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Chapter 25


Nash brought her, the great modern personage, as he had described her,
the very next day, and it took his friend no long time to test his
assurance that Miriam Rooth was now splendid. She had made an impression
on him ten months before, but it had haunted him only a day, soon
overlaid as it had been with other images. Yet after Nash had talked of
her a while he recalled her better; some of her attitudes, some of her
looks and tones began to hover before him. He was charmed in advance
with the notion of painting her. When she stood there in fact, however,
it seemed to him he had remembered her wrong; the brave, free, rather
grand creature who instantly filled his studio with such an unexampled
presence had so shaken off her clumsiness, the rudeness and crudeness
that had made him pity her, a whole provincial and "second-rate" side.
Miss Rooth was light and bright and direct to-day--direct without being
stiff and bright without being garish. To Nick's perhaps inadequately
sophisticated mind the model, the actress were figures of a vulgar
setting; but it would have been impossible to show that taint less than
this extremely natural yet extremely distinguished aspirant to
distinction. She was more natural even than Gabriel Nash--"nature" was
still Nick's formula for his amusing old friend--and beside her he
appeared almost commonplace.

Nash recognised her superiority with a frankness honourable to both of
them--testifying in this manner to his sense that they were all three
serious beings, worthy to deal with fine realities. She attracted crowds
to her theatre, but to his appreciation of such a fact as that,
important doubtless in its way, there were the limits he had already
expressed. What he now felt bound in all integrity to register was his
perception that she had, in general and quite apart from the question of
the box-office, a remarkable, a very remarkable, artistic nature. He
allowed that she had surprised him here; knowing of her in other days
mainly that she was hungry to adopt an overrated profession he had not
imputed to her the normal measure of intelligence. Now he saw--he had
had some talks with her--that she was capable almost of a violent play
of mind; so much so that he was sorry for the embarrassment it would be
to her. Nick could imagine the discomfort of having anything in the
nature of a mind to arrange for in such conditions. "She's a woman of
the best intentions, really of the best," Nash explained kindly and
lucidly, almost paternally, "and the quite rare head you can see for
yourself."

Miriam, smiling as she sat on an old Venetian chair, held aloft, with
the noblest effect, that quarter of her person to which this patronage
was extended, remarking to her host that, strange as it might appear,
she had got quite to like poor Mr. Nash: she could make him go about
with her--it was a relief to her mother.

"When I take him she has perfect peace," the girl said; "then she can
stay at home and see the interviewers. She delights in that and I hate
it, so our friend here is a great comfort. Of course a _femme de
théâtre_ is supposed to be able to go out alone, but there's a kind of
'smartness,' an added _chic_, in having some one. People think he's my
'companion '; I'm sure they fancy I pay him. I'd pay him, if he'd take
it--and perhaps he will yet!--rather than give him up, for it doesn't
matter that he's not a lady. He _is_ one in tact and sympathy, as you
see. And base as he thinks the sort of thing I do he can't keep away
from the theatre. When you're celebrated people will look at you who
could never before find out for themselves why they should."

"When you're celebrated you grow handsomer; at least that's what has
happened to you, though you were pretty too of old," Gabriel placidly
argued. "I go to the theatre to look at your head; it gives me the
greatest pleasure. I take up anything of that sort as soon as I find it.
One never knows how long it may last."

"Are you attributing that uncertainty to my appearance?" Miriam
beautifully asked.

"Dear no, to my own pleasure, the first precious bloom of it," Nash went
on. "Dormer at least, let me tell you in justice to him, hasn't waited
till you were celebrated to want to see you again--he stands there
open-eyed--for the simple reason that he hadn't the least idea of your
renown. I had to announce it to him."

"Haven't you seen me act?" Miriam put, without reproach, to her host.

"I'll go to-night," he handsomely declared.

"You have your terrible House, haven't you? What do they call it--the
demands of public life?" Miriam continued: in answer to which Gabriel
explained that he had the demands of private life as well, inasmuch as
he was in love--he was on the point of being married. She listened to
this with participation; then she said: "Ah then do bring your--what do
they call her in English? I'm always afraid of saying something
improper--your _future_. I'll send you a box, under the circumstances;
you'll like that better." She added that if he were to paint her he
would have to see her often on the stage, wouldn't he? to profit by the
_optique de la scène_--what did they call _that_ in English?--studying
her and fixing his impression. But before he had time to meet this
proposition she asked him if it disgusted him to hear her speak like
that, as if she were always posing and thinking about herself, living
only to be looked at, thrusting forward her person. She already often
got sick of doing so, but _à la guerre comme à la guerre_.

"That's the fine artistic nature, you see--a sort of divine disgust
breaking out in her," Nash expounded.

"If you want to paint me 'at all at all' of course. I'm struck with the
way I'm taking that for granted," the girl decently continued. "When Mr.
Nash spoke of it to me I jumped at the idea. I remembered our meeting in
Paris and the kind things you said to me. But no doubt one oughtn't to
jump at ideas when they represent serious sacrifices on the part of
others."

"Doesn't she speak well?" Nash demanded of Nick. "Oh she'll go far!"

"It's a great privilege to me to paint you: what title in the world have
I to pretend to such a model?" Nick replied to Miriam. "The sacrifice is
yours--a sacrifice of time and good nature and credulity. You come, in
your bright beauty and your genius, to this shabby place where I've
nothing worth speaking of to show, not a guarantee to offer you; and I
wonder what I've done to deserve such a gift of the gods."

"Doesn't _he_ speak well?"--and Nash appealed with radiance to their
companion.

She took no notice of him, only repeating to Nick that she hadn't
forgotten his friendly attitude in Paris; and when he answered that he
surely had done very little she broke out, first resting her eyes on
him with a deep, reasonable smile and then springing up quickly; "Ah
well, if I must justify myself I liked you!"

"Fancy my appearing to challenge you!" laughed Nick in deprecation. "To
see you again is to want tremendously to try something. But you must
have an infinite patience, because I'm an awful duffer."

She looked round the walls. "I see what you've done--_bien des choses_."

"She understands--she understands," Gabriel dropped. And he added to
their visitor: "Imagine, when he might do something, his choosing a life
of shams! At bottom he's like you--a wonderful artistic nature."

"I'll have patience," said the girl, smiling at Nick.

"Then, my children, I leave you--the peace of the Lord be with you."
With which words Nash took his departure.

The others chose a position for the young woman's sitting after she had
placed herself in many different attitudes and different lights; but an
hour had elapsed before Nick got to work--began, on a large canvas, to
"knock her in," as he called it. He was hindered even by the fine
element of agitation, the emotion of finding himself, out of a clear
sky, confronted with such a subject and launched in such a task. What
could the situation be but incongruous just after he had formally
renounced all manner of "art"?--the renunciation taking effect not a bit
the less from the whim he had all consciously treated himself to _as_ a
whim (the last he should ever descend to!) the freak of a fortnight's
relapse into a fingering of old sketches for the purpose, as he might
have said, of burning them up, of clearing out his studio and
terminating his lease. There were both embarrassment and inspiration in
the strange chance of snatching back for an hour a relinquished joy: the
jump with which he found he could still rise to such an occasion took
away his breath a little, at the same time that the idea--the idea of
what one might make of such material--touched him with an irresistible
wand. On the spot, to his inner vision, Miriam became a rich result,
drawing a hundred formative forces out of their troubled sleep, defying
him where he privately felt strongest and imposing herself triumphantly
in her own strength. He had the good fortune, without striking matches,
to see her, as a subject, in a vivid light, and his quick attempt was as
exciting as a sudden gallop--he might have been astride, in a boundless
field, of a runaway horse.

She was in her way so fine that he could only think how to "do" her:
that hard calculation soon flattened out the consciousness, lively in
him at first, that she was a beautiful woman who had sought him out of
his retirement. At the end of their first sitting her having done so
appeared the most natural thing in the world: he had a perfect right to
entertain her there--explanations and complications were engulfed in the
productive mood. The business of "knocking her in" held up a lamp to her
beauty, showed him how much there was of it and that she was infinitely
interesting. He didn't want to fall in love with her--that _would_ be a
sell, he said to himself--and she promptly became much too interesting
for it. Nick might have reflected, for simplification's sake, as his
cousin Peter had done, but with more validity, that he was engaged with
Miss Rooth in an undertaking which didn't in the least refer to
themselves, that they were working together seriously and that decent
work quite gainsaid sensibility--the humbugging sorts alone had to help
themselves out with it. But after her first sitting--she came, poor
girl, but twice--the need of such exorcisms passed from his spirit: he
had so thoroughly, so practically taken her up. As to whether his
visitor had the same bright and still sense of co-operation to a
definite end, the sense of the distinctively technical nature of the
answer to every question to which the occasion might give birth, that
mystery would be lighted only were it open to us to regard this young
lady through some other medium than the mind of her friends. We have
chosen, as it happens, for some of the great advantages it carries with
it, the indirect vision; and it fails as yet to tell us--what Nick of
course wondered about before he ceased to care, as indeed he intimated
to her--why a budding celebrity should have dreamed of there being
something for her in so blighted a spot. She should have gone to one of
the regular people, the great people: they would have welcomed her with
open arms. When Nick asked her if some of the R.A.'s hadn't expressed a
wish for a crack at her she replied: "Oh dear no, only the tiresome
photographers; and fancy _them_ in the future. If mamma could only do
_that_ for me!" And she added with the charming fellowship for which she
was conspicuous at these hours: "You know I don't think any one yet has
been quite so much struck with me as you."

"Not even Peter Sherringham?" her host jested while he stepped back to
judge of the effect of a line.

"Oh Mr. Sherringham's different. You're an artist."

"For pity's sake don't say that!" he cried. "And as regards _your_ art I
thought Peter knew more than any one."

"Ah you're severe," said Miriam.

"Severe--?"

"Because that's what the poor dear thinks. But he does know a lot--he
has been a providence to me."

"Then why hasn't he come over to see you act?"

She had a pause. "How do you know he hasn't come?"

"Because I take for granted he'd have called on me if he had."

"Does he like you very much?" the girl asked.

"I don't know. I like _him_."

"He's a gentleman--_pour cela_," she said.

"Oh yes, for that!" Nick went on absently, labouring hard.

"But he's afraid of me--afraid to see me."

"Doesn't he think you good enough?"

"On the contrary--he believes I shall carry him away and he's in a
terror of my doing it."

"He ought to like that," said Nick with conscious folly.

"That's what I mean when I say he's not an artist. However, he declares
he does like it, only it appears to be not the right thing for him. Oh
the right thing--he's ravenous for that. But it's not for me to blame
him, since I am too. He's coming some night, however. Then," she added
almost grimly, "he shall have a dose."

"Poor Peter!" Nick returned with a compassion none the less real because
it was mirthful: the girl's tone was so expressive of easy unscrupulous
power.

"He's such a curious mixture," she luxuriously went on; "sometimes I
quite lose patience with him. It isn't exactly trying to serve both God
and Mammon, but it's muddling up the stage and the world. The world be
hanged! The stage, or anything of that sort--I mean one's artistic
conscience, one's true faith--comes first."

"Brava, brava! you do me good," Nick murmured, still amused, beguiled,
and at work. "But it's very kind of you, when I was in this absurd state
of ignorance, to impute to me the honour of having been more struck with
you than any one else," he continued after a moment.

"Yes, I confess I don't quite see--when the shops were full of my
photographs."

"Oh I'm so poor--I don't go into shops," he explained.

"Are you very poor?"

"I live on alms."

"And don't they pay you--the government, the ministry?"

"Dear young lady, for what?--for shutting myself up with beautiful
women?"

"Ah you've others then?" she extravagantly groaned.

"They're not so kind as you, I confess."

"I'll buy it from you--what you're doing: I'll pay you well when it's
done," said the girl. "I've got money now. I make it, you know--a good
lot of it. It's too delightful after scraping and starving. Try it and
you'll see. Give up the base, bad world."

"But isn't it supposed to be the base, bad world that pays?"

"Precisely; make it pay without mercy--knock it silly, squeeze it dry.
That's what it's meant for--to pay for art. Ah if it wasn't for that!
I'll bring you a quantity of photographs to-morrow--you must let me come
back to-morrow: it's so amusing to have them, by the hundred, all for
nothing, to give away. That's what takes mamma most: she can't get over
it. That's luxury and glory; even at Castle Nugent they didn't do that.
People used to sketch me, but not so much as mamma _veut bien le dire_;
and in all my life I never had but one poor little carte-de-visite, when
I was sixteen, in a plaid frock, with the banks of a river, at three
francs the dozen."

Henry James