The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXV

Nash brought her, the great modern personage, as he had described her, the very next day, and it took his friend no long time to test his assurance that Miriam Rooth was now splendid. She had made an impression on him ten months before, but it had haunted him only a day, soon overlaid as it had been with other images. Yet after Nash had talked of her a while he recalled her better; some of her attitudes, some of her looks and tones began to hover before him. He was charmed in advance with the notion of painting her. When she stood there in fact, however, it seemed to him he had remembered her wrong; the brave, free, rather grand creature who instantly filled his studio with such an unexampled presence had so shaken off her clumsiness, the rudeness and crudeness that had made him pity her, a whole provincial and “second-rate” side. Miss Rooth was light and bright and direct today — direct without being stiff and bright without being garish. To Nick’s perhaps inadequately sophisticated mind the model, the actress were figures of a vulgar setting; but it would have been impossible to show that taint less than this extremely natural yet extremely distinguished aspirant to distinction. She was more natural even than Gabriel Nash —“nature” was still Nick’s formula for his amusing old friend — and beside her he appeared almost commonplace.

Nash recognised her superiority with a frankness honourable to both of them — testifying in this manner to his sense that they were all three serious beings, worthy to deal with fine realities. She attracted crowds to her theatre, but to his appreciation of such a fact as that, important doubtless in its way, there were the limits he had already expressed. What he now felt bound in all integrity to register was his perception that she had, in general and quite apart from the question of the box-office, a remarkable, a very remarkable, artistic nature. He allowed that she had surprised him here; knowing of her in other days mainly that she was hungry to adopt an overrated profession he had not imputed to her the normal measure of intelligence. Now he saw — he had had some talks with her — that she was capable almost of a violent play of mind; so much so that he was sorry for the embarrassment it would be to her. Nick could imagine the discomfort of having anything in the nature of a mind to arrange for in such conditions. “She’s a woman of the best intentions, really of the best,” Nash explained kindly and lucidly, almost paternally, “and the quite rare head you can see for yourself.”

Miriam, smiling as she sat on an old Venetian chair, held aloft, with the noblest effect, that quarter of her person to which this patronage was extended, remarking to her host that, strange as it might appear, she had got quite to like poor Mr. Nash: she could make him go about with her — it was a relief to her mother.

“When I take him she has perfect peace,” the girl said; “then she can stay at home and see the interviewers. She delights in that and I hate it, so our friend here is a great comfort. Of course a femme de théâtre is supposed to be able to go out alone, but there’s a kind of ‘smartness,’ an added chic, in having some one. People think he’s my ‘companion ‘; I’m sure they fancy I pay him. I’d pay him, if he’d take it — and perhaps he will yet! — rather than give him up, for it doesn’t matter that he’s not a lady. He is one in tact and sympathy, as you see. And base as he thinks the sort of thing I do he can’t keep away from the theatre. When you’re celebrated people will look at you who could never before find out for themselves why they should.”

“When you’re celebrated you grow handsomer; at least that’s what has happened to you, though you were pretty too of old,” Gabriel placidly argued. “I go to the theatre to look at your head; it gives me the greatest pleasure. I take up anything of that sort as soon as I find it. One never knows how long it may last.”

“Are you attributing that uncertainty to my appearance?” Miriam beautifully asked.

“Dear no, to my own pleasure, the first precious bloom of it,” Nash went on. “Dormer at least, let me tell you in justice to him, hasn’t waited till you were celebrated to want to see you again — he stands there open-eyed — for the simple reason that he hadn’t the least idea of your renown. I had to announce it to him.”

“Haven’t you seen me act?” Miriam put, without reproach, to her host.

“I’ll go to-night,” he handsomely declared.

“You have your terrible House, haven’t you? What do they call it — the demands of public life?” Miriam continued: in answer to which Gabriel explained that he had the demands of private life as well, inasmuch as he was in love — he was on the point of being married. She listened to this with participation; then she said: “Ah then do bring your — what do they call her in English? I’m always afraid of saying something improper — your future. I’ll send you a box, under the circumstances; you’ll like that better.” She added that if he were to paint her he would have to see her often on the stage, wouldn’t he? to profit by the optique de la scène — what did they call that in English? — studying her and fixing his impression. But before he had time to meet this proposition she asked him if it disgusted him to hear her speak like that, as if she were always posing and thinking about herself, living only to be looked at, thrusting forward her person. She already often got sick of doing so, but à la guerre comme à la guerre.

“That’s the fine artistic nature, you see — a sort of divine disgust breaking out in her,” Nash expounded.

“If you want to paint me ‘at all at all’ of course. I’m struck with the way I’m taking that for granted,” the girl decently continued. “When Mr. Nash spoke of it to me I jumped at the idea. I remembered our meeting in Paris and the kind things you said to me. But no doubt one oughtn’t to jump at ideas when they represent serious sacrifices on the part of others.”

“Doesn’t she speak well?” Nash demanded of Nick. “Oh she’ll go far!”

“It’s a great privilege to me to paint you: what title in the world have I to pretend to such a model?” Nick replied to Miriam. “The sacrifice is yours — a sacrifice of time and good nature and credulity. You come, in your bright beauty and your genius, to this shabby place where I’ve nothing worth speaking of to show, not a guarantee to offer you; and I wonder what I’ve done to deserve such a gift of the gods.”

“Doesn’t he speak well?”— and Nash appealed with radiance to their companion.

She took no notice of him, only repeating to Nick that she hadn’t forgotten his friendly attitude in Paris; and when he answered that he surely had done very little she broke out, first resting her eyes on him with a deep, reasonable smile and then springing up quickly; “Ah well, if I must justify myself I liked you!”

“Fancy my appearing to challenge you!” laughed Nick in deprecation. “To see you again is to want tremendously to try something. But you must have an infinite patience, because I’m an awful duffer.”

She looked round the walls. “I see what you’ve done — bien des choses.”

“She understands — she understands,” Gabriel dropped. And he added to their visitor: “Imagine, when he might do something, his choosing a life of shams! At bottom he’s like you — a wonderful artistic nature.”

“I’ll have patience,” said the girl, smiling at Nick.

“Then, my children, I leave you — the peace of the Lord be with you.” With which words Nash took his departure.

The others chose a position for the young woman’s sitting after she had placed herself in many different attitudes and different lights; but an hour had elapsed before Nick got to work — began, on a large canvas, to “knock her in,” as he called it. He was hindered even by the fine element of agitation, the emotion of finding himself, out of a clear sky, confronted with such a subject and launched in such a task. What could the situation be but incongruous just after he had formally renounced all manner of “art”? — the renunciation taking effect not a bit the less from the whim he had all consciously treated himself to as a whim (the last he should ever descend to!) the freak of a fortnight’s relapse into a fingering of old sketches for the purpose, as he might have said, of burning them up, of clearing out his studio and terminating his lease. There were both embarrassment and inspiration in the strange chance of snatching back for an hour a relinquished joy: the jump with which he found he could still rise to such an occasion took away his breath a little, at the same time that the idea — the idea of what one might make of such material — touched him with an irresistible wand. On the spot, to his inner vision, Miriam became a rich result, drawing a hundred formative forces out of their troubled sleep, defying him where he privately felt strongest and imposing herself triumphantly in her own strength. He had the good fortune, without striking matches, to see her, as a subject, in a vivid light, and his quick attempt was as exciting as a sudden gallop — he might have been astride, in a boundless field, of a runaway horse.

She was in her way so fine that he could only think how to “do” her: that hard calculation soon flattened out the consciousness, lively in him at first, that she was a beautiful woman who had sought him out of his retirement. At the end of their first sitting her having done so appeared the most natural thing in the world: he had a perfect right to entertain her there — explanations and complications were engulfed in the productive mood. The business of “knocking her in” held up a lamp to her beauty, showed him how much there was of it and that she was infinitely interesting. He didn’t want to fall in love with her — that would be a sell, he said to himself — and she promptly became much too interesting for it. Nick might have reflected, for simplification’s sake, as his cousin Peter had done, but with more validity, that he was engaged with Miss Rooth in an undertaking which didn’t in the least refer to themselves, that they were working together seriously and that decent work quite gainsaid sensibility — the humbugging sorts alone had to help themselves out with it. But after her first sitting — she came, poor girl, but twice — the need of such exorcisms passed from his spirit: he had so thoroughly, so practically taken her up. As to whether his visitor had the same bright and still sense of cooperation to a definite end, the sense of the distinctively technical nature of the answer to every question to which the occasion might give birth, that mystery would be lighted only were it open to us to regard this young lady through some other medium than the mind of her friends. We have chosen, as it happens, for some of the great advantages it carries with it, the indirect vision; and it fails as yet to tell us — what Nick of course wondered about before he ceased to care, as indeed he intimated to her — why a budding celebrity should have dreamed of there being something for her in so blighted a spot. She should have gone to one of the regular people, the great people: they would have welcomed her with open arms. When Nick asked her if some of the R.A.‘s hadn’t expressed a wish for a crack at her she replied: “Oh dear no, only the tiresome photographers; and fancy them in the future. If mamma could only do that for me!” And she added with the charming fellowship for which she was conspicuous at these hours: “You know I don’t think any one yet has been quite so much struck with me as you.”

“Not even Peter Sherringham?” her host jested while he stepped back to judge of the effect of a line.

“Oh Mr. Sherringham’s different. You’re an artist.”

“For pity’s sake don’t say that!” he cried. “And as regards your art I thought Peter knew more than any one.”

“Ah you’re severe,” said Miriam.

“Severe —?”

“Because that’s what the poor dear thinks. But he does know a lot — he has been a providence to me.”

“Then why hasn’t he come over to see you act?”

She had a pause. “How do you know he hasn’t come?”

“Because I take for granted he’d have called on me if he had.”

“Does he like you very much?” the girl asked.

“I don’t know. I like him.”

“He’s a gentleman — pour cela,” she said.

“Oh yes, for that!” Nick went on absently, labouring hard.

“But he’s afraid of me — afraid to see me.”

“Doesn’t he think you good enough?”

“On the contrary — he believes I shall carry him away and he’s in a terror of my doing it.”

“He ought to like that,” said Nick with conscious folly.

“That’s what I mean when I say he’s not an artist. However, he declares he does like it, only it appears to be not the right thing for him. Oh the right thing — he’s ravenous for that. But it’s not for me to blame him, since I am too. He’s coming some night, however. Then,” she added almost grimly, “he shall have a dose.”

“Poor Peter!” Nick returned with a compassion none the less real because it was mirthful: the girl’s tone was so expressive of easy unscrupulous power.

“He’s such a curious mixture,” she luxuriously went on; “sometimes I quite lose patience with him. It isn’t exactly trying to serve both God and Mammon, but it’s muddling up the stage and the world. The world be hanged! The stage, or anything of that sort — I mean one’s artistic conscience, one’s true faith — comes first.”

“Brava, brava! you do me good,” Nick murmured, still amused, beguiled, and at work. “But it’s very kind of you, when I was in this absurd state of ignorance, to impute to me the honour of having been more struck with you than any one else,” he continued after a moment.

“Yes, I confess I don’t quite see — when the shops were full of my photographs.”

“Oh I’m so poor — I don’t go into shops,” he explained.

“Are you very poor?”

“I live on alms.”

“And don’t they pay you — the government, the ministry?”

“Dear young lady, for what? — for shutting myself up with beautiful women?”

“Ah you’ve others then?” she extravagantly groaned.

“They’re not so kind as you, I confess.”

“I’ll buy it from you — what you’re doing: I’ll pay you well when it’s done,” said the girl. “I’ve got money now. I make it, you know — a good lot of it. It’s too delightful after scraping and starving. Try it and you’ll see. Give up the base, bad world.”

“But isn’t it supposed to be the base, bad world that pays?”

“Precisely; make it pay without mercy — knock it silly, squeeze it dry. That’s what it’s meant for — to pay for art. Ah if it wasn’t for that! I’ll bring you a quantity of photographs tomorrow — you must let me come back tomorrow: it’s so amusing to have them, by the hundred, all for nothing, to give away. That’s what takes mamma most: she can’t get over it. That’s luxury and glory; even at Castle Nugent they didn’t do that. People used to sketch me, but not so much as mamma veut bien le dire; and in all my life I never had but one poor little carte-devisite, when I was sixteen, in a plaid frock, with the banks of a river, at three francs the dozen.”

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