The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XIX

When he got into the street he looked about him for a cab, but was obliged to walk some distance before encountering one. In this little interval he saw no reason to modify the determination he had formed in descending the steep staircase of the Hôtel de la Garonne; indeed the desire prompting it only quickened his pace. He had an hour to spare and would also go to see Madame Carré. If Miriam and her companion had proceeded to the Rue de Constantinople on foot he would probably reach the house as soon as they. It was all quite logical: he was eager to see Miriam — that was natural enough; and he had admitted to Mrs. Rooth that he was keen on the subject of Mrs. Lovick’s theatrical brother, in whom such effective aid might perhaps reside. To catch Miriam really revealing herself to the old actress after the jump she believed herself to have taken — since that was her errand — would be a very happy stroke, the thought of which made her benefactor impatient. He presently found his cab and, as he bounded in, bade the coachman drive fast. He learned from Madame Carré‘s portress that her illustrious locataire was at home and that a lady and a gentleman had gone up some time before.

In the little antechamber, after his admission, he heard a high voice come from the salon and, stopping a moment to listen, noted that Miriam was already launched in a recitation. He was able to make out the words, all the more that before he could prevent the movement the maid-servant who had led him in had already opened the door of the room — one of the leaves of it, there being, as in most French doors, two of these — before which, within, a heavy curtain was suspended. Miriam was in the act of rolling out some speech from the English poetic drama —

“For I am sick and capable of fears,
Oppressed with wrongs and therefore full of fears.”

He recognised one of the great tirades of Shakespeare’s Constance and saw she had just begun the magnificent scene at the beginning of the third act of King John, in which the passionate, injured mother and widow sweeps in wild organ-tones the entire scale of her irony and wrath. The curtain concealed him and he lurked three minutes after he had motioned to the femme de chambre to retire on tiptoe. The trio in the salon, absorbed in the performance, had apparently not heard his entrance or the opening of the door, which was covered by the girl’s splendid declamation. Peter listened intently, arrested by the spirit with which she attacked her formidable verses. He had needed to hear her set afloat but a dozen of them to measure the long stride she had taken in his absence; they assured him she had leaped into possession of her means. He remained where he was till she arrived at

“Then speak again; not all thy former tale,
But this one word, whether thy tale be true.”

This apostrophe, briefly responded to in another voice, gave him time quickly to raise the curtain and show himself, passing into the room with a “Go on, go on!” and a gesture earnestly deprecating a stop.

Miriam, in the full swing of her part, paused but for an instant and let herself ring out again, while Peter sank into the nearest chair and she fixed him with her illumined eyes, that is, with those of the raving Constance. Madame Carré, buried in a chair, kissed her hand to him, and a young man who, near the girl, stood giving the cue, stared at him over the top of a little book. “Admirable, magnificent, go on,” Sherringham repeated —“go on to the end of the scene, do it all!” Miriam’s colour rose, yet he as quickly felt that she had no personal emotion in seeing him again; the cold passion of art had perched on her banner and she listened to herself with an ear as vigilant as if she had been a Paganini drawing a fiddle-bow. This effect deepened as she went on, rising and rising to the great occasion, moving with extraordinary ease and in the largest, clearest style at the dizzy height of her idea. That she had an idea was visible enough, and that the whole thing was very different from all Sherringham had hitherto heard her attempt. It belonged quite to another class of effort; she was now the finished statue lifted from the ground to its pedestal. It was as if the sun of her talent had risen above the hills and she knew she was moving and would always move in its guiding light. This conviction was the one artless thing that glimmered like a young joy through the tragic mask of Constance, and Sherringham’s heart beat faster as he caught it in her face. It only showed her as more intelligent, and yet there had been a time when he thought her stupid! Masterful the whole spirit in which she carried the scene, making him cry to himself from point to point, “How she feels it, sees it and really ‘renders’ it!”

He looked now and again at Madame Carré and saw she had in her lap an open book, apparently a French prose version, brought by her visitors, of the play; but she never either glanced at him or at the volume: she only sat screwing into the girl her hard, bright eyes, polished by experience like fine old brasses. The young man uttering the lines of the other speakers was attentive in another degree; he followed Miriam, in his own copy, to keep sure of the cue; but he was elated and expressive, was evidently even surprised; he coloured and smiled, and when he extended his hand to assist Constance to rise, after the performer, acting out her text, had seated herself grandly on “the huge firm earth,” he bowed over her as obsequiously as if she had been his veritable sovereign. He was a good-looking young man, tall, well-proportioned, straight-featured and fair, of whom manifestly the first thing to be said on any occasion was that he had remarkably the stamp of a gentleman. He earned this appearance, which proved inveterate and importunate, to a point that was almost a denial of its spirit: so prompt the question of whether it could be in good taste to wear any character, even that particular one, so much on one’s sleeve. It was literally on his sleeve that this young man partly wore his own; for it resided considerably in his garments, and in especial in a certain close-fitting dark blue frock-coat, a miracle of a fit, which moulded his juvenility just enough and not too much, and constituted, as Sherringham was destined to perceive later, his perpetual uniform or badge. It was not till afterwards that Peter began to feel exasperated by Basil Dashwood’s “type”— the young stranger was of course Basil Dashwood — and even by his blue frock-coat, the recurrent, unvarying, imperturbable good form of his aspect. This unprofessional air ended by striking the observer as the very profession he had adopted, and was indeed, so far as had as yet been indicated, his mimetic capital, his main qualification for the stage.

The ample and powerful manner in which Miriam handled her scene produced its full impression, the art with which she surmounted its difficulties, the liberality with which she met its great demand upon the voice, and the variety of expression that she threw into a torrent of objurgation. It was a real composition, studded with passages that called a suppressed tribute to the lips and seeming to show that a talent capable of such an exhibition was capable of anything.

“But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and Fortune join’d to make thee great:
Of Nature’s gifts thou mayst with lilies boast,
And with the half-blown rose.”

As the girl turned to her imagined child with this exquisite apostrophe — she addressed Mr. Dashwood as if he were playing Arthur, and he lowered his book, dropped his head and his eyes and looked handsome and ingenuous — she opened at a stroke to Sherringham’s vision a prospect that they would yet see her express tenderness better even than anything else. Her voice was enchanting in these lines, and the beauty of her performance was that though she uttered the full fury of the part she missed none of its poetry.

“Where did she get hold of that — where did she get hold of that?” Peter wondered while his whole sense vibrated. “She hadn’t got hold of it when I went away.” And the assurance flowed over him again that she had found the key to her box of treasures. In the summer, during their weeks of frequent meeting, she had only fumbled with the lock. One October day, while he was away, the key had slipped in, had fitted, or her finger at last had touched the right spring and the capricious casket had flown open.

It was during the present solemnity that, excited by the way she came out and with a hundred stirred ideas about her wheeling through his mind, he was for the first time and most vividly visited by a perception that ended by becoming frequent with him — that of the perfect presence of mind, unconfused, unhurried by emotion, that any artistic performance requires and that all, whatever the instrument, require in exactly the same degree: the application, in other words, clear and calculated, crystal-firm as it were, of the idea conceived in the glow of experience, of suffering, of joy. He was afterwards often to talk of this with Miriam, who, however, was never to be able to present him with a neat theory of the subject. She had no knowledge that it was publicly discussed; she only ranged herself in practice on the side of those who hold that at the moment of production the artist can’t too much have his wits about him. When Peter named to her the opinion of those maintaining that at such a crisis the office of attention ceases to be filled she stared with surprise and then broke out: “Ah the poor idiots!” She eventually became, in her judgements, in impatience and the expression of contempt, very free and absolutely irreverent.

“What a splendid scolding!” the new visitor exclaimed when, on the entrance of the Pope’s legate, her companion closed the book on the scene. Peter pressed his lips to Madame Carré‘s finger-tips; the old actress got up and held out her arms to Miriam. The girl never took her eyes off Sherringham while she passed into that lady’s embrace and remained there. They were full of their usual sombre fire, and it was always the case that they expressed too much anything they could express at all; but they were not defiant nor even triumphant now — they were only deeply explicative. They seemed to say, “That’s the sort of thing I meant; that’s what I had in mind when I asked you to try to do something for me.” Madame Carré folded her pupil to her bosom, holding her there as the old marquise in a comédie de moeurs might in the last scene have held her god-daughter the ingénue.

“Have you got me an engagement?”— the young woman then appealed eagerly to her friend. “Yes, he has done something splendid for me,” she went on to Madame Carré, resting her hand caressingly on one of the actress’s while the old woman discoursed with Mr. Dashwood, who was telling her in very pretty French that he was tremendously excited about Miss Rooth. Madame Carré looked at him as if she wondered how he appeared when he was calm and how, as a dramatic artist, he expressed that condition.

“Yes, yes, something splendid, for a beginning,” Peter answered radiantly, recklessly; feeling now only that he would say anything and do anything to please her. He spent on the spot, in imagination, his last penny.

“It’s such a pity you couldn’t follow it; you’d have liked it so much better,” Mr. Dashwood observed to their hostess.

“Couldn’t follow it? Do you take me for une sotte?” the celebrated artist cried. “I suspect I followed it de plus près que vous, monsieur!”

“Ah you see the language is so awfully fine,” Basil Dashwood replied, looking at his shoes.

“The language? Why she rails like a fish-wife. Is that what you call language? Ours is another business.”

“If you understood, if you understood, you’d see all the greatness of it,” Miriam declared. And then in another tone: “Such delicious expressions!”

On dit que c’est très-fort. But who can tell if you really say it?” Madame Carré demanded.

“Ah, par exemple, I can!” Sherringham answered.

“Oh you — you’re a Frenchman.”

“Couldn’t he make it out if he weren’t?” asked Basil Dashwood.

The old woman shrugged her shoulders. “He wouldn’t know.”

“That’s flattering to me.”

“Oh you — don’t you pretend to complain,” Madame Carré said. “I prefer our imprecations — those of Camille,” she went on. “They have the beauty des plus belles choses.”

“I can say them too,” Miriam broke in.

Insolente!” smiled Madame Carré. “Camille doesn’t squat down on the floor in the middle of them.

“For grief is proud and makes his owner stoop.
To me and to the state of my great grief
Let kings assemble,”

Miriam quickly declaimed. “Ah if you don’t feel the way she makes a throne of it!”

“It’s really tremendously fine, chère madame,” Sherringham said. “There’s nothing like it.”

Vous êtes insupportables,” the old woman answered. “Stay with us. I’ll teach you Phèdre.”

“Ah Phædra, Phædra!” Basil Dashwood vaguely ejaculated, looking more gentlemanly than ever.

“You’ve learned all I’ve taught you, but where the devil have you learned what I haven’t?” Madame Carré went on.

“I’ve worked — I have; you’d call it work — all through the bright, late summer, all through the hot, dull, empty days. I’ve battered down the door — I did hear it crash one day. But I’m not so very good yet. I’m only in the right direction.”

Malicieuse!” growled Madame Carré.

“Oh I can beat that,” the girl went on.

“Did you wake up one morning and find you had grown a pair of wings?” Peter asked. “Because that’s what the difference amounts to — you really soar. Moreover, you’re an angel,” he added, charmed with her unexpectedness, the good nature of her forbearance to reproach him for not having written to her. And it seemed to him privately that she was angelic when in answer to this she said ever so blandly:

“You know you read King John with me before you went away. I thought over immensely what you said. I didn’t understand it much at the time — I was so stupid. But it all came to me later.”

“I wish you could see yourself,” Peter returned.

“My dear fellow, I do. What sort of a dunce do you take me for? I didn’t miss a vibration of my voice, a fold of my robe.”

“Well, I didn’t see you troubling about it,” Peter handsomely insisted.

“No one ever will. Do you think I’d ever show it?”

Ars celare artem,” Basil Dashwood jocosely dropped.

“You must first have the art to hide,” said Sherringham, wondering a little why Miriam didn’t introduce her young friend to him. She was, however, both then and later perfectly neglectful of such cares, never thinking, never minding how other people got on together. When she found they didn’t get on she jeered at them: that was the nearest she came to arranging for them. Our young man noted in her from the moment she felt her strength an immense increase of this good-humoured inattention to detail — all detail save that of her work, to which she was ready to sacrifice holocausts of feelings when the feelings were other people’s. This conferred on her a large profanity, an absence of ceremony as to her social relations, which was both amusing because it suggested that she would take what she gave, and formidable because it was inconvenient and you mightn’t care to give what she would take.

“If you haven’t any art it’s not quite the same as if you didn’t hide it, is it?” Basil Dashwood ingeniously threw out.

“That’s right — say one of your clever things!” Miriam sweetly responded.

“You’re always acting,” he declared in English and with a simple-minded laugh, while Sherringham remained struck with his expressing just what he himself had felt weeks before.

“And when you’ve shown them your fish-wife, to your public de là-bas, what will you do next?” asked Madame Carré.

“I’ll do Juliet — I’ll do Cleopatra.”

“Rather a big bill, isn’t it?” Mr. Dashwood volunteered to Sherringham in a friendly but discriminating manner.

“Constance and Juliet — take care you don’t mix them,” said Sherringham.

“I want to be various. You once told me I had a hundred characters,” Miriam returned.

“Ah, vous en êtes là?” cried the old actress. “You may have a hundred characters, but you’ve only three plays. I’m told that’s all there are in English.”

Miriam, admirably indifferent to this charge, appealed to Peter. “What arrangements have you made? What do the people want?”

“The people at the theatre?”

“I’m afraid they don’t want King John, and I don’t believe they hunger for Antony and Cleopatra,” Basil Dashwood suggested. “Ships and sieges and armies and pyramids, you know: we mustn’t be too heavy.”

“Oh I hate scenery!” the girl sighed.

Elle est superbe,” said Madame Carré. “You must put those pieces on the stage: how will you do it?”

“Oh we know how to get up a play in London, Madame Carré"— Mr. Dashwood was all geniality. “They put money on it, you know.”

“On it? But what do they put in it? Who’ll interpret them? Who’ll manage a style like that — the style of which the rhapsodies she has just repeated are a specimen? Whom have you got that one has ever heard of?”

“Oh you’ll hear of a good deal when once she gets started,” Dashwood cheerfully contended.

Madame Carré looked at him a moment; then, “I feel that you’ll become very bad,” she said to Miriam. “I’m glad I shan’t see it.”

“People will do things for me — I’ll make them,” the girl declared. “I’ll stir them up so that they’ll have ideas.”

“What people, pray?”

“Ah terrible woman!” Peter theatrically groaned.

“We translate your pieces — there will be plenty of parts,” Basil Dashwood said.

“Why then go out of the door to come in at the window? — especially if you smash it! An English arrangement of a French piece is a pretty woman with her back turned.”

“Do you really want to keep her?” Sherringham asked of Madame Carré— quite as if thinking for a moment that this after all might be possible.

She bent her strange eyes on him. “No, you’re all too queer together. We couldn’t be bothered with you and you’re not worth it.”

“I’m glad it’s ‘together’ that we’re queer then — we can console each other.”

“If you only would; but you don’t seem to! In short I don’t understand you — I give you up. But it doesn’t matter,” said the old woman wearily, “for the theatre’s dead and even you, ma toute-belle, won’t bring it to life. Everything’s going from bad to worse, and I don’t care what becomes of you. You wouldn’t understand us here and they won’t understand you there, and everything’s impossible, and no one’s a whit the wiser, and it’s not of the least consequence. Only when you raise your arms lift them just a little higher,” Madame Carré added.

“My mother will be happier chez nous” said Miriam, throwing her arms straight up and giving them a noble tragic movement.

“You won’t be in the least in the right path till your mother’s in despair.”

“Well, perhaps we can bring that about even in London,” Sherringham patiently laughed.

“Dear Mrs. Rooth — she’s great fun,” Mr. Dashwood as imperturbably dropped.

Miriam transferred the dark weight of her gaze to him as if she were practising. “You won’t upset her, at any rate.” Then she stood with her beautiful and fatal mask before her hostess. “I want to do the modern too. I want to do le drame, with intense realistic effects.”

“And do you want to look like the portico of the Madeleine when it’s draped for a funeral?” her instructress mocked. “Never, never. I don’t believe you’re various: that’s not the way I see you. You’re pure tragedy, with de grands éclats de voix in the great style, or you’re nothing.”

“Be beautiful — be only that,” Peter urged with high interest. “Be only what you can be so well — something that one may turn to for a glimpse of perfection, to lift one out of all the vulgarities of the day.”

Thus apostrophised the girl broke out with one of the speeches of Racine’s Phædra, hushing her companions on the instant. “You’ll be the English Rachel,” said Basil Dashwood when she stopped.

“Acting in French!” Madame Carré amended. “I don’t believe in an English Rachel.”

“I shall have to work it out, what I shall be,” Miriam concluded with a rich pensive effect.

“You’re in wonderfully good form today,” Sherringham said to her; his appreciation revealing a personal subjection he was unable to conceal from his companions, much as he wished it.

“I really mean to do everything.”

“Very well; after all Garrick did.”

“Then I shall be the Garrick of my sex.”

“There’s a very clever author doing something for me; I should like you to see it,” said Basil Dashwood, addressing himself equally to Miriam and to her diplomatic friend.

“Ah if you’ve very clever authors ——!” And Madame Carré spun the sound to the finest satiric thread.

“I shall be very happy to see it,” Peter returned.

This response was so benevolent that Basil Dashwood presently began: “May I ask you at what theatre you’ve made arrangements?”

Sherringham looked at him a moment. “Come and see me at the embassy and I’ll tell you.” Then he added: “I know your sister, Mrs. Lovick.”

“So I supposed: that’s why I took the liberty of asking such a question.”

“It’s no liberty, but Mr. Sherringham doesn’t appear to be able to tell you,” said Miriam.

“Well, you know, it’s a very curious world, all those theatrical people over there,” Peter conceded.

“Ah don’t say anything against them when I’m one of them,” Basil Dashwood laughed.

“I might plead the absence of information,” Peter returned, “as Miss Rooth has neglected to make us acquainted.”

Miriam vaguely smiled. “I know you both so little.” But she presented them with a great stately air to each other, and the two men shook hands while Madame Carré observed them.

Tiens! you gentlemen meet here for the first time? You do right to become friends — that’s the best thing. Live together in peace and mutual confidence. C’est de beaucoup le plus sage.”

“Certainly, for yoke-fellows,” said Sherringham.

He began the next moment to repeat to his new acquaintance some of the things he had been told in London; but their hostess stopped him off, waving the talk away with charming overdone stage horror and the young hands of the heroines of Marivaux. “Ah wait till you go — for that! Do you suppose I care for news of your mountebanks’ booths?”

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