The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


The summer arrived and the dense air of the Paris theatres became in fact a still more complicated mixture; yet the occasions were not few on which Sherringham, having placed a box near the stage (most often a stuffy, dusky baignoire) at the disposal of Mrs. Rooth and her daughter, found time just to look in, as he said, to spend a part of the evening with them and point the moral of the performance. The pieces, the successes of the winter, had entered the automatic phase: they went on by the force of the impetus acquired, deriving little fresh life from the interpretation, and in ordinary conditions their strong points, as rendered by the actors, would have been as wearisome to this student as an importunate repetition of a good story. But it was not long before he became aware that the conditions couldn’t be taken for ordinary. There was a new infusion in his consciousness — an element in his life which altered the relations of things. He was not easy till he had found the right name for it — a name the more satisfactory that it was simple, comprehensive, and plausible. A new “distraction,” in the French sense, was what he flattered himself he had discovered; he could recognise that as freely as possible without being obliged to classify the agreeable resource as a new entanglement. He was neither too much nor too little diverted; he had all his usual attention to give to his work: he had only an employment for his odd hours which, without being imperative, had over various others the advantage of a certain continuity.

And yet, I hasten to add, he was not so well pleased with it but that among his friends he maintained for the present a rich reserve about it. He had no irresistible impulse to describe generally how he had disinterred a strange, handsome girl whom he was bringing up for the theatre. She had been seen by several of his associates at his rooms, but was not soon to be seen there again. His reserve might by the ill-natured have been termed dissimulation, inasmuch as when asked by the ladies of the embassy what had become of the young person who had amused them that day so cleverly he gave it out that her whereabouts was uncertain and her destiny probably obscure; he let it be supposed in a word that his benevolence had scarcely survived an accidental, a charitable occasion. As he went about his customary business, and perhaps even put a little more conscience into the transaction of it, there was nothing to suggest to others that he was engaged in a private speculation of an absorbing kind. It was perhaps his weakness that he carried the apprehension of ridicule too far; but his excuse may have dwelt in his holding it unpardonable for a man publicly enrolled in the service of his country to be markedly ridiculous. It was of course not out of all order that such functionaries, their private situation permitting, should enjoy a personal acquaintance with stars of the dramatic, the lyric, or even the choregraphic stage: high diplomatists had indeed not rarely, and not invisibly, cultivated this privilege without its proving the sepulchre of their reputation. That a gentleman who was not a fool should consent a little to become one for the sake of a celebrated actress or singer — cela s’était vu, though it was not perhaps to be recommended. It was not a tendency that was encouraged at headquarters, where even the most rising young men were not incited to believe they could never fall. Still, it might pass if kept in its place; and there were ancient worthies yet in the profession — though not those whom the tradition had helped to go furthest — who held that something of the sort was a graceful ornament of the diplomatic character. Sherringham was aware he was very “rising”; but Miriam Rooth was not yet a celebrated actress. She was only a young artist in conscientious process of formation and encumbered with a mother still more conscientious than herself. She was a jeune Anglaise — a “lady” withal — very earnest about artistic, about remunerative problems. He had accepted the office of a formative influence; and that was precisely what might provoke derision. He was a ministering angel — his patience and good nature really entitled him to the epithet and his rewards would doubtless some day define themselves; but meanwhile other promotions were in precarious prospect, for the failure of which these would not even in their abundance, be a compensation. He kept an unembarrassed eye on Downing Street, and while it may frankly be said for him that he was neither a pedant nor a prig he remembered that the last impression he ought to wish to produce there was that of a futile estheticism.

He felt the case sufficiently important, however, when he sat behind Miriam at the play and looked over her shoulder at the stage; her observation being so keen and her comments so unexpected in their vivacity that his curiosity was refreshed and his attention stretched beyond its wont. If the exhibition before the footlights had now lost much of its annual brilliancy the fashion in which she followed it was perhaps exhibition enough. The attendance of the little party was, moreover, in most cases at the Théâtre Français; and it has been sufficiently indicated that our friend, though the child of a sceptical age and the votary of a cynical science, was still candid enough to take the serious, the religious view of that establishment the view of M. Sarcey and of the unregenerate provincial mind. “In the trade I follow we see things too much in the hard light of reason, of calculation,” he once remarked to his young charge; “but it’s good for the mind to keep up a superstition or two; it leaves a margin — like having a second horse to your brougham for night-work. The arts, the amusements, the esthetic part of life, are night-work, if I may say so without suggesting that they’re illicit. At any rate you want your second horse — your superstition that stays at home when the sun’s high — to go your rounds with. The Français is my second horse.”

Miriam’s appetite for this interest showed him vividly enough how rarely in the past it had been within her reach; and she pleased him at first by liking everything, seeing almost no differences and taking her deep draught undiluted. She leaned on the edge of the box with bright voracity; tasting to the core, yet relishing the surface, watching each movement of each actor, attending to the way each thing was said or done as if it were the most important thing, and emitting from time to time applausive or restrictive sounds. It was a charming show of the critical spirit in ecstasy. Sherringham had his wonder about it, as a part of the attraction exerted by this young lady was that she caused him to have his wonder about everything she did. Was it in fact a conscious show, a line taken for effect, so that at the Comédie her own display should be the most successful of all? That question danced attendance on the liberal intercourse of these young people and fortunately as yet did little to embitter Sherringham’s share of it. His general sense that she was personating had its especial moments of suspense and perplexity, and added variety and even occasionally a degree of excitement to their commerce. At the theatre, for the most part, she was really flushed with eagerness; and with the spectators who turned an admiring eye into the dim compartment of which she pervaded the front she might have passed for a romantic or at least an insatiable young woman from the country.

Mrs. Rooth took a more general view, but attended immensely to the story, in respect to which she manifested a patient good faith which had its surprises and its comicalities for her daughter’s patron. She found no play too tedious, no entr’acte too long, no baignoire too hot, no tissue of incidents too complicated, no situation too unnatural and no sentiments too sublime. She gave him the measure of her power to sit and sit — an accomplishment to which she owed in the struggle for existence such superiority as she might be said to have achieved. She could out-sit everybody and everything; looking as if she had acquired the practice in repeated years of small frugality combined with large leisure — periods when she had nothing but hours and days and years to spend and had learned to calculate in any situation how long she could stay. “Staying” was so often a saving — a saving of candles, of fire and even (as it sometimes implied a scheme for stray refection) of food. Peter saw soon enough how bravely her shreds and patches of gentility and equanimity hung together, with the aid of whatever casual pins and other makeshifts, and if he had been addicted to studying the human mixture in its different combinations would have found in her an interesting compendium of some of the infatuations that survive a hard discipline. He made indeed without difficulty the reflexion that her life might have taught her something of the real, at the same time that he could scarce help thinking it clever of her to have so persistently declined the lesson. She appeared to have put it by with a deprecating, ladylike smile — a plea of being too soft and bland for experience.

She took the refined, sentimental, tender view of the universe, beginning with her own history and feelings. She believed in everything high and pure, disinterested and orthodox, and even at the Hôtel de la Garonne was unconscious of the shabby or the ugly side of the world. She never despaired: otherwise what would have been the use of being a Neville–Nugent? Only not to have been one — that would have been discouraging. She delighted in novels, poems, perversions, misrepresentations, and evasions, and had a capacity for smooth, superfluous falsification which made our young man think her sometimes an amusing and sometimes a tedious inventor. But she wasn’t dangerous even if you believed her; she wasn’t even a warning if you didn’t. It was harsh to call her a hypocrite, since you never could have resolved her back into her character, there being no reverse at all to her blazonry. She built in the air and was not less amiable than she pretended, only that was a pretension too. She moved altogether in a world of elegant fable and fancy, and Sherringham had to live there with her for Miriam’s sake, live there in sociable, vulgar assent and despite his feeling it rather a low neighbourhood. He was at a loss how to take what she said — she talked sweetly and discursively of so many things — till he simply noted that he could only take it always for untrue. When Miriam laughed at her he was rather disagreeably affected: “dear mamma’s fine stories” was a sufficiently cynical reference to the immemorial infirmity of a parent. But when the girl backed her up, as he phrased it to himself, he liked that even less.

Mrs. Rooth was very fond of a moral and had never lost her taste for edification. She delighted in a beautiful character and was gratified to find so many more than she had supposed represented in the contemporary French drama. She never failed to direct Miriam’s attention to them and to remind her that there is nothing in life so grand as a sublime act, above all when sublimely explained. Peter made much of the difference between the mother and the daughter, thinking it singularly marked — the way one took everything for the sense, or behaved as if she did, caring only for the plot and the romance, the triumph or defeat of virtue and the moral comfort of it all, and the way the other was alive but to the manner and the art of it, the intensity of truth to appearances. Mrs. Rooth abounded in impressive evocations, and yet he saw no link between her facile genius and that of which Miriam gave symptoms. The poor lady never could have been accused of successful deceit, whereas the triumph of fraud was exactly what her clever child achieved. She made even the true seem fictive, while Miriam’s effort was to make the fictive true. Sherringham thought it an odd unpromising stock (that of the Neville–Nugents) for a dramatic talent to have sprung from, till he reflected that the evolution was after all natural: the figurative impulse in the mother had become conscious, and therefore higher, through finding an aim, which was beauty, in the daughter. Likely enough the Hebraic Mr. Rooth, with his love of old pots and Christian altar-cloths, had supplied in the girl’s composition the esthetic element, the sense of colour and form. In their visits to the theatre there was nothing Mrs. Rooth more insisted on than the unprofitableness of deceit, as shown by the most distinguished authors — the folly and degradation, the corrosive effect on the spirit, of tortuous ways. Their companion soon gave up the futile task of piecing together her incongruous references to her early life and her family in England. He renounced even the doctrine that there was a residuum of truth in her claim of great relationships, since, existent or not, he cared equally little for her ramifications. The principle of this indifference was at bottom a certain desire to disconnect and isolate Miriam; for it was disagreeable not to be independent in dealing with her, and he could be fully so only if she herself were.

The early weeks of that summer — they went on indeed into August — were destined to establish themselves in his memory as a season of pleasant things. The ambassador went away and Peter had to wait for his own holiday, which he did during the hot days contentedly enough — waited in spacious halls and a vast, dim, bird-haunted garden. The official world and most other worlds withdrew from Paris, and the Place de la Concorde, a larger, whiter desert than ever, became by a reversal of custom explorable with safety. The Champs Elysées were dusty and rural, with little creaking booths and exhibitions that made a noise like grasshoppers; the Arc de Triomphe threw its cool, thick shadow for a mile; the Palais de l’Industrie glittered in the light of the long days; the cabmen, in their red waistcoats, dozed inside their boxes, while Sherringham permitted himself a “pot” hat and rarely met a friend. Thus was Miriam as islanded as the chained Andromeda, and thus was it possible to deal with her, even Perseus-like, in deep detachment. The theatres on the boulevard closed for the most part, but the great temple of the Rue de Richelieu, with an esthetic responsibility, continued imperturbably to dispense examples of style. Madame Carré was going to Vichy, but had not yet taken flight, which was a great advantage for Miriam, who could now solicit her attention with the consciousness that she had no engagements en ville.

“I make her listen to me — I make her tell me,” said the ardent girl, who was always climbing the slope of the Rue de Constantinople on the shady side, where of July mornings a smell of violets came from the moist flower-stands of fat, white-capped bouquetières in the angles of doorways. Miriam liked the Paris of the summer mornings, the clever freshness of all the little trades and the open-air life, the cries, the talk from door to door, which reminded her of the south, where, in the multiplicity of her habitations, she had lived; and most of all, the great amusement, or nearly, of her walk, the enviable baskets of the laundress piled up with frilled and fluted whiteness — the certain luxury, she felt while she passed with quick prevision, of her own dawn of glory. The greatest amusement perhaps was to recognise the pretty sentiment of earliness, the particular congruity with the hour, in the studied, selected dress of the little tripping women who were taking the day, for important advantages, while it was tender. At any rate she mostly brought with her from her passage through the town good humour enough — with the penny bunch of violets she always stuck in the front of her dress — for whatever awaited her at Madame Carré‘s. She declared to her friend that her dear mistress was terribly severe, giving her the most difficult, the most exhausting exercises, showing a kind of rage for breaking her in.

“So much the better,” Sherringham duly answered; but he asked no questions and was glad to let the preceptress and the pupil fight it out together. He wanted for the moment to know as little as possible about their ways together: he had been over-dosed with that knowledge while attending at their second interview. He would send Madame Carré her money — she was really most obliging — and in the meantime was certain Miriam could take care of herself. Sometimes he remarked to her that she needn’t always talk “shop” to him: there were times when he was mortally tired of shop — of hers. Moreover, he frankly admitted that he was tired of his own, so that the restriction was not brutal. When she replied, staring, “Why, I thought you considered it as such a beautiful, interesting art!” he had no rejoinder more philosophic than “Well, I do; but there are moments when I’m quite sick of it all the same,” At other times he put it: “Oh yes, the results, the finished thing, the dish perfectly seasoned and served: not the mess of preparation — at least not always — not the experiments that spoil the material.”

“I supposed you to feel just these questions of study, of the artistic education, as you’ve called it to me, so fascinating,” the girl persisted. She was sometimes so flatly lucid.

“Well, after all, I’m not an actor myself,” he could but impatiently sigh.

“You might be one if you were serious,” she would imperturbably say. To this her friend replied that Mr. Gabriel Nash ought to hear this; which made her promise with a certain grimness that she would settle him and his theories some day. Not to seem too inconsistent — for it was cruel to bewilder her when he had taken her up to enlighten — Peter repeated over that for a man like himself the interest of the whole thing depended on its being considered in a large, liberal way and with an intelligence that lifted it out of the question of the little tricks of the trade, gave it beauty and elevation. But she hereupon let him know that Madame Carré held there were no little tricks, that everything had its importance as a means to a great end, and that if you were not willing to try to approfondir the reason why, in a given situation, you should scratch your nose with your left hand rather than with your right, you were not worthy to tread any stage that respected itself.

“That’s very well, but if I must go into details read me a little Shelley,” groaned the young man in the spirit of a high raffiné.

“You’re worse than Madame Carré; you don’t know what to invent; between you you’ll kill me!” the girl declared. “I think there’s a secret league between you to spoil my voice, or at least to weaken my souffle, before I get it. But à la guerre comme à la guerre! How can I read Shelley, however, when I don’t understand him?”

“That’s just what I want to make you do. It’s a part of your general training. You may do without that of course — without culture and taste and perception; but in that case you’ll be nothing but a vulgar cabotine, and nothing will be of any consequence.” He had a theory that the great lyric poets — he induced her to read, and recite as well, long passages of Wordsworth and Swinburne — would teach her many of the secrets of the large utterance, the mysteries of rhythm, the communicableness of style, the latent music of the language and the art of “composing” copious speeches and of retaining her stores of free breath. He held in perfect sincerity that there was a general sense of things, things of the mind, which would be of the highest importance to her and to which it was by good fortune just in his power to contribute. She would do better in proportion as she had more knowledge — even knowledge that might superficially show but a remote connexion with her business. The actor’s talent was essentially a gift, a thing by itself, implanted, instinctive, accidental, equally unconnected with intellect and with virtue — Sherringham was completely of that opinion; but it struck him as no bêtise to believe at the same time that intellect — leaving virtue for the moment out of the question — might be brought into fruitful relation with it. It would be a bigger thing if a better mind were projected upon it — projected without sacrificing the mind. So he lent his young friend books she never read — she was on almost irreconcilable terms with the printed page save for spouting it — and in the long summer days, when he had leisure, took her to the Louvre to admire the great works of painting and sculpture. Here, as on all occasions, he was struck with the queer jumble of her taste, her mixture of intelligence and puerility. He saw she never read what he gave her, though she sometimes would shamelessly have liked him to suppose so; but in the presence of famous pictures and statues she had remarkable flashes of perception. She felt these things, she liked them, though it was always because she had an idea she could use them. The belief was often presumptuous, but it showed what an eye she had to her business. “I could look just like that if I tried.” “That’s the dress I mean to wear when I do Portia.” Such were the observations apt to drop from her under the suggestion of antique marbles or when she stood before a Titian or a Bronzino.

When she uttered them, and many others besides, the effect was sometimes irritating to her adviser, who had to bethink himself a little that she was no more egotistical than the histrionic conscience required. He wondered if there were necessarily something vulgar in the histrionic conscience — something condemned only to feel the tricky, personal question. Wasn’t it better to be perfectly stupid than to have only one eye open and wear for ever in the great face of the world the expression of a knowing wink? At the theatre, on the numerous July evenings when the Comédie Française exhibited the repertory by the aid of exponents determined the more sparse and provincial audience should have a taste of the tradition, her appreciation was tremendously technical and showed it was not for nothing she was now in and out of Madame Carré‘s innermost counsels. But there were moments when even her very acuteness seemed to him to drag the matter down, to see it in a small and superficial sense. What he flattered himself he was trying to do for her — and through her for the stage of his time, since she was the instrument, and incontestably a fine one, that had come to his hand — was precisely to lift it up, make it rare, keep it in the region of distinction and breadth. However, she was doubtless right and he was wrong, he eventually reasoned: you could afford to be vague only if you hadn’t a responsibility. He had fine ideas, but she was to act them out, that is to apply them, and not he; and application was of necessity a vulgarisation, a smaller thing than theory. If she should some day put forth the great art it wasn’t purely fanciful to forecast for her, the matter would doubtless be by that fact sufficiently transfigured and it wouldn’t signify that some of the onward steps should have been lame.

This was clear to him on several occasions when she recited or motioned or even merely looked something for him better than usual; then she quite carried him away, making him wish to ask no more questions, but only let her disembroil herself in her own strong fashion. In these hours she gave him forcibly if fitfully that impression of beauty which was to be her justification. It was too soon for any general estimate of her progress; Madame Carré had at last given her a fine understanding as well as a sore, personal, an almost physical, sense of how bad she was. She had therefore begun on a new basis, had returned to the alphabet and the drill. It was a phase of awkwardness, the splashing of a young swimmer, but buoyancy would certainly come out of it. For the present there was mainly no great alteration of the fact that when she did things according to her own idea they were not, as yet and seriously judged, worth the devil, as Madame Carré said, and when she did them according to that of her instructress were too apt to be a gross parody of that lady’s intention. None the less she gave glimpses, and her glimpses made him feel not only that she was not a fool — this was small relief — but that he himself was not.

He made her stick to her English and read Shakespeare aloud to him. Mrs. Rooth had recognised the importance of apartments in which they should be able to receive so beneficent a visitor, and was now mistress of a small salon with a balcony and a rickety flower-stand — to say nothing of a view of many roofs and chimneys — a very uneven waxed floor, an empire clock, an armoire à glace, highly convenient for Miriam’s posturings, and several cupboard doors covered over, allowing for treacherous gaps, with the faded magenta paper of the wall. The thing had been easily done, for Sherringham had said: “Oh we must have a sitting-room for our studies, you know, and I’ll settle it with the landlady,” Mrs. Rooth had liked his “we”— indeed she liked everything about him — and he saw in this way that she heaved with no violence under pecuniary obligations so long as they were distinctly understood to be temporary. That he should have his money back with interest as soon as Miriam was launched was a comfort so deeply implied that it only added to intimacy. The window stood open on the little balcony, and when the sun had left it Peter and Miriam could linger there, leaning on the rail and talking above the great hum of Paris, with nothing but the neighbouring tiles and tall tubes to take account of. Mrs. Rooth, in limp garments much ungirdled, was on the sofa with a novel, making good her frequent assertion that she could put up with any life that would yield her these two conveniences. There were romantic works Peter had never read and as to which he had vaguely wondered to what class they were addressed — the earlier productions of M. Eugène Sue, the once-fashionable compositions of Madame Sophie Gay — with which Mrs. Rooth was familiar and which she was ready to enjoy once more if she could get nothing fresher. She had always a greasy volume tucked under her while her nose was bent upon the pages in hand. She scarcely looked up even when Miriam lifted her voice to show their benefactor what she could do. These tragic or pathetic notes all went out of the window and mingled with the undecipherable concert of Paris, so that no neighbour was disturbed by them. The girl shrieked and wailed when the occasion required it, and Mrs. Rooth only turned her page, showing in this way a great esthetic as well as a great personal trust.

She rather annoyed their visitor by the serenity of her confidence — for a reason he fully understood only later — save when Miriam caught an effect or a tone so well that she made him in the pleasure of it forget her parent’s contiguity. He continued to object to the girl’s English, with its foreign patches that might pass in prose but were offensive in the recitation of verse, and he wanted to know why she couldn’t speak like her mother. He had justly to acknowledge the charm of Mrs. Rooth’s voice and tone, which gave a richness even to the foolish things she said. They were of an excellent insular tradition, full both of natural and of cultivated sweetness, and they puzzled him when other indications seemed to betray her — to refer her to more common air. They were like the reverberation of some far-off tutored circle.

The connexion between the development of Miriam’s genius and the necessity of an occasional excursion to the country — the charming country that lies in so many directions beyond the Parisian banlieue — would not have been immediately apparent to a superficial observer; but a day, and then another, at Versailles, a day at Fontainebleau and a trip, particularly harmonious and happy, to Rambouillet, took their places in our young man’s plan as a part of the indirect but contributive culture, an agency in the formation of taste. Intimations of the grand manner for instance would proceed in abundance from the symmetrical palace and gardens of Louis XIV. Peter “adored” Versailles and wandered there more than once with the ladies of the Hôtel de la Garonne. They chose quiet hours, when the fountains were dry; and Mrs. Rooth took an armful of novels and sat on a bench in the park, flanked by clipped hedges and old statues, while her young companions strolled away, walked to the Trianon, explored the long, straight vistas of the woods. Rambouillet was vague and vivid and sweet; they felt that they found a hundred wise voices there; and indeed there was an old white chateau which contained nothing but ghostly sounds. They found at any rate a long luncheon, and in the landscape the very spirit of silvery summer and of the French pictorial brush.

I have said that in these days Sherringham wondered about many things, and by the time his leave of absence came this practice had produced a particular speculation. He was surprised that he shouldn’t be in love with Miriam Rooth and considered at moments of leisure the causes of his exemption. He had felt from the first that she was a “nature,” and each time she met his eyes it seemed to come to him straighter that her beauty was rare. You had to get the good view of her face, but when you did so it was a splendid mobile mask. And the wearer of this high ornament had frankness and courage and variety — no end of the unusual and the unexpected. She had qualities that seldom went together — impulses and shynesses, audacities and lapses, something coarse, popular, and strong all intermingled with disdains and languors and nerves. And then above all she was there, was accessible, almost belonged to him. He reflected ingeniously that he owed his escape to a peculiar cause — to the fact that they had together a positive outside object. Objective, as it were, was all their communion; not personal and selfish, but a matter of art and business and discussion. Discussion had saved him and would save him further, for they would always have something to quarrel about. Sherringham, who was not a diplomatist for nothing, who had his reasons for steering straight and wished neither to deprive the British public of a rising star nor to exchange his actual situation for that of a yoked impresario, blessed the beneficence, the salubrity, the pure exorcism of art. At the same time, rather inconsistently and feeling that he had a completer vision than before of that oddest of animals the artist who happens to have been born a woman, he felt warned against a serious connexion — he made a great point of the “serious”— with so slippery and ticklish a creature. The two ladies had only to stay in Paris, save their candle-ends and, as Madame Carré had enjoined, practise their scales: there were apparently no autumn visits to English country-houses in prospect for Mrs. Rooth. Peter parted with them on the understanding that in London he would look as thoroughly as possible into the question of an engagement. The day before he began his holiday he went to see Madame Carré, who said to him, “Vous devriez bien nous la laisser.”

“She has something then ——?”

“She has most things. She’ll go far. It’s the first time in my life of my beginning with a mistake. But don’t tell her so. I don’t flatter her. She’ll be too puffed up.”

“Is she very conceited?” Sherringham asked.

Mauvais sujet!” said Madame Carré.

It was on the journey to London that he indulged in some of those questionings of his state that I have mentioned; but I must add that by the time he reached Charing Cross — he smoked a cigar deferred till after the Channel in a compartment by himself — it had suddenly come over him that they were futile. Now that he had left the girl a subversive, unpremeditated heart-beat told him — it made him hold his breath a minute in the carriage — that he had after all not escaped. He was in love with her: he had been in love with her from the first hour.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56