The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


It was success, the member for Harsh felt, that had made her finer — the full possession of her talent and the sense of the recognition of it. There was an intimation in her presence (if he had given his mind to it) that for him too the same cause would produce the same effect — that is would show him how being launched in the practice of an art makes strange and prompt revelations. Nick felt clumsy beside a person who manifestly, now, had such an extraordinary familiarity with the esthetic point of view. He remembered too the clumsiness that had been in his visitor — something silly and shabby, pert rather than proper, and of quite another value than her actual smartness, as London people would call it, her well-appointedness and her evident command of more than one manner. Handsome as she had been the year before, she had suggested sordid lodgings, bread and butter, heavy tragedy and tears; and if then she was an ill-dressed girl with thick hair who wanted to be an actress, she was already in these few weeks a performer who could even produce an impression of not performing. She showed what a light hand she could have, forbore to startle and looked as well, for unprofessional life, as Julia: which was only the perfection of her professional character.

This function came out much in her talk, for there were many little bursts of confidence as well as many familiar pauses as she sat there; and she was ready to tell Nick the whole history of her début — the chance that had suddenly turned up and that she had caught, with a fierce leap, as it passed. He missed some of the details in his attention to his own task, and some of them he failed to understand, attached as they were to the name of Mr. Basil Dashwood, which he heard for the first time. It was through Mr. Dashwood’s extraordinary exertions that a hearing — a morning performance at a London theatre — had been obtained for her. That had been the great step, for it had led to the putting on at night of the play, at the same theatre, in place of a wretched thing they were trying (it was no use) to keep on its feet, and to her engagement for the principal part. She had made a hit in it — she couldn’t pretend not to know that; but she was already tired of it, there were so many other things she wanted to do; and when she thought it would probably run a month or two more she fell to cursing the odious conditions of artistic production in such an age. The play was a more or less idiotised version of a new French piece, a thing that had taken in Paris at a third-rate theatre and was now proving itself in London good enough for houses mainly made up of ten-shilling stalls. It was Dashwood who had said it would go if they could get the rights and a fellow to make some changes: he had discovered it at a nasty little place she had never been to, over the Seine. They had got the rights, and the fellow who had made the changes was practically Dashwood himself; there was another man in London, Mr. Gushmore — Miriam didn’t know if Nick had heard of him (Nick hadn’t) who had done some of it. It had been awfully chopped down, to a mere bone, with the meat all gone; but that was what people in London seemed to like. They were very innocent — thousands of little dogs amusing themselves with a bone. At any rate she had made something, she had made a figure, of the woman — a dreadful stick, with what Dashwood had muddled her into; and Miriam added in the complacency of her young expansion: “Oh give me fifty words any time and the ghost of a situation, and I’ll set you up somebody. Besides, I mustn’t abuse poor Yolande — she has saved us,” she said.


“Our ridiculous play. That’s the name of the impossible woman. She has put bread into our mouths and she’s a loaf on the shelf for the future. The rights are mine.”

“You’re lucky to have them,” said Nick a little vaguely, troubled about his sitter’s nose, which was somehow Jewish without the convex arch.

“Indeed I am. He gave them to me. Wasn’t it charming?”

“‘He’ gave them — Mr. Dashwood?”

“Dear me, no — where should poor Dashwood have got them? He hasn’t a penny in the world. Besides, if he had got them he’d have kept them. I mean your blessed cousin.”

“I see — they’re a present from Peter.”

“Like many other things. Isn’t he a dear? If it hadn’t been for him the shelf would have remained bare. He bought the play for this country and America for four hundred pounds, and on the chance: fancy! There was no rush for it, and how could he tell? And then he gracefully pressed it on me. So I’ve my little capital. Isn’t he a duck? You’ve nice cousins.”

Nick assented to the proposition, only inserting an amendment to the effect that surely Peter had nice cousins too, and making, as he went on with his work, a tacit, preoccupied reflexion or two; such as that it must be pleasant to render little services like that to youth, beauty and genius — he rather wondered how Peter could afford them — and that, “duck” as he was, Miss Rooth’s benefactor was rather taken for granted. Sic vos non vobis softly sounded in his brain. This community of interests, or at least of relations, quickened the flight of time, so that he was still fresh when the sitting came to an end. It was settled Miriam should come back on the morrow, to enable her artist to make the most of the few days of the parliamentary recess; and just before she left him she asked:

“Then you will come to-night?”

“Without fail. I hate to lose an hour of you.”

“Then I’ll place you. It will be my affair.”

“You’re very kind”— he quite rose to it. “Isn’t it a simple matter for me to take a stall? This week I suppose they’re to be had.”

“I’ll send you a box,” said Miriam. “You shall do it well. There are plenty now.”

“Why should I be lost, all alone, in the grandeur of a box?”

“Can’t you bring your friend?”

“My friend?”

“The lady you’re engaged to.”

“Unfortunately she’s out of town.”

Miriam looked at him in the grand manner. “Does she leave you alone like that?”

“She thought I should like it — I should be more free to paint. You see I am.”

“Yes, perhaps it’s good for me. Have you got her portrait?” Miriam asked.

“She doesn’t like me to paint her.”

“Really? Perhaps then she won’t like you to paint me.”

“That’s why I want to be quick!” laughed Nick.

“Before she knows it?”

“Shell know it tomorrow. I shall write to her.”

The girl faced him again portentously. “I see you’re afraid of her.” But she added: “Mention my name; they’ll give you the box at the office.”

Whether or no Nick were afraid of Mrs. Dallow he still waved away this bounty, protesting that he would rather take a stall according to his wont and pay for it. Which led his guest to declare with a sudden flicker of passion that if he didn’t do as she wished she would never sit to him again.

“Ah then you have me,” he had to reply. “Only I don’t see why you should give me so many things.”

“What in the world have I given you?”

“Why an idea.” And Nick looked at his picture rather ruefully. “I don’t mean to say though that I haven’t let it fall and smashed it.”

“Ah an idea — that is a great thing for people in our line. But you’ll see me much better from the box and I’ll send you Gabriel Nash.” She got into the hansom her host’s servant had fetched for her, and as Nick turned back into his studio after watching her drive away he laughed at the conception that they were in the same “line.”

He did share, in the event, his box at the theatre with Nash, who talked during the entr’actes not in the least about the performance or the performer, but about the possible greatness of the art of the portraitist — its reach, its range, its fascination, the magnificent examples it had left us in the past: windows open into history, into psychology, things that were among the most precious possessions of the human race. He insisted above all on the interest, the importance of this great peculiarity of it, that unlike most other forms it was a revelation of two realities, the man whom it was the artist’s conscious effort to reveal and the man — the interpreter — expressed in the very quality and temper of that effort. It offered a double vision, the strongest dose of life that art could give, the strongest dose of art that life could give. Nick Dormer had already become aware of having two states of mind when listening to this philosopher; one in which he laughed, doubted, sometimes even reprobated, failed to follow or accept, and another in which his old friend seemed to take the words out of his mouth, to utter for him, better and more completely, the very things he was on the point of saying. Gabriel’s saying them at such moments appeared to make them true, to set them up in the world, and to-night he said a good many, especially as to the happiness of cultivating one’s own garden, growing there, in stillness and freedom, certain strong, pure flowers that would bloom for ever, bloom long after the rank weeds of the hour were withered and blown away.

It was to keep Miriam Rooth in his eye for his current work that Nick had come to the play; and she dwelt there all the evening, being constantly on the stage. He was so occupied in watching her face — for he now saw pretty clearly what he should attempt to make of it — that he was conscious only in a secondary degree of the story she illustrated, and had in regard to her acting a surprised sense that she was extraordinarily quiet. He remembered her loudness, her violence in Paris, at Peter Sherringham’s, her wild wails, the first time, at Madame Carré‘s; compared with which her present manner was eminently temperate and modern. Nick Dormer was not critical at the theatre; he believed what he saw and had a pleasant sense of the inevitable; therefore he wouldn’t have guessed what Gabriel Nash had to tell him — that for this young woman, with her tragic cast and her peculiar attributes, her present performance, full of actuality, of light fine indications and at moments of pointed touches of comedy, was a rare tour de force. It went on altogether in a register he hadn’t supposed her to possess and in which, as he said, she didn’t touch her capital, doing it all with her wonderful little savings. It conveyed to him that she was capable of almost anything.

In one of the intervals they went round to see her; but for Nick this purpose was partly defeated by the extravagant transports, as they struck him, of Mrs. Rooth, whom they found sitting with her daughter and who attacked him with a hundred questions about his dear mother and his charming sisters. She had volumes to say about the day in Paris when they had shown her the kindness she should never forget. She abounded also in admiration of the portrait he had so cleverly begun, declaring she was so eager to see it, however little he might as yet have accomplished, that she should do herself the honour to wait upon him in the morning when Miriam came to sit.

“I’m acting for you to-night,” the girl more effectively said before he returned to his place.

“No, that’s exactly what you’re not doing,” Nash interposed with one of his happy sagacities. “You’ve stopped acting, you’ve reduced it to the least that will do, you simply are — you’re just the visible image, the picture on the wall. It keeps you wonderfully in focus. I’ve never seen you so beautiful.”

Miriam stared at this; then it could be seen that she coloured. “What a luxury in life to have everything explained! He’s the great explainer,” she herself explained to Nick.

He shook hands with her for good-night. “Well then, we must give him lots to do.”

She came to his studio in the morning, but unaccompanied by her mother, in allusion to whom she simply said, “Mamma wished to come but I wouldn’t let her.” They proceeded promptly to business. The girl divested herself of her hat and coat, taking the position already determined. After they had worked more than an hour with much less talk than the day before, Nick being extremely absorbed and Miriam wearing in silence an air of noble compunction for the burden imposed on him, at the end of this period of patience, pervaded by a holy calm, our young lady suddenly got up and exclaimed, “I say, I must see it!”— with which, quickly, she stepped down from her place and came round to the canvas. She had at Nick’s request not looked at his work the day before. He fell back, glad to rest, and put down his palette and brushes.

Ah bien, c’est tapé!” she cried as she stood before the easel. Nick was pleased with her ejaculation, he was even pleased with what he had done; he had had a long, happy spurt and felt excited and sanctioned. Miriam, retreating also a little, sank into a high-backed, old-fashioned chair that stood two or three yards from the picture and reclined in it, her head on one side, looking at the rough resemblance. She made a remark or two about it, to which Nick replied, standing behind her and after a moment leaning on the top of the chair. He was away from his work and his eyes searched it with a shy fondness of hope. They rose, however, as he presently became conscious that the door of the large room opposite him had opened without making a sound and that some one stood upon the threshold. The person on the threshold was Julia Dallow.

As soon as he was aware Nick wished he had posted a letter to her the night before. He had written only that morning. There was nevertheless genuine joy in the words with which he bounded toward her —“Ah my dear Julia, what a jolly surprise!”— for her unannounced descent spoke to him above all of an irresistible desire to see him again sooner than they had arranged. She had taken a step forward, but she had done no more, stopping short at the sight of the strange woman, so divested of visiting-gear that she looked half-undressed, who lounged familiarly in the middle of the room and over whom Nick had been still more familiarly hanging. Julia’s eyes rested on this embodied unexpectedness, and as they did so she grew pale — so pale that Nick, observing it, instinctively looked back to see what Miriam had done to produce such an effect. She had done nothing at all, which was precisely what was embarrassing; she only stared at the intruder, motionless and superb. She seemed somehow in easy possession of the place, and even at that instant Nick noted how handsome she looked; so that he said to himself inaudibly, in some deeper depth of consciousness, “How I should like to paint her that way!” Mrs. Dallow’s eyes moved for a single moment to her friend’s; then they turned away — away from Miriam, ranging over the room.

“I’ve got a sitter, but you mustn’t mind that; we’re taking a rest. I’m delighted to see you”— he was all cordiality. He closed the door of the studio behind her; his servant was still at the outer door, which was open and through which he saw Julia’s carriage drawn up. This made her advance a little further, but still she said nothing; she dropped no answer even when Nick went on with a sense of awkwardness: “When did you come back? I hope nothing has gone wrong. You come at a very interesting moment,” he continued, aware as soon as he had spoken of something in his words that might have made her laugh. She was far from laughing, however; she only managed to look neither at him nor at Miriam and to say, after a little, when he had repeated his question about her return:

“I came back this morning — I came straight here.”

“And nothing’s wrong, I hope?”

“Oh no — everything’s all right,” she returned very quickly and without expression. She vouchsafed no explanation of her premature descent and took no notice of the seat Nick offered her; neither did she appear to hear him when he begged her not to look yet at the work on the easel — it was in such a dreadful state. He was conscious, as he phrased it, that this request gave to Miriam’s position, directly in front of his canvas, an air of privilege which her neglect to recognise in any way Mrs. Dallow’s entrance or her importance did nothing to correct. But that mattered less if the appeal failed to reach Julia’s intelligence, as he judged, seeing presently how deeply she was agitated. Nothing mattered in face of the sense of danger taking possession of him after she had been in the room a few moments. He wanted to say, “What’s the difficulty? Has anything happened?” but he felt how little she would like him to utter words so intimate in presence of the person she had been rudely startled to find between them. He pronounced Miriam’s name to her and her own to Miriam, but Julia’s recognition of the ceremony was so slight as to be scarcely perceptible. Miriam had the air of waiting for something more before she herself made a sign; and as nothing more came she continued to say nothing and not to budge. Nick added a remark to the effect that Julia would remember to have had the pleasure of meeting her the year before — in Paris, that day at old Peter’s; to which Mrs. Dallow made answer, “Ah yes,” without any qualification, while she looked down at some rather rusty studies on panels ranged along the floor and resting against the base of the wall. Her discomposure was a clear pain to herself; she had had a shock of extreme violence, and Nick saw that as Miriam showed no symptom of offering to give up her sitting her stay would be of the briefest. He wished that young woman would do something — say she would go, get up, move about; as it was she had the appearance of watching from her point of vantage the other’s upset. He made a series of inquiries about Julia’s doings in the country, to two or three of which she gave answers monosyllabic and scarcely comprehensible, only turning her eyes round and round the room as in search of something she couldn’t find — of an escape, of something that was not Miriam. At last she said — it was at the end of a very few minutes:

“I didn’t come to stay — when you’re so busy. I only looked in to see if you were here. Good-bye.”

“It’s charming of you to have come. I’m so glad you’ve seen for yourself how well I’m occupied,” Nick replied, not unconscious of how red he was. This made Mrs. Dallow look at him while Miriam considered them both. Julia’s eyes had a strange light he had never seen before — a flash of fear by which he was himself frightened. “Of course I’ll see you later,” he added in awkward, in really misplaced gaiety while she reached the door, which she opened herself, getting out with no further attention to Miriam. “I wrote to you this morning — you’ve missed my letter,” he repeated behind her, having already given her this information. The door of the studio was very near that of the house, but before she had reached the street the visitors’ bell was set ringing. The passage was narrow and she kept in advance of Nick, anticipating his motion to open the street-door. The bell was tinkling still when, by the action of her own hand, a gentleman on the step stood revealed.

“Ah my dear, don’t go!” Nick heard pronounced in quick, soft dissuasion and in the now familiar accents of Gabriel Nash. The rectification followed more quickly still, if that were a rectification which so little improved the matter: “I beg a thousand pardons — I thought you were Miriam.”

Gabriel gave way and Julia the more sharply pursued her retreat. Her carriage, a victoria with a pair of precious heated horses, had taken a turn up the street, but the coachman had already seen his mistress and was rapidly coming back. He drew near; not so fast, however, but that Gabriel Nash had time to accompany Mrs. Dallow to the edge of the pavement with an apology for the freedom into which he had blundered. Nick was at her other hand, waiting to put her into the carriage and freshly disconcerted by the encounter with Nash, who somehow, as he stood making Julia an explanation that she didn’t listen to, looked less eminent than usual, though not more conscious of difficulties. Our young man coloured deeper and watched the footman spring down as the victoria drove up; he heard Nash say something about the honour of having met Mrs. Dallow in Paris. Nick wanted him to go into the house; he damned inwardly his lack of delicacy. He desired a word with Julia alone — as much alone as the two annoying servants would allow. But Nash was not too much discouraged to say: “You came for a glimpse of the great model? Doesn’t she sit? That’s what I wanted too, this morning — just a look, for a blessing on the day. Ah but you, madam —”

Julia had sprung into her corner while he was still speaking and had flashed out to the coachman a “Home!” which of itself set the horses in motion. The carriage went a few yards, but while Gabriel, with an undiscouraged bow, turned away, Nick Dormer, his hand on the edge of the hood, moved with it.

“You don’t like it, but I’ll explain,” he tried to say for its occupant alone.

“Explain what?” she asked, still very pale and grave, but in a voice that showed nothing. She was thinking of the servants — she could think of them even then.

“Oh it’s all right. I’ll come in at five,” Nick returned, gallantly jocular, while she was whirled away.

Gabriel had gone into the studio and Nick found him standing in admiration before Miriam, who had resumed the position in which she was sitting. “Lord, she’s good today! Isn’t she good today?” he broke out, seizing their host by the arm to give him a particular view. Miriam looked indeed still handsomer than before, and she had taken up her attitude again with a splendid, sphinx-like air of being capable of keeping it for ever. Nick said nothing, but went back to work with a tingle of confusion, which began to act after he had resumed his palette as a sharp, a delightful stimulus. Miriam spoke never a word, but she was doubly grand, and for more than an hour, till Nick, exhausted, declared he must stop, the industrious silence was broken only by the desultory discourse of their friend.

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