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Chapter 11


When they had descended to the street Miriam mentioned to Peter that she
was thirsty, dying to drink something: upon which he asked her if she
should have an objection to going with him to a café.

"Objection? I've spent my life in cafés! They're warm in winter and you
get your lamplight for nothing," she explained. "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've 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's sent out from England and sometimes it usedn't to 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 of _you_. We're 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 like close rooms. 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
_comme il faut_. I don't know what the people take me for. However,
we've never been spoken to: any one can see mamma's a great lady. As for
me I daresay I might be anything dreadful. 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've 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--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'll go anywhere you like; you needn't be afraid; we've been in
places! I've 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 awful, pathetic, 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 sometime--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 Peter had selected carefully and where
he had caused her, at her request, to be accommodated with _sirop
d'orgeat_. "I know what it will come to: Madame Carré will want to keep
me." This was one of the felicities she presently threw off.

"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 hard
test of honesty. He 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 at 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 all the way; for if he
was really destined to take her career in hand he counted on some good
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'd be judged
fit to address a German or an Italian audience in their own tongue. But
you might a French, perfectly, and they're the most particular of all;
for their idiom's supersensitive and they're 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?"

"Well, there isn't any after all." Peter had a drop. "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,"
he continued, ventilating a grievance he was rarely able to forget, the
vision of which now suddenly made a mission full of possible sanctity
for his companion. "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 flourishes, and on 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's a system, a consistency, 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're mostly lost in stupor; only a few, the very
intelligent, exclaim: 'Then 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've 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 before that void 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's
right, and it has the superiority that it's a human exhibition, not a
mechanical one."

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

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

"Oh, I'll show you!"

"But you're not English," said Peter sociably, 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," he went on.

She jumped at this, as he was destined to see later she would ever jump
at anything that might make her more interesting or striking; even at
things that 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've got from her what
she can give."

"Oh, you needn't fear; you shan't lose me," the girl replied with
charming gross fatuity. "My name's 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."

Peter 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," he said, 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," she said.

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

"I don't know--mine's instinct," Miriam contended.

"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 the thing 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're an instinct put in its place."

"Madame Carré's 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 daresay I shall have a good many of yours"--and she smiled at him
across the table.

They sat a moment looking at each other. "Don't go in for coquetry,"
Peter then said. "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 such good
faith. I'm bound to give you stiff advice. You don't strike me as
flirtatious and that sort of thing, and it's much 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?"

Peter had a pause; he thought an examination of this issue premature.
"Flirtations are not passions," he replied. "No, you're 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's
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," Peter laughed.

"However, he's very good-natured; he lent mamma thirty pounds," the girl
added honestly. Our young man, at this information, was not able to
repress a certain small twinge noted by his companion and of which she
appeared to mistake the meaning. "Of course he'll get it back," she went
on while he looked at her in silence a little. Fortune had not supplied
him profusely with money, but his emotion was caused by no foresight of
his probably having also 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,
together with a sense that this 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 Nash's histrionics. Miriam after a moment mistook his thought
still more completely, and in doing so flashed a portent 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, along with
others, that by that time one would be in love with her. "Well then, he
won't--if you don't believe it!" she easily laughed. 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," she persisted.

"I must reply with the _tu quoque_, though I've 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 daresay I am. But I'm better when you know
me."

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

"You had better give it _him_!" cried Miriam. "If once mamma has it--!"
She interrupted herself and with another and a softer tone, one of her
professional transitions, remarked: "I suppose you've never known any
one that was 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 the girl 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 reply with prompt ease: "What I meant just now was that
you're 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!" She added that she must
positively get home; her mother would be in a state: she had really
scarce 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're very frivolous, the way we chatter. What you want to do to get
your foot in the stirrup is supremely difficult. There's everything to
overcome. You've neither an engagement nor the prospect of an
engagement."

"Oh you'll get me one!" Her manner presented this as so certain that it
wasn't worth dilating on; 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 a kind of monster to wish to go
on the stage. It remains the right term 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 preparing
to argue with it or not, only as it should strike her as a sufficiently
brave picture; but as yet, naturally, she failed to understand. "You're
always at concert pitch or on your horse; 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, her head on one side as if she were
looking at the pattern of this rarity. "But I'm very honest."

"You can't be everything, both 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," Peter pursued. "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," she said 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, then with a flush threw 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've plenty of that. I'm not a bit ashamed to own it."

"You'd be capable of trying to 'do' the human peacock. 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, but not a moral."

"Ah it's everything! And I'm a good girl too--won't that do?"

"It remains to be seen," Sherringham laughed. "A creature who's
absolutely _all_ an artist--I'm curious to see that."

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

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

She stared again with her tragic light. "And do you think I haven't a
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 answered: "Delightful being, you've a hundred!"

Henry James