The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

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For several days Peter Sherringham had business in hand which left him neither time nor freedom of mind to occupy himself actively with the ladies of the Hôtel de la Garonne. There were moments when they brushed across his memory, but their passage was rapid and not lighted with complacent attention; for he shrank from bringing to the proof the question of whether Miriam would be an interest or only a bore. She had left him after their second meeting with a quickened sympathy, but in the course of a few hours that flame had burned dim. Like most other men he was a mixture of impulse and reflexion, but was peculiar in this, that thinking things over almost always made him think less conveniently. He found illusions necessary, so that in order to keep an adequate number going he often forbade himself any excess of that exercise. Mrs. Rooth and her daughter were there and could certainly be trusted to make themselves felt. He was conscious of their anxiety and their calculations as of a frequent oppression, and knew that whatever results might ensue he should have to do the costly thing for them. An idea of tenacity, of worrying feminine duration, associated itself with their presence; he would have assented with a silent nod to the proposition — enunciated by Gabriel Nash — that he was saddled with them. Remedies hovered before him, but these figured also at the same time as complications; ranging vaguely from the expenditure of money to the discovery that he was in love. This latter accident would be particularly tedious; he had a full perception of the arts by which the girl’s mother might succeed in making it so. It wouldn’t be a compensation for trouble, but a trouble which in itself would require compensations. Would that balm spring from the spectacle of the young lady’s genius? The genius would have to be very great to justify a rising young diplomatist in making a fool of himself.

With the excuse of pressing work he put off Miss Rooth from day to day, and from day to day he expected to hear her knock at his door. It would be time enough when they ran him to earth again; and he was unable to see how after all he could serve them even then. He had proposed impetuously a course of the theatres; but that would be a considerable personal effort now that the summer was about to begin — a free bid for bad air, stale pieces, and tired actors. When, however, more than a week had elapsed without a reminder of his neglected promise it came over him that he must himself in honour give a sign. There was a delicacy in such unexpected and such difficult discretion — he was touched by being let alone. The flurry of work at the embassy was over and he had time to ask himself what in especial he should do. He wanted something definite to suggest before communicating with the Hôtel de la Garonne.

As a consequence of this speculation he went back to Madame Carré to ask her to reconsider her stern judgement and give the young English lady — to oblige him — a dozen lessons of the sort she knew so well how to give. He was aware that this request scarcely stood on its feet; for in the first place Madame Carré never reconsidered when once she had got her impression, and in the second never wasted herself on subjects whom nature had not formed to do her honour. He knew his asking her to strain a point to please him would give her a false idea — save that for that matter she had it already — of his relations, actual or prospective, with the girl; but he decided he needn’t care for this, since Miriam herself probably wouldn’t care. What he had mainly in mind was to say to the old actress that she had been mistaken — the jeune Anglaise wasn’t such a grue. This would take some courage, but it would also add to the amusement of his visit.

He found her at home, but as soon as he had expressed his conviction she began: “Oh, your jeune Anglaise, I know a great deal more about her than you! She has been back to see me twice; she doesn’t go the longest way round. She charges me like a grenadier and asks me to give her — guess a little what! — private recitations all to herself. If she doesn’t succeed it won’t be for want of knowing how to thump at doors. The other day when I came in she was waiting for me; she had been there two hours. My private recitations — have you an idea what people pay for them?”

“Between artists, you know, there are easier conditions,” Sherringham laughed.

“How do I know if she’s an artist? She won’t open her mouth to me; what she wants is to make me say things to her. She does make me — I don’t know how — and she sits there gaping at me with her big eyes. They look like open pockets!”

“I daresay she’ll profit by it,” said Sherringham.

“I daresay you will! Her face is stupid while she watches me, and when she has tired me out she simply walks away. However, as she comes back —!”

Madame Carré paused a moment, listened and then cried: “Didn’t I tell you?”

Sherringham heard a parley of voices in the little antechamber, and the next moment the door was pushed open and Miriam Rooth bounded into the room. She was flushed and breathless, without a smile, very direct.

“Will you hear me today? I know four things,” she immediately broke out. Then seeing Sherringham she added in the same brisk, earnest tone, as if the matter were of the highest importance: “Oh how d’ye do? I’m very glad you’re here.” She said nothing else to him than this, appealed to him in no way, made no allusion to his having neglected her, but addressed herself to Madame Carré as if he had not been there; making no excuses and using no flattery; taking rather a tone of equal authority — all as if the famous artist had an obvious duty toward her. This was another variation Peter thought; it differed from each of the attitudes in which he had previously seen her. It came over him suddenly that so far from there being any question of her having the histrionic nature she simply had it in such perfection that she was always acting; that her existence was a series of parts assumed for the moment, each changed for the next, before the perpetual mirror of some curiosity or admiration or wonder — some spectatorship that she perceived or imagined in the people about her. Interested as he had ever been in the profession of which she was potentially an ornament, this idea startled him by its novelty and even lent, on the spot, a formidable, a really appalling character to Miriam Rooth. It struck him abruptly that a woman whose only being was to “make believe,” to make believe she had any and every being you might like and that would serve a purpose and produce a certain effect, and whose identity resided in the continuity of her personations, so that she had no moral privacy, as he phrased it to himself, but lived in a high wind of exhibition, of figuration — such a woman was a kind of monster in whom of necessity there would be nothing to “be fond” of, because there would be nothing to take hold of. He felt for a moment how simple he had been not to have achieved before this analysis of the actress. The girl’s very face made it vivid to him now — the discovery that she positively had no countenance of her own, but only the countenance of the occasion, a sequence, a variety — capable possibly of becoming immense — of representative movements. She was always trying them, practising them, for her amusement or profit, jumping from one to the other and extending her range; and this would doubtless be her occupation more and more as she acquired ease and confidence. The expression that came nearest belonging to her, as it were, was the one that came nearest being a blank — an air of inanity when she forgot herself in some act of sincere attention. Then her eye was heavy and her mouth betrayed a commonness; though it was perhaps just at such a moment that the fine line of her head told most. She had looked slightly bête even when Sherringham, on their first meeting at Madame Carré‘s, said to Nick Dormer that she was the image of the Tragic Muse.

Now, at any rate, he seemed to see that she might do what she liked with her face. It was an elastic substance, an element of gutta-percha, like the flexibility of the gymnast, the lady at the music-hall who is shot from the mouth of a cannon. He winced a little at this coarser view of the actress; he had somehow always looked more poetically at that priestess of art. Yet what was she, the priestess, when one came to think of it, but a female gymnast, a mountebank at higher wages? She didn’t literally hang by her heels from a trapeze and hold a fat man in her teeth, but she made the same use of her tongue, of her eyes, of the imitative trick, that her muscular sister made of leg and jaw. It was an odd circumstance that Miss Rooth’s face seemed to him today a finer instrument than old Madame Carré‘s. It was doubtless that the girl’s was fresh and strong and had a future in it, while poor Madame Carré‘s was worn and weary and had only a past.

The old woman said something, half in jest, half in real resentment, about the brutality of youth while Miriam went to a mirror and quickly took off her hat, patting and arranging her hair as a preliminary to making herself heard. Sherringham saw with surprise and amusement that the keen Frenchwoman, who had in her long life exhausted every adroitness, was in a manner helpless and coerced, obliging all in spite of herself. Her young friend had taken but a few days and a couple of visits to become a successful force; she had imposed herself, and Madame Carré, while she laughed — yet looked terrible too, with such high artifices of eye and gesture — was reduced to the last line of defence; that of pronouncing her coarse and clumsy, saying she might knock her down, but that this proved nothing. She spoke jestingly enough not to offend, but her manner betrayed the irritation of an intelligent woman who at an advanced age found herself for the first time failing to understand. What she didn’t understand was the kind of social product thus presented to her by Gabriel Nash; and this suggested to Sherringham that the jeune Anglaise was perhaps indeed rare, a new type, as Madame Carré must have seen innumerable varieties. He saw the girl was perfectly prepared to be abused and that her indifference to what might be thought of her discretion was a proof of life, health, and spirit, the insolence of conscious resources.

When she had given herself a touch at the glass she turned round, with a rapid “Ecoutez maintenant!” and stood leaning a moment — slightly lowered and inclined backward, her hands behind her and supporting her — on the console before the mirror. She waited an instant, turning her eyes from one of her companions to the other as to take possession of them — an eminently conscious, intentional proceeding, which made Sherringham ask himself what had become of her former terror and if that and her tears had all been a comedy: after which, abruptly straightening herself, she began to repeat a short French poem, an ingenious thing of the day, that she had induced Madame Carré to say over to her. She had learned it, practised it, rehearsed it to her mother, and had now been childishly eager to show what she could do with it. What she mainly did was to reproduce with a crude fidelity, but in extraordinary detail, the intonations, the personal quavers and cadences of her model.

“How bad you make me seem to myself and if I were you how much better I should say it!” was Madame Carré‘s first criticism.

Miriam allowed her, however, little time to develop it, for she broke out, at the shortest intervals, with the several other specimens of verse to which the old actress had handed her the key. They were all fine lyrics, of tender or ironic intention, by contemporary poets, but depending for effect on taste and art, a mastery of the rare shade and the right touch, in the interpreter. Miriam had gobbled them up, and she gave them forth in the same way as the first, with close, rude, audacious mimicry. There was a moment for Sherringham when it might have been feared their hostess would see in the performance a designed burlesque of her manner, her airs and graces, her celebrated simpers and grimaces, so extravagant did it all cause these refinements to appear. When it was over the old woman said, “Should you like now to hear how you do?” and, without waiting for an answer, phrased and trilled the last of the pieces, from beginning to end, exactly as her visitor had done, making this imitation of an imitation the drollest thing conceivable. If she had suffered from the sound of the girl’s echo it was a perfect revenge. Miriam had dropped on a sofa, exhausted, and she stared at first, flushed and wild; then she frankly gave way to pleasure, to interest and large laughter. She said afterwards, to defend herself, that the verses in question, and indeed all those she had recited, were of the most difficult sort: you had to do them; they didn’t do themselves — they were things in which the gros moyens were of no avail.

“Ah my poor child, your means are all gros moyens; you appear to have no others,” Madame Carré replied. “You do what you can, but there are people like that; it’s the way they’re made. They can never come nearer to fine truth, to the just indication; shades don’t exist for them, they don’t see certain differences. It was to show you a difference that I repeated that thing as you repeat it, as you represent my doing it. If you’re struck with the little the two ways have in common so much the better. But you seem to me terribly to alourdir everything you touch.”

Peter read into this judgement a deep irritation — Miriam clearly set the teeth of her instructress on edge. She acted on her nerves, was made up of roughnesses and thicknesses unknown hitherto to her fine, free-playing finger-tips. This exasperation, however, was a degree of flattery; it was neither indifference nor simple contempt; it acknowledged a mystifying reality in the jeune Anglaise and even a shade of importance. The latter remarked, serenely enough, that the things she wanted most to do were just those that were not for the gros moyens, the vulgar obvious dodges, the starts and shouts that any one could think of and that the gros public liked. She wanted to do what was most difficult, and to plunge into it from the first; and she explained as if it were a discovery of her own that there were two kinds of scenes and speeches: those which acted themselves, of which the treatment was plain, the only way, so that you had just to take it; and those open to interpretation, with which you had to fight every step, rendering, arranging, doing the thing according to your idea. Some of the most effective passages and the most celebrated and admired, like the frenzy of Juliet with her potion, were of the former sort; but it was the others she liked best.

Madame Carré received this revelation good-naturedly enough, considering its want of freshness, and only laughed at the young lady for looking so nobly patronising while she gave it. Her laughter appeared partly addressed to the good faith with which Miriam described herself as preponderantly interested in the subtler problems of her art. Sherringham was charmed with the girl’s pluck — if it was pluck and not mere density; the stout patience with which she submitted, for a purpose, to the old woman’s rough usage. He wanted to take her away, to give her a friendly caution, to advise her not to become a bore, not to expose herself. But she held up her beautiful head as to show how little she cared at present for any exposure, and that (it was half coarseness — Madame Carré was so far right — and half fortitude) she had no intention of coming away so long as; there was anything to be picked up. She sat and still she sat, challenging her hostess with every sort of question — some reasonable, some ingenious, some strangely futile and some highly indiscreet; but all with the effect that, contrary to Peter’s expectation, their distinguished friend warmed to the work of answering and explaining, became interested, was content to keep her and to talk. Yes, she took her ease; she relieved herself, with the rare cynicism of the artist — all the crudity, the irony and intensity of a discussion of esoteric things — of personal mysteries, of methods and secrets. It was the oddest hour our young man had ever spent, even in the course of investigations which had often led him into the cuisine, the distillery or back shop, of the admired profession. He got up several times to come away; then he remained, partly in order not to leave Miriam alone with her terrible initiatress, partly because he was both amused and edified, and partly because Madame Carré held him by the appeal of her sharp, confidential, old eyes, addressing her talk to himself, with Miriam but a pretext and subject, a vile illustration. She undressed this young lady, as it were, from head to foot, turned her inside out, weighed and measured and sounded her: it was all, for Sherringham, a new revelation of the point to which, in her profession and nation, an intelligence of the business, a ferocious analysis, had been carried and a special vocabulary developed. What struck him above all was the way she knew her grounds and reasons, so that everything was sharp and clear in her mind and lay under her hand. If she had rare perceptions she had traced them to their source; she could give an account of what she did; she knew perfectly why, could explain it, defend it, amplify it, fight for it: all of which was an intellectual joy to her, allowing her a chance to abound and insist and discriminate. There was a kind of cruelty or at least of hardness in it all, to poor Peter’s shy English sense, that sense which can never really reconcile itself to any question of method and form, and has extraneous sentiments to “square,” to pacify with compromises and superficialities, the general plea for innocence in everything and often the flagrant proof of it. In theory there was nothing he valued more than just such a logical passion as Madame Carré‘s, but it was apt in fact, when he found himself at close quarters with it, to appear an ado about nothing.

If the old woman was hard it was not that many of her present conclusions about the jeune Anglaise were not indulgent, but that she had a vision of the great manner, of right and wrong, of the just and the false, so high and religious that the individual was nothing before it — a prompt and easy sacrifice. It made our friend uncomfortable, as he had been made uncomfortable by certain feuilletons, reviews of the theatres in the Paris newspapers, which he was committed to thinking important but of which, when they were very good, he was rather ashamed. When they were very good, that is when they were very thorough, they were very personal, as was inevitable in dealing with the most personal of the arts: they went into details; they put the dots on the i’s; they discussed impartially the qualities of appearance, the physical gifts of the poor aspirant, finding them in some cases reprehensibly inadequate Peter could never rid himself of a dislike to these pronouncements; in the case of the actresses especially they struck him as brutal and offensive — unmanly as launched by an ensconced, moustachioed critic over a cigar. At the same time he was aware of the dilemma (he hated it; it made him blush still more) in which his objection lodged him. If one was right in caring for the actor’s art one ought to have been interested in every honest judgement of it, which, given the peculiar conditions, would be useful in proportion as it should be free. If the criticism that recognised frankly these conditions seemed an inferior or an unholy thing, then what was to be said for the art itself? What an implication, if the criticism was tolerable only so long as it was worthless — so long as it remained vague and timid! This was a knot Peter had never straightened out: he contented himself with feeling that there was no reason a theatrical critic shouldn’t be a gentleman, at the same time that he often dubbed it an odious trade, which no gentleman could possibly follow. The best of the fraternity, so conspicuous in Paris, were those who didn’t follow it — those who, while pretending to write about the stage, wrote about everything else.

It was as if Madame Carré, in pursuance of her inflamed sense that the art was everything and the individual nothing save as he happened to serve it, had said: “Well, if she will have it she shall; she shall know what she’s in for, what I went through, battered and broken in as we all have been — all who are worthy, who have had the honour. She shall know the real point of view.” It was as if she were still beset with Mrs. Rooth’s twaddle and muddle, her hypocrisy, her idiotic scruples — something she felt all need to belabour, to trample on. Miriam took it all as a bath, a baptism, with shuddering joy and gleeful splashes; staring, wondering, sometimes blushing and failing to follow, but not shrinking nor wounded; laughing, when convicted, at her own expense and feeling evidently that this at last was the high cold air of art, an initiation, a discipline that nothing could undo. Sherringham said he would see her home — he wanted to talk to her and she must walk away with him. “And it’s understood then she may come back,” he added to Madame Carré. “It’s my affair of course. You’ll take an interest in her for a month or two; she’ll sit at your feet.”

The old actress had an admirable shrug. “Oh I’ll knock her about — she seems stout enough!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38