Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 22

Mrs. Dallow came up to London soon after the meeting of Parliament; she
made no secret of the fact that she was fond of "town" and that in
present conditions it would of course not have become less attractive to
her. But she prepared to retreat again for the Easter vacation, not to
go back to Harsh, but to pay a couple of country visits. She did not,
however, depart with the crowd--she never did anything with the
crowd--but waited till the Monday after Parliament rose; facing with
composure, in Great Stanhope Street, the horrors, as she had been taught
to consider them, of a Sunday out of the session. She had done what she
could to mitigate them by asking a handful of "stray men" to dine with
her that evening. Several members of this disconsolate class sought
comfort in Great Stanhope Street in the afternoon, and them for the most
part she also invited to return at eight o'clock. There were accordingly
almost too many people at dinner; there were even a couple of wives.
Nick Dormer was then present, though he had not been in the afternoon.
Each of the other persons had said on coming in, "So you've not
gone--I'm awfully glad." Mrs. Dallow had replied, "No, I've not gone,"
but she had in no case added that she was glad, nor had she offered an
explanation. She never offered explanations; she always assumed that no
one could invent them so well as those who had the florid taste to
desire them.

And in this case she was right, since it is probable that few of her
visitors failed to say to themselves that her not having gone would have
had something to do with Dormer. That could pass for an explanation with
many of Mrs. Dallow's friends, who as a general thing were not morbidly
analytic; especially with those who met Nick as a matter of course at
dinner. His figuring at this lady's entertainments, being in her house
whenever a candle was lighted, was taken as a sign that there was
something rather particular between them. Nick had said to her more than
once that people would wonder why they didn't marry; but he was wrong in
this, inasmuch as there were many of their friends to whom it wouldn't
have occurred that his position could be improved. That they were
cousins was a fact not so evident to others as to themselves, in
consequence of which they appeared remarkably intimate. The person
seeing clearest in the matter was Mrs. Gresham, who lived so much in the
world that being left now and then to one's own company had become her
idea of true sociability. She knew very well that if she had been
privately engaged to a young man as amiable as Nick Dormer she would
have managed that publicity shouldn't play such a part in their
intercourse; and she had her secret scorn for the stupidity of people
whose conception of Nick's relation to Julia rested on the fact that he
was always included in her parties. "If he never was there they might
talk," she said to herself. But Mrs. Gresham was supersubtle. To her it
would have appeared natural that her friend should celebrate the
parliamentary recess by going down to Harsh and securing the young man's
presence there for a fortnight; she recognised Mrs. Dallow's actual plan
as a comparatively poor substitute--the project of spending the
holidays in other people's houses, to which Nick had also promised to
come. Mrs. Gresham was romantic; she wondered what was the good of mere
snippets and snatches, the chances that any one might have, when large,
still days _à deux_ were open to you--chances of which half the sanctity
was in what they excluded. However, there were more unsettled matters
between Mrs. Dallow and her queer kinsman than even Mrs. Gresham's fine
insight could embrace. She was not on the Sunday evening before Easter
among the guests in Great Stanhope Street; but if she had been Julia's
singular indifference to observation would have stopped short of
encouraging her to remain in the drawing-room, along with Nick, after
the others had gone. I may add that Mrs. Gresham's extreme curiosity
would have emboldened her as little to do so. She would have taken for
granted that the pair wished to be alone together, though she would have
regarded this only as a snippet. The company had at all events stayed
late, and it was nearly twelve o'clock when the last of them, standing
before the fire in the room they had quitted, broke out to his
companion:

"See here, Julia, how long do you really expect me to endure this kind
of thing?" Julia made him no answer; she only leaned back in her chair
with her eyes upon his. He met her gaze a moment; then he turned round
to the fire and for another moment looked into it. After this he faced
his hostess again with the exclamation: "It's so foolish--it's so
damnably foolish!"

She still said nothing, but at the end of a minute she spoke without
answering him. "I shall expect you on Tuesday, and I hope you'll come by
a decent train."

"What do you mean by a decent train?"

"I mean I hope you'll not leave it till the last thing before dinner, so
that we can have a little walk or something."

"What's a little walk or something? Why, if you make such a point of my
coming to Griffin, do you want me to come at all?"

She hesitated an instant; then she returned; "I knew you hated it!"

"You provoke me so," said Nick. "You try to, I think."

"And Severals is still worse. You'll get out of that if you can," Mrs.
Dallow went on.

"If I can? What's to prevent me?"

"You promised Lady Whiteroy. But of course that's nothing."

"I don't care a straw for Lady Whiteroy."

"And you promised me. But that's less still."

"It _is_ foolish--it's quite idiotic," said Nick with his hands in his
pockets and his eyes on the ceiling.

There was another silence, at the end of which Julia remarked: "You
might have answered Mr. Macgeorge when he spoke to you."

"Mr. Macgeorge--what has he to do with it?"

"He has to do with your getting on a little. If you think that's the
way--!"

Nick broke into a laugh. "I like lessons in getting on--in other words I
suppose you mean in urbanity--from you, Julia!"

"Why not from me?"

"Because you can do nothing base. You're incapable of putting on a
flattering manner to get something by it: therefore why should you
expect me to? You're unflattering--that is, you're austere--in
proportion as there may be something to be got."

She sprang from her chair, coming toward him. "There's only one thing I
want in the world--you know very well."

"Yes, you want it so much that you won't even take it when it's pressed
on you. How long do you seriously expect me to bear it?" Nick repeated.

"I never asked you to do anything base," she said as she stood in front
of him. "If I'm not clever about throwing myself into things it's all
the more reason you should be."

"If you're not clever, my dear Julia--?" Nick, close to her, placed his
hands on her shoulders and shook her with a mixture of tenderness and
passion. "You're clever enough to make me furious, sometimes!"

She opened and closed her fan looking down at it while she submitted to
his mild violence. "All I want is that when a man like Mr. Macgeorge
talks to you you shouldn't appear bored to death. You used to be so
charming under those inflictions. Now you appear to take no interest in
anything. At dinner to-night you scarcely opened your lips; you treated
them all as if you only wished they'd go."

"I did wish they'd go. Haven't I told you a hundred times what I think
of your salon?"

"How then do you want me to live?" she asked. "Am I not to have a
creature in the house?"

"As many creatures as you like. Your freedom's complete and, as far as
I'm concerned, always will be. Only when you challenge me and overhaul
me--not justly, I think--I must confess the simple truth, that there are
many of your friends I don't delight in."

"Oh _your_ idea of pleasant people!" Julia lamented. "I should like once
for all to know what it really is."

"I can tell you what it really isn't: it isn't Mr. Macgeorge. He's a
being almost grotesquely limited."

"He'll be where you'll never be--unless you change."

"To be where Mr. Macgeorge is not would be very much my desire.
Therefore why should I change?" Nick demanded. "However, I hadn't the
least intention of being rude to him, and I don't think I was," he went
on. "To the best of my ability I assume a virtue if I haven't it; but
apparently I'm not enough of a comedian."

"If you haven't it?" she echoed. "It's when you say things like that
that you're so dreadfully tiresome. As if there were anything that you
haven't or mightn't have!"

Nick turned away from her; he took a few impatient steps in the room,
looking at the carpet, his hands always in his pockets. Then he came
back to the fire with the observation: "It's rather hard to be found so
wanting when one has tried to play one's part so beautifully." He paused
with his eyes on her own and then went on with a vibration in his voice:
"I've imperilled my immortal soul, or at least bemuddled my
intelligence, by all the things I don't care for that I've tried to do,
and all the things I detest that I've tried to be, and all the things I
never can be that I've tried to look as if I were--all the appearances
and imitations, the pretences and hypocrisies in which I've steeped
myself to the eyes; and at the end of it (it serves me right!) my reward
is simply to learn that I'm still not half humbug enough!"

Julia looked away from him as soon as he had spoken these words; she
attached her eyes to the clock behind him and observed irrelevantly:
"I'm very sorry, but I think you had better go. I don't like you to stay
after midnight."

"Ah what you like and what you don't like, and where one begins and the
other ends--all that's an impenetrable mystery!" the young man
declared. But he took no further notice of her allusion to his
departure, adding in a different tone: "'A man like Mr. Macgeorge'! When
you say a thing of that sort in a certain, particular way I should
rather like to suffer you to perish."

Mrs. Dallow stared; it might have seemed for an instant that she was
trying to look stupid. "How can I help it if a few years hence he's
certain to be at the head of any Liberal Government?"

"We can't help it of course, but we can help talking about it," Nick
smiled. "If we don't mention it it mayn't be noticed."

"You're trying to make me angry. You're in one of your vicious moods,"
she returned, blowing out on the chimney-piece a guttering candle.

"That I'm exasperated I've already had the honour very positively to
inform you. All the same I maintain that I was irreproachable at dinner.
I don't want you to think I shall always be as good as that."

"You looked so out of it; you were as gloomy as if every earthly hope
had left you, and you didn't make a single contribution to any
discussion that took place. Don't you think I observe you?" she asked
with an irony tempered by a tenderness unsuccessfully concealed.

"Ah my darling, what you observe--!" Nick cried with a certain
bitterness of amusement. But he added the next moment more seriously, as
if his tone had been disrespectful: "You probe me to the bottom, no
doubt."

"You needn't come either to Griffin or to Severals if you don't want
to."

"Give them up yourself; stay here with me!"

She coloured quickly as he said this, and broke out: "Lord, how you hate
political houses!"

"How can you say that when from February to August I spend every blessed
night in one?"

"Yes, and hate that worst of all."

"So do half the people who are in it. You, my dear, must have so many
things, so many people, so much _mise-en-scène_ and such a perpetual
spectacle to live," Nick went on. "Perpetual motion, perpetual visits,
perpetual crowds! If you go into the country you'll see forty people
every day and be mixed up with them all day. The idea of a quiet
fortnight in town, when by a happy if idiotic superstition everybody
goes out of it, disconcerts and frightens you. It's the very time, it's
the very place, to do a little work and possess one's soul."

This vehement allocution found her evidently somewhat unprepared; but
she was sagacious enough, instead of attempting for the moment a general
rejoinder, to seize on a single phrase and say: "Work? What work can you
do in London at such a moment as this?"

Nick considered. "I might tell you I want to get up a lot of subjects,
to sit at home and read blue-books; but that wouldn't be quite what I
mean."

"Do you mean you want to paint?"

"Yes, that's it, since you gouge it out of me."

"Why do you make such a mystery about it? You're at perfect liberty,"
Julia said.

She put out her hand to rest it on the mantel-shelf, but her companion
took it on the way and held it in both his own. "You're delightful,
Julia, when you speak in that tone--then I know why it is I love you.
But I can't do anything if I go to Griffin, if I go to Severals."

"I see--I see," she answered thoughtfully and kindly.

"I've scarcely been inside of my studio for months, and I feel quite
homesick for it. The idea of putting in a few quiet days there has taken
hold of me: I rather cling to it."

"It seems so odd your having a studio!" Julia dropped, speaking so
quickly that the words were almost incomprehensible.

"Doesn't it sound absurd, for all the good it does me, or I do _in_ it?
Of course one can produce nothing but rubbish on such terms--without
continuity or persistence, with just a few days here and there. I ought
to be ashamed of myself, no doubt; but even my rubbish interests me.
'_Guenille si l'on veut, ma guenille m'est chère_.' But I'll go down to
Harsh with you in a moment, Julia," Nick pursued: "that would do as well
if we could be quiet there, without people, without a creature; and I
should really be perfectly content. You'd beautifully sit for me; it
would be the occasion we've so often wanted and never found."

She shook her head slowly and with a smile that had a meaning for him.
"Thank you, my dear; nothing would induce me to go to Harsh with you."

He looked at her hard. "What's the matter whenever it's a question of
anything of that sort? Are you afraid of me?" She pulled her hand from
him quickly, turning away; but he went on: "Stay with me here then, when
everything's so right for it. We shall do beautifully--have the whole
place, have the whole day, to ourselves. Hang your engagements!
Telegraph you won't come. We'll live at the studio--you'll sit to me
every day. Now or never's our chance--when shall we have so good a one?
Think how charming it will be! I'll make you wish awfully that I may do
something."

"I can't get out of Griffin--it's impossible," Julia said, moving
further away and with her back presented to him.

"Then you _are_ afraid of me--simply!"

She turned straight round, very pale. "Of course I am. You're welcome to
know it."

He went toward her, and for a moment she seemed to make another slight
movement of retreat. This, however, was scarcely perceptible, and there
was nothing to alarm in the tone of reasonable entreaty in which he
spoke as he stood there. "Put an end, Julia, to our absurd situation--it
really can't go on. You've no right to expect a man to be happy or
comfortable in so false a position. We're spoken of odiously--of that we
may be sure; and yet what good have we of it?"

"Spoken of? Do I care for that?"

"Do you mean you're indifferent because there are no grounds? That's
just why I hate it."

"I don't know what you're talking about!" she returned with sharp
disdain.

"Be my wife to-morrow--be my wife next week. Let us have done with this
fantastic probation and be happy."

"Leave me now--come back to-morrow. I'll write to you." She had the air
of pleading with him at present, pleading as he pleaded.

"You can't resign yourself to the idea of one's looking 'out of it'!"
Nick laughed.

"Come to-morrow, before lunch," she went on.

"To be told I must wait six months more and then be sent about my
business? Ah, Julia, Julia!" the young man groaned.

Something in this simple lament--it sounded natural and perfectly
unstudied--seemed straightway to make a great impression on her. "You
shall wait no longer," she said after a short silence.

"What do you mean by no longer?"

"Give me about five weeks--say till the Whitsuntide recess."

"Five weeks are a great deal," smiled Nick.

"There are things to be done--you ought to understand."

"I only understand how I love you."

She let herself go--"Dearest Nick!"--and he caught her and kept her in
his arms.

"I've your promise then for five weeks hence to a day?" he demanded as
she at last released herself.

"We'll settle that--the exact day; there are things to consider and to
arrange. Come to luncheon to-morrow."

"I'll come early--I'll come at one," he said; and for a moment they
stood all deeply and intimately taking each other in.

"Do you think I _want_ to wait, any more than you?" she asked in
congruity with this.

"I don't feel so much out of it now!" he declared by way of answer.
"You'll stay of course now--you'll give up your visits?"

She had hold of the lappet of his coat; she had kept it in her hand even
while she detached herself from his embrace. There was a white flower in
his buttonhole that she looked at and played with a moment before she
said; "I've a better idea--you needn't come to Griffin. Stay in your
studio--do as you like--paint dozens of pictures."

"Dozens? Barbarian!" Nick wailed.

The epithet apparently had an endearing suggestion for her; it at any
rate led her to let him possess himself of her head and, so holding it,
kiss her--led her to say: "What on earth do I want but that you should
do absolutely as you please and be as happy as you can?"

He kissed her in another place at this; but he put it to her; "What
dreadful proposition is coming now?"

"I'll go off and do up my visits and come back."

"And leave me alone?"

"Don't be affected! You know you'll work much better without me. You'll
live in your studio--I shall be well out of the way."

"That's not what one wants of a sitter. How can I paint you?"

"You can paint me all the rest of your life. I shall be a perpetual
sitter."

"I believe I could paint you without looking at you"--and his lighted
face shone down on her. "You do excuse me then from those dreary
places?"

"How can I insist after what you said about the pleasure of keeping
these days?" she admirably--it was so all sincerely--asked.

"You're the best woman on earth--though it does seem odd you should rush
away as soon as our little business is settled."

"We shall make it up. I know what I'm about. And now go!" She ended by
almost pushing him out of the room.

Henry James