The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 13


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

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

Mrs. Dallow was really too glad for any definite reflection, even for personal exultation, the vanity of recognizing her own large share of the work. Nick was in and he was beside her, tired, silent, vague, beflowered and beribboned, and he had been splendid from beginning to end, delightfully good-humoured and at the same time delightfully clever—still cleverer than she had supposed he could be. The sense that she had helped his cleverness and that she had been repaid by it, or by his gratitude (it came to the same thing), in a way she appreciated, was not triumphant and jealous; for the break of the long tension soothed her, it was as pleasant as an untied ligature. So nothing passed between them on their way to the house; there was no sound in the park but the happy rustle of summer (it seemed an applausive murmur) and the swift progress of the vehicle.

Lady Agnes already knew, for as soon as the result was declared Nick had despatched a man on horseback to her, carrying the figures on a scrawled card. He had been far from getting away at once, having to respond to the hubbub of acclamation, to speak yet again, to thank his electors individually and collectively, to chaff the Tories, to be carried hither and yon, and above all to pretend that the interest of the business was now greater for him than ever. If he said never a word after he put himself in Julia's hands to go home, perhaps it was partly because the consciousness began to glimmer within him that that interest had on the contrary now suddenly diminished. He wanted to see his mother because he knew she wanted to see him, to fold him close in her arms. They had been open there for that purpose for the last half-hour, and her expectancy, now no longer an ache of suspense, was the reason of Julia's round pace. Yet this very expectancy somehow made Nick wince a little. Meeting his mother was like being elected over again.

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

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

"Poor Sir Nicholas!" said Mrs. Dallow, vaguely.

"Did you make another speech?" Lady Agnes asked.

"I don't know; did I?" Nick inquired.

"I don't know!" Mrs. Dallow replied, with her back turned, doing something to her hat before the glass.

"Oh, I can fancy the confusion, the bewilderment!" said Lady Agnes, in a tone rich in political reminiscence.

"It was really immense fun!" exclaimed Mrs. Dallow.

"Dear Julia!" Lady Agnes went on. Then she added: "It was you who made it sure."

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

"Perhaps you'll have to speak again," Lady Agnes smiled at her son.

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

"Don't say that, Nick," said his mother, gravely.

"Don't be afraid: he'll jabber like a magpie!" And Mrs. Dallow went out of the room.

Nick had flung himself upon a sofa with an air of weariness, though not of completely vanished cheer; and Lady Agnes stood before him fingering her rose and looking down at him. His eyes looked away from hers: they seemed fixed on something she couldn't see. "I hope you've thanked Julia," Lady Agnes dropped.

"Why, of course, mother."

"She has done as much as if you hadn't been sure."

"I wasn't in the least sure—and she has done everything."

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

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

"He hears you, he watches you, he rejoices in you," Lady Agnes declared.

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

"Of course she is!" answered Lady Agnes, knowingly.

"Her charming appearance is half the battle," said Nick, explaining a little coldly what he meant. But he felt that his coldness was an inadequate protection to him when he heard his mother observe, with something of the same sapience—

"A woman is always effective when she likes a person."

It discomposed him to be described as a person liked, and by a woman; and he asked abruptly: "When are you going away?"

"The first moment that's civil—to-morrow morning. You'll stay here, I hope."

"Stay? What shall I stay for?"

"Why, you might stay to thank her."

"I have everything to do."

"I thought everything was done," said Lady Agnes.

"Well, that's why," her son replied, not very lucidly. "I want to do other things—quite other things. I should like to take the next train." And Nick looked at his watch.

"When there are people coming to dinner to meet you?"

"They'll meet you—that's better."

"I'm sorry any one is coming," Lady Agnes said, in a tone unencouraging to a deviation from the intensity of things. "I wish we were alone—just as a family. It would please Julia to-day to feel that we are one. Do stay with her to-morrow."

"How will that do, when she's alone?"

"She won't be alone, with Mrs. Gresham."

"Mrs. Gresham doesn't count."

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

"I have never stayed much, and there have always been people. At any rate, now it's different."

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

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

Lady Agnes hesitated a moment; she felt that she had need of all her tact. "Well, if the place is hers, and you represent the place—" she began. But she went no further, for Nick interrupted her with a laugh.

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

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

"It will only be a bigger sofa! I'm joking, of course," Nick went on, "and I ought to be ashamed of myself. They have done me the honour to elect me, and I shall never say a word that's not civil about them, poor dears. But even a new member may joke with his mother."

"I wish you'd be serious with your mother," said Lady Agnes, going nearer to him.

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

"Oh, Nick, don't spoil your victory by your perversity!" Lady Agnes cried, clasping her hands to him.

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

"Out of it?" His mother stared. "Isn't the whole point that you're in?"

"Ah, now I'm only in the House of Commons."

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

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

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

"Why now?" asked Nick, frowning.

"She has shown you such sympathy, such devotion."

"Is it for that she has shown it?"

"Ah, you might feel—I can't tell you!" said Lady Agnes, reproachfully.

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

"I? Why, we are all as fond of her as we can be."

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

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

"Be nice to her? Do you mean propose to her?"

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

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

"Your freedom? What freedom is there in being poor? Talk of that when Julia puts everything that she possesses at your feet!"

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

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

Nick Dormer stopped her with another kiss; he murmured: "Mother, mother, mother!" as he bent over her.

He wished her not to go on, to let him off; but the deep deprecation in his voice did not prevent her saying: "You know it—you know it perfectly. All, and more than all that I can tell you, you know."

He drew her closer, kissed her again, held her there as he would have held a child in a paroxysm, soothing her silently till it should pass away. Her emotion had brought the tears to her eyes; she dried them as she disengaged herself. The next moment, however, she resumed, attacking him again:

"For a public man she would be the ideal companion. She's made for public life; she's made to shine, to be concerned in great things, to occupy a high position and to help him on. She would help you in everything as she has helped you in this. Together there is nothing you couldn't do. You can have the first house in England—yes, the first! What freedom is there in being poor? How can you do anything without money, and what money can you make for yourself—what money will ever come to you? That's the crime—to throw away such an instrument of power, such a blessed instrument of good."

"It isn't everything to be rich, mother," said Nick, looking at the floor in a certain patient way, with a provisional docility and his hands in his pockets. "And it isn't so fearful to be poor."

"It's vile—it's abject. Don't I know?"

"Are you in such acute want?" Nick asked, smiling.

"Ah, don't make me explain what you have only to look at to see!" his mother returned, as if with a richness of allusion to dark Clements in her fate.

"Besides," Nick went on, "there's other money in the world than Julia's. I might come by some of that."

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

"Haven't I come in for Harsh?" asked Nick.

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

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

Lady Agnes hesitated; then: "You needn't insult Julia!" she replied.

"Moreover, if I've her money, I sha'n't want his," Nick hinted.

Again his mother waited an instant before answering; after which she produced: "And pray wouldn't you wish to be independent?"

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

"Work at politics? How does that make money, honourably?"

"I don't mean at politics."

"What do you mean, then?" Lady Agnes demanded, looking at him as if she challenged him to phrase it if he dared. Her eye appeared to have a certain effect upon him, for he remained silent, and she continued: "Are you elected or not?"

"It seems a dream," said Nick.

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

So, with an unexpected rage of self-exposure, Lady Agnes talked of her disappointments and troubles, tore away the veil from her sadness and soreness. It almost frightened Nick to perceive how she hated her life, though at another time it might have amused him to note how she despised her gardenless house. Of course it was not a country-house, and Lady Agnes could not get used to that. Better than he could do—for it was the sort of thing into which, in any case, a woman enters more than a man—she felt what a lift into brighter air, what a regilding of his sisters' possibilities, his marriage to Julia would effect for them. He couldn't trace the difference, but his mother saw it all as a shining picture. She made the vision shine before him now, somehow, as she stood there like a poor woman crying for a kindness. What was filial in him, all the piety that he owed, especially to the revived spirit of his father, more than ever present on a day of such public pledges, was capable from one moment to the other of trembling into sympathetic response. He had the gift, so embarrassing when it is a question of consistent action, of seeing in an imaginative, interesting light anything that illustrated forcibly the life of another: such things effected a union with something in his life, and the recognition of them was ready to become a form of enthusiasm in which there was no consciousness of sacrifice—none scarcely of merit.

Rapidly, at present, this change of scene took place before his spiritual eye. He found himself believing, because his mother communicated the belief, that it was in his option to transform the social outlook of the three women who clung to him and who declared themselves dismal. This was not the highest kind of inspiration, but it was moving, and it associated itself with dim confusions of figures in the past—figures of authority and expectancy. Julia's wide kingdom opened out around him, making the future almost a dazzle of happy power. His mother and sisters floated in the rosy element with beaming faces, in transfigured safety. "The first house in England," she had called it; but it might be the first house in Europe, the first house in the world, by the fine air and the high humanities that should fill it. Everything that was beautiful in the place where he stood took on a more delicate charm; the house rose over his head like a museum of exquisite rewards, and the image of poor George Dallow hovered there obsequious, as if to confess that he had only been the modest, tasteful forerunner, appointed to set it all in order and punctually retire. Lady Agnes's tone penetrated further into Nick's spirit than it had done yet, as she syllabled to him, supremely: "Don't desert us—don't desert us."

"Don't desert you?"

"Be great—be great," said his mother. "I'm old, I've lived, I've seen. Go in for a great material position. That will simplify everything else."

"I will do what I can for you—anything, everything I can. Trust me—leave me alone," said Nick Dormer.

"And you'll stay over—you'll spend the day with her?"

"I'll stay till she turns me out!"

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

"No more do I!"

Lady Agnes looked round the great room with a soft exhalation of gratitude and hope. "If you're so fond of art, what art is equal to all this? The joy of living in the midst of it—of seeing the finest works every day! You'll have everything the world can give."

"That's exactly what was just passing in my own mind. It's too much."

"Don't be selfish!"

"Selfish?" Nick repeated.

"Don't be unselfish, then. You'll share it with us."

"And with Julia a little, I hope," said Nick.

"God bless you!" cried his mother, looking up at him. Her eyes were detained by the sudden perception of something in his own that was not clear to her; but before she had time to ask for an explanation of it Nick inquired, abruptly—

"Why do you talk so of poor Biddy? Why won't she marry?"

"You had better ask Peter Sherringham," said Lady Agnes.

"What has he got to do with it?"

"How odd of you to ask, when it's so plain how she thinks of him that it's a matter of common chaff!"

"Yes, we've made it so, and she takes it like an angel. But Peter likes her."

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

"Biddy's so charming—she'll marry some one else."

"Never, if she loves him. But Julia will bring it about—Julia will help her," said Lady Agnes, more cheerfully. "That's what you'll do for us—that she'll do everything!"

"Why then more than now?" Nick asked.

"Because we shall be yours."

"You are mine already."

"Yes, but she isn't. However, she's as good!" exulted Lady Agnes.

"She'll turn me out of the house," said Nick.

"Come and tell me when she does! But there she is—go to her!" And she gave him a push toward one of the windows that stood open to the terrace. Mrs. Dallow had become visible outside; she passed slowly along the terrace, with her long shadow. "Go to her," Lady Agnes repeated—"she's waiting for you."

Nick went out with the air of a man who was as ready to pass that way as any other, and at the same moment his two sisters, freshly restored from the excitements of the town, came into the room from another quarter.

"We go home to-morrow, but Nick will stay a day or two," their mother said to them.

"Dear old Nick!" Grace ejaculated, looking at Lady Agnes.

"He's going to speak," the latter went on. "But don't mention it."

"Don't mention it?" said Biddy, staring. "Hasn't he spoken enough, poor fellow?"

"I mean to Julia," Lady Agnes replied.

"Don't you understand, you goose?" Grace exclaimed to her sister.