The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLIV

At the entrance of Miriam and her mother Nick, in the studio, had stopped whistling, but he was still gay enough to receive them with every appearance of warmth. He thought it a poor place, ungarnished, untapestried, a bare, almost grim workshop, with all its revelations and honours still to come. But his visitors smiled on it a good deal in the same way in which they had smiled on Bridget Dormer when they met her at the door: Mrs. Rooth because vague, prudent approbation was the habit of her foolish face — it was ever the least danger; and Miriam because, as seemed, she was genuinely glad to find herself within the walls of which she spoke now as her asylum. She broke out in this strain to her host almost as soon as she had crossed the threshold, commending his circumstances, his conditions of work, as infinitely happier than her own. He was quiet, independent, absolute, free to do what he liked as he liked it, shut up in his little temple with his altar and his divinity; not hustled about in a mob of people, having to posture and grin to pit and gallery, to square himself at every step with insufferable conventions and with the ignorance and vanity of others. He was blissfully alone.

“Mercy, how you do abuse your fine profession! I’m sure I never urged you to adopt it!” Mrs. Rooth cried, in real bewilderment, to her daughter.

“She was abusing mine still more the other day,” joked Nick —“telling me I ought to be ashamed of it and of myself.”

“Oh I never know from one moment to the other — I live with my heart in my mouth,” sighed the old woman.

“Aren’t you quiet about the great thing — about my personal behaviour?” Miriam smiled. “My improprieties are all of the mind.”

“I don’t know what you call your personal behaviour,” her mother objected.

“You would very soon if it were not what it is.”

“And I don’t know why you should wish to have it thought you’ve a wicked mind,” Mrs. Rooth agreeably grumbled.

“Yes, but I don’t see very well how I can make you understand that. At any rate,” Miriam pursued with her grand eyes on Nick, “I retract what I said the other day about Mr. Dormer. I’ve no wish to quarrel with him on the way he has determined to dispose of his life, because after all it does suit me very well. It rests me, this little devoted corner; oh it rests me! It’s out of the row and the dust, it’s deliciously still and they can’t get at me. Ah when art’s like this, à la bonne heure!” And she looked round on such a presentment of “art” in a splendid way that produced amusement on the young man’s part at its contrast with the humble fact. Miriam shone upon him as if she liked to be the cause of his mirth and went on appealing to him: “You’ll always let me come here for an hour, won’t you, to take breath — to let the whirlwind pass? You needn’t trouble yourself about me; I don’t mean to impose on you in the least the necessity of painting me, though if that’s a manner of helping you to get on you may be sure it will always be open to you. Do what you like with me in that respect; only let me sit here on a high stool, keeping well out of your way, and see what you happen to be doing. I’ll tell you my own adventures when you want to hear them.”

“The fewer adventures you have to tell the better, my dear,” said Mrs. Rooth; “and if Mr. Dormer keeps you quiet he’ll add ten years to my life.”

“It all makes an interesting comment on Mr. Dormer’s own quietness, on his independence and sweet solitude,” Nick observed. “Miss Rooth has to work with others, which is after all only what Mr. Dormer has to do when he works with Miss Rooth. What do you make of the inevitable sitter?”

“Oh,” answered Miriam, “you can say to the inevitable sitter, ‘Hold your tongue, you brute!’”

“Isn’t it a good deal in that manner that I’ve heard you address your comrades at the theatre?” Mrs. Rooth inquired. “That’s why my heart’s in my mouth.”

“Yes, but they hit me back; they reply to me — comme de raison — as I should never think of replying to Mr. Dormer. It’s a great advantage to him that when he’s peremptory with his model it only makes her better, adds to her expression of gloomy grandeur.”

“We did the gloomy grandeur in the other picture: suppose therefore we try something different in this,” Nick threw off.

“It is serious, it is grand,” murmured Mrs. Rooth, who had taken up a rapt attitude before the portrait of her daughter. “It makes one wonder what she’s thinking of. Beautiful, commendable things — that’s what it seems to say.”

“What can I be thinking of but the tremendous wisdom of my mother?” Miriam returned. “I brought her this morning to see that thing — she had only seen it in its earliest stage — and not to presume to advise you about anything else you may be so good as to embark on. She wanted, or professed she wanted, terribly to know what you had finally arrived at. She was too impatient to wait till you should send it home.”

“Ah send it home — send it home; let us have it always with us!” Mrs. Rooth engagingly said. “It will keep us up, up, and up on the heights, near the stars — be always for us a symbol and a reminder!”

“You see I was right,” Miriam went on; “for she appreciates thoroughly, in her own way, and almost understands. But if she worries or distracts you I’ll send her directly home — I’ve kept the carriage there on purpose. I must add that I don’t feel quite safe today in letting her out of my sight. She’s liable to make dashes at the theatre and play unconscionable tricks there. I shall never again accuse mamma of a want of interest in my profession. Her interest today exceeds even my own. She’s all over the place and she has ideas — ah but ideas! She’s capable of turning up at the theatre at five o’clock this afternoon to demand the repainting of the set in the third act. For myself I’ve not a word more to say on the subject — I’ve accepted every danger, I’ve swallowed my fate. Everything’s no doubt wrong, but nothing can possibly be right. Let us eat and drink, for to-night we die. If you say so mamma shall go and sit in the carriage, and as there’s no means of fastening the doors (is there?) your servant shall keep guard over her.”

“Just as you are now — be so good as to remain so; sitting just that way — leaning back with a smile in your eyes and one hand on the sofa beside you and supporting you a little. I shall stick a flower into the other hand — let it lie in your lap just as it is. Keep that thing on your head — it’s admirably uncovered: do you call such an unconsidered trifle a bonnet? — and let your head fall back a little. There it is — it’s found. This time I shall really do something, and it will be as different as you like from that other crazy job. Here we go!” It was in these irrelevant but earnest words that Nick responded to his sitter’s uttered vagaries, of which her charming tone and countenance diminished the superficial acerbity. He held up his hands a moment, to fix her in her limits, and in a few minutes had a happy sense of having begun to work.

“The smile in her eyes — don’t forget the smile in her eyes!” Mrs. Rooth softly chanted, turning away and creeping about the room. “That will make it so different from the other picture and show the two sides of her genius, the wonderful range between them. They’ll be splendid mates, and though I daresay I shall strike you as greedy you must let me hope you’ll send this one home too.”

She explored the place discreetly and on tiptoe, talking twaddle as she went and bending her head and her eyeglass over various objects with an air of imperfect comprehension that didn’t prevent Nick’s private recall of the story of her underhand, commercial habits told by Gabriel Nash at the exhibition in Paris the first time her name had fallen on his ear. A queer old woman from whom, if you approached her in the right way, you could buy old pots — it was in this character that she had originally been introduced to him. He had lost sight of it afterwards, but it revived again as his observant eyes, at the same time that they followed his active hand, became aware of her instinctive, appraising gestures. There was a moment when he frankly laughed out — there was so little in his poor studio to appraise. Mrs. Rooth’s wandering eyeglass and vague, polite, disappointed, bent back and head made a subject for a sketch on the instant: they gave such a sudden pictorial glimpse of the element of race. He found himself seeing the immemorial Jewess in her hold up a candle in a crammed back shop. There was no candle indeed and his studio was not crammed, and it had never occurred to him before that she was a grand-daughter of Israel save on the general theory, so stoutly held by several clever people, that few of us are not under suspicion. The late Rudolf Roth had at least been, and his daughter was visibly her father’s child; so that, flanked by such a pair, good Semitic presumptions sufficiently crowned the mother. Receiving Miriam’s sharp, satiric shower without shaking her shoulders she might at any rate have been the descendant of a tribe long persecuted. Her blandness was beyond all baiting; she professed she could be as still as a mouse. Miriam, on the other side of the room, in the tranquil beauty of her attitude —“found” indeed, as Nick had said — watched her a little and then declared she had best have been locked up at home. Putting aside her free account of the dangers to which her mother exposed her, it wasn’t whimsical to imagine that within the limits of that repose from which the Neville–Nugents never wholly departed the elder lady might indeed be a trifle fidgety and have something on her mind. Nick presently mentioned that it wouldn’t be possible for him to “send home” his second performance; and he added, in the exuberance of having already got a little into relation with his work, that perhaps this didn’t matter, inasmuch as — if Miriam would give him his time, to say nothing of her own — a third and a fourth masterpiece might also some day very well struggle into the light. His model rose to this without conditions, assuring him he might count upon her till she grew too old and too ugly and that nothing would make her so happy as that he should paint her as often as Romney had painted the celebrated Lady Hamilton. “Ah Lady Hamilton!” deprecated Mrs. Rooth; while Miriam, who had on occasion the candour of a fine acquisitiveness, wished to know what particular reason there might be for his not letting them have the picture he was now beginning.

“Why I’ve promised it to Peter Sherringham — he has offered me money for it,” Nick replied. “However, he’s welcome to it for nothing, poor chap, and I shall be delighted to do the best I can for him.”

Mrs. Rooth, still prowling, stopped in the middle of the room at this, while her daughter echoed: “He offered you money — just as we came in?”

“You met him then at the door with my sister? I supposed you had — he’s taking her home,” Nick explained.

“Your sister’s a lovely girl — such an aristocratic type!” breathed Mrs. Rooth. Then she added: “I’ve a tremendous confession to make to you.”

“Mamma’s confessions have to be tremendous to correspond with her crimes,” said Miriam. “She asked Miss Dormer to come and see us, suggested even that you might bring her some Sunday. I don’t like the way mamma does such things — too much humility, too many simagrées, after all; but I also said what I could to be nice to her. Your sister is charming — awfully pretty and modest. If you were to press me I should tell you frankly that it seems to me rather a social muddle, this rubbing shoulders of ‘nice girls’ and filles de théâtre: I shouldn’t think it would do your poor young things much good. However, it’s their own affair, and no doubt there’s no more need of their thinking we’re worse than we are than of their thinking we’re better. The people they live with don’t seem to know the difference — I sometimes make my reflexions about the public one works for.”

“Ah if you go in for the public’s knowing differences you’re far too particular,” Nick laughed. “D’où tombez-vous? as you affected French people say. If you’ve anything at stake on that you had simply better not play.”

“Dear Mr. Dormer, don’t encourage her to be so dreadful; for it is dreadful, the way she talks,” Mrs. Rooth broke in. “One would think we weren’t respectable — one would think I had never known what I’ve known and been what I’ve been.”

“What one would think, beloved mother, is that you’re a still greater humbug than you are. It’s you, on the contrary, who go down on your knees, who pour forth apologies about our being vagabonds.”

“Vagabonds — listen to her! — after the education I’ve given her and our magnificent prospects!” wailed Mrs. Rooth, sinking with clasped hands upon the nearest ottoman.

“Not after our prospects, if prospects they be: a good deal before them. Yes, you’ve taught me tongues and I’m greatly obliged to you — they no doubt give variety as well as incoherency to my conversation; and that of people in our line is for the most part notoriously monotonous and shoppy. The gift of tongues is in general the sign of your true adventurer. Dear mamma, I’ve no low standard — that’s the last thing,” Miriam went on. “My weakness is my exalted conception of respectability. Ah parlez-moi de ça and of the way I understand it! If I were to go in for being respectable you’d see something fine. I’m awfully conservative and I know what respectability is, even when I meet people of society on the accidental middle ground of either glowering or smirking. I know also what it isn’t — it isn’t the sweet union of well-bred little girls (‘carefully-nurtured,’ don’t they call them?) and painted she-mummers. I should carry it much further than any of these people: I should never look at the likes of us! Every hour I live I see that the wisdom of the ages was in the experience of dear old Madame Carré— was in a hundred things she told me. She’s founded on a rock. After that,” Miriam went on to her host, “I can assure you that if you were so good as to bring Miss Dormer to see us we should be angelically careful of her and surround her with every attention and precaution.”

“The likes of us — the likes of us!” Mrs. Rooth repeated plaintively and with a resentment as vain as a failure to sneeze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I decline to be turned upside down, I’ve my ideas as well as you, and I repudiate the charge of false humility. I’ve been through too many troubles to be proud, and a pleasant, polite manner was the rule of my life even in the days when, God knows, I had everything. I’ve never changed and if with God’s help I had a civil tongue then, I’ve a civil tongue now. It’s more than you always have, my poor, perverse, passionate child. Once a lady always a lady — all the footlights in the world, turn them up as high as you will, make no difference there. And I think people know it, people who know anything — if I may use such an expression — and it’s because they know it that I’m not afraid to address them in a pleasant way. So I must say — and I call Mr. Dormer to witness, for if he could reason with you a bit about it he might render several people a service — your conduct to Mr. Sherringham simply breaks my heart,” Mrs. Rooth concluded, taking a jump of several steps in the fine modern avenue of her argument.

Nick was appealed to, but he hung back, drawing with a free hand, and while he forbore Miriam took it up. “Mother’s good — mother’s very good; but it’s only little by little that you discover how good she is.” This seemed to leave him at ease to ask their companion, with the preliminary intimation that what she had just said was very striking, what she meant by her daughter’s conduct to old Peter. Before Mrs. Rooth could answer this question, however, Miriam broke across with one of her own. “Do you mind telling me if you made your sister go off with Mr. Sherringham because you knew it was about time for me to turn up? Poor Mr. Dormer, I get you into trouble, don’t I?” she added quite with tenderness.

“Into trouble?” echoed Nick, looking at her head but not at her eyes.

“Well, we won’t talk about that!” she returned with a rich laugh.

He now hastened to say that he had nothing to do with his sister’s leaving the studio — she had only come, as it happened, for a moment. She had walked away with Peter Sherringham because they were cousins and old friends: he was to leave England immediately, for a long time, and he had offered her his company going home. Mrs. Rooth shook her head very knowingly over the “long time” Mr. Sherringham would be absent — she plainly had her ideas about that; and she conscientiously related that in the course of the short conversation they had all had at the door of the house her daughter had reminded Miss Dormer of something that had passed between them in Paris on the question of the charming young lady’s modelling her head.

“I did it to make the idea of our meeting less absurd — to put it on the footing of our both being artists. I don’t ask you if she has talent,” said Miriam.

“Then I needn’t tell you,” laughed Nick.

“I’m sure she has talent and a very refined inspiration. I see something in that corner, covered with a mysterious veil,” Mrs. Rooth insinuated; which led Miriam to go on immediately:

“Has she been trying her hand at Mr. Sherringham?”

“When should she try her hand, poor dear young lady? He’s always sitting with us,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“Dear mamma, you exaggerate. He has his moments — when he seems to say his prayers to me; but we’ve had some success in cutting them down. Il s’est bien détaché ces jours-ci, and I’m very happy for him. Of course it’s an impertinent allusion for me to make; but I should be so delighted if I could think of him as a little in love with Miss Dormer,” the girl pursued, addressing Nick.

“He is, I think, just a little — just a tiny bit,” her artist allowed, working away; while Mrs. Rooth ejaculated to her daughter simultaneously:

“How can you ask such fantastic questions when you know he’s dying for you?”

“Oh dying! — he’s dying very hard!” cried Miriam. “Mr. Sherringham’s a man of whom I can’t speak with too much esteem and affection and who may be destined to perish by some horrid fever (which God forbid!) in the unpleasant country he’s going to. But he won’t have caught his fever from your humble servant.”

“You may kill him even while you remain in perfect health yourself,” said Nick; “and since we’re talking of the matter I don’t see the harm of my confessing that he strikes me as far gone — oh as very bad indeed.”

“And yet he’s in love with your sister? — je n’y suis plus.”

“He tries to be, for he sees that as regards you there are difficulties. He’d like to put his hand on some nice girl who’d be an antidote to his poison.”

“Difficulties are a mild name for them; poison even is a mild name for the ill he suffers from. The principal difficulty is that he doesn’t know what the devil he wants. The next is that I don’t either — or what the devil I want myself. I only know what I don’t want,” Miriam kept on brightly and as if uttering some happy, beneficent truth. “I don’t want a person who takes things even less simply than I do myself. Mr. Sherringham, poor man, must be very uncomfortable, for one side of him’s in a perpetual row with the other side. He’s trying to serve God and Mammon, and I don’t know how God will come off. What I like in you is that you’ve definitely let Mammon go — it’s the only decent way. That’s my earnest conviction, and yet they call us people light. Dear Mr. Sherringham has tremendous ambitions — tremendous riguardi, as we used to say in Italy. He wants to enjoy every comfort and to save every appearance, and all without making a scrap of a sacrifice. He expects others — me, for instance — to make all the sacrifices. Merci, much as I esteem him and much as I owe him! I don’t know how he ever came to stray at all into our bold, bad, downright Bohemia: it was a cruel trick for fortune to play him. He can’t keep out of it, he’s perpetually making dashes across the border, and yet as soon as he gets here he’s on pins and needles. There’s another in whose position — if I were in it — I wouldn’t look at the likes of us!”

“I don’t know much about the matter,” Nick brought out after some intent smudging, “but I’ve an idea Peter thinks he has made or at least is making sacrifices.”

“So much the better — you must encourage him, you must help him.”

“I don’t know what my daughter’s talking about,” Mrs. Rooth contributed —“she’s much too paradoxical for my plain mind. But there’s one way to encourage Mr. Sherringham — there’s one way to help him; and perhaps it won’t be a worse way for a gentleman of your good nature that it will help me at the same time. Can’t I look to you, dear Mr. Dormer, to see that he does come to the theatre to-night — that he doesn’t feel himself obliged to stay away?”

“What danger is there of his staying away?” Nick asked.

“If he’s bent on sacrifices that’s a very good one to begin with,” Miriam observed.

“That’s the mad, bad way she talks to him — she has forbidden the dear unhappy gentleman the house!” her mother cried. “She brought it up to him just now at the door — before Miss Dormer: such very odd form! She pretends to impose her commands upon him.”

“Oh he’ll be there — we’re going to dine together,” said Nick. And when Miriam asked him what that had to do with it he went on: “Why we’ve arranged it; I’m going, and he won’t let me go alone.”

“You’re going? I sent you no places,” his sitter objected.

“Yes, but I’ve got one. Why didn’t you, after all I’ve done for you?”

She beautifully thought of it. “Because I’m so good. No matter,” she added, “if Mr. Sherringham comes I won’t act.”

“Won’t you act for me?”

“She’ll act like an angel,” Mrs. Rooth protested. “She might do, she might be, anything in all the world; but she won’t take common pains.”

“Of one thing there’s no doubt,” said Miriam: “that compared with the rest of us — poor passionless creatures — mamma does know what she wants.”

“And what’s that?” Nick inquired, chalking on.

“She wants everything.”

“Never, never — I’m much more humble,” retorted the old woman; upon which her daughter requested her to give then to Mr. Dormer, who was a reasonable man and an excellent judge, a general idea of the scope of her desires.

As, however, Mrs. Rooth, sighing and deprecating, was not quick to acquit herself, the girl tried a short cut to the truth with the abrupt demand: “Do you believe for a single moment he’d marry me?”

“Why he has proposed to you — you’ve told me yourself — a dozen times.”

“Proposed what to me?” Miriam rang out. “I’ve told you that neither a dozen times nor once, because I’ve never understood. He has made wonderful speeches, but has never been serious.”

“You told me he had been in the seventh heaven of devotion, especially that night we went to the foyer of the Français,” Mrs. Rooth insisted.

“Do you call the seventh heaven of devotion serious? He’s in love with me, je le veux bien; he’s so poisoned — Mr. Dormer vividly puts it — as to require a strong antidote; but he has never spoken to me as if he really expected me to listen to him, and he’s the more of a gentleman from that fact. He knows we haven’t a square foot of common ground — that a grasshopper can’t set up a house with a fish. So he has taken care to say to me only more than he can possibly mean. That makes it stand just for nothing.”

“Did he say more than he can possibly mean when he took formal leave of you yesterday — for ever and ever?” the old woman cried.

On which Nick re-enforced her. “And don’t you call that — his taking formal leave — a sacrifice?”

“Oh he took it all back, his sacrifice, before he left the house.”

“Then has that no meaning?” demanded Mrs. Rooth.

“None that I can make out,” said her daughter.

“Ah I’ve no patience with you: you can be stupid when you will — you can be even that too!” the poor lady groaned.

“What mamma wishes me to understand and to practise is the particular way to be artful with Mr. Sherringham,” said Miriam. “There are doubtless depths of wisdom and virtue in it. But I see only one art — that of being perfectly honest.”

“I like to hear you talk — it makes you live, brings you out,” Nick contentedly dropped. “And you sit beautifully still. All I want to say is please continue to do so: remain exactly as you are — it’s rather important — for the next ten minutes.”

“We’re washing our dirty linen before you, but it’s all right,” the girl returned, “because it shows you what sort of people we are, and that’s what you need to know. Don’t make me vague and arranged and fine in this new view,” she continued: “make me characteristic and real; make life, with all its horrid facts and truths, stick out of me. I wish you could put mother in too; make us live there side by side and tell our little story. ‘The wonderful actress and her still more wonderful mamma’— don’t you think that’s an awfully good subject?”

Mrs. Rooth, at this, cried shame on her daughter’s wanton humour, professing that she herself would never accept so much from Nick’s good nature, and Miriam settled it that at any rate he was some day and in some way to do her mother, really do her, and so make her, as one of the funniest persons that ever was, live on through the ages.

“She doesn’t believe Mr. Sherringham wants to marry me any more than you do,” the girl, taking up her dispute again after a moment, represented to Nick; “but she believes — how indeed can I tell you what she believes? — that I can work it so well, if you understand, that in the fulness of time I shall hold him in a vice. I’m to keep him along for the present, but not to listen to him, for if I listen to him I shall lose him. It’s ingenious, it’s complicated; but I daresay you follow me.”

“Don’t move — don’t move,” said Nick. “Pardon a poor clumsy beginner.”

“No, I shall explain quietly. Somehow — here it’s very complicated and you mustn’t lose the thread — I shall be an actress and make a tremendous lot of money, and somehow too (I suppose a little later) I shall become an ambassadress and be the favourite of courts. So you see it will all be delightful. Only I shall have to go very straight. Mamma reminds me of a story I once heard about the mother of a young lady who was in receipt of much civility from the pretender to a crown, which indeed he, and the young lady too, afterwards more or less wore. The old countess watched the course of events and gave her daughter the cleverest advice: ‘Tiens bon, ma fille, and you shall sit upon a throne.’ Mamma wishes me to tenir bon — she apparently thinks there’s a danger I mayn’t — so that if I don’t sit upon a throne I shall at least parade at the foot of one. And if before that, for ten years, I pile up the money, they’ll forgive me the way I’ve made it. I should hope so, if I’ve tenu bon! Only ten years is a good while to hold out, isn’t it? If it isn’t Mr. Sherringham it will be some one else. Mr. Sherringham has the great merit of being a bird in the hand. I’m to keep him along, I’m to be still more diplomatic than even he can be.”

Mrs. Rooth listened to her daughter with an air of assumed reprobation which melted, before the girl had done, into a diverted, complacent smile — the gratification of finding herself the proprietress of so much wit and irony and grace. Miriam’s account of her mother’s views was a scene of comedy, and there was instinctive art in the way she added touch to touch and made point upon point. She was so quiet, to oblige her painter, that only her fine lips moved — all her expression was in their charming utterance. Mrs. Rooth, after the first flutter of a less cynical spirit, consented to be sacrificed to an effect of the really high order she had now been educated to recognise; so that she scarce hesitated, when Miriam had ceased speaking, before she tittered out with the fondest indulgence: ‘Comédienne!’ And she seemed to appeal to their companion. “Ain’t she fascinating? That’s the way she does for you!”

“It’s rather cruel, isn’t it,” said Miriam, “to deprive people of the luxury of calling one an actress as they’d call one a liar? I represent, but I represent truly.”

“Mr. Sherringham would marry you tomorrow — there’s no question of ten years!” cried Mrs. Rooth with a comicality of plainness.

Miriam smiled at Nick, deprecating his horror of such talk. “Isn’t it droll, the way she can’t get it out of her head?” Then turning almost coaxingly to the old woman: “Voyons, look about you: they don’t marry us like that.”

“But they do — cela se voit tous les jours. Ask Mr. Dormer.”

“Oh never! It would be as if I asked him to give us a practical proof.”

“I shall never prove anything by marrying any one,” Nick said. “For me that question’s over.”

Miriam rested kind eyes on him. “Dear me, how you must hate me!” And before he had time to reply she went on to her mother: “People marry them to make them leave the stage; which proves exactly what I say.”

“Ah they offer them the finest positions,” reasoned Mrs. Rooth.

“Do you want me to leave it then?”

“Oh you can manage if you will!”

“The only managing I know anything about is to do my work. If I manage that decently I shall pull through.”

“But, dearest, may our work not be of many sorts?”

“I only know one,” said Miriam.

At this her mother got up with a sigh. “I see you do wish to drive me into the street.”

“Mamma’s bewildered — there are so many paths she wants to follow, there are so many bundles of hay. As I told you, she wishes to gobble them all,” the girl pursued. Then she added: “Yes, go and take the carriage; take a turn round the Park — you always delight in that — and come back for me in an hour.”

“I’m too vexed with you; the air will do me good,” said Mrs. Rooth. But before she went she addressed Nick: “I’ve your assurance that you’ll bring him then to-night?”

“Bring Peter? I don’t think I shall have to drag him,” Nick returned. “But you must do me the justice to remember that if I should resort to force I should do something that’s not particularly in my interest — I should be magnanimous.”

“We must always be that, mustn’t we?” moralised Mrs. Rooth.

“How could it affect your interest?” Miriam asked less abstractedly.

“Yes, as you say,” her mother mused at their host, “the question of marriage has ceased to exist for you.”

“Mamma goes straight at it!” laughed the girl, getting up while Nick rubbed his canvas before answering. Miriam went to mamma and settled her bonnet and mantle in preparation for her drive, then stood a moment with a filial arm about her and as if waiting for their friend’s explanation. This, however, when it came halted visibly.

“Why you said a while ago that if Peter was there you wouldn’t act.”

“I’ll act for him,” smiled Miriam, inconsequently caressing her mother.

“It doesn’t matter whom it’s for!” Mrs. Rooth declared sagaciously.

“Take your drive and relax your mind,” said the girl, kissing her. “Come for me in an hour; not later — but not sooner.” She went with her to the door, bundled her out, closed it behind her and came back to the position she had quitted. “This is the peace I want!” she gratefully cried as she settled into it.

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