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Chapter 20

As many people know, there are not, in the famous Théâtre Français, more
than a dozen good seats accessible to ladies.[*] The stalls are
forbidden them, the boxes are a quarter of a mile from the stage and the
balcony is a delusion save for a few chairs at either end of its vast
horseshoe. But there are two excellent _baignoires d'avant-scène_, which
indeed are by no means always to be had. It was, however, into one of
them that, immediately after his return to Paris, Sherringham ushered
Mrs. Rooth and her daughter, with the further escort of Basil Dashwood.
He had chosen the evening of the reappearance of the celebrated
Mademoiselle Voisin--she had been enjoying a _congé_ of three months--an
actress whom Miriam had seen several times before and for whose method
she professed a high though somewhat critical esteem. It was only for
the return of this charming performer that Peter had been waiting to
respond to Miriam's most ardent wish--that of spending an hour in the
_foyer des artistes_ of the great theatre. She was the person whom he
knew best in the house of Molière; he could count on her to do them the
honours some night when she was in the "bill," and to make the occasion
sociable. Miriam had been impatient for it--she was so convinced that
her eyes would be opened in the holy of holies; but wishing as
particularly as he did to participate in her impression he had made her
promise she wouldn't taste of this experience without him--not let
Madame Carré, for instance, take her in his absence. There were
questions the girl wished to put to Mademoiselle Voisin--questions
which, having admired her from the balcony, she felt she was exactly the
person to answer. She was more "in it" now, after all, than Madame
Carré, in spite of her slenderer talent: she was younger, fresher, more
modern and--Miriam found the word--less academic. She was in fine less
"_vieux jeu_." Peter perfectly foresaw the day when his young friend
would make indulgent allowances for poor Madame Carré, patronising her
as an old woman of good intentions.

[*: 1890]

The play to-night was six months old, a large, serious, successful
comedy by the most distinguished of authors, with a thesis, a chorus
embodied in one character, a _scène à faire_ and a part full of
opportunities for Mademoiselle Voisin. There were things to be said
about this artist, strictures to be dropped as to the general quality of
her art, and Miriam leaned back now, making her comments as if they cost
her less, but the actress had knowledge and distinction and pathos, and
our young lady repeated several times: "How quiet she is, how
wonderfully quiet! Scarcely anything moves but her face and her voice.
_Le geste rare_, but really expressive when it comes. I like that
economy; it's the only way to make the gesture significant."

"I don't admire the way she holds her arms," Basil Dash wood said: "like
a _demoiselle de magasin_ trying on a jacket."

"Well, she holds them at any rate. I daresay it's more than you do with

"Oh yes, she holds them; there's no mistake about that. 'I hold them, I
hope, _hein_?' she seems to say to all the house." The young English
professional laughed good-humouredly, and Sherringham was struck with
the pleasant familiarity he had established with their brave companion.
He was knowing and ready and he said in the first _entr'acte_--they were
waiting for the second to go behind--amusing perceptive things. "They
teach them to be ladylike and Voisin's always trying to show that. 'See
how I walk, see how I sit, see how quiet I am and how I have _le geste
rare_. Now can you say I ain't a lady?' She does it all as if she had a

"Well, to-night I'm her class," said Miriam.

"Oh I don't mean of actresses, but of _femmes du monde_. She shows them
how to act in society."

"You had better take a few lessons," Miriam retorted.

"Ah you should see Voisin in society," Peter interposed.

"Does she go into it?" Mrs. Rooth demanded with interest.

Her friend hesitated. "She receives a great many people."

"Why shouldn't they when they're nice?" Mrs. Rooth frankly wanted to

"When the people are nice?" Miriam asked.

"Now don't tell me she's not what one would wish," said Mrs. Rooth to

"It depends on what that is," he darkly smiled.

"What I should wish if she were my daughter," the old woman rejoined

"Ah wish your daughter to act as well as that and you'll do the handsome
thing for her!"

"Well, she _seems_ to feel what she says," Mrs. Rooth piously risked.

"She has some stiff things to say. I mean about her past," Basil
Dashwood remarked. "The past--the dreadful past--on the stage!"

"Wait till the end, to see how she comes out. We must all be merciful!"
sighed Mrs. Rooth.

"We've seen it before; you know what happens," Miriam observed to her

"I've seen so many I get them mixed."

"Yes, they're all in queer predicaments. Poor old mother--what we show
you!" laughed the girl.

"Ah it will be what _you_ show me--something noble and wise!"

"I want to do this; it's a magnificent part," said Miriam.

"You couldn't put it on in London--they wouldn't swallow it," Basil
Dashwood declared.

"Aren't there things they do there to get over the difficulties?" the
girl inquired.

"You can't get over what _she did_!"--her companion had a rueful

"Yes, we must pay, we must expiate!" Mrs. Rooth moaned as the curtain
rose again.

When the second act was over our friends passed out of their _baignoire_
into those corridors of tribulation where the bristling _ouvreuse_, like
a pawnbroker driving a roaring trade, mounts guard upon piles of
heterogeneous clothing, and, gaining the top of the fine staircase which
forms the state entrance and connects the statued vestibule of the
basement with the grand tier of boxes, opened an ambiguous door composed
of little mirrors and found themselves in the society of the initiated.
The janitors were courteous folk who greeted Sherringham as an
acquaintance, and he had no difficulty in marshalling his little troop
toward the foyer. They traversed a low, curving lobby, hung with
pictures and furnished with velvet-covered benches where several
unrecognised persons of both sexes looked at them without hostility, and
arrived at an opening, on the right, from which, by a short flight of
steps, there was a descent to one of the wings of the stage. Here
Miriam paused, in silent excitement, like a young warrior arrested by a
glimpse of the battle-field. Her vision was carried off through a lane
of light to the point of vantage from which the actor held the house;
but there was a hushed guard over the place and curiosity could only
glance and pass.

Then she came with her companions to a sort of parlour with a polished
floor, not large and rather vacant, where her attention flew delightedly
to a coat-tree, in a corner, from which three or four dresses were
suspended--dresses she immediately perceived to be costumes in that
night's play--accompanied by a saucer of something and a much-worn
powder-puff casually left on a sofa. This was a familiar note in the
general impression of high decorum which had begun at the threshold--a
sense of majesty in the place. Miriam rushed at the powder-puff--there
was no one in the room--snatched it up and gazed at it with droll
veneration, then stood rapt a moment before the charming petticoats
("That's Dunoyer's first underskirt," she said to her mother) while
Sherringham explained that in this apartment an actress traditionally
changed her gown when the transaction was simple enough to save the long
ascent to her _loge_. He felt himself a cicerone showing a church to a
party of provincials; and indeed there was a grave hospitality in the
air, mingled with something academic and important, the tone of an
institution, a temple, which made them all, out of respect and delicacy,
hold their breath a little and tread the shining floors with discretion.

These precautions increased--Mrs. Rooth crept about like a friendly but
undomesticated cat--after they entered the foyer itself, a square,
spacious saloon covered with pictures and relics and draped in official
green velvet, where the _genius loci_ holds a reception every night in
the year. The effect was freshly charming to Peter; he was fond of the
place, always saw it again with pleasure, enjoyed its honourable look
and the way, among the portraits and scrolls, the records of a splendid
history, the green velvet and the waxed floors, the _genius loci_ seemed
to be "at home" in the quiet lamplight. At the end of the room, in an
ample chimney, blazed a fire of logs. Miriam said nothing; they looked
about, noting that most of the portraits and pictures were
"old-fashioned," and Basil Dashwood expressed disappointment at the
absence of all the people they wanted most to see. Three or four
gentlemen in evening dress circulated slowly, looking, like themselves,
at the pictures, and another gentleman stood before a lady, with whom he
was in conversation, seated against the wall. The foyer resembled in
these conditions a ball-room, cleared for the dance, before the guests
or the music had arrived.

"Oh it's enough to see _this_; it makes my heart beat," said Miriam.
"It's full of the vanished past, it makes me cry. I feel them here, all,
the great artists I shall never see. Think of Rachel--look at her grand
portrait there!--and how she stood on these very boards and trailed over
them the robes of Hermione and Phèdre." The girl broke out theatrically,
as on the spot was right, not a bit afraid of her voice as soon as it
rolled through the room; appealing to her companions as they stood under
the chandelier and making the other persons present, who had already
given her some attention, turn round to stare at so unusual a specimen
of the English miss. She laughed, musically, when she noticed this, and
her mother, scandalised, begged her to lower her tone. "It's all right.
I produce an effect," said Miriam: "it shan't be said that I too haven't
had my little success in the maison de Molière." And Sherringham
repeated that it was all right--the place was familiar with mirth and
passion, there was often wonderful talk there, and it was only the
setting that was still and solemn. It happened that this evening--there
was no knowing in advance--the scene was not characteristically
brilliant; but to confirm his assertion, at the moment he spoke,
Mademoiselle Dunoyer, who was also in the play, came into the room
attended by a pair of gentlemen.

She was the celebrated, the perpetual, the necessary _ingénue_, who with
all her talent couldn't have represented a woman of her actual age. She
had the gliding, hopping movement of a small bird, the same air of
having nothing to do with time, and the clear, sure, piercing note, a
miracle of exact vocalisation. She chaffed her companions, she chaffed
the room; she might have been a very clever little girl trying to
personate a more innocent big one. She scattered her amiability
about--showing Miriam how the children of Molière took their ease--and
it quickly placed her in the friendliest communication with Peter
Sherringham, who already enjoyed her acquaintance and who now extended
it to his companions, and in particular to the young lady _sur le point
d'entrer au théâtre._

"You deserve a happier lot," said the actress, looking up at Miriam
brightly, as if to a great height, and taking her in; upon which
Sherringham left them together a little and led Mrs. Rooth and young
Dashwood to consider further some of the pictures.

"Most delightful, most curious," the old woman murmured about
everything; while Basil Dashwood exclaimed in the presence of most of
the portraits: "But their ugliness--their ugliness: did you ever see
such a collection of hideous people? And those who were supposed to be
good-looking--the beauties of the past--they're worse than the others.
Ah you may say what you will, _nous sommes mieux que ça_!" Sherringham
suspected him of irritation, of not liking the theatre of the great
rival nation to be thrust down his throat. They returned to Miriam and
Mademoiselle Dunoyer, and Peter asked the actress a question about one
of the portraits to which there was no name attached. She replied, like
a child who had only played about the room, that she was _toute
honteuse_ not to be able to tell him the original: she had forgotten,
she had never asked--"_Vous allez me trouver bien légère_!" She appealed
to the other persons present, who formed a gallery for her, and laughed
in delightful ripples at their suggestions, which she covered with
ridicule. She bestirred herself; she declared she would ascertain, she
shouldn't be happy till she did, and swam out of the room, with the
prettiest paddles, to obtain the information, leaving behind her a
perfume of delicate kindness and gaiety. She seemed above all things
obliging, and Peter pronounced her almost as natural off the stage as
on. She didn't come back.

Henry James