The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXI

If he was ruffled by some of her conditions there was thus comfort and consolation to be drawn from others, beside the essential fascination — so small the doubt of that now — of the young lady’s own society. He spent the afternoon, they all spent the afternoon, and the occasion reminded him of pages in Wilhelm Meister. He himself could pass for Wilhelm, and if Mrs. Rooth had little resemblance to Mignon, Miriam was remarkably like Philina. The movable feast awaiting them — luncheon, tea, dinner? — was delayed two or three hours; but the interval was a source of gaiety, for they all smoked cigarettes in the garden and Miriam gave striking illustrations of the parts she was studying. Peter was in the state of a man whose toothache has suddenly stopped — he was exhilarated by the cessation of pain. The pain had been the effort to remain in Paris after the creature in the world in whom he was most interested had gone to London, and the balm of seeing her now was the measure of the previous soreness.

Gabriel Nash had, as usual, plenty to say, and he talked of Nick’s picture so long that Peter wondered if he did it on purpose to vex him. They went in and out of the house; they made excursions to see what form the vague meal was taking; and Sherringham got half an hour alone, or virtually alone, with the mistress of his unsanctioned passion — drawing her publicly away from the others and making her sit with him in the most sequestered part of the little gravelled grounds. There was summer enough for the trees to shut out the adjacent villas, and Basil Dashwood and Gabriel Nash lounged together at a convenient distance while Nick’s whimsical friend dropped polished pebbles, sometimes audibly splashing, into the deep well of the histrionic simplicity. Miriam confessed that like all comedians they ate at queer hours; she sent Dashwood in for biscuits and sherry — she proposed sending him round to the grocer’s in the Circus Road for superior wine. Peter judged him the factotum of the little household: he knew where the biscuits were kept and the state of the grocer’s account. When he himself congratulated her on having so useful an inmate she said genially, but as if the words disposed of him, “Oh he’s awfully handy.” To this she added, “You’re not, you know”; resting the kindest, most pitying eyes on him. The sensation they gave him was as sweet as if she had stroked his cheek, and her manner was responsive even to tenderness. She called him “Dear master” again and again, and still often “Cher maître,” and appeared to express gratitude and reverence by every intonation.

“You’re doing the humble dependent now,” he said: “you do it beautifully, as you do everything.” She replied that she didn’t make it humble enough — she couldn’t; she was too proud, too insolent in her triumph. She liked that, the triumph, too much, and she didn’t mind telling him she was perfectly happy. Of course as yet the triumph was very limited; but success was success, whatever its quantity; the dish was a small one but had the right taste. Her imagination had already bounded beyond the first phase unexpectedly great as this had been: her position struck her as modest compared with the probably future now vivid to her. Peter had never seen her so soft and sympathetic; she had insisted in Paris that her personal character was that of the good girl — she used the term in a fine loose way — and it was impossible to be a better girl than she showed herself this pleasant afternoon. She was full of gossip and anecdote and drollery; she had exactly the air he would have wished her to have — that of thinking of no end of things to tell him. It was as if she had just returned from a long journey and had had strange adventures and made wonderful discoveries. She began to speak of this and that, then broke off to speak of something else; she talked of the theatre, of the “critics,” and above all of London, of the people she had met and the extraordinary things they said to her, of the parts she was going to take up, of lots of new ideas that had come to her about the art of comedy. She wanted to do comedy now — to do the comedy of London life. She was delighted to find that seeing more of the world suggested things to her; they came straight from the fact, from nature, if you could call it nature; she was thus convinced more than ever that the artist ought to live so as to get on with his business, gathering ideas and lights from experience — ought to welcome any experience that would give him lights. But work of course was experience, and everything in one’s life that was good was work. That was the jolly thing in the actor’s trade — it made up for other elements that were odious: if you only kept your eyes open nothing could happen to you that wouldn’t be food for observation and grist to your mill, showing you how people looked and moved and spoke, cried and grimaced, writhed and dissimulated, in given situations. She saw all round her things she wanted to “do”— London bristled with them if you had eyes to see. She was fierce to know why people didn’t take them up, put them into plays and parts, give one a chance with them; she expressed her sharp impatience of the general literary bétise. She had never been chary of this particular displeasure, and there were moments — it was an old story and a subject of frank raillery to Sherringham — when to hear her you might have thought there was no cleverness anywhere but in her own splendid impatience. She wanted tremendous things done that she might use them, but she didn’t pretend to say exactly what they were to be, nor even approximately how they were to be handled: her ground was rather that if she only had a pen — it was exasperating to have to explain! She mainly contented herself with the view that nothing had really been touched: she felt that more and more as she saw more of people’s goings-on.

Peter went to her theatre again that evening and indeed made no scruple of going every night for a week. Rather perhaps I should say he made a scruple, but a high part of the pleasure of his life during these arbitrary days was to overcome it. The only way to prove he could overcome it was to go; and he was satisfied, after he had been seven times, not only with the spectacle on the stage but with his perfect independence. He knew no satiety, however, with the spectacle on the stage, which induced for him but a further curiosity. Miriam’s performance was a thing alive, with a power to change, to grow, to develop, to beget new forms of the same life. Peter contributed to it in his amateurish way and watched with solicitude the effect of his care and the fortune of his hints. He talked it over in Balaklava Place, suggested modifications and variations worth trying. She professed herself thankful for any refreshment that could be administered to her interest in Yolande, and with an energy that showed large resource touched up her part and drew several new airs from it. Peter’s liberties bore on her way of uttering certain speeches, the intonations that would have more beauty or make the words mean more. She had her ideas, or rather she had her instincts, which she defended and illustrated, with a vividness superior to argument, by a happy pictorial phrase or a snatch of mimicry; but she was always for trying; she liked experiments and caught at them, and she was especially thankful when some one gave her a showy reason, a plausible formula, in a case where she only stood on an intuition. She pretended to despise reasons and to like and dislike at her sovereign pleasure; but she always honoured the exotic gift, so that Sherringham was amused with the liberal way she produced it, as if she had been a naked islander rejoicing in a present of crimson cloth.

Day after day he spent most of his time in her society, and Miss Laura Lumley’s recent habitation became the place in London to which his thoughts and his steps were most attached. He was highly conscious of his not now carrying out that principle of abstention he had brought to such maturity before leaving Paris; but he contented himself with a much cruder justification of this lapse than he would have thought adequate in advance. It consisted simply in the idea that to be identified with the first fresh exploits of a young genius was a delightful experience. What was the harm of it when the genius was real? His main security was thus that his relations with Miriam had been placed under the protection of that idea of approved extravagance. In this department they made a very creditable figure and required much less watching and pruning than when it had been his effort to adjust them to a worldly plan. He had in fine a sense of real wisdom when he pronounced it surely enough that this momentary intellectual participation in the girl’s dawning fame was a charming thing. Charming things were not frequent enough in a busy man’s life to be kicked out of the way. Balaklava Place, looked at in this philosophic way, became almost idyllic: it gave Peter the pleasantest impression he had ever had of London.

The season happened to be remarkably fine; the temperature was high, but not so high as to keep people from the theatre. Miriam’s “business” visibly increased, so that the question of putting on the second play underwent some revision. The girl persisted, showing in her persistence a temper of which Peter had already caught some sharp gleams. It was plain that through her career she would expect to carry things with a high hand. Her managers and agents wouldn’t find her an easy victim or a calculable force; but the public would adore her, surround her with the popularity that attaches to a good-natured and free-spoken princess, and her comrades would have a kindness for her because she wouldn’t be selfish. They too would, besides representing her body-guard, form in a manner a portion of her affectionate public. This was the way her friend read the signs, liking her whimsical tolerance of some of her vulgar playfellows almost well enough to forgive their presence in Balaklava Place, where they were a sore trial to her mother, who wanted her to multiply her points of contact only with the higher orders. There were hours when Peter seemed to make out that her principal relation to the proper world would be to have within two or three years a grand battle with it resulting in its taking her, should she let it have her at all, absolutely on her own terms: a picture which led our young man to ask himself with a helplessness that was not exempt, as he perfectly knew, from absurdity, what part he should find himself playing in such a contest and if it would be reserved to him to be the more ridiculous as a peacemaker or as a heavy backer.

“She might know any one she would, and the only person she appears to take any pleasure in is that dreadful Miss Rover,” Mrs. Rooth whimpered to him more than once — leading him thus to recognise in the young lady so designated the principal complication of Balaklava Place. Miss Rover was a little actress who played at Miriam’s theatre, combining with an unusual aptitude for delicate comedy a less exceptional absence of rigour in private life. She was pretty and quick and brave, and had a fineness that Miriam professed herself already in a position to estimate as rare. She had no control of her inclinations, yet sometimes they were wholly laudable, like the devotion she had formed for her beautiful colleague, whom she admired not only as an ornament of the profession but as a being altogether of a more fortunate essence. She had had an idea that real ladies were “nasty,” but Miriam was not nasty, and who could gainsay that Miriam was a real lady? The girl justified herself to her patron from Paris, who had found no fault with her; she knew how much her mother feared the proper world wouldn’t come in if they knew that the improper, in the person of pretty Miss Rover, was on the ground. What did she care who came and who didn’t, and what was to be gained by receiving half the snobs in London? People would have to take her exactly as they found her — that they would have to learn; and they would be much mistaken if they thought her capable of turning snob too for the sake of their sweet company. She didn’t pretend to be anything but what she meant to be, the best general actress of her time; and what had that to do with her seeing or not seeing a poor ignorant girl who had loved — well, she needn’t say what Fanny had done. They had met in the way of business; she didn’t say she would have run after her. She had liked her because she wasn’t a slick, and when Fanny Rover had asked her quite wistfully if she mightn’t come and see her and like her she hadn’t bristled with scandalised virtue. Miss Rover wasn’t a bit more stupid or more ill-natured than any one else; it would be time enough to shut the door when she should become so.

Peter commended even to extravagance the liberality of such comradeship; said that of course a woman didn’t go into that profession to see how little she could swallow. She was right to live with the others so long as they were at all possible, and it was for her and only for her to judge how long that might be. This was rather heroic on his part, for his assumed detachment from the girl’s personal life still left him a margin for some forms of uneasiness. It would have made in his spirit a great difference for the worse that the woman he loved, and for whom he wished no baser lover than himself, should have embraced the prospect of consorting only with the cheaper kind. It was all very well, but Fanny Rover was simply a rank cabotine, and that sort of association was an odd training for a young woman who was to have been good enough — he couldn’t forget that, but kept remembering it as if it might still have a future use — to be his admired wife. Certainly he ought to have thought of such things before he permitted himself to become so interested in a theatrical nature. His heroism did him service, however, for the hour; it helped him by the end of the week to feel quite broken in to Miriam’s little circle. What helped him most indeed was to reflect that she would get tired of a good many of its members herself in time; for if it was not that they were shocking — very few of them shone with that intense light — they could yet be thoroughly trusted in the long run to bore you.

There was a lovely Sunday in particular, spent by him almost all in Balaklava Place — he arrived so early — when, in the afternoon, every sort of odd person dropped in. Miriam held a reception in the little garden and insisted on all the company’s staying to supper. Her mother shed tears to Peter, in the desecrated house, because they had accepted, Miriam and she, an invitation — and in Cromwell Road too — for the evening. Miriam had now decreed they shouldn’t go — they would have so much better fun with their good friends at home. She was sending off a message — it was a terrible distance — by a cabman, and Peter had the privilege of paying the messenger. Basil Dashwood, in another vehicle, proceeded to an hotel known to him, a mile away, for supplementary provisions, and came back with a cold ham and a dozen of champagne. It was all very Bohemian and dishevelled and delightful, very supposedly droll and enviable to outsiders; and Miriam told anecdotes and gave imitations of the people she would have met if she had gone out, so that no one had a sense of loss — the two occasions were fantastically united. Mrs. Rooth drank champagne for consolation, though the consolation was imperfect when she remembered she might have drunk it, though not quite so much perhaps, in Cromwell Road.

Taken in connection with the evening before, the day formed for our friend the most complete exhibition of his young woman he had yet enjoyed. He had been at the theatre, to which the Saturday night happened to have brought the very fullest house she had played to, and he came early to Balaklava Place, to tell her once again — he had told her half-a-dozen times the evening before — that with the excitement of her biggest audience she had surpassed herself, acted with remarkable intensity. It pleased her to hear this, and the spirit with which she interpreted the signs of the future and, during an hour he spent alone with her, Mrs. Rooth being upstairs and Basil Dashwood luckily absent, treated him to twenty specimens of feigned passion and character, was beyond any natural abundance he had yet seen in a woman. The impression could scarcely have been other if she had been playing wild snatches to him at the piano: the bright up-darting flame of her talk rose and fell like an improvisation on the keys. Later, the rest of the day, he could as little miss the good grace with which she fraternised with her visitors, finding always the fair word for each — the key to a common ease, the right turn to keep vanity quiet and make humility brave. It was a wonderful expenditure of generous, nervous life. But what he read in it above all was the sense of success in youth, with the future loose and big, and the action of that charm on the faculties. Miriam’s limited past had yet pinched her enough to make emancipation sweet, and the emancipation had come at last in an hour. She had stepped into her magic shoes, divined and appropriated everything they could help her to, become in a day a really original contemporary. He was of course not less conscious of that than Nick Dormer had been when in the cold light of his studio this more detached observer saw too how she had altered.

But the great thing to his mind, and during these first days the irresistible seduction of the theatre, was that she was a rare revelation of beauty. Beauty was the principle of everything she did and of the way she unerringly did it — an exquisite harmony of line and motion and attitude and tone, what was at once most general and most special in her performance. Accidents and instincts played together to this end and constituted something that was independent of her talent or of her merit in a given case, and which as a value to Peter’s imagination was far superior to any merit and any talent. He could but call it a felicity and an importance incalculable, and but know that it connected itself with universal values. To see this force in operation, to sit within its radius and feel it shift and revolve and change and never fail, was a corrective to the depression, the humiliation, the bewilderment of life. It transported our troubled friend from the vulgar hour and the ugly fact; drew him to something that had no warrant but its sweetness, no name nor place save as the pure, the remote, the antique. It was what most made him say to himself “Oh hang it, what does it matter?” when he reflected that an homme sérieux, as they said in Paris, rather gave himself away, as they said in America, by going every night to the same sordid stall at which all the world might stare. It was what kept him from doing anything but hover round Miriam — kept him from paying any other visits, from attending to any business, from going back to Calcutta Gardens. It was a spell he shrank intensely from breaking and the cause of a hundred postponements, confusions, and absurdities. It put him in a false position altogether, but it made of the crooked little stucco villa in Saint John’s Wood a place in the upper air, commanding the prospect; a nest of winged liberties and ironies far aloft above the huddled town. One should live at altitudes when one could — they braced and simplified; and for a happy interval he never touched the earth.

It was not that there were no influences tending at moments to drag him down — an abasement from which he escaped only because he was up so high. We have seen that Basil Dashwood could affect him at times as a chunk of wood tied to his ankle — this through the circumstance that he made Miriam’s famous conditions, those of the public exhibition of her genius, seem small and prosaic; so that Peter had to remind himself how much this smallness was perhaps involved in their being at all. She carried his imagination off into infinite spaces, whereas she carried Dashwood’s only into the box-office and the revival of plays that were barbarously bad. The worst was its being so open to him to see that a sharp young man really in the business might know better than he. Another vessel of superior knowledge — he talked, that is, as if he knew better than any one — was Gabriel Nash, who lacked no leisure for hatefully haunting Balaklava Place, or in other words appeared to enjoy the same command of his time as Peter Sherringham. The pilgrim from Paris regarded him with mingled feelings, for he had not forgotten the contentious character of their first meeting or the degree to which he had been moved to urge upon Nick Dormer’s consideration that his talkative friend was probably one of the most eminent of asses. This personage turned up now as an admirer of the charming creature he had scoffed at, and there was much to exasperate in the smooth gloss of his inconsistency, at which he never cast an embarrassed glance. He practised indeed such loose license of regard to every question that it was difficult, in vulgar parlance, to “have” him; his sympathies hummed about like bees in a garden, with no visible plan, no economy in their flight. He thought meanly of the modern theatre and yet had discovered a fund of satisfaction in the most promising of its exponents; and Peter could more than once but say to him that he should really, to keep his opinions at all in hand, attach more value to the stage or less to the interesting a tress. Miriam took her perfect ease at his expense and treated him as the most abject of her slaves: all of which was worth seeing as an exhibition, on Nash’s part, of the beautifully imperturbable. When Peter all too grossly pronounced him “damned” impudent he always felt guilty later on of an injustice — Nash had so little the air of a man with something to gain. He was aware nevertheless of a certain itching in his boot-toe when his fellow-visitor brought out, and for the most part to Miriam herself, in answer to any charge of tergiversation, “Oh it’s all right; it’s the voice, you know — the enchanting voice!” Nash meant by this, as indeed he more fully set forth, that he came to the theatre or to the villa simply to treat his ear to the sound — the richest then to be heard on earth, as he maintained — issuing from Miriam’s lips. Its richness was quite independent of the words she might pronounce or the poor fable they might subserve, and if the pleasure of hearing her in public was the greater by reason of the larger volume of her utterance it was still highly agreeable to see her at home, for it was there the strictly mimetic gift he freely conceded to her came out most. He spoke as if she had been formed by the bounty of nature to be his particular recreation, and as if, being an expert in innocent joys, he took his pleasure wherever he found it.

He was perpetually in the field, sociable, amiable, communicative, inveterately contradicted but never confounded, ready to talk to any one about anything and making disagreement — of which he left the responsibility wholly to others — a basis of harmony. Every one knew what he thought of the theatrical profession, and yet who could say he didn’t regard, its members as embodiments of comedy when he touched with such a hand the spring of their foibles? — touched it with an art that made even Peter laugh, notwithstanding his attitude of reserve where this interloper was concerned. At any rate, though he had committed himself as to their general fatuity he put up with their company, for the sake of Miriam’s vocal vibrations, with a practical philosophy that was all his own. And she frankly took him for her supreme, her incorrigible adorer, masquerading as a critic to save his vanity and tolerated for his secret constancy in spite of being a bore. He was meanwhile really not a bore to Peter, who failed of the luxury of being able to regard him as one. He had seen too many strange countries and curious things, observed and explored too much, to be void of illustration. Peter had a sense that if he himself was in the grandes espaces Gabriel had probably, as a finer critic, a still wider range. If among Miriam’s associates Mr. Dashwood dragged him down, the other main sharer of his privilege challenged him rather to higher and more fantastic flights. If he saw the girl in larger relations than the young actor, who mainly saw her in ill-written parts, Nash went a step further and regarded her, irresponsibly and sublimely, as a priestess of harmony, a figure with which the vulgar ideas of success and failure had nothing to do. He laughed at her “parts,” holding that without them she would still be great. Peter envied him his power to content himself with the pleasures he could get; Peter had a shrewd impression that contentment wouldn’t be the final sweetener of his own repast.

Above all Nash held his attention by a constant element of easy reference to Nick Dormer, who, as we know, had suddenly become much more interesting to his kinsman. Peter found food for observation, and in some measure for perplexity, in the relations of all these clever people with each other. He knew why his sister, who had a personal impatience of unapplied ideas, had not been agreeably affected by Miriam’s prime patron and had not felt happy about the attribution of value to “such people” by the man she was to marry. This was a side on which he had no desire to resemble Julia, for he needed no teaching to divine that Nash must have found her accessible to no light — none even about himself. He, Peter, would have been sorry to have to confess he couldn’t more or less understand him. He understood furthermore that Miriam, in Nick’s studio, might very well have appeared to Julia a formidable force. She was younger and would have “seen nothing,” but she had quite as much her own resources and was beautiful enough to have made Nick compare her with the lady of Harsh even if he had been in love with that benefactress — a pretension as to which her brother, as we know, entertained doubts.

Peter at all events saw for many days nothing of his cousin, though it might have been said that Nick participated by implication at least in the life of Balaklava Place. Had he given Julia tangible grounds and was his unexpectedly fine rendering of Miriam an act of virtual infidelity? In that case to what degree was the girl to be regarded as an accomplice in his defection, and what was the real nature of Miriam’s esteem for her new and (as he might be called) distinguished ally? These questions would have given Peter still more to think about had he not flattered himself he had made up his mind that they concerned Nick and his sitter herself infinitely more than they concerned any one else. That young lady meanwhile was personally before him, so that he had no need to consult for his pleasure his fresh recollection of the portrait. But he thought of this striking production each time he thought of his so good-looking kinsman’s variety of range. And that happened often, for in his hearing Miriam often discussed the happy artist and his possibilities with Gabriel Nash, and Nash broke out about them to all who might hear. Her own tone on the subject was uniform: she kept it on record to a degree slightly irritating that Mr. Dormer had been unforgettably — Peter particularly noted “unforgettably”— kind to her. She never mentioned Julia’s irruption to Julia’s brother; she only referred to the portrait, with inscrutable amenity, as a direct consequence of this gentleman’s fortunate suggestion that first day at Madame Carré‘s. Nash showed, however, such a disposition to dwell sociably and luminously on the peculiarly interesting character of what he called Dormer’s predicament and on the fine suspense it was fitted to kindle in the breast of the truly discerning, that Peter wondered, as I have already hinted, if this insistence were not a subtle perversity, a devilish little invention to torment a man whose jealousy was presumable. Yet his fellow-pilgrim struck him as on the whole but scantly devilish and as still less occupied with the prefigurement of so plain a man’s emotions. Indeed he threw a glamour of romance over Nick; tossed off toward him such illuminating yet mystifying references that they operated quite as a bait to curiosity, invested with amusement the view of the possible, any wish to follow out the chain of events. He learned from Gabriel that Nick was still away, and he then felt he could almost submit to instruction, to initiation. The loose charm of these days was troubled, however — it ceased to be idyllic — when late on the evening of the second Sunday he walked away with Nash southward from Saint John’s Wood. For then something came out.

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