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The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 12


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

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

He felt not particularly volatile, however, when he sat behind Miriam at the play and looked over her shoulder at the stage: her observation being so keen and her comments so unexpected in their vivacity that his curiosity was refreshed and his attention stretched beyond its wont. If the spectacle before the footlights had now lost much of its annual brilliancy, the fashion in which Miriam followed it came near being spectacle enough. Moreover, in most cases the attendance of the little party was at the Théâtre Français; and it has been sufficiently indicated that Sherringham, though the child of a sceptical age and the votary of a cynical science, was still candid enough to take the serious, the religious view of that establishment—the view of M. Sarcey and of the unregenerate provincial mind. "In the trade that I follow we see things too much in the hard light of reason, of calculation," he once remarked to his young protégée; "but it's good for the mind to keep up a superstition or two: it leaves a margin, like having a second horse to your brougham for night-work. The arts, the amusements, the æsthetic part of life are night-work, if I may say so without suggesting the nefarious. At any rate you want your second horse—your superstition that stays at home when the sun is high—to go your rounds with. The Théâtre Français is my second horse."

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

Mrs. Rooth took a more placid view, but attended immensely to the story, in respect to which she manifested a patient good faith which had its surprises and its comicalities for Sherringham. She found no play too tedious, no entr'acte too long, no baignoire too hot, no tissue of incidents too complicated, no situation too unnatural and no sentiments too sublime. She gave Sherringham the measure of her power to sit and sit—an accomplishment to which she owed, in the struggle for existence, such superiority as she might be said to have achieved. She could outsit every one, everything else; looking as if she had acquired the practice in repeated years of small frugality combined with large leisure—periods when she had nothing but time to spend and had learned to calculate, in any situation, how long she could stay. "Staying" was so often a saving—a saving of candles, of fire and even (for it sometimes implied a vision of light refreshment) of food. Sherringham perceived soon enough that she was complete in her way, and if he had been addicted to studying the human mixture in its different combinations he would have found in her an interesting compendium of some of the infatuations that survive a hard discipline. He made indeed without difficulty the reflection that her life might have taught her the reality of things, at the same time that he could scarcely help thinking it clever of her to have so persistently declined the lesson. She appeared to have put it by with a deprecating, ladylike smile—a plea of being too soft and bland for experience.

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

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

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

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

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

"I thought you thought just these questions of study, of the artistic education, as you have called it to me, so fascinating," the girl persisted. Sometimes she was very lucid.

"Well, after all I'm not an actor myself," Sherringham answered, laughing.

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

"That's very well; but if I must go into details read me a little Shelley," said the young man, in the spirit of a high raffiné.

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

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

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

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

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

She rather annoyed Sherringham by the serenity of her confidence (for a reason that he fully understood only later), save when Miriam caught an effect or a tone so well that she made him, in the pleasure of it, forget her parent was there. He continued to object to the girl's English, with the foreign patches which might pass in prose but were offensive in the recitation of verse, and he wanted to know why she could not speak like her mother. He had to do Mrs. Rooth the justice of recognizing the charm of her voice and accent, which gave a certain richness even to the foolish things she said. They were of an excellent insular tradition, full both of natural and of cultivated sweetness, and they puzzled him when other indications seemed to betray her—to relegate her to the class of the simple dreary. They were like the reverberation of far-off drawing-rooms.

The connection between the development of Miriam's genius and the necessity of an occasional excursion to the country—the charming country that lies in so many directions beyond the Parisian banlieue—would not have been immediately apparent to a merely superficial observer; but a day, and then another, at Versailles, a day at Fontainebleau and a trip, particularly harmonious and happy, to Rambouillet, took their place in Sherringham's programme as a part of the legitimate indirect culture, an agency in the formation of taste. Intimations of the grand style, for instance, would proceed in abundance from the symmetrical palace and gardens of Louis XIV. Sherringham was very fond of Versailles, and went there more than once with the ladies of the Hôtel de la Garonne. They chose quiet hours, when the fountains were dry; and Mrs. Rooth took an armful of novels and sat on a bench in the park, flanked by clipped hedges and old statues, while her young companions strolled away, walked to the Trianon, explored the long, straight vistas of the woods. Rambouillet was vague and pleasant and idle; they had an idea that they found suggestive associations there; and indeed there was an old white chateau which contained nothing else. They found, at any rate, luncheon and, in the landscape, a charming sense of summer and of little brushed French pictures.

I have said that in these days Sherringham wondered a good deal, and by the time his leave of absence was granted him this practice had engendered a particular speculation. He was surprised that he was not in love with Miriam Rooth, and he considered in moments of leisure the causes of his exemption. He had perceived from the first that she was a "nature," and each time she met his eyes the more vividly it appeared to him that her beauty was rare. You had to get the view of her face, but when you did so it was a splendid mobile mask. And the possessor of this high advantage had frankness and courage and variety and the unusual and the unexpected. She had qualities that seldom went together—impulses and shynesses, audacities and lapses, something coarse, popular and strong, all intermingled with disdains and languors and nerves. And then, above all, she was there, she was accessible, she almost belonged to him. He reflected ingeniously that he owed his escape to a peculiar cause—the fact that they had together a positive outside object. Objective, as it were, was all their communion; not personal and selfish, but a matter of art and business and discussion. Discussion had saved him and would save him further; for they would always have something to quarrel about. Sherringham, who was not a diplomatist for nothing; who had his reasons for steering straight and wished neither to deprive the British public of a rising star nor to change his actual situation for that of a conjugal impresario, blessed the beneficence, the salubrity, the pure exorcism of art. At the same time, rather inconsistently and feeling that he had a completer vision than before of the odd animal the artist who happened to have been born a woman, he felt himself warned against a serious connection (he made a great point of the "serious,") with so slippery and ticklish a creature. The two ladies had only to stay in Paris, save their candle-ends and, as Madame Carré had enjoined, practise their scales: there were apparently no autumn visits to English country-houses in prospect for Mrs. Rooth.

Sherringham parted with them on the understanding that in London he would look as thoroughly as possible into the question of an engagement for Miriam. The day before he began his holiday he went to see Madame Carré, who said to him: "Vous devriez bien nous la laisser."

"She has got something, then?"

"She has got most things. She'll go far. It is the first time I ever was mistaken. But don't tell her so—I don't flatter her; she'll be too puffed up."

"Is she very conceited?" Sherringham asked.

"Mauvais sujet!" said Madame Carré.

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