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 32

It mattered not so much what the doctors thought--and Sir Matthew Hope,
the greatest of them all, had been down twice in one week--as that Mr.
Chayter, the omniscient butler, declared with all the authority of his
position and his experience that Mr. Carteret was very bad indeed. Nick
Dormer had a long talk with him--it lasted six minutes--the day he
hurried to Beauclere in response to a telegram. It was Mr. Chayter who
had taken upon himself to telegraph in spite of the presence in the
house of Mr. Carteret's nearest relation and only surviving sister, Mrs.
Lendon. This lady, a large, mild, healthy woman with a heavy tread, a
person who preferred early breakfasts, uncomfortable chairs and the
advertisement-sheet of the _Times_, had arrived the week before and was
awaiting the turn of events. She was a widow and occupied in Cornwall a
house nine miles from a station, which had, to make up for this
inconvenience as she had once told Nick, a fine old herbaceous garden.
She was extremely fond of an herbaceous garden--her main consciousness
was of herbaceous possibilities. Nick had often seen her--she had always
come to Beauclere once or twice a year. Her sojourn there made no great
difference; she was only an "Urania dear" for Mr. Carteret to look
across the table at when, on the close of dinner, it was time for her to
retire. She went out of the room always as if it were after some one
else; and on the gentlemen's "joining" her later--the junction was not
very close--she received them with an air of gratified surprise.

Chayter honoured Nick with a regard which approached, though not
improperly competing with it, the affection his master had placed on the
same young head, and Chayter knew a good many things. Among them he knew
his place; but it was wonderful how little that knowledge had rendered
him inaccessible to other kinds. He took upon himself to send for Nick
without speaking to Mrs. Lendon, whose influence was now a good deal
like that of some large occasional piece of furniture introduced on a
contingency. She was one of the solid conveniences that a comfortable
house would have, but you couldn't talk with a mahogany sofa or a
folding screen. Chayter knew how much she had "had" from her brother,
and how much her two daughters had each received on marriage; and he was
of the opinion that it was quite enough, especially considering the
society in which they--you could scarcely call it--moved. He knew beyond
this that they would all have more, and that was why he hesitated little
about communicating with Nick. If Mrs. Lendon should be ruffled at the
intrusion of a young man who neither was the child of a cousin nor had
been formally adopted, Chayter was parliamentary enough to see that the
forms of debate were observed. He had indeed a slightly compassionate
sense that Mrs. Lendon was not easily ruffled. She was always down an
extraordinary time before breakfast--Chayter refused to take it as in
the least admonitory--but usually went straight into the garden as if to
see that none of the plants had been stolen in the night, and had in the
end to be looked for by the footman in some out-of-the-way spot behind
the shrubbery, where, plumped upon the ground, she was mostly doing
something "rum" to a flower.

Mr. Carteret himself had expressed no wishes. He slept most of the
time--his failure at the last had been sudden, but he was rheumatic and
seventy-seven--and the situation was in Chayter's hands. Sir Matthew
Hope had opined even on a second visit that he would rally and go on, in
rudimentary comfort, some time longer; but Chayter took a different and
a still more intimate view. Nick was embarrassed: he scarcely knew what
he was there for from the moment he could give his good old friend no
conscious satisfaction. The doctors, the nurses, the servants, Mrs.
Lendon, and above all the settled equilibrium of the square thick house,
where an immutable order appeared to slant through the polished windows
and tinkle in the quieter bells, all these things represented best the
kind of supreme solace to which the master was most accessible.

It was judged best that for the first day Nick should not be introduced
into the darkened room. This was the decision of the two decorous
nurses, of whom the visitor had had a glimpse and who, with their black
uniforms and fresh faces of business, suggested the barmaid emulating
the nun. He was depressed and restless, felt himself in a false
position, and thought it lucky Mrs. Lendon had powers of placid
acceptance. They were old acquaintances: she treated him formally,
anxiously, but it was not the rigour of mistrust. It was much more an
expression of remote Cornish respect for young abilities and
distinguished connexions, inasmuch as she asked him rather yearningly
about Lady Agnes and about Lady Flora and Lady Elizabeth. He knew she
was kind and ungrudging, and his main regret was for his meagre
knowledge and poor responses in regard to his large blank aunts. He sat
in the garden with newspapers and looked at the lowered blinds in Mr.
Carteret's windows; he wandered round the abbey with cigarettes and
lightened his tread and felt grave, wishing everything might be over. He
would have liked much to see Mr. Carteret again, but had no desire that
Mr. Carteret should see him. In the evening he dined with Mrs. Lendon,
and she talked to him at his request and as much as she could about her
brother's early years, his beginnings of life. She was so much younger
that they appeared to have been rather a tradition of her own youth; but
her talk made Nick feel how tremendously different Mr. Carteret had been
at that period from what he, Nick, was to-day. He had published at the
age of thirty a little volume, thought at the time wonderfully clever,
called _The Incidence of Rates_; but Nick had not yet collected the
material for any such treatise. After dinner Mrs. Lendon, who was in
merciless full dress, retired to the drawing-room, where at the end of
ten minutes she was followed by Nick, who had remained behind only
because he thought Chayter would expect it. Mrs. Lendon almost shook
hands with him again and then Chayter brought in coffee. Almost in no
time afterwards he brought in tea, and the occupants of the drawing-room
sat for a slow half-hour, during which the lady looked round at the
apartment with a sigh and said: "Don't you think poor Charles had
exquisite taste?"

Fortunately the "local man" was at this moment ushered in. He had been
upstairs and he smiled himself in with the remark: "It's quite
wonderful, quite wonderful." What was wonderful was a marked improvement
in the breathing, a distinct indication of revival. The doctor had some
tea and chatted for a quarter of an hour in a way that showed what a
"good" manner and how large an experience a local man could have. When
he retired Nick walked out with him. The doctor's house was near by and
he had come on foot. He left the visitor with the assurance that in all
probability Mr. Carteret, who was certainly picking up, would be able to
see him on the morrow. Our young man turned his steps again to the abbey
and took a stroll about it in the starlight. It never looked so huge as
when it reared itself into the night, and Nick had never felt more fond
of it than on this occasion, more comforted and confirmed by its beauty.
When he came back he was readmitted by Chayter, who surveyed him in
respectful deprecation of the frivolity which had led him to attempt to
help himself through such an evening in such a way.

He went to bed early and slept badly, which was unusual with him; but it
was a pleasure to him to be told almost as soon as he appeared that Mr.
Carteret had asked for him. He went in to see him and was struck with
the change in his appearance. He had, however, spent a day with him just
after the New Year and another at the beginning of March, and had then
noted in him the menace of the final weakness. A week after Julia
Dallow's departure for the Continent he had again devoted several hours
to the place and to the intention of telling his old friend how the
happy event had been brought to naught--the advantage he had been so
good as to desire for him and to make the condition of a splendid gift.
Before this, for a few days, he had been keeping back, to announce it
personally, the good news that Julia had at last set their situation in
order: he wanted to enjoy the old man's pleasure--so sore a trial had
her arbitrary behaviour been for a year. If she had offered Mr. Carteret
a conciliatory visit before Christmas, had come down from London one day
to lunch with him, this had but contributed to make him subsequently
exhibit to poor Nick, as the victim of her elegant perversity, a great
deal of earnest commiseration in a jocose form. Upon his honour, as he
said, she was as clever and "specious" a woman--this was his odd
expression--as he had ever seen in his life. The merit of her behaviour
on that occasion, as Nick knew, was that she had not been specious at
her lover's expense: she had breathed no doubt of his public purpose and
had had the strange grace to say that in truth she was older than he, so
that it was only fair to give his affections time to mature. But when
Nick saw their hopeful host after the rupture at which we have been
present he found him in no state to deal with worries: he was seriously
ailing, it was the beginning of worse things and not a time to put his
attention to the stretch. After this excursion Nick had gone back to
town saddened by his patient's now unmistakably settled decline, but
rather relieved that he had had himself to make no confession. It had
even occurred to him that the need for making one at all might never
come up. Certainly it wouldn't if the ebb of Mr. Carteret's strength
should continue unchecked. He might pass away in the persuasion that
everything would happen as he wished it, though indeed without enriching
Nick on his wedding-day to the tune he had promised. Very likely he had
made legal arrangements in virtue of which his bounty would take effect
in case of the right event and in that case alone. At present Nick had a
bigger, an uglier truth to tell--the last three days had made the
difference; but, oddly enough, though his responsibility had increased
his reluctance to speak had vanished: he was positively eager to clear
up a situation over which it was not consistent with his honour to leave
a shade.

The doctor had been right on coming in after dinner; it was clear in
the morning that they had not seen the last of Mr. Carteret's power of
picking up. Chayter, who had waited on him, refused austerely to change
his opinion with every change in his master's temperature; but the
nurses took the cheering view that it would do their charge good for Mr.
Dormer to sit with him a little. One of them remained in the room in the
deep window-seat, and Nick spent twenty minutes by the bedside. It was
not a case for much conversation, but his helpless host seemed still to
like to look at him. There was life in his kind old eyes, a stir of
something that would express itself yet in some further wise provision.
He laid his liberal hand on Nick's with a confidence that showed how
little it was really disabled. He said very little, and the nurse had
recommended that the visitor himself should not overflow in speech; but
from time to time he murmured with a faint smile: "To-night's division,
you know--you mustn't miss it." There was probably to be no division
that night, as happened, but even Mr. Carteret's aberrations were
parliamentary. Before Nick withdrew he had been able to assure him he
was rapidly getting better and that such valuable hours, the young man's
own, mustn't be wasted. "Come back on Friday if they come to the second
reading." These were the words with which Nick was dismissed, and at
noon the doctor said the invalid was doing very well, but that Nick had
better leave him quiet for that day. Our young man accordingly
determined to go up to town for the night, and even, should he receive
no summons, for the next day. He arranged with Chayter that he should be
telegraphed to if Mr. Carteret were either better or worse.

"Oh he can't very well be worse, sir," Chayter replied inexorably; but
he relaxed so far as to remark that of course it wouldn't do for Nick
to neglect the House.

"Oh the House!"--Nick was ambiguous and avoided the butler's eye. It
would be easy enough to tell Mr. Carteret, but nothing would have
sustained him in the effort to make a clean breast to Chayter.

He might equivocate about the House, but he had the sense of things to
be done awaiting him in London. He telegraphed to his servant and spent
that night in Rosedale Road. The things to be done were apparently to be
done in his studio: his servant met him there with a large bundle of
letters. He failed that evening to stray within two miles of
Westminster, and the legislature of his country reassembled without his
support. The next morning he received a telegram from Chayter, to whom
he had given Rosedale Road as an address. This missive simply informed
him that Mr. Carteret wished to see him; it seemed a sign that he was
better, though Chayter wouldn't say so. Nick again accordingly took his
place in the train to Beauclere. He had been there very often, but it
was present to him that now, after a little, he should go only once
more--for a particular dismal occasion. All that was over, everything
that belonged to it was over. He learned on his arrival--he saw Mrs.
Lendon immediately--that his old friend had continued to pick up. He had
expressed a strong and a perfectly rational desire to talk with his
expected visitor, and the doctor had said that if it was about anything
important they should forbear to oppose him. "He says it's about
something very important," Mrs. Lendon remarked, resting shy eyes on him
while she added that she herself was now sitting with her dear brother.
She had sent those wonderful young ladies out to see the abbey. Nick
paused with her outside Mr. Carteret's door. He wanted to say something
rather intimate and all soothing to her in return for her homely
charity--give her a hint, for which she was far from looking, that
practically he had now no interest in her brother's estate. This was of
course impossible; her lack of irony, of play of mind, gave him no
pretext, and such a reference would be an insult to her simple
discretion. She was either not thinking of his interest at all, or was
thinking of it with the tolerance of a nature trained to a hundred
decent submissions. Nick looked a little into her mild, uninvestigating
eyes, and it came over him supremely that the goodness of these people
was singularly pure: they were a part of what was cleanest and sanest
and dullest in humanity. There had been just a little mocking inflexion
in Mrs. Lendon's pleasant voice; but it was dedicated to the young
ladies in the black uniforms--she could perhaps be humorous about
_them_--and not to the theory of the "importance" of Nick's interview
with her brother. His arrested desire to let her know he was not greedy
translated itself into a vague friendliness and into the abrupt, rather
bewildering words: "I can't tell you half the good I think of you." As
he passed into Mr. Carteret's room it occurred to him that she would
perhaps interpret this speech as an acknowledgment of obligation--of her
good nature in not keeping him away from the rich old man.

Henry James