The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLIII

“Come on boldly, my dear,” said Nick. “Peter’s bored to death waiting for you.”

“Ah he’s come to say he won’t dine with us to-night!” Biddy stood with her hand on the latch.

“I leave town tomorrow: I’ve everything to do; I’m broken-hearted; it’s impossible”— Peter made of it again such a case as he could. “Please make my peace with your mother — I’m ashamed of not having written to her last night.”

She closed the door and came in while her brother said to her, “How in the world did you guess it?”

“I saw it in the Morning Post.” And she kept her eyes on their kinsman.

“In the Morning Post?” he vaguely echoed.

“I saw there’s to be a first night at that theatre, the one you took us to. So I said, ‘Oh he’ll go there.’”

“Yes, I’ve got to do that too,” Peter admitted.

“She’s going to sit to me again this morning, his wonderful actress — she has made an appointment: so you see I’m getting on,” Nick pursued to his sister.

“Oh I’m so glad — she’s so splendid!” The girl looked away from her cousin now, but not, though it seemed to fill the place, at the triumphant portrait of Miriam Rooth.

“I’m delighted you’ve come in. I have waited for you,” Peter hastened to declare to her, though conscious that this was in the conditions meagre.

“Aren’t you coming to see us again?”

“I’m in despair, but I shall really not have time. Therefore it’s a blessing not to have missed you here.”

“I’m very glad,” said Biddy. Then she added: “And you’re going to America — to stay a long time?”

“Till I’m sent to some better place.”

“And will that better place be as far away?”

“Oh Biddy, it wouldn’t be better then,” said Peter.

“Do you mean they’ll give you something to do at home?”

“Hardly that. But I’ve a tremendous lot to do at home today.” For the twentieth time Peter referred to his watch.

She turned to her brother, who had admonished her that she might bid him good-morning. She kissed him and he asked what the news would be in Calcutta Gardens; to which she made answer: “The only news is of course the great preparations they’re making, poor dears, for Peter. Mamma thinks you must have had such a nasty dinner the other day,” the girl continued to the guest of that romantic occasion.

“Faithless Peter!” said Nick, beginning to whistle and to arrange a canvas in anticipation of Miriam’s arrival.

“Dear Biddy, thank your stars you’re not in my horrid profession,” protested the personage so designated. “One’s bowled about like a cricket-ball, unable to answer for one’s freedom or one’s comfort from one moment to another.”

“Oh ours is the true profession — Biddy’s and mine,” Nick broke out, setting up his canvas; “the career of liberty and peace, of charming long mornings spent in a still north light and in the contemplation, I may even say in the company, of the amiable and the beautiful.”

“That certainty’s the case when Biddy comes to see you,” Peter returned.

Biddy smiled at him. “I come every day. Anch’io son pittore! I encourage Nick awfully.”

“It’s a pity I’m not a martyr — she’d bravely perish with me,” Nick said.

“You are — you’re a martyr — when people say such odious things!” the girl cried. “They do say them. I’ve heard many more than I’ve repeated to you.”

“It’s you yourself then, indignant and loyal, who are the martyr,” observed Peter, who wanted greatly to be kind to her.

“Oh I don’t care!”— but she threw herself, flushed and charming, into a straight appeal to him. “Don’t you think one can do as much good by painting great works of art as by — as by what papa used to do? Don’t you think art’s necessary to the happiness, to the greatness of a people? Don’t you think it’s manly and honourable? Do you think a passion for it’s a thing to be ashamed of? Don’t you think the artist — the conscientious, the serious one — is as distinguished a member of society as any one else?”

Peter and Nick looked at each other and laughed at the way she had got up her subject, and Nick asked their kinsman if she didn’t express it all in perfection. “I delight in general in artists, but I delight still more in their defenders,” Peter made reply, perhaps a little meagrely, to Biddy.

“Ah don’t attack me if you’re wise!” Nick said.

“One’s tempted to when it makes Biddy so fine.”

“Well, that’s the way she encourages me: it’s meat and drink to me,” Nick went on. “At the same time I’m bound to say there’s a little whistling in the dark in it.”

“In the dark?” his sister demanded.

“The obscurity, my dear child, of your own aspirations, your mysterious ambitions and esthetic views. Aren’t there some heavyish shadows there?”

“Why I never cared for politics.”

“No, but you cared for life, you cared for society, and you’ve chosen the path of solitude and concentration.”

“You horrid boy!” said Biddy.

“Give it up, that arduous steep — give it up and come out with me,” Peter interposed.

“Come out with you?”

“Let us walk a little or even drive a little. Let us at any rate talk a little.”

“I thought you had so much to do,” Biddy candidly objected.

“So I have, but why shouldn’t you do a part of it with me? Would there be any harm? I’m going to some tiresome shops — you’ll cheer the frugal hour.”

The girl hesitated, then turned to Nick. “Would there be any harm?”

“Oh it’s none of his business!” Peter protested.

“He had better take you home to your mother.”

“I’m going home — I shan’t stay here today,” Biddy went on. Then to Peter: “I came in a hansom, but I shall walk back. Come that way with me.”

“With pleasure. But I shall not be able to go in,” Peter added.

“Oh that’s no matter,” said the girl. “Good-bye, Nick.”

“You understand then that we dine together — at seven sharp. Wouldn’t a club, as I say, be best?” Peter, before going, inquired of Nick. He suggested further which club it should be; and his words led Biddy, who had directed her steps toward the door, to turn a moment as with a reproachful question — whether it was for this Peter had given up Calcutta Gardens. But her impulse, if impulse it was, had no sequel save so far as it was a sequel that Peter freely explained to her, after Nick had assented to his conditions, that her brother too had a desire to go to Miss Rooth’s first night and had already promised to accompany him.

“Oh that’s perfect; it will be so good for him — won’t it? — if he’s going to paint her again,” Biddy responded.

“I think there’s nothing so good for him as that he happens to have such a sister as you,” Peter declared as they went out. He heard at the same time the sound of a carriage stopping, and before Biddy, who was in front of him, opened the door of the house had been able to say to himself, “What a bore — there’s Miriam!” The opened door showed him that truth — this young lady in the act of alighting from the brougham provided by Basil Dashwood’s thrifty zeal. Her mother followed her, and both the new visitors exclaimed and rejoiced, in their demonstrative way, as their eyes fell on their valued friend. The door had closed behind Peter, but he instantly and violently rang, so that they should be admitted with as little delay as possible, while he stood disconcerted, and fearing he showed it, by the prompt occurrence of an encounter he had particularly sought to avert. It ministered, moreover, a little to this sensibility that Miriam appeared to have come somewhat before her time. The incident promised, however, to pass off in a fine florid way. Before he knew it both the ladies had taken possession of Biddy, who looked at them with comparative coldness, tempered indeed by a faint glow of apprehension, and Miriam had broken out:

“We know you, we know you; we saw you in Paris, and you came to my theatre a short time ago with Mr. Sherringham!”

“We know your mother, Lady Agnes Dormer. I hope her ladyship’s very well,” said Mrs. Rooth, who had never struck Peter as a more objectionable old woman.

“You offered to do a head of me or something or other: didn’t you tell me you work in clay? I daresay you’ve forgotten all about it, but I should be delighted,” Miriam pursued with the richest urbanity. Peter was not concerned with her mother’s pervasiveness, though he didn’t like Biddy to see even that; but he hoped his companion would take the overcharged benevolence of the young actress in the spirit in which, rather to his surprise, it evidently was offered. “I’ve sat to your clever brother many times,” said Miriam; “I’m going to sit again. I daresay you’ve seen what we’ve done — he’s too delightful. Si vous saviez comme cela me repose!” she added, turning for a moment to Peter. Then she continued, smiling at Biddy; “Only he oughtn’t to have thrown up such prospects, you know. I’ve an idea I wasn’t nice to you that day in Paris — I was nervous and scared and perverse. I remember perfectly; I was odious. But I’m better now — you’d see if you were to know me. I’m not a bad sort — really I’m not. But you must have your own friends. Happy they — you look so charming! Immensely like Mr. Dormer, especially about the eyes; isn’t she, mamma?”

“She comes of a beautiful Norman race — the finest, purest strain,” the old woman simpered. “Mr. Dormer’s sometimes so good as to come and see us — we’re always at home on Sunday; and if some day you found courage to come with him you might perhaps find it pleasant, though very different of course from the circle in which you habitually move.”

Biddy murmured a vague recognition of these wonderful civilities, and Miriam commented: “Different, yes; but we’re all right, you know. Do come,” she added. Then turning to Sherringham: “Remember what I told you — I don’t expect you to-night.”

“Oh I understand; I shall come,”— and Peter knew he grew red.

“It will be idiotic. Keep him, keep him away — don’t let him,” Miriam insisted to Biddy; with which, as Nick’s portals now were gaping, she drew her mother away.

Peter, at this, walked off briskly with Biddy, dropping as he did so: “She’s too fantastic!”

“Yes, but so tremendously good-looking. I shall ask Nick to take me there,” the girl said after a moment.

“Well, she’ll do you no harm. They’re all right, as she says. It’s the world of art — you were standing up so for art just now.”

“Oh I wasn’t thinking so much of that kind,” she demurred.

“There’s only one kind — it’s all the same thing. If one sort’s good the other is.”

Biddy walked along a moment. “Is she serious? Is she conscientious?”

“She has the makings of a great artist,” Peter opined.

“I’m glad to hear you think a woman can be one.”

“In that line there has never been any doubt about it.”

“And only in that line?”

“I mean on the stage in general, dramatic or lyric. It’s as the actress that the woman produces the most complete and satisfactory artistic results.”

“And only as the actress?”

He weighed it. “Yes, there’s another art in which she’s not bad.”

“Which one do you mean?” asked Biddy.

“That of being charming and good, that of being indispensable to man.”

“Oh that isn’t an art.”

“Then you leave her only the stage. Take it if you like in the widest sense.”

Biddy appeared to reflect a moment, as to judge what sense this might be. But she found none that was wide enough, for she cried the next minute: “Do you mean to say there’s nothing for a woman but to be an actress?”

“Never in my life. I only say that that’s the best thing for a woman to be who finds herself irresistibly carried into the practice of the arts; for there her capacity for them has most application and her incapacity for them least. But at the same time I strongly recommend her not to be an artist if she can possibly help it. It’s a devil of a life.”

“Oh I know; men want women not to be anything.”

“It’s a poor little refuge they try to take from the overwhelming consciousness that you’re in very fact everything.”

“Everything?” And the girl gave a toss. “That’s the kind of thing you say to keep us quiet.”

“Dear Biddy, you see how well we succeed!” laughed Peter.

To which she replied by asking irrelevantly: “Why is it so necessary for you to go to the theatre to-night if Miss Rooth doesn’t want you to?”

“My dear child, she does want me to. But that has nothing to do with it.”

“Why then did she say that she doesn’t?”

“Oh because she meant just the contrary.”

“Is she so false then — is she so vulgar?”

“She speaks a special language; practically it isn’t false, because it renders her thought and those who know her understand it.”

“But she doesn’t use it only to those who know her,” Biddy returned, “since she asked me, who have so little the honour of her acquaintance, to keep you away to-night. How am I to know that she meant by that that I’m to urge you on to go?”

He was on the point of replying, “Because you’ve my word for it”; but he shrank in fact from giving his word — he had some fine scruples — and sought to relieve his embarrassment by a general tribute. “Dear Biddy, you’re delightfully acute: you’re quite as clever as Miss Rooth.” He felt, however, that this was scarcely adequate and he continued: “The truth is that its being important for me to go is a matter quite independent of that young lady’s wishing it or not wishing it. There happens to be a definite intrinsic propriety in it which determines the thing and which it would take me long to explain.”

“I see. But fancy your ‘explaining’ to me: you make me feel so indiscreet!” the girl cried quickly — an exclamation which touched him because he was not aware that, quick as it had been, she had still had time to be struck first — though she wouldn’t for the world have expressed it — with the oddity of such a duty at such a season. In fact that oddity, during a silence of some minutes, came back to Peter himself: the note had been forced — it sounded almost ignobly frivolous from a man on the eve of proceeding to a high diplomatic post. The effect of this, none the less, was not to make him break out with “Hang it, I will keep my engagement to your mother!” but to fill him with the wish to shorten his present strain by taking Biddy the rest of the way in a cab. He was uncomfortable, and there were hansoms about that he looked at wistfully. While he was so occupied his companion took up the talk by an abrupt appeal.

“Why did she say that Nick oughtn’t to have resigned his seat?”

“Oh I don’t know. It struck her so. It doesn’t matter much.”

But Biddy kept it up. “If she’s an artist herself why doesn’t she like people to go in for art, especially when Nick has given his time to painting her so beautifully? Why does she come there so often if she disapproves of what he has done?”

“Oh Miriam’s disapproval — it doesn’t count; it’s a manner of speaking.”

“Of speaking untruths, do you mean? Does she think just the reverse — is that the way she talks about everything?”

“We always admire most what we can do least,” Peter brought forth; “and Miriam of course isn’t political. She ranks painters more or less with her own profession, about which already, new as she is to it, she has no illusions. They’re all artists; it’s the same general sort of thing. She prefers men of the world — men of action.”

“Is that the reason she likes you?” Biddy mildly mocked.

“Ah she doesn’t like me — couldn’t you see it?”

The girl at first said nothing; then she asked: “Is that why she lets you call her ‘Miriam’?”

“Oh I don’t, to her face.”

“Ah only to mine!” laughed Biddy.

“One says that as one says ‘Rachel’ of her great predecessor.”

“Except that she isn’t so great, quite yet, is she?”

“Far from it; she’s the freshest of novices — she has scarcely been four months on the stage. But no novice has ever been such an adept. She’ll go very fast,” Peter pursued, “and I daresay that before long she’ll be magnificent.”

“What a pity you’ll not see that!” Biddy sighed after a pause.

“Not see it?”

“If you’re thousands of miles away.”

“It is a pity,” Peter said; “and since you mention it I don’t mind frankly telling you — throwing myself on your mercy, as it were — that that’s why I make such a point of a rare occasion like to-night. I’ve a weakness for the drama that, as you perhaps know, I’ve never concealed, and this impression will probably have to last me in some barren spot for many, many years.”

“I understand — I understand. I hope therefore it will be charming.” And the girl walked faster.

“Just as some other charming impressions will have to last,” Peter added, conscious of keeping up with her by some effort. She seemed almost to be running away from him, an impression that led him to suggest, after they had proceeded a little further without more words, that if she were in a hurry they had perhaps better take a cab. Her face was strange and touching to him as she turned it to make answer:

“Oh I’m not in the least in a hurry and I really think I had better walk.”

“We’ll walk then by all means!” Peter said with slightly exaggerated gaiety; in pursuance of which they went on a hundred yards. Biddy kept the same pace; yet it was scarcely a surprise to him that she should suddenly stop with the exclamation:

“After all, though I’m not in a hurry I’m tired! I had better have a cab; please call that one,” she added, looking about her.

They were in a straight, blank, ugly street, where the small, cheap, grey-faced houses had no expression save that of a rueful, unconsoled acknowledgment of the universal want of identity. They would have constituted a “terrace” if they could, but they had dolefully given it up. Even a hansom that loitered across the end of the vista turned a sceptical back upon it, so that Sherringham had to lift his voice in a loud appeal. He stood with Biddy watching the cab approach them. “This is one of the charming things you’ll remember,” she said, turning her eyes to the general dreariness from the particular figure of the vehicle, which was antiquated and clumsy. Before he could reply she had lightly stepped into the cab; but as he answered, “Most assuredly it is,” and prepared to follow her she quickly closed the apron.

“I must go alone; you’ve lots of things to do — it’s all right”; and through the aperture in the roof she gave the driver her address. She had spoken with decision, and Peter fully felt now that she wished to get away from him. Her eyes betrayed it, as well as her voice, in a look, a strange, wandering ray that as he stood there with his hand on the cab he had time to take from her. “Good-bye, Peter,” she smiled; and as the thing began to rumble away he uttered the same tepid, ridiculous farewell.

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