The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLVI

Peter meanwhile rolled away through the summer night to Saint John’s Wood. He had put the pressure of strong words on his young friend, entreating her to drive home immediately, return there without any one, without even her mother. He wished to see her alone and for a purpose he would fully and satisfactorily explain — couldn’t she trust him? He besought her to remember his own situation and throw over her supper, throw over everything. He would wait for her with unspeakable impatience in Balaklava Place.

He did so, when he got there, but it had taken half an hour. Interminable seemed his lonely vigil in Miss Lumley’s drawing-room, where the character of the original proprietress came out to him more than ever before in a kind of afterglow of old sociabilities, a vulgar, ghostly reference. The numerous candles had been lighted for him, and Mrs. Rooth’s familiar fictions lay about; but his nerves forbade him the solace of a chair and a book. He walked up and down, thinking and listening, and as the long window, the balmy air permitting, stood open to the garden, he passed several times in and out. A carriage appeared to stop at the gate — then there was nothing; he heard the rare rattle of wheels and the far-off hum of London. His impatience was overwrought, and though he knew this it persisted; it would have been no easy matter for Miriam to break away from the flock of her felicitators. Still less simple was it doubtless for her to leave poor Dashwood with his supper on his hands. Perhaps she would bring Dashwood with her, bring him to time her; she was capable of playing him — that is, of playing Her Majesty’s new representative to the small far-off State, or even of playing them both — that trick. Perhaps the little wretch in buttons — Peter remembered now the neglected shilling — only pretending to go round with his card, had come back with an invented answer. But how could he know, since presumably he couldn’t read Italian, that his answer would fit the message? Peter was sorry now that he himself had not gone round, not snatched Miriam bodily away, made sure of her and of what he wanted of her.

When forty minutes had elapsed he regarded it as proved that she wouldn’t come, and, asking himself what he should do, determined to drive off again and seize her at her comrade’s feast. Then he remembered how Nick had mentioned that this entertainment was not to be held at the young actor’s lodgings but at some tavern or restaurant the name of which he had not heeded. Suddenly, however, Peter became aware with joy that this name didn’t matter, for there was something at the garden door at last. He rushed out before she had had time to ring, and saw as she stepped from the carriage that she was alone. Now that she was there, that he had this evidence she had listened to him and trusted him, all his impatience and bitterness gave way and a flood of pleading tenderness took their place in the first words he spoke to her. It was far “dearer” of her than he had any right to dream, but she was the best and kindest creature — this showed it — as well as the most wonderful. He was really not off his head with his contradictory ways; no, before heaven he wasn’t, and he would explain, he would make everything clear. Everything was changed.

She stopped short in the little dusky garden, looking at him in the light of the open window. Then she called back to the coachman — they had left the garden door open —“Wait for me, mind; I shall want you again.”

“What’s the matter — won’t you stay?” Peter asked. “Are you going out again at this absurd hour? I won’t hurt you,” he gently urged. And he went back and closed the garden door. He wanted to say to the coachman, “It’s no matter — please drive away.” At the same time he wouldn’t for the world have done anything offensive to her.

“I’ve come because I thought it better to-night, as things have turned out, to do the thing you ask me, whatever it may be,” she had already begun. “That’s probably what you calculated I would think, eh? What this evening has been you’ve seen, and I must allow that your hand’s in it. That you know for yourself — that you doubtless felt as you sat there. But I confess I don’t imagine what you want of me here now,” she added. She had remained standing in the path.

Peter felt the irony of her “now” and how it made a fool of him, but he had been prepared for this and for much worse. He had begged her not to think him a fool, but in truth at present he cared little if she did. Very likely he was — in spite of his plea that everything was changed: he cared little even himself. However, he spoke in the tone of intense reason and of the fullest disposition to satisfy her. This lucidity only took still more from the dignity of his change of front: his separation from her the day before had had such pretensions to being lucid. But the explanation and the justification were in the very fact, the fact that had complete possession of him. He named it when he replied to her: “I’ve simply overrated my strength.”

“Oh I knew — I knew! That’s why I entreated you not to come!” Miriam groaned. She turned away lamenting, and for a moment he thought she would retreat to her carriage. But he passed his hand into her arm, to draw her forward, and after an instant felt her yield.

“The fact is we must have this thing out,” he said. Then he added as he made her go into the house, bending over her, “The failure of my strength — that was just the reason of my coming.”

She broke into her laugh at these words, as she entered the drawing-room, and it made them sound pompous in their false wisdom. She flung off, as a good-natured tribute to the image of their having the thing out, a white shawl that had been wrapped round her. She was still painted and bedizened, in the splendid dress of her climax, so that she seemed protected and alienated by the character she had been acting. “Whatever it is you want — when I understand — you’ll be very brief, won’t you? Do you know I’ve given up a charming supper for you? Mamma has gone there. I’ve promised to go back to them.”

“You’re an angel not to have let her come with you. I’m sure she wanted to,” Peter made reply.

“Oh she’s all right, but she’s nervous.” Then the girl added: “Couldn’t she keep you away after all?”

“Whom are you talking about?” Biddy Dormer was as absent from his mind as if she had never existed.

“The charming thing you were with this morning. Is she so afraid of obliging me? Oh she’d be so good for you!”

“Don’t speak of that,” Peter gravely said. “I was in perfect good faith yesterday when I took leave of you. I was — I was. But I can’t — I can’t: you’re too unutterably dear to me.”

“Oh don’t — please don’t!” Miriam wailed at this. She stood before the fireless chimney-piece with one of her hands on it. “If it’s only to say that, don’t you know, what’s the use?”

“It isn’t only to say that. I’ve a plan, a perfect plan: the whole thing lies clear before me.”

“And what’s the whole thing?”

He had to make an effort. “You say your mother’s nervous. Ah if you knew how nervous I am!”

“Well, I’m not. Go on.”

“Give it up — give it up!” Peter stammered.

“Give it up?” She fixed him like a mild Medusa.

“I’ll marry you tomorrow if you’ll renounce; and in return for the sacrifice you make for me I’ll do more for you than ever was done for a woman before.”

“Renounce after to-night? Do you call that a plan?” she asked. “Those are old words and very foolish ones — you wanted something of that sort a year ago.”

“Oh I fluttered round the idea at that time; we were talking in the air. I didn’t really believe I could make you see it then, and certainly you didn’t see it. My own future, moreover, wasn’t definite to me. I didn’t know what I could offer you. But these last months have made a difference — I do know now. Now what I say is deliberate — It’s deeply meditated. I simply can’t live without you, and I hold that together we may do great things.”

She seemed to wonder. “What sort of things?”

“The things of my profession, of my life, the things one does for one’s country, the responsibility and the honour of great affairs; deeply fascinating when one’s immersed in them, and more exciting really — put them even at that — than the excitements of the theatre. Care for me only a little and you’ll see what they are, they’ll take hold of you. Believe me, believe me,” Peter pleaded; “every fibre of my being trembles in what I say to you.”

“You admitted yesterday it wouldn’t do,” she made answer. “Where were the fibres of your being then?”

“They throbbed in me even more than now, and I was trying, like an ass, not to feel them. Where was this evening yesterday — where were the maddening hours I’ve just spent? Ah you’re the perfection of perfections, and as I sat there to-night you taught me what I really want.”

“The perfection of perfections?” the girl echoed with the strangest smile.

“I needn’t try to tell you: you must have felt to-night with such rapture what you are, what you can do. How can I give that up?” he piteously went on.

“How can I, my poor friend? I like your plans and your responsibilities and your great affairs, as you call them. Voyons, they’re infantile. I’ve just shown that I’m a perfection of perfections: therefore it’s just the moment to ‘renounce,’ as you gracefully say? Oh I was sure, I was sure!” And Miriam paused, resting eyes at once lighted and troubled on him as in the effort to think of some arrangement that would help him out of his absurdity. “I was sure, I mean, that if you did come your poor, dear, doting brain would be quite confused,” she presently pursued. “I can’t be a muff in public just for you, pourtant. Dear me, why do you like us so much?”

“Like you? I loathe you!”

Je le vois parbleu bien!” she lightly returned. “I mean why do you feel us, judge us, understand us so well? I please you because you see, because you know; and then for that very reason of my pleasing you must adapt me to your convenience, you must take me over, as they say. You admire me as an artist and therefore want to put me into a box in which the artist will breathe her last. Ah be reasonable; you must let her live!”

“Let her live? As if I could prevent her living!” Peter cried with unmistakable conviction. “Even if I did wish how could I prevent a spirit like yours from expressing itself? Don’t talk about my putting you in a box, for, dearest child, I’m taking you out of one,” he all persuasively explained. “The artist is irrepressible, eternal; she’ll be in everything you are and in everything you do, and you’ll go about with her triumphantly exerting your powers, charming the world, carrying everything before you.”

Miriam’s colour rose, through all her artificial surfaces, at this all but convincing appeal, and she asked whimsically: “Shall you like that?”

“Like my wife to be the most brilliant woman in Europe? I think I can do with it.”

“Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“Not a bit.”

“Bravely said. How little you know me after all!” sighed the girl.

“I tell the truth,” Peter ardently went on; “and you must do me the justice to admit that I’ve taken the time to dig deep into my feelings. I’m not an infatuated boy; I’ve lived, I’ve had experience, I’ve observed; in short I know what I mean and what I want. It isn’t a thing to reason about; it’s simply a need that consumes me. I’ve put it on starvation diet, but that’s no use — really, it’s no use, Miriam,” the young man declared with a ring that spoke enough of his sincerity. “It is no question of my trusting you; it’s simply a question of your trusting me. You’re all right, as I’ve heard you say yourself; you’re frank, spontaneous, generous; you’re a magnificent creature. Just quietly marry me and I’ll manage you.”

“‘Manage’ me?” The girl’s inflexion was droll; it made him change colour.

“I mean I’ll give you a larger life than the largest you can get in any other way. The stage is great, no doubt, but the world’s greater. It’s a bigger theatre than any of those places in the Strand. We’ll go in for realities instead of fables, and you’ll do them far better than you do the fables.”

Miriam had listened attentively, but her face that could so show things showed her despair at his perverted ingenuity. “Pardon my saying it after your delightful tributes to my worth,” she returned in a moment, “but I’ve never listened to anything quite so grandly unreal. You think so well of me that humility itself ought to keep me silent; nevertheless I must utter a few shabby words of sense. I’m a magnificent creature on the stage — well and good; it’s what I want to be and it’s charming to see such evidence that I succeed. But off the stage, woe betide us both, I should lose all my advantages. The fact’s so patent that it seems to me I’m very good-natured even to discuss it with you.”

“Are you on the stage now, pray? Ah Miriam, if it weren’t for the respect I owe you!” her companion wailed.

“If it weren’t for that I shouldn’t have come here to meet you. My gift is the thing that takes you: could there be a better proof than that it’s to-night’s display of it that has brought you to this unreason? It’s indeed a misfortune that you’re so sensitive to our poor arts, since they play such tricks with your power to see things as they are. Without my share of them I should be a dull, empty, third-rate woman, and yet that’s the fate you ask me to face and insanely pretend you’re ready to face yourself.”

“Without it — without it?” Sherringham cried. “Your own sophistry’s infinitely worse than mine. I should like to see you without it for the fiftieth part of a second. What I ask you to give up is the dusty boards of the play-house and the flaring footlights, but not the very essence of your being. Your ‘gift,’ your genius, is yourself, and it’s because it’s yourself that I yearn for you. If it had been a thing you could leave behind by the easy dodge of stepping off the stage I would never have looked at you a second time. Don’t talk to me as if I were a simpleton — with your own false simplifications! You were made to charm and console, to represent beauty and harmony and variety to miserable human beings; and the daily life of man is the theatre for that — not a vulgar shop with a turnstile that’s open only once in the twenty-four hours. ‘Without it,’ verily!” Peter proceeded with a still, deep heat that kept down in a manner his rising scorn and exasperated passion. “Please let me know the first time you’re without your face, without your voice, your step, your exquisite spirit, the turn of your head and the wonder of your look!”

Miriam at this moved away from him with a port that resembled what she sometimes showed on the stage when she turned her young back upon the footlights and then after a few steps grandly swept round again. This evolution she performed — it was over in an instant — on the present occasion; even to stopping short with her eyes upon him and her head admirably erect. “Surely it’s strange,” she said, “the way the other solution never occurs to you.”

“The other solution?”

“That you should stay on the stage.”

“I don’t understand you,” her friend gloomed.

“Stay on my stage. Come off your own.”

For a little he said nothing; then: “You mean that if I’ll do that you’ll have me?”

“I mean that if it were to occur to you to offer me a little sacrifice on your own side it might place the matter in a slightly more attractive light.”

“Continue to let you act — as my wife?” he appealed. “Is it a real condition? Am I to understand that those are your terms?”

“I may say so without fear, because you’ll never accept them.”

“Would you accept them from me?” he demanded; “accept the manly, the professional sacrifice, see me throw up my work, my prospects — of course I should have to do that — and simply become your appendage?”

She raised her arms for a prodigious fall. “My dear fellow, you invite me with the best conscience in the world to become yours.”

“The cases are not equal. You’d make of me the husband of an actress. I should make of you the wife of an ambassador.”

“The husband of an actress, c’est bientôt dit, in that tone of scorn! If you’re consistent,” said Miriam, all lucid and hard, “it ought to be a proud position for you.”

“What do you mean, if I’m consistent?”

“Haven’t you always insisted on the beauty and interest of our art and the greatness of our mission? Haven’t you almost come to blows with poor Gabriel Nash about it? What did all that mean if you won’t face the first consequences of your theory? Either it was an enlightened conviction or it was an empty pretence. If you were only talking against time I’m glad to know it,” she rolled out with a darkening eye. “The better the cause, it seems to me, the better the deed; and if the theatre is important to the ‘human spirit,’ as you used to say so charmingly, and if into the bargain you’ve the pull of being so fond of me, I don’t see why it should be monstrous of you to give us your services in an intelligent, indirect way. Of course if you’re not serious we needn’t talk at all; but if you are, with your conception of what the actor can do, why is it so base to come to the actor’s aid, taking one devotion with another? If I’m so fine I’m worth looking after a bit, and the place where I’m finest is the place to look after me!”

He had a long pause again, taking her in as it seemed to him he had never done. “You were never finer than at this minute, in the deepest domesticity of private life. I’ve no conception whatever of what the actor can do, and no theory whatever about the importance of the theatre. Any infatuation of that sort has completely dropped from me, and for all I care the theatre may go to the dogs — which I judge it altogether probably will!”

“You’re dishonest, you’re ungrateful, you’re false!” Miriam flashed. “It was the theatre brought you here — if it hadn’t been for the theatre I never would have looked at you. It was in the name of the theatre you first made love to me; it’s to the theatre you owe every advantage that, so far as I’m concerned, you possess.”

“I seem to possess a great many!” poor Peter derisively groaned.

“You might avail yourself better of those you have! You make me angry, but I want to be fair,” said the shining creature, “and I can’t be unless you are. You’re not fair, nor candid, nor honourable, when you swallow your words and abjure your faith, when you throw over old friends and old memories for a selfish purpose.”

“‘Selfish purpose’ is, in your own convenient idiom, bientôt dit,” Peter promptly answered. “I suppose you consider that if I truly esteemed you I should be ashamed to deprive the world of the light of your genius. Perhaps my esteem isn’t of the right quality — there are different kinds, aren’t there? At any rate I’ve explained to you that I propose to deprive the world of nothing at all. You shall be celebrated, allez!”

“Vain words, vain words, my dear!” and she turned off again in her impatience. “I know of course,” she added quickly, “that to befool yourself with such twaddle you must be pretty bad.”

“Yes, I’m pretty bad,” he admitted, looking at her dismally. “What do you do with the declaration you made me the other day — the day I found my cousin here — that you’d take me if I should come to you as one who had risen high?”

Miriam thought of it. “I remember — the chaff about the honours, the orders, the stars and garters. My poor foolish friend, don’t be so painfully literal. Don’t you know a joke when you see it? It was to worry your cousin, wasn’t it? But it didn’t in the least succeed.”

“Why should you wish to worry my cousin?”

“Because he’s so provoking!” she instantly answered; after which she laughed as if for her falling too simply into the trap he had laid. “Surely, at all events, I had my freedom no less than I have it now. Pray what explanations should I have owed you and in what fear of you should I have gone? However, that has nothing to do with it. Say I did tell you that we might arrange it on the day you should come to me covered with glory in the shape of little tinkling medals: why should you anticipate that transaction by so many years and knock me down such a long time in advance? Where’s the glory, please, and where are the medals?”

“Dearest girl, am I not going to strange parts — a capital promotion — next month,” he insistently demanded, “and can’t you trust me enough to believe I speak with a real appreciation of the facts (that I’m not lying to you in short) when I tell you I’ve my foot in the stirrup? The glory’s dawning. I’m all right too.”

“What you propose to me, then, is to accompany you tout bonnement to your new post. What you propose to me is to pack up and start?”

“You put it in a nutshell.” But Peter’s smile was strained.

“You’re touching — it has its charm. But you can’t get anything in any of the Americas, you know. I’m assured there are no medals to be picked up in those parts — which are therefore ‘strange’ indeed. That’s why the diplomatic body hate them all.”

“They’re on the way, they’re on the way!”— he could only feverishly hammer. “The people here don’t keep us long in disagreeable places unless we want to stay. There’s one thing you can get anywhere if you’ve ability, and nowhere if you’ve not, and in the disagreeable places generally more than in the others; and that — since it’s the element of the question we’re discussing — is simply success. It’s odious to be put on one’s swagger, but I protest against being treated as if I had nothing to offer — to offer a person who has such glories of her own. I’m not a little presumptuous ass; I’m a man accomplished and determined, and the omens are on my side.” Peter faltered a moment and then with a queer expression went on: “Remember, after all, that, strictly speaking, your glories are also still in the future.” An exclamation at these words burst from Miriam’s lips, but her companion resumed quickly: “Ask my official superiors, ask any of my colleagues, if they consider I’ve nothing to offer.”

He had an idea as he ceased speaking that she was on the point of breaking out with some strong word of resentment at his allusion to the contingent nature of her prospects. But it only deepened his wound to hear her say with extraordinary mildness: “It’s perfectly true that my glories are still to come, that I may fizzle out and that my little success of today is perhaps a mere flash in the pan. Stranger things have been — something of that sort happens every day. But don’t we talk too much of that part of it?” she asked with a weary patience that was noble in its effect. “Surely it’s vulgar to think only of the noise one’s going to make — especially when one remembers how utterly bêtes most of the people will be among whom one makes it. It isn’t to my possible glories I cling; it’s simply to my idea, even if it’s destined to betray me and sink me. I like it better than anything else — a thousand times better (I’m sorry to have to put it in such a way) than tossing up my head as the fine lady of a little coterie.”

“A little coterie? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”— for this at least Peter could fight.

“A big coterie, then! It’s only that at the best. A nasty, prim, ‘official’ woman who’s perched on her little local pedestal and thinks she’s a queen for ever because she’s ridiculous for an hour! Oh you needn’t tell me, I’ve seen them abroad — the dreariest females — and could imitate them here. I could do one for you on the spot if I weren’t so tired. It’s scarcely worth mentioning perhaps all this while — but I’m ready to drop.” She picked up the white mantle she had tossed off, flinging it round her with her usual amplitude of gesture. “They’re waiting for me and I confess I’m hungry. If I don’t hurry they’ll eat up all the nice things. Don’t say I haven’t been obliging, and come back when you’re better. Good-night.”

“I quite agree with you that we’ve talked too much about the vulgar side of our question,” Peter returned, walking round to get between her and the French window by which she apparently had a view of leaving the room. “That’s because I’ve wanted to bribe you. Bribery’s almost always vulgar.”

“Yes, you should do better. Merci! There’s a cab: some of them have come for me. I must go,” she added, listening for a sound that reached her from the road.

Peter listened too, making out no cab. “Believe me, it isn’t wise to turn your back on such an affection as mine and on such a confidence,” he broke out again, speaking almost in a warning tone — there was a touch of superior sternness in it, as of a rebuke for real folly, but it was meant to be tender — and stopping her within a few feet of the window. “Such things are the most precious that life has to give us,” he added all but didactically.

She had listened once more for a little; then she appeared to give up the idea of the cab. The reader need hardly be told that at this stage of her youthful history the right way for her lover to take her wouldn’t have been to picture himself as acting for her highest good. “I like your calling the feeling with which I inspire you confidence,” she presently said; and the deep note of the few words had something of the distant mutter of thunder.

“What is it, then, when I offer you everything I have, everything I am, everything I shall ever be?”

She seemed to measure him as for the possible success of an attempt to pass him. But she remained where she was. “I’m sorry for you, yes, but I’m also rather ashamed.”

“Ashamed of me?”

“A brave offer to see me through — that’s what I should call confidence. You say today that you hate the theatre — and do you know what has made you do it? The fact that it has too large a place in your mind to let you disown it and throw it over with a good conscience. It has a deep fascination for you, and yet you’re not strong enough to do so enlightened and public a thing as take up with it in my person. You’re ashamed of yourself for that, as all your constant high claims for it are on record; so you blaspheme against it to try and cover your retreat and your treachery and straighten out your personal situation. But it won’t do, dear Mr. Sherringham — it won’t do at all,” Miriam proceeded with a triumphant, almost judicial lucidity which made her companion stare; “you haven’t the smallest excuse of stupidity, and your perversity is no excuse whatever. Leave her alone altogether — a poor girl who’s making her way — or else come frankly to help her, to give her the benefit of your wisdom. Don’t lock her up for life under the pretence of doing her good. What does one most good is to see a little honesty. You’re the best judge, the best critic, the best observer, the best believer, that I’ve ever come across: you’re committed to it by everything you’ve said to me for a twelvemonth, by the whole turn of your mind, by the way you’ve followed us up, all of us, from far back. If an art’s noble and beneficent one shouldn’t be afraid to offer it one’s arm. Your cousin isn’t: he can make sacrifices.”

“My cousin?” Peter amazedly echoed. “Why, wasn’t it only the other day you were throwing his sacrifices in his teeth?”

Under this imputation on her straightness Miriam flinched but for an instant. “I did that to worry you,” she smiled.

“Why should you wish to worry me if you care so little about me?”

“Care little about you? Haven’t I told you often, didn’t I tell you yesterday, how much I care? Ain’t I showing it now by spending half the night here with you — giving myself away to all those cynics — taking all this trouble to persuade you to hold up your head and have the courage of your opinions?”

“You invent my opinions for your convenience,” said Peter all undaunted. “As long ago as the night I introduced you, in Paris, to Mademoiselle Voisin, you accused me of looking down on those who practise your art. I remember how you came down on me because I didn’t take your friend Dashwood seriously enough. Perhaps I didn’t; but if already at that time I was so wide of the mark you can scarcely accuse me of treachery now.”

“I don’t remember, but I daresay you’re right,” Miriam coldly meditated. “What I accused you of then was probably simply what I reproach you with now — the germ at least of your deplorable weakness. You consider that we do awfully valuable work, and yet you wouldn’t for the world let people suppose you really take our side. If your position was even at that time so false, so much the worse for you, that’s all. Oh it’s refreshing,” his formidable friend exclaimed after a pause during which Peter seemed to himself to taste the full bitterness of despair, so baffled and cheapened he intimately felt —“oh it’s refreshing to see a man burn his ships in a cause that appeals to him, give up something precious for it and break with horrid timidities and snobberies! It’s the most beautiful sight in the world.”

Poor Peter, sore as he was, and with the cold breath of failure in his face, nevertheless burst out laughing at this fine irony. “You’re magnificent, you give me at this moment the finest possible illustration of what you mean by burning one’s ships. Verily, verily there’s no one like you: talk of timidity, talk of refreshment! If I had any talent for it I’d go on the stage tomorrow, so as to spend my life with you the better.”

“If you’ll do that I’ll be your wife the day after your first appearance. That would be really respectable,” Miriam said.

“Unfortunately I’ve no talent.”

“That would only make it the more respectable.”

“You’re just like poor Nick,” Peter returned —“you’ve taken to imitating Gabriel Nash. Don’t you see that it’s only if it were a question of my going on the stage myself that there would be a certain fitness in your contrasting me invidiously with Nick and in my giving up one career for another? But simply to stand in the wing and hold your shawl and your smelling-bottle —!” he concluded mournfully, as if he had ceased to debate.

“Holding my shawl and my smelling-bottle is a mere detail, representing a very small part of the whole precious service, the protection and encouragement, for which a woman in my position might be indebted to a man interested in her work and as accomplished and determined as you very justly describe yourself.”

“And would it be your idea that such a man should live on the money earned by an exhibition of the person of his still more accomplished and still more determined wife?”

“Why not if they work together — if there’s something of his spirit and his support in everything she does?” Miriam demanded. “Je vous attendais with the famous ‘person’; of course that’s the great stick they beat us with. Yes, we show it for money, those of us who have anything decent to show, and some no doubt who haven’t, which is the real scandal. What will you have? It’s only the envelope of the idea, it’s only our machinery, which ought to be conceded to us; and in proportion as the idea takes hold of us do we become unconscious of the clumsy body. Poor old ‘person’— if you knew what we think of it! If you don’t forget it that’s your own affair: it shows you’re dense before the idea.”

“That I’m dense?”— and Peter appealed to their lamplit solitude, the favouring, intimate night that only witnessed his defeat, as if this outrage had been all that was wanting.

“I mean the public is — the public who pays us. After all, they expect us to look at them too, who are not half so well worth it. If you should see some of the creatures who have the face to plant themselves there in the stalls before one for three mortal hours! I daresay it would be simpler to have no bodies, but we’re all in the same box, and it would be a great injustice to the idea, and we’re all showing ourselves all the while; only some of us are not worth paying.”

“You’re extraordinarily droll, but somehow I can’t laugh at you,” he said, his handsome face drawn by his pain to a contraction sufficiently attesting the fact. “Do you remember the second time I ever saw you — the day you recited at my place?” he abruptly asked; a good deal as if he were taking from his quiver an arrow which, if it was the last, was also one of the sharpest.

“Perfectly, and what an idiot I was, though it was only yesterday!”

“You expressed to me then a deep detestation of the sort of self-exposure to which the profession you were taking up would commit you. If you compared yourself to a contortionist at a country fair I’m only taking my cue from you.”

“I don’t know what I may have said then,” replied Miriam, whose steady flight was not arrested by this ineffectual bolt; “I was no doubt already wonderful for talking of things I know nothing about. I was only on the brink of the stream and I perhaps thought the water colder than it is. One warms it a bit one’s self when once one’s in. Of course I’m a contortionist and of course there’s a hateful side, but don’t you see how that very fact puts a price on every compensation, on the help of those who are ready to insist on the other side, the grand one, and especially on the sympathy of the person who’s ready to insist most and to keep before us the great thing, the element that makes up for everything?”

“The element —?” Peter questioned with a vagueness that was pardonably exaggerated. “Do you mean your success?”

“I mean what you’ve so often been eloquent about,” she returned with an indulgent shrug —“the way we simply stir people’s souls. Ah there’s where life can help us,” she broke out with a change of tone, “there’s where human relations and affections can help us; love and faith and joy and suffering and experience — I don’t know what to call ’em! They suggest things, they light them up and sanctify them, as you may say; they make them appear worth doing.” She became radiant a while, as if with a splendid vision; then melting into still another accent, which seemed all nature and harmony and charity, she proceeded: “I must tell you that in the matter of what we can do for each other I have a tremendously high ideal. I go in for closeness of union, for identity of interest. A true marriage, as they call it, must do one a lot of good!”

He stood there looking at her for a time during which her eyes sustained his penetration without a relenting gleam, some lapse of cruelty or of paradox. But with a passionate, inarticulate sound he turned away, to remain, on the edge of the window, his hands in his pockets, gazing defeatedly, doggedly, into the featureless night, into the little black garden which had nothing to give him but a familiar smell of damp. The warm darkness had no relief for him, and Miriam’s histrionic hardness flung him back against a fifth-rate world, against a bedimmed, star-punctured nature which had no consolation — the bleared, irresponsive eyes of the London firmament. For the brief space of his glaring at these things he dumbly and helplessly raged. What he wanted was something that was not in that thick prospect. What was the meaning of this sudden, offensive importunity of “art,” this senseless, mocking catch, like some irritating chorus of conspirators in a bad opera, in which her voice was so incongruously conjoined with Nick’s and in which Biddy’s sweet little pipe had not scrupled still more bewilderingly to mingle? Art might yield to damnation: what commission after all had he ever given it to better him or bother him? If the pointless groan in which Peter exhaled a part of his humiliation had been translated into words, these words would have been as heavily charged with a genuine British mistrust of the uncanny principle as if the poor fellow speaking them had never quitted his island. Several acquired perceptions had struck a deep root in him, but an immemorial, compact formation lay deeper still. He tried at the present hour to rest on it spiritually, but found it inelastic; and at the very moment when most conscious of this absence of the rebound or of any tolerable ease he felt his vision solicited by an object which, as he immediately guessed, could only add to the complication of things.

An undefined shape hovered before him in the garden, halfway between the gate and the house; it remained outside of the broad shaft of lamplight projected from the window. It wavered for a moment after it had become aware of his observation and then whisked round the corner of the lodge. This characteristic movement so effectually dispelled the mystery — it could only be Mrs. Rooth who resorted to such conspicuous secrecies — that, to feel the game up and his interview over, he had no need to see the figure reappear on second thoughts and dodge about in the dusk with a sportive, vexatious vagueness. Evidently Miriam’s warning of a few minutes before had been founded: a cab had deposited her anxious mother at the garden door. Mrs. Rooth had entered with precautions; she had approached the house and retreated; she had effaced herself — had peered and waited and listened. Maternal solicitude and muddled calculations had drawn her from a feast as yet too imperfectly commemorative. The heroine of the occasion of course had been intolerably missed, so that the old woman had both obliged the company and quieted her own nerves by jumping insistently into a hansom and rattling up to Saint John’s Wood to reclaim the absentee. But if she had wished to be in time she had also desired not to be impertinent, and would have been still more embarrassed to say what she aspired to promote than to phrase what she had proposed to hinder. She wanted to abstain tastefully, to interfere felicitously, and, more generally and justifiably — the small hours having come — to see what her young charges were “up to.” She would probably have gathered that they were quarrelling, and she appeared now to be motioning to Peter to know if it were over. He took no notice of her signals, if signals they were; he only felt that before he made way for the poor, odious lady there was one small spark he might strike from Miriam’s flint.

Without letting her guess that her mother was on the premises he turned again to his companion, half-expecting she would have taken her chance to regard their discussion as more than terminated and by the other egress flit away from him in silence. But she was still there; she was in the act of approaching him with a manifest intention of kindness, and she looked indeed, to his surprise, like an angel of mercy.

“Don’t let us part so harshly,” she said —“with your trying to make me feel as if I were merely disobliging. It’s no use talking — we only hurt each other. Let us hold our tongues like decent people and go about our business. It isn’t as if you hadn’t any cure — when you’ve such a capital one. Try it, try it, my dear friend — you’ll see! I wish you the highest promotion and the quickest — every success and every reward. When you’ve got them all, some day, and I’ve become a great swell too, we’ll meet on that solid basis and you’ll be glad I’ve been dreadful now.”

“Surely before I leave you I’ve a right to ask you this,” he answered, holding fast in both his own the cool hand of farewell she had chosen finally to torment him with. “Are you ready to follow up by a definite promise your implied assurance that I’ve a remedy?”

“A definite promise?” Miriam benignly gazed — it was the perfection of indirectness. “I don’t ‘imply’ that you’ve a remedy. I declare it on the house-tops. That delightful girl —”

“I’m not talking of any delightful girl but you!” he broke in with a voice that, as he afterwards learned, struck Mrs. Rooth’s ears in the garden with affright. “I simply hold you, under pain of being convicted of the grossest prevarication, to the strict sense of what you said ten minutes ago.”

“Ah I’ve said so many things! One has to do that to get rid of you. You rather hurt my hand,” she added — and jerked it away in a manner showing that if she was an angel of mercy her mercy was partly for herself.

“As I understand you, then, I may have some hope if I do renounce my profession?” Peter pursued. “If I break with everything, my prospects, my studies, my training, my emoluments, my past and my future, the service of my country and the ambition of my life, and engage to take up instead the business of watching your interests so far as I may learn how and ministering to your triumphs so far as may in me lie — if after further reflexion I decide to go through these preliminaries, have I your word that I may definitely look to you to reward me with your precious hand?”

“I don’t think you’ve any right to put the question to me now,” she returned with a promptitude partly produced perhaps by the clear-cut form his solemn speech had given — there was a charm in the sound of it — to each item of his enumeration. “The case is so very contingent, so dependent on what you ingeniously call your further reflexion. While you really reserve everything you ask me to commit myself. If it’s a question of further reflexion why did you drag me up here? And then,” she added, “I’m so far from wishing you to take any such monstrous step.”

“Monstrous you call it? Just now you said it would be sublime.”

“Sublime if it’s done with spontaneity, with passion; ridiculous if it’s done ‘after further reflexion.’ As you said, perfectly, a while ago, it isn’t a thing to reason about.”

“Ah what a help you’d be to me in diplomacy!” Peter yearningly cried. “Will you give me a year to consider?”

“Would you trust me for a year?”

“Why not, if I’m ready to trust you for life?”

“Oh I shouldn’t be free then, worse luck. And how much you seem to take for granted one must like you!”

“Remember,” he could immediately say, “that you’ve made a great point of your liking me. Wouldn’t you do so still more if I were heroic?”

She showed him, for all her high impatience now, the interest of a long look. “I think I should pity you in such a cause. Give it all to her; don’t throw away a real happiness!”

“Ah you can’t back out of your position with a few vague and even rather impertinent words!” Peter protested. “You accuse me of swallowing my opinions, but you swallow your pledges. You’ve painted in heavenly colours the sacrifice I’m talking of, and now you must take the consequences.”

“The consequences?”

“Why my coming back in a year to square you.”

“Ah you’re a bore!”— she let him have it at last. “Come back when you like. I don’t wonder you’ve grown desperate, but fancy me then!” she added as she looked past him at a new interlocutor.

“Yes, but if he’ll square you!” Peter heard Mrs. Rooth’s voice respond all persuasively behind him. She had stolen up to the window now, had passed the threshold, was in the room, but her daughter had not been startled. “What is it he wants to do, dear?” she continued to Miriam.

“To induce me to marry him if he’ll go upon the stage. He’ll practise over there — where he’s going — and then come back and appear. Isn’t it too dreadful? Talk him out of it, stay with him, soothe him!” the girl hurried on. “You’ll find some drinks and some biscuits in the cupboard — keep him with you, pacify him, give him his little supper. Meanwhile I’ll go to mine; I’ll take the brougham; don’t follow!”

With which words Miriam bounded into the garden, her white drapery shining for an instant in the darkness before she disappeared. Peter looked about him to pick up his hat, but while he did so heard the bang of the gate and the quick carriage get into motion. Mrs. Rooth appeared to sway violently and in opposed directions: that of the impulse to rush after Miriam and that of the extraordinary possibility to which the young lady had alluded. She was in doubt, yet at a venture, detaining him with a maternal touch, she twinkled up at their visitor like an insinuating glow-worm. “I’m so glad you came.”

“I’m not. I’ve got nothing by it,” Peter said as he found his hat.

“Oh it was so beautiful!” she declared.

“The play — yes, wonderful. I’m afraid it’s too late for me to avail myself of the privilege your daughter offers me. Good-night.”

“Ah it’s a pity; won’t you take anything?” asked Mrs. Rooth. “When I heard your voice so high I was scared and hung back.” But before he could reply she added: “Are you really thinking of the stage?”

“It comes to the same thing.”

“Do you mean you’ve proposed?”

“Oh unmistakably.”

“And what does she say?”

“Why you heard: she says I’m an ass.”

“Ah the little wretch!” laughed Mrs. Rooth. “Leave her to me. I’ll help you. But you are mad. Give up nothing — least of all your advantages.”

“I won’t give up your daughter,” said Peter, reflecting that if this was cheap it was at any rate good enough for Mrs. Rooth. He mended it a little indeed by adding darkly: “But you can’t make her take me.”

“I can prevent her taking any one else.”

“Oh can you?” Peter cried with more scepticism than ceremony.

“You’ll see — you’ll see.” He passed into the garden, but, after she had blown out the candles and drawn the window to, Mrs. Rooth went with him. “All you’ve got to do is to be yourself — to be true to your fine position,” she explained as they proceeded. “Trust me with the rest — trust me and be quiet.”

“How can one be quiet after this magnificent evening?”

“Yes, but it’s just that!” panted the eager old woman. “It has launched her so on this sea of dangers that to make up for the loss of the old security (don’t you know?) we must take a still firmer hold.”

“Aye, of what?” Peter asked as Mrs. Rooth’s comfort became vague while she stopped with him at the garden door.

“Ah you know: of the real life, of the true anchor!” Her hansom was waiting for her and she added: “I kept it, you see; but a little extravagance on the night one’s fortune has come! —”

Peter stared. Yes, there were people whose fortune had come; but he managed to stammer: “Are you following her again?”

“For you — for you!” And she clambered into the vehicle. From the seat, enticingly, she offered him the place beside her. “Won’t you come too? I know he invited you.” Peter declined with a quick gesture and as he turned away he heard her call after him, to cheer him on his lonely walk: “I shall keep this up; I shall never lose sight of her!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2tr/chapter46.html

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