The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 9
Nick Dormer found his friend Nash, that evening, on the spot he had designated, smoking a cigar in the warm, bright night, in front of the café at the corner of the square before the Opera. He sat down with him, but at the end of five minutes he uttered a protest against the crush and confusion, the publicity and vulgarity, of the place, the shuffling procession of the crowd, the jostle of fellow-customers, the perpetual brush of waiters. "Come away. I want to talk to you, and I can't talk here," he said to his companion. "I don't care where we go. It will be pleasant to walk; we'll stroll away to the quartiers sérieux. Each time I come to Paris, at the end of three days, I take the boulevard, with its conventional grimace, into greater disfavour. I hate even to cross it, I go half a mile round to avoid it."
The young men took their course together down the Rue de la Paix to the Rue de Rivoli, which they crossed, passing beside the gilded railing of the Tuileries. The beauty of the night—the only defect of which was that the immense illumination of Paris kept it from being quite night enough, made it a sort of bedizened, rejuvenated day—gave a charm to the quieter streets, drew our friends away to the right, to the river and the bridges, the older, duskier city. The pale ghost of the palace that had died by fire hung over them awhile, and, by the passage now open at all times across the garden of the Tuileries, they came out upon the Seine. They kept on and on, moving slowly, smoking, talking, pausing, stopping to look, to emphasize, to compare. They fell into discussion, into confidence, into inquiry, sympathetic or satiric, and into explanation which needed in turn to be explained. The balmy night, the time for talk, the amusement of Paris, the memory of young confabulations gave a quality to the occasion. Nick had already forgotten the little brush he had had with Mrs. Dallow, when they quitted Peter's tea-party together, and that he had been almost disconcerted by the manner in which she characterized the odious man he had taken it into his head to present to her. Impertinent and fatuous she had called him; and when Nick began to explain that he was really neither of these things, though he could imagine his manner might sometimes suggest them, she had declared that she didn't wish to argue about him or even to hear of him again. Nick had not counted on her liking Gabriel Nash, but he had thought it wouldn't matter much if she should dislike him a little. He had given himself the diversion, which he had not dreamed would be cruel to any one concerned, of seeing what she would make of a type she had never encountered before. She had made even less than he expected, and her implication that he had played her a trick had been irritating enough to prevent him from reflecting that the fault might have been in some degree with Nash. But he had recovered from his resentment sufficiently to ask this personage, with every possible circumstance of implied consideration for the lady, what he, on his side, had made of his charming cousin.
"Upon my word, my dear fellow, I don't regard that as a fair question," was the answer. "Besides, if you think Mrs. Dallow charming, what on earth need it matter to you what I think? The superiority of one man's opinion over another's is never so great as when the opinion is about a woman."
"It was to help me to find out what I think of yourself," said Nick Dormer.
"Oh, that you'll never do. I shall bother you to the end. The lady with whom you were so good as to make me acquainted is a beautiful specimen of the English garden-flower, the product of high cultivation and much tending; a tall, delicate stem, with the head set upon it in a manner which, as I recall it, is distinctly so much to the good in my day. She's the perfect type of the object raised, or bred, and everything about her is homogeneous, from the angle of her elbow to the way she drops that vague, conventional, dry little 'Oh!' which dispenses with all further performance. That sort of completeness is always satisfying. But I didn't satisfy her, and she didn't understand me. I don't think they usually understand."
"She's no worse than I, then."
"Ah, she didn't try."
"No, she doesn't try. But she probably thought you conceited, and she would think so still more if she were to hear you talk about her trying."
"Very likely—very likely," said Gabriel Nash. "I have an idea a good many people think that. It appears to me so droll. I suppose it's a result of my little system."
"Your little system?"
"Oh, it's nothing wonderful. Only the idea of being just the same to every one. People have so bemuddled themselves that the last thing they can conceive is that one should be simple."
"Lord, do you call yourself simple?" Nick ejaculated.
"Absolutely; in the sense of having no interest of my own to push, no nostrum to advertise, no power to conciliate, no axe to grind. I'm not a savage—ah, far from it—but I really think I'm perfectly independent."
"Oh, that's always provoking!" laughed Nick.
"So it would appear, to the great majority of one's fellow-mortals; and I well remember the pang with which I originally made that discovery. It darkened my spirit, at a time when I had no thought of evil. What we like, when we are unregenerate, is that a new-comer should give us a password, come over to our side, join our little camp or religion, get into our little boat, in short, whatever it is, and help us to row it. It's natural enough; we are mostly in different tubs and cockles, paddling for life. Our opinions, our convictions and doctrines and standards, are simply the particular thing that will make the boat go—our boat, naturally, for they may very often be just the thing that will sink another. If you won't get in, people generally hate you."
"Your metaphor is very lame," said Nick; "it's the overcrowded boat that goes to the bottom."
"Oh, I'll give it another leg or two! Boats can be big, in the infinite of space, and a doctrine is a raft that floats the better the more passengers it carries. A passenger jumps over from time to time, not so much from fear of sinking as from a want of interest in the course or the company. He swims, he plunges, he dives, he dips down and visits the fishes and the mermaids and the submarine caves; he goes from craft to craft and splashes about, on his own account, in the blue, cool water. The regenerate, as I call them, are the passengers who jump over in search of better fun. I turned my summersault long ago."
"And now, of course, you're at the head of the regenerate; for, in your turn, you all form a select school of porpoises."
"Not a bit, and I know nothing about heads, in the sense you mean. I've grown a tail, if you will; I'm the merman wandering free. It's a delightful trade!"
Before they had gone many steps further Nick Dormer stopped short and said to his companion: "I say, my dear fellow, do you mind mentioning to me whether you are the greatest humbug and charlatan on earth, or a genuine intelligence, one that has sifted things for itself?"
"I do puzzle you—I'm so sorry," Nash replied, benignly. "But I'm very sincere. And I have tried to straighten out things a bit for myself."
"Then why do you give people such a handle?"
"Such a handle?"
"For thinking you're an—for thinking you're not wise."
"I dare say it's my manner; they're so unused to candour."
"Why don't you try another?" Nick inquired.
"One has the manner that one can; and mine, moreover, is a part of my little system."
"Ah, if you've got a little system you're no better than any one else," said Nick, going on.
"I don't pretend to be better, for we are all miserable sinners; I only pretend to be bad in a pleasanter, brighter way, by what I can see. It's the simplest thing in the world; I just take for granted a certain brightness in life, a certain frankness. What is essentially kinder than that, what is more harmless? But the tradition of dreariness, of stodginess, of dull, dense, literal prose, has so sealed people's eyes that they have ended by thinking the most normal thing in the world the most fantastic. Why be dreary, in our little day? No one can tell me why, and almost every one calls me names for simply asking the question. But I keep on, for I believe one can do a little good by it. I want so much to do a little good," Gabriel Nash continued, taking his companion's arm. "My persistence is systematic: don't you see what I mean? I won't be dreary—no, no, no; and I won't recognize the necessity, or even, if there is any way out of it, the accident of dreariness in the life that surrounds me. That's enough to make people stare: they're so stupid!"
"They think you're impertinent," Dormer remarked.
At this his companion stopped him short, with an ejaculation of pain, and, turning his eyes, Nick saw under the lamps of the quay that he had brought a vivid blush into Nash's face. "I don't strike you that way?" Gabriel asked, reproachfully.
"Oh, me! Wasn't it just admitted that I don't in the least make you out?"
"That's the last thing!" Nash murmured, as if he were thinking the idea over, with an air of genuine distress. "But with a little patience we'll clear it up together, if you care enough about it," he added, more cheerfully. He let his friend go on again and he continued: "Heaven help us all! what do people mean by impertinence? There are many, I think, who don't understand its nature or its limits; and upon my word I have literally seen mere quickness of intelligence or of perception, the jump of a step or two, a little whirr of the wings of talk, mistaken for it. Yes, I have encountered men and women who thought you were impertinent if you were not so stupid as they. The only impertinence is aggression, and I indignantly protest that I am never guilty of that clumsiness. Ah, for what do they take one, with their presumptions? Even to defend myself, sometimes, I have to make believe to myself that I care. I always feel as if I didn't successfully make others think so. Perhaps they see an impertinence in that. But I dare say the offence is in the things that I take, as I say, for granted; for if one tries to be pleased one passes, perhaps inevitably, for being pleased above all with one's self. That's really not my case, for I find my capacity for pleasure deplorably below the mark I've set. That's why, as I have told you, I cultivate it, I try to bring it up. And I am actuated by positive benevolence; I have that pretension. That's what I mean by being the same to every one, by having only one manner. If one is conscious and ingenious to that end, what's the harm, when one's motives are so pure? By never, never making the concession, one may end by becoming a perceptible force for good."
"What concession are you talking about?" asked Nick Dormer.
"Why, that we are only here for dreariness. It's impossible to grant it sometimes, if you wish to withhold it ever."
"And what do you mean by dreariness? That's modern slang, and it's terribly vague. Many good things are dreary—virtue and decency and charity and perseverance and courage and honour."
"Say at once that life is dreary, my dear fellow!" Gabriel Nash exclaimed.
"That's on the whole my most usual impression."
"C'est là que je vous attends! I'm precisely engaged in trying what can be done in taking it the other way. It's my little personal experiment. Life consists of the personal experiments of each of us, and the point of an experiment is that it shall succeed. What we contribute is our treatment of the material, our rendering of the text, our style. A sense of the qualities of a style is so rare that many persons should doubtless be forgiven for not being able to read, or at all events to enjoy us; but is that a reason for giving it up—for not being, in this other sphere, if one possibly can, a Macaulay, a Ruskin, a Renan? Ah, we must write our best; it's the great thing we can do in the world, on the right side. One has one's form, que diable, and a mighty good thing that one has. I'm not afraid of putting all life into mine, without unduly squeezing it. I'm not afraid of putting in honour and courage and charity, without spoiling them: on the contrary, I'll only do them good. People may not read you at sight, may not like you, but there's a chance they'll come round; and he only way to court the chance is to keep it up—always to keep it up. That's what I do, my dear fellow, if you don't think I've perseverance. If some one likes it here and there, if you give a little impression of solidity, that's your reward; besides, of course, the pleasure for yourself."
"Don't you think your style is a little affected?" Nick asked, laughing, as they proceeded.
"That's always the charge against a personal manner; if you have any at all people think you have too much. Perhaps, perhaps—who can say? Of course one isn't perfect; but that's the delightful thing about art, that there is always more to learn and more to do; one can polish and polish and refine and refine. No doubt I'm rough still, but I'm in the right direction: I make it my business to take for granted an interest in the beautiful."
"Ah, the beautiful—there it stands, over there!" said Nick Dormer. "I am not so sure about yours—I don't know what I've got hold of. But Notre Dame is solid; Notre Dame is wise; on Notre Dame the distracted mind can rest. Come over and look at her!"
They had come abreast of the low island from which the great cathedral, disengaged to-day from her old contacts and adhesions, rises high and fair, with her front of beauty and her majestic mass, darkened at that hour, or at least simplified, under the stars, but only more serene and sublime for her happy union, far aloft, with the cool distance and the night. Our young men, gossiping as profitably as I leave the reader to estimate, crossed the wide, short bridge which made them face toward the monuments of old Paris—the Palais de Justice, the Conciergerie, the holy chapel of Saint Louis. They came out before the church, which looks down on a square where the past, once so thick in the very heart of Paris, has been made rather a blank, pervaded, however, by the everlasting freshness of the great cathedral-face. It greeted Nick Dormer and Gabriel Nash with a kindness which the centuries had done nothing to dim. The lamplight of the great city washed its foundations, but the towers and buttresses, the arches, the galleries, the statues, the vast rose-window, the large, full composition, seemed to grow clearer as they climbed higher, as if they had a conscious benevolent answer for the upward gaze of men.
"How it straightens things out and blows away one's vapours—anything that's done!" said Nick; while his companion exclaimed, blandly and affectionately:
"The dear old thing!"
"The great point is to do something, instead of standing muddling and questioning; and, by Jove, it makes me want to!"
"Want to build a cathedral?" Nash inquired.
"Yes, just that."
"It's you who puzzle me, then, my dear fellow. You can't build them out of words."
"What is it the great poets do?" asked Nick.
"Their words are ideas—their words are images, enchanting collocations and unforgettable signs. But the verbiage of parliamentary speeches!"
"Well," said Nick, with a candid, reflective sigh, "you can rear a great structure of many things—not only of stones and timbers and painted glass." They walked round Notre Dame, pausing, criticizing, admiring and discussing; mingling the grave with the gay and paradox with contemplation. Behind and at the sides the huge dusky vessel of the church seemed to dip into the Seine, or rise out of it, floating expansively—a ship of stone, with its flying buttresses thrown forth like an array of mighty oars. Nick Dormer lingered near it with joy, with a certain soothing content; as if it had been the temple of a faith so dear to him that there was peace and security in its precinct. And there was comfort too, and consolation of the same sort, in the company, at this moment, of Nash's equal response, of his appreciation, exhibited by his own signs, of the great effect. He felt it so freely and uttered his impression with such vividness that Nick was reminded of the luminosity his boyish admiration had found in him of old, the natural intelligence of everything of that kind. "Everything of that kind" was, in Nick's mind, the description of a wide and bright domain.
They crossed to the further side of the river, where the influence of the Gothic monument threw a distinction even over the Parisian smartnesses—the municipal rule and measure, the importunate symmetries, the "handsomeness" of everything, the extravagance of gaslight, the perpetual click on the neat bridges. In front of a quiet little café on the right bank Gabriel Nash said, "Let's sit down"—he was always ready to sit down. It was a friendly establishment and an unfashionable quarter, far away from the Grand Hôtel; there were the usual little tables and chairs on the quay, the muslin curtains behind the glazed front, the general sense of sawdust and of drippings of watery beer. The place was subdued to stillness, but not extinguished, by the lateness of the hour; no vehicles passed, but only now and then a light Parisian foot. Beyond the parapet they could hear the flow of the Seine. Nick Dormer said it made him think of the old Paris, of the great Revolution, of Madame Roland, quoi! Gabriel Nash said they could have watery beer but were not obliged to drink it. They sat a long time; they talked a great deal, and the more they said the more the unsaid came up. Presently Nash found occasion to remark: "I go about my business, like any good citizen—that's all."
"And what is your business?"
"The spectacle of the world."
Nick laughed out. "And what do you do with that!"
"What does any one do with a spectacle? I look at it."
"You are full of contradictions and inconsistencies. You described yourself to me half an hour ago as an apostle of beauty."
"Where is the inconsistency? I do it in the broad light of day, whatever I do: that's virtually what I meant. If I look at the spectacle of the world I look in preference at what is charming in it. Sometimes I have to go far to find it—very likely; but that's just what I do. I go far—as far as my means permit me. Last year I heard of such a delightful little spot: a place where a wild fig-tree grows in the south wall, the outer side, of an old Spanish city. I was told it was a deliciously brown corner, with the sun making it warm in winter! As soon as I could I went there."
"And what did you do?"
"I lay on the first green grass—I liked it."
"If that sort of thing is all you accomplish you are not encouraging."
"I accomplish my happiness—it seems to me that's something. I have feelings, I have sensations: let me tell you that's not so common. It's rare to have them; and if you chance to have them it's rare not to be ashamed of them. I go after them—when I judge they won't hurt any one."
"You're lucky to have money for your travelling-expenses," said Nick.
"No doubt, no doubt; but I do it very cheap. I take my stand on my nature, on my disposition. I'm not ashamed of it, I don't think it's so horrible, my disposition. But we've befogged and befouled so the whole question of liberty, of spontaneity, of good-humour and inclination and enjoyment, that there's nothing that makes people stare so as to see one natural."
"You are always thinking too much of 'people.'"
"They say I think too little," Gabriel smiled.
"Well, I've agreed to stand for Harsh," said Nick, with a roundabout transition.
"It's you then who are lucky to have money."
"I haven't," Nick replied. "My expenses are to be paid."
"Then you too must think of 'people.'"
Nick made no answer to this, but after a moment he said: "I wish very much you had more to show for it."
"To show for what?"
"Your little system—the æsthetic life."
Nash hesitated, tolerantly, gaily, as he often did, with an air of being embarrassed to choose between several answers, any one of them would be so right. "Oh, having something to show is such a poor business. It's a kind of confession of failure."
"Yes, you're more affected than anything else," said Nick, impatiently.
"No, my dear boy, I'm more good-natured: don't I prove it? I'm rather disappointed to find that you are not worthy of the esoteric doctrine. But there is, I confess, another plane of intelligence, honourable, and very honourable in its way, from which may legitimately appear important to have something to show. If you must confine yourself to that plane I won't refuse you my sympathy. After all, that's what I have to show! But the degree of my sympathy must of course depend on the nature of the manifestation that you wish to make."
"You know it very well—you've guessed it," Nick rejoined, looking before him in a conscious, modest way which, if he had been a few years younger, would have been called sheepish.
"Ah, you've broken the scent with telling me you are going to return to the House of Commons," said Nash.
"No wonder you don't make it out! My situation is certainly absurd enough. What I really want to do is to be a painter. That's the abject, crude, ridiculous fact. In this out-of-the-way corner, at the dead of night, in lowered tones, I venture to disclose it to you. Isn't that the æsthetic life?"
"Do you know how to paint?" asked Nash.
"Not in the least. No element of burlesque is therefore wanting to my position."
"That makes no difference. I'm so glad!"
"So glad I don't know how?"
"So glad of it all. Yes, that only makes it better. You're a delightful case, and I like delightful cases. We must see it through. I rejoice that I met you."
"Do you think I can do anything?" Nick inquired.
"Paint good pictures? How can I tell till I've seen some of your work? Doesn't it come back to me that at Oxford you used to sketch very prettily? But that's the last thing that matters."
"What does matter, then?" Nick demanded, turning his eyes on his companion.
"To be on the right side—on the side of beauty."
"There will be precious little beauty if I produce nothing but daubs."
"Ah, you cling to the old false measure of success. I must cure you of that. There will be the beauty of having been disinterested and independent; of having taken the world in the free, brave, personal way."
"I shall nevertheless paint decently if I can," Nick declared.
"I'm almost sorry! It will make your case less clear, your example less grand."
"My example will be grand enough, with the fight I shall have to make."
"The fight—with whom?"
"With myself, first of all. I'm awfully against it."
"Ah, but you'll have me on the other side," smiled Nash.
"Well, you'll have more than a handful to meet—everything, every one that belongs to me, that touches me, near or far: my family, my blood, my heredity, my traditions, my promises, my circumstances, my prejudices; my little past, such as it is; my great future, such as it has been supposed it may be."
"I see, I see; it's admirable!" Nash exclaimed. "And Mrs. Dallow into the bargain," he added.
"Yes, Mrs. Dallow, if you like."
"Are you in love with her?"
"Not in the least."
"Well, she is with you—so I perceived."
"Don't say that," said Nick Dormer, with sudden sternness.
"Ah, you are, you are!" his companion rejoined, judging apparently from this accent.
"I don't know what I am—heaven help me!" Nick broke out, tossing his hat down on his little tin table with vehemence. "I'm a freak of nature and a sport of the mocking gods! Why should they go out of their way to worry me? Why should they do anything so inconsequent, so improbable, so preposterous? It's the vulgarest practical joke. There has never been anything of the sort among us; we are all Philistines to the core, with about as much æsthetic sense as that hat. It's excellent soil—I don't complain of it—but not a soil to grow that flower. From where the devil, then, has the seed been dropped? I look back from generation to generation; I scour our annals without finding the least little sketching grandmother, any sign of a building, or versifying, or collecting, or even tulip-raising ancestor. They were all as blind as bats and none the less happy for that. I'm a wanton variation, an unaccountable monster. My dear father, rest his soul, went through life without a suspicion that there is anything in it that can't be boiled into blue-books; and he became, in that conviction, a very distinguished person. He brought me up in the same simplicity and in the hope of the same eminence. It would have been better if I had remained so. I think it's partly your fault that I haven't," Nick went on. "At Oxford you were very bad company for me, my evil genius; you opened my eyes, you communicated the poison. Since then, little by little, it has been working within me; vaguely, covertly, insensibly at first, but during the last year or two with violence, pertinacity, cruelty. I have taken every antidote in life; but it's no use—I'm stricken. It tears me to pieces, as I may say."
"I see, I follow you," said Nash, who had listened to this recital with radiant interest and curiosity. "And that's why you are going to stand."
"Precisely—it's an antidote. And, at present, you're another."
"That's why I jumped at you. A bigger dose of you may disagree with me to that extent that I shall either die or get better."
"I shall control the dilution," said Nash. "Poor fellow—if you're elected!" he added.
"Poor fellow either way. You don't know the atmosphere in which I live, the horror, the scandal that my apostasy would inspire, the injury and suffering that it would inflict. I believe it would kill my mother. She thinks my father is watching me from the skies."
"Jolly to make him jump!" Nash exclaimed.
"He would jump indeed; he would come straight down on top of me. And then the grotesqueness of it—to begin, all of a sudden, at my age."
"It's perfect indeed; it's a magnificent case," Nash went on.
"Think how it sounds—a paragraph in the London papers: 'Mr. Nicholas Dormer, M.P. for Harsh and son of the late Right Honourable, and so forth and so forth, is about to give up his seat and withdraw from public life in order to devote himself to the practice of portrait-painting. Orders respectfully solicited.'"
"The nineteenth century is better than I thought," said Nash. "It's the portrait that preoccupies you?"
"I wish you could see; you must come immediately to my place in London."
"You wretch, you're capable of having talent!" cried Nash.
"No, I'm too old, too old. It's too late to go through the mill."
"You make me young! Don't miss your election, at your peril. Think of the edification."
Of your throwing it all up the next moment."
"That would be pleasant for Mr. Carteret," Nick observed.
"A dear old fellow who will wish to pay my agent's bill."
"Serve him right, for such depraved tastes."
"You do me good," said Nick, getting up and turning away.
"Don't call me useless then."
"Ah, but not in the way you mean. It's only if I don't get in that I shall perhaps console myself with the brush," Nick continued, as they retraced their steps.
"In the name of all the muses, then, don't stand. For you will get in."
Very likely. At any rate I've promised."
"You've promised Mrs. Dallow?"
"It's her place; she'll put me in," Nick said.
"Baleful woman! But I'll pull you out!"