The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 11


When she had descended into the street with Sherringham Miriam informed him that she was thirsty, dying to drink something: upon which he asked her if she would have any objection to going with him to a cafe.

"Objection? I have spent my life in cafes!" she exclaimed. "They are warm in winter and they are full of gaslight. Mamma and I have sat in them for hours, many a time, with a consommation of three sous, to save fire and candles at home. We have lived in places we couldn't sit in, if you want to know—where there was only really room if we were in bed. Mamma's money is sent out from England, and sometimes it didn't come. Once it didn't come for months—for months and months. I don't know how we lived. There wasn't any to come; there wasn't any to get home. That isn't amusing when you're away, in a foreign town, without any friends. Mamma used to borrow, but people wouldn't always lend. You needn't be afraid—she won't borrow from you. We are rather better now. Something has been done in England; I don't understand what. It's only fivepence a year, but it has been settled; it comes regularly; it used to come only when we had written and begged and waited. But it made no difference; mamma was always up to her ears in books. They served her for food and drink. When she had nothing to eat she began a novel in ten volumes—the old-fashioned ones; they lasted longest. She knows every cabinet de lecture in every town; the little cheap, shabby ones, I mean, in the back streets, where they have odd volumes and only ask a sou, and the books are so old that they smell bad. She takes them to the cafés—the little cheap, shabby cafés, too—and she reads there all the evening. That's very well for her, but it doesn't feed me. I don't like a diet of dirty old novels. I sit there beside her, with nothing to do, not even a stocking to mend; she doesn't think that's comme il faut. I don't know what the people take me for. However, we have never been spoken to: any one can see mamma's a lady. As for me, I dare say I might be anything. If you're going to be an actress you must get used to being looked at. There were people in England who used to ask us to stay; some of them were our cousins—or mamma says they were. I have never been very clear about our cousins, and I don't think they were at all clear about us. Some of them are dead; the others don't ask us any more. You should hear mamma on the subject of our visits in England. It's very convenient when your cousins are dead, because that explains everything. Mamma has delightful phrases: 'My family is almost extinct.' Then your family may have been anything you like. Ours, of course, was magnificent. We did stay in a place once where there was a deer-park, and also private theatricals. I played in them; I was only fifteen years old, but I was very big and I thought I was in heaven. I will go anywhere you like; you needn't be afraid; we have been in places! I have learned a great deal that way; sitting beside mamma and watching people, their faces, their types, their movements. There's a great deal goes on in cafés: people come to them to talk things over, their private affairs, their complications; they have important meetings. Oh, I've observed scenes, between men and women—very quiet, terribly quiet, but tragic! Once I saw a woman do something that I'm going to do some day, when I'm great—if I can get the situation. I'll tell you what it is some day; I'll do it for you. Oh, it is the book of life!"

So Miriam discoursed, familiarly, disconnectedly, as the pair went their way down the Rue de Constantinople; and she continued to abound in anecdote and remark after they were seated face to face at a little marble table in an establishment which Sherringham selected carefully and he had caused her, at her request, to be accommodated with sirop 'dorgeat. "I know what it will come to: Madame Carré will want to keep me." This was one of the announcements she presently made.

"To keep you?"

"For the French stage. She won't want to let you have me." She said things of that kind, astounding in self-complacency, the assumption of quick success. She was in earnest, evidently prepared to work, but her imagination flew over preliminaries and probations, took no account of the steps in the process, especially the first tiresome ones, the test of patience. Sherringham had done nothing for her as yet, given no substantial pledge of interest; yet she was already talking as if his protection were assured and jealous. Certainly, however, she seemed to belong to him very much indeed, as she sat facing him in the Paris café, in her youth,, her beauty and her talkative confidence. This degree of possession was highly agreeable to him, and he asked nothing more than to make it last and go further. The impulse to draw her out was irresistible, to encourage her to show herself to the end; for if he was really destined to take her career in hand he counted on some pleasant equivalent—such, for instance, as that she should at least amuse him.

"It's very singular; I know nothing like it," he said—"your equal mastery of two languages."

"Say of half a dozen," Miriam smiled.

"Oh, I don't believe in the others to the same degree. I don't imagine that, with all deference to your undeniable facility, you would be judged fit to address a German or an Italian audience in their own tongue. But you might a French, perfectly, and they are the most particular of all; for their idiom is supersensitive and they are incapable of enduring the baragouinage of foreigners, to which we listen with such complacency. In fact, your French is better than your English—it's more conventional; there are little queernesses and impurities in your English, as if you had lived abroad too much. Ah, you must work that."

"I'll work it with you. I like the way you speak."

"You must speak beautifully; you must do something for the standard."

"For the standard?"

"There isn't any, after all; it has gone to the dogs."

"Oh, I'll bring it back. I know what you mean."

"No one knows, no one cares; the sense is gone—it isn't in the public," Sherringham continued, ventilating a grievance he was rarely able to forget, the vision of which now suddenly made a mission full of sanctity for Miriam Rooth. "Purity of speech, on our stage, doesn't exist. Every one speaks as he likes, and audiences never notice; it's the last thing they think of. The place is given up to abominable dialects and individual tricks, any vulgarity nourishes, and on the top of it all the Americans, with every conceivable crudity, come in to make confusion worse confounded. And when one laments it people stare; they don't know what one means."

"Do you mean the grand manner, certain pompous pronunciations, the style of the Kembles?"

"I mean any style that is a style, that is a system, an art, that contributes a positive beauty to utterance. When I pay ten shillings to hear you speak, I want you to know how, que diable! Say that to people and they are mostly lost in stupor; only a few, the very intelligent ones, exclaim: 'Then do you want actors to be affected?'"

"And do you?" asked Miriam, full of interest.

"My poor child, what else, under the sun, should they be? Isn't their whole art the affectation par excellence? The public won't stand that to-day, so one hears it said. If that be true, it simply means that the theatre, as I care for it, that is as a personal art, is at an end."

"Never, never, never!" the girl cried, in a voice that made a dozen people look round.

"I sometimes think it—that the personal art is at an end, and that henceforth we shall have only the arts—capable, no doubt, of immense development in their way (indeed they have already reached it) of the stage-carpenter and the costumer. In London the drama is already smothered in scenery; the interpretation scrambles off as it can. To get the old personal impression, which used to be everything, you must go to the poor countries, and most of all to Italy."

"Oh, I've had it; it's very personal!" said Miriam, knowingly.

"You've seen the nudity of the stage, the poor painted, tattered screen behind, and in the empty space the histrionic figure, doing everything it knows how, in complete possession. The personality isn't our English personality, and it may not always carry us with it; but the direction is right, and it has the superiority that it's a human exhibition, not a mechanical one."

"I can act just like an Italian," said Miriam, eagerly.

"I would rather you acted like an Englishwoman, if an Englishwoman would only act."

"Oh. I'll show you!"

"But you're not English," said Sherringham, sociably, with his arms on the table.

"I beg your pardon; you should hear mamma about our 'race.'"

"You're a Jewess—I'm sure of that," Sherringham went on. She jumped at this, as he was destined to see, later, that she would jump at anything that would make her more interesting or striking; even at things which, grotesquely, contradicted or excluded each other. "That's always possible, if one's clever. I'm very willing, because I want to be the English Rachel."

"Then you must leave Madame Carré, as soon as you have got from her what she can give."

"Oh, you needn't fear; you sha'n't lose me," the girl replied, with gross, charming fatuity. "My name is Jewish," she went on, "but it was that of my grandmother, my father's mother. She was a baroness, in Germany. That is she was the daughter of a baron."

Sherringham accepted this statement with reservations, but he replied: "Put all that together, and it makes you very sufficiently of Rachel's tribe."

"I don't care, if I'm of her tribe artistically. I'm of the family of the artists: je me fiche of any other! I'm in the same style as that woman; I know it."

"You speak as if you had seen her," said Sherringham, amused at the way she talked of "that woman."

"Oh, I know all about her; I know all about all the great actors. But that won't prevent me from speaking divine English."

"You must learn lots of verse; you must repeat it to me," Sherringham went on. "You must break yourself in till you can say anything. You must learn passages of Milton, passages of Wordsworth."

"Did they write plays?"

"Oh, it isn't only a matter of plays! You can't speak a part properly till you can speak everything else, anything that comes up, especially in proportion as it's difficult. That gives you authority."

"Oh, yes, I'm going in for authority. There's more chance in English," the girl added, in the next breath. "There are not so many others—the terrible competition. There are so many here—not that I'm afraid," she chattered on. "But we've got America, and they haven't. America's a great place."

"You talk like a theatrical agent. They're lucky not to have it as we have it. Some of them do go, and it ruins them."

"Why, it fills their pockets!" Miriam cried.

"Yes, but see what they pay. It's the death of an actor to play to big populations that don't understand his language. It's nothing then but the gros moyens; all his delicacy perishes. However, they'll understand you."

"Perhaps I shall be too affected," said Miriam.

"You won't be more so than Garrick or Mrs. Siddons or John Kemble or Edmund Kean. They understood Edmund Kean. All reflection is affectation, and all acting is reflection."

"I don't know; mine is instinct," Miriam replied.

"My dear young lady, you talk of 'yours'; but don't be offended if I tell you that yours doesn't exist. Some day it will, if it comes off. Madame Carré's does, because she has reflected. The talent, the desire, the energy are an instinct; but by the time these things become a performance they are an instinct put in its place."

"Madame Carré is very philosophic. I shall never be like her."

"Of course you won't; you'll be original. But you'll have your own ideas."

"I dare say I shall have a good many of yours," said Miriam, smiling across the table.

They sat a moment looking at each other.

"Don't go in for coquetry; it's a waste of time."

"Well, that's civil!" the girl cried.

"Oh, I don't mean for me; I mean for yourself. I want you to be so concentrated. I am bound to give you good advice. You don't strike me as flirtatious and that sort of thing, and that's in your favour."

"In my favour!"

"It does save time."

"Perhaps it saves too much. Don't you think the artist ought to have passions?"

Sherringham hesitated a moment: he thought an examination of this question premature. "Flirtations are not passions," he replied. "No, you are simple—at least I suspect you are; for of course, with a woman, one would be clever to know." She asked why he pronounced her simple, but he judged it best, and more consonant with fair play, to defer even a treatment of this branch of the question; so that, to change the subject, he said: "Be sure you don't betray me to your friend Mr Nash."

"Betray you? Do you mean about your recommending affectation?"

"Dear me, no; he recommends it himself. That is he practises it, and on a scale!"

"But he makes one hate it."

"He proves what I mean," said Sherringham: "that the great comedian is the one who raises it to a science. If we paid ten shillings to listen to Mr. Nash, we should think him very fine. But we want to know what it's supposed to be."

"It's too odious, the way he talks about us!" Miriam cried, assentingly.

"About 'us'?"

"Us poor actors."

"It's the competition he dislikes," said Sherringham, laughing.

"However, he is very good-natured; he lent mamma thirty pounds," the girl added, honestly. Sherringham, at this information, was not able to repress a certain small twinge which his companion perceived and of which she appeared to mistake the meaning. "Of course he'll get it back," she went on, while Sherringham looked at her in silence for a minute. Fortune had not supplied him profusely with money, but his emotion was not caused by the apprehension that he too would probably have to put his hand in his pocket for Mrs. Rooth. It was simply the instinctive recoil of a fastidious nature from the idea of familiar intimacy with people who lived from hand to mouth, and a sense that that intimacy would have to be defined if it was to go much further. He would wish to know what it was supposed to be, like Gabriel Nash's histrionics. After a moment Miriam mistook his thought still more completely, and in doing so gave him a flash of foreknowledge of the way it was in her to strike from time to time a note exasperatingly, almost consciously vulgar, which one would hate for the reason, among others, that by that time one would be in love with her. "Well, then, he won't—if you don't believe it!" she exclaimed, with a laugh. He was saying to himself that the only possible form was that they should borrow only from him. "You're a funny man: I make you blush," Miriam persisted.

"I must reply with the tu quoque, though I have not that effect on you."

"I don't understand," said the girl.

"You're an extraordinary young lady."

"You mean I'm horrid. Well, I dare say I am. But I'm better when you know me."

Sherringham made no direct rejoinder to this, but after a moment he said: "Your mother must repay that money. I'll give it to her."

"You had better give it to him!" cried Miriam. "If once we have it—" She interrupted herself, and with another and a softer tone, one of her professional transitions, she remarked: "I suppose you have never known any one that's poor."

"I'm poor myself. That is I'm very far from rich. But why receive favours—?" And here he, in turn, checked himself, with the sense that he was indeed taking a great deal on his back if he pretended already (he had not seen the pair three times) to regulate their intercourse with the rest of the world. But Miriam instantly carried out his thought and more than his thought.

"Favours from Mr. Nash? Oh, he doesn't count!"

The way she dropped these words (they would have been admirable on the stage) made him laugh and say immediately: "What I meant just now was that you are not to tell him, after all my swagger, that I consider that you and I are really required to save our theatre."

"Oh, if we can save it, he shall know it!" Then Miriam added that she must positively get home; her mother would be in a state: she had really scarcely ever been out alone. He mightn't think it, but so it was. Her mother's ideas, those awfully proper ones, were not all talk. She did keep her! Sherringham accepted this—he had an adequate, and indeed an analytic vision of Mrs. Rooth's conservatism; but he observed at the same time that his companion made no motion to rise. He made none, either; he only said—

"We are very frivolous, the way we chatter. What you want to do, to get your foot in the stirrup, is supremely difficult. There is everything to overcome. You have neither an engagement nor the prospect of an engagement."

"Oh, you'll get me one!" Miriam's manner expressed that this was so certain that it was not worth dilating upon; so instead of dilating she inquired abruptly, a second time: "Why do you think I'm so simple?"

"I don't then. Didn't I tell you just now that you were extraordinary? That's the term moreover that you applied to yourself when you came to see me—when you said a girl had to be, to wish to go on the stage. It remains the right one, and your simplicity doesn't mitigate it. What's rare in you is that you have—as I suspect, at least—no nature of your own." Miriam listened to this as if she were preparing to argue with it or not, only as it should strike her as being a pleasing picture; but as yet, naturally, she failed to understand. "You are always playing something; there are no intervals. It's the absence of intervals, of a fond or background, that I don't comprehend. You're an embroidery without a canvas."

"Yes, perhaps," the girl replied, with her head on one side, as if she were looking at the pattern. "But I'm very honest."

"You can't be everything, a consummate actress and a flower of the field. You've got to choose."

She looked at him a moment. "I'm glad you think I'm so wonderful."

"Your feigning may be honest, in the sense that your only feeling is your feigned one," Sherringham went on. "That's what I mean by the absence of a ground or of intervals. It's a kind of thing that's a labyrinth!"

"I know what I am," said Miriam, sententiously. But her companion continued, following his own train: "Were you really so frightened, the first day you went to Madame Carré's?"

She stared a moment, and then with a flush, throwing back her head: "Do you think I was pretending?"

"I think you always are. However, your vanity (if you had any!) would be natural."

"I have plenty of that—I am not ashamed to own it."

"You would be capable of pretending that you have. But excuse the audacity and the crudity of my speculations—it only proves my interest. What is it that you know you are?"

"Why, an artist. Isn't that a canvas?"

"Yes, an intellectual one, but not a moral."

"Oh yes, it is, too. And I'm a good girl: won't that do?"

"It remains to be seen," Sherringham laughed. "A creature who is all an artist—I am curious to see that."

"Surely it has been seen, in lots of painters, lots of musicians."

"Yes, but those arts not personal, like yours. I mean not so much so. There's something left for—what shall I call it?—for character."

Miriam stared again, with her tragic light. "And do you think I've got no character?" As he hesitated she pushed back her chair, rising rapidly.

He looked up at her an instant—she seemed so "plastic"; and then, rising too, he answered: "Delightful being, you've got a hundred!"