The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLI

“I don’t know; I haven’t the least idea; I don’t care; don’t ask me!”— it was so he met some immediate appeal of her artistic egotism, some challenge of his impression of her at this and that moment. Hadn’t she frankly better give up such and such a point and return to their first idea, the one they had talked over so much? Peter replied to this that he disowned all ideas; that at any rate he should never have another as long as he lived, and that, so help him heaven, they had worried that hard bone more than enough.

“You’re tired of me — yes, already,” she said sadly and kindly. They were alone, her mother had not peeped out and she had prepared herself to return to the Strand. “However, it doesn’t matter and of course your head’s full of other things. You must think me ravenously selfish — perpetually chattering about my vulgar shop. What will you have when one’s a vulgar shop-girl? You used to like it, but then you weren’t an ambassador.”

“What do you know about my being a minister?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and showing sombre eyes. Sometimes he held her handsomer on the stage than off, and sometimes he reversed that judgement. The former of these convictions had held his mind in the morning, and it was now punctually followed by the other. As soon as she stepped on the boards a great and special alteration usually took place in her — she was in focus and in her frame; yet there were hours too in which she wore her world’s face before the audience, just as there were hours when she wore her stage face in the world. She took up either mask as it suited her humour. To-day he was seeing each in its order and feeling each the best. “I should know very little if I waited for you to tell me — that’s very certain,” Miriam returned. “It’s in the papers that you’ve got a high appointment, but I don’t read the papers unless there’s something in them about myself. Next week I shall devour them and think them, no doubt, inane. It was Basil told me this afternoon of your promotion — he had seen it announced somewhere, I’m delighted if it gives you more money and more advantages, but don’t expect me to be glad that you’re going away to some distant, disgusting country.”

“The matter has only just been settled and we’ve each been busy with our own affairs. But even if you hadn’t given me these opportunities,” Peter went on, “I should have tried to see you today, to tell you my news and take leave of you.”

“Take leave? Aren’t you coming tomorrow?”

“Oh yes, I shall see you through that. But I shall rush away the very moment it’s over.”

“I shall be much better then — really I shall,” the girl said.

“The better you are the worse you are.”

She returned his frown with a beautiful charity. “If it would do you any good I’d be bad.”

“The worse you are the better you are!” Peter laughed. “You’re a devouring demon.”

“Not a bit! It’s you.”

“It’s I? I like that.”

“It’s you who make trouble, who are sore and suspicious and supersubtle, not taking things as they come and for what they are, but twisting them into misery and falsity. Oh I’ve watched you enough, my dear friend, and I’ve been sorry for you — and sorry as well for myself; for I’m not so taken up with myself, in the low greedy sense, as you think. I’m not such a base creature. I’m capable of gratitude, I’m capable of affection. One may live in paint and tinsel, but one isn’t absolutely without a soul. Yes, I’ve got one,” the girl went on, “though I do smear my face and grin at myself in the glass and practise my intonations. If what you’re going to do is good for you I’m very glad. If it leads to good things, to honour and fortune and greatness, I’m enchanted. If it means your being away always, for ever and ever, of course that’s serious. You know it — I needn’t tell you — I regard you as I really don’t regard any one else. I’ve a confidence in you — ah it’s a luxury! You’re a gentleman, mon bon — ah you’re a gentleman! It’s just that. And then you see, you understand, and that’s a luxury too. You’re a luxury altogether, dear clever Mr. Sherringham. Your being where I shall never see you isn’t a thing I shall enjoy; I know that from the separation of these last months — after our beautiful life in Paris, the best thing that ever happened to me or that ever will. But if it’s your career, if it’s your happiness — well, I can miss you and hold my tongue. I can be disinterested — I can!”

“What did you want me to come for?” he asked, all attentive and motionless. The same impression, the old impression, was with him again; the sense that if she was sincere it was sincerity of execution, if she was genuine it was the genuineness of doing it well. She did it so well now that this very fact was charming and touching. In claiming from him at the theatre this hour of the afternoon she had wanted honestly (the more as she had not seen him at home for several days) to go over with him once again, on the eve of the great night — it would be for her second creation the critics would lie so in wait; the first success might have been a fluke — some of her recurrent doubts: knowing from experience of what good counsel he often was, how he could give a worrying question its “settler” at the last. Then she had heard from Dashwood of the change in his situation, and that had really from one moment to the other made her think sympathetically of his preoccupations — led her open-handedly to drop her own. She was sorry to lose him and eager to let him know how good a friend she was conscious he had been to her. But the expression of this was already, at the end of a minute, a strange bedevilment: she began to listen to herself, to speak dramatically, to represent. She uttered the things she felt as if they were snatches of old play-books, and really felt them the more because they sounded so well. This, however, didn’t prevent their really being as good feelings as those of anybody else, and at the moment her friend, to still a rising emotion — which he knew he shouldn’t still — articulated the challenge I have just recorded, she had for his sensibility, at any rate, the truth of gentleness and generosity.

“There’s something the matter with you, my dear — you’re jealous,” Miriam said. “You’re jealous of poor Mr. Dormer. That’s an example of the way you tangle everything up. Lord, he won’t hurt you, nor me either!”

“He can’t hurt me, certainly,” Peter returned, “and neither can you; for I’ve a nice little heart of stone and a smart new breastplate of iron. The interest I take in you is something quite extraordinary; but the most extraordinary thing in it is that it’s perfectly prepared to tolerate the interest of others.”

“The interest of others needn’t trouble it much!” Miriam declared. “If Mr. Dormer has broken off his marriage to such an awfully fine woman — for she’s that, your swell of a sister — it isn’t for a ranting wretch like me. He’s kind to me because that’s his nature and he notices me because that’s his business; but he’s away up in the clouds — a thousand miles over my head. He has got something ‘on,’ as they say; he’s in love with an idea. I think it’s a shocking bad one, but that’s his own affair. He’s quite exalté; living on nectar and ambrosia — what he has to spare for us poor crawling things on earth is only a few dry crumbs. I didn’t even ask him to come to rehearsal. Besides, he thinks you’re in love with me and that it wouldn’t be honourable to cut in. He’s capable of that — isn’t it charming?”

“If he were to relent and give up his scruples would you marry him?” Peter asked.

“Mercy, how you chatter about ‘marrying’!” the girl laughed. “C’est la maladie anglaise — you’ve all got it on the brain.”

“Why I put it that way to please you,” he explained. “You complained to me last year precisely that this was not what seemed generally wanted.”

“Oh last year!”— she made nothing of that. Then differently, “Yes, it’s very tiresome!” she conceded.

“You told me, moreover, in Paris more than once that you wouldn’t listen to anything but that.”

“Well,” she declared, “I won’t, but I shall wait till I find a husband who’s charming enough and bad enough. One who’ll beat me and swindle me and spend my money on other women — that’s the sort of man for me. Mr. Dormer, delightful as he is, doesn’t come up to that.”

“You’ll marry Basil Dashwood.” He spoke it with conviction.

“Oh ‘marry’? — call it marry if you like. That’s what poor mother threatens me with — she lives in dread of it.”

“To this hour,” he mentioned, “I haven’t managed to make out what your mother wants. She has so many ideas, as Madame Carré said.”

“She wants me to be some sort of tremendous creature — all her ideas are reducible to that. What makes the muddle is that she isn’t clear about the creature she wants most. A great actress or a great lady — sometimes she inclines for one and sometimes for the other, but on the whole persuading herself that a great actress, if she’ll cultivate the right people, may be a great lady. When I tell her that won’t do and that a great actress can never be anything but a great vagabond, then the dear old thing has tantrums, and we have scenes — the most grotesque: they’d make the fortune, for a subject, of some play-writing rascal, if he had the wit to guess them; which, luckily for us perhaps, he never will. She usually winds up by protesting — devinez un peu quoi!” Miriam added. And as her companion professed his complete inability to divine: “By declaring that rather than take it that way I must marry you.”

“She’s shrewder than I thought,” Peter returned. “It’s the last of vanities to talk about, but I may state in passing that if you’d marry me you should be the greatest of all possible ladies.”

She had a beautiful, comical gape. “Lord o’ mercy, my dear fellow, what natural capacity have I for that?”

“You’re artist enough for anything. I shall be a great diplomatist: my resolution’s firmly taken, I’m infinitely cleverer than you have the least idea of, and you shall be,” he went on, “a great diplomatist’s wife.”

“And the demon, the devil, the devourer and destroyer, that you are so fond of talking about: what, in such a position, do you do with that element of my nature? Où le fourrez-vous?” she cried as with a real anxiety.

“I’ll look after it, I’ll keep it under. Rather perhaps I should say I’ll bribe it and amuse it; I’ll gorge it with earthly grandeurs.”

“That’s better,” said Miriam; “for a demon that’s kept under is a shabby little demon. Don’t let’s be shabby.” Then she added: “Do you really go away the beginning of next week?”

“Monday night if possible.”

“Ah that’s but to Paris. Before you go to your new post they must give you an interval here.”

“I shan’t take it — I’m so tremendously keen for my duties. I shall insist on going sooner. Oh,” he went on, “I shall be concentrated now.”

“I’ll come and act there.” She met it all — she was amused and amusing. “I’ve already forgotten what it was I wanted to discuss with you,” she said —“it was some trumpery stuff. What I want to say now is only one thing: that it’s not in the least true that because my life pitches me in every direction and mixes me up with all sorts of people — or rather with one sort mainly, poor dears! — I haven’t a decent character, I haven’t common honesty. Your sympathy, your generosity, your patience, your precious suggestions, our dear sweet days last summer in Paris, I shall never forget. You’re the best — you’re different from all the others. Think of me as you please and make profane jokes about my mating with a disguised ‘Arty’— I shall think of you only in one way. I’ve a great respect for you. With all my heart I hope you’ll be a great diplomatist. God bless you, dear clever man.”

She got up as she spoke and in so doing glanced at the clock — a movement that somehow only added to the noble gravity of her discourse: she was considering his time so much more than her own. Sherringham, at this, rising too, took out his watch and stood a moment with his eyes bent upon it, though without in the least seeing what the needles marked. “You’ll have to go, to reach the theatre at your usual hour, won’t you? Let me not keep you. That is, let me keep you only long enough just to say this, once for all, as I shall never speak of it again. I’m going away to save myself,” he frankly said, planted before her and seeking her eyes with his own. “I ought to go, no doubt, in silence, in decorum, in virtuous submission to hard necessity — without asking for credit or sympathy, without provoking any sort of scene or calling attention to my fortitude. But I can’t — upon my soul I can’t. I can go, I can see it through, but I can’t hold my tongue. I want you to know all about it, so that over there, when I’m bored to death, I shall at least have the exasperatingly vain consolation of feeling that you do know — and that it does neither you nor me any good!”

He paused a moment; on which, as quite vague, she appealed. “That I ‘do know’ what?”

“That I’ve a consuming passion for you and that it’s impossible.”

“Oh impossible, my friend!” she sighed, but with a quickness in her assent.

“Very good; it interferes, the gratification of it would interfere fatally, with the ambition of each of us. Our ambitions are inferior and odious, but we’re tied fast to them.”

“Ah why ain’t we simple?” she quavered as if all touched by it. “Why ain’t we of the people — comme tout le monde — just a man and a girl liking each other?”

He waited a little — she was so tenderly mocking, so sweetly ambiguous. “Because we’re precious asses! However, I’m simple enough, after all, to care for you as I’ve never cared for any human creature. You have, as it happens, a personal charm for me that no one has ever approached, and from the top of your splendid head to the sole of your theatrical shoe (I could go down on my face — there, abjectly — and kiss it!) every inch of you is dear and delightful to me. Therefore good-bye.”

She took this in with wider eyes: he had put the matter in a way that struck her. For a moment, all the same, he was afraid she would reply as on the confessed experience of so many such tributes, handsome as this one was. But she was too much moved — the pure colour that had risen to her face showed it — to have recourse to this particular facility. She was moved even to the glimmer of tears, though she gave him her hand with a smile. “I’m so glad you’ve said all that, for from you I know what it means. Certainly it’s better for you to go away. Of course it’s all wrong, isn’t it? — but that’s the only thing it can be: therefore it’s all right, isn’t it? Some day when we’re both great people we’ll talk these things over; then we shall be quiet, we shall be rich, we shall be at peace — let us hope so at least — and better friends than others about us will know.” She paused, smiling still, and then said while he held her hand: “Don’t, don’t come tomorrow night.”

With this she attempted to draw her hand away, as if everything were settled and over; but the effect of her movement was that, as he held her tight, he was simply drawn toward her and close to her. The effect of this, in turn, was that, releasing her only to possess her the more completely, he seized her in his arms and, breathing deeply “I love you, you know,” clasped her in a long embrace. His demonstration and her conscious sufferance, almost equally liberal, so sustained themselves that the door of the room had time to open slowly before either had taken notice. Mrs. Rooth, who had not peeped in before, peeped in now, becoming in this manner witness of an incident she could scarce have counted on. The unexpected indeed had for Mrs. Rooth never been an insuperable element in things; it was her position in general to be too acquainted with all the passions for any crude surprise. As the others turned round they saw her stand there and smile, and heard her ejaculate with wise indulgence: “Oh you extravagant children!”

Miriam brushed off her tears, quickly but unconfusedly. “He’s going away, the wretch; he’s bidding us farewell.”

Peter — it was perhaps a result of his acute agitation — laughed out at the “us” (he had already laughed at the charge of puerility), and Mrs. Rooth went on: “Going away? Ah then I must have one too!” She held out both her hands, and Sherringham, stepping forward to take them, kissed her respectfully on each cheek, in the foreign manner, while she continued: “Our dear old friend — our kind, gallant gentleman!”

“The gallant gentleman has been promoted to a great post — the proper reward of his gallantry,” Miriam said. “He’s going out as minister to some impossible place — where is it?”

“As minister — how very charming! We are getting on.” And their companion languished up at him with a world of approval.

“Oh well enough. One must take what one can get,” he answered.

“You’ll get everything now, I’m sure, shan’t you?” Mrs. Rooth asked with an inflexion that called back to him comically — the source of the sound was so different — the very vibrations he had heard the day before from Lady Agnes.

“He’s going to glory and he’ll forget all about us — forget he has ever known such low people. So we shall never see him again, and it’s better so. Good-bye, good-bye,” Miriam repeated; “the brougham must be there, but I won’t take you. I want to talk to mother about you, and we shall say things not fit for you to hear. Oh I’ll let you know what we lose — don’t be afraid,” she added to Mrs. Rooth. “He’s the rising star of diplomacy.”

“I knew it from the first — I know how things turn out for such people as you!” cried the old woman, gazing fondly at Sherringham. “But you don’t mean to say you’re not coming tomorrow night?”

“Don’t — don’t; it’s great folly,” Miriam interposed; “and it’s quite needless, since you saw me today.”

Peter turned from the mother to the daughter, the former of whom broke out to the latter: “Oh you dear rogue, to say one has seen you yet! You know how you’ll come up to it — you’ll be beyond everything.”

“Yes, I shall be there — certainly,” Peter said, at the door, to Mrs. Rooth.

“Oh you dreadful goose!” Miriam called after him. But he went out without looking round at her.

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