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The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 10


For several days Peter Sherringham had business in hand which left him neither time nor freedom of mind to occupy himself actively with the ladies of the Hôtel de la Garonne. There were moments when they brushed across his memory, but their passage was rapid and not lighted up with any particular complacency of attention; for he shrank considerably from bringing it to the proof—the question of whether Miriam would be an interest or only a bore. She had left him, after their second meeting, with a quickened expectation, but in the course of a few hours that flame had burned dim. Like many other men Sherringham was a mixture of impulse and reflection; but he was peculiar in this, that thinking things over almost always made him think less well of them. He found illusions necessary, so that in order to keep an adequate number going he often earnestly forbade himself that exercise. Mrs. Rooth and her daughter were there and could certainly be trusted to make themselves felt. He was conscious of their anxiety, their calculations, as of a kind of oppression; he knew that, whatever results might ensue, he should have to do something positive for them. An idea of tenacity, of worrying feminine duration, associated itself with their presence; he would have assented with a silent nod to the proposition (enunciated by Gabriel Nash) that he was saddled with them. Remedies hovered before him, but they figured also at the same time as complications; ranging vaguely from the expenditure of money to the discovery that he was in love. This latter accident would be particularly tedious; he had a full perception of the arts by which the girl's mother might succeed in making it so. It would not be a compensation for trouble, but a trouble which in itself would require compensation. Would that balm spring from the spectacle of the young lady's genius? The genius would have to be very great to justify a rising young diplomatist in making a fool of himself.

With the excuse of pressing work he put off his young pupil from day to day, and from day to day he expected to hear her knock at his door. It would be time enough when they came after him; and he was unable to see how, after all, he could serve them even then. He had proposed impetuously a course of theatres; but that would be a considerable personal effort, now that the summer was about to begin, with bad air, stale pieces, tired actors. When, however, more than a week had elapsed without a reminder of his neglected promise, it came over him that he must himself in honour give a sign. There was a delicacy in such discretion—he was touched by being let alone. The flurry of work at the Embassy was over, and he had time to ask himself what, in especial, he should do. He wished to have something definite to suggest before communicating with the Hôtel de la Garonne. As a consequence of this speculation he went back to Madame Carré, to ask her to reconsider her unfavourable judgment and give the young English lady—to oblige him—a dozen lessons of the sort that she knew how to give. He was aware that this request scarcely stood on its feet; for in the first place Madame Carré never reconsidered, when once she had got her impression, and in the second she never wasted herself on subjects whom nature had not formed to do her honour. He knew that his asking her to strain a point to please him would give her a false idea (for that matter, she had it already) of his relations, actual or prospective, with the girl; but he reflected that he needn't care for that, as Miriam herself probably wouldn't care. What he had mainly in mind was to say to the old actress that she had been mistaken—the jeune Anglaise was not such a duffer. This would take some courage, but it would also add to the amusement of his visit.

He found her at home, but as soon as he had expressed the conviction I have mentioned she exclaimed: "Oh, your jeune Anglaise, I know a great deal more about her than you! She has been back to see me twice; she doesn't go the longest way round. She charges me like a grenadier, and she asks me to give her—guess a little what!—private recitations, all to herself. If she doesn't succeed it won't be for want of knowing how to thump at doors. The other day, when I came in, she was waiting for me; she had been there for an hour. My private recitations—have you an idea what people pay for them?"

"Between artists, you know, there are easier conditions," Sherringham laughed.

"How do I know if she's an artist? She won't open her mouth to me; what she wants is to make me say things to her. She does make me—I don't know how—and she sits there gaping at me with her big eyes. They look like open pockets!"

"I dare say she'll profit by it," said Sherringham.

"I dare say you will! Her face is stupid while she watches me, and when she has tired me out she simply walks away. However, as she comes back—" Madame Carré paused a moment, listened, and then exclaimed: "Didn't I tell you?"

Sherringham heard a parley of voices in the little antechamber, and the next moment the door was pushed open and Miriam Rooth bounded into the room. She was flushed and breathless, without a smile, very direct.

"Will you hear me to-day? I know four things," she immediately began. Then, perceiving Sherringham, she added in the same brisk, earnest tone, as if the matter were of the highest importance: "Oh, how'd'ye do? I'm very glad you are here." She said nothing else to him than this, appealed to him in no way, made no allusion to his having neglected her, but addressed herself entirely to Madame Carré, as if he had not been there; making no excuses and using no flattery; taking rather a tone of equal authority, as if she considered that the celebrated artist had a sacred duty toward her. This was another variation, Sherringham thought; it differed from each of the attitudes in which he had previously seen her. It came over him suddenly that so far from there being any question of her having the histrionic nature, she simply had it in such perfection that she was always acting; that her existence was a series of parts assumed for the moment, each changed for the next, before the perpetual mirror of some curiosity or admiration or wonder—some spectatorship that she perceived or imagined in the people about her. Interested as he had ever been in the profession of which she was potentially an ornament, this idea startled him by its novelty and even lent, on the spot, a formidable, a really appalling character to Miriam Rooth. It struck him abruptly that a woman whose only being was to "make believe," to make believe that she had any and every being that you liked, that would serve a purpose, produce a certain effect, and whose identity resided in the continuity of her personations, so that she had no moral privacy, as he phrased it to himself, but lived in a high wind of exhibition, of figuration—such a woman was a kind of monster, in whom of necessity there would be nothing to like, because there would be nothing to take hold of. He felt for a moment that he had been very simple not before to have achieved that analysis of the actress. The girl's very face made it vivid to him now—the discovery that she positively had no countenance of her own, but only the countenance of the occasion, a sequence, a variety (capable possibly of becoming immense), of representative movements. She was always trying them, practising them for her amusement or profit, jumping from one to the other and extending her range; and this would doubtless be her occupation more and more as she acquired ease and confidence. The expression that came nearest to belonging to her, as it were, was the one that came nearest to being a blank—an air of inanity when she forgot herself, watching something. Then her eye was heavy and her mouth rather common; though it was perhaps just at such a moment that the fine line of her head told most. She had looked slightly bête even when Sherringham, on their first meeting at Madame Carré's, said to Nick Dormer that she was the image of the Tragic Muse.

Now, at any rate, he had the apprehension that she might do what she liked with her face. It was an elastic substance, an element of gutta-percha, like the flexibility of the gymnast, the lady who, at a music-hall, is shot from the mouth of a cannon. He coloured a little at this quickened view of the actress; he had always looked more poetically, somehow, at that priestess of art. But what was she, the priestess, when one came to think of it, but a female gymnast, a mountebank at higher wages? She didn't literally hang by her heels from a trapeze, holding a fat man in her teeth, but she made the same use of her tongue, of her eyes, of the imitative trick, that her muscular sister made of leg and jaw. It was an odd circumstance that Miriam Rooth's face seemed to him to-day a finer instrument than old Madame Carré's. It was doubtless that the girl's was fresh and strong, with a future in it, while poor Madame Carré's was worn and weary, with only a past.

The old woman said something, half in jest, half in real resentment, about the brutality of youth, as Miriam went to a mirror and quickly took off her hat, patting and arranging her hair as a preliminary to making herself heard. Sherringham saw with surprise and amusement that the clever Frenchwoman, who had in her long life exhausted every adroitness, was in a manner helpless, condemned, both protesting and consenting. Miriam had taken but a few days and a couple of visits to become a successful force; she had imposed herself, and Madame Carré, while she laughed (yet looked terrible too, with artifices of eye and gesture), was reduced to the last line of defence—that of declaring her coarse and clumsy, saying she might knock her down, but that proved nothing. She spoke jestingly enough not to offend Miriam, but her manner betrayed the irritation of an intelligent woman who, at an advanced age, found herself for the first time failing to understand. What she didn't understand was the kind of social product that had been presented to her by Gabriel Nash; and this suggested to Sherringham that the jeune Anglaise was perhaps indeed rare, a new type, as Madame Carré must have seen innumerable varieties. He guessed that the girl was perfectly prepared to be abused and that her indifference to what might be thought of her discretion was a proof of life, health and spirit, the insolence of conscious power.

When she had given herself a touch at the glass she turned round, with a rapid "Ecoutez maintenant!" and stood leaning a moment, slightly lowered and inclined backward, with her hands behind her and supporting her, on the table in front of the mirror. She waited an instant, turning her eyes from one of her companions to the other as if she were taking possession of them (an eminently conscious, intentional proceeding, which made Sherringham ask himself what had become of her former terror and whether that and her tears had all been a comedy): after which, abruptly straightening herself, she began to repeat a short French poem, a composition modern and delicate, one of the things she had induced Madame Carré to say over to her. She had learned it, practised it, rehearsed it to her mother, and now she had been childishly eager to show what she could do with it. What she mainly did was to reproduce with a crude fidelity, but with extraordinary memory, the intonations, the personal quavers and cadences of her model.

"How bad you make me seem to myself, and if I were you how much better I should say it!" was Madame Carré's first criticism.

Miriam allowed her little time to develop this idea, for she broke out, at the shortest intervals, with the five other specimens of verse to which the old actress had handed her the key. They were all delicate lyrics, of tender or pathetic intention, by contemporary poets—all things demanding perfect taste and art, a mastery of tone, of insinuation, in the interpreter. Miriam had gobbled them up, and she gave them forth in the same way as the first, with close, rude, audacious mimicry. There was a moment when Sherringham was afraid Madame Carré would think she was making fun of her manner, her celebrated simpers and grimaces, so extravagant did the girl's performance cause these refinements to appear. When she had finished, the old woman said: "Should you like now to hear how you do it?" and, without waiting for an answer, phrased and trilled the last of the pieces, from beginning to end, exactly as Miriam had done, making this imitation of an imitation the drollest thing conceivable. If she had been annoyed it was a perfect revenge. Miriam had dropped on a sofa, exhausted, and she stared at first, looking flushed and wild; then she gave way to merriment, laughing with a high sense of comedy. She said afterwards, to defend herself, that the verses in question, and indeed all those she had recited, were of the most difficult sort: you had to do them; they didn't do themselves—they were things in which the gros moyens were of no avail. "Ah, my poor child, your means are all gros moyens; you appear to have no others," Madame Carré replied. "You do what you can, but there are people like that; it's the way they are made. They can never come nearer to the delicate; shades don't exist for them, they don't see certain differences. It was to show you a difference that I repeated that thing as you repeat it, as you represent my doing it. If you are struck with the little the two ways have in common, so much the better. But you seem to me to coarsen everything you touch."

Sherringham thought this judgment harsh to cruelty, and perceived that Miss Rooth had the power to set the teeth of her instructress on edge. She acted on her nerves; she was made of a thick, rough substance which the old woman was not accustomed to manipulate. This exasperation, however, was a kind of flattery; it was neither indifference nor simple contempt; it acknowledged a mystifying reality in the girl and even a degree of importance. Miriam remarked, serenely enough, that the things she wanted most to do were just those that were not for the gos moyens, the vulgar obvious dodges, the starts and shouts that any one could think of and that the gros public liked. She wanted to do what was most difficult and to plunge into it from the first; and she explained, as if it were a discovery of her own, that there were two kinds of scenes and speeches: those which acted themselves, of which the treatment was plain, the only way, so that you had just to take it; and those which were open to interpretation, with which you had to fight every step, rendering, arranging, doing it according to your idea. Some of the most effective things, and the most celebrated and admired, like the frenzy of Juliet with her potion, were of the former sort; but it was the others she liked best. Madame Carré received this revelation good-naturedly enough, considering its want of freshness, and only laughed at the young lady for looking so nobly patronizing while she gave it. It was clear that her laughter was partly dedicated to the good faith with which Miriam described herself as preponderantly interested in the subtler problems of her art. Sherringham was charmed with the girl's pluck—if it was pluck and not mere density—the brightness with which she submitted, for a purpose, to the old woman's rough usage. He wanted to take her away, to give her a friendly caution, to advise her not to become a bore, not to expose herself. But she held up her beautiful head in a way that showed she didn't care at present how she exposed herself, and that (it was half coarseness—Madame Carré was so far right—and half fortitude) she had no intention of coming away so long as there was anything to be picked up. She sat, and still she sat, challenging her hostess with every sort of question—some reasonable, some ingenious, some strangely futile and some highly indiscreet; but all with the effect that, contrary to Sherringham's expectation, Madame Carré warmed to the work of answering and explaining, became interested, was content to keep her and to talk. Yet she took her ease; she relieved herself, with the rare cynicism of the artist, all the crudity, the irony and intensity of a discussion of esoteric things, of personal mysteries, of methods and secrets. It was the oddest hour Sherringham had ever spent, even in the course of investigation which had often led him into the cuisine, as the French called it, the distillery or back-shop of the admired profession. He got up several times to come away; then he remained, partly in order not to leave Miriam alone with her terrible initiatress, partly because he was both amused and edified, and partly because Madame Carré held him by the appeal of her sharp, confidential old eyes, addressing her talk to him, with Miriam as a subject, a vile illustration. She undressed this young lady, as it were, from head to foot, turned her inside out, weighed and measured and sounded her: it was all, for Sherringham, a new revelation of the point to which, in her profession and nation, a ferocious analysis had been carried, with an intelligence of the business and a special vocabulary. What struck him above all was the way she knew her reasons and everything was sharp and clear in her mind and lay under her hand. If she had rare perceptions she had traced them to their source; she could give an account of what she did; she knew perfectly why; she could explain it, defend it, amplify it, fight for it: and all this was an intellectual joy to her, allowing her a chance to abound and insist and be clever. There was a kind of cruelty, or at least of hardness in it all, to Sherringham's English sense, that sense which can never really reconcile itself to the question of execution and has extraneous sentiments to placate with compromises and superficialities, frivolities that have often a pleasant moral fragrance. In theory there was nothing that he valued more than just such a logical passion as Madame Carré's; but in fact, when he found himself in close quarters with it, it was apt to seem to him an ado about nothing.

If the old woman was hard, it was not that many of her present conclusions, as regards Miriam, were not indulgent, but that she had a vision of the great manner, of right and wrong, of the just and the false, so high and religious that the individual was nothing before it—a prompt and easy sacrifice. It made Sherringham uncomfortable, as he had been made uncomfortable by certain feuilletons, reviews of the theatres in the Paris newspapers, which he was committed to thinking important, but of which, when they were very good, he was rather ashamed. When they were very good, that is when they were very thorough, they were very personal, as was inevitable in dealing with the most personal of the arts: they went into details; they put the dots on the i's; they discussed impartially the qualities of appearance, the physical gifts of the actor or actress, finding them in some cases reprehensibly inadequate. Sherringham could not rid himself of a prejudice against these pronouncements; in the case of the actresses especially they appeared to him brutal and indelicate—unmanly as coming from a critic sitting smoking in his chair. At the same time he was aware of the dilemma (he hated it; it made him blush still more) in which his objection lodged him. If one was right in liking the actor's art one ought to have been interested in every candid criticism of it, which, given the peculiar conditions, would be legitimate in proportion as it should be minute. If the criticism that recognized frankly these conditions seemed an inferior or an offensive thing, then what was to be said for the art itself? What an implication, if the criticism was tolerable only so long as it was worthless—so long as it remained vague and timid! This was a knot which Sherringham had never straightened out: he contented himself with saying that there was no reason a theatrical critic shouldn't be a gentleman, at the same time that he often remarked that it was an odious trade, which no gentleman could possibly follow. The best of the fraternity, so conspicuous in Paris, were those who didn't follow it—those who, while pretending to write about the stage, wrote about everything else.

It was as if Madame Carré, in pursuance of her inflamed sense that the art was everything and the individual nothing, save as he happened to serve it, had said: "Well, if she will have it she shall; she shall know what she is in for, what I went through, battered and broken in as we all have been—all who are worthy, who have had the honour. She shall know the real point of view." It was as if she were still haunted with Mrs. Rooth's nonsense, her hypocrisy, her scruples—something she felt a need to belabour, to trample on. Miriam took it all as a bath, a baptism, with passive exhilaration and gleeful shivers; staring, wondering, sometimes blushing and failing to follow, but not shrinking nor wounded; laughing, when it was necessary, at her own expense, and feeling evidently that this at last was the air of the profession, an initiation which nothing could undo. Sherringham said to her that he would see her home—that he wanted to talk to her and she must walk away with him. "And it's understood, then, she may come back," he added to Madame Carré. "It's my affair, of course. You'll take an interest in her for a month or two; she will sit at your feet."

"Oh, I'll knock her about; she seems stout enough!" said the old actress.