; to start one, to keep it up, to make it a success.”

“Much you know me!” Julia protested; but he could see, through the dimness, that her face spoke differently.

“You’ll have it in time, but I won’t come to it,” Nick went on.

“You can’t come less than you do.”

“When I say you’ll have it I mean you’ve already got it. That’s why I don’t come.”

“I don’t think you know what you mean,” said Mrs. Dallow. “I’ve an idea that’s as good as any of yours, any of those you’ve treated me to this evening, it seems to me — the simple idea that one ought to do something or other for one’s country.”

“‘Something or other’ certainly covers all the ground. There’s one thing one can always do for one’s country, which is not to be afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

Nick Dormer waited a little, as if his idea amused him, but he presently said, “I’ll tell you another time. It’s very well to talk so glibly of standing,” he added; “but it isn’t absolutely foreign to the question that I haven’t got the cash.”

“What did you do before?” she asked.

“The first time my father paid.”

“And the other time?”

“Oh Mr. Carteret.”

“Your expenses won’t be at all large; on the contrary,” said Julia.

“They shan’t be; I shall look out sharp for that. I shall have the great Hutchby.”

“Of course; but you know I want you to do it well.” She paused an instant and then: “Of course you can send the bill to me.”

“Thanks awfully; you’re tremendously kind. I shouldn’t think of that.” Nick Dormer got up as he spoke, and walked to the window again, his companion’s eyes resting on him while he stood with his back to her. “I shall manage it somehow,” he wound up.

“Mr. Carteret will be delighted,” said Julia.

“I daresay, but I hate taking people’s money.”

“That’s nonsense — when it’s for the country. Isn’t it for them?”

“When they get it back!” Nick replied, turning round and looking for his hat. “It’s startlingly late; you must be tired.” Mrs. Dallow made no response to this, and he pursued his quest, successful only when he reached a duskier corner of the room, to which the hat had been relegated by his cousin’s maid. “Mr. Carteret will expect so much if he pays. And so would you.”

“Yes, I’m bound to say I should! I should expect a great deal — everything.” And Mrs. Dallow emphasised this assertion by the way she rose erect. “If you’re riding for a fall, if you’re only going in to miss it, you had better stay out.”

“How can I miss it with you?” the young man smiled. She uttered a word, impatiently but indistinguishably, and he continued: “And even if I do it will have been immense fun.”

“It is immense fun,” said Julia. “But the best fun is to win. If you don’t ——!”

“If I don’t?” he repeated as she dropped.

“I’ll never speak to you again.”

“How much you expect even when you don’t pay!”

Mrs. Dallow’s rejoinder was a justification of this remark, expressing as it did the fact that should they receive on the morrow information on which she believed herself entitled to count, information tending to show how hard the Conservatives meant to fight, she should look to him to be in the field as early as herself. Sunday was a lost day; she should leave Paris on Monday.

“Oh they’ll fight it hard; they’ll put up Kingsbury,” said Nick, smoothing his hat. “They’ll all come down — all that can get away. And Kingsbury has a very handsome wife.”

“She’s not so handsome as your cousin,” Julia smiled.

“Oh dear, no — a cousin sooner than a wife any day!” Nick laughed as soon as he had said this, as if the speech had an awkward side; but the reparation perhaps scarcely mended it, the exaggerated mock-meekness with which he added: “I’ll do any blessed thing you tell me.”

“Come here tomorrow then — as early as ten.” She turned round, moving to the door with him; but before they reached it she brought out: “Pray isn’t a gentleman to do anything, to be anything?”

“To be anything ——?”

“If he doesn’t aspire to serve the State.”

“Aspire to make his political fortune, do you mean? Oh bless me, yes, there are other things.”

“What other things that can compare with that?”

“Well, I for instance, I’m very fond of the arts.”

“Of the arts?” she echoed.

“Did you never hear of them? I’m awfully fond of painting.”

At this Julia stopped short, and her fine grey eyes had for a moment the air of being set further forward in her head. “Don’t be odious! Good-night,” she said, turning away and leaving him to go.

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