The Tragic Muse, by Henry James



At first Peter Sherringham thought of asking to be transferred to another post and went so far, in London, as to take what he believed good advice on the subject. The advice, perhaps struck him as the better for consisting of a strong recommendation to do nothing so foolish. Two or three reasons were mentioned to him why such a request would not, in the particular circumstances, raise him in the esteem of his superiors, and he promptly recognised their force. He next became aware that it might help him — not with his superiors but with himself — to apply for an extension of leave, and then on further reflexion made out that, though there are some dangers before which it is perfectly consistent with honour to flee, it was better for every one concerned that he should fight this especial battle on the spot. During his holiday his plan of campaign gave him plenty of occupation. He refurbished his arms, rubbed up his strategy, laid down his lines of defence.

There was only one thing in life his mind had been much made up to, but on this question he had never wavered: he would get on, to the utmost, in his profession. That was a point on which it was perfectly lawful to be unamiable to others — to be vigilant, eager, suspicious, selfish. He had not in fact been unamiable to others, for his affairs had not required it: he had got on well enough without hardening his heart. Fortune had been kind to him and he had passed so many competitors on the way that he could forswear jealousy and be generous. But he had always flattered himself his hand wouldn’t falter on the day he should find it necessary to drop bitterness into his cup. This day would be sure to dawn, since no career could be all clear water to the end; and then the sacrifice would find him ready. His mind was familiar with the thought of a sacrifice: it is true that no great plainness invested beforehand the occasion, the object or the victim. All that particularly stood out was that the propitiatory offering would have to be some cherished enjoyment. Very likely indeed this enjoyment would be associated with the charms of another person — a probability pregnant with the idea that such charms would have to be dashed out of sight. At any rate it never had occurred to Sherringham that he himself might be the sacrifice. You had to pay to get on, but at least you borrowed from others to do it. When you couldn’t borrow you didn’t get on, for what was the situation in life in which you met the whole requisition yourself?

Least of all had it occurred to our friend that the wrench might come through his interest in that branch of art on which Nick Dormer had rallied him. The beauty of a love of the theatre was precisely in its being a passion exercised on the easiest terms. This was not the region of responsibility. It was sniffed at, to its discredit, by the austere; but if it was not, as such people said, a serious field, was not the compensation just that you couldn’t be seriously entangled in it? Sherringham’s great advantage, as he regarded the matter, was that he had always kept his taste for the drama quite in its place. His facetious cousin was free to pretend that it sprawled through his life; but this was nonsense, as any unprejudiced observer of that life would unhesitatingly attest. There had not been the least sprawling, and his interest in the art of Garrick had never, he was sure, made him in any degree ridiculous. It had never drawn down from above anything approaching a reprimand, a remonstrance, a remark. Sherringham was positively proud of his discretion, for he was not a little proud of what he did know about the stage. Trifling for trifling, there were plenty of his fellows who had in their lives infatuations less edifying and less confessable. Hadn’t he known men who collected old invitation-cards and were ready to commit bassesses for those of the eighteenth century? hadn’t he known others who had a secret passion for shuffleboard? His little weaknesses were intellectual — they were a part of the life of the mind. All the same, on the day they showed a symptom of interfering they should be plucked off with a turn of the wrist.

Sherringham scented interference now, and interference in rather an invidious form. It might be a bore, from the point of view of the profession, to find one’s self, as a critic of the stage, in love with a coquine; but it was a much greater bore to find one’s self in love with a young woman whose character remained to be estimated. Miriam Rooth was neither fish nor flesh: one had with her neither the guarantees of one’s own class nor the immunities of hers. What was hers if one came to that? A rare ambiguity on this point was part of the fascination she had ended by throwing over him. Poor Peter’s scheme for getting on had contained no proviso against his falling in love, but it had embodied an important clause on the subject of surprises. It was always a surprise to fall in love, especially if one was looking out for it; so this contingency had not been worth official paper. But it became a man who respected the service he had undertaken for the State to be on his guard against predicaments from which the only issue was the rigour of matrimony. Ambition, in the career, was probably consistent with marrying — but only with opening one’s eyes very wide to do it. That was the fatal surprise — to be led to the altar in a dream. Sherringham’s view of the proprieties attached to such a step was high and strict; and if he held that a man in his position was, above all as the position improved, essentially a representative of the greatness of his country, he considered that the wife of such a personage would exercise in her degree — for instance at a foreign court — a function no less symbolic. She would in short always be a very important quantity, and the scene was strewn with illustrations of this general truth. She might be such a help and might be such a blight that common prudence required some test of her in advance. Sherringham had seen women in the career, who were stupid or vulgar, make such a mess of things as would wring your heart. Then he had his positive idea of the perfect ambassadress, the full-blown lily of the future; and with this idea Miriam Rooth presented no analogy whatever.

The girl had described herself with characteristic directness as “all right”; and so she might be, so she assuredly was: only all right for what? He had made out she was not sentimental — that whatever capacity she might have for responding to a devotion or for desiring it was at any rate not in the direction of vague philandering. With him certainly she had no disposition to philander. Sherringham almost feared to dwell on this, lest it should beget in him a rage convertible mainly into caring for her more. Rage or no rage it would be charming to be in love with her if there were no complications; but the complications were just what was clearest in the prospect. He was perhaps cold-blooded to think of them, but it must be remembered that they were the particular thing his training had equipped him for dealing with. He was at all events not too cold-blooded to have, for the two months of his holiday, very little inner vision of anything more abstract than Miriam’s face. The desire to see it again was as pressing as thirst, but he tried to practise the endurance of the traveller in the desert. He kept the Channel between them, but his spirit consumed every day an inch of the interval, until — and it was not long — there were no more inches left. The last thing he expected the future ambassadress to have been was fille de théâtre. The answer to this objection was of course that Miriam was not yet so much of one but that he could easily, by a handsome “worldly” offer, arrest her development. Then came worrying retorts to that, chief among which was the sense that to his artistic conscience arresting her development would be a plan combining on his part fatuity, not to say imbecility, with baseness. It was exactly to her development the poor girl had the greatest right, and he shouldn’t really alter anything by depriving her of it. Wasn’t she the artist to the tips of her tresses — the ambassadress never in the world — and wouldn’t she take it out in something else if one were to make her deviate? So certain was that demonic gift to insist ever on its own.

Besides, could one make her deviate? If she had no disposition to philander what was his warrant for supposing she could be corrupted into respectability? How could the career — his career — speak to a nature that had glimpses as vivid as they were crude of such a different range and for which success meant quite another sauce to the dish? Would the brilliancy of marrying Peter Sherringham be such a bribe to relinquishment? How could he think so without pretensions of the sort he pretended exactly not to flaunt? — how could he put himself forward as so high a prize? Relinquishment of the opportunity to exercise a rare talent was not, in the nature of things, an easy effort to a young lady who was herself presumptuous as well as ambitious. Besides, she might eat her cake and have it — might make her fortune both on the stage and in the world. Successful actresses had ended by marrying dukes, and was not that better than remaining obscure and marrying a commoner? There were moments when he tried to pronounce the girl’s “gift” not a force to reckon with; there was so little to show for it as yet that the caprice of believing in it would perhaps suddenly leave him. But his conviction that it was real was too uneasy to make such an experiment peaceful, and he came back, moreover, to his deepest impression — that of her being of the inward mould for which the only consistency is the play of genius. Hadn’t Madame Carré declared at the last that she could “do anything”? It was true that if Madame Carré had been mistaken in the first place she might also be mistaken in the second. But in this latter case she would be mistaken with him — and such an error would be too like a truth.

How, further, shall we exactly measure for him — Sherringham felt the discomfort of the advantage Miriam had of him — the advantage of her presenting herself in a light that rendered any passion he might entertain an implication of duty as well as of pleasure? Why there should have been this implication was more than he could say; sometimes he held himself rather abject, or at least absurdly superstitious, for seeing it. He didn’t know, he could scarcely conceive, of another case of the same general type in which he would have recognised it. In foreign countries there were very few ladies of Miss Rooth’s intended profession who would not have regarded it as too strong an order that, to console them for not being admitted into drawing-rooms, they should have no offset but the exercise of a virtue in which no one would believe. This was because in foreign countries actresses were not admitted into drawing-rooms: that was a pure English drollery, ministering equally little to real histrionics and to the higher tone of these resorts. Did the oppressive sanctity which made it a burden to have to reckon with his young friend come then from her being English? Peter could recall cases in which that privilege operated as little as possible as a restriction. It came a great deal from Mrs. Rooth, in whom he apprehended depths of calculation as to what she might achieve for her daughter by “working” the idea of a life blameless amid dire obsessions. Her romantic turn of mind wouldn’t in the least prevent her regarding that idea as a substantial capital, to be laid out to the best worldly advantage. Miriam’s essential irreverence was capable, on a pretext, of making mince-meat of it — that he was sure of; for the only capital she recognised was the talent which some day managers and agents would outbid each other in paying for. Yet as a creature easy at so many points she was fond of her mother, would do anything to oblige — that might work in all sorts of ways — and would probably like the loose slippers of blamelessness quite as well as having to meet some of the queer high standards of the opposite camp.

Sherringham, I may add, had no desire that she should indulge a different preference: it was distasteful to him to compute the probabilities of a young lady’s misbehaving for his advantage — that seemed to him definitely base — and he would have thought himself a blackguard if, even when a prey to his desire, he had not wished the thing that was best for the object of it. The thing best for Miriam might be to become the wife of the man to whose suit she should incline her ear. That this would be the best thing for the gentleman in question by no means, however, equally followed, and Sherringham’s final conviction was that it would never do for him to act the part of that hypothetic personage. He asked for no removal and no extension of leave, and he proved to himself how well he knew what he was about by never addressing a line, during his absence, to the Hôtel de la Garonne. He would simply go straight, inflicting as little injury on Peter Sherringham as on any one else. He remained away to the last hour of his privilege and continued to act lucidly in having nothing to do with the mother and daughter for several days after his return to Paris.

It was when this discipline came to an end one afternoon after a week had passed that he felt most the force of the reference we have just made to Mrs. Rooth’s private calculations. He found her at home, alone, writing a letter under the lamp, and as soon as he came in she cried out that he was the very person to whom the letter was addressed. She could bear it no longer; she had permitted herself to reproach him with his terrible silence — to ask why he had quite forsaken them. It was an illustration of the way in which her visitor had come to regard her that he put rather less than more faith into this description of the crumpled papers lying on the table. He was not even sure he quite believed Miriam to have just gone out. He told her mother how busy he had been all the while he was away and how much time above all he had had to give in London to seeing on her daughter’s behalf the people connected with the theatres.

“Ah if you pity me tell me you’ve got her an engagement!” Mrs. Rooth cried while she clasped her hands.

“I took a great deal of trouble; I wrote ever so many notes, sought introductions, talked with people — such impossible people some of them. In short I knocked at every door, I went into the question exhaustively.” And he enumerated the things he had done, reported on some of the knowledge he had gathered. The difficulties were immense, and even with the influence he could command, such as it was, there was very little to be achieved in face of them. Still he had gained ground: two or three approachable fellows, men with inferior theatres, had listened to him better than the others, and there was one in particular whom he had a hope he really might have interested. From him he had extracted benevolent assurances: this person would see Miriam, would listen to her, would do for her what he could. The trouble was that no one would lift a finger for a girl unless she were known, and yet that she never could become known till innumerable fingers had been lifted. You couldn’t go into the water unless you could swim, and you couldn’t swim until you had been in the water.

“But new performers appear; they get theatres, they get audiences, they get notices in the newspapers,” Mrs. Rooth objected. “I know of these things only what Miriam tells me. It’s no knowledge that I was born to.”

“It’s perfectly true. It’s all done with money.”

“And how do they come by money?” Mrs. Rooth candidly asked.

“When they’re women people give it to them.”

“Well, what people now?”

“People who believe in them.”

“As you believe in Miriam?”

Peter had a pause. “No, rather differently. A poor man doesn’t believe in anything the same way that a rich man does.”

“Ah don’t call yourself poor!” groaned Mrs. Rooth.

“What good would it do me to be rich?”

“Why you could take a theatre. You could do it all yourself.”

“And what good would that do me?”

“Ah don’t you delight in her genius?” demanded Mrs. Rooth.

“I delight in her mother. You think me more disinterested than I am,” Sherringham added with a certain soreness of irritation.

“I know why you didn’t write!” Mrs. Rooth declared archly.

“You must go to London,” Peter said without heeding this remark.

“Ah if we could only get there it would be a relief. I should draw a long breath. There at least I know where I am and what people are. But here one lives on hollow ground!”

“The sooner you get away the better,” our young man went on.

“I know why you say that.”

“It’s just what I’m explaining.”

“I couldn’t have held out if I hadn’t been so sure of Miriam,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“Well, you needn’t hold out any longer.”

“Don’t you trust her?” asked Sherringham’s hostess.

“Trust her?”

“You don’t trust yourself. That’s why you were silent, why we might have thought you were dead, why we might have perished ourselves.”

“I don’t think I understand you; I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peter returned. “But it doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t it? Let yourself go. Why should you struggle?” the old woman agreeably inquired.

Her unexpected insistence annoyed her visitor, and he was silent again, meeting her eyes with reserve and on the point of telling her that he didn’t like her tone. But he had his tongue under such control that he was able presently to say instead of this — and it was a relief to him to give audible voice to the reflexion —“It’s a great mistake, either way, for a man to be in love with an actress. Either it means nothing serious, and what’s the use of that? or it means everything, and that’s still more delusive.”


“Idle, unprofitable.”

“Surely a pure affection is its own beautiful reward,” Mrs. Rooth pleaded with soft reasonableness.

“In such a case how can it be pure?”

“I thought you were talking of an English gentleman,” she replied.

“Call the poor fellow whatever you like: a man with his life to lead, his way to make, his work, his duties, his career to attend to. If it means nothing, as I say, the thing it means least of all is marriage.”

“Oh my own Miriam!” Mrs. Rooth wailed.

“Fancy, on the other hand, the complication when such a man marries a woman who’s on the stage.”

Mrs. Rooth looked as if she were trying to follow. “Miriam isn’t on the stage yet.”

“Go to London and she soon will be.”

“Yes, and then you’ll have your excuse.”

“My excuse?”

“For deserting us altogether.”

He broke into laughter at this, the logic was so droll. Then he went on: “Show me some good acting and I won’t desert you.”

“Good acting? Ah what’s the best acting compared with the position of a true English lady? If you’ll take her as she is you may have her,” Mrs. Rooth suddenly added.

“As she is, with all her ambitions unassuaged?”

“To marry you — might not that be an ambition?”

“A very paltry one. Don’t answer for her, don’t attempt that,” said Peter. “You can do much better.”

“Do you think you can?” smiled Mrs. Rooth.

“I don’t want to; I only want to let it alone. She’s an artist; you must give her her head,” the young man pursued. “You must always give an artist his head.”

“But I’ve known great ladies who were artists. In English society there’s always a field.”

“Don’t talk to me of English society! Thank goodness, in the first place, I don’t live in it. Do you want her to give up her genius?” he demanded.

“I thought you didn’t care for it.”

“She’d say, ‘No I thank you, dear mamma.’”

“My wonderful child!” Mrs. Rooth almost comprehendingly murmured.

“Have you ever proposed it to her?”

“Proposed it?”

“That she should give up trying.”

Mrs. Rooth hesitated, looking down. “Not for the reason you mean. We don’t talk about love,” she simpered.

“Then it’s so much less time wasted. Don’t stretch out your hand to the worse when it may some day grasp the better,” Peter continued. Mrs. Rooth raised her eyes at him as if recognising the force there might be in that, and he added: “Let her blaze out, let her look about her. Then you may talk to me if you like.”

“It’s very puzzling!” the old woman artlessly sighed.

He laughed again and then said: “Now don’t tell me I’m not a good friend.”

“You are indeed — you’re a very noble gentleman. That’s just why a quiet life with you ——”

“It wouldn’t be quiet for me!” he broke in. “And that’s not what Miriam was made for.”

Don’t say that for my precious one!” Mrs. Rooth quavered.

“Go to London — go to London,” her visitor repeated.

Thoughtfully, after an instant, she extended her hand and took from the table the letter on the composition of which he had found her engaged. Then with a quick movement she tore it up. “That’s what Mr. Dashwood says.”

“Mr. Dashwood?”

“I forgot you don’t know him. He’s the brother of that lady we met the day you were so good as to receive us; the one who was so kind to us — Mrs. Lovick.”

“I never heard of him.”

“Don’t you remember how she spoke of him and that Mr. Lovick didn’t seem very nice about him? She told us that if he were to meet us — and she was so good as to intimate that it would be a pleasure to him to do so — he might give us, as she said, a tip.”

Peter achieved the effort to recollect. “Yes he comes back to me. He’s an actor.”

“He’s a gentleman too,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“And you’ve met him, and he has given you a tip?”

“As I say, he wants us to go to London.”

“I see, but even I can tell you that.”

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Rooth; “but he says he can help us.”

“Keep hold of him then, if he’s in the business,” Peter was all for that.

“He’s a perfect gentleman,” said Mrs. Rooth. “He’s immensely struck with Miriam.”

“Better and better. Keep hold of him.”

“Well, I’m glad you don’t object,” she grimaced.

“Why should I object?”

“You don’t regard us as all your own?”

“My own? Why, I regard you as the public’s — the world’s.”

She gave a little shudder. “There’s a sort of chill in that. It’s grand, but it’s cold. However, I needn’t hesitate then to tell you that it’s with Mr. Dashwood Miriam has gone out.”

“Why hesitate, gracious heaven?” But in the next breath Sherringham asked: “Where have they gone?”

“You don’t like it!” his hostess laughed.

“Why should it be a thing to be enthusiastic about?”

“Well, he’s charming and I trust him.”

“So do I,” said Sherringham.

“They’ve gone to see Madame Carré.”

“She has come back then?”

“She was expected back last week. Miriam wants to show her how she has improved.”

“And has she improved?”

“How can I tell — with my mother’s heart?” asked Mrs. Rooth. “I don’t judge; I only wait and pray. But Mr. Dashwood thinks she’s wonderful.”

“That’s a blessing. And when did he turn up?”

“About a fortnight ago. We met Mrs. Lovick at the English church, and she was so good as to recognise us and speak to us. She said she had been away with her children — otherwise she’d have come to see us. She had just returned to Paris.”

“Yes, I’ve not yet seen her. I see Lovick,” Peter added, “but he doesn’t talk of his brother-inlaw.”

“I didn’t, that day, like his tone about him,” Mrs. Rooth observed. “We walked a little way with Mrs. Lovick after church and she asked Miriam about her prospects and if she were working. Miriam said she had no prospects.”

“That wasn’t very nice to me,” Sherringham commented.

“But when you had left us in black darkness what were our prospects?”

“I see. It’s all right. Go on.”

“Then Mrs. Lovick said her brother was to be in Paris a few days and she would tell him to come and see us. He arrived, she told him and he came. Voilà!” said Mrs. Rooth.

“So that now — so far as he is concerned — Miss Rooth has prospects?”

“He isn’t a manager unfortunately,” she qualified.

“Where does he act?”

“He isn’t acting just now; he has been abroad. He has been to Italy, I believe, and is just stopping here on his way to London.”

“I see; he is a perfect gentleman,” said Sherringham.

“Ah you’re jealous of him!”

“No, but you’re trying to make me so. The more competitors there are for the glory of bringing her out the better for her.”

“Mr. Dashwood wants to take a theatre,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“Then perhaps he’s our man.”

“Oh if you’d help him!” she richly cried.

“Help him?”

“Help him to help us.”

“We’ll all work together; it will be very jolly,” said Sherringham gaily. “It’s a sacred cause, the love of art, and we shall be a happy band. Dashwood’s his name?” he added in a moment. “Mrs. Lovick wasn’t a Dashwood.”

“It’s his nom de théâtre — Basil Dashwood. Do you like it?” Mrs. Rooth wonderfully inquired.

“You say that as Miriam might. Her talent’s catching!”

“She’s always practising — always saying things over and over to seize the tone. I’ve her voice in my ears. He wants her not to have any.”

“Not to have any what?”

“Any nom de théâtre. He wants her to use her own; he likes it so much. He says it will do so well — you can’t better it.”

“He’s a capital adviser,” said Sherringham, getting up. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“I won’t ask you to wait for them — they may be so long,” his hostess returned.

“Will he come back with her?” Peter asked while he smoothed his hat.

“I hope so, at this hour. With my child in the streets I tremble. We don’t live in cabs, as you may easily suppose.”

“Did they go on foot?” Sherringham continued.

“Oh yes; they started in high spirits.”

“And is Mr. Basil Dashwood acquainted with Madame Carré?”

“Ah no, but he longed to be introduced to her; he persuaded Miriam to take him. Naturally she wishes to oblige him. She’s very nice to him — if he can do anything.”

“Quite right; that’s the way!” Peter cheerfully rang out.

“And she also wanted him to see what she can do for the great critic,” Mrs. Rooth added —“that terrible old woman in the red wig.”

“That’s what I should like to see too,” Peter permitted himself to acknowledge.

“Oh she has gone ahead; she’s pleased with herself. ‘Work, work, work,’ said Madame Carré. Well, she has worked, worked, worked. That’s what Mr. Dashwood is pleased with even more than with other things.”

“What do you mean by other things?”

“Oh her genius and her fine appearance.”

“He approves of her fine appearance? I ask because you think he knows what will take.”

“I know why you ask!” Mrs. Rooth bravely mocked. “He says it will be worth hundreds of thousands to her.”

“That’s the sort of thing I like to hear,” Peter returned. “I’ll come in tomorrow,” he repeated.

“And shall you mind if Mr. Dash wood’s here?”

“Does he come every day?”

“Oh they’re always at it.”

“At it ——?” He was vague.

“Why she acts to him — every sort of thing — and he says if it will do.”

“How many days has he been here then?”

Mrs. Rooth reflected. “Oh I don’t know! Since he turned up they’ve passed so quickly.”

“So far from ‘minding’ it I’m eager to see him,” Sherringham declared; “and I can imagine nothing better than what you describe — if he isn’t an awful ass.”

“Dear me, if he isn’t clever you must tell us: we can’t afford to be deceived!” Mrs. Rooth innocently wailed. “What do we know — how can we judge?” she appealed.

He had a pause, his hand on the latch. “Oh, I’ll tell you frankly what I think of him!”

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