The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

BOOK SECOND

VII

Peter Sherringham reminded Nick the next day that he had promised to be present at Madame Carré‘s interview with the ladies introduced to her by Gabriel Nash; and in the afternoon, conformably to this arrangement, the two men took their way to the Rue de Constantinople. They found Mr. Nash and his friends in the small beflounced drawing-room of the old actress, who, as they learned, had sent in a request for ten minutes’ grace, having been detained at a lesson — a rehearsal of the comédie de salon about to be given for a charity by a fine lady, at which she had consented to be present as an adviser. Mrs. Rooth sat on a black satin sofa with her daughter beside her while Gabriel Nash, wandering about the room, looked at the votive offerings which converted the little panelled box, decorated in sallow white and gold, into a theatrical museum: the presents, the portraits, the wreaths, the diadems, the letters, framed and glazed, the trophies and tributes and relics collected by Madame Carré during half a century of renown. The profusion of this testimony was hardly more striking than the confession of something missed, something hushed, which seemed to rise from it all and make it melancholy, like a reference to clappings which, in the nature of things, could now only be present as a silence: so that if the place was full of history it was the form without the fact, or at the most a redundancy of the one to a pinch of the other — the history of a mask, of a squeak, of a series of vain gestures.

Some of the objects exhibited by the distinguished artist, her early portraits, in lithograph or miniature, represented the costume and embodied the manner of a period so remote that Nick Dormer, as he glanced at them, felt a quickened curiosity to look at the woman who reconciled being alive today with having been alive so long ago. Peter Sherringham already knew how she managed this miracle, but every visit he paid her added to his amused, charmed sense that it was a miracle and that his extraordinary old friend had seen things he should never, never see. Those were just the things he wanted to see most, and her duration, her survival, cheated him agreeably and helped him a little to guess them. His appreciation of the actor’s art was so systematic that it had an antiquarian side, and at the risk of representing him as attached to an absurd futility it must be said that he had as yet hardly known a keener regret for anything than for the loss of that antecedent world, and in particular for his having belatedly missed the great comédienne, the light of the French stage in the early years of the century, of whose example and instruction Madame Carré had had the inestimable benefit. She had often described to him her rare predecessor, straight from whose hands she had received her most celebrated parts and of whom her own manner was often a religious imitation; but her descriptions troubled him more than they consoled, only confirming his theory, to which so much of his observation had already ministered, that the actor’s art in general was going down and down, descending a slope with abysses of vulgarity at its foot, after having reached its perfection, more than fifty years ago, in the talent of the lady in question. He would have liked to dwell for an hour beneath the meridian.

Gabriel Nash introduced the new-comers to his companions; but the younger of the two ladies gave no sign of lending herself to this transaction. The girl was very white; she huddled there, silent and rigid, frightened to death, staring, expressionless. If Bridget Dormer had seen her at this moment she might have felt avenged for the discomfiture of her own spirit suffered at the Salon, the day before, under the challenging eyes of Maud Vavasour. It was plain at the present hour that Miss Vavasour would have run away had she not regarded the persons present as so many guards and keepers. Her appearance made Nick feel as if the little temple of art in which they were collected had been the waiting-room of a dentist. Sherringham had seen a great many nervous girls tremble before the same ordeal, and he liked to be kind to them, to say things that would help them to do themselves justice. The probability in a given case was almost overwhelmingly in favour of their having any other talent one could think of in a higher degree than the dramatic; but he could rarely refrain from some care that the occasion shouldn’t be, even as against his conscience, too cruel. There were occasions indeed that could scarce be too cruel to punish properly certain examples of presumptuous ineptitude. He remembered what Mr. Nash had said about this blighted maiden, and perceived that though she might be inept she was now anything but presumptuous. Gabriel fell to talking with Nick Dormer while Peter addressed himself to Mrs. Rooth. There was no use as yet for any direct word to the girl, who was too scared even to hear. Mrs. Rooth, with her shawl fluttering about her, nestled against her daughter, putting out her hand to take one of Miriam’s soothingly. She had pretty, silly, near-sighted eyes, a long thin nose, and an upper lip which projected over the under as an ornamental cornice rests on its support. “So much depends — really everything!” she said in answer to some sociable observation of Sherringham’s. “It’s either this,” and she rolled her eyes expressively about the room, “or it’s — I don’t know what!”

“Perhaps we’re too many,” Peter hazarded to her daughter. “But really you’ll find, after you fairly begin, that you’ll do better with four or five.”

Before she answered she turned her head and lifted her fine eyes. The next instant he saw they were full of tears. The words she spoke, however, though uttered as if she had tapped a silver gong, had not the note of sensibility: “Oh, I don’t care for you!” He laughed at this, declared it was very well said and that if she could give Madame Carré such a specimen as that ——! The actress came in before he had finished his phrase, and he observed the way the girl ruefully rose to the encounter, hanging her head a little and looking out from under her brows. There was no sentiment in her face — only a vacancy of awe and anguish which had not even the merit of being fine of its kind, for it spoke of no spring of reaction. Yet the head was good, he noted at the same moment; it was strong and salient and made to tell at a distance. Madame Carré scarcely heeded her at first, greeting her only in her order among the others and pointing to seats, composing the circle with smiles and gestures, as if they were all before the prompter’s box. The old actress presented herself to a casual glance as a red-faced, raddled woman in a wig, with beady eyes, a hooked nose, and pretty hands; but Nick Dormer, who had a sense for the over-scored human surface, soon observed that these comparatively gross marks included a great deal of delicate detail — an eyebrow, a nostril, a flitting of expressions, as if a multitude of little facial wires were pulled from within. This accomplished artist had in particular a mouth which was visibly a rare instrument, a pair of lips whose curves and fine corners spoke of a lifetime of “points” unerringly made and verses exquisitely spoken, helping to explain the purity of the sound that issued from them. Her whole countenance had the look of long service — of a thing infinitely worn and used, drawn and stretched to excess, with its elasticity overdone and its springs relaxed, yet religiously preserved and kept in repair, even as some valuable old timepiece which might have quivered and rumbled but could be trusted to strike the hour. At the first words she spoke Gabriel Nash exclaimed endearingly: “Ah la voix de Célimène!“ Célimène, who wore a big red flower on the summit of her dense wig, had a very grand air, a toss of the head, and sundry little majesties of manner; in addition to which she was strange, almost grotesque, and to some people would have been even terrifying, capable of reappearing, with her hard eyes, as a queer vision of the darkness. She excused herself for having made the company wait, and mouthed and mimicked in the drollest way, with intonations as fine as a flute, the performance and the pretensions of the belles dames to whom she had just been endeavouring to communicate a few of the rudiments. “Mais celles-là, c’est une plaisanterie,“ she went on to Mrs. Rooth; “whereas you and your daughter, chère madame — I’m sure you are quite another matter.”

The girl had got rid of her tears, and was gazing at her, and Mrs. Rooth leaned forward and said portentously: “She knows four languages.”

Madame Carré gave one of her histrionic stares, throwing back her head. “That’s three too many. The thing’s to do something proper with one.”

“We’re very much in earnest,” continued Mrs. Rooth, who spoke excellent French.

“I’m glad to hear it — il n’y a que ça. La tête est bien — the head’s very good,” she said as she looked at the girl. “But let us see, my dear child, what you’ve got in it!” The young lady was still powerless to speak; she opened her lips, but nothing came. With the failure of this effort she turned her deep sombre eyes to the three men. “Un beau regard — it carries well.” Madame Carré further commented. But even as she spoke Miss Rooth’s fine gaze was suffused again and the next moment she had definitely begun to weep. Nick Dormer sprung up; he felt embarrassed and intrusive — there was such an indelicacy in sitting there to watch a poor working-girl’s struggle with timidity. There was a momentary confusion; Mrs. Rooth’s tears were seen also to flow; Mr. Nash took it gaily, addressing, however, at the same time, the friendliest, most familiar encouragement to his companions, and Peter Sherringham offered to retire with Nick on the spot, should their presence incommode the young lady. But the agitation was over in a minute; Madame Carré motioned Mrs. Rooth out of her seat and took her place beside the girl, and Nash explained judiciously to the other men that she’d be worse should they leave her. Her mother begged them to remain, “so that there should be at least some English”; she spoke as if the old actress were an army of Frenchwomen. The young heroine of the occasion quickly came round, and Madame Carré, on the sofa beside her, held her hand and emitted a perfect music of reassurance. “The nerves, the nerves — they’re half our affair. Have as many as you like, if you’ve got something else too. Voyons — do you know anything?”

“I know some pieces.”

“Some pieces of the répertoire?”

Miriam Rooth stared as if she didn’t understand. “I know some poetry.”

“English, French, Italian, German,” said her mother.

Madame Carré gave Mrs. Rooth a look which expressed irritation at the recurrence of this announcement. “Does she wish to act in all those tongues? The phrase-book isn’t the comedy!”

“It’s only to show you how she has been educated.”

“Ah, chère madame, there’s no education that matters! I mean save the right one. Your daughter must have a particular form of speech, like me, like ces messieurs.”

“You see if I can speak French,” said the girl, smiling dimly at her hostess. She appeared now almost to have collected herself.

“You speak it in perfection.”

“And English just as well,” said Miss Rooth.

“You oughtn’t to be an actress — you ought to be a governess.”

“Oh don’t tell us that: it’s to escape from that!” pleaded Mrs. Rooth.

“I’m very sure your daughter will escape from that,” Peter Sherringham was moved to interpose.

“Oh if you could help her!” said the lady with a world of longing.

“She has certainly all the qualities that strike the eye,” Peter returned.

“You’re most kind, sir!” Mrs. Rooth declared, elegantly draping herself.

“She knows Célimène; I’ve heard her do Célimène,” Gabriel Nash said to Madame Carré”.

“And she knows Juliet, she knows Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra,” added Mrs. Rooth.

Voyons, my dear child, do you wish to work for the French stage or for the English?” the old actress demanded.

“Ours would have sore need of you, Miss Rooth,” Sherringham gallantly threw off.

“Could you speak to any one in London — could you introduce her?” her mother eagerly asked.

“Dear madam, I must hear her first, and hear what Madame Carré says.”

“She has a voice of rare beauty, and I understand voices,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“Ah then if she has intelligence she has every gift.”

“She has a most poetic mind,” the old lady went on.

“I should like to paint her portrait; she’s made for that,” Nick Dormer ventured to observe to Mrs. Rooth; partly because struck with the girl’s suitability for sitting, partly to mitigate the crudity of inexpressive spectatorship.

“So all the artists say. I’ve had three or four heads of her, if you would like to see them: she has been done in several styles. If you were to do her I’m sure it would make her celebrated.”

“And me too,” Nick easily laughed.

“It would indeed — a member of Parliament!” Nash declared.

“Ah, I have the honour ——?” murmured Mrs. Rooth, looking gratified and mystified.

Nick explained that she had no honour at all, and meanwhile Madame Carré had been questioning the girl “Chère madame, I can do nothing with your daughter: she knows too much!” she broke out. “It’s a pity, because I like to catch them wild.”

“Oh she’s wild enough, if that’s all! And that’s the very point, the question of where to try,” Mrs. Rooth went on. “Into what do I launch her — upon what dangerous stormy sea? I’ve thought of it so anxiously.”

“Try here — try the French public: they’re so much the most serious,” said Gabriel Nash.

“Ah no, try the English: there’s such a rare opening!” Sherringham urged in quick opposition.

“Oh it isn’t the public, dear gentlemen. It’s the private side, the other people — it’s the life, it’s the moral atmosphere.”

Je ne connais qu’une scène — la nôtre,” Madame Carré declared. “I’m assured by every one who knows that there’s no other.”

“Very correctly assured,” said Mr. Nash. “The theatre in our countries is puerile and barbarous.”

“There’s something to be done for it, and perhaps mademoiselle’s the person to do it,” Sherringham contentiously suggested.

“Ah but, en attendant, what can it do for her?” Madame Carré asked.

“Well, anything I can help to bring about,” said Peter Sherringham, more and more struck with the girl’s rich type. Miriam Rooth sat in silence while this discussion went on, looking from one speaker to the other with a strange dependent candour.

“Ah, if your part’s marked out I congratulate you, mademoiselle!”— and the old actress underlined the words as she had often underlined others on the stage. She smiled with large permissiveness on the young aspirant, who appeared not to understand her. Her tone penetrated, however, to certain depths in the mother’s nature, adding another stir to agitated waters.

“I feel the responsibility of what she shall find in the life, the standards, of the theatre,” Mrs. Rooth explained. “Where is the purest tone — where are the highest standards? That’s what I ask,” the good lady continued with a misguided intensity which elicited a peal of unceremonious but sociable laughter from Gabriel Nash.

“The purest tone — qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?” Madame Carré demanded in the finest manner of modern comedy.

“We’re very, very respectable,” Mrs. Rooth went on, but now smiling and achieving lightness too.

“What I want is to place my daughter where the conduct — and the picture of conduct in which she should take part — wouldn’t be quite absolutely dreadful. Now, chère madame, how about all that; how about conduct in the French theatre — all the things she should see, the things she should hear, the things she should learn?”

Her hostess took it, as Sherringham felt, de très-haut. “I don’t think I know what you’re talking about. They’re the things she may see and hear and learn everywhere; only they’re better done, they’re better said, above all they’re better taught. The only conduct that concerns an, actress, it seems to me, is her own, and the only way for her to behave herself is not to be a helpless stick. I know no other conduct.”

“But there are characters, there are situations, which I don’t think I should like to see her undertake.”

“There are many, no doubt, which she would do well to leave alone!” laughed the Frenchwoman.

“I shouldn’t like to see her represent a very bad woman — a really bad one,” Mrs. Rooth serenely pursued.

“Ah in England then, and in your theatre, every one’s immaculately good? Your plays must be even more ingenious than I supposed!”

“We haven’t any plays,” said Gabriel Nash.

“People will write them for Miss Rooth — it will be a new era,” Sherringham threw in with wanton, or at least with combative, optimism.

“Will you, sir — will you do something? A sketch of one of our grand English ideals?” the old lady asked engagingly.

“Oh I know what you do with our pieces — to show your superior virtue!” Madame Carré cried before he had time to reply that he wrote nothing but diplomatic memoranda. “Bad women? Je n’ai joué que ça, madame. ‘Really’ bad? I tried to make them real!”

“I can say ‘L’Aventurière,’” Miriam interrupted in a cold voice which seemed to hint at a want of participation in the maternal solicitudes.

“Allow us the pleasure of hearing you then. Madame Carré will give you the réplique,” said Peter Sherringham.

“Certainly, my child; I can say it without the book,” Madame Carré responded. “Put yourself there — move that chair a little away.” She patted her young visitor, encouraging her to rise, settling with her the scene they should take, while the three men sprang up to arrange a place for the performance. Miriam left her seat and looked vaguely about her; then having taken off her hat and given it to her mother she stood on the designated spot with her eyes to the ground. Abruptly, however, instead of beginning the scene, Madame Carré turned to the elder lady with an air which showed that a rejoinder to this visitor’s remarks of a moment before had been gathering force in her breast.

“You mix things up, chère madame, and I have it on my heart to tell you so. I believe it’s rather the case with you other English, and I’ve never been able to learn that either your morality or your talent is the gainer by it. To be too respectable to go where things are done best is in my opinion to be very vicious indeed; and to do them badly in order to preserve your virtue is to fall into a grossness more shocking than any other. To do them well is virtue enough, and not to make a mess of it the only respectability. That’s hard enough to merit Paradise. Everything else is base humbug! Voilà, chère madame, the answer I have for your scruples!”

“It’s admirable — admirable; and I am glad my friend Dormer here has had the great advantage of hearing you utter it!” Nash exclaimed with a free designation of Nick.

That young man thought it in effect a speech denoting an intelligence of the question, yet he rather resented the idea that Gabriel should assume it would strike him as a revelation; and to show his familiarity with the line of thought it indicated, as well as to play his part appreciatively in the little circle, he observed to Mrs. Rooth, as if they might take many things for granted: “In other words, your daughter must find her safeguard in the artistic conscience.” But he had no sooner spoken than he was struck with the oddity of their discussing so publicly, and under the poor girl’s handsome nose, the conditions which Miss Rooth might find the best for the preservation of her personal integrity. However, the anomaly was light and unoppressive — the echoes of a public discussion of delicate questions seemed to linger so familiarly in the egotistical little room. Moreover, the heroine of the occasion evidently was losing her embarrassment; she was the priestess on the tripod, awaiting the afflatus and thinking only of that. Her bared head, of which she had changed the position, holding it erect, while her arms hung at her sides, was admirable; her eyes gazed straight out of the window and at the houses on the opposite side of the Rue de Constantinople.

Mrs. Rooth had listened to Madame Carré with startled, respectful attention, but Nick, considering her, was very sure she hadn’t at all taken in the great artist’s little lesson. Yet this didn’t prevent her from exclaiming in answer to himself: “Oh a fine artistic life — what indeed is more beautiful?”

Peter Sherringham had said nothing; he was watching Miriam and her attitude. She wore a black dress which fell in straight folds; her face, under her level brows, was pale and regular — it had a strange, strong, tragic beauty. “I don’t know what’s in her,” he said to himself; “nothing, it would seem, from her persistent vacancy. But such a face as that, such a head, is a fortune!” Madame Carré brought her to book, giving her the first line of the speech of Clorinde: “Vous ne me fuyez pas, mon enfant, aujourd’hui.” But still the girl hesitated, and for an instant appeared to make a vain, convulsive effort. In this convulsion she frowned portentously; her low forehead overhung her eyes; the eyes themselves, in shadow, stared, splendid and cold, and her hands clinched themselves at her sides. She looked austere and terrible and was during this moment an incarnation the vividness of which drew from Sherringham a stifled cry. “Elle est bien belle — ah ça,” murmured the old actress; and in the pause which still preceded the issue of sound from the girl’s lips Peter turned to his kinsman and said in a low tone: “You must paint her just like that.”

“Like that?”

“As the Tragic Muse.”

She began to speak; a long, strong, colourless voice quavered in her young throat. She delivered the lines of Clorinde in the admired interview with Célie, the gem of the third act, with a rude monotony, and then, gaining confidence, with an effort at modulation which was not altogether successful and which evidently she felt not to be so. Madame Carré sent back the ball without raising her hand, repeating the speeches of Célie, which her memory possessed from their having so often been addressed to her, and uttering the verses with soft, communicative art. So they went on through the scene, which, when it was over, had not precisely been a triumph for Miriam Rooth. Sherringham forbore to look at Gabriel Nash, and Madame Carré said: “I think you’ve a voice, ma fille, somewhere or other. We must try and put our hand on it.” Then she asked her what instruction she had had, and the girl, lifting her eyebrows, looked at her mother while her mother prompted her.

“Mrs. Delamere in London; she was once an ornament of the English stage. She gives lessons just to a very few; it’s a great favour. Such a very nice person! But above all, Signor Ruggieri — I think he taught us most.” Mrs. Rooth explained that this gentleman was an Italian tragedian, in Rome, who instructed Miriam in the proper manner of pronouncing his language and also in the art of declaiming and gesticulating.

“Gesticulating I’ll warrant!” declared their hostess. “They mimic as for the deaf, they emphasise as for the blind. Mrs. Delamere is doubtless an epitome of all the virtues, but I never heard of her. You travel too much,” Madame Carré went on; “that’s very amusing, but the way to study is to stay at home, to shut yourself up and hammer at your scales.” Mrs. Rooth complained that they had no home to stay at; in reply to which the old actress exclaimed: “Oh you English, you’re d’une légèreté à faire frémir. If you haven’t a home you must make, or at least for decency pretend to, one. In our profession it’s the first requisite.”

“But where? That’s what I ask!” said Mrs. Rooth.

“Why not here?” Sherringham threw out.

“Oh here!” And the good lady shook her head with a world of sad significance.

“Come and live in London and then I shall be able to paint your daughter,” Nick Dormer interposed.

“Is that all it will take, my dear fellow?” asked Gabriel Nash.

“Ah, London’s full of memories,” Mrs. Rooth went on. “My father had a great house there — we always came up. But all that’s over.”

“Study here and then go to London to appear,” said Peter, feeling frivolous even as he spoke.

“To appear in French?”

“No, in the language of Shakespeare.”

“But we can’t study that here.”

“Mr. Sherringham means that he will give you lessons,” Madame Carré explained. “Let me not fail to say it — he’s an excellent critic.”

“How do you know that — you who’re beyond criticism and perfect?” asked Sherringham: an inquiry to which the answer was forestalled by the girl’s rousing herself to make it public that she could recite the “Nights” of Alfred de Musset.

“Diable!” said the actress: “that’s more than I can! By all means give us a specimen.”

The girl again placed herself in position and rolled out a fragment of one of the splendid conversations of Musset’s poet with his muse — rolled it loudly and proudly, tossed it and tumbled it about the room. Madame Carré watched her at first, but after a few moments she shut her eyes, though the best part of the business was to take in her young candidate’s beauty. Sherringham had supposed Miriam rather abashed by the flatness of her first performance, but he now saw how little she could have been aware of this: she was rather uplifted and emboldened. She made a mush of the divine verses, which in spite of certain sonorities and cadences, an evident effort to imitate a celebrated actress, a comrade of Madame Carré, whom she had heard declaim them, she produced as if she had been dashing blindfold at some playfellow she was to “catch.” When she had finished Madame Carré passed no judgement, only dropping: “Perhaps you had better say something English.” She suggested some little piece of verse — some fable if there were fables in English. She appeared but scantily surprised to hear that there were not — it was a language of which one expected so little. Mrs. Rooth said: “She knows her Tennyson by heart. I think he’s much deeper than La Fontaine”; and after some deliberation and delay Miriam broke into “The Lotus–Eaters,” from which she passed directly, almost breathlessly, to “Edward Gray.” Sherringham had by this time heard her make four different attempts, and the only generalisation very present to him was that she uttered these dissimilar compositions in exactly the same tone — a solemn, droning, dragging measure suggestive of an exhortation from the pulpit and adopted evidently with the “affecting” intention and from a crude idea of “style.” It was all funereal, yet was artlessly rough. Sherringham thought her English performance less futile than her French, but he could see that Madame Carré listened to it even with less pleasure. In the way the girl wailed forth some of her Tennysonian lines he detected a faint gleam as of something pearly in deep water. But the further she went the more violently she acted on the nerves of Mr. Gabriel Nash: that also he could discover from the way this gentleman ended by slipping discreetly to the window and leaning there with his head out and his back to the exhibition. He had the art of mute expression; his attitude said as clearly as possible: “No, no, you can’t call me either ill-mannered or ill-natured. I’m the showman of the occasion, moreover, and I avert myself, leaving you to judge. If there’s a thing in life I hate it’s this idiotic new fashion of the drawing-room recitation and of the insufferable creatures who practise it, who prevent conversation, and whom, as they’re beneath it, you can’t punish by criticism. Therefore what I’m doing’s only too magnanimous — bringing these benighted women here, paying with my person, stifling my just repugnance.”

While Sherringham judged privately that the manner in which Miss Rooth had acquitted herself offered no element of interest, he yet remained aware that something surmounted and survived her failure, something that would perhaps be worth his curiosity. It was the element of outline and attitude, the way she stood, the way she turned her eyes, her head, and moved her limbs. These things held the attention; they had a natural authority and, in spite of their suggesting too much the school-girl in the tableau-vivant, a “plastic” grandeur. Her face, moreover, grew as he watched it; something delicate dawned in it, a dim promise of variety and a touching plea for patience, as if it were conscious of being able to show in time more shades than the simple and striking gloom which had as yet mainly graced it. These rather rude physical felicities formed in short her only mark of a vocation. He almost hated to have to recognise them; he had seen them so often when they meant nothing at all that he had come at last to regard them as almost a guarantee of incompetence. He knew Madame Carré valued them singly so little that she counted them out in measuring an histrionic nature; when deprived of the escort of other properties which helped and completed them she almost held them a positive hindrance to success — success of the only kind she esteemed. Far oftener than himself she had sat in judgement on young women for whom hair and eyebrows and a disposition for the statuesque would have worked the miracle of sanctifying their stupidity if the miracle were workable. But that particular miracle never was. The qualities she rated highest were not the gifts but the conquests, the effects the actor had worked hard for, had dug out of the mine by unwearied study. Sherringham remembered to have had in the early part of their acquaintance a friendly dispute with her on this subject, he having been moved at that time to defend doubtless to excess the cause of the gifts. She had gone so far as to say that a serious comedian ought to be ashamed of them — ashamed of resting his case on them; and when Sherringham had cited the great Rachel as a player whose natural endowment was rich and who had owed her highest triumphs to it, she had declared that Rachel was the very instance that proved her point; — a talent assisted by one or two primary aids, a voice and a portentous brow, but essentially formed by work, unremitting and ferocious work. “I don’t care a straw for your handsome girls,” she said; “but bring me one who’s ready to drudge the tenth part of the way Rachel drudged, and I’ll forgive her her beauty. Of course, notez bien, Rachel wasn’t a grosse bête: that’s a gift if you like!”

Mrs. Rooth, who was evidently very proud of the figure her daughter had made — her daughter who for all one could tell affected their hostess precisely as a grosse bête — appealed to Madame Carré rashly and serenely for a verdict; but fortunately this lady’s voluble bonne came rattling in at the same moment with the tea-tray. The old actress busied herself in dispensing this refreshment, an hospitable attention to her English visitors, and under cover of the diversion thus obtained, while the others talked together, Sherringham put her the question: “Well, is there anything in my young friend?”

“Nothing I can see. She’s loud and coarse.”

“She’s very much afraid. You must allow for that.”

“Afraid of me, immensely, but not a bit afraid of her authors — nor of you!” Madame Carré smiled.

“Aren’t you prejudiced by what that fellow Nash has told you?”

“Why prejudiced? He only told me she was very handsome.”

“And don’t you think her so?”

“Admirable. But I’m not a photographer nor a dressmaker nor a coiffeur. I can’t do anything with ‘back hair’ nor with a mere big stare.”

“The head’s very noble,” said Peter Sherringham. “And the voice, when she spoke English, had some sweet tones.”

“Ah your English — possibly! All I can say is that I listened to her conscientiously, and I didn’t perceive in what she did a single nuance, a single inflexion or intention. But not one, mon cher. I don’t think she’s intelligent.”

“But don’t they often seem stupid at first?”

“Say always!”

“Then don’t some succeed — even when they’re handsome?”

“When they’re handsome they always succeed — in one way or another.”

“You don’t understand us English,” said Peter Sherringham.

Madame Carré drank her tea; then she replied: “Marry her, my son, and give her diamonds. Make her an ambassadress; she’ll look very well.”

“She interests you so little that you don’t care to do anything for her?”

“To do anything?”

“To give her a few lessons.”

The old actress looked at him a moment; after which, rising from her place near the table on which the tea had been served, she said to Miriam Rooth: “My dear child, I give my voice for the scène anglaise. You did the English things best.”

“Did I do them well?” asked the girl.

“You’ve a great deal to learn; but you’ve rude force. The main things sont encore a dégager, but they’ll come. You must work.”

“I think she has ideas,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“She gets them from you,” Madame Carré replied.

“I must say that if it’s to be our theatre I’m relieved. I do think ours safer,” the good lady continued.

“Ours is dangerous, no doubt.”

“You mean you’re more severe,” said the girl.

“Your mother’s right,” the actress smiled; “you have ideas.”

“But what shall we do then — how shall we proceed?” Mrs. Rooth made this appeal, plaintively and vaguely, to the three gentlemen; but they had collected a few steps off and were so occupied in talk that it failed to reach them.

“Work — work — work!” exclaimed the actress.

“In English I can play Shakespeare. I want to play Shakespeare,” Miriam made known.

“That’s fortunate, as in English you haven’t any one else to play.”

“But he’s so great — and he’s so pure!” said Mrs. Rooth.

“That indeed seems the saving of you,” Madame Carré returned.

“You think me actually pretty bad, don’t you?” the girl demanded with her serious face.

Mon Dieu, que vous dirai-je? Of course you’re rough; but so was I at your age. And if you find your voice it may carry you far. Besides, what does it matter what I think? How can I judge for your English public?”

“How shall I find my voice?” asked Miriam Rooth.

“By trying. Il n’y a que ça. Work like a horse, night and day. Besides, Mr. Sherringham, as he says, will help you.”

That gentleman, hearing his name, turned round and the girl appealed to him. “Will you help me really?”

“To find her voice,” said Madame Carré.

“The voice, when it’s worth anything, comes from the heart; so I suppose that’s where to look for it,” Gabriel Nash suggested.

“Much you know; you haven’t got any!” Miriam retorted with the first scintillation of gaiety she had shown on this occasion.

“Any voice, my child?” Mr. Nash inquired.

“Any heart — or any manners!”

Peter Sherringham made the secret reflexion that he liked her better lugubrious, as the note of pertness was not totally absent from her mode of emitting these few words. He was irritated, moreover, for in the brief conference he had just had with the young lady’s introducer he had had to meet the rather difficult call of speaking of her hopefully. Mr. Nash had said with his bland smile, “And what impression does my young friend make?”— in respect to which Peter’s optimism felt engaged by an awkward logic. He answered that he recognised promise, though he did nothing of the sort; — at the same time that the poor girl, both with the exaggerated “points” of her person and the vanity of her attempt at expression, constituted a kind of challenge, struck him as a subject for inquiry, a problem, an explorable tract. She was too bad to jump at and yet too “taking”— perhaps after all only vulgarly — to overlook, especially when resting her tragic eyes on him with the trust of her deep “Really?” This note affected him as addressed directly to his honour, giving him a chance to brave verisimilitude, to brave ridicule even a little, in order to show in a special case what he had always maintained in general, that the direction of a young person’s studies for the stage may be an interest of as high an order as any other artistic appeal.

“Mr. Nash has rendered us the great service of introducing us to Madame Carré, and I’m sure we’re immensely indebted to him,” Mrs. Rooth said to her daughter with an air affectionately corrective.

“But what good does that do us?” the girl asked, smiling at the actress and gently laying her finger-tips upon her hand. “Madame Carré listens to me with adorable patience, and then sends me about my business — ah in the prettiest way in the world.”

“Mademoiselle, you’re not so rough; the tone of that’s very juste. A la bonne heure; work — work!” the actress cried. “There was an inflexion there — or very nearly. Practise it till you’ve got it.”

“Come and practise it to me, if your mother will be so kind as to bring you,” said Peter Sherringham.

“Do you give lessons — do you understand?” Miriam asked.

“I’m an old play-goer and I’ve an unbounded belief in my own judgement.”

“‘Old,’ sir, is too much to say,” Mrs. Rooth remonstrated. “My daughter knows your high position, but she’s very direct. You’ll always find her so. Perhaps you’ll say there are less honourable faults. We’ll come to see you with pleasure. Oh I’ve been at the embassy when I was her age. Therefore why shouldn’t she go today? That was in Lord Davenant’s time.”

“A few people are coming to tea with me tomorrow. Perhaps you’ll come then at five o’clock.”

“It will remind me of the dear old times,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“Thank you; I’ll try and do better tomorrow,” Miriam professed very sweetly.

“You do better every minute!” Sherringham returned — and he looked at their hostess in support of this declaration.

“She’s finding her voice,” Madame Carré acknowledged.

“She’s finding a friend!” Mrs. Rooth threw in.

“And don’t forget, when you come to London, my hope that you’ll come and see me,” Nick Dormer said to the girl. “To try and paint you — that would do me good!”

“She’s finding even two,” said Madame Carré.

“It’s to make up for one I’ve lost!” And Miriam looked with very good stage-scorn at Gabriel Nash. “It’s he who thinks I’m bad.”

“You say that to make me drive you home; you know it will,” Nash returned.

“We’ll all take you home; why not?” Sherringham asked.

Madame Carré looked at the handsome girl, handsomer than ever at this moment, and at the three young men who had taken their hats and stood ready to accompany her. A deeper expression came for an instant into her hard, bright eyes. “Ah la jeunesse!” she sighed. “You’d always have that, my child, if you were the greatest goose on earth!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/henry/j2tr/chapter7.html

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