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Chapter 14


The next morning brought the young man 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 "ladylike" 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. He was amused at the way his mother had stolen off--as if she
feared 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 a bore. 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 fagged--she feared Julia was
completely done up. Julia, 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 rather archly smiled.
"And of course you hate _me_ for being here." He made some protest and
she added: "But I'm almost 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 and under the happy
operation of which his fight had been so successful. He was on the point
of saying, "The British? Wonderful!" when he gathered that the intention
of his companion had been simply to praise Mrs. Dallow's fine
robustness. "The surface so delicate, the action so easy, yet the frame
of steel."

He left Mrs. Gresham to her correspondence and went out of the house;
wondering as he walked if she wanted him to do the same thing 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, who in no event sent for Mr.
Gresham. She came in every case, with her 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 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. People
only knew what _they_ did.

If Lady Agnes had in the minor key discussed with her the propriety of a
union between the mistress of Harsh and the hope of the Dormers this
last personage could take the circumstance for granted without
irritation and even with cursory indulgence; for he was got 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 that smiled upon them as named and numbered acres.
Nick felt himself catch the smile and all the reasons of it: they made
up a charm to which he had perhaps not hitherto done justice--something
of the impression he had received when younger from showy "views" of
fine country-seats that had pressed and patted nature, as by the fat
hands of "benches" of magistrates and landlords, into supreme
respectability and comfort. 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 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 aggressive triumphs of the conventional.

It was certainly a proof of youth and health on his part that his
spirits had risen as the plot thickened 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 without 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, had seen things in a new perspective
and breathed an air that set him and kept him in motion. There had been
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 but half-believed in victory he at least liked
the wind of the onset in his ears, and he had a general sense that when
one was "stuck" there was always the nearest thing at which one must
pull. The embarrassment, that is the revival of scepticism, which might
produce an inconsistency shameful to exhibit and yet difficult to
conceal, was safe enough to come later. Indeed at the risk of presenting
our young man as too whimsical a personage I may hint that some such
sickly glow had even now begun to tinge one quarter of his inward
horizon.

I am afraid, moreover, that I have no better excuse for him than the one
he had touched on in that 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 then, 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 unregulated passions become a spectacle to the vulgar. He had none
of that wish to appear deep which is at the bottom of most forms of
fatuity; he was perfectly willing to pass for decently superficial; he
only aspired to be decently continuous. When you were not suitably
shallow this presented difficulties; but he would have assented to the
proposition that you must be as subtle as you can and that a high use of
subtlety is in consuming the smoke of your inner fire. The fire was the
great thing, not the chimney. He had no view of life that counted out
the need of learning; it was teaching rather as to which he was
conscious of no particular mission. He enjoyed life, enjoyed it
immensely, and was ready to pursue it with patience through as many
channels as possible. He was on his guard, however, against making an
ass of himself, that is against not thinking out his experiments before
trying them in public. It was because, as yet, he liked life in general
better than it was clear to him he liked particular possibilities 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 paled at the idea of a match.

He had risen to the fray as he had risen to matches at school, for his
boyishness could still 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--he could do these things 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 due volubility on platforms. There were two voices to
admonish him that all this was not really action at all, but only a
pusillanimous imitation of it: one of them fitfully audible in the
depths of his own spirit and the other speaking, in the equivocal
accents of a very crabbed hand, from a letter of four pages by Gabriel
Nash. However, Nick carried the imitation as far as possible, and the
flood of sound floated him. What more could a working faith have done?
He had not broken with the axiom that in a case of doubt one should hold
off, for this 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 a hard knot in his life it would only grow harder with
keeping. Doing one's sum to-morrow instead of to-day doesn't make the
sum easier, but at least makes to-day so.

Sometimes in the course of the following fortnight it seemed to him 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
scared at his success. Then it appeared to him 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 taking care of this--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 couldn't
hear itself for the noise, which had to be pleasant and persuasive, had
to hang more or less together, without its aid. Nick was surprised at
the airs he could play, and often when, the last thing at night, he shut
the door of his room, found himself privately exclaiming that he had had
no idea he was such a mountebank.

I must add that if this reflexion didn't 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, that he was busy,
that he appreciated the coincidence of the hit and the hurrah, the
hurrah and the hit. That reason was simply Mrs. Dallow, who had suddenly
become a still larger fact in his consciousness than his having turned
actively political. She _was_ indeed his being so--in the sense that if
the politics were his, how little soever, the activity was hers. She had
better ways of showing she was clever than merely saying clever
things--which in general only prove at the most that one would be clever
if one could. The accomplished fact itself was almost always the
demonstration that Mrs. Dallow could; and when Nick came to his senses
after the proclamation of the victor and the drop of the uproar her
figure was, of the whole violent dance of shadows, the only thing that
came back, that stayed. She had been there at each of the moments,
passing, repassing, returning, 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 finer charm, converting
it into a kind of heroic "function," the form of sport most dangerous.
It had been a garden-party, say, with one's life at stake from pressure
of the crowd. The concluded affair had bequeathed him thus not only a
seat in the House of Commons, but a perception of what may come of women
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, waving her whip, cleaving the crowd,
holding her head as if it had been a banner, smiling up into
second-storey windows, carrying him beside her, carrying him to his
doom. He had not reckoned at the time, in the few days, how much he had
driven about with her; 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 all, and the whole impression had that night
kept him much awake.

Henry James