The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

XLVIII

Miriam had mounted at a bound, in her new part, several steps in the ladder of fame, and at the climax of the London season this fact was brought home to her from hour to hour. It produced a thousand solicitations and entanglements, and she rapidly learned that to be celebrated takes up almost as much of one’s own time as of other people’s. Even though, as she boasted, she had reduced to a science the practice of “working” her mother — she made use of the good lady socially to the utmost, pushing her perpetually into the breach — there was many a juncture at which it was clear that she couldn’t too much disoblige without hurting her cause. She made almost an income out of the photographers — their appreciation of her as a subject knew no bounds — and she supplied the newspapers with columns of characteristic copy. To the gentlemen who sought speech of her on behalf of these organs she poured forth, vindictively, floods of unscrupulous romance; she told them all different tales, and, as her mother told them others more marvellous yet, publicity was cleverly caught by rival versions, which surpassed each other in authenticity. The whole case was remarkable, was unique; for if the girl was advertised by the bewilderment of her readers she seemed to every sceptic, on his going to see her, as fine as if he had discovered her for himself. She was still accommodating enough, however, from time to time, to find an hour to come and sit to Nick Dormer, and he helped himself further by going to her theatre whenever he could. He was conscious Julia Dallow would probably hear of this and triumph with a fresh sense of how right she had been; but the reflexion only made him sigh resignedly, so true it struck him as being that there are some things explanation can never better, can never touch.

Miriam brought Basil Dashwood once to see her portrait, and Basil, who commended it in general, directed his criticism mainly to two points — its not yet being finished and its not having gone into that year’s Academy. The young actor audibly panted; he felt the short breath of Miriam’s rapidity, the quick beat of her success, and, looking at everything now from the standpoint of that speculation, could scarcely contain his impatience at the painter’s clumsy slowness. He thought the latter’s second attempt much better than his first, but somehow it ought by that time to be shining in the eye of the public. He put it to their friend with an air of acuteness — he had those felicities — that in every great crisis there is nothing like striking while the iron is hot. He even betrayed the conviction that by putting on a spurt Nick might wind up the job and still get the Academy people to take him in. Basil knew some of them; he all but offered to speak to them — the case was so exceptional; he had no doubt he could get something done. Against the appropriation of the work by Peter Sherringham he explicitly and loudly protested, in spite of the homeliest recommendations of silence from Miriam; and it was indeed easy to guess how such an arrangement would interfere with his own conception of the eventual right place for the two portraits — the vestibule of the theatre, where every one going in and out would see them suspended face to face and surrounded by photographs, artistically disposed, of the young actress in a variety of characters. Dashwood showed superiority in his jump to the contention that so exhibited the pictures would really help to draw. Considering the virtue he attributed to Miriam the idea was exempt from narrow prejudice.

Moreover, though a trifle feverish, he was really genial; he repeated more than once, “Yes, my dear sir, you’ve done it this time.” This was a favourite formula with him; when some allusion was made to the girl’s success he greeted it also with a comfortable “This time she has done it.” There was ever a hint of fine judgement and far calculation in his tone. It appeared before he went that this time even he himself had done it — he had taken up something that would really answer. He told Nick more about Miriam, more certainly about her outlook at that moment, than she herself had communicated, contributing strongly to our young man’s impression that one by one every gage of a great career was being dropped into her cup. Nick himself tasted of success vicariously for the hour. Miriam let her comrade talk only to contradict him, and contradicted him only to show how indifferently she could do it. She treated him as if she had nothing more to learn about his folly, but as if it had taken intimate friendship to reveal to her the full extent of it. Nick didn’t mind her intimate friendships, but he ended by disliking Dashwood, who gave on his nerves — a circumstance poor Julia, had it come to her knowledge, would doubtless have found deplorably significant. Miriam was more pleased with herself than ever: she now made no scruple of admitting that she enjoyed all her advantages. She had a fuller vision of how successful success could be; she took everything as it came — dined out every Sunday and even went into the country till the Monday morning; kept a hundred distinguished names on her lips and abounded in strange tales of the people who were making up to her. She struck Nick as less strenuous than she had been hitherto, as making even an aggressive show of inevitable laxities; but he was conscious of no obligation to rebuke her for it — the less as he had a dim vision that some effect of that sort, some irritation of his curiosity, was what she desired to produce. She would perhaps have liked, for reasons best known to herself, to look as if she were throwing herself away, not being able to do anything else. He couldn’t talk to her as if he took a deep interest in her career, because in fact he didn’t; she remained to him primarily and essentially a pictorial object, with the nature of whose vicissitudes he was concerned — putting common charity and his personal good nature of course aside — only so far as they had something to say in her face. How could he know in advance what turn of her experience, twist of her life, would say most? — so possible was it even that complete failure or some incalculable perversion (innumerable were the queer traps that might be set for her) would only make her for his particular purpose more precious.

When she had left him at any rate, the day she came with Basil Dashwood, and still more on a later occasion, that of his turning back to his work after putting her into her carriage, and otherwise bare-headedly manifesting, the last time, for that year apparently, that he was to see her — when she had left him it occurred to him in the light of her quick distinction that there were deep differences in the famous artistic life. Miriam was already in a glow of glory — which, moreover, was probably but a faint spark in relation to the blaze to come; and as he closed the door on her and took up his palette to rub it with a dirty cloth the little room in which his own battle was practically to be fought looked woefully cold and grey and mean. It was lonely and yet at the same time was peopled with unfriendly shadows — so thick he foresaw them gather in winter twilights to come — the duller conditions, the longer patiences, the less immediate and less personal joys. His late beginning was there and his wasted youth, the mistakes that would still bring forth children after their image, the sedentary solitude, the grey mediocrity, the poor explanations, the effect of foolishness he dreaded even from afar of in having to ask people to wait, and wait longer, and wait again, for a fruition which to their sense at least might well prove a grotesque anti-climax. He yearned enough over it, however it should figure, to feel that this possible pertinacity might enter into comparison even with such a productive force as Miriam’s. That was after all in his bare studio the most collective dim presence, the one that kept him company best as he sat there and that made it the right place, however wrong — the sense that it was to the thing in itself he was attached. This was Miriam’s case too, but the sharp contrast, which she showed him she also felt, was in the number of other things she got with the thing in itself.

I hasten to add that our young man had hours when this last mystic value struck him as requiring for its full operation no adjunct whatever — as being in its own splendour a summary of all adjuncts and apologies. I have related that the great collections, the National Gallery and the Museum, were sometimes rather a series of dead surfaces to him; but the sketch I have attempted of him will have been inadequate if it fails to suggest that there were other days when, as he strolled through them, he plucked right and left perfect nosegays of reassurance. Bent as he was on working in the modern, which spoke to him with a thousand voices, he judged it better for long periods not to haunt the earlier masters, whose conditions had been so different — later he came to see that it didn’t matter much, especially if one kept away; but he was liable to accidental deflexions from this theory, liable in particular to feel the sanctity of the great portraits of the past. These were the things the most inspiring, in the sense that while generations, while worlds had come and gone, they seemed far most to prevail and survive and testify. As he stood before them the perfection of their survival often struck him as the supreme eloquence, the virtue that included all others, thanks to the language of art, the richest and most universal. Empires and systems and conquests had rolled over the globe and every kind of greatness had risen and passed away, but the beauty of the great pictures had known nothing of death or change, and the tragic centuries had only sweetened their freshness. The same faces, the same figures looked out at different worlds, knowing so many secrets the particular world didn’t, and when they joined hands they made the indestructible thread on which the pearls of history were strung.

Miriam notified her artist that her theatre was to close on the tenth of August, immediately after which she was to start, with the company, on a tremendous tour of the provinces. They were to make a lot of money, but they were to have no holiday, and she didn’t want one; she only wanted to keep at it and make the most of her limited opportunities for practice; inasmuch as at that rate, playing but two parts a year — and such parts: she despised them! — she shouldn’t have mastered the rudiments of her trade before decrepitude would compel her to lay it by. The first time she came to the studio after her visit with Dashwood she sprang up abruptly at the end of half an hour, saying she could sit no more — she had had enough and to spare of it. She was visibly restless and preoccupied, and though Nick had not waited till now to note that she had more moods in her list than he had tints on his palette he had never yet seen her sensibility at this particular pitch. It struck him rather as a waste of passion, but he was ready to let her go. She looked round the place as if suddenly tired of it and then said mechanically, in a heartless London way, while she smoothed down her gloves, “So you’re just going to stay on?” After he had confessed that this was his dark purpose she continued in the same casual, talk-making manner: “I daresay it’s the best thing for you. You’re just going to grind, eh?”

“I see before me an eternity of grinding.”

“All alone by yourself in this dull little hole? You will be conscientious, you will be virtuous.”

“Oh my solitude will be mitigated — I shall have models and people.”

“What people — what models?” Miriam asked as she arranged her hat before the glass.

“Well, no one so good as you.”

“That’s a prospect!” the girl laughed —“for all the good you’ve got out of me!”

“You’re no judge of that quantity,” said Nick, “and even I can’t measure it just yet. Have I been rather a bore and a brute? I can easily believe it; I haven’t talked to you — I haven’t amused you as I might. The truth is that taking people’s likenesses is a very absorbing, inhuman occupation. You can’t do much to them besides.”

“Yes, it’s a cruel honour to pay them.”

“Cruel — that’s too much,” he objected.

“I mean it’s one you shouldn’t confer on those you like, for when it’s over it’s over: it kills your interest in them. After you’ve finished them you don’t like them any more at all.”

“Surely I like you,” Nick returned, sitting tilted back before his picture with his hands in his pockets.

“We’ve done very well: it’s something not to have quarrelled”— and she smiled at him now, seeming more “in” it. “I wouldn’t have had you slight your work — I wouldn’t have had you do it badly. But there’s no fear of that for you,” she went on. “You’re the real thing and the rare bird. I haven’t lived with you this way without seeing that: you’re the sincere artist so much more than I. No, no, don’t protest,” she added with one of her sudden, fine transitions to a deeper tone. “You’ll do things that will hand on your name when my screeching is happily over. Only you do seem to me, I confess, rather high and dry here — I speak from the point of view of your comfort and of my personal interest in you. You strike me as kind of lonely, as the Americans say — rather cut off and isolated in your grandeur. Haven’t you any confrères — fellow-artists and people of that sort? Don’t they come near you?”

“I don’t know them much,” Nick humbly confessed. “I’ve always been afraid of them, and how can they take me seriously?”

“Well, I’ve got confrères, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t! But does your sister never come near you any more,” she asked, “or is it only the fear of meeting me?”

He was aware of his mother’s theory that Biddy was constantly bundled home from Rosedale Road at the approach of improper persons: she was as angry at this as if she wouldn’t have been more so had her child suffered exposure; but the explanation he gave his present visitor was nearer the truth. He reminded her that he had already told her — he had been careful to do this, so as not to let it appear she was avoided — that his sister was now most of the time in the country, staying with an hospitable relation.

“Oh yes,” the girl rejoined to this, “with Mr. Sherringham’s sister, Mrs. — what’s her name? I always forget.” And when he had pronounced the word with a reluctance he doubtless failed sufficiently to conceal — he hated to talk of Julia by any name and didn’t know what business Miriam had with her — she went on: “That’s the one — the beauty, the wonderful beauty. I shall never forget how handsome she looked the day she found me here. I don’t in the least resemble her, but I should like to have a try at that type some day in a comedy of manners. But who the devil will write me a comedy of manners? There it is! The danger would be, no doubt, that I should push her à la charge.”

Nick listened to these remarks in silence, saying to himself that if she should have the bad taste — which she seemed trembling on the brink of — to make an allusion to what had passed between the lady in question and himself he should dislike her beyond remedy. It would show him she was a coarse creature after all. Her good genius interposed, however, as against this hard penalty, and she quickly, for the moment at least, whisked away from the topic, demanding, since they spoke of comrades and visitors, what had become of Gabriel Nash, whom she hadn’t heard of for so many days.

“I think he’s tired of me,” said Nick; “he hasn’t been near me either. But after all it’s natural — he has seen me through.”

“Seen you through? Do you mean,” she laughed, “seen through you? Why you’ve only just begun.”

“Precisely, and at bottom he doesn’t like to see me begin. He’s afraid I shall do something.”

She wondered — as with the interest of that. “Do you mean he’s jealous?”

“Not in the least, for from the moment one does anything one ceases to compete with him. It leaves him the field more clear. But that’s just the discomfort for him — he feels, as you said just now, kind of lonely: he feels rather abandoned and even, I think, a little betrayed. So far from being jealous he yearns for me and regrets me. The only thing he really takes seriously is to speculate and understand, to talk about the reasons and the essence of things: the people who do that are the highest. The applications, the consequences, the vulgar little effects, belong to a lower plane, for which one must doubtless be tolerant and indulgent, but which is after all an affair of comparative accidents and trifles. Indeed he’ll probably tell me frankly the next time I see him that he can’t but feel that to come down to small questions of action — to the small prudences and compromises and simplifications of practice — is for the superior person really a fatal descent. One may be inoffensive and even commendable after it, but one can scarcely pretend to be interesting. ‘Il en faut comme ça,’ but one doesn’t haunt them. He’ll do his best for me; he’ll come back again, but he’ll come back sad, and finally he’ll fade away altogether. Hell go off to Granada or somewhere.”

“The simplifications of practice?” cried Miriam. “Why they’re just precisely the most blessed things on earth. What should we do without them?”

“What indeed?” Nick echoed. “But if we need them it’s because we’re not superior persons. We’re awful Philistines.”

“I’ll be one with you,” the girl smiled. “Poor Nash isn’t worth talking about. What was it but a small question of action when he preached to you, as I know he did, to give up your seat?”

“Yes, he has a weakness for giving up — he’ll go with you as far as that. But I’m not giving up any more, you see. I’m pegging away, and that’s gross.”

“He’s an idiot — n’en parlons plus!” she dropped, gathering up her parasol but lingering.

“Ah I stick to him,” Nick said. “He helped me at a difficult time.”

“You ought to be ashamed to confess it.”

“Oh you are a Philistine!” Nick returned.

“Certainly I am,” she declared, going toward the door —“if it makes me one to be sorry, awfully sorry and even rather angry, that I haven’t before me a period of the same sort of unsociable pegging away that you have. For want of it I shall never really be good. However, if you don’t tell people I’ve said so they’ll never know. Your conditions are far better than mine and far more respectable: you can do as many things as you like in patient obscurity while I’m pitchforked into the mêlée and into the most improbable fame — all on the back of a solitary cheval de bataille, a poor broken-winded screw. I read it clear that I shall be condemned for the greater part of the rest of my days — do you see that? — to play the stuff I’m acting now. I’m studying Juliet and I want awfully to do her, but really I’m mortally afraid lest, making a success of her, I should find myself in such a box. Perhaps the brutes would want Juliet for ever instead of my present part. You see amid what delightful alternatives one moves. What I long for most I never shall have had — five quiet years of hard all-round work in a perfect company, with a manager more perfect still, playing five hundred things and never being heard of at all. I may be too particular, but that’s what I should have liked. I think I’m disgusting with my successful crudities. It’s discouraging; it makes one not care much what happens. What’s the use, in such an age, of being good?”

“Good? Your haughty claim,” Nick laughed, “is that you’re bad.”

“I mean good, you know — there are other ways. Don’t be stupid.” And Miriam tapped him — he was near her at the door — with her parasol.

“I scarcely know what to say to you,” he logically pleaded, “for certainly it’s your fault if you get on so fast.”

“I’m too clever — I’m a humbug.”

“That’s the way I used to be,” said Nick.

She rested her brave eyes on him, then turned them over the room slowly; after which she attached them again, kindly, musingly — rather as if he had been a fine view or an interesting object — to his face. “Ah, the pride of that — the sense of purification! He ‘used’ to be forsooth! Poor me! Of course you’ll say, ‘Look at the sort of thing I’ve undertaken to produce compared with the rot you have.’ So it’s all right. Become great in the proper way and don’t expose me.” She glanced back once more at the studio as if to leave it for ever, and gave another last look at the unfinished canvas on the easel. She shook her head sadly, “Poor Mr. Sherringham — with that!” she wailed.

“Oh I’ll finish it — it will be very decent,” Nick said.

“Finish it by yourself?”

“Not necessarily. You’ll come back and sit when you return to London.”

“Never, never, never again.”

He wondered. “Why you’ve made me the most profuse offers and promises.”

“Yes, but they were made in ignorance and I’ve backed out of them. I’m capricious too — faites la part de ça. I see it wouldn’t do — I didn’t know it then. We’re too far apart — I am, as you say, a Philistine.” And as he protested with vehemence against this unscrupulous bad faith she added: “You’ll find other models. Paint Gabriel Nash.”

“Gabriel Nash — as a substitute for you?”

“It will be a good way to get rid of him. Paint Mrs. Dallow too,” Miriam went on as she passed out of the door he had opened for her —“paint Mrs. Dallow if you wish to eradicate the last possibility of a throb.”

It was strange that, since only a moment before he had been in a state of mind to which the superfluity of this reference would have been the clearest thing about it, he should now have been moved to receive it quickly, naturally, irreflectively, receive it with the question: “The last possibility? Do you mean in her or in me?”

“Oh in you. I don’t know anything about ‘her.’”

“But that wouldn’t be the effect,” he argued with the same supervening candour. “I believe that if she were to sit to me the usual law would be reversed.”

“The usual law?”

“Which you cited a while since and of which I recognised the general truth. In the case you speak of,” he said, “I should probably make a shocking picture.”

“And fall in love with her again? Then for God’s sake risk the daub!” Miriam laughed out as she floated away to her victoria.

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