The Tragic Muse (London & New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890)/Volume 1/Chapter 7
Peter Sherringham, the next day, reminded Nick that he had promised to be present with him at Madame Carré's interview with the ladies introduced to her by Gabriel Nash; and in the afternoon, in accordance with this arrangement, the two men took their way to the Rue de Constantinople. They found Mr. Nash and his friends in the small beflounced drawing-room of the old actress, who, as they learned, had sent in a request for ten minutes' grace, having been detained at a lesson—a rehearsal of a comédie de salon, to be given, for a charity, by a fine lady, at which she had consented to be present as an adviser. Mrs. Booth sat on a black satin sofa, with her daughter beside her, and Gabriel Nash wandered about the room, looking at the votive offerings which converted the little panelled box, decorated in sallow white and gold, into a theatrical museum: the presents, the portraits, the wreaths, the diadems, the letters, framed and glazed, the trophies and tributes and relics collected by Madame Carré during half a century of renown. The profusion of this testimony was hardly more striking than the confession of something missed, something hushed, which seemed to rise from it all and make it melancholy, like a reference to clappings which, in the nature of things, could now only be present as a silence: so that if the place was full of history, it was the form without the fact, or at the most a redundancy of the one to a pinch of the other—the history of a mask, of a squeak, a record of movements in the air.
Some of the objects exhibited by the distinguished artist, her early portraits, in lithograph or miniature, represented the costume and embodied the manner of a period so remote that Nick Dormer, as he glanced at them, felt a quickened curiosity to look at the woman who reconciled being alive to-day with having been alive so long ago. Peter Sherringham already knew how she managed this miracle, but every visit he paid to her added to his amused, charmed sense that it was a miracle, that his extraordinary old friend had seen things that he should never, never see. Those were just the things he wanted to see most, and her duration, her survival, cheated him agreeably and helped him a little to guess them. His appreciation of the actor's art was so systematic that it had an antiquarian side, and at the risk of representing him as attached to a futility, it must be said that he had as yet hardly known a keener regret for anything than for the loss of that antecedent world, and in particular for his having come too late for the great comédienne, the light of the French stage in the early years of the century, of whose example and instruction Madame Carré had had the inestimable benefit. She had often described to him her rare predecessor, straight from whose hands she had received her most celebrated parts, and of whom her own manner was often a religious imitation; but her descriptions troubled him more than they consoled, only confirming his theory, to which so much of his observation had already ministered, that the actor's art, in general, is going down and down, descending a slope with abysses of vulgarity at its foot, after having reached its perfection, more than fifty years ago, in the talent of the lady in question. He would have liked to dwell for an hour beneath the meridian.
Gabriel Nash introduced the new-comers to his companions; but the younger of the two ladies gave no sign of lending herself to this transaction. The girl was very white; she huddled there, silent and rigid, frightened to death, staring, expressionless. If Bridget Dormer had seen her at this moment she might have felt avenged for the discomfiture she had suffered the day before, at the Salon, under the challenging eyes of Maud Vavasour. It was plain at the present hour, that Miss Vavasour would have run away had she not felt that the persons present would prevent her escape. Her aspect made Nick Dormer feel as if the little temple of art in which they were collected had been the waiting-room of a dentist. Sherringham had seen a great many nervous girls trembling before the same ordeal, and he liked to be kind to them, to say things that would help them to do themselves justice. The probability, in a given case, was almost overwhelmingly in favour of their having any other talent one could think of in a higher degree than the dramatic; but he could rarely forbear to interpose, even as against his conscience, to keep the occasion from being too cruel. There were occasions indeed that could scarcely be too cruel to punish properly certain examples of presumptuous ineptitude. He remembered what Mr. Nash had said about this blighted maiden, and perceived that though she might be inept she was now anything but presumptuous. Gabriel fell to talking with Nick Dormer, and Peter addressed himself to Mrs. Rooth. There was no use as yet in saying anything to the girl; she was too scared even to hear. Mrs. Rooth, with her shawl fluttering about her, nestled against her daughter, putting out her hand to take one of Miriam's, soothingly. She had pretty, silly, near-sighted eyes, a long, thin nose and an upper lip which projected over the under as an ornamental cornice rests on its support. "So much depends—really everything!" she said in answer to some sociable observation of Sherringham's. "It's either this," and she rolled her eyes expressively about the room, "or it's—I don't know too much what!"
"Perhaps we're too many," Peter hazarded, to her daughter. "But really, you'll find, after you fairly begin, that you'll do better with four or five."
Before she answered she turned her head and lifted her fine eyes. The next instant he saw they were full of tears. The word she spoke, however, though uttered in a deep, serious tone, had not the note of sensibility: "Oh, I don't care for you!" He laughed at this, declared it was very well said and that if she could give Madame Carré such a specimen as that—! The actress came in before he had finished his phrase, and he observed the way the girl slowly got up to meet her, hanging her head a little and looking at her from under her brows. There was no sentiment in her face—only a kind of vacancy of terror which had not even the merit of being fine of its kind, for it seemed stupid and superstitious. Yet the head was good, he perceived at the same moment; it was strong and salient and made to tell at a distance. Madame Carré scarcely noticed her at first, greeting her only in her order, with the others, and pointing to seats, composing the circle with smiles and gestures, as if they were all before the prompter's box. The old actress presented herself to a casual glance as a red-faced woman in a wig, with beady eyes, a hooked nose and pretty hands; but Nick Dormer, who had a perception of physiognomy, speedily observed that these free characteristics included a great deal of delicate detail—an eyebrow, a nostril, a flitting of expressions, as if a multitude of little facial wires were pulled from within. This accomplished artist had in particular a mouth which was visibly a rare instrument, a pair of lips whose curves and fine corners spoke of a lifetime of "points" unerringly made and verses exquisitely spoken, helping to explain the purity of the sound that issued from them. Her whole countenance had the look of long service—of a thing infinitely worn and used, drawn and stretched to excess, with its elasticity overdone and its springs relaxed, yet religiously preserved and kept in repair, like an old valuable time-piece, which might have quivered and rumbled, but could be trusted to strike the hour. At the first words she spoke Gabriel Nash exclaimed, endearingly: "Ah, la voix de Célimène!" Célimène, who wore a big red flower on the summit of her dense wig, had a very grand air, a toss of the head and sundry little majesties of manner; in addition to which she was strange, almost grotesque, and to some people would have been even terrifying, capable of reappearing, with her hard eyes, as a queer vision in the darkness. She excused herself for having made the company wait, and mouthed and mimicked in the drollest way, with intonations as fine as a flute, the performance and the pretensions of the belles dames to whom she had just been endeavouring to communicate a few of the rudiments. "Mais celles-là, c'est une plaisanterie," she went on, to Mrs. Rooth; "whereas you and your daughter, chère madame—I am sure that you are quite another matter."
The girl had got rid of her tears and was gazing at her, and Mrs. Rooth leaned forward and said insinuatingly: "She knows four languages."
Madame Carré gave one of her histrionic stares, throwing buck her head. "That's three too many. The thing is to do something with one of them."
"We're very much in earnest," continued Mrs. Rooth, who spoke excellent French.
"I'm glad to hear it—il n'y a que ça. La tête est bien—the head is very good," she said, looking at the girl. "But let us see, my dear child, what you've got in it!" The young lady was still powerless to speak; she opened her lips, but nothing came. With the failure of this effort she turned her deep, sombre eyes upon the three men. "Un beau regard—it carries well," Madame Carre hinted. But even as she spoke Miss Rooth's fine gaze was suffused again, and the next moment she had begun to weep. Nick Dormer sprung up; he felt embarrassed and intrusive—there was such an indelicacy in sitting there to watch a poor girl's struggle with timidity. There was a momentary confusion; Mrs. Rooth's tears were seen also to flow; Gabriel Nash began to laugh, addressing however at the same time the friendliest, most familiar encouragement to his companions, and Peter Sherringham offered to retire with Nick on the spot, if their presence was oppressive to the young lady. But the agitation was over in a minute; Madame Carré motioned Mrs. Rooth out of her seat and took her place beside the girl, and Gabriel Nash explained judiciously to the other men that she would be worse if they were to go away. Her mother begged them to remain, "so that there should be at least some English;" she spoke as if the old actress were an army of Frenchwomen. The girl was quickly better, and Madame Carré, on the sofa beside her, held her hand and emitted a perfect music of reassurance. "The nerves, the nerves—they are half of our trade. Have as many as you like, if you've got something else too. Voyons—do you know anything?"
"I know some pieces."
"Some pieces of the répertoire?"
Miriam Rooth stared as if she didn't understand. "I know some poetry."
"English, French, Italian, German," said her mother. Madame Carré gave Mrs. Rooth a look which expressed irritation at the recurrence of this announcement. "Does she wish to act in all those tongues? The phrase-book isn't the comedy."
"It is only to show you how she has been educated."
"Ah, chère madame, there is no education that matters! I mean save the right one. Your daughter must have a language, like me, like ces messieurs."
"You see if I can speak French," said the girl, smiling dimly at her hostess. She appeared now almost to have collected herself.
"You speak it in perfection."
"And English just as well," said Miss Rooth.
"You oughtn't to be an actress; you ought to be a governess."
"Oh, don't tell us that: it's to escape from that!" pleaded Mrs. Rooth.
"I'm very sure your daughter will escape from that," Peter Sherringham was moved to remark.
"Oh, if you could help her!" the lady exclaimed, pathetically.
"She has certainly all the qualities that strike the eye," said Peter.
"You are most kind, sir!" Mrs. Rooth declared, elegantly draping herself.
"She knows Célimène; I have heard her do Célimène," Gabriel Nash said to Madame Carré.
"And she knows Juliet, and Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra," added Mrs. Rooth.
"Voyons, my dear child, do you wish to work for the French stage or for the English?" the old actress demanded.
"Ours would have sore need of you, Miss Rooth," Sherringham gallantly interposed.
"Could you speak to any one in London—could you introduce her?" her mother eagerly asked.
"Dear madam, I must hear her first, and hear what Madame Carré says."
"She has a voice of rare beauty, and I understand voices," said Mrs. Rooth.
"Ah, then, if she has intelligence she has every gift."
"She has a most poetic mind," the old lady went on.
"I should like to paint her portrait; she's made for that," Nick Dormer ventured to observe to Mrs. Rooth; partly because he was struck with the girl's capacity as a model, partly to mitigate the crudity of inexpressive spectatorship.
"So all the artists say. I have had three or four heads of her, if you would like to see them: she has been done in several styles. If you were to do her I am sure it would make her celebrated."
"And me too," said Nick, laughing.
"It would indeed, a member of Parliament!" Nash declared.
"Ah, I have the honour—?" murmured Mrs. Rooth, looking gratified and mystified.
Nick explained that she had no honour at all, and meanwhile Madame Carré had been questioning the girl. "Chère madame, I can do nothing with your daughter: she knows too much!" she broke out. "It's a pity, because I like to catch them wild."
"Oh, she's wild enough, if that's all! And that's the very point, the question of where to try," Mrs. Rooth went on. "Into what do I launch her—upon what dangerous, stormy sea? I've thought of it so anxiously."
"Try here—try the French public: they're so much the most serious," said Gabriel Nash.
"Ah, no, try the English: there's such a rare opening!" Sherringham exclaimed, in quick opposition.
"Ah, it isn't the public, dear gentlemen. It's the private side, the other people—it's the life—it's the moral atmosphere."
"Je ne connais qu'une scène—la nôtre," Madame Carré asserted. "I have been informed there is no other."
"And very correctly," said Gabriel Nash. "The theatre in our countries is puerile and barbarous."
"There is something to be done for it, and perhaps mademoiselle is the person to do it," Sherringham suggested, contentiously.
"Ah, but, en attendant, what can it do for her?" Madame Carré asked.
"Well, anything that I can help it to do," said Peter Sherringham, who was more and more struck with the girl's rich type. Miriam Rooth sat in silence, while this discussion went on, looking from one speaker to the other with a suspended, literal air.
"Ah, if your part is marked out, I congratulate you, mademoiselle!" said the old actress, underlining the words as she had often underlined such words on the stage. She smiled with large permissiveness on the young aspirant, who appeared not to understand her. Her tone penetrated, however, to certain depths in the mother's nature, adding another stir to agitated waters.
"I feel the responsibility of what she shall find in the life, the standards, of the theatre," Mrs. Rooth explained. "Where is the purest tone—where are the highest standards? that's what I ask," the good lady continued, with a persistent candour which elicited a peal of unceremonious but sociable laughter from Gabriel Nash.
"The purest tone—qu'est-ce-que-c'est que ça?" Madame Carre demanded, in the finest manner of modern comedy.
"We are very, very respectable," Mrs. Rooth went on, smiling and achieving lightness, too. "What I want to do is to place my daughter where the conduct—and the picture of conduct, in which she should take part—wouldn't be absolutely dreadful. Now, chère madame, how about all that? how about the conduct in the French theatre—the things she should see, the things she should hear?"
"I don't think I know what you are talking about. They are the things she may see and hear everywhere; only they are better done, they are better said. The only conduct that concerns an actress, it seems to me, is her own, and the only way for her to behave herself is not to be a stick. I know no other conduct."
"But there are characters, there are situations, which I don't think I should like to see her undertake."
"There are many, no doubt, which she would do well to leave alone!" laughed the Frenchwoman.
"I shouldn't like to see her represent a very bad woman—a really bad one," Mrs. Rooth serenely pursued.
"Ah, in England, then, and in your theatre, every one is good? Your plays must be even more ingenious than I supposed."
"We haven't any plays," said Gabriel Nash.
"People will write them for Miss Rooth—it will be a new era," Peter Sherringham rejoined, with wanton, or at any rate combative, optimism.
"Will you, sir—will you do something? A sketch of some truly noble female type?" the old lady asked, engagingly.
"Oh, I know what you do with our pieces—to show your superior virtue!" Madame Carré broke in, before he had time to reply that he wrote nothing but diplomatic memoranda. "Bad women? Je n'ai joué que ça, madame. 'Really' bad? I tried to make them real!"
"I can say 'L'Aventuriere,'" Miriam interrupted, in a cold voice which seemed to hint at a want of participation in the maternal solicitudes.
"Confer on us the pleasure of hearing you, then. Madame Carré will give you the réplique," said Peter Sherringham.
"Certainly, my child; I can say it without the book," Madame Carré responded. "Put yourself there—move that chair a little away." She patted her young visitor, encouraging her to rise, settling with her the scene they should take, while the three men sprang up to arrange a place for the performance. Miriam left her seat and looked vaguely round her; then, having taken off her hat and given it to her mother, she stood on the designated spot with her eyes on the ground. Abruptly, however, instead of beginning the scene, Madame Carré turned to the elder lady with an air which showed that a rejoinder to this visitor's remarks of a moment before had been gathering force in her breast.
"You mix things up, chère madame, and I have it on my heart to tell you so. I believe it's rather the case with you other English, and I have never been able to learn that either your morality or your talent is the gainer by it. To be too respectable to go where things are done best is, in my opinion, to be very vicious indeed; and to do them badly in order to preserve your virtue is to fall into a grossness more shocking than any other. To do them well is virtue enough, and not to make a mess of it the only respectability That's hard enough to merit Paradise. Everything else is base humbug! Voilà, chère madame, the answer I have for your scruples!"
"It's admirable—admirable; and I am glad my friend Dormer here has had the great advantage of hearing you utter it!" Gabriel Nash exclaimed, looking at Nick.
Nick thought it, in effect, a speech denoting an intelligence of the question, but he rather resented the idea that Nash should assume that it would strike him as a revelation; and to show his familiarity with the line of thought it indicated, as well as to play his part appreciatively in the little circle, he observed to Mrs. Rooth, as if they might take many things for granted: "In other words, your daughter must find her safeguard in the artistic conscience." But he had no sooner spoken than he was struck with the oddity of their discussing so publicly, and under the poor girl's nose, the conditions which Miss Rooth might find the best for the preservation of her personal integrity. However, the anomaly was light and unoppressive—the echoes of a public discussion of delicate questions seemed to linger so familiarly in the egotistical little room. Moreover the heroine of the occasion evidently was losing her embarrassment; she was the priestess on the tripod, awaiting the afflatus and thinking only of that. Her bared head, of which she had changed the position, holding it erect, while her arms hung at her sides, was admirable; and her eyes gazed straight out of the window, at the houses on the opposite side of the Rue de Constantinople.
Mrs. Rooth had listened to Madame Carré with startled, respectful attention, but Nick, considering her, was very sure that she had not understood her hostess's little lesson. Yet this did not prevent her from exclaiming in answer to him: "Oh, a fine artistic life—what indeed is more beautiful?"
Peter Sherringham had said nothing; he was watching Miriam and her attitude. She wore a black dress, which fell in straight folds; her face, under her mobile brows, was pale and regular, with a strange, strong, tragic beauty. "I don't know what's in her," he said to himself; "nothing, it would seem, from her persistent vacancy. But such a face as that, such a head, is a fortune!" Madame Carré made her commence, giving her the first line of the speech of Clorinde: "Vous ne me fuyez pas, mon enfant, aujourd'hui." But still the girl hesitated, and for an instant she appeared to make a vain, convulsive effort. In this effort she frowned portentously; her low forehead overhung her eyes; the eyes themselves, in shadow, stared, splendid and cold, and her hands clinched themselves at her sides. She looked austere and terrible, and during this moment she was an incarnation the vividness of which drew from Sherringham a stifled cry. "Elle est bien belle—ah, ça!" murmured the old actress; and in the pause which still preceded the issue of sound from the girl's lips Peter turned to his kinsman and said in a low tone:
"You must paint her just like that."
"As the Tragic Muse."
She began to speak; a long, strong, colourless voice came quavering from her young throat. She delivered the lines of Clorinde, in the fine interview with Célie, in the third act of the play, with a rude monotony, and then, gaining confidence, with an effort at modulation which was not altogether successful and which evidently she felt not to be so. Madame Carré sent back the ball without raising her hand, repeating the speeches of Célie, which her memory possessed from their having so often been addressed to her, and uttering the verses with soft, communicative art. So they went on through the scene, and when it was over it had not precisely been a triumph for Miriam Rooth. Sherringham forbore to look at Gabriel Nash, and Madame Carré said: "I think you have a voice, ma fille, somewhere or other. We must try and put our hand on it." Then she asked her what instruction she had had, and the girl, lifting her eyebrows, looked at her mother, while her mother prompted her.
"Mrs. Delamere, in London; she was once an ornament of the English stage. She gives lessons just to a very few; it's a great favour. Such a very nice person! But above all, Signer Ruggieri—I think he taught us most." Mrs. Rooth explained that this gentleman was an Italian tragedian, in Rome, who instructed Miriam in the proper manner of pronouncing his language, and also in the art of declaiming and gesticulating.
"Gesticulating, I'll warrant," said their hostess. "They mimic as if for the deaf, they emphasize as if for the blind. Mrs. Delamere is doubtless an epitome of all the virtues, but I never heard of her. You travel too much," Madame Carré went on; "that's very amusing, but the way to study is to stay at home, to shut yourself up and hammer at your scales." Mrs. Rooth complained that they had no home to stay at; in rejoinder to which the old actress exclaimed: "Oh, you English, you are d'une lêgèreté à faire, rougir. If you haven't a home you must make one. In our profession it's the first requisite."
"But where? That's what I ask!" said Mrs. Rooth.
"Why not here?" Sherringham inquired.
"Oh, here!" And the good lady shook her head, with a world of suggestions.
"Come and live in London, and then I shall be able to paint your daughter," Nick Dormer interposed.
"Is that all that it will take, my dear fellow?" asked Gabriel Nash.
"Ah, London is full of memories," Mrs. Rooth went on. "My father had a great house there—we always came up. But all that's over."
"Study here, and go to London to appear," said Peter Sherringham, feeling frivolous even as he spoke.
"To appear in French?"
"No, in the language of Shakespeare."
"But we can't study that here."
"Monsieur Sherringham means that he will give you lessons," Madame Carré explained. "Let me not fail to say it—he's an excellent critic."
"How do you know that—you who are perfect?" asked Sherringham: an inquiry to which the answer was forestalled by the girl's rousing herself to make it public that she could recite the "Nights" of Alfred de Musset.
"Diable!" said the actress, "that's more than I can! But by all means give us a specimen."
The girl again placed herself in position and rolled out a fragment of one of the splendid conversations of Musset's poet with his muse—rolled it loudly and proudly, tossed it and tumbled it about the room. Madame Carré watched her at first, but after a few moments she shut her eyes, though the best part of the business was to look. Sherringham had supposed Miriam was abashed by the flatness of her first performance, but now he perceived that she could not have been conscious of this; she was rather exhilarated and emboldened. She made a muddle of the divine verses, which, in spite of certain sonorities and cadences, an evident effort to imitate a celebrated actress, a comrade of Madame Carré, whom she had heard declaim them, she produced as if she had but a dim idea of their meaning. When she had finished Madame Carré passed no judgment; she only said, "Perhaps you had better say something English." She suggested some little piece of verse—some fable, if there were fables in English. She appeared but scantily surprised to hear that there were not—it was a language of which one expected so little. Mrs. Rooth said, "She knows her Tennyson by heart. I think he's more profound than La Fontaine;" and after some deliberation and delay Miriam broke into "The Lotos-Eaters," from which she passed directly, almost breathlessly, to "Edward Gray." Sherringham had by this time heard her make four different attempts, and the only generalization which could be very present to him was that she uttered these dissimilar compositions in exactly the same tone—a solemn, droning, dragging measure, adopted with an intention of pathos, a crude idea of "style." It was funereal, and at the same time it was rough and childish. Sherringham thought her English performance less futile than her French, but he could see that Madame Carré listened to it with even less pleasure. In the way the girl wailed forth some of her Tennysonian lines he detected a possibility of a thrill. But the further she went, the more violently she acted on the nerves of Mr. Gabriel Nash: that also he could discover, from the way this gentleman ended by slipping discreetly to the window and leaning there, with his head out and his back to the exhibition. He had the art of mute expression; his attitude said, as clearly as possible: "No, no, you can't call me either ill-mannered or ill-natured. I'm the showman of the occasion, moreover, and I avert myself, leaving you to judge. If there's a thing in life I hate, it's this idiotic new fashion of the drawing-room recitation, and the insufferable creatures who practise it, who prevent conversation and whom, as they are beneath it, you can't punish by criticism. Therefore what I am is only too magnanimous—bringing these benighted women here, paying with my person, stifling my just repugnance."
At the same time that Sherringham pronounced privately that the manner in which Miss Rooth had acquitted herself offered no element of interest, he remained conscious that something surmounted and survived her failure, something that would perhaps be worth taking hold of. It was the element of outline and attitude, the way she stood, the way she turned her eyes, her head, and moved her limbs. These things held the attention; they had a natural felicity and, in spite of their suggesting too much the school-girl in the tableau-vivant, a sort of grandeur. Her face, moreover, grew as he watched it; something delicate dawned in it, a dim promise of variety and a touching plea for patience, as if it were conscious of being able to show in time more expressions than the simple and striking gloom which, as yet, had mainly graced it. In short the plastic quality of her person was the only definite sign of a vocation. He almost hated to have to recognize this; he had seen that quality so often when it meant nothing at all that he had come at last to regard it as almost a guarantee of incompetence. He knew Madame Carré valued it, by itself, so little that she counted it out in measuring an histrionic nature; when it was not accompanied with other properties which helped and completed it she was near considering it as a positive hindrance to success—success of the only kind that she esteemed. Far oftener than he, she had sat in judgment on young women for whom hair and eyebrows and a disposition for the statuesque would have worked the miracle of attenuating their stupidity if the miracle were workable. But that particular miracle never was. The qualities she deemed most interesting were not the gifts, but the conquests—the effects the actor had worked hard for, had wrested by unwearying study. Sherringham remembered to have had, in the early part of their acquaintance, a friendly dispute with her on this subject; he having been moved at that time to defend the cause of the gifts. She had gone so far as to say that a serious comedian ought to be ashamed of them—ashamed of resting his case on them; and when Sherringham had cited Mademoiselle Rachel as a great artist whose natural endowment was rich and who had owed her highest triumphs to it, she had declared that Rachel was the very instance that proved her point—a talent embodying one or two primary aids, a voice and an eye, but essentially formed by work, unremitting and ferocious work. "I don't care a straw for your handsome girls," she said; "but bring me the one who is ready to drudge the tenth part of the way Rachel drudged, and I'll forgive her her beauty. Of course, notez bien, Rachel wasn't a bête: that's a gift, if you like!"
Mrs. Rooth, who was evidently very proud of the figure her daughter had made, appealed to Madame Carré, rashly and serenely, for a verdict; but fortunately this lady's voluble bonne came rattling in at the same moment with the tea-tray. The old actress busied herself in dispensing this refreshment, an hospitable attention to her English visitors, and under cover of the diversion thus obtained, while the others talked together, Sherringham said to his hostess: "Well, is there anything in her?"
"Nothing that I can see. She's loud and coarse."
"She's very much afraid; you must allow for that."
"Afraid of me, immensely, but not a bit afraid of her authors—nor of you!" added Madame Carré, smiling.
"Aren't you prejudiced by what Mr. Nash has told you?"
"Why prejudiced? He only told me she was very handsome."
"And don't you think she is?"
"Admirable. But I'm not a photographer nor a dressmaker. I can't do anything with that."
"The head is very noble," said Peter Sherringham. "And the voice, when she spoke English, had some sweet tones."
"Ah, your English—possibly! All I can say is that I listened to her conscientiously, and I didn't perceive in what she did a single nuance, a single inflection or intention. But not one, mon cher. I don't think she's intelligent."
"But don't they often seem stupid at first?"
"Then don't some succeed—even when they are handsome?"
"When they are handsome they always succeed—in one way or another."
"You don't understand us English," said Peter Sherringham.
Madame Carré drank her tea; then she replied: "Marry her, my son, and give her diamonds. Make her an ambassadress; she will look very well."
"She interests you so little that you don't care to do anything for her?"
"To do anything?"
"To give her a few lessons."
The old actress looked at him a moment: after which, rising from her place near the table on which the tea had been served, she said to Miriam Rooth: "My dear child, I give my voice for the scène anglaise. You did the English things best."
"Did I do them well?" asked the girl.
"You have a great deal to learn; but you have force. The principal things sont encore à degager, but they will come. You must work."
"I think she has ideas," said Mrs. Rooth.
"She gets them from you," Madame Carré replied.
"I must say, if it's to be our theatre I'm relieved. 1 think it's safer," the good lady continued.
"Ours is dangerous, no doubt."
"You mean you are more severe," said the girl.
"Your mother is right," the actress smiled; "you have ideas."
"But what shall we do then—how shall we proceed?" Mrs. Rooth inquired. She made this appeal, plaintively and vaguely, to the three gentlemen; but they had collected a few steps off and were talking together, so that it failed to reach them.
"Work—work—work!" exclaimed the actress.
"In English I can play Shakespeare. I want to play Shakespeare," Miriam remarked.
"That's fortunate, as in English you haven't any one else to play."
"But he's so great—and he's so pure!" said Mrs. Rooth.
"That also seems very fortunate for you," Madame Carré phrased.
"You think me actually pretty bad, don't you?" the girl demanded, with her serious face.
"Mon Dieu, que vous dirai-je? Of course you're rough; but so was I, at your age. And if you find your voice it may carry you far. Besides, what does it matter what I think? How can I judge for your English public?"
"How shall I find my voice?" asked Miriam Rooth.
"By trying. Il n'y a que ça. Work like a horse, night and day. Besides, M. Sherringham, as he says, will help you."
Sherringham, hearing his name, turned round, and the girl appealed to him. "Will you help me, really?"
"To find her voice," Madame Carré interposed.
"The voice, when it's worth anything, comes from the heart; so I suppose that's where to look for it," Gabriel Nash suggested.
"Much you know; you haven't got any!" Miriam retorted, with the first scintillation of gaiety she had shown on this occasion.
"Any voice, my child?" Mr. Nash inquired.
"Any heart—or any manners!"
Peter Sherringham made the secret reflection that he liked her better when she was lugubrious; for the note of pertness was not totally absent from her mode of emitting these few words. He was irritated, moreover, for in the brief conference he had just had with the young lady's introducer he had had to face the necessity of saying something optimistic about her, which was not particularly easy. Mr. Nash had said with his bland smile, "And what impression does my young friend make?" to which it appeared to Sherringham that uncomfortable consistency compelled him to reply that there was evidently a good deal in her. He was far from being sure of that. At the same time the young lady, both with the exaggerated "points" of her person and the poverty of her instinct of expression, constituted a kind of challenge—presented herself to him as a subject for inquiry, a problem, a piece of work, an explorable country. She was too bad to jump at, and yet she was too individual to overlook, especially when she rested her tragic eyes on him with the appeal of her deep "Really?" This appeal sounded as if it were in a certain way to his honour, giving him a chance to brave verisimilitude, to brave ridicule even, a little, in order to show, in a special case, what he had always maintained in general, that the direction of a young person's studies for the stage may be an interest of as high an order as any other artistic consideration.
"Mr. Nash has rendered us the great service of introducing us to Madame Carré, and I'm sure we're immensely indebted to him," Mrs. Rooth said to her daughter, with an air affectionately corrective.
"But what good does that do us?" the girl asked, smiling at the actress and gently laying her finger-tips upon her hand. "Madame Carré listens to me with adorable patience and then sends me about my business—in the prettiest way in the world."
"Mademoiselle, you are not so rough; the tone of that is very juste. A la bonne heure; work—work!" the actress exclaimed. "There was an inflection there, or very nearly. Practise it till you've got it."
"Come and practise it to me, if your mother will be so kind as to bring you," said Peter Sherringham.
"Do you give lessons—do you understand?" Miriam asked.
"I'm an old playgoer, and I have unbounded belief in my own judgment."
"'Old,' sir, is too much to say," Mrs. Rooth remonstrated. "My daughter knows your high position, but she is very direct. You will always find her so. Perhaps you'll say there are less honourable faults. We'll come to see you with pleasure. Oh, I've been at the Embassy, when I was her age. Therefore why shouldn't she go to-day? That was in Lord Davenant's time."
"A few people are coming to tea with me to-morrow. Perhaps you will come then, at five o'clock."
"It will remind me of the dear old times," said Mrs. Rooth.
"Thank you; I'll try and do better to-morrow," Miriam remarked, very sweetly.
"You do better every minute!" Sherringham exclaimed, looking at Madame Carré in emphasis of this declaration.
"She is finding her voice," the actress responded.
"She is finding a friend!" cried Mrs. Rooth.
"And don't forget, when you come to London, my hope that you'll come and see me," Nick Dormer said to the girl. "To try and paint you—that would do me good!"
"She is finding even two," said Madame Carré.
"It's to make up for one I've lost!" And Miriam looked with very good stage-scorn at Gabriel Nash. "It's he that thinks I'm bad."
"You say that to make me drive you home; you know it will," Nash returned.
"We'll all take you home; why not?" Sherringham asked.
Madame Carré looked at the handsome girl, handsomer than ever at this moment, and at the three young men who had taken their hats and stood ready to accompany her. A deeper expression came for an instant into her hard, bright eyes, while she sighed: "Ah, la jeunesse! you'd always have that, my child, if you were the greatest goose on earth!"