The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXI

Whether he had prearranged it is more than I can say, but Mademoiselle Voisin delayed so long to show herself that Mrs. Rooth, who wished to see the rest of the play, though she had sat it out on another occasion, expressed a returning relish for her corner of the baignoire and gave her conductor the best pretext he could have desired for asking Basil Dashwood to be so good as to escort her back. When the young actor, of whose personal preference Peter was quite aware, had led Mrs. Rooth away with an absence of moroseness which showed that his striking resemblance to a gentleman was not kept for the footlights, the two others sat on a divan in the part of the room furthest from the entrance, so that it gave them a degree of privacy, and Miriam watched the coming and going of their fellow-visitors and the indefinite people, attached to the theatre, hanging about, while her companion gave a name to some of the figures, Parisian celebrities.

“Fancy poor Dashwood cooped up there with mamma!” the girl exclaimed whimsically.

“You’re awfully cruel to him; but that’s of course,” said Sherringham.

“It seems to me I’m as kind as you; you sent him off.”

“That was for your mother; she was tired.”

“Oh gammon! And why, if I were cruel, should it be of course?”

“Because you must destroy and torment and wear out — that’s your nature. But you can’t help your type, can you?”

“My type?” she echoed.

“It’s bad, perverse, dangerous. It’s essentially insolent.”

“And pray what’s yours when you talk like that? Would you say such things if you didn’t know the depths of my good nature?”

“Your good nature all comes back to that,” said Sherringham. “It’s an abyss of ruin — for others. You’ve no respect. I’m speaking of the artistic character — in the direction and in the plentitude in which you have it. It’s unscrupulous, nervous, capricious, wanton.”

“I don’t know about respect. One can be good,” Miriam mused and reasoned.

“It doesn’t matter so long as one’s powerful,” he returned. “We can’t have everything, and surely we ought to understand that we must pay for things. A splendid organisation for a special end, like yours, is so rare and rich and fine that we oughtn’t to grudge it its conditions.”

“What do you call its conditions?” Miriam asked as she turned and looked at him.

“Oh the need to take its ease, to take up space, to make itself at home in the world, to square its elbows and knock, others about. That’s large and free; it’s the good nature you speak of. You must forage and ravage and leave a track behind you; you must live upon the country you traverse. And you give such delight that, after all, you’re welcome — you’re infinitely welcome!”

“I don’t know what you mean. I only care for the idea,” the girl said.

“That’s exactly what I pretend — and we must all help you to it. You use us, you push us about, you break us up. We’re your tables and chair, the simple furniture of your life.”

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’?”

Peter gave an ironic laugh. “Oh don’t be afraid — there will be plenty of others!”

She made no return to this, but after a moment broke out again. “Poor Dashwood immured with mamma — he’s like a lame chair that one has put into the corner.”

“Don’t break him up before he has served. I really believe something will come out of him,” her companion went on. “However, you’ll break me up first,” he added, “and him probably never at all.”

“And why shall I honour you so much more?”

“Because I’m a better article and you’ll feel that.”

“You’ve the superiority of modesty — I see.”

“I’m better than a young mountebank — I’ve vanity enough to say that.”

She turned on him with a flush in her cheek and a splendid dramatic face. “How you hate us! Yes, at bottom, below your little cold taste, you hate us!” she repeated.

He coloured too, met her eyes, looked into them a minute, seemed to accept the imputation and then said quickly: “Give it up: come away with me.”

“Come away with you?”

“Leave this place. Give it up.”

“You brought me here, you insisted it should be only you, and now you must stay,” she declared with a head-shake and a high manner. “You should know what you want, dear Mr. Sherringham.”

“I do — I know now. Come away before you see her.”

“Before ——?” she seemed to wonder.

“She’s success, this wonderful Voisin, she’s triumph, she’s full accomplishment: the hard, brilliant realisation of what I want to avert for you.” Miriam looked at him in silence, the cold light still in her face, and he repeated: “Give it up — give it up.”

Her eyes softened after a little; she smiled and then said: “Yes, you’re better than poor Dashwood.”

“Give it up and we’ll live for ourselves, in ourselves, in something that can have a sanctity.”

“All the same you do hate us,” the girl went on.

“I don’t want to be conceited, but I mean that I’m sufficiently fine and complicated to tempt you. I’m an expensive modern watch with a wonderful escapement — therefore you’ll smash me if you can.”

“Never — never!” she said as she got up. “You tell me the hour too well.” She quitted her companion and stood looking at Gérôme’s fine portrait of the pale Rachel invested with the antique attributes of tragedy. The rise of the curtain had drawn away most of the company. Peter, from his bench, watched his friend a little, turning his eyes from her to the vivid image of the dead actress and thinking how little she suffered by the juxtaposition. Presently he came over and joined her again and she resumed: “I wonder if that’s what your cousin had in his mind.”

“My cousin ——?”

“What was his name? Mr. Dormer; that first day at Madame Carré‘s. He offered to paint my portrait.”

“I remember. I put him up to it.”

“Was he thinking of this?”

“I doubt if he has ever seen it. I daresay I was.”

“Well, when we go to London he must do it,” said Miriam.

“Oh there’s no hurry,” Peter was moved to reply.

“Don’t you want my picture?” asked the girl with one of her successful touches.

“I’m not sure I want it from him. I don’t know quite what he’d make of you.”

“He looked so clever — I liked him. I saw him again at your party.”

“He’s a jolly good fellow; but what’s one to say,” Peter put to her, “of a painter who goes for his inspiration to the House of Commons?”

“To the House of Commons?” she echoed.

“He has lately got himself elected.”

“Dear me, what a pity! I wanted to sit for him. But perhaps he won’t have me — as I’m not a member of Parliament.”

“It’s my sister, rather, who has got him in.”

“Your sister who was at your house that day? What has she to do with it?” Miriam asked.

“Why she’s his cousin just as I am. And in addition,” Sherringham went on, “she’s to be married to him.”

“Married — really?” She had a pause, but she continued. “So he paints her, I suppose?”

“Not much, probably. His talent in that line isn’t what she esteems in him most.”

“It isn’t great, then?”

“I haven’t the least idea.”

“And in the political line?” the girl persisted.

“I scarcely can tell. He’s very clever.”

“He does paint decently, then?”

“I daresay.”

Miriam looked once more at Gérôme’s picture. “Fancy his going into the House of Commons! And your sister put him there?”

“She worked, she canvassed.”

“Ah you’re a queer family!” she sighed, turning round at the sound of a step.

“We’re lost — here’s Mademoiselle Voisin,” said Sherringham.

This celebrity presented herself smiling and addressing Miriam. “I acted for you to-night — I did my best.”

“What a pleasure to speak to you, to thank you!” the girl murmured admiringly. She was startled and dazzled.

“I couldn’t come to you before, but now I’ve got a rest — for half an hour,” the actress went on. Gracious and passive, as if a little spent, she let Sherringham, without looking at him, take her hand and raise it to his lips. “I’m sorry I make you lose the others — they’re so good in this act,” she added.

“We’ve seen them before and there’s nothing so good as you,” Miriam promptly returned.

“I like my part,” said Mademoiselle Voisin gently, smiling still at our young lady with clear, charming eyes. “One’s always better in that case.”

“She’s so bad sometimes, you know!” Peter jested to Miriam; leading the actress thus to glance at him, kindly and vaguely, in a short silence which you couldn’t call on her part embarrassment, but which was still less affectation.

“And it’s so interesting to be here — so interesting!” Miriam protested.

“Ah you like our old house? Yes, we’re very proud of it.” And Mademoiselle Voisin smiled again at Sherringham all good-humouredly, but as if to say: “Well, here I am, and what do you want of me? Don’t ask me to invent it myself, but if you’ll tell me I’ll do it.” Miriam admired the note of discreet interrogation in her voice — the slight suggestion of surprise at their “old house” being liked. This performer was an astonishment from her seeming still more perfect on a nearer view — which was not, the girl had an idea, what performers usually did. This was very encouraging to her — it widened the programme of a young lady about to embrace the scenic career. To have so much to show before the footlights and yet to have so much left when you came off — that was really wonderful. Mademoiselle Voisin’s eyes, as one looked into them, were still more agreeable than the distant spectator would have supposed; and there was in her appearance an extreme finish which instantly suggested to Miriam that she herself, in comparison, was big and rough and coarse.

“You’re lovely to-night — you’re particularly lovely,” Sherringham said very frankly, translating Miriam’s own impression and at the same time giving her an illustration of the way that, in Paris at least, gentlemen expressed themselves to the stars of the drama. She thought she knew her companion very well and had been witness of the degree to which, in such general conditions, his familiarity could increase; but his address to the slim, distinguished, harmonious woman before them had a different quality, the note of a special usage. If Miriam had had an apprehension that such directness might be taken as excessive it was removed by the manner in which Mademoiselle Voisin returned:

“Oh one’s always well enough when one’s made up; one’s always exactly the same.” That served as an example of the good taste with which a star of the drama could receive homage that was wanting in originality. Miriam determined on the spot that this should be the way she would ever receive it. The grace of her new acquaintance was the greater as the becoming bloom to which she alluded as artificial was the result of a science so consummate that it had none of the grossness of a mask. The perception of all this was exciting to our young aspirant, and her excitement relieved itself in the inquiry, which struck her as rude as soon as she had uttered it:

“You acted for ‘me’? How did you know? What am I to you?”

“Monsieur Sherringham has told me about you. He says we’re nothing beside you — that you’re to be the great star of the future. I’m proud that you’ve seen me.”

“That of course is what I tell every one,” Peter acknowledged a trifle awkwardly to Miriam.

“I can believe it when I see you. Je vous ai bien observée,” the actress continued in her sweet conciliatory tone.

Miriam looked from one of her interlocutors to the other as if there were joy for her in this report of Sherringham’s remarks — joy accompanied and partly mitigated, however, by a quicker vision of what might have passed between a secretary of embassy and a creature so exquisite as Mademoiselle Voisin. “Ah you’re wonderful people — a most interesting impression!” she yearningly sighed.

“I was looking for you; he had prepared me. We’re such old friends!” said the actress in a tone courteously exempt from intention: upon which Sherringham, again taking her hand, raised it to his lips with a tenderness which her whole appearance seemed to bespeak for her, a sort of practical consideration and carefulness of touch, as if she were an object precious and frail, an instrument for producing rare sounds, to be handled, like a legendary violin, with a recognition of its value.

“Your dressing-room is so pretty — show her your dressing-room,” he went on.

“Willingly, if she’ll come up. Vous savez que c’est une montée.“

“It’s a shame to inflict it on you,” Miriam objected.

Comment donc? If it will interest you in the least!” They exchanged civilities, almost caresses, trying which could have the nicest manner to the other. It was the actress’s manner that struck Miriam most; it denoted such a training, so much taste, expressed such a ripe conception of urbanity.

“No wonder she acts well when she has that tact — feels, perceives, is so remarkable, mon Dieu, mon Dieu!“ the girl said to herself as they followed their conductress into another corridor and up a wide, plain staircase. The staircase was spacious and long and this part of the establishment sombre and still, with the gravity of a college or a convent. They reached another passage lined with little doors, on each of which the name of a comedian was painted, and here the aspect became still more monastic, like that of a row of solitary cells. Mademoiselle Voisin led the way to her own door all obligingly and as if wishing to be hospitable; she dropped little subdued, friendly attempts at explanation on the way. At her threshold the monasticism stopped — Miriam found herself in a wonderfully upholstered nook, a nest of lamplight and delicate cretonne. Save for its pair of long glasses it might have been a tiny boudoir, with a water-colour drawing of value in each of its panels of stretched stuff, with its crackling fire and its charming order. It was intensely bright and extremely hot, singularly pretty and exempt from litter. Nothing lay about, but a small draped doorway led into an inner sanctuary. To Miriam it seemed royal; it immediately made the art of the comedian the most distinguished thing in the world. It was just such a place as they should have for their intervals if they were expected to be great artists. It was a result of the same evolution as Mademoiselle Voisin herself — not that our young lady found this particular term at hand to express her idea. But her mind was flooded with an impression of style, of refinement, of the long continuity of a tradition. The actress said, “Voilà, c’est tout!“ as if it were little enough and there were even something clumsy in her having brought them so far for nothing, and in their all sitting there waiting and looking at each other till it was time for her to change her dress. But to Miriam it was occupation enough to note what she did and said: these things and her whole person and carriage struck our young woman as exquisite in their adaptation to the particular occasion. She had had an idea that foreign actresses were rather of the cabotin order, but her hostess suggested to her much more a princess than a cabotine. She would do things as she liked and do them straight off: Miriam couldn’t fancy her in the gropings and humiliations of rehearsal. Everything in her had been sifted and formed, her tone was perfect, her amiability complete, and she might have been the charming young wife of a secretary of state receiving a pair of strangers of distinction. The girl observed all her movements. And then, as Sherringham had said, she was particularly lovely. But she suddenly told this gentleman that she must put him à la porte — she wanted to change her dress. He retired and returned to the foyer, where Miriam was to rejoin him after remaining the few minutes more with Mademoiselle Voisin and coming down with her. He waited for his companion, walking up and down and making up his mind; and when she presently came in he said to her:

“Please don’t go back for the rest of the play. Stay here.” They now had the foyer virtually to themselves.

“I want to stay here. I like it better,” She moved back to the chimney-piece, from above which the cold portrait of Rachel looked down, and as he accompanied her he went on:

“I meant what I said just now.”

“What you said to Voisin?”

“No, no; to you. Give it up and live with me.“

“Give it up?” She turned her stage face on him.

“Give it up and I’ll marry you tomorrow.”

“This is a happy time to ask it!” she said with superior amusement. “And this is a good place!”

“Very good indeed, and that’s why I speak: it’s a place to make one choose — it puts it all before one.”

“To make you choose, you mean. I’m much obliged, but that’s not my choice,” laughed Miriam.

“You shall be anything you like except this.”

“Except what I most want to be? I am much obliged.”

“Don’t you care for me? Haven’t you any gratitude?” Sherringham insisted.

“Gratitude for kindly removing the blest cup from my lips? I want to be what she is — I want it more than ever.”

“Ah what she is —!” He took it impatiently.

“Do you mean I can’t? Well see if I can’t. Tell me more about her — tell me everything.”

“Haven’t you seen for yourself and, knowing things as you do, can’t you judge?”

“She’s strange, she’s mysterious,” Miriam allowed, looking at the fire. “She showed us nothing — nothing of her real self.”

“So much the better, all things considered.”

“Are there all sorts of other things in her life? That’s what I believe,” the girl went on, raising her eyes to him.

“I can’t tell you what there is in the life of such a woman.”

“Imagine — when she’s so perfect!” she exclaimed thoughtfully. “Ah she kept me off — she kept me off! Her charming manner is in itself a kind of contempt. It’s an abyss — it’s the wall of China. She has a hard polish, an inimitable surface, like some wonderful porcelain that costs more than you’d think.”

“Do you want to become like that?” Sherringham asked.

“If I could I should be enchanted. One can always try.”

“You must act better than she,” he went on.

“Better? I thought you wanted me to give it up.”

“Ah I don’t know what I want,” he cried, “and you torment me and turn me inside out! What I want is you yourself.”

“Oh don’t worry,” said Miriam — now all kindly. Then she added that Mademoiselle Voisin had invited her to “call”; to which Sherringham replied with a certain dryness that she would probably not find that necessary. This made the girl stare and she asked: “Do you mean it won’t do on account of mamma’s prejudices?”

“Say this time on account of mine.”

“Do you mean because she has lovers?”

“Her lovers are none of our business.”

“None of mine, I see. So you’ve been one of them?”

“No such luck!”

“What a pity!” she richly wailed. “I should have liked to see that. One must see everything — to be able to do everything.” And as he pressed for what in particular she had wished to see she replied: “The way a woman like that receives one of the old ones.”

Peter gave a groan at this, which was at the same time partly a laugh, and, turning away to drop on a bench, ejaculated: “You’ll do — you’ll do!”

He sat there some minutes with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. His friend remained looking at the portrait of Rachel, after which she put to him: “Doesn’t such a woman as that receive — receive every one?”

“Every one who goes to see her, no doubt.”

“And who goes?”

“Lots of men — clever men, eminent men.”

“Ah what a charming life! Then doesn’t she go out?”

“Not what we Philistines mean by that — not into society, never. She never enters a lady’s drawing-room.”

“How strange, when one’s as distinguished as that; except that she must escape a lot of stupidities and corvées. Then where does she learn such manners?”

“She teaches manners, à ses heures: she doesn’t need to learn them.”

“Oh she has given me ideas! But in London actresses go into society,” Miriam continued.

“Oh into ours, such as it is. In London nous mêlons les genres.”

“And shan’t I go — I mean if I want?”

“You’ll have every facility to bore yourself. Don’t doubt it.”

“And doesn’t she feel excluded?” Miriam asked.

“Excluded from what? She has the fullest life.”

“The fullest?”

“An intense artistic life. The cleverest men in Paris talk over her work with her; the principal authors of plays discuss with her subjects and characters and questions of treatment. She lives in the world of art.”

“Ah the world of art — how I envy her! And you offer me Dashwood!”

Sherringham rose in his emotion. “I ‘offer’ you —?”

Miriam burst out laughing. “You look so droll! You offer me yourself, then, instead of all these things.”

“My dear child, I also am a very clever man,” he said, trying to sink his consciousness of having for a moment stood gaping.

“You are — you are; I delight in you. No ladies at all — no femmes comme il faut?“ she began again.

“Ah what do they matter? Your business is the artistic life!” he broke out with inconsequence, irritated, moreover, at hearing her sound that trivial note again.

“You’re a dear — your charming good sense comes back to you! What do you want of me, then?”

“I want you for myself — not for others; and now, in time, before anything’s done.”

“Why, then, did you bring me here? Everything’s done — I feel it to-night.”

“I know the way you should look at it — if you do look at it at all,” Sherringham conceded.

“That’s so easy! I thought you liked the stage so,” Miriam artfully added.

“Don’t you want me to be a great swell?”

“And don’t you want me to be?”

“You will be-you’ll share my glory.”

“So will you share mine.”

“The husband of an actress? Yes, I see myself that!” Peter cried with a frank ring of disgust.

“It’s a silly position, no doubt. But if you’re too good for it why talk about it? Don’t you think I’m important?” she demanded. Her companion met her eyes and she suddenly said in a different tone: “Ah why should we quarrel when you’ve been so kind, so generous? Can’t we always be friends — the truest friends?”

Her voice sank to the sweetest cadence and her eyes were grateful and good as they rested on him. She sometimes said things with such perfection that they seemed dishonest, but in this case he was stirred to an expressive response. Just as he was making it, however, he was moved to utter other words: “Take care, here’s Dashwood!” Mrs. Rooth’s tried attendant was in the doorway. He had come back to say that they really must relieve him.

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