The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLV

Peter Sherringham said so little during the performance that his companion was struck by his dumbness, especially as Miriam’s acting seemed to Nick magnificent. He held his breath while she was on the stage — she gave the whole thing, including the spectator’s emotion, such a lift. She had not carried out her fantastic menace of not exerting herself, and, as Mrs. Rooth had said, it little mattered for whom she acted. Nick was conscious in watching her that she went through it all for herself, for the idea that possessed her and that she rendered with extraordinary breadth. She couldn’t open the door a part of the way to it and let it simply peep in; if it entered at all it must enter in full procession and occupy the premises in state.

This was what had happened on an occasion which, as the less tormented of our young men felt in his stall, grew larger with each throb of the responsive house; till by the time the play was half over it appeared to stretch out wide arms to the future. Nick had often heard more applause, but had never heard more attention, since they were all charmed and hushed together and success seemed to be sitting down with them. There had been of course plenty of announcement — the newspapers had abounded and the arts of the manager had taken the freest license; but it was easy to feel a fine, universal consensus and to recognise everywhere the light spring of hope. People snatched their eyes from the stage an instant to look at each other, all eager to hand on the torch passed to them by the actress over the footlights. It was a part of the impression that she was now only showing to the full, for this time she had verse to deal with and she made it unexpectedly exquisite. She was beauty, melody, truth; she was passion and persuasion and tenderness. She caught up the obstreperous play in soothing, entwining arms and, seeming to tread the air in the flutter of her robe, carried it into the high places of poetry, of art, of style. And she had such tones of nature, such concealments of art, such effusions of life, that the whole scene glowed with the colour she communicated, and the house, pervaded with rosy fire, glowed back at the scene. Nick looked round in the intervals; he felt excited and flushed — the night had turned to a feast of fraternity and he expected to see people embrace each other. The crowd, the agitation, the triumph, the surprise, the signals and rumours, the heated air, his associates, near him, pointing out other figures who presumably were celebrated but whom he had never heard of, all amused him and banished every impulse to question or to compare. Miriam was as happy as some right sensation — she would have fed the memory with deep draughts.

One of the things that amused him or at least helped to fill his attention was Peter’s attitude, which apparently didn’t exclude criticism — rather indeed mainly implied it. This admirer never took his eyes off the actress, but he made no remark about her and never stirred out of his chair. Nick had had from the first a plan of going round to speak to her, but as his companion evidently meant not to move he scrupled at being more forward. During their brief dinner together — they were determined not to be late — Peter had been silent, quite recklessly grave, but also, his kinsman judged, full of the wish to make it clear he was calm. In his seat he was calmer than ever and had an air even of trying to suggest that his attendance, preoccupied as he was with deeper solemnities, was more or less mechanical, the result of a conception of duty, a habit of courtesy. When during a scene in the second act — a scene from which Miriam was absent — Nick observed to him that one might judge from his reserve that he wasn’t pleased he replied after a moment: “I’ve been looking for her mistakes.” And when Nick made answer to this that he certainly wouldn’t find them he said again in an odd tone: “No, I shan’t find them — I shan’t find them.” It might have seemed that since the girl’s performance was a dazzling success he regarded his evening as rather a failure.

After the third act Nick said candidly: “My dear fellow, how can you sit here? Aren’t you going to speak to her?”

To which Peter replied inscrutably: “Lord, no, never again. I bade her good-bye yesterday. She knows what I think of her form. It’s very good, but she carries it a little too far. Besides, she didn’t want me to come, and it’s therefore more discreet to keep away from her.”

“Surely it isn’t an hour for discretion!” Nick cried. “Excuse me at any rate for five minutes.”

He went behind and reappeared only as the curtain was rising on the fourth act; and in the interval between the fourth and the fifth he went again for a shorter time. Peter was personally detached, but he consented to listen to his companion’s vivid account of the state of things on the stage, where the elation of victory had lighted up the place. The strain was over, the ship in port — they were all wiping their faces and grinning. Miriam — yes, positively — was grinning too, and she hadn’t asked a question about Peter nor sent him a message. They were kissing all round and dancing for joy. They were on the eve, worse luck, of a tremendous run. Peter groaned irrepressibly for this; it was, save for a slight sign a moment later, the only vibration caused in him by his cousin’s report. There was but one voice of regret that they hadn’t put on the piece earlier, as the end of the season would interrupt the run. There was but one voice too about the fourth act — it was believed all London would rush to see the fourth act. The crowd about her was a dozen deep and Miriam in the midst of it all charming; she was receiving in the ugly place after the fashion of royalty, almost as hedged with the famous “divinity,” yet with a smile and a word for each. She was really like a young queen on her accession. When she saw him, Nick, she had kissed her hand to him over the heads of the courtiers. Nick’s artless comment on this was that she had such pretty manners. It made Peter laugh — apparently at his friend’s conception of the manners of a young queen. Mrs. Rooth, with a dozen shawls on her arm, was as red as the kitchen-fire, but you couldn’t tell if Miriam were red or pale: she was so cleverly, finely made up — perhaps a little too much. Dashwood of course was greatly to the fore, but you hadn’t to mention his own performance to him: he took it all handsomely and wouldn’t hear of anything but that her fortune was made. He didn’t say much indeed, but evidently had ideas about her fortune; he nodded significant things and whistled inimitable sounds —“Heuh, heuh!” He was perfectly satisfied; moreover, he looked further ahead than any one.

It was on coming back to his place after the fourth act that Nick put in, for his companion’s benefit, most of these touches in his sketch of the situation. If Peter had continued to look for Miriam’s mistakes he hadn’t yet found them: the fourth act, bristling with dangers, putting a premium on every sort of cheap effect, had rounded itself without a flaw. Sitting there alone while Nick was away he had leisure to meditate on the wonder of this — on the art with which the girl had separated passion from violence, filling the whole place and never screaming; for it had often seemed to him in London of old that the yell of theatrical emotion rang through the shrinking night like the voice of the Sunday newsboy. Miriam had never been more present to him than at this hour; but she was inextricably transmuted — present essentially as the romantic heroine she represented. His state of mind was of the strangest and he was conscious of its strangeness, just as he was conscious in his very person of a lapse of resistance which likened itself absurdly to liberation. He felt weak at the same time that he felt inspired, and he felt inspired at the same time that he knew, or believed he knew, that his face was a blank. He saw things as a shining confusion, and yet somehow something monstrously definite kept surging out of them. Miriam was a beautiful, actual, fictive, impossible young woman of a past age, an undiscoverable country, who spoke in blank verse and overflowed with metaphor, who was exalted and heroic beyond all human convenience and who yet was irresistibly real and related to one’s own affairs. But that reality was a part of her spectator’s joy, and she was not changed back to the common by his perception of the magnificent trick of art with which it was connected. Before his kinsman rejoined him Peter, taking a visiting-card from his pocket, had written on it in pencil a few words in a foreign tongue; but as at that moment he saw Nick coming in he immediately put it out of view.

The last thing before the curtain rose on the fifth act that young man mentioned his having brought a message from Basil Dashwood, who hoped they both, on leaving the theatre, would come to supper with him in company with Miriam and her mother and several others: he had prepared a little informal banquet in honour of so famous a night. At this, while the curtain was about to rise, Peter immediately took out his card again and added something — he wrote the finest small hand you could see. Nick asked him what he was doing, and he waited but an instant. “It’s a word to say I can’t come.”

“To Dashwood? Oh I shall go,” said Nick.

“Well, I hope you’ll enjoy it!” his companion replied in a tone which came back to him afterwards.

When the curtain fell on the last act the people stayed, standing up in their places for acclamation. The applause shook the house — the recall became a clamour, the relief from a long tension. This was in any performance a moment Peter detested, but he stood for an instant beside Nick, who clapped, to his cousin’s diplomatic sense, after the fashion of a school-boy at the pantomime. There was a veritable roar while the curtain drew back at the side most removed from our pair. Peter could see Basil Dashwood holding it, making a passage for the male “juvenile lead,” who had Miriam in tow. Nick redoubled his efforts; heard the plaudits swell; saw the bows of the leading gentleman, who was hot and fat; saw Miriam, personally conducted and closer to the footlights, grow brighter and bigger and more swaying; and then became aware that his own comrade had with extreme agility slipped out of the stalls. Nick had already lost sight of him — he had apparently taken but a minute to escape from the house; and wondered at his quitting him without a farewell if he was to leave England on the morrow and they were not to meet at the hospitable Dashwood’s. He wondered even what Peter was “up to,” since, as he had assured him, there was no question of his going round to Miriam. He waited to see this young lady reappear three times, dragging Dashwood behind her at the second with a friendly arm, to whom, in turn, was hooked Miss Fanny Rover, the actress entrusted in the piece with the inevitable comic relief. He went out slowly with the crowd and at the door looked again for Peter, who struck him as deficient for once in finish. He couldn’t know that in another direction and while he was helping the house to “rise” at its heroine, his kinsman had been particularly explicit.

On reaching the lobby Peter had pounced on a small boy in buttons, who seemed superfluously connected with a desolate refreshment-room and, from the tips of his toes, was peeping at the stage through the glazed hole in the door of a box. Into one of the child’s hands he thrust the card he had drawn again from his waistcoat and into the other the largest silver coin he could find in the same receptacle, while he bent over him with words of adjuration — words the little page tried to help himself to apprehend by instantly attempting to peruse the other words written on the card.

“That’s no use — it’s Italian,” said Peter; “only carry it round to Miss Rooth without a minute’s delay. Place it in her hand and she’ll give you some object — a bracelet, a glove, or a flower — to bring me back as a sign that she has received it. I shall be outside; bring me there what she gives you and you shall have another shilling — only fly!”

His small messenger sounded him a moment with the sharp face of London wage-earning, and still more of London tip-earning, infancy, and vanished as swiftly as a slave of the Arabian Nights. While he waited in the lobby the audience began to pour out, and before the urchin had come back to him he was clapped on the shoulder by Nick.

“I’m glad I haven’t lost you, but why didn’t you stay to give her a hand?”

“Give her a hand? I hated it.”

“My dear man, I don’t follow you,” Nick said. “If you won’t come to Dashwood’s supper I fear our ways don’t lie together.”

“Thank him very much; say I’ve to get up at an unnatural hour.” To this Peter added: “I think I ought to tell you she may not be there.”

“Miss Rooth? Why it’s all for her.”

“I’m waiting for a word from her — she may change her mind.”

Nick showed his interest. “For you? What then have you proposed?”

“I’ve proposed marriage,” said Peter in a strange voice.

“I say —!” Nick broke out; and at the same moment Peter’s messenger squeezed through the press and stood before him.

“She has given me nothing, sir,” the boy announced; “but she says I’m to say ‘All right!’”

Nick’s stare widened. “You’ve proposed through him?”

“Aye, and she accepts. Good-night!”— on which, turning away, Peter bounded into a hansom. He said something to the driver through the roof, and Nick’s eyes followed the cab as it started off. This young man was mystified, was even amused; especially when the youth in buttons, planted there and wondering too, brought forth:

“Please sir, he told me he’d give me a shilling and he’ve forgot it.”

“Oh I can’t pay you for that!” Nick laughed. But he fished out a dole, though he was vexed at the injury to the supper.

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