The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXVI

The night Peter Sherringham walked away from Balaklava Place with Gabriel Nash the talk of the two men directed itself, as was natural at the time, to the question of Miriam’s future fame and the pace, as Nash called it, at which she would go. Critical spirits as they both were, and one of them as dissimulative in passion as the other was paradoxical in the absence of it, they yet took her career for granted as completely as the simple-minded, a pair of hot spectators in the pit, might have done, and exchanged observations on the assumption that the only uncertain element would be the pace. This was a proof of general subjugation. Peter wished not to show, yet wished to know, and in the restlessness of his anxiety was ready even to risk exposure, great as the sacrifice might be of the imperturbable, urbane scepticism most appropriate to a secretary of embassy. He couldn’t rid himself of the sense that Nash had got up earlier than he, had had opportunities of contact in days already distant, the days of Mrs. Rooth’s hungry foreign rambles. Something of authority and privilege stuck to him from this, and it made Sherringham still more uncomfortable when he was most conscious that, at the best, even the trained diplomatic mind would never get a grasp of Miriam as a whole. She was constructed to revolve like the terraqueous globe; some part or other of her was always out of sight or in shadow.

Peter talked to conceal his feelings, and, like many a man practising that indirectness, rather lost himself in the wood. They agreed that, putting strange accidents aside, the girl would go further than any one had gone in England within the memory of man; and that it was a pity, as regards marking the comparison, that for so long no one had gone any distance worth speaking of. They further agreed that it would naturally seem absurd to any one who didn’t know, their prophesying such big things on such small evidence; and they agreed lastly that the absurdity quite vanished as soon as the prophets knew as they knew. Their knowledge — they quite recognised this — was simply confidence raised to a high point, the communication of their young friend’s own confidence. The conditions were enormously to make, but it was of the very essence of Miriam’s confidence that she would make them. The parts, the plays, the theatres, the “support,” the audiences, the critics, the money were all to be found, but she cast a spell that prevented this from seeming a serious hitch. One mightn’t see from one day to the other what she would do or how she would do it, but this wouldn’t stay her steps — she would none the less go on. She would have to construct her own road, as it were, but at the worst there would only be delays in making it. These delays would depend on the hardness of the stones she had to break.

As Peter had noted, you never knew where to “have” Gabriel Nash; a truth exemplified in his unexpected delight at the prospect of Miriam’s drawing forth the modernness of the age. You might have thought he would loathe that modernness; but he had a joyous, amused, amusing vision of it — saw it as something huge and fantastically vulgar. Its vulgarity would rise to the grand style, like that of a London railway station, and the publicity achieved by their charming charge be as big as the globe itself. All the machinery was ready, the platform laid; the facilities, the wires and bells and trumpets, the roaring, deafening newspaperism of the period — its most distinctive sign — were waiting for her, their predestined mistress, to press her foot on the spring and set them all in motion. Gabriel brushed in a large, bright picture of her progress through the time and round the world, round it and round it again, from continent to continent and clime to clime; with populations and deputations, reporters and photographers, placards and interviews and banquets, steamers, railways, dollars, diamonds, speeches and artistic ruin all jumbled into her train. Regardless of expense the spectacle would be and thrilling, though somewhat monotonous, the drama — a drama more bustling than any she would put on the stage and a spectacle that would beat everything for scenery. In the end her divine voice would crack, screaming to foreign ears and antipodal barbarians, and her clever manner would lose all quality, simplified to a few unmistakable knock-down dodges. Then she would be at the fine climax of life and glory, still young and insatiate, but already coarse, hard, and raddled, with nothing left to do and nothing left to do it with, the remaining years all before her and the raison d’être all behind. It would be splendid, dreadful, grotesque.

“Oh, she’ll have some good years — they’ll be worth having,” Peter insisted as they went. “Besides, you see her too much as a humbug and too little as a real producer. She has ideas — great ones; she loves the thing for itself. That may keep a woman serious.”

“Her greatest idea must always be to show herself, and fortunately she has a great quantity of that treasure to show. I think of her absolutely as a real producer, but as a producer whose production is her own person. No ‘person,’ even as fine a one as hers, will stand that for more than an hour, so that humbuggery has very soon to lend a hand. However,” Nash continued, “if she’s a fine humbug it will do as well, it will perfectly suit the time. We can all be saved by vulgarity; that’s the solvent of all difficulties and the blessing of this delightful age. One doesn’t die of it — save in soul and sense: one dies only of minding it. Therefore let no man despair — a new hope has dawned.”

“She’ll do her work like any other worker, with the advantage over many that her talent’s rare,” Peter obliquely answered. “Compared with the life of many women that’s security and sanity of the highest order. Then she can’t help her beauty. You can’t vulgarise that.”

“Oh, can’t you?” Gabriel cried.

“It will abide with her till the day of her death. It isn’t a mere superficial freshness. She’s very noble.”

“Yes, that’s the pity of it,” said Nash. “She’s a big more or less directed force, and I quite admit that she’ll do for a while a lot of good. She’ll have brightened up the world for a great many people — have brought the ideal nearer to them and held it fast for an hour with its feet on earth and its great wings trembling. That’s always something, for blest is he who has dropped even the smallest coin into the little iron box that contains the precious savings of mankind. Miriam will doubtless have dropped a big gold-piece. It will be found in the general scramble on the day the race goes bankrupt. And then for herself she’ll have had a great go at life.”

“Oh yes, she’ll have got out of her hole — she won’t have vegetated,” Peter concurred. “That makes her touching to me — it adds to the many good reasons for which one may want to help her. She’s tackling a big job, and tackling it by herself; throwing herself upon the world in good faith and dealing with it as she can; meeting alone, in her youth, her beauty, her generosity, all the embarrassments of notoriety and all the difficulties of a profession of which, if one half’s what’s called brilliant the other’s frankly odious.”

“She has great courage, but you speak of her as solitary with such a lot of us all round her?” Nash candidly inquired.

“She’s a great thing for you and me, but we’re a small thing for her.”

“Well, a good many small things, if they but stick together, may make up a mass,” Gabriel said. “There must always be the man, you see. He’s the indispensable element in such a life, and he’ll be the last thing she’ll ever lack.”

“What man are you talking about?” Peter asked with imperfect ease.

“The man of the hour, whoever he is. She’ll inspire innumerable devotions.”

“Of course she will, and they’ll be precisely a part of the insufferable side of her life.”

“Insufferable to whom?” Nash demanded. “Don’t forget that the insufferable side of her life will be just the side she’ll thrive on. You can’t eat your cake and have it, and you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. You can’t at once sit by the fire and parade about the world, and you can’t take all chances without having some adventures. You can’t be a great actress without the luxury of nerves. Without a plentiful supply — or without the right ones — you’ll only be second fiddle. If you’ve all the tense strings you may take life for your fiddlestick. Your nerves and your adventures, your eggs and your cake, are part of the cost of the most expensive of professions. You play with human passions, with exaltations and ecstasies and terrors, and if you trade on the fury of the elements you must know how to ride the storm.”

Well, Peter thought it over. “Those are the fine old commonplaces about the artistic temperament, but I usually find the artist a very meek, decent, little person.”

“You never find the artist — you only find his work, and that’s all you need find. When the artist’s a woman, and the woman’s an actress, meekness and decency will doubtless be there in the right proportions,” Nash went on. “Miriam will represent them for you, if you give her her cue, with the utmost charm.”

“Of course she’ll inspire devotions — that’s all right,” said Peter with a wild cheerfulness.

“And of course they’ll inspire responses, and with that consequence — don’t you see? — they’ll mitigate her solitude, they’ll even enliven it,” Nash set forth.

“She’ll probably box a good many ears: that’ll be lively!” Peter returned with some grimness.

“Oh magnificent! — it will be a merry life. Yet with its tragic passages, its distracted or its pathetic hours,” Gabriel insisted. “In short, a little of everything.”

They walked on without further speech till at last Peter resumed: “The best thing for a woman in her situation is to marry some decent care-taking man.”

“Oh I daresay she’ll do that too!” Nash laughed; a remark as a result of which his companion lapsed afresh into silence. Gabriel left him a little to enjoy this; after which he added: “There’s somebody she’d marry tomorrow.”

Peter wondered. “Do you mean her friend Dashwood?”

“No, no, I mean Nick Dormer.”

“She’d marry him?” Peter gasped.

“I mean her head’s full of him. But she’ll hardly get the chance.”

Peter watched himself. “Does she like him as much as that?”

“I don’t quite know how much you mean, but enough for all practical ends.”

“Marrying a fashionable actress is hardly a practical end.”

“Certainly not, but I’m not speaking from his point of view.” Nash was perfectly lucid. “Moreover, I thought you just now said it would be such a good thing for her.”

“To marry Nick Dormer?”

“You said a good decent man, and he’s one of the very decentest.”

“I wasn’t thinking of the individual, but of the protection. It would fence her about, settle certain questions, or appear to; it would make things safe and comfortable for her and keep a lot of cads and blackguards away.”

“She ought to marry the prompter or the box-keeper,” said Nash. “Then it would be all right. I think indeed they generally do, don’t they?”

Peter felt for a moment a strong disposition to drop his friend on the spot, to cross to the other side of the street and walk away without him. But there was a different impulse which struggled with this one and after a minute overcame it, the impulse that led to his saying presently: “Has she told you she’s — a — she’s in love with Nick?”

“No, no — that’s not the way I know it.”

“Has Nick told you then?”

“On the contrary, I’ve told him.”

“You’ve rendered him a questionable service if you’ve no proof,” Peter pronounced.

“My proof’s only that I’ve seen her with him. She’s charming, poor dear thing.”

“But surely she isn’t in love with every man she’s charming to.”

“I mean she’s charming to me,” Nash returned. “I see her that way. I see her interested — and what it does to her, with her, for her. But judge for yourself — the first time you get a chance.”

“When shall I get a chance? Nick doesn’t come near her.”

“Oh he’ll come, he’ll come; his picture isn’t finished.”

“You mean he’ll be the box-keeper, then?”

“My dear fellow, I shall never allow it,” said Gabriel Nash. “It would be idiotic and quite unnecessary. He’s beautifully arranged — in quite a different line. Fancy his taking that sort of job on his hands! Besides, she’d never expect it; she’s not such a goose. They’re very good friends — it will go on that way. She’s an excellent person for him to know; she’ll give him lots of ideas of the plastic kind. He would have been up there before this, but it has taken him time to play his delightful trick on his constituents. That of course is pure amusement; but when once his effect has been well produced he’ll get back to business, and his business will be a very different matter from Miriam’s. Imagine him writing her advertisements, living on her money, adding up her profits, having rows and recriminations with her agent, carrying her shawl, spending his days in her rouge-pot. The right man for that, if she must have one, will turn up. ‘Pour le mariage, non.’ She isn’t wholly an idiot; she really, for a woman, quite sees things as they are.”

As Peter had not crossed the street and left Gabriel planted he now suffered the extremity of irritation. But descrying in the dim vista of the Edgware Road a vague and vigilant hansom he waved his stick with eagerness and with the abrupt declaration that, feeling tired, he must drive the rest of his way. He offered Nash, as he entered the vehicle, no seat, but this coldness was not reflected in the lucidity with which that master of every subject went on to affirm that there was of course a danger — the danger that in given circumstances Miriam would leave the stage.

“Leave it, you mean, for some man?”

“For the man we’re talking about.”

“For Nick Dormer?” Peter asked from his place in the cab, his paleness lighted by its lamps.

“If he should make it a condition. But why should he? why should he make any conditions? He’s not an ass either. You see it would be a bore”— Nash kept it up while the hansom waited —“because if she were to do anything of that sort she’d make him pay for the sacrifice.”

“Oh yes, she’d make him pay for the sacrifice,” Peter blindly concurred.

“And then when he had paid she’d go back to her footlights,” Gabriel developed from the curbstone as his companion closed the apron of the cab.

“I see — she’d go back — good-night,” Peter returned. “Please go on!” he cried to the driver through the hole in the roof. And while the vehicle rolled away he growled to himself: “Of course she would — and quite right!”

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