The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

LI

That night at the theatre and in the box — the miracle had been wrought, the treasure found — Nick Dormer pointed out to his two companions the stall he had relinquished, which was close in front; noting how oddly it remained during the whole of the first act vacant. The house was beyond everything, the actress beyond any one; though to describe again so famous an occasion — it has been described repeatedly by other reporters — is not in the compass of the closing words of a history already too sustained. It is enough to say that these great hours marked an era in contemporary art and that for those who had a spectator’s share in them the words “revelation,” “incarnation,” “acclamation,” “demonstration,” “ovation”— to name only a few, and all accompanied by the word “extraordinary”— acquired a new force. Miriam’s Juliet was an exquisite image of young passion and young despair, expressed in the truest, divinest music that had ever poured from tragic lips. The great childish audience, gaping at her points, expanded there before her like a lap to catch flowers.

During the first interval our three friends in the box had plenty to talk about, and they were so occupied with it that for some time they failed to observe a gentleman who had at last come into the empty stall near the front. This discovery was presently formulated by Miss Tressilian in the cheerful exclamation: “Only fancy — there’s Mr. Sherringham!” This of course immediately became a high wonder — a wonder for Nick and Biddy, who had not heard of his return; and the prodigy was quickened by the fact that he gave no sign of looking for them or even at them. Having taken possession of his place he sat very still in it, staring straight before him at the curtain. His abrupt reappearance held the seeds of anxiety both for Biddy and for Nick, so that it was mainly Miss Tressilian who had freedom of mind to throw off the theory that he had come back that very hour — had arrived from a long journey. Couldn’t they see how strange he was and how brown, how burnt and how red, how tired and how worn? They all inspected him, though Biddy declined Miss Tressilian’s glass; but he was evidently indifferent to notice and finally Biddy, leaning back in her chair, dropped the fantastic words:

“He has come home to marry Juliet!”

Nick glanced at her and then replied: “What a disaster — to make such a journey as that and to be late for the fair!”

“Late for the fair?”

“Why she’s married — these three days. They did it very quietly; Miriam says because her mother hated it and hopes it won’t be much known! All the same she’s Basil Dashwood’s wedded wife — he has come in just in time to take the receipts for Juliet. It’s a good thing, no doubt, for there are at least two fortunes to be made out of her, and he’ll give up the stage.” Nick explained to Miss Tressilian, who had inquired, that the gentleman in question was the actor who was playing Mercutio, and he asked Biddy if she hadn’t known that this was what they were telling him in Rosedale Road that morning. She replied that she had understood nothing but that she was to be where she was, and she sank considerably behind the drapery of the box. From this cover she was able to launch, creditably enough, the exclamation:

“Poor, poor Peter!”

Nick got up and stood looking at poor, poor Peter. “He ought to come round and speak to us, but if he doesn’t see us I suppose he doesn’t.” He quitted the box as to go to the restored exile, and I may add that as soon as he had done so Florence Tressilian bounded over to the dusk in which Biddy had nestled. What passed immediately between these young ladies needn’t concern us: it is sufficient to mention that two minutes later Miss Tressilian broke out:

“Look at him, dearest; he’s turning his head this way!”

“Thank you, I don’t care to watch his turns,” said Biddy; and she doubtless demeaned herself in the high spirit of these words. It nevertheless happened that directly afterwards she had certain knowledge of his having glanced at his watch as if to judge how soon the curtain would rise again, as well as of his having then jumped up and passed quickly out of his place. The curtain had risen again without his reappearing and without Nick’s returning. Indeed by the time Nick slipped in a good deal of the third act was over; and even then, even when the curtain descended, Peter had not come back. Nick sat down in silence to watch the stage, to which the breathless attention of his companions seemed attached, though Biddy after a moment threw round at him a single quick look. At the end of the act they were all occupied with the recalls, the applause and the responsive loveliness of Juliet as she was led out — Mercutio had to give her up to Romeo — and even for a few minutes after the deafening roar had subsided nothing was said among the three. At last Nick began:

“It’s quite true he has just arrived; he’s in Great Stanhope Street. They’ve given him several weeks, to make up for the uncomfortable way they bundled him off — to get there in time for some special business that had suddenly to be gone into — when he first went out: he tells me they even then promised that. He got into Southampton only a few hours ago, rushed up by the first train he could catch and came off here without any dinner.”

“Fancy!” said Miss Tressilian; while Biddy more generally asked if Peter might be in good health and appeared to have been happy. Nick replied that he described his post as beastly but didn’t seem to have suffered from it. He was to be in England probably a month, he was awfully brown, he sent his love to Biddy. Miss Tressilian looked at his empty stall and was of the opinion that it would be more to the point if he were to come in to see her.

“Oh he’ll turn up; we had a goodish talk in the lobby where he met me. I think he went out somewhere.”

“How odd to come so many thousand miles for this and then not to stay!” Biddy fluted.

“Did he come on purpose for this?” Miss Tressilian asked.

“Perhaps he’s gone out to get his dinner!” joked Biddy.

Her friend suggested that he might be behind the scenes, but Nick cast doubts; whereupon Biddy asked if he himself were not going round. At this moment the curtain rose; Nick said he would go in the next interval. As soon as it came he quitted the box, remaining absent while it lasted.

All this time, in the house, there was no sign of Peter. Nick reappeared only as the fourth act was beginning and uttered no word to his companions till it was over. Then, after a further delay produced by renewed vociferous proofs of the personal victory won, he depicted his visit to the stage and the wonderful sight of Miriam on the field of battle. Miss Tressilian inquired if he had found Mr. Sherringham with her; to which he replied that, save across the footlights, she had not been in touch with him. At this a soft exclamation broke from Biddy. “Poor Peter! Where is he, then?”

Nick seemed to falter. “He’s walking the streets.”

“Walking the streets?”

“I don’t know — I give it up!” our young man replied; and his tone, for some minutes, reduced his companions to silence. But a little later Biddy said:

“Was it for him this morning she wanted that place — when she asked you to give yours back?”

“For him exactly. It’s very odd she had just managed to keep it — for all the good use he makes of it! She told me just now that she heard from him, at his post, a short time ago, to the effect that he had seen in a newspaper a statement she was going to do Juliet and that he firmly intended, though the ways and means were not clear to him — his leave of absence hadn’t yet come out and he couldn’t be sure when it would come — to be present on her first night; whereby she must do him the service to provide him a place. She thought this a speech rather in the air, so that in the midst of all her cares she took no particular pains about the matter. She had an idea she had really done with him for a long time. But this afternoon what does he do but telegraph to her from Southampton that he keeps his appointment and counts on her for a stall? Unless she had got back mine she wouldn’t have been able to help him. When she was in Rosedale Road this morning she hadn’t received his telegram; but his promise, his threat, whatever it was, came back to her: she had a vague foreboding and thought that on the chance she had better hold something ready. When she got home she found his telegram, and she told me he was the first person she saw in the house, through her fright when she came on in the second act. It appears she was terrified this time, and it lasted half through the play.”

“She must be rather annoyed at his having gone away,” Miss Tressilian observed.

“Annoyed? I’m not so sure!” laughed Nick.

“Ah here he comes back!” cried Biddy, behind her fan, while the absentee edged into his seat in time for the fifth act. He stood there a moment, first looking round the theatre; then he turned his eyes to the box occupied by his relatives, smiling and waving his hand.

“After that he’ll surely come and see you,” said Miss Tressilian.

“We shall see him as we go out,” Biddy returned: “he must lose no more time.”

Nick looked at him with a glass, then exclaiming: “Well, I’m glad he has pulled himself together!”

“Why what’s the matter with him — if he wasn’t disappointed of his seat?” Miss Tressilian demanded.

“The matter with him is that a couple of hours ago he had a great shock.”

“A great shock?”

“I may as well mention it at last,” Nick went on. “I had to say something to him in the lobby there when we met — something I was pretty sure he couldn’t like. I let him have it full in the face — it seemed to me better and wiser. I let him know that Juliet’s married.”

“Didn’t he know it?” asked Biddy, who, with her face raised, had listened in deep stillness to every word that fell from her brother.

“How should he have known it? It has only just taken place, and they’ve been so clever, for reasons of their own — those people move among a lot of considerations that are absolutely foreign to us — about keeping it out of the papers. They put in a lot of lies and they leave out the real things.”

“You don’t mean to say Mr. Sherringham wanted to marry her!” Miss Tressilian gasped.

“Don’t ask me what he wanted — I daresay we shall never know. One thing’s very certain — that he didn’t like my news, dear old Peter, and that I shan’t soon forget the look in his face as he turned away from me and slipped out into the street. He was too much upset — he couldn’t trust himself to come back; he had to walk about — he tried to walk it off.”

“Let us hope, then, he has walked it off!”

“Ah poor fellow — he couldn’t hold out to the end; he has had to come back and look at her once more. He knows she’ll be sublime in these last scenes.”

“Is he so much in love with her as that? What difference does it make for an actress if she is mar —?” But in this rash inquiry Miss Tressilian suddenly checked herself.

“We shall probably never know how much he has been in love with her, nor what difference it makes. We shall never know exactly what he came back for, nor why he couldn’t stand it out there any longer without relief, nor why he scrambled down here all but straight from the station, nor why after all, for the last two hours, he has been roaming the streets. And it doesn’t matter, for it’s none of our business. But I’m sorry for him — she is going to be sublime,” Nick added. The curtain was rising on the tragic climax of the play.

Miriam Rooth was sublime; yet it may be confided to the reader that during these supreme scenes Bridget Dormer directed her eyes less to the inspired actress than to a figure in the stalls who sat with his own gaze fastened to the stage. It may further be intimated that Peter Sherringham, though he saw but a fragment of the performance, read clear, at the last, in the intense light of genius with which this fragment was charged, that even so after all he had been rewarded for his formidable journey. The great trouble of his infatuation subsided, leaving behind it something appreciably deep and pure. This pacification was far from taking place at once, but it was helped on, unexpectedly to him — it began to work at least — the very next night he saw the play, through the whole of which he then sat. He felt somehow recalled to the real by the very felicity of this experience, the supreme exhibition itself. He began to come back as from a far-off province of his history where miserable madness had reigned. He had been baffled, he had got his answer; it must last him — that was plain. He didn’t fully accept it the first week or the second; but he accepted it sooner than he could have supposed had he known what it was to be when he paced at night, under the southern stars, the deck of the ship bearing him to England.

It had been, as we know, Miss Tressilian’s view, and even Biddy’s, that evening, that Peter Sherringham would join them as they left the theatre. This view, however, was not confirmed by the event, for our troubled gentleman vanished utterly — disappointingly crude behaviour on the part of a young diplomatist who had distinguished himself — before any one could put a hand on him. And he failed to make up for his crudity by coming to see any one the next day, or even the next. Indeed many days elapsed and very little would have been known about him had it not been that, in the country, Mrs. Dallow knew. What Mrs. Dallow knew was eventually known to Biddy Dormer; and in this way it could be established in his favour that he had remained some extraordinarily small number of days in London, had almost directly gone over to Paris to see his old chief. He came back from Paris — Biddy learnt this not from Julia, but in a much more immediate way: she knew it by his pressing the little electric button at the door of Florence Tressilian’s flat one day when the good Florence was out and she herself was at home. He made on this occasion a very long visit. The good Florence knew it not much later, you may be sure — and how he had got their address from Nick — and she took an extravagant pleasure in it. Mr. Sherringham had never been to see her — the like of her — in his life: therefore it was clear what had made him begin. When he had once begun he kept it up, and Miss Tressilian’s pleasure grew.

Good as she was, she could remember without the slightest relenting what Nick Dormer had repeated to them at the theatre about the dreary side of Peter’s present post. However, she was not bound to make a stand at this if persons more nearly concerned, Lady Agnes and the girl herself, didn’t mind it. How little they minded it, and Grace and Julia Dallow and even Nick, was proved in the course of a meeting that took place at Harsh during the Easter holidays. The mistress of that seat had a small and intimate party to celebrate her brother’s betrothal. The two ladies came over from Broadwood; even Nick, for two days, went back to his old hunting-ground, and Miss Tressilian relinquished for as long a time the delights of her newly arranged flat. Peter Sherringham obtained an extension of leave, so that he might go back to his legation with a wife. Fortunately, as it turned out, Biddy’s ordeal, in the more or less torrid zone, was not cruelly prolonged, for the pair have already received a superior appointment. It is Lady Agnes’s proud opinion that her daughter is even now shaping their destiny. I say “even now,” for these facts bring me very close to contemporary history. During those two days at Harsh Nick arranged with the former mistress of his fate the conditions, as they might be called, under which she should sit to him; and every one will remember in how recent an exhibition general attention was attracted, as the newspapers said in describing the private view, to the noble portrait of a lady which was the final outcome of that arrangement. Gabriel Nash had been at many a private view, but he was not at that one.

These matters are highly recent, however, as I say; so that in glancing about the little circle of the interests I have tried to evoke I am suddenly warned by a sharp sense of modernness. This renders it difficult to me, for instance, in taking leave of our wonderful Miriam, to do much more than allude to the general impression that her remarkable career is even yet only in its early prime. Basil Dashwood has got his theatre, and his wife — people know now she is his wife — has added three or four new parts to her repertory; but every one is agreed that both in public and in private she has a great deal more to show. This is equally true of Nick Dormer, in regard to whom I may finally say that his friend Nash’s predictions about his reunion with Mrs. Dallow have not up to this time been justified. On the other hand, I must not omit to add, this lady has not, at the latest accounts, married Mr. Macgeorge. It is very true there has been a rumour that Mr. Macgeorge is worried about her — has even ceased at all fondly to believe in her.

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