Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

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 with
complacent attention; for he shrank from bringing 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 sympathy, but in
the course of a few hours that flame had burned dim. Like most other men
he was a mixture of impulse and reflexion, but was peculiar in this,
that thinking things over almost always made him think less
conveniently. He found illusions necessary, so that in order to keep an
adequate number going he often forbade himself any excess of that
exercise. Mrs. Rooth and her daughter were there and could certainly be
trusted to make themselves felt. He was conscious of their anxiety and
their calculations as of a frequent oppression, and knew that whatever
results might ensue he should have to do the costly thing 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 these 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 wouldn't be a
compensation for trouble, but a trouble which in itself would require
compensations. 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 Miss Rooth 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 ran him to earth again; and he was unable to
see how after all he could serve them even then. He had proposed
impetuously a course of the theatres; but that would be a considerable
personal effort now that the summer was about to begin--a free bid for
bad air, stale pieces, and 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
unexpected and such difficult 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 wanted 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 stern judgement and give the young English
lady--to oblige him--a dozen lessons of the sort she knew so well 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 never wasted herself on subjects whom
nature had not formed to do her honour. He knew his asking her to strain
a point to please him would give her a false idea--save that for that
matter she had it already--of his relations, actual or prospective, with
the girl; but he decided he needn't care for this, since 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_ wasn't such a
_grue_. 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 his conviction she
began: "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 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
two hours. 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 daresay she'll profit by it," said Sherringham.

"I daresay _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 cried: "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 broke
out. Then seeing 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're 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 to Madame Carré as if he had not been there; making no
excuses and using no flattery; taking rather a tone of equal
authority--all as if the famous artist had an obvious duty toward her.
This was another variation Peter 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 she had any and
every being you might like and that would serve a purpose and 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 "be fond" of, because there would be nothing to take hold of. He felt
for a moment how simple he had been not to have achieved before this
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 belonging to her, as it
were, was the one that came nearest being a blank--an air of inanity
when she forgot herself in some act of sincere attention. Then her eye
was heavy and her mouth betrayed a commonness; 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 seemed to see 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 at the music-hall who is shot
from the mouth of a cannon. He winced a little at this coarser view of
the actress; he had somehow always looked more poetically at that
priestess of art. Yet 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 and hold 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 Miss 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 and had a future in it, while poor Madame Carré's was
worn and weary and had only a past.

The old woman said something, half in jest, half in real resentment,
about the brutality of youth while 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 keen Frenchwoman, who had in her long life exhausted every
adroitness, was in a manner helpless and coerced, obliging all in spite
of herself. Her young friend 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 such high
artifices of eye and gesture--was reduced to the last line of defence;
that of pronouncing her coarse and clumsy, saying she might knock her
down, but that this proved nothing. She spoke jestingly enough not to
offend, 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
thus 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 saw 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 resources.

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, her hands behind her and supporting
her--on the _console_ before the mirror. She waited an instant, turning
her eyes from one of her companions to the other as to take possession
of them--an eminently conscious, intentional proceeding, which made
Sherringham ask himself what had become of her former terror and if that
and her tears had all been a comedy: after which, abruptly straightening
herself, she began to repeat a short French poem, an ingenious thing of
the day, that she had induced Madame Carré to say over to her. She had
learned it, practised it, rehearsed it to her mother, and had now been
childishly eager to show what she could do with it. What she mainly did
was to reproduce with a crude fidelity, but in extraordinary detail, 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, however, little time to develop it, for she broke
out, at the shortest intervals, with the several other specimens of
verse to which the old actress had handed her the key. They were all
fine lyrics, of tender or ironic intention, by contemporary poets, but
depending for effect on taste and art, a mastery of the rare shade and
the right touch, 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 for Sherringham when it might have
been feared their hostess would see in the performance a designed
burlesque of her manner, her airs and graces, her celebrated simpers and
grimaces, so extravagant did it all cause these refinements to appear.
When it was over the old woman said, "Should you like now to hear how
_you_ do?" and, without waiting for an answer, phrased and trilled the
last of the pieces, from beginning to end, exactly as her visitor had
done, making this imitation of an imitation the drollest thing
conceivable. If she had suffered from the sound of the girl's echo it
was a perfect revenge. Miriam had dropped on a sofa, exhausted, and she
stared at first, flushed and wild; then she frankly gave way to
pleasure, to interest and large laughter. 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're made. They can never come nearer
to fine truth, to the just indication; 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're struck with the little the two ways have in common so much the
better. But you seem to me terribly to _alourdir_ everything you touch."

Peter read into this judgement a deep irritation--Miriam clearly set the
teeth of her instructress on edge. She acted on her nerves, was made up
of roughnesses and thicknesses unknown hitherto to her fine,
free-playing finger-tips. This exasperation, however, was a degree of
flattery; it was neither indifference nor simple contempt; it
acknowledged a mystifying reality in the _jeune Anglaise_ and even a
shade of importance. The latter remarked, serenely enough, that the
things she wanted most to do were just those that were not for the
_gros 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 open to interpretation, with which you had to fight every step,
rendering, arranging, doing the thing according to your idea. Some of
the most effective passages 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 patronising while she gave it. Her laughter appeared partly
addressed 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 stout patience 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 as to show how little
she cared at present for any exposure, 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
Peter's expectation, their distinguished friend warmed to the work of
answering and explaining, became interested, was content to keep her and
to talk. Yes, 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 our young man had ever spent, even in
the course of investigations which had often led him into the _cuisine_,
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
himself, with Miriam but a pretext and 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, an intelligence of the business, a ferocious analysis, had
been carried and a special vocabulary developed. What struck him above
all was the way she knew her grounds and reasons, so that 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, could explain it,
defend it, amplify it, fight for it: all of which was an intellectual
joy to her, allowing her a chance to abound and insist and discriminate.
There was a kind of cruelty or at least of hardness in it all, to poor
Peter's shy English sense, that sense which can never really reconcile
itself to any question of method and form, and has extraneous sentiments
to "square," to pacify with compromises and superficialities, the
general plea for innocence in everything and often the flagrant proof of
it. In theory there was nothing he valued more than just such a logical
passion as Madame Carré's, but it was apt in fact, when he found himself
at close quarters with it, to appear an ado about nothing.

If the old woman was hard it was not that many of her present
conclusions about the _jeune Anglaise_ 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 our friend 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 poor aspirant, finding them in some cases reprehensibly
inadequate Peter could never rid himself of a dislike to these
pronouncements; in the case of the actresses especially they struck him
as brutal and offensive--unmanly as launched by an ensconced,
moustachioed critic over a cigar. 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 caring for the actor's art one
ought to have been interested in every honest judgement of it, which,
given the peculiar conditions, would be useful in proportion as it
should be free. If the criticism that recognised frankly these
conditions seemed an inferior or an unholy 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 Peter had never straightened out: he
contented himself with feeling that there was no reason a theatrical
critic shouldn't be a gentleman, at the same time that he often dubbed
it 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's 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 beset with
Mrs. Rooth's twaddle and muddle, her hypocrisy, her idiotic
scruples--something she felt all need to belabour, to trample on. Miriam
took it all as a bath, a baptism, with shuddering joy and gleeful
splashes; staring, wondering, sometimes blushing and failing to follow,
but not shrinking nor wounded; laughing, when convicted, at her own
expense and feeling evidently that this at last was the high cold air of
art, an initiation, a discipline that nothing could undo. Sherringham
said he would see her home--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'll sit at your feet."

The old actress had an admirable shrug. "Oh I'll knock her about--she
seems stout enough!"

Henry James