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 34


The really formidable thing for Nick had been to tell his mother: a
truth of which he was so conscious that he had the matter out with her
the very morning he returned from Beauclere. She and Grace had come back
the afternoon before from their own enjoyment of rural hospitality, and,
knowing this--she had written him her intention from the country--he
drove straight from the station to Calcutta Gardens. There was a little
room on the right of the house-door known as his own room; but in which
of a morning, when he was not at home, Lady Agnes sometimes wrote her
letters. These were always numerous, and when she heard our young man's
cab she happened to be engaged with them at the big brass-mounted bureau
that had belonged to his father, where, amid a margin of works of
political reference, she seemed to herself to make public affairs feel
the point of her elbow.

She came into the hall to meet her son and to hear about their
benefactor, and Nick went straight back into the room with her and
closed the door. It would be in the evening paper and she would see it,
and he had no right to allow her to wait for that. It proved indeed a
terrible hour; and when ten minutes later Grace, who had learned
upstairs her brother's return, went down for further news of him she
heard from the hall a sound of voices that made her first pause and
then retrace her steps on tiptoe. She mounted to the drawing-room and
crept about there, palpitating, looking at moments into the dull street
and wondering what on earth had taken place. She had no one to express
her wonder to, for Florence Tressilian had departed and Biddy after
breakfast betaken herself, in accordance with a custom now inveterate,
to Rosedale Road. Her mother was unmistakably and passionately crying--a
fact tremendous in its significance, for Lady Agnes had not often been
brought so low. Nick had seen her cry, but this almost awful spectacle
had seldom been offered to Grace, and it now convinced her that some
dreadful thing had happened.

That was of course in order, after Nick's mysterious quarrel with Julia,
which had made his mother so ill and was at present followed up with new
horrors. The row, as Grace mentally phrased it, had had something to do
with the rupture of the lovers--some deeper depth of disappointment had
begun to yawn. Grace asked herself if they were talking about Broadwood;
if Nick had demanded that in the conditions so unpleasantly altered Lady
Agnes should restore that awfully nice house to its owner. This was
very possible, but why should he so suddenly have broken out about
it? And, moreover, their mother, though sore to bleeding about
the whole business--for Broadwood, in its fresh comfort, was too
delightful--wouldn't have met this pretension with tears: hadn't she
already so perversely declared that they couldn't decently continue to
make use of the place? Julia had said that of course they must go on,
but Lady Agnes was prepared with an effective rejoinder to that. It
didn't consist of words--it was to be austerely practical, was to
consist of letting Julia see, at the moment she should least expect it,
that they quite wouldn't go on. Lady Agnes was ostensibly waiting for
this moment--the moment when her renunciation would be most impressive.

Grace was conscious of how she had for many days been moving with her
mother in darkness, deeply stricken by Nick's culpable--oh he was
culpable!--loss of his prize, but feeling an obscure element in the
matter they didn't grasp, an undiscovered explanation that would perhaps
make it still worse, though it might make _them_, poor things, a little
better. He had explained nothing, he had simply said, "Dear mother, we
don't hit it off, after all; it's an awful bore, but we don't"--as if
that were in the dire conditions an adequate balm for two aching hearts.
From Julia naturally no flood of light was to be looked for--Julia
_never_ humoured curiosity--and, though she very often did the thing you
wouldn't suppose, she was not unexpectedly apologetic in this case.
Grace recognised that in such a position it would savour of apology for
her to disclose to Lady Agnes her grounds for having let Nick off; and
she wouldn't have liked to be the person to suggest to Julia that any
one looked for anything from her. Neither of the disunited pair blamed
the other or cast an aspersion, and it was all very magnanimous and
superior and impenetrable and exasperating. With all this Grace had a
suspicion that Biddy knew something more, that for Biddy the tormenting
curtain had been lifted.

Biddy had come and gone in these days with a perceptible air of
detachment from the tribulations of home. It had made her, fortunately,
very pretty--still prettier than usual: it sometimes happened that at
moments when Grace was most angry she had a faint sweet smile which
might have been drawn from some source of occult consolation. It was
perhaps in some degree connected with Peter Sherringham's visit, as to
which the girl had not been superstitiously silent. When Grace asked
her if she had secret information and if it pointed to the idea that
everything would be all right in the end, she pretended to know
nothing--What should she know? she asked with the loveliest arch of
eyebrows over an unblinking candour--and begged her sister not to let
Lady Agnes believe her better off than themselves. She contributed
nothing to their gropings save a much better patience, but she went with
noticeable regularity, on the pretext of her foolish modelling, to
Rosedale Road. She was frankly on Nick's side; not going so far as to
say he had been right, but saying distinctly how sure she was that,
whatever had happened, he couldn't have helped it, not a mite. This was
striking, because, as Grace knew, the younger of the sisters had been
much favoured by Julia and wouldn't have sacrificed her easily. It
associated itself in the irritated mind of the elder with Biddy's
frequent visits to the studio and made Miss Dormer ask herself if the
crisis in Nick's and Julia's business had not somehow been linked to
that unnatural spot.

She had gone there two or three times while Biddy was working, gone to
pick up any clue to the mystery that might peep out. But she had put her
hand on nothing more--it wouldn't have occurred to her to say nothing
less--than the so dreadfully pointed presence of Gabriel Nash. She once
found that odd satellite, to her surprise, paying a visit to her
sister--he had come for Nick, who was absent; she remembered how they
had met in Paris and how little he had succeeded with them. When she had
asked Biddy afterwards how she could receive him that way Biddy had
replied that even she, Grace, would have some charity for him if she
could hear how fond he was of poor Nick. He had talked to her only of
Nick--of nothing else. Grace had observed how she spoke of Nick as
injured, and had noted the implication that some one else, ceasing to be
fond of him, was thereby condemned in Biddy's eyes. It seemed to Grace
that some one else had at least a right not to like some of his friends.
The studio struck her as mean and horrid; and so far from suggesting to
her that it could have played a part in making Nick and Julia fall out
she only felt how little its dusty want of consequence, could count, one
way or the other, for Julia. Grace, who had no opinions on art, saw no
merit whatever in those "impressions" on canvas from Nick's hand with
which the place was bestrewn. She didn't at all wish her brother to have
talent in that direction, yet it was secretly humiliating to her that he
hadn't more.

Nick meanwhile felt a pang of almost horrified penitence, in the little
room on the right of the hall, the moment after he had made his mother
really understand he had thrown up his scat and that it would probably
be in the evening papers. That she would take this very ill was an idea
that had pressed upon him hard enough, but she took it even worse than
he had feared. He measured, in the look she gave him when the full truth
loomed upon her, the mortal cruelty of her distress; her face was like
that of a passenger on a ship who sees the huge bows of another vessel
towering close out of the fog. There are visions of dismay before which
the best conscience recoils, and though Nick had made his choice on all
the grounds there were a few minutes in which he would gladly have
admitted that his wisdom was a dark mistake. His heart was in his
throat, he had gone too far; he had been ready to disappoint his
mother--he had not been ready to destroy her.

Lady Agnes, I hasten to add, was not destroyed; she made, after her
first drowning gasp, a tremendous scene of opposition, in the face of
which her son could only fall back on his intrenchments. She must know
the worst, he had thought: so he told her everything, including the
little story of the forfeiture of his "expectations" from Mr. Carteret.
He showed her this time not only the face of the matter, but what lay
below it; narrated briefly the incident in his studio which had led to
Julia Dallow's deciding she couldn't after all put up with him. This was
wholly new to Lady Agnes, she had had no clue to it, and he could
instantly see how it made the event worse for her, adding a hideous
positive to an abominable negative. He noted now that, distressed and
distracted as she had been by his rupture with Julia, she had still held
to the faith that their engagement would come on again; believing
evidently that he had a personal empire over the mistress of Harsh which
would bring her back. Lady Agnes was forced to recognise this empire as
precarious, to forswear the hope of a blessed renewal from the moment
the question was of base infatuations on his own part. Nick confessed to
an infatuation, but did his best to show her it wasn't base; that it
wasn't--since Julia had had faith in his loyalty--for the person of the
young lady who had been discovered posturing to him and whom he had seen
but half-a-dozen times in his life. He endeavoured to recall to his
mother the identity of this young lady, he adverted to the occasion in
Paris when they all had seen her together. But Lady Agnes's mind and
memory were a blank on the subject of Miss Miriam Rooth and she wanted
to hear nothing whatever about her: it was enough that she was the cause
of their ruin and a part of his pitiless folly. She needed to know
nothing of her to allude to her as if it were superfluous to give a
definite name to the class to which she belonged.

But she gave a name to the group in which Nick had now taken his place,
and it made him feel after the lapse of years like a small, scolded,
sorry boy again; for it was so far away he could scarcely remember
it--besides there having been but a moment or two of that sort in his
happy childhood--the time when this parent had slapped him and called
him a little fool. He was a big fool now--hugely immeasurable; she
repeated the term over and over with high-pitched passion. The most
painful thing in this painful hour was perhaps his glimpse of the
strange feminine cynicism that lurked in her fine sense of injury. Where
there was such a complexity of revolt it would have been difficult to
pick out particular wrongs; but Nick could see that, to his mother's
imagination, he was most a fool for not having kept his relations with
the actress, whatever they were, better from Julia's knowledge. He
remained indeed freshly surprised at the ardour with which she had
rested her hopes on Julia. Julia was certainly a combination--she was
accomplished, she was a sort of leading woman and she was rich; but
after all--putting aside what she might be to a man in love with
her--she was not the keystone of the universe. Yet the form in which the
consequences of his apostasy appeared most to come home to Lady Agnes
was the loss for the Dormer family of the advantages attached to the
possession of Mrs. Dallow. The larger mortification would round itself
later; for the hour the damning thing was that Nick had made that lady
the gift of an unforgivable grievance. He had clinched their separation
by his letter to his electors--and that above all was the wickedness of
the letter. Julia would have got over the other woman, but she would
never get over his becoming a nobody.

Lady Agnes challenged him upon this low prospect exactly as if he had
embraced it with the malignant purpose of making the return of his late
intended impossible. She contradicted her premises and lost her way in
her wrath. What had made him suddenly turn round if he had been in good
faith before? He had never been in good faith--never, never; he had had
from his earliest childhood the nastiest hankerings after a vulgar
little daubing, trash-talking life; they were not in him, the grander,
nobler aspirations--they never had been--and he had been anything but
honest to lead her on, to lead them all on, to think he would do
something: the fall and the shame would have been less for them if they
had come earlier. Moreover, what need under heaven had he to tell
Charles Carteret of the cruel folly on his very death-bed?--as if he
mightn't have let it all alone and accepted the benefit the old man was
so delighted to confer. No wonder Mr. Carteret would keep his money for
his heirs if that was the way Nick proposed to repay him; but where was
the common sense, where was the common charity, where was the common
decency of tormenting him with such vile news in his last hours? Was he
trying what he could invent that would break her heart, that would send
her in sorrow down to her grave? Weren't they all miserable enough and
hadn't he a ray of pity for his wretched sisters?

The relation of effect and cause, in regard to his sisters'
wretchedness, was but dimly discernible to Nick, who, however, perceived
his mother genuinely to consider that his action had disconnected them
all, still more than she held they were already disconnected, from the
good things of life. Julia was money, Mr. Carteret was money--everything
else was the absence of it. If these precious people had been primarily
money for Nick it after all flattered the distributive impulse in him to
have taken for granted that for the rest of the family too the
difference would have been so great. For days, for weeks and months to
come, the little room on the right of the hall was to vibrate for our
young man, as if the very walls and window-panes still suffered, with
the odious trial of his true temper.

Henry James