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Chapter 18

At first Peter Sherringham thought of asking to be transferred to
another post and went so far, in London, as to take what he believed
good advice on the subject. The advice, perhaps struck him as the better
for consisting of a strong recommendation to do nothing so foolish. Two
or three reasons were mentioned to him why such a request would not, in
the particular circumstances, raise him in the esteem of his superiors,
and he promptly recognised their force. He next became aware that it
might help him--not with his superiors but with himself--to apply for an
extension of leave, and then on further reflexion made out that, though
there are some dangers before which it is perfectly consistent with
honour to flee, it was better for every one concerned that he should
fight this especial battle on the spot. During his holiday his plan of
campaign gave him plenty of occupation. He refurbished his arms, rubbed
up his strategy, laid down his lines of defence.

There was only one thing in life his mind had been much made up to, but
on this question he had never wavered: he would get on, to the utmost,
in his profession. That was a point on which it was perfectly lawful to
be unamiable to others--to be vigilant, eager, suspicious, selfish. He
had not in fact been unamiable to others, for his affairs had not
required it: he had got on well enough without hardening his heart.
Fortune had been kind to him and he had passed so many competitors on
the way that he could forswear jealousy and be generous. But he had
always flattered himself his hand wouldn't falter on the day he should
find it necessary to drop bitterness into his cup. This day would be
sure to dawn, since no career could be all clear water to the end; and
then the sacrifice would find him ready. His mind was familiar with the
thought of a sacrifice: it is true that no great plainness invested
beforehand the occasion, the object or the victim. All that particularly
stood out was that the propitiatory offering would have to be some
cherished enjoyment. Very likely indeed this enjoyment would be
associated with the charms of another person--a probability pregnant
with the idea that such charms would have to be dashed out of sight. At
any rate it never had occurred to Sherringham that he himself might be
the sacrifice. You had to pay to get on, but at least you borrowed from
others to do it. When you couldn't borrow you didn't get on, for what
was the situation in life in which you met the whole requisition

Least of all had it occurred to our friend that the wrench might come
through his interest in that branch of art on which Nick Dormer had
rallied him. The beauty of a love of the theatre was precisely in its
being a passion exercised on the easiest terms. This was not the region
of responsibility. It was sniffed at, to its discredit, by the austere;
but if it was not, as such people said, a serious field, was not the
compensation just that you couldn't be seriously entangled in it?
Sherringham's great advantage, as he regarded the matter, was that he
had always kept his taste for the drama quite in its place. His
facetious cousin was free to pretend that it sprawled through his life;
but this was nonsense, as any unprejudiced observer of that life would
unhesitatingly attest. There had not been the least sprawling, and his
interest in the art of Garrick had never, he was sure, made him in any
degree ridiculous. It had never drawn down from above anything
approaching a reprimand, a remonstrance, a remark. Sherringham was
positively proud of his discretion, for he was not a little proud of
what he did know about the stage. Trifling for trifling, there were
plenty of his fellows who had in their lives infatuations less edifying
and less confessable. Hadn't he known men who collected old
invitation-cards and were ready to commit _bassesses_ for those of the
eighteenth century? hadn't he known others who had a secret passion for
shuffleboard? His little weaknesses were intellectual--they were a part
of the life of the mind. All the same, on the day they showed a symptom
of interfering they should be plucked off with a turn of the wrist.

Sherringham scented interference now, and interference in rather an
invidious form. It might be a bore, from the point of view of the
profession, to find one's self, as a critic of the stage, in love with a
_coquine_; but it was a much greater bore to find one's self in love
with a young woman whose character remained to be estimated. Miriam
Rooth was neither fish nor flesh: one had with her neither the
guarantees of one's own class nor the immunities of hers. What _was_
hers if one came to that? A rare ambiguity on this point was part of the
fascination she had ended by throwing over him. Poor Peter's scheme for
getting on had contained no proviso against his falling in love, but it
had embodied an important clause on the subject of surprises. It was
always a surprise to fall in love, especially if one was looking out for
it; so this contingency had not been worth official paper. But it
became a man who respected the service he had undertaken for the State
to be on his guard against predicaments from which the only issue was
the rigour of matrimony. Ambition, in the career, was probably
consistent with marrying--but only with opening one's eyes very wide to
do it. That was the fatal surprise--to be led to the altar in a dream.
Sherringham's view of the proprieties attached to such a step was high
and strict; and if he held that a man in his position was, above all as
the position improved, essentially a representative of the greatness of
his country, he considered that the wife of such a personage would
exercise in her degree--for instance at a foreign court--a function no
less symbolic. She would in short always be a very important quantity,
and the scene was strewn with illustrations of this general truth. She
might be such a help and might be such a blight that common prudence
required some test of her in advance. Sherringham had seen women in the
career, who were stupid or vulgar, make such a mess of things as would
wring your heart. Then he had his positive idea of the perfect
ambassadress, the full-blown lily of the future; and with this idea
Miriam Rooth presented no analogy whatever.

The girl had described herself with characteristic directness as "all
right"; and so she might be, so she assuredly was: only all right for
what? He had made out she was not sentimental--that whatever capacity
she might have for responding to a devotion or for desiring it was at
any rate not in the direction of vague philandering. With him certainly
she had no disposition to philander. Sherringham almost feared to dwell
on this, lest it should beget in him a rage convertible mainly into
caring for her more. Rage or no rage it would be charming to be in love
with her if there were no complications; but the complications were
just what was clearest in the prospect. He was perhaps cold-blooded to
think of them, but it must be remembered that they were the particular
thing his training had equipped him for dealing with. He was at all
events not too cold-blooded to have, for the two months of his holiday,
very little inner vision of anything more abstract than Miriam's face.
The desire to see it again was as pressing as thirst, but he tried to
practise the endurance of the traveller in the desert. He kept the
Channel between them, but his spirit consumed every day an inch of the
interval, until--and it was not long--there were no more inches left.
The last thing he expected the future ambassadress to have been was
_fille de théâtre_. The answer to this objection was of course that
Miriam was not yet so much of one but that he could easily, by a
handsome "worldly" offer, arrest her development. Then came worrying
retorts to that, chief among which was the sense that to his artistic
conscience arresting her development would be a plan combining on his
part fatuity, not to say imbecility, with baseness. It was exactly to
her development the poor girl had the greatest right, and he shouldn't
really alter anything by depriving her of it. Wasn't she the artist to
the tips of her tresses--the ambassadress never in the world--and
wouldn't she take it out in something else if one were to make her
deviate? So certain was that demonic gift to insist ever on its own.

Besides, _could_ one make her deviate? If she had no disposition to
philander what was his warrant for supposing she could be corrupted into
respectability? How could the career--his career--speak to a nature that
had glimpses as vivid as they were crude of such a different range and
for which success meant quite another sauce to the dish? Would the
brilliancy of marrying Peter Sherringham be such a bribe to
relinquishment? How could he think so without pretensions of the sort he
pretended exactly not to flaunt?--how could he put himself forward as so
high a prize? Relinquishment of the opportunity to exercise a rare
talent was not, in the nature of things, an easy effort to a young lady
who was herself presumptuous as well as ambitious. Besides, she might
eat her cake and have it--might make her fortune both on the stage and
in the world. Successful actresses had ended by marrying dukes, and was
not that better than remaining obscure and marrying a commoner? There
were moments when he tried to pronounce the girl's "gift" not a force to
reckon with; there was so little to show for it as yet that the caprice
of believing in it would perhaps suddenly leave him. But his conviction
that it was real was too uneasy to make such an experiment peaceful, and
he came back, moreover, to his deepest impression--that of her being of
the inward mould for which the only consistency is the play of genius.
Hadn't Madame Carré declared at the last that she could "do anything"?
It was true that if Madame Carré had been mistaken in the first place
she might also be mistaken in the second. But in this latter case she
would be mistaken with him--and such an error would be too like a truth.

How, further, shall we exactly measure for him--Sherringham felt the
discomfort of the advantage Miriam had of him--the advantage of her
presenting herself in a light that rendered any passion he might
entertain an implication of duty as well as of pleasure? Why there
should have been this implication was more than he could say; sometimes
he held himself rather abject, or at least absurdly superstitious, for
seeing it. He didn't know, he could scarcely conceive, of another case
of the same general type in which he would have recognised it. In
foreign countries there were very few ladies of Miss Rooth's intended
profession who would not have regarded it as too strong an order that,
to console them for not being admitted into drawing-rooms, they should
have no offset but the exercise of a virtue in which no one would
believe. This was because in foreign countries actresses were not
admitted into drawing-rooms: that was a pure English drollery,
ministering equally little to real histrionics and to the higher tone of
these resorts. Did the oppressive sanctity which made it a burden to
have to reckon with his young friend come then from her being English?
Peter could recall cases in which that privilege operated as little as
possible as a restriction. It came a great deal from Mrs. Rooth, in whom
he apprehended depths of calculation as to what she might achieve for
her daughter by "working" the idea of a life blameless amid dire
obsessions. Her romantic turn of mind wouldn't in the least prevent her
regarding that idea as a substantial capital, to be laid out to the best
worldly advantage. Miriam's essential irreverence was capable, on a
pretext, of making mince-meat of it--that he was sure of; for the only
capital she recognised was the talent which some day managers and agents
would outbid each other in paying for. Yet as a creature easy at so many
points she was fond of her mother, would do anything to oblige--that
might work in all sorts of ways--and would probably like the loose
slippers of blamelessness quite as well as having to meet some of the
queer high standards of the opposite camp.

Sherringham, I may add, had no desire that she should indulge a
different preference: it was distasteful to him to compute the
probabilities of a young lady's misbehaving for his advantage--that
seemed to him definitely base--and he would have thought himself a
blackguard if, even when a prey to his desire, he had not wished the
thing that was best for the object of it. The thing best for Miriam
might be to become the wife of the man to whose suit she should incline
her ear. That this would be the best thing for the gentleman in question
by no means, however, equally followed, and Sherringham's final
conviction was that it would never do for him to act the part of that
hypothetic personage. He asked for no removal and no extension of leave,
and he proved to himself how well he knew what he was about by never
addressing a line, during his absence, to the Hôtel de la Garonne. He
would simply go straight, inflicting as little injury on Peter
Sherringham as on any one else. He remained away to the last hour of his
privilege and continued to act lucidly in having nothing to do with the
mother and daughter for several days after his return to Paris.

It was when this discipline came to an end one afternoon after a week
had passed that he felt most the force of the reference we have just
made to Mrs. Rooth's private calculations. He found her at home, alone,
writing a letter under the lamp, and as soon as he came in she cried out
that he was the very person to whom the letter was addressed. She could
bear it no longer; she had permitted herself to reproach him with his
terrible silence--to ask why he had quite forsaken them. It was an
illustration of the way in which her visitor had come to regard her that
he put rather less than more faith into this description of the crumpled
papers lying on the table. He was not even sure he quite believed Miriam
to have just gone out. He told her mother how busy he had been all the
while he was away and how much time above all he had had to give in
London to seeing on her daughter's behalf the people connected with the

"Ah if you pity me tell me you've got her an engagement!" Mrs. Rooth
cried while she clasped her hands.

"I took a great deal of trouble; I wrote ever so many notes, sought
introductions, talked with people--such impossible people some of them.
In short I knocked at every door, I went into the question
exhaustively." And he enumerated the things he had done, reported on
some of the knowledge he had gathered. The difficulties were immense,
and even with the influence he could command, such as it was, there was
very little to be achieved in face of them. Still he had gained ground:
two or three approachable fellows, men with inferior theatres, had
listened to him better than the others, and there was one in particular
whom he had a hope he really might have interested. From him he had
extracted benevolent assurances: this person would see Miriam, would
listen to her, would do for her what he could. The trouble was that no
one would lift a finger for a girl unless she were known, and yet that
she never could become known till innumerable fingers had been lifted.
You couldn't go into the water unless you could swim, and you couldn't
swim until you had been in the water.

"But new performers appear; they get theatres, they get audiences, they
get notices in the newspapers," Mrs. Rooth objected. "I know of these
things only what Miriam tells me. It's no knowledge that I was born to."

"It's perfectly true. It's all done with money."

"And how do they come by money?" Mrs. Rooth candidly asked.

"When they're women people give it to them."

"Well, what people now?"

"People who believe in them."

"As you believe in Miriam?"

Peter had a pause. "No, rather differently. A poor man doesn't believe
in anything the same way that a rich man does."

"Ah don't call yourself poor!" groaned Mrs. Rooth.

"What good would it do me to be rich?"

"Why you could take a theatre. You could do it all yourself."

"And what good would that do me?"

"Ah don't you delight in her genius?" demanded Mrs. Rooth.

"I delight in her mother. You think me more disinterested than I am,"
Sherringham added with a certain soreness of irritation.

"I know why you didn't write!" Mrs. Rooth declared archly.

"You must go to London," Peter said without heeding this remark.

"Ah if we could only get there it would be a relief. I should draw a
long breath. There at least I know where I am and what people are. But
here one lives on hollow ground!"

"The sooner you get away the better," our young man went on.

"I know why you say that."

"It's just what I'm explaining."

"I couldn't have held out if I hadn't been so sure of Miriam," said Mrs.

"Well, you needn't hold out any longer."

"Don't _you_ trust her?" asked Sherringham's hostess.

"Trust her?"

"You don't trust yourself. That's why you were silent, why we might have
thought you were dead, why we might have perished ourselves."

"I don't think I understand you; I don't know what you're talking
about," Peter returned. "But it doesn't matter."

"Doesn't it? Let yourself go. Why should you struggle?" the old woman
agreeably inquired.

Her unexpected insistence annoyed her visitor, and he was silent again,
meeting her eyes with reserve and on the point of telling her that he
didn't like her tone. But he had his tongue under such control that he
was able presently to say instead of this--and it was a relief to him to
give audible voice to the reflexion--"It's a great mistake, either way,
for a man to be in love with an actress. Either it means nothing
serious, and what's the use of that? or it means everything, and that's
still more delusive."


"Idle, unprofitable."

"Surely a pure affection is its own beautiful reward," Mrs. Rooth
pleaded with soft reasonableness.

"In such a case how can it be pure?"

"I thought you were talking of an English gentleman," she replied.

"Call the poor fellow whatever you like: a man with his life to lead,
his way to make, his work, his duties, his career to attend to. If it
means nothing, as I say, the thing it means least of all is marriage."

"Oh my own Miriam!" Mrs. Rooth wailed.

"Fancy, on the other hand, the complication when such a man marries a
woman who's on the stage."

Mrs. Rooth looked as if she were trying to follow. "Miriam isn't on the
stage yet."

"Go to London and she soon will be."

"Yes, and then you'll have your excuse."

"My excuse?"

"For deserting us altogether."

He broke into laughter at this, the logic was so droll. Then he went on:
"Show me some good acting and I won't desert you."

"Good acting? Ah what's the best acting compared with the position of a
true English lady? If you'll take her as she is you may have her," Mrs.
Rooth suddenly added.

"As she is, with all her ambitions unassuaged?"

"To marry _you_--might not that be an ambition?"

"A very paltry one. Don't answer for her, don't attempt that," said
Peter. "You can do much better."

"Do you think _you_ can?" smiled Mrs. Rooth.

"I don't want to; I only want to let it alone. She's an artist; you must
give her her head," the young man pursued. "You must always give an
artist his head."

"But I've known great ladies who were artists. In English society
there's always a field."

"Don't talk to me of English society! Thank goodness, in the first
place, I don't live in it. Do you want her to give up her genius?" he

"I thought you didn't care for it."

"She'd say, 'No I thank you, dear mamma.'"

"My wonderful child!" Mrs. Rooth almost comprehendingly murmured.

"Have you ever proposed it to her?"

"Proposed it?"

"That she should give up trying."

Mrs. Rooth hesitated, looking down. "Not for the reason you mean. We
don't talk about love," she simpered.

"Then it's so much less time wasted. Don't stretch out your hand to the
worse when it may some day grasp the better," Peter continued. Mrs.
Rooth raised her eyes at him as if recognising the force there might be
in that, and he added: "Let her blaze out, let her look about her. Then
you may talk to me if you like."

"It's very puzzling!" the old woman artlessly sighed.

He laughed again and then said: "Now don't tell me I'm not a good

"You are indeed--you're a very noble gentleman. That's just why a quiet
life with you----"

"It wouldn't be quiet for _me_!" he broke in. "And that's not what
Miriam was made for."

"_Don't say that_ for my precious one!" Mrs. Rooth quavered.

"Go to London--go to London," her visitor repeated.

Thoughtfully, after an instant, she extended her hand and took from the
table the letter on the composition of which he had found her engaged.
Then with a quick movement she tore it up. "That's what Mr. Dashwood

"Mr. Dashwood?"

"I forgot you don't know him. He's the brother of that lady we met the
day you were so good as to receive us; the one who was so kind to
us--Mrs. Lovick."

"I never heard of him."

"Don't you remember how she spoke of him and that Mr. Lovick didn't seem
very nice about him? She told us that if he were to meet us--and she was
so good as to intimate that it would be a pleasure to him to do so--he
might give us, as she said, a tip."

Peter achieved the effort to recollect. "Yes he comes back to me. He's
an actor."

"He's a gentleman too," said Mrs. Rooth.

"And you've met him, and he _has_ given you a tip?"

"As I say, he wants us to go to London."

"I see, but even I can tell you that."

"Oh yes," said Mrs. Rooth; "but _he_ says he can help us."

"Keep hold of him then, if he's in the business," Peter was all for

"He's a perfect gentleman," said Mrs. Rooth. "He's immensely struck with

"Better and better. Keep hold of him."

"Well, I'm glad you don't object," she grimaced.

"Why should I object?"

"You don't regard us as _all_ your own?"

"My own? Why, I regard you as the public's--the world's."

She gave a little shudder. "There's a sort of chill in that. It's grand,
but it's cold. However, I needn't hesitate then to tell you that it's
with Mr. Dashwood Miriam has gone out."

"Why hesitate, gracious heaven?" But in the next breath Sherringham
asked: "Where have they gone?"

"You don't like it!" his hostess laughed.

"Why should it be a thing to be enthusiastic about?"

"Well, he's charming and _I_ trust him."

"So do I," said Sherringham.

"They've gone to see Madame Carré."

"She has come back then?"

"She was expected back last week. Miriam wants to show her how she has

"And _has_ she improved?"

"How can I tell--with my mother's heart?" asked Mrs. Rooth. "I don't
judge; I only wait and pray. But Mr. Dashwood thinks she's wonderful."

"That's a blessing. And when did he turn up?"

"About a fortnight ago. We met Mrs. Lovick at the English church, and
she was so good as to recognise us and speak to us. She said she had
been away with her children--otherwise she'd have come to see us. She
had just returned to Paris."

"Yes, I've not yet seen her. I see Lovick," Peter added, "but he doesn't
talk of his brother-in-law."

"I didn't, that day, like his tone about him," Mrs. Rooth observed. "We
walked a little way with Mrs. Lovick after church and she asked Miriam
about her prospects and if she were working. Miriam said she had no

"That wasn't very nice to me," Sherringham commented.

"But when you had left us in black darkness what _were_ our prospects?"

"I see. It's all right. Go on."

"Then Mrs. Lovick said her brother was to be in Paris a few days and she
would tell him to come and see us. He arrived, she told him and he came.
_Voilà_!" said Mrs. Rooth.

"So that now--so far as _he_ is concerned--Miss Rooth has prospects?"

"He isn't a manager unfortunately," she qualified.

"Where does he act?"

"He isn't acting just now; he has been abroad. He has been to Italy, I
believe, and is just stopping here on his way to London."

"I see; he _is_ a perfect gentleman," said Sherringham.

"Ah you're jealous of him!"

"No, but you're trying to make me so. The more competitors there are for
the glory of bringing her out the better for her."

"Mr. Dashwood wants to take a theatre," said Mrs. Rooth.

"Then perhaps he's our man."

"Oh if you'd help him!" she richly cried.

"Help him?"

"Help him to help us."

"We'll all work together; it will be very jolly," said Sherringham
gaily. "It's a sacred cause, the love of art, and we shall be a happy
band. Dashwood's his name?" he added in a moment. "Mrs. Lovick wasn't a

"It's his _nom de théâtre_--Basil Dashwood. Do you like it?" Mrs. Rooth
wonderfully inquired.

"You say that as Miriam might. Her talent's catching!"

"She's always practising--always saying things over and over to seize
the tone. I've her voice in my ears. He wants _her_ not to have any."

"Not to have any what?"

"Any _nom de théâtre_. He wants her to use her own; he likes it so much.
He says it will do so well--you can't better it."

"He's a capital adviser," said Sherringham, getting up. "I'll come back

"I won't ask you to wait for them--they may be so long," his hostess

"Will he come back with her?" Peter asked while he smoothed his hat.

"I hope so, at this hour. With my child in the streets I tremble. We
don't live in cabs, as you may easily suppose."

"Did they go on foot?" Sherringham continued.

"Oh yes; they started in high spirits."

"And is Mr. Basil Dashwood acquainted with Madame Carré?"

"Ah no, but he longed to be introduced to her; he persuaded Miriam to
take him. Naturally she wishes to oblige him. She's very nice to him--if
he can do anything."

"Quite right; that's the way!" Peter cheerfully rang out.

"And she also wanted him to see what she can do for the great critic,"
Mrs. Rooth added--"that terrible old woman in the red wig."

"That's what I should like to see too," Peter permitted himself to

"Oh she has gone ahead; she's pleased with herself. 'Work, work, work,'
said Madame Carré. Well, she has worked, worked, worked. That's what
Mr. Dashwood is pleased with even more than with other things."

"What do you mean by other things?"

"Oh her genius and her fine appearance."

"He approves of her fine appearance? I ask because you think he knows
what will take."

"I know why you ask!" Mrs. Rooth bravely mocked. "He says it will be
worth hundreds of thousands to her."

"That's the sort of thing I like to hear," Peter returned. "I'll come in
to-morrow," he repeated.

"And shall you mind if Mr. Dash wood's here?"

"Does he come every day?"

"Oh they're always at it."

"At it----?" He was vague.

"Why she acts to him--every sort of thing--and he says if it will do."

"How many days has he been here then?"

Mrs. Rooth reflected. "Oh I don't know! Since he turned up they've
passed so quickly."

"So far from 'minding' it I'm eager to see him," Sherringham declared;
"and I can imagine nothing better than what you describe--if he isn't an
awful ass."

"Dear me, if he isn't clever you must tell us: we can't afford to be
deceived!" Mrs. Rooth innocently wailed. "What do we know--how can we
judge?" she appealed.

He had a pause, his hand on the latch. "Oh, I'll tell you frankly what I
think of him!"

Henry James