The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XL

Lady Agnes would doubtless have done better, in her own interest or in that of her child, to have secured his company for the very next evening. This she had indeed attempted, but her application of her thought had miscarried, Peter bethinking himself that he was importantly engaged. Her ladyship, moreover, couldn’t presume to answer for Nick, since after all they must of course have Nick, though, to tell the truth, the hideous truth, she and her son were scarcely on terms. Peter insisted on Nick, wished particularly to see him, and gave his hostess notice that he would make each of them forgive everything to the other. She returned that all her son had to forgive was her loving him more than her life, and she would have challenged Peter, had he allowed it, on the general ground of the comparative dignity of the two arts of painting portraits and governing nations. Our friend declined the challenge: the most he did was to intimate that he perhaps saw Nick more vividly as a painter than as a governor. Later he remembered vaguely something his aunt had said about their being a governing family.

He was going, by what he could ascertain, to a very queer climate and had many preparations to make. He gave his best attention to these, and for a couple of hours after leaving Lady Agnes rummaged London for books from which he might extract information about his new habitat. It made apparently no great figure in literature, and Peter could reflect that he was perhaps destined to find a salutary distraction in himself filling the void with a volume of impressions. After he had resigned himself to necessary ignorance he went into the Park. He treated himself to an afternoon or two there when he happened to drop upon London in summer — it refreshed his sense of the British interests he would have to stand up for. Moreover, he had been hiding more or less, and now all that was changed and this was the simplest way not to hide. He met a host of friends, made his situation as public as possible and accepted on the spot a great many invitations; all subject, however, to the mental reservation that he should allow none of them to interfere with his being present the first night of Miriam’s new venture. He was going to the equator to get away from her, but to repudiate the past with some decency of form he must show an affected interest, if he could muster none other, in an occasion that meant so much for her. The least intimate of her associates would do that, and Peter remembered how, at the expense of good manners, he had stayed away from her first appearance on any stage at all. He would have been shocked had he found himself obliged to go back to Paris without giving her at the imminent crisis the personal countenance she had so good a right to expect.

It was nearly eight o’clock when he went to Great Stanhope Street to dress for dinner and learn that a note awaiting him on the hall-table and which bore the marks of hasty despatch had come three or four hours before. It exhibited the signature of Miriam Rooth and let him know that she positively expected him at the theatre by eleven o’clock the next morning, for which hour a dress-rehearsal of the revived play had been hurriedly projected, the first night being now definitely fixed for the impending Saturday. She counted on his attendance at both ceremonies, but with particular reasons for wishing to see him in the morning. “I want you to see and judge and tell me,” she said, “for my mind’s like a flogged horse — it won’t give another kick.” It was for the Saturday he had made Lady Agnes his promise; he had thought of the possibility of the play in doing so, but had rested in the faith that, from valid symptoms, this complication would not occur till the following week. He decided nothing on the spot as to the conflict of occupations — it was enough to send Miriam three words to the effect that he would sooner perish than fail her on the morrow.

He went to the theatre in the morning, and the episode proved curious and instructive. Though there were twenty people in the stalls it bore little resemblance to those répétitions générales to which, in Paris, his love of the drama had often attracted him and which, taking place at night, in the theatre closed to the public, are virtually first performances with invited spectators. They were to his sense always settled and stately, rehearsals of the première even more than rehearsals of the play. The present occasion was less august; it was not so much a concert as a confusion of sounds, and it took audible and at times disputatious counsel with itself. It was rough and frank and spasmodic, but was lively and vivid and, in spite of the serious character of the piece, often exceedingly droll: while it gave Sherringham, oddly enough, a more present sense than ever of bending over the hissing, smoking, sputtering caldron in which a palatable performance is stewed. He looked into the gross darkness that may result from excess of light; that is, he understood how knocked up, on the eve of production, every one concerned in the preparation of a piece might be, with nerves overstretched and glasses blurred, awaiting the test and the response, the echo to be given back by the big, receptive, artless, stupid, delightful public. Peter’s interest had been great in advance, and as Miriam since his arrival had taken him much into her confidence he knew what she intended to do and had discussed a hundred points with her. They had differed about some of them and she had always said: “Ah but wait till you see how I shall do it at the time!” That was usually her principal reason and her most convincing argument. She had made some changes at the last hour — she was going to do several things in another way. But she wanted a touchstone, wanted a fresh ear, and, as she told Sherringham when he went behind after the first act, that was why she had insisted on this private trial, to which a few fresh ears were to be admitted. They didn’t want to allow it her, the theatre people, they were such a parcel of donkeys; but as to what she meant in general to insist on she had given them a hint she flattered herself they wouldn’t soon forget.

She spoke as if she had had a great battle with her fellow-workers and had routed them utterly. It was not the first time he had heard her talk as if such a life as hers could only be a fighting life and of her frank measure of the fine uses of a faculty for making a row. She rejoiced she possessed this faculty, for she knew what to do with it; and though there might be a certain swagger in taking such a stand in advance when one had done the infinitely little she had yet done, she nevertheless trusted to the future to show how right she should have been in believing a pack of idiots would never hold out against her and would know they couldn’t afford to. Her assumption of course was that she fought for the light and the right, for the good way and the thorough, for doing a thing properly if one did it at all. What she had really wanted was the theatre closed for a night and the dress-rehearsal, put on for a few people, given instead of Yolande. That she had not got, but she would have it the next time. She spoke as if her triumphs behind the scenes as well as before would go by leaps and bounds, and he could perfectly see, for the time, that she would drive her coadjutors in front of her like sheep. Her tone was the sort of thing that would have struck one as preposterous if one hadn’t believed in her; but if one did so believe it only seemed thrown in with the other gifts. How was she going to act that night and what could be said for such a hateful way of doing things? She thrust on poor Peter questions he was all unable to answer; she abounded in superlatives and tremendously strong objections. He had a sharper vision than usual of the queer fate, for a peaceable man, of being involved in a life of so violent a rhythm: one might as well be hooked to a Catharine-wheel and whiz round in flame and smoke.

It had only been for five minutes, in the wing, amid jostling and shuffling and shoving, that they held this conference. Miriam, splendid in a brocaded anachronism, a false dress of the beginning of the century, and excited and appealing, imperious, reckless and good-humoured, full of exaggerated propositions, supreme determinations and comic irrelevancies, showed as radiant a young head as the stage had ever seen. Other people quickly surrounded her, and Peter saw that though, she wanted, as she said, a fresh ear and a fresh eye she was liable to rap out to those who possessed these advantages that they didn’t know what they were talking about. It was rather hard for her victims — Basil Dashwood let him into this, wonderfully painted and in a dress even more beautiful than Miriam’s, that of a young dandy under Charles the Second: if you were not in the business you were one kind of donkey and if you were in the business you were another kind. Peter noted with a certain chagrin that Gabriel Nash had failed; he preferred to base his annoyance on that ground when the girl, after the remark just quoted from Dashwood, laughing and saying that at any rate the thing would do because it would just have to do, thrust vindictively but familiarly into the young actor’s face a magnificent feather fan. “Isn’t he too lovely,” she asked, “and doesn’t he know how to do it?” Dashwood had the sense of costume even more than Peter had inferred or supposed he minded, inasmuch as it now appeared he had gone profoundly into the question of what the leading lady was to wear. He had drawn patterns and hunted up stuffs, had helped her to try on her clothes, had bristled with ideas and pins. It would not have been quite clear, Peter’s ground for resenting Nash’s cynical absence; it may even be thought singular he should have missed him. At any rate he flushed a little when their young woman, of whom he inquired whether she hadn’t invited her oldest and dearest friend, made answer: “Oh he says he doesn’t like the kitchen-fire — he only wants the pudding!” It would have taken the kitchen-fire to account at that point for the red of Sherringham’s cheek; and he was indeed uncomfortably heated by helping to handle, as he phrased it, the saucepans.

This he felt so much after he had returned to his seat, which he forbore to quit again till the curtain had fallen on the last act, that in spite of the high beauty of that part of the performance of which Miriam carried the weight there were moments when his relief overflowed into gasps, as if he had been scrambling up the bank of a torrent after an immersion. The girl herself, out in the open of her field to win, was of the incorruptible faith: she had been saturated to good purpose with the great spirit of Madame Carré. That was conspicuous while the play went on and she guarded the whole march with fagged piety and passion. Sherringham had never liked the piece itself; he held that as barbarous in form and false in feeling it did little honour to the British theatre; he despised many of the speeches, pitied Miriam for having to utter them, and considered that, lighted by that sort of candle, the path of fame might very well lead nowhere.

When the ordeal was over he went behind again, where in the rose-coloured satin of the silly issue the heroine of the occasion said to him: “Fancy my having to drag through that other stuff to-night — the brutes!” He was vague about the persons designated in this allusion, but he let it pass: he had at the moment a kind of detached foreboding of the way any gentleman familiarly connected with her in the future would probably form the habit of letting objurgations and some other things pass. This had become indeed now a frequent state of mind with him; the instant he was before her, near her, next her, he found himself a helpless subject of the spell which, so far at least as he was concerned, she put forth by contact and of which the potency was punctual and absolute: the fit came on, as he said, exactly as some esteemed express-train on a great line bangs at a given moment into the station. At a distance he partly recovered himself — that was the encouragement for going to the shaky republic; but as soon as he entered her presence his life struck him as a thing disconnected from his will. It was as if he himself had been one thing and his behaviour another; he had shining views of this difference, drawn as they might be from the coming years — little illustrative scenes in which he saw himself in strange attitudes of resignation, always rather sad and still and with a slightly bent head. Such images should not have been inspiring, but it is a fact that they were something to go upon. The gentleman with the bent head had evidently given up something that was dear to him, but it was exactly because he had got his price that he was there. “Come and see me three or four hours hence,” Miriam said —“come, that is, about six. I shall rest till then, but I want particularly to talk with you. There will be no one else — not the tip of any tiresome nose. You’ll do me good.” So of course he drove up at six.

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