The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


At Peter Sherringham’s the next day Miriam had so evidently come with the expectation of “saying” something that it was impossible such a patron of the drama should forbear to invite her, little as the exhibition at Madame Carré‘s could have contributed to render the invitation prompt. His curiosity had been more appeased than stimulated, but he felt none the less that he had “taken up” the dark-browed girl and her reminiscential mother and must face the immediate consequences of the act. This responsibility weighed upon him during the twenty-four hours that followed the ultimate dispersal of the little party at the door of the Hôtel de la Garonne.

On quitting Madame Carré the two ladies had definitely declined Mr. Nash’s offered cab and had taken their way homeward on foot and with the gentlemen in attendance. The streets of Paris at that hour were bright and episodical, and Sherringham trod them good-humouredly enough and not too fast, leaning a little to talk with Miriam as he went. Their pace was regulated by her mother’s, who advanced on the arm of Gabriel Nash (Nick Dormer was on her other side) in refined deprecation. Her sloping back was before them, exempt from retentive stillness in spite of her rigid principles, with the little drama of her lost and recovered shawl perpetually going on.

Sherringham said nothing to the girl about her performance or her powers; their talk was only of her manner of life with her mother — their travels, their pensions, their economies, their want of a home, the many cities she knew well, the foreign tongues and the wide view of the world she had acquired. He guessed easily enough the dolorous type of exile of the two ladies, wanderers in search of Continental cheapness, inured to queer contacts and compromises, “remarkably well connected” in England, but going out for their meals. The girl was but indirectly communicative; though seemingly less from any plan of secrecy than from the habit of associating with people whom she didn’t honour with her confidence. She was fragmentary and abrupt, as well as not in the least shy, subdued to dread of Madame Carré as she had been for the time. She gave Sherringham a reason for this fear, and he thought her reason innocently pretentious. “She admired a great artist more than anything in the world; and in the presence of art, of great art, her heart beat so fast.” Her manners were not perfect, and the friction of a varied experience had rather roughened than smoothed her. She said nothing that proved her intelligent, even though he guessed this to be the design of two or three of her remarks; but he parted from her with the suspicion that she was, according to the contemporary French phrase, a “nature.”

The Hôtel de la Garonne was in a small unrenovated street in which the cobble-stones of old Paris still flourished, lying between the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Place de la Bourse. Sherringham had occasionally traversed the high dimness, but had never noticed the tall, stale maison meublée, the aspect of which, that of a third-rate provincial inn, was an illustration of Mrs. Rooth’s shrunken standard. “We would ask you to come up, but it’s quite at the top and we haven’t a sitting-room,” the poor lady bravely explained. “We had to receive Mr. Nash at a café.”

Nick Dormer declared that he liked cafés, and Miriam, looking at his cousin, dropped with a flash of passion the demand: “Do you wonder I should want to do something — so that we can stop living like pigs?”

Peter recognised the next day that though it might be boring to listen to her it was better to make her recite than to let her do nothing, so effectually did the presence of his sister and that of Lady Agnes, and even of Grace and Biddy, appear, by a strange tacit opposition, to deprive hers, ornamental as it was, of a reason. He had only to see them all together to perceive that she couldn’t pass for having come to “meet” them — even her mother’s insinuating gentility failed to put the occasion on that footing — and that she must therefore be assumed to have been brought to show them something. She was not subdued, not colourless enough to sit there for nothing, or even for conversation — the sort of conversation that was likely to come off — so that it was inevitable to treat her position as connected with the principal place on the carpet, with silence and attention and the pulling together of chairs. Even when so established it struck him at first as precarious, in the light, or the darkness, of the inexpressive faces of the other ladies, seated in couples and rows on sofas — there were several in addition to Julia and the Dormers; mainly the wives, with their husbands, of Sherringham’s fellow-secretaries — scarcely one of whom he felt he might count upon for a modicum of gush when the girl should have finished.

Miss Rooth gave a representation of Juliet drinking the potion, according to the system, as her mother explained, of the famous Signor Ruggieri — a scene of high fierce sound, of many cries and contortions: she shook her hair (which proved magnificent) half-down before the performance was over. Then she declaimed several short poems by Victor Hugo, selected among many hundred by Mrs. Rooth, as the good lady was careful to make known. After this she jumped to the American lyre, regaling the company with specimens, both familiar and fresh, of Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Holmes, and of two or three poetesses now revealed to Sherringham for the first time. She flowed so copiously, keeping the floor and rejoicing visibly in her luck, that her host was mainly occupied with wondering how he could make her leave off. He was surprised at the extent of her repertory, which, in view of the circumstance that she could never have received much encouragement — it must have come mainly from her mother, and he didn’t believe in Signor Ruggieri — denoted a very stiff ambition and a blundering energy. It was her mother who checked her at last, and he found himself suspecting that Gabriel Nash had intimated to the old woman that interference was necessary. For himself he was chiefly glad Madame Carré hadn’t come. It was present to him that she would have judged the exhibition, with its badness, its impudence, the absence of criticism, wholly indecent.

His only new impression of the heroine of the scene was that of this same high assurance — her coolness, her complacency, her eagerness to go on. She had been deadly afraid of the old actress but was not a bit afraid of a cluster of femmes du monde, of Julia, of Lady Agnes, of the smart women of the embassy. It was positively these personages who were rather in fear; there was certainly a moment when even Julia was scared for the first time he had ever remarked it. The space was too small, the cries, the convulsions and rushes of the dishevelled girl were too near. Lady Agnes wore much of the time the countenance she might have shown at the theatre during a play in which pistols were fired; and indeed the manner of the young reciter had become more spasmodic and more explosive. It appeared, however, that the company in general thought her very clever and successful; which showed, to Sherringham’s sense, how little they understood the matter. Poor Biddy was immensely struck; she grew flushed and absorbed in proportion as Miriam, at her best moments, became pale and fatal. It was she who spoke to her first, after it was agreed that they had better not fatigue her any more; she advanced a few steps, happening to be nearest — she murmured: “Oh thank you so much. I never saw anything so beautiful, so grand.”

She looked very red and very pretty as she said this, and Peter Sherringham liked her enough to notice her more and like her better when she looked prettier than usual. As he turned away he heard Miriam make answer with no great air of appreciation of her tribute: “I’ve seen you before — two days ago at the Salon with Mr. Dormer. Yes, I know he’s your brother. I’ve made his acquaintance since. He wants to paint my portrait. Do you think he’ll do it well?” He was afraid the girl was something of a brute — also somewhat grossly vain. This impression would perhaps have been confirmed if a part of the rest of the short conversation of the two young women had reached his ear. Biddy ventured to observe that she herself had studied modelling a little and that she could understand how any artist would think Miss Rooth a splendid subject. If indeed she could attempt her head, that would be a chance indeed.

“Thank you,” said Miriam with a laugh as of high comedy. “I think I had rather not passer par toute la famille!” Then she added: “If your brother’s an artist I don’t understand how he’s in Parliament.”

“Oh he isn’t in Parliament now — we only hope he will be.”

“Ah I see.”

“And he isn’t an artist either,” Biddy felt herself conscientiously bound to state.

“Then he isn’t anything,” said Miss Rooth.

“Well — he’s immensely clever.”

“Ah I see,” Miss Rooth again replied. “Mr. Nash has puffed him up so.”

“I don’t know Mr. Nash,” said Biddy, guilty of a little dryness as well as of a little misrepresentation, and feeling rather snubbed.

“Well, you needn’t wish to.”

Biddy stood with her a moment longer, still looking at her and not knowing what to say next, but not finding her any less handsome because she had such odd manners. Biddy had an ingenious little mind, which always tried as much as possible to keep different things separate. It was pervaded now by the reflexion, attended with some relief, that if the girl spoke to her with such unexpected familiarity of Nick she said nothing at all about Peter. Two gentlemen came up, two of Peter’s friends, and made speeches to Miss Rooth of the kind Biddy supposed people learned to make in Paris. It was also doubtless in Paris, the girl privately reasoned, that they learned to listen to them as this striking performer listened. She received their advances very differently from the way she had received Biddy’s. Sherringham noticed his young kinswoman turn away, still very red, to go and sit near her mother again, leaving Miriam engaged with the two men. It appeared to have come over her that for a moment she had been strangely spontaneous and bold, and that she had paid a little of the penalty. The seat next her mother was occupied by Mrs. Rooth, toward whom Lady Agnes’s head had inclined itself with a preoccupied tolerance. He had the conviction Mrs. Rooth was telling her about the Neville–Nugents of Castle Nugent and that Lady Agnes was thinking it odd she never had heard of them. He said to himself that Biddy was generous. She had urged Julia to come in order that they might see how bad the strange young woman would be, but now that the event had proved dazzling she forgot this calculation and rejoiced in what she innocently supposed to be the performer’s triumph. She kept away from Julia, however; she didn’t even look at her to invite her also to confess that, in vulgar parlance, they had been sold. He himself spoke to his sister, who was leaning back with a detached air in the corner of a sofa, saying something which led her to remark in reply: “Ah I daresay it’s extremely fine, but I don’t care for tragedy when it treads on one’s toes. She’s like a cow who has kicked over the milking-pail. She ought to be tied up.”

“My poor Julia, it isn’t extremely fine; it isn’t fine at all,” Sherringham returned with some irritation.

“Pardon me then. I thought that was why you invited us.”

“I imagined she was different,” Peter said a little foolishly.

“Ah if you don’t care for her so much the better. It has always seemed to me you make too awfully much of those people.”

“Oh I do care for her too — rather. She’s interesting.” His sister gave him a momentary, mystified glance and he added: “And she’s dreadful.” He felt stupidly annoyed and was ashamed of his annoyance, as he could have assigned no reason for it. It didn’t grow less for the moment from his seeing Gabriel Nash approach Julia, introduced by Nick Dormer. He gave place to the two young men with some alacrity, for he had a sense of being put in the wrong in respect to their specimen by Nash’s very presence. He remembered how it had been a part of their bargain, as it were, that he should present that gentleman to his sister. He was not sorry to be relieved of the office by Nick, and he even tacitly and ironically wished his kinsman’s friend joy of a colloquy with Mrs. Dallow. Sherringham’s life was spent with people, he was used to people, and both as host and as guest he carried the social burden in general lightly. He could observe, especially in the former capacity, without uneasiness and take the temperature without anxiety. But at present his company oppressed him; he felt worried and that he showed it — which was the thing in the world he had ever held least an honour to a gentleman dedicated to diplomacy. He was vexed with the levity that had made him call his roomful together on so poor a pretext, and yet was vexed with the stupidity that made the witnesses so evidently find the pretext sufficient. He inwardly groaned at the delusion under which he had saddled himself with the Tragic Muse — a tragic muse who was strident and pert — and yet wished his visitors would go away and leave him alone with her.

Nick Dormer said to Mrs. Dallow that he wanted her to know an old friend of his, one of the cleverest men he knew; and he added the hope that she would be gentle and encouraging with him; he was so timid and so easily disconcerted. Mr. Nash hereupon dropped into a chair by the arm of her sofa, their companion went away, and Mrs. Dallow turned her glance upon her new acquaintance without a perceptible change of position. Then she emitted with rapidity the remark: “It’s very awkward when people are told one’s clever.”

“It’s only awkward if one isn’t,” Gabriel smiled.

“Yes, but so few people are — enough to be talked about.”

“Isn’t that just the reason why such a matter, such an exception, ought to be mentioned to them?” he asked. “They mightn’t find it out for themselves. Of course, however, as you say, there ought to be a certainty; then they’re surer to know it. Dormer’s a dear fellow, but he’s rash and superficial.”

Mrs. Dallow, at this incitement, turned her glance a second time on her visitor; but during the rest of the conversation she rarely repeated the movement. If she liked Nick Dormer extremely — and it may without more delay be communicated to the reader that she did — her liking was of a kind that opposed no difficulty whatever to her not liking, in case of such a complication, a person attached or otherwise belonging to him. It was not in her nature to “put up” with others for the sake of an individual she loved: the putting up was usually consumed in the loving, and with nothing left over. If the affection that isolates and simplifies its object may be distinguished from the affection that seeks communications and contracts for it, Julia Dallow’s was quite of the encircling, not to say the narrowing sort. She was not so much jealous as essentially exclusive. She desired no experience for the familiar and yet partly unsounded kinsman in whom she took an interest that she wouldn’t have desired for herself; and indeed the cause of her interest in him was partly the vision of his helping her to the particular extensions she did desire — the taste and thrill of great affairs and of public action. To have such ambitions for him appeared to her the highest honour she could do him; her conscience was in it as well as her inclination, and her scheme, to her sense, was noble enough to varnish over any disdain she might feel for forces drawing him another way. She had a prejudice, in general, against his existing connexions, a suspicion of them, and a supply of off-hand contempt in waiting. It was a singular circumstance that she was sceptical even when, knowing her as well as he did, he thought them worth recommending to her: the recommendation indeed mostly confirmed the suspicion.

This was a law from which Gabriel Nash was condemned to suffer, if suffering could on any occasion be predicated of Gabriel Nash. His pretension was in truth that he had purged his life of such possibilities of waste, though probably he would have admitted that if that fair vessel should spring a leak the wound in its side would have been dealt by a woman’s hand. In dining two evenings before with her brother and with the Dormers Mrs. Dallow had been moved to exclaim that Peter and Nick knew the most extraordinary people. As regards Peter the attitudinising girl and her mother now pointed that moral with sufficient vividness; so that there was little arrogance in taking a similar quality for granted of the conceited man at her elbow, who sat there as if he might be capable from one moment to another of leaning over the arm of her sofa. She had not the slightest wish to talk with him about himself, and was afraid for an instant that he was on the point of passing from the chapter of his cleverness to that of his timidity. It was a false alarm, however, for he only animadverted on the pleasures of the elegant extract hurled — literally hurlé in general — from the centre of the room at one’s defenceless head. He intimated that in his opinion these pleasures were all for the performers. The auditors had at any rate given Miss Rooth a charming afternoon; that of course was what Mrs. Dallow’s kind brother had mainly intended in arranging the little party. (Julia hated to hear him call her brother “kind”: the term seemed offensively patronising.) But he himself, he related, was now constantly employed in the same beneficence, listening two-thirds of his time to “intonations” and shrieks. She had doubtless observed it herself, how the great current of the age, the adoration of the mime, was almost too strong for any individual; how it swept one along and dashed one against the rocks. As she made no response to this proposition Gabriel Nash asked her if she hadn’t been struck with the main sign of the time, the preponderance of the mountebank, the glory and renown, the personal favour, he enjoyed. Hadn’t she noticed what an immense part of the public attention he held in London at least? For in Paris society was not so pervaded with him, and the women of the profession, in particular, were not in every drawing-room.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Mrs. Dallow said. “I know nothing of any such people.”

“Aren’t they under your feet wherever you turn — their performances, their portraits, their speeches, their autobiographies, their names, their manners, their ugly mugs, as the people say, and their idiotic pretensions?”

“I daresay it depends on the places one goes to. If they’re everywhere”— and she paused a moment —“I don’t go everywhere.”

“I don’t go anywhere, but they mount on my back at home like the Old Man of the Sea. Just observe a little when you return to London,” Mr. Nash went on with friendly instructiveness. Julia got up at this — she didn’t like receiving directions; but no other corner of the room appeared to offer her any particular reason for crossing to it: she never did such a thing without a great inducement. So she remained standing there as if she were quitting the place in a moment, which indeed she now determined to do; and her interlocutor, rising also, lingered beside her unencouraged but unperturbed. He proceeded to remark that Mr. Sherringham was quite right to offer Miss Rooth an afternoon’s sport; she deserved it as a fine, brave, amiable girl. She was highly educated, knew a dozen languages, was of illustrious lineage, and was immensely particular.

“Immensely particular?” Mrs. Dallow repeated.

“Perhaps I should say rather that her mother’s so on her behalf. Particular about the sort of people they meet — the tone, the standard. I’m bound to say they’re like you: they don’t go everywhere. That spirit’s not so common in the mob calling itself good society as not to deserve mention.”

She said nothing for a moment; she looked vaguely round the room, but not at Miriam Rooth. Nevertheless she presently dropped as in forced reference to her an impatient shake. “She’s dreadfully vulgar.”

“Ah don’t say that to my friend Dormer!” Mr. Nash laughed.

“Are you and he such great friends?” Mrs. Dallow asked, meeting his eyes.

“Great enough to make me hope we shall be greater.”

Again for a little she said nothing, but then went on: “Why shouldn’t I say to him that she’s vulgar?”

“Because he admires her so much. He wants to paint her.”

“To paint her?”

“To paint her portrait.”

“Oh I see. I daresay she’d do for that.”

Mr. Nash showed further amusement. “If that’s your opinion of her you’re not very complimentary to the art he aspires to practise.”

“He aspires to practise?” she echoed afresh.

“Haven’t you talked with him about it? Ah you must keep him up to it!”

Julia Dallow was conscious for a moment of looking uncomfortable; but it relieved her to be able to demand of her neighbour with a certain manner: “Are you an artist?”

“I try to be,” Nash smiled, “but I work in such difficult material.”

He spoke this with such a clever suggestion of mysterious things that she was to hear herself once more pay him the attention of taking him up. “Difficult material?”

“I work in life!”

At this she turned away, leaving him the impression that she probably misunderstood his speech, thinking he meant that he drew from the living model or some such platitude: as if there could have been any likelihood he would have dealings with the dead. This indeed would not fully have explained the abruptness with which she dropped their conversation. Gabriel, however, was used to sudden collapses and even to sudden ruptures on the part of those addressed by him, and no man had more the secret of remaining gracefully with his conversational wares on his hands. He saw Mrs. Dallow approach Nick Dormer, who was talking with one of the ladies of the embassy, and apparently signify that she wished to speak to him. He got up and they had a minute’s talk, after which he turned and took leave of his fellow-visitors. She said a word to her brother, Nick joined her, and they then came together to the door. In this movement they had to pass near Nash, and it gave her an opportunity to nod good-bye to him, which he was by no means sure she would have done if Nick hadn’t been with her. The young man just stopped; he said to Nash: “I should like to see you this evening late. You must meet me somewhere.”

“Well take a walk — I should like that,” Nash replied. “I shall smoke a cigar at the café on the corner of the Place de l’Opéra — you’ll find me there.” He prepared to compass his own departure, but before doing so he addressed himself to the duty of a few civil words to Lady Agnes. This effort proved vain, for on one side she was defended by the wall of the room and on the other rendered inaccessible by Miriam’s mother, who clung to her with a quickly-rooted fidelity, showing no symptom of desistance. Nash declined perforce upon her daughter Grace, who said to him: “You were talking with my cousin Mrs. Dallow.”

“To her rather than with her,” he smiled.

“Ah she’s very charming,” Grace said.

“She’s very beautiful.”

“And very clever,” the girl continued.

“Very, very intelligent.” His conversation with Miss Dormer went little beyond this, and he presently took leave of Peter Sherringham, remarking to him as they shook hands that he was very sorry for him. But he had courted his fate.

“What do you mean by my fate?” Sherringham asked.

“You’ve got them for life.”

“Why for life, when I now clearly and courageously recognise that she isn’t good?”

“Ah but she’ll become so,” said Gabriel Nash.

“Do you think that?” Sherringham brought out with a candour that made his visitor laugh.

You will — that’s more to the purpose!” the latter declared as he went away.

Ten minutes later Lady Agnes substituted a general, vague assent for all further particular ones, drawing off from Mrs. Rooth and from the rest of the company with her daughters. Peter had had very little talk with Biddy, but the girl kept her disappointment out of her pretty eyes and said to him: “You told us she didn’t know how — but she does!” There was no suggestion of disappointment in this.

Sherringham held her hand a moment. “Ah it’s you who know how, dear Biddy!” he answered; and he was conscious that if the occasion had been more private he would have all lawfully kissed her.

Presently three more of his guests took leave, and Mr. Nash’s assurance that he had them for life recurred to him as he observed that Mrs. Rooth and her damsel quite failed to profit by so many examples. The Lovicks remained — a colleague and his sociable wife — and Peter gave them a hint that they were not to plant him there only with the two ladies. Miriam quitted Mrs. Lovick, who had attempted, with no great subtlety, to engage her, and came up to her host as if she suspected him of a design of stealing from the room and had the idea of preventing it.

“I want some more tea: will you give me some more? I feel quite faint. You don’t seem to suspect how this sort of thing takes it out of one.”

Peter apologised extravagantly for not having seen to it that she had proper refreshment, and took her to the round table, in a corner, on which the little collation had been served. He poured out tea for her and pressed bread and butter on her and petits fours, of all which she profusely and methodically partook. It was late; the afternoon had faded and a lamp been brought in, the wide shade of which shed a fair glow on the tea-service and the plates of pretty food. The Lovicks sat with Mrs. Rooth at the other end of the room, and the girl stood at the table, drinking her tea and eating her bread and butter. She consumed these articles so freely that he wondered if she had been truly in want of a meal — if they were so poor as to have to count with that sort of privation. This supposition was softening, but still not so much so as to make him ask her to sit down. She appeared indeed to prefer to stand: she looked better so, as if the freedom, the conspicuity of being on her feet and treading a stage were agreeable to her. While Sherringham lingered near her all vaguely, his hands in his pockets and his mind now void of everything but a planned evasion of the theatrical question — there were moments when he was so plentifully tired of it — she broke out abruptly: “Confess you think me intolerably bad!”

“Intolerably — no.”

“Only tolerably! I find that worse.”

“Every now and then you do something very right,” Sherringham said.

“How many such things did I do today?”

“Oh three or four. I don’t know that I counted very carefully.”

She raised her cup to her lips, looking at him over the rim of it — a proceeding that gave her eyes a strange expression. “It bores you and you think it disagreeable,” she then said —“I mean a girl always talking about herself.” He protested she could never bore him and she added: “Oh I don’t want compliments — I want the hard, the precious truth. An actress has to talk about herself. What else can she talk about, poor vain thing?”

“She can talk sometimes about other actresses.”

“That comes to the same thing. You won’t be serious. I’m awfully serious.” There was something that caught his attention in the note of this — a longing half hopeless, half argumentative to be believed in. “If one really wants to do anything one must worry it out; of course everything doesn’t come the first day,” she kept on. “I can’t see everything at once; but I can see a little more — step by step — as I go; can’t I?”

“That’s the way — that’s the way,” he gently enough returned. “When you see the things to do the art of doing them will come — if you hammer away. The great point’s to see them.”

“Yes; and you don’t think me clever enough for that.”

“Why do you say so when I’ve asked you to come here on purpose?”

“You’ve asked me to come, but I’ve had no success.”

“On the contrary; every one thought you wonderful.”

“Oh but they don’t know!” said Miriam Rooth. “You’ve not said a word to me. I don’t mind your not having praised me; that would be too banal. But if I’m bad — and I know I’m dreadful — I wish you’d talk to me about it.”

“It’s delightful to talk to you,” Peter found himself saying.

“No, it isn’t, but it’s kind”; and she looked away from him.

Her voice had with this a quality which made him exclaim: “Every now and then you ‘say’ something —!”

She turned her eyes back to him and her face had a light. “I don’t want it to come by accident.” Then she added: “If there’s any good to be got from trying, from showing one’s self, how can it come unless one hears the simple truth, the truth that turns one inside out? It’s all for that — to know what one is, if one’s a stick!”

“You’ve great courage, you’ve rare qualities,” Sherringham risked. She had begun to touch him, to seem different: he was glad she had not gone.

But for a little she made no answer, putting down her empty cup and yearning over the table as for something more to eat. Suddenly she raised her head and broke out with vehemence: “I will, I will, I will!”

“You’ll do what you want, evidently.”

“I will succeed — I will be great. Of course I know too little, I’ve seen too little. But I’ve always liked it; I’ve never liked anything else. I used to learn things and do scenes and rant about the room when I was but five years old.” She went on, communicative, persuasive, familiar, egotistical (as was necessary), and slightly common, or perhaps only natural; with reminiscences, reasons, and anecdotes, an unexpected profusion, and with an air of comradeship, of freedom in any relation, which seemed to plead that she was capable at least of embracing that side of the profession she desired to adopt. He noted that if she had seen very little, as she said, she had also seen a great deal; but both her experience and her innocence had been accidental and irregular. She had seen very little acting — the theatre was always too expensive. If she could only go often — in Paris for instance every night for six months — to see the best, the worst, everything, she would make things out, would observe and learn what to do, what not to do: it would be a school of schools. But she couldn’t without selling the clothes off her back. It was vile and disgusting to be poor, and if ever she were to know the bliss of having a few francs in her pocket she would make up for it — that she could promise! She had never been acquainted with any one who could tell her anything — if it was good or bad or right or wrong — except Mrs. Delamere and poor Ruggieri. She supposed they had told her a great deal, but perhaps they hadn’t, and she was perfectly willing to give it up if it was bad. Evidently Madame Carré thought so; she thought it was horrid. Wasn’t it perfectly divine, the way the old woman had said those verses, those speeches of Célie? If she would only let her come and listen to her once in a while like that it was all she would ask. She had got lots of ideas just from that half-hour; she had practised them over, over, and over again, the moment she got home. He might ask her mother — he might ask the people next door. If Madame Carré didn’t think she could work, she might have heard, could she have listened at the door, something that would show her. But she didn’t think her even good enough to criticise — since that wasn’t criticism, telling her her head was good. Of course her head was good — she needn’t travel up to the quartiers excentriques to find that out. It was her mother, the way she talked, who gave the idea that she wanted to be elegant and moral and a femme du monde and all that sort of trash. Of course that put people off, when they were only thinking of the real right way. Didn’t she know, Miriam herself, that this was the one thing to think of? But any one would be kind to her mother who knew what a dear she was. “She doesn’t know when any thing’s right or wrong, but she’s a perfect saint,” said the girl, obscuring considerably her vindication. “She doesn’t mind when I say things over by the hour, dinning them into her ears while she sits there and reads. She’s a tremendous reader; she’s awfully up in literature. She taught me everything herself. I mean all that sort of thing. Of course I’m not so fond of reading; I go in for the book of life.” Sherringham wondered if her mother had not at any rate taught her that phrase — he thought it highly probable. “It would give on my nerves, the life I lead her,” Miriam continued; “but she’s really a delicious woman.”

The oddity of this epithet made Peter laugh, and altogether, in a few minutes, which is perhaps a sign that he abused his right to be a man of moods, the young lady had produced in him a revolution of curiosity, set his sympathy in motion. Her mixture, as it spread itself before him, was an appeal and a challenge: she was sensitive and dense, she was underbred and fine. Certainly she was very various, and that was rare; quite not at this moment the heavy-eyed, frightened creature who had pulled herself together with such an effort at Madame Carré‘s, nor the elated “phenomenon” who had just been declaiming, nor the rather affected and contradictious young person with whom he had walked home from the Rue de Constantinople. Was this succession of phases a sign she was really a case of the celebrated artistic temperament, the nature that made people provoking and interesting? That Sherringham himself was of this shifting complexion is perhaps proved by his odd capacity for being of two different minds very nearly at the same time. Miriam was pretty now, with felicities and graces, with charming, unusual eyes. Yes, there were things he could do for her; he had already forgotten the chill of Mr. Nash’s irony, of his prophecy. He was even scarce conscious how little in general he liked hints, insinuations, favours asked obliquely and plaintively: that was doubtless also because the girl was suddenly so taking and so fraternising. Perhaps indeed it was unjust to qualify as roundabout the manner in which Miss Rooth conveyed that it was open to him not only to pay for her lessons, but to meet the expense of her nightly attendance with her mother at instructive exhibitions of theatrical art. It was a large order, sending the pair to all the plays; but what Peter now found himself thinking of was not so much its largeness as the possible interest of going with them sometimes and pointing the moral — the technical one — of showing her the things he liked, the things he disapproved. She repeated her declaration that she recognised the fallacy of her mother’s view of heroines impossibly virtuous and of the importance of her looking out for such tremendously proper people. “One must let her talk, but of course it creates a prejudice,” she said with her eyes on Mr. and Mrs. Lovick, who had got up, terminating their communion with Mrs. Rooth. “It’s a great muddle, I know, but she can’t bear anything coarse or nasty — and quite right too. I shouldn’t either if I didn’t have to. But I don’t care a sou where I go if I can get to act, or who they are if they’ll help me. I want to act — that’s what I want to do; I don’t want to meddle in people’s affairs. I can look out for myself — I’m all right!” the girl exclaimed roundly, frankly, with a ring of honesty which made her crude and pure. “As for doing the bad ones I’m not afraid of that.”

“The bad ones?”

“The bad women in the plays — like Madame Carré. I’ll do any vile creature.”

“I think you’ll do best what you are”— and Sherringham laughed for the interest of it. “You’re a strange girl.”

Je crois bien! Doesn’t one have to be, to want to go and exhibit one’s self to a loathsome crowd, on a platform, with trumpets and a big drum, for money — to parade one’s body and one’s soul?”

He looked at her a moment: her face changed constantly; now it had a fine flush and a noble delicacy. “Give it up. You’re too good for it,” he found himself pleading. “I doubt if you’ve an idea of what girls have to go through.”

“Never, never — never till I’m pelted!” she cried.

“Then stay on here a bit. I’ll take you to the theatres.”

“Oh you dear!” Miriam delightedly exclaimed. Mr. and Mrs. Lovick, accompanied by Mrs. Rooth, now crossed the room to them, and the girl went on in the same tone: “Mamma dear, he’s the best friend we’ve ever had — he’s a great deal nicer than I thought.”

“So are you, mademoiselle,” said Peter Sherringham.

“Oh, I trust Mr. Sherringham — I trust him infinitely,” Mrs. Rooth returned, covering him with her mild, respectable, wheedling eyes. “The kindness of every one has been beyond everything. Mr. and Mrs. Lovick can’t say enough. They make the most obliging offers. They want you to know their brother.”

“Oh I say, he’s no brother of mine,” Mr. Lovick protested good-naturedly.

“They think he’ll be so suggestive, he’ll put us up to the right things,” Mrs. Rooth went on.

“It’s just a little brother of mine — such a dear, amusing, clever boy,” Mrs. Lovick explained.

“Do you know she has got nine? Upon my honour she has!” said her husband. “This one is the sixth. Fancy if I had to take them all over!”

“Yes, it makes it rather awkward,” Mrs. Lovick amiably conceded. “He has gone on the stage, poor darling — but he acts rather well.”

“He tried for the diplomatic service, but he didn’t precisely dazzle his examiners,” Mr. Lovick further mentioned.

“Edmund’s very nasty about him. There are lots of gentlemen on the stage — he’s not the first.”

“It’s such a comfort to hear that,” said Mrs. Rooth.

“I’m much obliged to you. Has he got a theatre?” Miriam asked.

“My dear young lady, he hasn’t even got an engagement,” replied the young man’s terrible brother-inlaw.

“He hasn’t been at it very long, but I’m sure he’ll get on. He’s immensely in earnest and very good-looking. I just said that if he should come over to see us you might rather like to meet him. He might give you some tips, as my husband says.”

“I don’t care for his looks, but I should like his tips,” Miriam liberally smiled.

“And is he coming over to see you?” asked Sherringham, to whom, while this exchange of remarks, which he had not lost, was going on, Mrs. Rooth had in lowered accents addressed herself.

“Not if I can help it I think!” But Mr. Lovick was so gaily rude that it wasn’t embarrassing.

“Oh sir, I’m sure you’re fond of him,” Mrs. Rooth remonstrated as the party passed together into the antechamber.

“No, really, I like some of the others — four or five of them; but I don’t like Arty.”

“We’ll make it up to him, then; we’ll like him,” Miriam answered with spirit; and her voice rang in the staircase — Sherringham attended them a little way — with a charm which her host had rather missed in her loudness of the day before.

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