The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXX

It was not till after the noon of the next day that he was to see Miriam Rooth. He wrote her a note that evening, to be delivered to her at the theatre, and during the performance she sent round to him a card with “All right, come to luncheon tomorrow” scrawled on it in pencil.

When he presented himself at Balaklava Place he learned that the two ladies had not come in-they had gone again early to rehearsal; but they had left word that he was to be pleased to wait, they would appear from one moment to the other. It was further mentioned to him, as he was ushered into the drawing-room, that Mr. Dashwood was in possession of that ground. This circumstance, however, Peter barely noted: he had been soaring so high for the past twelve hours that he had almost lost consciousness of the minor differences of earthly things. He had taken Biddy Dormer and her friend Miss Tressilian home from the play and after leaving them had walked about the streets, had roamed back to his sister’s house, in a state of exaltation the intenser from his having for the previous time contained himself, thinking it more decorous and considerate, less invidious and less blatant, not to “rave.” Sitting there in the shade of the box with his companions he had watched Miriam in attentive but inexpressive silence, glowing and vibrating inwardly, yet for these fine, deep reasons not committing himself to the spoken rapture. Delicacy, it appeared to him, should rule the hour; and indeed he had never had a pleasure less alloyed than this little period of still observation and repressed ecstasy. Miriam’s art lost nothing by it, and Biddy’s mild nearness only gained. This young lady was virtually mute as well — wonderingly, dauntedly, as if she too associated with the performer various other questions than that of her mastery of her art. To this mastery Biddy’s attitude was a candid and liberal tribute: the poor girl sat quenched and pale, as if in the blinding light of a comparison by which it would be presumptuous even to be annihilated. Her subjection, however, was a gratified, a charmed subjection: there was beneficence in such beauty — the beauty of the figure that moved before the footlights and spoke in music — even if it deprived one of hope. Peter didn’t say to her in vulgar elation and in reference to her whimsical profession of dislike at the studio, “Well, do you find our friend so disagreeable now?” and she was grateful to him for his forbearance, for the tacit kindness of which the idea seemed to be: “My poor child, I’d prefer you if I could; but — judge for yourself — how can I? Expect of me only the possible. Expect that certainly, but only that.” In the same degree Peter liked Biddy’s sweet, hushed air of judging for herself, of recognising his discretion and letting him off while she was lost in the illusion, in the convincing picture of the stage. Miss Tressilian did most of the criticism: she broke out cheerfully and sonorously from time to time, in reference to the actress, “Most striking certainly,” or “She is clever, isn’t she?” She uttered a series of propositions to which her companions found it impossible to respond. Miss Tressilian was disappointed in nothing but their enjoyment: they didn’t seem to think the exhibition as amusing as she.

Walking away through the ordered void of Lady Agnes’s quarter, with the four acts of the play glowing again before him in the smokeless London night, Peter found the liveliest thing in his impression the certitude that if he had never seen Miriam before and she had had for him none of the advantages of association, he would still have recognised in her performance the richest interest the theatre had ever offered him. He floated in the felicity of it, in the general encouragement of a sense of the perfectly done, in the almost aggressive bravery of still larger claims for an art which could so triumphantly, so exquisitely render life. “Render it?” he said to himself. “Create it and reveal it, rather; give us something new and large and of the first order!” He had seen Miriam now; he had never seen her before; he had never seen her till he saw her in her conditions. Oh her conditions — there were many things to be said about them; they were paltry enough as yet, inferior, inadequate, obstructive, as compared with the right, full, finished setting of such a talent; but the essence of them was now, irremovably, in our young man’s eyes, the vision of how the uplifted stage and the listening house transformed her. That idea of her having no character of her own came back to him with a force that made him laugh in the empty street: this was a disadvantage she reduced so to nothing that obviously he hadn’t known her till to-night. Her character was simply to hold you by the particular spell; any other — the good nature of home, the relation to her mother, her friends, her lovers, her debts, the practice of virtues or industries or vices — was not worth speaking of. These things were the fictions and shadows; the representation was the deep substance.

Peter had as he went an intense vision — he had often had it before — of the conditions still absent, the great and complete ones, those which would give the girl’s talent a superior, a discussable stage. More than ever he desired them, mentally invoked them, filled them out in imagination, cheated himself with the idea that they were possible. He saw them in a momentary illusion and confusion: a great academic, artistic theatre, subsidised and unburdened with money-getting, rich in its repertory, rich in the high quality and the wide array of its servants, rich above all in the authority of an impossible administrator — a manager personally disinterested, not an actor with an eye to the main chance; pouring forth a continuity of tradition, striving for perfection, laying a splendid literature under contribution. He saw the heroine of a hundred “situations,” variously dramatic and vividly real; he saw comedy and drama and passion and character and English life; he saw all humanity and history and poetry, and then perpetually, in the midst of them, shining out in the high relief of some great moment, an image as fresh as an unveiled statue. He was not unconscious that he was taking all sorts of impossibilities and miracles for granted; but he was under the conviction, for the time, that the woman he had been watching three hours, the incarnation of the serious drama, would be a new and vivifying force. The world was just then so bright to him that even Basil Dashwood struck him at first as a conceivable agent of his dream.

It must be added that before Miriam arrived the breeze that filled Sherringham’s sail began to sink a little. He passed out of the eminently “let” drawing-room, where twenty large photographs of the young actress bloomed in the desert; he went into the garden by a glass door that stood open, and found Mr. Dashwood lolling on a bench and smoking cigarettes. This young man’s conversation was a different music — it took him down, as he felt; showed him, very sensibly and intelligibly, it must be confessed, the actual theatre, the one they were all concerned with, the one they would have to make the miserable best of. It was fortunate that he kept his intoxication mainly to himself: the Englishman’s habit of not being effusive still prevailed with him after his years of exposure to the foreign infection. Nothing could have been less exclamatory than the meeting of the two men, with its question or two, its remark or two, about the new visitor’s arrival in London; its off-hand “I noticed you last night, I was glad you turned up at last” on one side and its attenuated “Oh yes, it was the first time; I was very much interested” on the other. Basil Dashwood played a part in Yolande and Peter had not failed to take with some comfort the measure of his aptitude. He judged it to be of the small order, as indeed the part, which was neither that of the virtuous nor that of the villainous hero, restricted him to two or three inconspicuous effects and three or four changes of dress. He represented an ardent but respectful young lover whom the distracted heroine found time to pity a little and even to rail at; but it was impressed upon his critic that he scarcely represented young love. He looked very well, but Peter had heard him already in a hundred contemporary pieces; he never got out of rehearsal. He uttered sentiments and breathed vows with a nice voice, with a shy, boyish tremor, but as if he were afraid of being chaffed for it afterwards; giving the spectator in the stalls the sense of holding the prompt-book and listening to a recitation. He made one think of country-houses and lawn-tennis and private theatricals; than which there couldn’t be, to Peter’s mind, a range of association more disconnected from the actor’s art.

Dashwood knew all about the new thing, the piece in rehearsal; he knew all about everything — receipts and salaries and expenses and newspaper articles, and what old Baskerville said and what Mrs. Ruffler thought: matters of superficial concern to his fellow-guest, who wondered, before they had sight of Miriam, if she talked with her “walking-gentleman” about them by the hour, deep in them and finding them not vulgar and boring but the natural air of her life and the essence of her profession. Of course she did — she naturally would; it was all in the day’s work and he might feel sure she wouldn’t turn up her nose at the shop. He had to remind himself that he didn’t care if she didn’t, that he would really think worse of her if she should. She certainly was in deep with her bland playmate, talking shop by the hour: he could see this from the fellow’s ease of attitude, the air of a man at home and doing the honours. He divined a great intimacy between the two young artists, but asked himself at the same time what he, Peter Sherringham, had to say about it. He didn’t pretend to control Miriam’s intimacies, it was to be supposed; and if he had encouraged her to adopt a profession rich in opportunities for comradeship it was not for him to cry out because she had taken to it kindly. He had already descried a fund of utility in Mrs. Lovick’s light brother; but it irritated him, all the same, after a while, to hear the youth represent himself as almost indispensable. He was practical — there was no doubt of that; and this idea added to Peter’s paradoxical sense that as regards the matters actually in question he himself had not this virtue. Dashwood had got Mrs. Rooth the house; it happened by a lucky chance that Laura Lumley, to whom it belonged — Sherringham would know Laura Lumley? — wanted to get rid, for a mere song, of the remainder of the lease. She was going to Australia with a troupe of her own. They just stepped into it; it was good air — the best sort of London air to live in, to sleep in, for people of their trade. Peter came back to his wonder at what Miriam’s personal relations with this deucedly knowing gentleman might be, and was again able to assure himself that they might be anything in the world she liked, for any stake he, the familiar of the Foreign Office, had in them. Dashwood told him of all the smart people who had tried to take up the new star — the way the London world had already held out its hand; and perhaps it was Sherringham’s irritation, the crushed sentiment I just mentioned, that gave a little heave in the exclamation, “Oh that — that’s all rubbish: the less of that the better!” At this Mr. Dashwood sniffed a little, rather resentful; he had expected Peter to be pleased with the names of the eager ladies who had “called”— which proved how low a view he took of his art. Our friend explained — it is to be hoped not pedantically — that this art was serious work and that society was humbug and imbecility; also that of old the great comedians wouldn’t have known such people. Garrick had essentially his own circle.

“No, I suppose they didn’t ‘call’ in the old narrow-minded time,” said Basil Dashwood.

“Your profession didn’t call. They had better company — that of the romantic gallant characters they represented. They lived with them, so it was better all round.” And Peter asked himself — for that clearly struck the young man as a dreary period — if he only, for Miriam, in her new life and among the futilities of those who tried to lionise her, expressed the artistic idea. This at least, Sherringham reflected, was a situation that could be improved.

He learned from his companion that the new play, the thing they were rehearsing, was an old play, a romantic drama of thirty years before, very frequently revived and threadbare with honourable service. Dashwood had a part in it, but there was an act in which he didn’t appear, and this was the act they were doing that morning. Yolande had done all Yolande could do; the visitor was mistaken if he supposed Yolande such a tremendous hit. It had done very well, it had run three months, but they were by no means coining money with it. It wouldn’t take them to the end of the season; they had seen for a month past that they would have to put on something else. Miss Rooth, moreover, wanted a new part; she was above all impatient to show her big range. She had grand ideas; she thought herself very good-natured to repeat the same stuff for three months. The young man lighted another cigarette and described to his listener some of Miss Rooth’s ideas. He abounded in information about her — about her character, her temper, her peculiarities, her little ways, her manner of producing some of her effects. He spoke with familiarity and confidence, as if knowing more about her than any one else — as if he had invented or discovered her, were in a sense her proprietor or guarantor. It was the talk of the shop, both with a native sharpness and a touching young candour; the expansion of the commercial spirit when it relaxes and generalises, is conscious of safety with another member of the guild.

Peter at any rate couldn’t help protesting against the lame old war-horse it was proposed to bring into action, who had been ridden to death and had saved a thousand desperate fields; and he exclaimed on the strange passion of the good British public for sitting again and again through expected situations, watching for speeches they had heard and surprises that struck the hour. Dashwood defended the taste of London, praised it as loyal, constant, faithful; to which his interlocutor retorted with some vivacity that it was faithful to sad trash. He justified this sally by declaring the play in rehearsal sad trash, clumsy mediocrity with all its convenience gone, and that the fault was the want of life in the critical sense of the public, which was ignobly docile, opening its mouth for its dose like the pupils of Dotheboys Hall; not insisting on something different, on a fresh brew altogether. Dashwood asked him if he then wished their friend to go on playing for ever a part she had repeated more than eighty nights on end: he thought the modern “run” was just what he had heard him denounce in Paris as the disease the theatre was dying of. This imputation Peter quite denied, wanting to know if she couldn’t change to something less stale than the greatest staleness of all. Dashwood opined that Miss Rooth must have a strong part and that there happened to be one for her in the before-mentioned venerable novelty. She had to take what she could get — she wasn’t a person to cry for the moon. This was a stop-gap — she would try other things later; she would have to look round her; you couldn’t have a new piece, one that would do, left at your door every day with the milk. On one point Sherringham’s mind might be at rest: Miss Rooth was a woman who would do every blessed thing there was to do. Give her time and she would walk straight through the repertory. She was a woman who would do this — she was a woman who would do that: her spokesman employed this phrase so often that Peter, nervous, got up and threw an unsmoked cigarette away. Of course she was a woman; there was no need of his saying it a hundred times.

As for the repertory, the young man went on, the most beautiful girl in the world could give but what she had. He explained, after their visitor sat down again, that the noise made by Miss Rooth was not exactly what this admirer appeared to suppose. Sherringham had seen the house the night before and would recognise that, though good, it was very far from great. She had done very well, it was all right, but she had never gone above a point which Dashwood expressed in pounds sterling, to the edification of his companion, who vaguely thought the figure high. Peter remembered that he had been unable to get a stall, but Dashwood insisted that “Miriam” had not leaped into commanding fame: that was a thing that never happened in fact — it happened only in grotesque works of fiction. She had attracted notice, unusual notice for a woman whose name, the day before, had never been heard of: she was recognised as having, for a novice, extraordinary cleverness and confidence — in addition to her looks, of course, which were the thing that had really fetched the crowd. But she hadn’t been the talk of London; she had only been the talk of Gabriel Nash. He wasn’t London, more was the pity. He knew the esthetic people — the worldly, semi-smart ones, not the frumpy, sickly lot who wore dirty drapery; and the esthetic people had run after her. Mr. Dashwood sketchily instructed the pilgrim from Paris as to the different sects in the great religion of beauty, and was able to give him the particular “note” of the critical clique to which Miriam had begun so quickly to owe it that she had a vogue. The information made our friend feel very ignorant of the world, very uninitiated and buried in his little professional hole. Dashwood warned him that it would be a long time before the general public would wake up to Miss Rooth, even after she had waked up to herself; she would have to do some really big thing first. They knew it was in her, the big thing — Peter and he and even poor Nash — because they had seen her as no one else had; but London never took any one on trust — it had to be cash down. It would take their young lady two or three years to pay out her cash and get her equivalent. But of course the equivalent would be simply a gold-mine. Within its limits, however, certainly, the mark she had made was already quite a fairy-tale: there was magic in the way she had concealed from the first her want of experience. She absolutely made you think she had a lot of it, more than any one else. Mr. Dashwood repeated several times that she was a cool hand — a deucedly cool hand, and that he watched her himself, saw ideas come to her, saw her have different notions, and more or less put them to the test, on different nights. She was always alive — she liked it herself. She gave him ideas, long as he had been on the stage. Naturally she had a great deal to learn, no end even of quite basic things; a cosmopolite like Sherringham would understand that a girl of that age, who had never had a friend but her mother — her mother was greater fun than ever now — naturally would have. Sherringham winced at being dubbed a “cosmopolite” by his young entertainer, just as he had winced a moment before at hearing himself lumped in esoteric knowledge with Dashwood and Gabriel Nash; but the former of these gentlemen took no account of his sensibility while he enumerated a few of the elements of the “basic.” He was a mixture of acuteness and innocent fatuity; and Peter had to recognise in him a rudiment or two of criticism when he said that the wonderful thing in the girl was that she learned so fast — learned something every night, learned from the same old piece a lot more than any one else would have learned from twenty. “That’s what it is to be a genius,” Peter concurred. “Genius is only the art of getting your experience fast, of stealing it, as it were; and in this sense Miss Rooth’s a regular brigand.” Dashwood condoned the subtlety and added less analytically, “Oh she’ll do!” It was exactly in these simple words, addressed to her, that her other admirer had phrased the same truth; yet he didn’t enjoy hearing them on his neighbour’s lips: they had a profane, patronising sound and suggested displeasing equalities.

The two men sat in silence for some minutes, watching a fat robin hop about on the little seedy lawn; at the end of which they heard a vehicle stop on the other side of the garden-wall and the voices of occupants alighting. “Here they come, the dear creatures,” said Basil Dashwood without moving; and from where they sat Peter saw the small door in the wall pushed open. The dear creatures were three in number, for a gentleman had added himself to Mrs. Rooth and her daughter. As soon as Miriam’s eyes took in her Parisian friend she fell into a large, droll, theatrical attitude and, seizing her mother’s arm, exclaimed passionately: “Look where he sits, the author of all my woes — cold, cynical, cruel!” She was evidently in the highest spirits; of which Mrs. Rooth partook as she cried indulgently, giving her a slap, “Oh get along, you gypsy!”

“She’s always up to something,” Dashwood laughed as Miriam, radiant and with a conscious stage tread, glided toward Sherringham as if she were coming to the footlights. He rose slowly from his seat, looking at her and struck with her beauty: he had been impatient to see her, yet in the act his impatience had had a disconcerting check.

He had had time to note that the man who had come in with her was Gabriel Nash, and this recognition brought a low sigh to his lips as he held out his hand to her — a sigh expressive of the sudden sense that his interest in her now could only be a gross community. Of course that didn’t matter, since he had set it, at the most, such rigid limits; but he none the less felt vividly reminded that it would be public and notorious, that inferior people would be inveterately mixed up with it, that she had crossed the line and sold herself to the vulgar, making him indeed only one of an equalised multitude. The way Nash turned up there just when he didn’t want to see him proved how complicated a thing it was to have a friendship with a young woman so clearly booked for renown. He quite forgot that the intruder had had this object of interest long before his own first view of it and had been present at that passage, which he had in a measure brought about. Had Sherringham not been so cut out to make trouble of this particular joy he might have found some adequate assurance that their young hostess distinguished him in the way in which, taking his hand in both of hers, she looked up at him and murmured, “Dear old master!” Then as if this were not acknowledgment enough she raised her head still higher and, whimsically, gratefully, charmingly, almost nobly, kissed him on the lips before the other men, before the good mother whose “Oh you honest creature!” made everything regular.

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