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Chapter 38


He wouldn't for a moment have admitted that he was jealous of his old
comrade, but would almost have liked to be accused of it: for this would
have given him a chance he rather lacked and missed, the right occasion
to declare with plausibility that motives he couldn't avow had no
application to his case. How could a man be jealous when he was not a
suitor? how could he pretend to guard a property which was neither his
own nor destined to become his own? There could be no question of loss
when one had nothing at stake, and no question of envy when the
responsibility of possession was exactly what one prayed to be delivered
from. The measure of one's susceptibility was one's pretensions, and
Peter was not only ready to declare over and over again that, thank God,
he had none: his spiritual detachment was still more complete--he
literally suffered from the fact that nobody appeared to care to hear
him say it. He connected an idea of virtue and honour with his attitude,
since surely it was a high case of conduct to have quenched a personal
passion for the good of the public service. He had gone over the whole
question at odd, irrepressible hours; he had returned, spiritually
speaking, the buffet administered to him all at once, that day in
Rosedale Road, by the spectacle of the _crânerie_ with which Nick could
let worldly glories slide. Resolution for resolution he preferred after
all another sort, and his own _crânerie_ would be shown in the way he
should stick to his profession and stand up for British interests. If
Nick had leaped over a wall he would leap over a river. The course of
his river was already traced and his loins were already girded. Thus he
was justified in holding that the measure of a man's susceptibility was
a man's attitude: that was the only thing he was bound to give an
account of.

He was perpetually giving an account of it to his own soul in default of
other listeners. He was quite angry at having tasted a sweetness in
Miriam's assurance at the carriage--door, bestowed indeed with very
little solemnity, that Nick didn't care for her. Wherein did it concern
him that Nick cared for her or that Nick didn't? Wherein did it signify
to him that Gabriel Nash should have taken upon himself to disapprove of
a union between the young actress and the young painter and to frustrate
an accident that might perhaps prove fortunate? For those had also been
cooling words at the hour, though Peter blushed on the morrow to think
that he felt in them anything but Nash's personal sublimity. He was
ashamed of having been refreshed, and refreshed by so sickly a
draught--it being all his theory that he was not in a fever. As for
keeping an eye on Nick, it would soon become clear to that young man and
that young man's charming friend that he had quite other uses for his
eyes. The pair, with Nash to help, might straighten out their
complications according to their light. He would never speak to Nick of
Miriam; he felt indeed just now as if he should never speak to Nick of
anything. He had traced the course of his river, as I say, and the real
proof would be in the way he should, clearing the air, land on the
opposite bank. It was a case for action--for vigorous, unmistakable
action. He had done very little since his arrival in London but moon
round a _fille de théâtre_ who was taken up partly, though she bluffed
it off, with another man, and partly with arranging new petticoats for a
beastly old "poetic drama"; but this little waste of time should
instantly be made up. He had given himself a definite rope, and he had
danced to the end of his rope, and now he would dance back. That was all
right--so right that Peter could only express to himself how right it
was by whistling with extravagance.

He whistled as he went to dine with a great personage the day after his
meeting with Nick in Balaklava Place; a great personage to whom he had
originally paid his respects--it was high time--the day before that
meeting, the previous Monday. The sense of omissions to repair, of a
superior line to take, perhaps made him study with more zeal to please
the personage, who gave him ten minutes and asked him five questions. A
great many doors were successively opened before any palpitating pilgrim
who was about to enter the presence of this distinguished man; but they
were discreetly closed again behind Sherringham, and I must ask the
reader to pause with me at the nearer end of the momentary vista. This
particular pilgrim fortunately felt he could count on recognition not
only as a faithful if obscure official in the great hierarchy, but as a
clever young man who happened to be connected by blood with people his
lordship had intimately known. No doubt it was simply as the clever
young man that Peter received the next morning, from the dispenser of
his lordship's hospitality, a note asking him to dine on the morrow.
Such cards had come to him before, and he had always obeyed their call;
he did so at present, however, with a sense of unusual intention. In due
course his intention was translated into words; before the gentlemen
left the dining-room he respectfully asked his noble host for some
further brief and benevolent hearing.

"What is it you want? Tell me now," the master of his fate replied,
motioning to the rest of the company to pass out and detaining him where
they stood.

Peter's excellent training covered every contingency: he could always be
as concise or as diffuse as the occasion required. Even he himself,
however, was surprised at the quick felicity of the terms in which he
was conscious of conveying that, were it compatible with higher
conveniences, he should extremely like to be transferred to duties in a
more distant quarter of the globe. Indeed, fond as he was of thinking
himself a man of emotions controlled by civility, it is not impossible
that a greater candour than he knew glimmered through Peter's expression
and trembled through his tone as he presented this petition. He had
aimed at a good manner in presenting it, but perhaps the best of the
effect produced for his interlocutor was just where it failed, where it
confessed a secret that the highest diplomacy would have guarded.
Sherringham remarked to the minister that he didn't care in the least
where the place might be, nor how little coveted a post; the further
away the better, and the climate didn't matter. He would only prefer of
course that there should be really something to do, though he would make
the best of it even if there were not. He stopped in time, or at least
thought he did, not to betray his covertly seeking relief from minding
his having been jilted in a flight to latitudes unfavourable to human
life. His august patron gave him a sharp look which for a moment seemed
the precursor of a sharper question; but the moment elapsed and the
question failed to come. This considerate omission, characteristic of a
true man of the world and representing quick guesses and still quicker
indifferences, made our gentleman from that moment his lordship's ardent
partisan. What did come was a good-natured laugh and the exclamation:
"You know there are plenty of swamps and jungles, if you want that sort
of thing," Peter replied that it was very much that sort of thing he did
want; whereupon his chief continued: "I'll see--I'll see. If anything
turns up you shall hear."

Something turned up the very next day: our young man, taken at his word,
found himself indebted to the postman for a note of concise intimation
that the high position of minister to the smallest of Central American
republics would be apportioned him. The republic, though small, was big
enough to be "shaky," and the position, though high, not so exalted that
there were not much greater altitudes above it to which it was a
stepping-stone. Peter, quite ready to take one thing with another,
rejoiced at his easy triumph, reflected that he must have been even more
noticed at headquarters than he had hoped, and, on the spot, consulting
nobody and waiting for nothing, signified his unqualified acceptance of
the place. Nobody with a grain of sense would have advised him to do
anything else. It made him happier than he had supposed he should ever
be again; it made him feel professionally in the train, as they said in
Paris; it was serious, it was interesting, it was exciting, and his
imagination, letting itself loose into the future, began once more to
scale the crowning eminence. It was very simple to hold one's course if
one really tried, and he blessed the variety of peoples. Further
communications passed, the last enjoining on him to return to Paris for
a short interval a week later, after which he would be advised of the
date for his proceeding to his remoter duties.

Henry James