The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

BOOK SEVENTH

XLII

Nick Dormer had for the hour quite taken up his abode at his studio, where Biddy usually arrived after breakfast to give him news of the state of affairs in Calcutta Gardens and where many letters and telegrams were now addressed him. Among such missives, on the morning of the Saturday on which Peter Sherringham had promised to dine at the other house, was a note from Miriam Rooth, informing Nick that if he shouldn’t telegraph to put her off she would turn up about half-past eleven, probably with her mother, for just one more sitting. She added that it was a nervous day for her and that she couldn’t keep still, so that it would really be very kind to let her come to him as a refuge. She wished to stay away from the theatre, where everything was now settled — or so much the worse for the others if it wasn’t — till the evening; in spite of which she should if left to herself be sure to go there. It would keep her quiet and soothe her to sit — he could keep her quiet (he was such a blessing that way!) at any time. Therefore she would give him two or three hours — or rather she would herself ask for them — if he didn’t positively turn her from the door.

It had not been definite to Nick that he wanted another sitting at all for the slight work, as he held it to be, that Miriam had already helped him to achieve. He regarded this work as a mere light wind-fall of the shaken tree: he had made what he could of it and would have been embarrassed to make more. If it was not finished this was because it was not finishable; at any rate he had said all he had to say in that particular phrase. The young man, in truth, was not just now in the highest spirits; his imagination had within two or three days become conscious of a check that he tried to explain by the idea of a natural reaction. Any decision or violent turn, any need of a new sharp choice in one’s career, was upsetting, and, exaggerate that importance and one’s own as little as one would, a deal of flurry couldn’t help attending, especially in the face of so much scandal, the horrid act, odious to one’s modesty at the best, of changing one’s clothes in the marketplace. That made life not at all positively pleasant, yet decidedly thrilling, for the hour; and it was well enough till the thrill abated. When this occurred, as it inevitably would, the romance and the glow of the adventure were exchanged for the chill and the prose. It was to these latter elements he had waked up pretty wide on this particular morning; and the prospect was not appreciably fresher from the fact that he had warned himself in advance it would be dull. He had in fact known how dull it would be, but now he would have time to learn even better. A reaction was a reaction, but it was not after all a catastrophe. It would be a feature of his very freedom that he should ask himself if he hadn’t made a great mistake; this privilege would doubtless even remain within the limits of its nature in exposing him to hours of intimate conviction of his madness. But he would live to retract his retractations — this was the first thing to bear in mind.

He was absorbed, even while he dressed, in the effort to achieve intelligibly to himself some such revolution when, by the first post, Miriam’s note arrived. At first it did little to help his agility — it made him, seeing her esthetic faith as so much stronger and simpler than his own, wonder how he should keep with her at her high level. Ambition, in her, was always on the rush, and she was not a person to conceive that others might in bad moments listen for the trumpet in vain. It would never have occurred to her that only the day before he had spent a part of the afternoon quite at the bottom of the hill. He had in fact turned into the National Gallery and had wandered about there for more than an hour, and it was just while he did so that the immitigable recoil had begun perversely to make itself felt. The perversity was all the greater from the fact that if the experience was depressing this was not because he had been discouraged beyond measure by the sight of the grand things that had been done — things so much grander than any that would ever bear his signature. That variation he was duly acquainted with and should know in abundance again. What had happened to him, as he passed on this occasion from Titian to Rubens and from Gainsborough to Rembrandt, was that he found himself calling the whole exhibited art into question. What was it after all at the best and why had people given it so high a place? Its weakness, its limits broke upon him; tacitly blaspheming he looked with a lustreless eye at the palpable, polished, “toned” objects designed for suspension on hooks. That is, he blasphemed if it were blasphemy to feel that as bearing on the energies of man they were a poor and secondary show. The human force producing them was so far from one of the greatest; their place was a small place and their connexion with the heroic life casual and slight. They represented so little great ideas, and it was great ideas that kept the world from chaos. He had incontestably been in much closer relation with them a few months before than he was today: it made up a great deal for what was false and hollow, what was merely personal, in “politics” that, were the idea greater or smaller, they could at their best so directly deal with it. The love of it had really been much of the time at the bottom of his impulse to follow them up; though this was not what he had most talked of with his political friends or even with Julia. No, political as Julia was, he had not conferred with her much about the idea. However, this might have been his own fault quite as much as hers, and she in fact took such things, such enthusiasms, for granted — there was an immense deal in every way that she took for granted. On the other hand, he had often put forward this brighter side of the care for the public weal in his discussions with Gabriel Nash, to the end, it is true, of making that worthy scoff aloud at what he was pleased to term his hypocrisy. Gabriel maintained precisely that there were more ideas, more of those that man lived by, in a single room of the National Gallery than in all the statutes of Parliament. Nick had replied to this more than once that the determination of what man did live by was required; to which Nash had retorted (and it was very rarely that he quoted Scripture) that it was at any rate not by bread and beans alone. The statutes of Parliament gave him bread and beans tout au plus.

Nick had at present no pretension of trying this question over again: he reminded himself that his ambiguity was subjective, as the philosophers said; the result of a mood which in due course would be at the mercy of another mood. It made him curse, and cursing, as a finality, lacked firmness — one had to drive in posts somewhere under. The greatest time to do one’s work was when it didn’t seem worth doing, for then one gave it a brilliant chance, that of resisting the stiffest test of all — the test of striking one as too bad. To do the most when there would be the least to be got by it was to be most in the spirit of high production. One thing at any rate was certain, Nick reflected: nothing on earth would induce him to change back again — not even if this twilight of the soul should last for the rest of his days. He hardened himself in his posture with a good conscience which, had they had a glimpse of it, would have made him still more diverting to those who already thought him so; and now, by a happy chance, Miriam suddenly supplied the bridge correcting the gap in his continuity. If he had made his sketch it was a proof he had done her, and that he had done her flashed upon him as a sign that she would be still more feasible. Art was doing — it came back to that — which politics in most cases weren’t. He thus, to pursue our image, planted his supports in the dimness beneath all cursing, and on the platform so improvised was able, in his relief, to dance. He sent out a telegram to Balaklava Place requesting his beautiful sitter by no manner of means to fail him. When his servant came back it was to usher into the studio Peter Sherringham, whom the man had apparently found at the door.

The hour was so early for general commerce that Nick immediately guessed his visitor had come on some rare errand; but this inference yielded to the reflexion that Peter might after all only wish to make up by present zeal for not having been near him before. He forgot that, as he had subsequently learned from Biddy, their foreign, or all but foreign, cousin had spent an hour in Rosedale Road, missing him there but pulling out Miriam’s portrait, the day of his own last visit to Beauclere. These young men were not on a ceremonious footing and it was not in Nick’s nature to keep a record of civilities rendered or omitted; nevertheless he had been vaguely conscious that during a stay in London elastic enough on Peter’s part he and his kinsman had foregathered less than of yore. It was indeed an absorbing moment in the career of each, but even while recognising such a truth Nick judged it not impossible that Julia’s brother might have taken upon himself to resent some suppositions failure of consideration for that lady; though this indeed would have been stupid and the newly appointed minister (to he had forgotten where) didn’t often make mistakes. Nick held that as he had treated Julia with studious generosity she had nothing whatever to visit on him — wherefore Peter had still less. It was at any rate none of that gentleman’s business. There were only two abatements to disposing in a few frank words of all this: one of them Nick’s general hatred of talking of his private affairs (a reluctance in which he and Peter were well matched); and the other a truth involving more of a confession — the subtle truth that the most definite and even most soothing result of the collapse of his engagement was, as happened, an unprecedented consciousness of freedom. Nick’s observation was of a different sort from his cousin’s; he noted much less the signs of the hour and kept throughout a looser register of life; nevertheless, just as one of our young men had during these days in London found the air peopled with personal influences, the concussion of human atoms, so the other, though only asking to live without too many questions and work without too many rubs, to be glad and sorry in short on easy terms, had become aware of a certain social tightness, of the fact that life is crowded and passion restless, accident and community inevitable. Everybody with whom one had relations had other relations too, and even indifference was a mixture and detachment a compromise. The only wisdom was to consent to the loss, if necessary, of everything but one’s temper and to the ruin, if necessary, of everything but one’s work. It must be added that Peter’s relative took precautions against irritation perhaps in excess of the danger, as departing travellers about to whiz through foreign countries mouth in phrase-books combinations of words they will never use. He was at home in clear air and disliked to struggle either for breath or for light. He had a dim sense that Peter felt some discomfort from him and might have come now to tell him so; in which case he should be sorry for the sufferer in various ways. But as soon as that aspirant began to speak suspicion reverted to mere ancient kindness, and this in spite of the fact that his speech had a slightly exaggerated promptitude, like the promptitude of business, which might have denoted self-consciousness. To Nick it quickly appeared better to be glad than to be sorry: this simple argument was more than sufficient to make him glad Peter was there.

“My dear fellow, it’s an unpardonable hour, isn’t it? I wasn’t even sure you’d be up, yet had to risk it, because my hours are numbered. I’m going away tomorrow,” Peter went on; “I’ve a thousand things to do. I’ve had no talk with you this time such as we used to have of old (it’s an irreparable loss, but it’s your fault, you know), and as I’ve got to rush about all day I thought I’d just catch you before any one else does.”

“Some one has already caught me, but there’s plenty of time,” Nick returned.

Peter all but asked a question — it fell short. “I see, I see. I’m sorry to say I’ve only a few minutes at best.”

“Man of crushing responsibilities, you’ve come to humiliate me!” his companion cried. “I know all about it.”

“It’s more than I do then. That’s not what I’ve come for, but I shall be delighted if I humiliate you a little by the way. I’ve two things in mind, and I’ll mention the most difficult first. I came here the other day — the day after my arrival in town.”

“Ah yes, so you did; it was very good of you”— Nick remembered. “I ought to have returned your visit or left a card or written my name — to have done something in Great Stanhope Street, oughtn’t I? You hadn’t got this new thing then, or I’d have ‘called.’”

Peter eyed him a moment. “I say, what’s the matter with you? Am I really unforgivable for having taken that liberty?”

“What liberty?” Nick looked now quite innocent of care, and indeed his visitor’s allusion was not promptly clear. He was thinking for the instant all of Biddy, of whom and whose secret inclinations Grace had insisted on talking to him. They were none of his business, and if he wouldn’t for the world have let the girl herself suspect he had violent lights on what was most screened and curtained in her, much less would he have made Peter a clumsy present of this knowledge. Grace had a queer theory that Peter treated Biddy badly — treated them all somehow badly; but Grace’s zeal (she had plenty of it, though she affected all sorts of fine indifference) almost always took the form of her being unusually wrong. Nick wanted to do only what Biddy would thank him for, and he knew very well what she wouldn’t. She wished him and Peter to be great friends, and the only obstacle to this was that Peter was too much of a diplomatist. Peter made him for an instant think of her and of the hour they had lately spent together in the studio in his absence — an hour of which Biddy had given him a history full of items and omissions; and this in turn brought Nick’s imagination back to his visitor’s own side of the matter. That general human complexity of which the sense had lately increased with him, and to which it was owing that any thread one might take hold of would probably be the extremely wrong end of something, was illustrated by the fact that while poor Biddy was thinking of Peter it was ten to one poor Peter was thinking of Miriam Rooth. All of which danced before Nick’s intellectual vision for a space briefer than my too numerous words.

“I pitched into your treasures — I rummaged among your canvases,” Peter said. “Biddy had nothing whatever to do with it — she maintained an attitude of irreproachable reserve. It has been on my conscience all these days and I ought to have done penance before. I’ve been putting it off partly because I’m so ashamed of my indiscretion. Que voulez-vous, my dear chap? My provocation was great. I heard you had been painting Miss Rooth, so that I couldn’t restrain my curiosity. I simply went into that corner and struck out there — a trifle wildly no doubt. I dragged the young lady to the light — your sister turned pale as she saw me. It was a good deal like breaking open one of your letters, wasn’t it? However, I assure you it’s all right, for I congratulate you both on your style and on your correspondent.”

“You’re as clever, as witty, as humorous as ever, old boy,” Nick pronounced, going himself into the corner designated by his companion and laying his hands on the same canvas. “Your curiosity’s the highest possible tribute to my little attempt and your sympathy sets me right with myself. There she is again,” Nick went on, thrusting the picture into an empty frame; “you shall see her whether you wish to or not.”

“Right with yourself? You don’t mean to say you’ve been wrong!” Peter returned, standing opposite the portrait.

“Oh I don’t know. I’ve been kicking up such a row. Anything’s better than a row.”

“She’s awfully good — she’s awfully true,” said Peter. “You’ve done more to her since the other day. You’ve put in several things.”

“Yes, but I’ve worked distractedly. I’ve not altogether conformed to the good rule about being off with the old love.”

“With the old love?”— and the visitor looked hard at the picture.

“Before you’re on with the new!” Nick had no sooner uttered these words than he coloured: it occurred to him his friend would probably infer an allusion to Julia. He therefore added quickly: “It isn’t so easy to cease to represent an affectionate constituency. Really most of my time for a fortnight has been given to letter-writing. They’ve all been unexpectedly charming. I should have thought they’d have loathed and despised me. But not a bit of it; they cling to me fondly — they struggle with me tenderly. I’ve been down to talk with them about it, and we’ve passed the most sociable, delightful hours. I’ve designated my successor; I’ve felt a good deal like the Emperor Charles the Fifth when about to retire to the monastery of Yuste. The more I’ve seen of them in this way the more I’ve liked them, and they declare it has been the same with themselves about me. We spend our time assuring each other we hadn’t begun to know each other till now. In short it’s all wonderfully jolly, but it isn’t business. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

“They’re not so charming as they might be if they don’t offer to keep you and let you paint.”

“They do, almost — it’s fantastic,” said Nick. “Remember they haven’t yet seen a daub of my brush.”

“Well, I’m sorry for you; we live in too enlightened an age,” Peter returned. “You can’t suffer for art — that grand romance is over. Your experience is interesting; it seems to show that at the tremendous pitch of civilisation we’ve reached you can’t suffer from anything but hunger.”

“I shall doubtless,” Nick allowed, “do that enough to make up for the rest.”

“Never, never, when you paint so well as this.”

“Oh come, you’re too good to be true,” Nick said. “But where did you learn that one’s larder’s full in proportion as one’s work’s fine?”

Peter waived this curious point — he only continued to look at the picture; after which he roundly brought out: “I’ll give you your price for it on the spot.”

“Ah you’re so magnanimous that you shall have it for nothing!” And Nick, touched to gratitude, passed his arm into his visitor’s.

Peter had a pause. “Why do you call me magnanimous?”

“Oh bless my soul, it’s hers — I forgot!” laughed Nick, failing in his turn to answer the other’s inquiry. “But you shall have another.”

“Another? Are you going to do another?”

“This very morning. That is, I shall begin it. I’ve heard from her; she’s coming to sit — a short time hence.”

Peter turned away a little at this, releasing himself, and, as if the movement had been an effect of his host’s words, looked at his watch earnestly to dissipate that appearance. He fell back to consider the work from further off. “The more you do her the better — she has all the qualities of a great model. From that point of view it’s a pity she has another trade: she might make so good a thing of this one. But how shall you do her again?” he asked ingenuously.

“Oh I can scarcely say; we’ll arrange something; we’ll talk it over. It’s extraordinary how well she enters into what one wants: she knows more than one does one’s self. She isn’t, as you Frenchmen say, the first comer. However, you know all about that, since you invented her, didn’t you? That’s what she says; she’s awfully sweet on you,” Nick kindly pursued. “What I ought to do is to try something as different as possible from that thing; not the sibyl, the muse, the tremendous creature, but the charming woman, the person one knows, differently arranged as she appears en ville, she calls it. I’ll do something really serious and send it to you out there with my respects. It will remind you of home and perhaps a little even of me. If she knows it’s for you she’ll throw herself into it in the right spirit. Leave it to us, my dear fellow; we’ll turn out something splendid.”

“It’s jolly to hear you, but I shall send you a cheque,” said Peter very stoutly.

“I suppose it’s all right in your position, but you’re too proud,” his kinsman answered.

“What do you mean by my position?”

“Your exaltation, your high connexion with the country, your treating with sovereign powers as the representative of a sovereign power. Isn’t that what they call ’em?”

Peter, who had turned round again, listened to this with his eyes fixed on Nick’s face while he once more drew forth his watch. “Brute!” he exclaimed familiarly, at the same time dropping his eyes on the watch. “When did you say you expect your sitter?”

“Oh we’ve plenty of time; don’t be afraid of letting me see you agitated by her presence.”

“Brute!” Peter again ejaculated.

This friendly personal note cleared the air, made their communication closer. “Stay with me and talk to me,” said Nick; “I daresay it’s good for me. It may be the last time I shall see you without having before anything else to koo-too.”

“Beast!” his kinsman once more, and a little helplessly, threw off; though next going on: “Haven’t you something more to show me then — some other fruit of your genius?”

“Must I bribe you by setting my sign-boards in a row? You know what I’ve done; by which I mean of course you know what I haven’t. My genius, as you’re so good as to call it, has hitherto been dreadfully sterile. I’ve had no time, no opportunity, no continuity. I must go and sit down in a corner and learn my alphabet. That thing isn’t good; what I shall do for you won’t be good. Don’t protest, my dear fellow; nothing will be fit to look at for a long time.” After which poor Nick wound up: “And think of my ridiculous age! As the good people say (or don’t they say it?), it’s a rum go. It won’t be amusing.”

“Ah you’re so clever you’ll get on fast,” Peter returned, trying to think how he could most richly defy the injunction not to protest.

“I mean it won’t be amusing for others,” said Nick, unperturbed by this levity. “They want results, and small blame to them.”

“Well, whatever you do, don’t talk like Mr. Gabriel Nash,” Peter went on. “Sometimes I think you’re just going to.”

Nick stared a moment. “Ah he never would have said that ‘They want results, the damned asses’— that would have been more in his key.”

“It’s the difference of a nuance! And are you extraordinarily happy?” Peter added as his host now obliged him by arranging half-a-dozen canvases so that he could look at them.

“Not so much so, doubtless, as the artistic life ought to make one: because all one’s people are not so infatuated as one’s electors. But little by little I’m learning the charm of pig-headedness.”

“Your mother’s very bad,” Peter allowed —“I lunched with her day before yesterday.”

“Yes, I know, I know”— Nick had such reason to know; “but it’s too late, too late. I must just peg away here and not mind. I’ve after all a great advantage in my life.”

His companion waited impartially to hear. “And that would be-?”

“Well, knowing what I want to do. That’s everything, you know.”

“It’s an advantage, however, that you’ve only just come in for, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but the delay and the probation only make me prize it the more. I’ve got it now; and it makes up for the absence of some other things.”

Again Peter had a pause. “That sounds a little flat,” he remarked at last.

“It depends on what you compare it with. It has more point than I sometimes found in the House of Commons.”

“Oh I never thought I should like that!”

There was another drop during which Nick moved about the room turning up old sketches to see if he had anything more to show, while his visitor continued to look at the unfinished and in some cases, as seemed, unpromising productions already exposed. They were far less interesting than the portrait of Miriam Rooth and, it would have appeared, less significant of ability. For that particular effort Nick’s talent had taken an inspired flight. So much Peter thought, as he had thought it intensely before; but the words he presently uttered had no visible connexion with it. They only consisted of the abrupt inquiry; “Have you heard anything from Julia?”

“Not a syllable. Have you?”

“Dear no; she never writes to me.”

“But won’t she on the occasion of your promotion?”

“I daresay not,” said Peter; and this was the only reference to Mrs. Dallow that passed between her brother and her late intended. It left a slight stir of the air which Peter proceeded to allay by an allusion comparatively speaking more relevant. He expressed disappointment that Biddy shouldn’t have come in, having had an idea she was always in Rosedale Road of a morning. That was the other branch of his present errand — the wish to see her and give her a message for Lady Agnes, upon whom, at so early an hour, he had not presumed to intrude in Calcutta Gardens. Nick replied that Biddy did in point of fact almost always turn up, and for the most part early: she came to wish him good-morning and start him for the day. She was a devoted Electra, laying a cool, healing hand on a distracted, perspiring Orestes. He reminded Peter, however, that he would have a chance of seeing her that evening, and of seeing Lady Agnes; for wasn’t he to do them the honour of dining in Calcutta Gardens? Biddy, the day before, had arrived full of that excitement. Peter explained that this was exactly the sad subject of his actual démarche: the project of the dinner in Calcutta Gardens had, to his exceeding regret, fallen to pieces. The fact was (didn’t Nick know it?) the night had been suddenly and perversely fixed for Miriam’s première, and he was under a definite engagement with her not to stay away from it. To add to the bore of the thing he was obliged to return to Paris the very next morning. He was quite awfully sorry, for he had promised Lady Agnes: he didn’t understand then about Miriam’s affair, in regard to which he had given a previous pledge. He was more grieved than he could say, but he could never fail Miss Rooth: he had professed from the first an interest in her which he must live up to a little more. This was his last chance — he hadn’t been near her at the trying time of her first braving of the public. And the second night of the play wouldn’t do — it must be the first or nothing. Besides, he couldn’t wait over till Monday.

While Peter recited all his hindrance Nick was occupied in rubbing with a cloth a palette he had just scraped. “I see what you mean — I’m very sorry too. I’m sorry you can’t give my mother this joy — I give her so little.”

“My dear fellow, you might give her a little more!” it came to Peter to say. “It’s rather too much to expect me to make up for your omissions!”

Nick looked at him with a moment’s fixedness while he polished the palette; and for that moment he felt the temptation to reply: “There’s a way you could do that, to a considerable extent — I think you guess it — which wouldn’t be intrinsically disagreeable.” But the impulse passed without expressing itself in speech, and he simply brought out; “You can make this all clear to Biddy when she comes, and she’ll make it clear to my mother.”

“Poor little Biddy!” Peter mentally sighed, thinking of the girl with that job before her; but what he articulated was that this was exactly why he had come to the studio. He had inflicted his company on Lady Agnes the previous Thursday and had partaken of a meal with her, but had not seen Biddy though he had waited for her, had hoped immensely she’d come in. Now he’d wait again — dear Bid was thoroughly worth it.

“Patience, patience then — you’ve always me!” said Nick; to which he subjoined: “If it’s a question of going to the play I scarcely see why you shouldn’t dine at my mother’s all the same. People go to the play after dinner.”

“Yes, but it wouldn’t be fair, it wouldn’t be decent: it’s a case when I must be in my seat from the rise of the curtain.” Peter, about this, was thoroughly lucid. “I should force your mother to dine an hour earlier than usual and then in return for her courtesy should go off to my entertainment at eight o’clock, leaving her and Grace and Biddy languishing there. I wish I had proposed in time that they should go with me,” he continued not very ingenuously.

“You might do that still,” Nick suggested.

“Oh at this time of day it would be impossible to get a box.”

“I’ll speak to Miss Rooth about it if you like when she comes,” smiled Nick.

“No, it wouldn’t do,” said Peter, turning away and looking once more at his watch. He made tacitly the addition that still less than asking Lady Agnes for his convenience to dine early would this be decent, would it be thinkable. His taking Biddy the night he dined with her and with Miss Tressilian had been something very like a violation of those proprieties. He couldn’t say that, however, to the girl’s brother, who remarked in a moment that it was all right, since Peter’s action left him his own freedom.

“Your own freedom?”— and Peter’s question made him turn.

“Why you see now I can go to the theatre myself.”

“Certainly; I hadn’t thought of that. You’d naturally have been going.”

“I gave it up for the prospect of your company at home.”

“Upon my word you’re too good — I don’t deserve such sacrifices,” said Peter, who read in his kinsman’s face that this was not a figure of speech but the absolute truth. “Didn’t it, however, occur to you that, as it would turn out, I might — I even naturally would — myself be going?” he put forth.

Nick broke into a laugh. “It would have occurred to me if I understood a little better —!” But he paused, as still too amused.

“If you understood a little better what?”

“Your situation, simply.”

Peter looked at him a moment. “Dine with me to-night by ourselves and at a club. We’ll go to the theatre together and then you’ll understand it.”

“With pleasure, with pleasure: we’ll have a jolly evening,” said Nick.

“Call it jolly if you like. When did you say she was coming?” Peter asked.

“Biddy? Oh probably, as I tell you, at any moment.”

“I mean the great Miriam,” Peter amended.

“The great Miriam, if she’s punctual, will be here in about forty minutes.”

“And will she be likely to find your sister?”

“That will depend, my dear fellow, on whether my sister remains to see her.”

“Exactly; but the point’s whether you’ll allow her to remain, isn’t it?”

Nick looked slightly mystified. “Why shouldn’t she do as she likes?”

“In that case she’ll probably go.”

“Yes, unless she stays.”

“Don’t let her,” Peter dropped; “send her away.” And to explain this he added: “It doesn’t seem exactly the right sort of thing, fresh young creatures like Bid meeting des femmes de théâtre.” His explanation, in turn, struck him as requiring another clause; so he went on: “At least it isn’t thought the right sort of thing abroad, and even in England my foreign ideas stick to me.”

Even with this amplification, however, his plea evidently still had for his companion a flaw; which, after he had considered it a moment, Nick exposed in the simple words: “Why, you originally introduced them in Paris, Biddy and Miss Rooth. Didn’t they meet at your rooms and fraternise, and wasn’t that much more ‘abroad’ than this?”

“So they did, but my hand had been forced and she didn’t like it,” Peter answered, suspecting that for a diplomatist he looked foolish.

“Miss Rooth didn’t like it?” Nick persisted.

“That I confess I’ve forgotten. Besides, she wasn’t an actress then. What I mean is that Biddy wasn’t particularly pleased with her.”

“Why she thought her wonderful — praised her to the sides. I remember that.”

“She didn’t like her as a woman; she praised her as an actress.”

“I thought you said she wasn’t an actress then,” Nick returned.

Peter had a pause. “Oh Biddy thought so. She has seen her since, moreover. I took her the other night, and her curiosity’s satisfied.”

“It’s not of any consequence, and if there’s a reason for it I’ll bundle her off directly,” Nick made haste to say. “But the great Miriam seems such a kind, good person.”

“So she is, charming, charming,”— and his visitor looked hard at him.

“Here comes Biddy now,” Nick went on. “I hear her at the door: you can warn her yourself.”

“It isn’t a question of ‘warning’— that’s not in the least my idea. But I’ll take Biddy away,” said Peter.

“That will be still more energetic.”

“No, it will be simply more selfish — I like her company.” Peter had turned as if to go to the door and meet the girl; but he quickly checked himself, lingering in the middle of the room, and the next instant Biddy had come in. When she saw him there she also stopped.

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