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Chapter 39


The next thing he meanwhile did was to call with his news on Lady Agnes
Dormer; it is not unworthy of note that he took on the other hand no
step to make his promotion known to Miriam Rooth. To render it probable
he should find his aunt he went at the luncheon-hour; and she was indeed
on the point of sitting down to that repast with Grace. Biddy was not at
home--Biddy was never at home now, her mother said: she was always at
Nick's place, she spent her life there, she ate and drank there, she
almost slept there. What she contrived to do there for so many hours and
what was the irresistible spell Lady Agnes couldn't pretend she had
succeeded in discovering. She spoke of this baleful resort only as
"Nick's place," and spoke of it at first as little as possible. She
judged highly probable, however, that Biddy would come in early that
afternoon: there was something or other, some common social duty, she
had condescended to promise she would perform with Grace. Poor Lady
Agnes, whom Peter found somehow at once grim and very prostrate--she
assured her nephew her nerves were all gone--almost abused her younger
daughter for two minutes, having evidently a deep-seated need of abusing
some one. I must yet add that she didn't wait to meet Grace's eye before
recovering, by a rapid gyration, her view of the possibilities of
things--those possibilities from which she still might squeeze, as a
parent almost in despair, the drop that would sweeten her cup. "Dear
child," she had the presence of mind to subjoin, "her only fault is
after all that she adores her brother. She has a capacity for adoration
and must always take her gospel from some one."

Grace declared to Peter that her sister would have stayed at home if she
had dreamed he was coming, and Lady Agnes let him know that she had
heard all about the hour he had spent with the poor child at Nick's
place and about his extraordinary good nature in taking the two girls to
the play. Peter lunched in Calcutta Gardens, spending an hour there
which proved at first unexpectedly and, as seemed to him, unfairly
dismal. He knew from his own general perceptions, from what Biddy had
told him and from what he had heard Nick say in Balaklava Place, that
his aunt would have been wounded by her son's apostasy; but it was not
till he saw her that he appreciated the dark difference this young man's
behaviour had made in the outlook of his family. Evidently that
behaviour had sprung a dreadful leak in the great vessel of their hopes.
These were things no outsider could measure, and they were none of an
outsider's business; it was enough that Lady Agnes struck him really as
a woman who had received her death-blow. She looked ten years older; she
was white and haggard and tragic. Her eyes burned with a strange fitful
fire that prompted one to conclude her children had better look out for
her. When not filled with this unnatural flame they were suffused with
comfortless tears; and altogether the afflicted lady was, as he viewed
her, very bad, a case for anxiety. It was because he had known she would
be very bad that he had, in his kindness, called on her exactly in this
manner; but he recognised that to undertake to be kind to her in
proportion to her need might carry one very far. He was glad he had not
himself a wronged mad mother, and he wondered how Nick could bear the
burden of the home he had ruined. Apparently he didn't bear it very far,
but had taken final, convenient refuge in Rosedale Road.

Peter's judgement of his perverse cousin was considerably confused, and
not the less so for the consciousness that he was perhaps just now not
in the best state of mind for judging him at all. At the same time,
though he held in general that a man of sense has always warrant enough
in his sense for doing the particular thing he prefers, he could
scarcely help asking himself whether, in the exercise of a virile
freedom, it had been absolutely indispensable Nick should work such
domestic woe. He admitted indeed that that was an anomalous figure for
Nick, the worker of domestic woe. Then he saw that his aunt's
grievance--there came a moment, later, when she asserted as much--was
not quite what her recreant child, in Balaklava Place, had represented
it--with questionable taste perhaps--to a mocking actress; was not a
mere shocked quarrel with his adoption of a "low" career, or a horror,
the old-fashioned horror, of the _louches_ licences taken by artists
under pretext of being conscientious: the day for this was past, and
English society thought the brush and the fiddle as good as anything
else--with two or three exceptions. It was not what he had taken up but
what he had put down that made the sorry difference, and the tragedy
would have been equally great if he had become a wine-merchant or a
horse-dealer. Peter had gathered at first that Lady Agnes wouldn't trust
herself to speak directly of her trouble, and he had obeyed what he
supposed the best discretion in making no allusion to it. But a few
minutes before they rose from table she broke out, and when he
attempted to utter a word of mitigation there was something that went to
his heart in the way she returned: "Oh you don't know--you don't know!"
He felt Grace's eyes fixed on him at this instant in a mystery of
supplication, and was uncertain as to what she wanted--that he should
say something more to console her mother or should hurry away from the
subject. Grace looked old and plain and--he had thought on coming
in--rather cross, but she evidently wanted something. "You don't know,"
Lady Agnes repeated with a trembling voice, "you don't know." She had
pushed her chair a little away from her place; she held her
pocket-handkerchief pressed hard to her mouth, almost stuffed into it,
and her eyes were fixed on the floor. She made him aware he did
virtually know--know what towering piles of confidence and hope had been
dashed to the earth. Then she finished her sentence unexpectedly--"You
don't know what my life with my great husband was." Here on the other
hand Peter was slightly at fault--he didn't exactly see what her life
with her great husband had to do with it. What was clear to him,
however, was that they literally had looked for things all in the very
key of that greatness from Nick. It was not quite easy to see why this
had been the case--it had not been precisely Peter's own prefigurement.
Nick appeared to have had the faculty of planting that sort of
flattering faith in women; he had originally given Julia a tremendous
dose of it, though she had since shaken off the effects.

"Do you really think he would have done such great things, politically
speaking?" Peter risked. "Do you consider that the root of the matter
was so essentially in him?"

His hostess had a pause, looking at him rather hard. "I only think what
all his friends--all his father's friends--have thought. He was his
father's son after all. No young man ever had a finer training, and he
gave from the first repeated proof of the highest ability, the highest
ambition. See how he got in everywhere. Look at his first seat--look at
his second," Lady Agnes continued. "Look at what every one says at this
moment."

"Look at all the papers!" said Grace. "Did you ever hear him speak?" she
asked. And when Peter reminded her how he had spent his life in foreign
lands, shut out from such pleasures, she went on: "Well, you lost
something."

"It was very charming," said Lady Agnes quietly and poignantly.

"Of course he's charming, whatever he does," Peter returned. "He'll be a
charming artist."

"Oh God help us!" the poor lady groaned, rising quickly.

"He won't--that's the worst," Grace amended. "It isn't as if he'd do
things people would like, I've been to his place, and I never saw such a
horrid lot of things--not at all clever or pretty."

Yet her mother, at this, turned upon her with sudden asperity. "You know
nothing whatever about the matter!" Then she added for Peter that, as it
happened, her children did have a good deal of artistic taste: Grace was
the only one who was totally deficient in it. Biddy was very
clever--Biddy really might learn to do pretty things. And anything the
poor child could learn was now no more than her duty--there was so
little knowing what the future had in store for them all.

"You think too much of the future--you take terribly gloomy views," said
Peter, looking for his hat.

"What other views can one take when one's son has deliberately thrown
away a fortune?"

"Thrown one away? Do you mean through not marrying----?"

"I mean through killing by his perversity the best friend he ever had."

Peter stared a moment; then with laughter: "Ah but Julia isn't dead of
it!"

"I'm not talking of Julia," said his aunt with a good deal of majesty.
"Nick isn't mercenary, and I'm not complaining of that."

"She means Mr. Carteret," Grace explained with all her competence. "He'd
have done anything if Nick had stayed in the House."

"But he's not dead?"

"Charles Carteret's dying," said Lady Agnes--"his end's dreadfully near.
He has been a sort of providence to us--he was Sir Nicholas's second
self. But he won't put up with such insanity, such wickedness, and that
chapter's closed."

"You mean he has dropped Nick out of his will?"

"Cut him off utterly. He has given him notice."

"The old scoundrel!"--Peter couldn't keep this back. "But Nick will work
the better for that--he'll depend on himself."

"Yes, and whom shall we depend on?" Grace spoke up.

"Don't be vulgar, for God's sake!" her mother ejaculated with a certain
inconsequence.

"Oh leave Nick alone--he'll make a lot of money," Peter declared
cheerfully, following his two companions into the hall.

"I don't in the least care if he does or not," said Lady Agnes. "You
must come upstairs again--I've lots to say to you yet," she went on,
seeing him make for his hat. "You must arrange to come and dine with us
immediately; it's only because I've been so steeped in misery that I
didn't write to you the other day--directly after you had called. We
don't give parties, as you may imagine, but if you'll come just as we
are, for old acquaintance' sake--"

"Just with Nick--if Nick will come--and dear Biddy," Grace interposed.

"Nick must certainly come, as well as dear Biddy, whom I hoped so much
to find," Peter pronounced. "Because I'm going away--I don't know when
I, shall see them again."

"Wait with mamma. Biddy will come in now at any moment," Grace urged.

"You're going away?" said Lady Agnes, pausing at the foot of the stairs
and turning her white face upon him. Something in her voice showed she
had been struck by his own tone.

"I've had promotion and you must congratulate me. They're sending me out
as minister to a little hot hole in Central America--six thousand miles
away. I shall have to go rather soon."

"Oh I'm so glad!" Lady Agnes breathed. Still she paused at the foot of
the stair and still she gazed.

"How very delightful--it will lead straight off to all sorts of other
good things!" Grace a little coarsely commented.

"Oh I'm crawling up--I'm an excellency," Peter laughed.

"Then if you dine with us your excellency must have great people to meet
you."

"Nick and Biddy--they're great enough."

"Come upstairs--come upstairs," said Lady Agnes, turning quickly and
beginning to ascend.

"Wait for Biddy--I'm going out," Grace continued, extending her hand to
her kinsman. "I shall see you again--not that you care; but good-bye
now. Wait for Biddy," the girl repeated in a lower tone, fastening her
eyes on his with the same urgent mystifying gleam he thought he had
noted at luncheon.

"Oh I'll go and see her in Rosedale Road," he threw off.

"Do you mean to-day--now?"

"I don't know about to-day, but before I leave England."

"Well, she'll be in immediately," said Grace. "Good-bye to your
excellency."

"Come up, Peter--_please_ come up," called Lady Agnes from the top of
the stairs.

He mounted and when he found himself in the drawing-room with her and
the door closed she expressed her great interest in his fine prospects
and position, which she wished to hear all about. She rang for coffee
and indicated the seat he would find most comfortable: it shone before
him for a moment that she would tell him he might if he wished light a
cigar. For Peter had suddenly become restless--too restless to occupy a
comfortable chair; he seated himself in it only to jump up again, and he
went to the window, while he imparted to his hostess the very little he
knew about his post, on hearing a vehicle drive up to the door. A strong
light had just been thrown into his mind, and it grew stronger when,
looking out, he saw Grace Dormer issue from the house in a hat and a
jacket which had all the air of having been assumed with extraordinary
speed. Her jacket was unbuttoned and her gloves still dangling from the
hands with which she was settling her hat. The vehicle into which she
hastily sprang was a hansom-cab which had been summoned by the butler
from the doorstep and which rolled away with her after she had given an
address.

"Where's Grace going in such a hurry?" he asked of Lady Agnes; to which
she replied that she hadn't the least idea--her children, at the pass
they had all come to, knocked about as they liked.

Well, he sat down again; he stayed a quarter of an hour and then he
stayed longer, and during this time his appreciation of what she had in
her mind gathered force. She showed him that precious quantity clearly
enough, though she showed it by no clumsy, no voluntary arts. It looked
out of her sombre, conscious eyes and quavered in her preoccupied,
perfunctory tones. She took an extravagant interest in his future
proceedings, the probable succession of events in his career, the
different honours he would be likely to come in for, the salary attached
to his actual appointment, the salary attached to the appointments that
would follow--they would be sure to, wouldn't they?--and what he might
reasonably expect to save. Oh he must save--Lady Agnes was an advocate
of saving; and he must take tremendous pains and get on and be clever
and fiercely ambitious: he must make himself indispensable and rise to
the top. She was urgent and suggestive and sympathetic; she threw
herself into the vision of his achievements and emoluments as if to
appease a little the sore hunger with which Nick's treachery had left
her. This was touching to her nephew, who didn't remain unmoved even at
those more importunate moments when, as she fell into silence, fidgeting
feverishly with a morsel of fancy-work she had plucked from a table, her
whole presence became an intense, repressed appeal to him. What that
appeal would have been had it been uttered was: "Oh Peter, take little
Biddy; oh my dear young friend, understand your interests at the same
time that you understand mine; be kind and reasonable and clever; save
me all further anxiety and tribulation and accept my lovely, faultless
child from my hands."

That was what Lady Agnes had always meant, more or less, that was what
Grace had meant, and they meant it with singular lucidity on the present
occasion, Lady Agnes meant it so much that from one moment to another
he scarce knew what she might do; and Grace meant it so much that she
had rushed away in a hansom to fetch her sister from the studio. Grace,
however, was a fool, for Biddy certainly wouldn't come. The news of his
promotion had started them off, adding point to their idea of his being
an excellent match; bringing home to them sharply the sense that if he
were going away to strange countries he must take Biddy with him--that
something at all events must be settled about Biddy before he went. They
had suddenly begun to throb, poor things, with alarm at the ebbing
hours.

Strangely enough the perception of all this hadn't the effect of
throwing him on the defensive and still less that of making him wish to
bolt. When once he had made sure what was in the air he recognised a
propriety, a real felicity in it; couldn't deny that he was in certain
ways a good match, since it was quite probable he would go far; and was
even generous enough--as he had no fear of being materially dragged to
the altar--to enter into the conception that he might offer some balm to
a mother who had had a horrid disappointment. The feasibility of
marrying Biddy was not exactly augmented by the idea that his doing so
would be a great offset to what Nick had made Lady Agnes suffer; but at
least Peter didn't dislike his strenuous aunt so much as to wish to
punish her for her nature. He was not afraid of her, whatever she might
do; and though unable to grasp the practical relevancy of Biddy's being
produced on the instant was willing to linger half an hour on the chance
of successful production.

There was meanwhile, moreover, a certain contagion in Lady Agnes's
appeal--it made him appeal sensibly to himself, since indeed, as it is
time to say, the glass of our young man's spirit had been polished for
that reflexion. It was only at this moment really that he became
inwardly candid. While making up his mind that his only safety was in
flight and taking the strong measure of a request for help toward it, he
was yet very conscious that another and probably still more effectual
safeguard--especially if the two should be conjoined--lay in the hollow
of his hand. His sister's words in Paris had come back to him and had
seemed still wiser than when uttered: "She'll save you disappointments;
you'd know the worst that can happen to you, and it wouldn't be bad."
Julia had put it into a nutshell--Biddy would probably save him
disappointments. And then she was--well, she was Biddy. Peter knew
better what that was since the hour he had spent with her in Rosedale
Road. But he had brushed away the sense of it, though aware that in
doing so he took only half-measures and was even guilty of a sort of
fraud upon himself. If he was sincere in wishing to put a gulf between
his future and that sad expanse of his past and present over which
Miriam had cast her shadow there was a very simple way to do so. He had
dodged this way, dishonestly fixing on another which, taken alone, was
far from being so good; but Lady Agnes brought him back to it. She held
him in well-nigh confused contemplation of it, during which the safety,
as Julia had called it, of the remedy wrought upon him as he wouldn't
have believed beforehand, and not least to the effect of sweetening, of
prettily colouring, the pill. It would be simple and it would deal with
all his problems; it would put an end to all alternatives, which, as
alternatives were otherwise putting an end to him, would be an excellent
thing. It would settle the whole question of his future, and it was high
time this should be settled.

Peter took two cups of coffee while he made out his future with Lady
Agnes, but though he drank them slowly he had finished them before Biddy
turned up. He stayed three-quarters of an hour, saying to himself she
wouldn't come--why should she come? Lady Agnes stooped to no avowal; she
really stooped, so far as bald words went, to no part of the business;
but she made him fix the next day save one for coming to dinner, and her
repeated declaration that there would be no one else, not another
creature but themselves, had almost the force of the supplied form for a
promise to pay. In giving his word that he would come without fail, and
not write the next day to throw them over for some function he should
choose to dub obligatory, he felt quite as if he were putting his name
to such a document. He went away at half-past three; Biddy of course
hadn't come, and he had been sure she wouldn't. He couldn't imagine what
Grace's idea had been, nor what pretext she had put forward to her
sister. Whatever these things Biddy had seen through them and hated
them. Peter could but like her the more for that.

Henry James