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The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 3

< The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)‎ | Volume 1


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 rejoined, in a tone which appeared to imply 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 looked at 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 she dropped her eye-glass and laid down the greasy document. "What does it signify? I dare say it's all nasty," Grace continued; and she added; inconsequently: "If Peter comes he's sure to be particular."

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

"Poulet chasseur, filets mignons, sauce béarnaise," the man suggested.

"You will 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 interposed 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 upon 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 life-time 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 is absurdly dear," she hinted 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.

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 is supposed to show that people like people—though of course something more than that is required," 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 mother was silent a moment, as if she were 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 declared.

"Poor Julia!" Lady Agnes exclaimed; 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 he is—that's what I sometimes wonder!"

Grace Dormer looked at her mother a moment. "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 moment. "There is no one like your father."

"Dear papa!" Grace exclaimed. Then, with a rapid transition: "It would be so jolly for all of us; she would be so nice to us."

"She is 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 ejaculation of a moment before.

"It does her some, if one looks 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 exclaimed. "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 are not so easy," responded Lady Agnes. "It will all depend on Nick's behaviour. He can stop it to-morrow."

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, he does. 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, she exclaimed: "I'm delighted at that!"

"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 a sense of things as they are showing through it. "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 protested.

"It's all very well to say that in public life money isn't necessary, as it used to be," her ladyship went on, broodingly.

"Those who say so don't know anything about it. It's always necessary."

Her daughter was visibly affected by the gloom of her manner, and felt impelled to evoke, as a corrective, a more cheerful idea. "I dare say; 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 cried, "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 said, laughing and shaking hands with them; and three minutes later he was settled in his chair at their table, on which the first elements of the repast 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 said: "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 are here so quietly, not to go out, not to seem to appeal to the ambassador. He said, '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, except it's anything like gaiety. The Embassy isn't gay, I know. But I'm sure his note was friendly, wasn't it? I dare say 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 would have seen Julia and that you would understand everything from her. And when I asked how she would know, he said, 'Oh, she knows everything!'"

"He never said a word to me about Julia," Peter Sherringham rejoined. 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 that moment at an hotel in the Rue de la Paix, but had only been there since that morning: he had seen her before coming 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 would 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 25th. It would make seven weeks that she would 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 qualified. "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 murmured. Then she added: "She does like pictures, doesn't she?"

Peter Sherringham stared. "Oh, I dare say. 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 demanded.

"She wants Nick to stand."

"Nick to stand?" both the ladies cried.

"She undertakes to bring him in for Harsh. Mr. Pinks is dead—the fellow, you know, that 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, se fait forte, as they say here, to put him in."

"I'm sure if she can she will," Grace reflected.

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

"I have 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 dare say you may look to Julia. I think that's her idea."

"Delightful Julia!" Lady Agnes ejaculated. "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; "and 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 that 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," said Lady Agnes, smiling.

"It's the best name in the world!" Grace Dormer subjoined.

"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 that you live abroad, 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 dare say they've telegraphed to him."

"And he hasn't told you?"

Lady Agnes hesitated. "He's so 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 boy. 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 are 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 rejoined. "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," said Peter, laughing, "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 suggested; and while he remains so conspicuous our eyes may rest on him briefly. 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, and had the further distinction that it often struck superficial observers with a certain foreignness of cast. The deeper sort, however, usually perceived that it was 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, it would have been impossible to be more modern than Peter Sherringham, and more of one's class and one's country. But this did not prevent a portion of the community—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 looked like a Titian.