The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 14


The next morning brought Nick Dormer many letters and telegrams, and his coffee was placed beside him in his room, where he remained until noon answering these communications. When he came out he learned that his mother and sisters had left the house. This information was given him by Mrs. Gresham, whom he found dealing with her own voluminous budget at one of the tables in the library. She was a lady who received thirty letters a day, the subject-matter of which, as well as of her punctual answers, in a hand that would have been "lady-like" in a manageress, was a puzzle to those who observed her.

She told Nick that Lady Agnes had not been willing to disturb him at his work to say good-bye, knowing she should see him in a day or two in town. Nick was amused at the way his mother had stolen off; as if she feared that further conversation might weaken the spell she believed herself to have wrought. The place was cleared, moreover, of its other visitors, so that, as Mrs. Gresham said, the fun was at an end. This lady expressed the idea that the fun was after all rather heavy. At any rate now they could rest, Mrs. Dallow and Nick and she, and she was glad Nick was going to stay for a little quiet. She liked Harsh best when it was not en fête: then one could see what a sympathetic old place it was. She hoped Nick was not dreadfully tired; she feared Julia was completely done up. Mrs. Dallow, however, had transported her exhaustion to the grounds—she was wandering about somewhere. She thought more people would be coming to the house, people from the town, people from the country, and had gone out so as not to have to see them. She had not gone far—Nick could easily find her. Nick intimated that he himself was not eager for more people, whereupon Mrs. Gresham said, rather archly smiling:

"And of course you hate me for being here!" He made some protest, and she added: "But I'm almost a part of the house, you know—I'm one of the chairs or tables." Nick declared that he had never seen a house so well furnished, and Mrs. Gresham said: "I believe there are to be some people to dinner: rather an interference, isn't it? Julia lives so in public. But it's all for you." And after a moment she added: "It's a wonderful constitution." Nick at first failed to seize her allusion—he thought it a retarded political reference, a sudden tribute to the great unwritten instrument by which they were all governed. He was on the point of saying: "The British? Wonderful!" when he perceived that the intention of his interlocutress was to praise Mrs. Dallow's fine robustness. "The surface so delicate, the action so easy, yet the frame of steel."

Nick left Mrs. Gresham to her correspondence and went out of the house; wondering as he walked whether she wanted him to do the same thing that his mother wanted, so that her words had been intended for a prick—whether even the two ladies had talked over their desire together. Mrs. Gresham was a married woman who was usually taken for a widow; mainly because she was perpetually "sent for" by her friends, and her friends never sent for Mr. Gresham. She came in every case and had the air of being répandue at the expense of dingier belongings. Her figure was admired—that is it was sometimes mentioned—and she dressed as if it was expected of her to be smart, like a young woman in a shop or a servant much in view. She slipped in and out, accompanied at the piano, talked to the neglected visitors, walked in the rain and, after the arrival of the post, usually had conferences with her hostess, during which she stroked her chin and looked familiarly responsible. It was her peculiarity that people were always saying things to her in a lowered voice. She had all sorts of acquaintances and in small establishments she sometimes wrote the menus. Great ones, on the other hand, had no terrors for her: she had seen too many. No one had ever discovered whether any one else paid her.

If Lady Agnes, in a lowered tone, had discussed with her the propriety of a union between the mistress of Harsh and the hope of the Dormers our young man could take the circumstance for granted without irritation and even with cursory indulgence: for he was not unhappy now and his spirit was light and clear. The summer day was splendid and the world, as he looked at it from the terrace, offered no more worrying ambiguity than a vault of airy blue arching over a lap of solid green. The wide, still trees in the park appeared to be waiting for some daily inspection, and the rich fields, with their official frill of hedges, to rejoice in the light which approved them as named and numbered acres. The place looked happy to Nick, and he was struck with its having a charm to which he had perhaps not hitherto done justice; something of the impression that he had received, when he was younger, from showy "views" of fine country-seats, as if they had been brighter and more established than life. There were a couple of peacocks on the terrace, and his eye was caught by the gleam of the swans on a distant lake, where there was also a little temple on an island; and these objects fell in with his humour, which at another time might have been ruffled by them as representing the Philistine in ornament.

It was certainly a proof of youth and health on his part that his spirits had risen as the tumult rose and that after he had taken his jump into the turbid waters of a contested election he had been able to tumble and splash, not only with a sense of awkwardness but with a considerable capacity for the frolic. Tepid as we saw him in Paris he had found his relation to his opportunity surprisingly altered by his little journey across the Channel. He saw things in a new perspective and he breathed an air that excited him unexpectedly. There was something in it that went to his head—an element that his mother and his sisters, his father from beyond the grave, Julia Dallow, the Liberal party and a hundred friends were both secretly and overtly occupied in pumping into it. If he was vague about success he liked the fray, and he had a general rule that when one was in a muddle there was refreshment in action. The embarrassment, that is the revival of scepticism, which might produce an inconsistency shameful to exhibit and yet very difficult to conceal, was safe enough to come later: indeed at the risk of making our young man appear a purely whimsical personage I may hint that some such sickly glow had even now begun to colour one quarter of his mental horizon.

I am afraid moreover that I have no better excuse for him than the one he had touched on in the momentous conversation with his mother which I have thought it useful to reproduce in full. He was conscious of a double nature; there were two men in him, quite separate, whose leading features had little in common and each of whom insisted on having an independent turn at life. Meanwhile if he was adequately aware that the bed of his moral existence would need a good deal of making over if he was to lie upon it without unseemly tossing, he was also alive to the propriety of not parading his inconsistencies, not letting his unrectified interests become a spectacle to the vulgar. He had none of that wish to appear complicated which is at the bottom of most forms of fatuity; he was perfectly willing to pass as simple; he only aspired to be continuous. If you were not really simple this presented difficulties; but he would have assented to the proposition that you must be as final as you can and that it contributes much to finality to consume the smoke of your inner fire. The fire was the great thing and not the chimney. He had no view of life which counted out the need of learning; it was teaching rather as to which he was conscious of no particular mission. He liked life, liked it immensely, and was willing to study the ways and means of it with a certain patience. He cherished the usual wise monitions, such as that one was not to make a fool of one's self and that one should not carry on one's technical experiments in public. It was because as yet he liked life in general better than it was clear to him that he liked any particular branch of it, that on the occasion of a constituency's holding out a cordial hand to him, while it extended another in a different direction, a certain bloom of boyhood that was on him had not resisted the idea of a match.

He rose to it as he had risen to matches at school, for his boyishness could take a pleasure in an inconsiderate show of agility. He could meet electors and conciliate bores and compliment women and answer questions and roll off speeches and chaff adversaries, because it was amusing and slightly dangerous, like playing football or ascending an Alp—pastimes for which nature had conferred on him an aptitude not so very different in kind from a gallant readiness on platforms. There were two voices which told him that all this was not really action at all, but only a pusillanimous imitation of it: one of them made itself fitfully audible in the depths of his own spirit and the other spoke, in the equivocal accents of a very crabbed hand, from a letter of four pages by Gabriel Nash. However, Nick acted as much as possible under the circumstances, and that was rectifying—it brought with it enjoyment and a working faith. He had not gone counter to the axiom that in a case of doubt one was to hold off; for that applied to choice, and he had not at present the slightest pretension to choosing. He knew he was lifted along, that what he was doing was not first-rate, that nothing was settled by it and that if there was essentially a problem in his life it would only grow tougher with keeping. But if doing one's sum to-morrow instead of to-day does not make the sum easier it at least makes to-day so.

Sometimes in the course of the following fortnight it seemed to him that he had gone in for Harsh because he was sure he should lose; sometimes he foresaw that he should win precisely to punish him for having tried and for his want of candour; and when presently he did win he was almost frightened at his success. Then it appeared to him that he had done something even worse than not choose—he had let others choose for him. The beauty of it was that they had chosen with only their own object in their eye: for what did they know about his strange alternative? He was rattled about so for a fortnight (Julia took care of that) that he had no time to think save when he tried to remember a quotation or an American story, and all his life became an overflow of verbiage. Thought retreated before increase of sound, which had to be pleasant and eloquent, and even superficially coherent, without its aid. Nick himself was surprised at the airs he could play; and often when the last thing at night he shut the door of his room he mentally exclaimed that he had had no idea he was such a mountebank.

I must add that if this reflection did not occupy him long, and if no meditation, after his return from Paris, held him for many moments, there was a reason better even than that he was tired or busy or excited by the agreeable combination of hits and hurrahs. That reason was simply Mrs. Dallow, who had suddenly become a still larger fact in his consciousness than active politics. She was, indeed, active politics; that is, if the politics were his, how little soever, the activity was hers. She had ways of showing she was a clever woman that were better than saying clever things, which only prove at the most that one would be clever if one could. The accomplished fact itself was the demonstration that Mrs. Dallow could; and when Nick came to his senses after the proclamation of the victor and the cessation of the noise her figure was, of all the queer phantasmagoria, the most substantial thing that survived. She had been always there, passing, repassing, before him, beside him, behind him. She had made the business infinitely prettier than it would have been without her, added music and flowers and ices, a charm, and converted it into a social game that had a strain of the heroic. It was a garden-party with something at stake, or to celebrate something in advance, with the people let in. The concluded affair had bequeathed him not only a seat in the House of Commons, but a perception of what women may do in high embodiments, and an abyss of intimacy with one woman in particular.

She had wrapped him up in something, he didn't know what—a sense of facility, an overpowering fragrance—and they had moved together in an immense fraternity. There had been no love-making, no contact that was only personal, no vulgarity of flirtation: the hurry of the days and the sharpness with which they both tended to an outside object had made all that irrelevant. It was as if she had been too near for him to see her separate from himself; but none the less, when he now drew breath and looked back, what had happened met his eyes as a composed picture—a picture of which the subject was inveterately Julia and her ponies: Julia wonderfully fair and fine, holding her head more than ever in the manner characteristic of her, brilliant, benignant, waving her whip, cleaving the crowd, thanking people with her smile, carrying him beside her, carrying him to his doom. He had not supposed that in so few days he had driven about with her so much; but the image of it was there, in his consulted conscience, as well as in a personal glow not yet chilled: it looked large as it rose before him. The things his mother had said to him made a rich enough frame for it, and the whole impression, that night, had kept him much awake.


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