The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XXXVII

“Judge for yourself when you get a chance,” Nash had said to him; and as it turned out he was able to judge two days later, for he found his cousin in Balaklava Place on the Tuesday following his walk with their insufferable friend. He had not only stayed away from the theatre on the Monday evening — he regarded this as an achievement of some importance — but had not been near Miriam during the day. He had meant to absent himself from her company on Tuesday as well; a determination confirmed by the fact that the afternoon turned to rain. But when at ten minutes to five o’clock he jumped into a hansom and directed his course to Saint John’s Wood it was precisely upon the weather that he shifted the responsibility of his behaviour.

Miriam had dined when he reached the villa, but she was lying down, unduly fatigued, before going to the theatre. Mrs. Rooth was, however, in the drawing-room with three gentlemen, in two of whom the fourth visitor was not startled to recognise Basil Dashwood and Gabriel Nash. Dashwood appeared to have become Miriam’s brother-inarms and a second child — a fonder one — to Mrs. Rooth; it had reached Peter on some late visit that the young actor had finally moved his lodgings into the quarter, making himself a near neighbour for all sorts of convenience. “Hang his convenience!” Peter thought, perceiving that Mrs. Lovick’s “Arty” was now altogether one of the family. Oh the family! — it was a queer one to be connected with: that consciousness was acute in Sherringham’s breast today as he entered Mrs. Rooth’s little circle. The place was filled with cigarette-smoke and there was a messy coffee-service on the piano, whose keys Basil Dashwood lightly touched for his own diversion. Nash, addressing the room of course, was at one end of a little sofa with his nose in the air, and Nick Dormer was at the other end, seated much at his ease and with a certain privileged appearance of having been there often before, though Sherringham knew he had not. He looked uncritical and very young, as rosy as a school-boy on a half-holiday. It was past five o’clock in the day, but Mrs. Rooth was not dressed; there was, however, no want of finish in her elegant attitude — the same relaxed grandeur (she seemed to let you understand) for which she used to be distinguished at Castle Nugent when the house was full. She toyed incongruously, in her unbuttoned wrapper, with a large tinsel fan which resembled a theatrical property.

It was one of the discomforts of Peter’s position that many of those minor matters which are superficially at least most characteristic of the histrionic life had power to displease him, so that he was obliged constantly to overlook and condone and pretend. He disliked besmoked drawing-rooms and irregular meals and untidy arrangements; he could suffer from the vulgarity of Mrs. Rooth’s apartments, the importunate photographs which gave on his nerves, the barbarous absence of signs of an orderly domestic life, the odd volumes from the circulating library (you could see what they were — the very covers told you — at a glance) tumbled about under smeary cups and glasses. He hadn’t waited till now to feel it “rum” that fate should have let him in for such contacts; but as he stood before his hostess and her companions he wondered perhaps more than ever why he should. Her companions somehow, who were not responsible, didn’t keep down his wonder; which was particularly odd, since they were not superficially in the least of Bohemian type. Almost the first thing that struck him, as happened, in coming into the room, was the fresh fact of the high good looks of his cousin, a gentleman, to one’s taste and for one’s faith, in a different enough degree from the stiff-collared, conversible Dashwood. Peter didn’t hate Nick for being of so fine an English grain; he knew rather the brush of a new wave of annoyance at Julia’s stupid failure to get on with him under that good omen.

It was his first encounter with the late member for Harsh since his arrival in London: they had been on one side and the other so much taken up with their affairs. Since their last meeting Nick had, as we know, to his kinsman’s perception, really put on a new character: he had done the finest stroke of business in the quietest way. This had made him a presence to be counted with, and in just the sense in which poor Peter desired least to count. Poor Peter, after his somersault in the blue, had just lately been much troubled; he was ravaged by contending passions; he paid every hour in a torment of unrest for what was false in his position, the impossibility of keeping the presentable parts of his character together, the opposition of interest and desire. Nick, his junior and a lighter weight, had settled his problem and showed no wounds; there was something impertinent and mystifying in it. Yet he looked, into the bargain, too innocently young and happy, and too careless and modest and amateurish, to figure as a rival or even as the genius he was apparently going to try to be-the genius that the other day, in the studio there with Biddy, Peter had got a startled glimpse of his power to become. Julia’s brother would have liked to be aware of grounds of resentment, to be able to hold she had been badly treated or that Nick was basely fatuous, for in that case he might have had the resource of taking offence. But where was the outrage of his merely being liked by a woman in respect to whom one had definitely denied one’s self the luxury of pretensions, especially if, as the wrong-doer, he had taken no action in the matter? It could scarcely be called wrong-doing to call, casually, on an afternoon when the lady didn’t seem to be there. Peter could at any rate rejoice that Miriam didn’t; and he proposed to himself suggesting to Nick after a little that they should adjourn together — they had such interesting things to talk about. Meanwhile Nick greeted him with a friendly freedom in which he could read neither confusion nor defiance. Peter was reassured against a danger he believed he didn’t recognise and puzzled by a mystery he flattered himself he hadn’t heeded. And he was still more ashamed of being reassured than of being puzzled.

It must be recorded that Miriam’s absence from the scene was not prolonged. Nick, as Sherringham gathered, had been about a quarter of an hour in the house, which would have given her, gratified by his presence, due time to array herself to come down to him. At all events she was in the room, prepared apparently to go to the theatre, very shortly after one of her guests had become sensible of how glad he was she was out of it. Familiarity had never yet cured him of a certain tremor of expectation, and even of suspense, in regard to her entrances; a flutter caused by the simple circumstance of her infinite variety. To say she was always acting would too much convey that she was often fatiguing; since her changing face affected this particular admirer at least not as a series of masks, but as a response to perceived differences, an intensity of that perception, or still more as something richly constructional, like the shifting of the scene in a play or like a room with many windows. The image she was to project was always incalculable, but if her present denied her past and declined responsibility for her future it made a good thing of the hour and kept the actual peculiarly fresh. This time the actual was a bright, gentle, graceful, smiling, young woman in a new dress, eager to go out, drawing on fresh gloves, who looked as if she were about to step into a carriage and — it was Gabriel Nash who thus formulated her physiognomy — do a lot of London things.

The young woman had time to spare, however, and she sat down and talked and laughed and presently gave, as seemed to Peter, a deeper glow to the tawdry little room, which could do for others if it had to do for her. She described herself as in a state of nervous muddle, exhausted, blinded, abrutie, with the rehearsals of the forthcoming piece — the first night was close at hand, and it was going to be of a vileness: they would all see! — but there was no correspondence between this account of the matter and her present bravery of mood. She sent her mother away — to “put on some clothes or something”— and, left alone with the visitors, went to a long glass between the windows, talking always to Nick Dormer, and revised and rearranged a little her own attire. She talked to Nick, over her shoulder, and to Nick only, as if he were the guest to recognise and the others didn’t count. She broke out at once on his having thrown up his seat, wished to know if the strange story told her by Mr. Nash were true — that he had knocked all the hopes of his party into pie.

Nick took it any way she liked and gave a pleasant picture of his party’s ruin, the critical condition of public affairs: he was as yet clearly closed to contrition or shame. The pilgrim from Paris, before Miriam’s entrance, had not, in shaking hands with him, made even a roundabout allusion to his odd “game”; he felt he must somehow show good taste — so English people often feel — at the cost of good manners. But he winced on seeing how his scruples had been wasted, and was struck with the fine, jocose, direct turn of his kinsman’s conversation with the young actress. It was a part of her unexpectedness that she took the heavy literal view of Nick’s behaviour; declared frankly, though without ill nature, that she had no patience with his mistake. She was horribly disappointed — she had set her heart on his being a great statesman, one of the rulers of the people and the glories of England. What was so useful, what was so noble? — how it belittled everything else! She had expected him to wear a cordon and a star some day — acquiring them with the greatest promptitude — and then to come and see her in her loge: it would look so particularly well. She talked after the manner of a lovely Philistine, except perhaps when she expressed surprise at hearing — hearing from Gabriel Nash — that in England gentlemen accoutred with those emblems of their sovereign’s esteem didn’t so far forget themselves as to stray into the dressing-rooms of actresses. She admitted after a moment that they were quite right and the dressing-rooms of actresses nasty places; but she was sorry, for that was the sort of thing she had always figured in a corner — a distinguished man, slightly bald, in evening dress, with orders, admiring the smallness of a satin shoe and saying witty things. Nash was convulsed with hilarity at this — such a vision of the British political hero. Coming back from the glass and making that critic give her his place on the sofa, she seated herself near Nick and continued to express her regret at his perversity.

“They all say that — all the charming women, but I shouldn’t have looked for it from you,” Nick replied. “I’ve given you such an example of what I can do in another line.”

“Do you mean my portrait? Oh I’ve got it, with your name and ‘M.P.’ in the corner, and that’s precisely why I’m content. ‘M.P.’ in the corner of a picture is delightful, but I want to break the mould: I don’t in the least insist on your giving specimens to others. And the artistic life, when you can lead another — if you’ve any alternative, however modest — is a very poor business. It comes last in dignity — after everything else. Ain’t I up to my eyes in it and don’t I truly know?”

“You talk like my broken-hearted mother,” said Nick.

“Does she hate it so intensely?”

“She has the darkest ideas about it — the wildest theories. I can’t imagine where she gets them; partly I think from a general conviction that the ‘esthetic’— a horrible insidious foreign disease — is eating the healthy core out of English life (dear old English life!) and partly from the charming pictures in Punch and the clever satirical articles, pointing at mysterious depths of contamination, in the other weekly papers. She believes there’s a dreadful coterie of uncannily artful and desperately refined people who wear a kind of loose faded uniform and worship only beauty — which is a fearful thing; that Gabriel has introduced me to it; that I now spend all my time in it, and that for its sweet sake I’ve broken the most sacred vows. Poor Gabriel, who, so far as I can make out, isn’t in any sort of society, however bad!”

“But I’m uncannily artful,” Nash objected, “and though I can’t afford the uniform — I believe you get it best somewhere in South Audley Street — I do worship beauty. I really think it’s me the weekly papers mean.”

“Oh I’ve read the articles — I know the sort!” said Basil Dashwood.

Miriam looked at him. “Go and see if the brougham’s there — I ordered it early.”

Dashwood, without moving, consulted his watch. “It isn’t time yet — I know more about the brougham than you. I’ve made a ripping good arrangement for her stable — it really costs her nothing,” the young actor continued confidentially to Peter, near whom he had placed himself.

“Your mother’s quite right to be broken-hearted,” Miriam declared, “and I can imagine exactly what she has been through. I should like to talk with her — I should like to see her.” Nick showed on this easy amusement, reminding her she had talked to him while she sat for her portrait in quite the opposite sense, most helpfully and inspiringly; and Nash explained that she was studying the part of a political duchess and wished to take observations for it, to work herself into the character. The girl might in fact have been a political duchess as she sat, her head erect and her gloved hands folded, smiling with aristocratic dimness at Nick. She shook her head with stately sadness; she might have been trying some effect for Mary Stuart in Schiller’s play. “I’ve changed since that. I want you to be the grandest thing there is — the counsellor of kings.”

Peter wondered if it possibly weren’t since she had met his sister in Nick’s studio that she had changed, if perhaps she hadn’t seen how it might give Julia the sense of being more effectually routed to know that the woman who had thrown the bomb was one who also tried to keep Nick in the straight path. This indeed would involve an assumption that Julia might know, whereas it was perfectly possible she mightn’t and more than possible that if she should she wouldn’t care. Miriam’s essential fondness for trying different ways was always there as an adequate reason for any particular way; a truth which, however, sometimes only half-prevented the particular way from being vexatious to a particular observer.

“Yet after all who’s more esthetic than you and who goes in more for the beautiful?” Nick asked. “You’re never so beautiful as when you pitch into it.”

“Oh, I’m an inferior creature, of an inferior sex, and I’ve to earn my bread as I can. I’d give it all up in a moment, my odious trade — for an inducement.”

“And pray what do you mean by an inducement?” Nick demanded.

“My dear fellow, she means you — if you’ll give her a permanent engagement to sit for you!” Gabriel volunteered. “What singularly crude questions you ask!”

“I like the way she talks,” Mr. Dashwood derisively said, “when I gave up the most brilliant prospects, of very much the same kind as Mr. Dormer’s, expressly to go on the stage.”

“You’re an inferior creature too,” Miriam promptly pronounced.

“Miss Rooth’s very hard to satisfy,” Peter observed at this. “A man of distinction, slightly bald, in evening dress, with orders, in the corner of her loge — she has such a personage ready made to her hand and she doesn’t so much as look at him. Am I not an inducement? Haven’t I offered you a permanent engagement?”

“Your orders — where are your orders?” she returned with a sweet smile, getting up.

“I shall be a minister next year and an ambassador before you know it. Then I shall stick on everything that can be had.”

“And they call us mountebanks!” cried the girl. “I’ve been so glad to see you again — do you want another sitting?” she went on to Nick as if to take leave of him.

“As many as you’ll give me — I shall be grateful for all,” he made answer. “I should like to do you as you are at present. You’re totally different from the woman I painted — you’re wonderful.”

“The Comic Muse!” she laughed. “Well, you must wait till our first nights are over — I’m sur les dents till then. There’s everything to do and I’ve to do it all. That fellow’s good for nothing, for nothing but domestic life”— and she glanced at Basil Dashwood. “He hasn’t an idea — not one you’d willingly tell of him, though he’s rather useful for the stables. We’ve got stables now — or we try to look as if we had: Dashwood’s ideas are de cette force. In ten days I shall have more time.”

“The Comic Muse? Never, never,” Peter protested. “You’re not to go smirking through the age and down to posterity — I’d rather see you as Medusa crowned with serpents. That’s what you look like when you look best.”

“That’s consoling — when I’ve just bought a lovely new bonnet, all red roses and bows. I forgot to tell you just now that when you’re an ambassador you may propose anything you like,” Miriam went on. “But forgive me if I make that condition. Seriously speaking, come to me glittering with orders and I shall probably succumb. I can’t resist stars and garters. Only you must, as you say, have them all. I don’t like to hear Mr. Dormer talk the slang of the studio — like that phrase just now: it is a fall to a lower state. However, when one’s low one must crawl, and I’m crawling down to the Strand. Dashwood, see if mamma’s ready. If she isn’t I decline to wait; you must bring her in a hansom. I’ll take Mr. Dormer in the brougham; I want to talk with Mr. Dormer; he must drive with me to the theatre. His situation’s full of interest.” Miriam led the way out of the room as she continued to chatter, and when she reached the house-door with the four men in her train the carriage had just drawn up at the garden-gate. It appeared that Mrs. Rooth was not ready, and the girl, in spite of a remonstrance from Nick, who had a sense of usurping the old lady’s place, repeated her injunction that she should be brought on in a cab. Miriam’s gentlemen hung about her at the gate, and she insisted on Nick’s taking his seat in the brougham and taking it first. Before she entered she put her hand out to Peter and, looking up at him, held his own kindly. “Dear old master, aren’t you coming to-night? I miss you when you’re not there.”

“Don’t go — don’t go — it’s too much,” Nash freely declared.

“She is wonderful,” said Mr. Dashwood, all expert admiration; “she has gone into the rehearsals tooth and nail. But nothing takes it out of her.”

“Nothing puts it into you, my dear!” Miriam returned. Then she pursued to Peter: “You’re the faithful one — you’re the one I count on.” He was not looking at her; his eyes travelled into the carriage, where they rested on Nick Dormer, established on the farther seat with his face turned toward the farther window. He was the one, faithful or no, counted on or no, whom a charming woman had preferred to carry off, and there was clear triumph for him in that fact. Yet it pleased, it somewhat relieved, his kinsman to see his passivity as not a little foolish. Miriam noted something of this in Peter’s eyes, for she exclaimed abruptly, “Don’t kill him — he doesn’t care for me!” With which she passed into the carriage and let it roll away.

Peter stood watching it till he heard Dashwood again beside him. “You wouldn’t believe what I make him do the whole thing for — a little rascal I know.”

“Good-bye; take good care of Mrs. Rooth,” said Gabriel Nash, waving a bland farewell to the young actor. He gave a smiling survey of the heavens and remarked to Sherringham that the rain had stopped. Was he walking, was he driving, should they be going in the same direction? Peter cared little about his direction and had little account of it to give; he simply moved away in silence and with Gabriel at his side. This converser was partly an affliction to him; indeed the fact that he couldn’t only make light of him added to the oppression. It was just to him nevertheless to note that he could hold his peace occasionally: he had for instance this afternoon taken little part in the talk at Balaklava Place. Peter greatly disliked to speak to him of Miriam, but he liked Nash himself to make free with her, and even liked him to say such things as might be a little viciously and unguardedly contradicted. He was not, however, moved to gainsay something dropped by his companion, disconnectedly, at the end of a few minutes; a word to the effect that she was after all the best-natured soul alive. All the same, Nash added, it wouldn’t do for her to take possession of a nice life like Nick’s; and he repeated that for his part he would never allow it. It would be on his conscience to interfere. To which Peter returned disingenuously that they might all do as they liked — it didn’t matter a button to him. And with an effort to carry off that comedy he changed the subject.

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