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Chapter 30


It was not till after the noon of the next day that he was to see Miriam
Rooth. He wrote her a note that evening, to be delivered to her at the
theatre, and during the performance she sent round to him a card with
"All right, come to luncheon to-morrow" scrawled on it in pencil.

When he presented himself at Balaklava Place he learned that the two
ladies had not come in--they had gone again early to rehearsal; but they
had left word that he was to be pleased to wait, they would appear from
one moment to the other. It was further mentioned to him, as he was
ushered into the drawing-room, that Mr. Dashwood was in possession of
that ground. This circumstance, however, Peter barely noted: he had been
soaring so high for the past twelve hours that he had almost lost
consciousness of the minor differences of earthly things. He had taken
Biddy Dormer and her friend Miss Tressilian home from the play and after
leaving them had walked about the streets, had roamed back to his
sister's house, in a state of exaltation the intenser from his having
for the previous time contained himself, thinking it more decorous and
considerate, less invidious and less blatant, not to "rave." Sitting
there in the shade of the box with his companions he had watched Miriam
in attentive but inexpressive silence, glowing and vibrating inwardly,
yet for these fine, deep reasons not committing himself to the spoken
rapture. Delicacy, it appeared to him, should rule the hour; and indeed
he had never had a pleasure less alloyed than this little period of
still observation and repressed ecstasy. Miriam's art lost nothing by
it, and Biddy's mild nearness only gained. This young lady was virtually
mute as well--wonderingly, dauntedly, as if she too associated with the
performer various other questions than that of her mastery of her art.
To this mastery Biddy's attitude was a candid and liberal tribute: the
poor girl sat quenched and pale, as if in the blinding light of a
comparison by which it would be presumptuous even to be annihilated. Her
subjection, however, was a gratified, a charmed subjection: there was
beneficence in such beauty--the beauty of the figure that moved before
the footlights and spoke in music--even if it deprived one of hope.
Peter didn't say to her in vulgar elation and in reference to her
whimsical profession of dislike at the studio, "Well, do you find our
friend so disagreeable now?" and she was grateful to him for his
forbearance, for the tacit kindness of which the idea seemed to be: "My
poor child, I'd prefer you if I could; but--judge for yourself--how can
I? Expect of me only the possible. Expect that certainly, but only
that." In the same degree Peter liked Biddy's sweet, hushed air of
judging for herself, of recognising his discretion and letting him off
while she was lost in the illusion, in the convincing picture of the
stage. Miss Tressilian did most of the criticism: she broke out
cheerfully and sonorously from time to time, in reference to the
actress, "Most striking certainly," or "She _is_ clever, isn't she?" She
uttered a series of propositions to which her companions found it
impossible to respond. Miss Tressilian was disappointed in nothing but
their enjoyment: they didn't seem to think the exhibition as amusing as
she.

Walking away through the ordered void of Lady Agnes's quarter, with the
four acts of the play glowing again before him in the smokeless London
night, Peter found the liveliest thing in his impression the certitude
that if he had never seen Miriam before and she had had for him none of
the advantages of association, he would still have recognised in her
performance the richest interest the theatre had ever offered him. He
floated in the felicity of it, in the general encouragement of a sense
of the perfectly _done_, in the almost aggressive bravery of still
larger claims for an art which could so triumphantly, so exquisitely
render life. "Render it?" he said to himself. "Create it and reveal it,
rather; give us something new and large and of the first order!" He had
_seen_ Miriam now; he had never seen her before; he had never seen her
till he saw her in her conditions. Oh her conditions--there were many
things to be said about them; they were paltry enough as yet, inferior,
inadequate, obstructive, as compared with the right, full, finished
setting of such a talent; but the essence of them was now, irremovably,
in our young man's eyes, the vision of how the uplifted stage and the
listening house transformed her. That idea of her having no character of
her own came back to him with a force that made him laugh in the empty
street: this was a disadvantage she reduced so to nothing that obviously
he hadn't known her till to-night. Her character was simply to hold you
by the particular spell; any other--the good nature of home, the
relation to her mother, her friends, her lovers, her debts, the practice
of virtues or industries or vices--was not worth speaking of. These
things were the fictions and shadows; the representation was the deep
substance.

Peter had as he went an intense vision--he had often had it before--of
the conditions still absent, the great and complete ones, those which
would give the girl's talent a superior, a discussable stage. More than
ever he desired them, mentally invoked them, filled them out in
imagination, cheated himself with the idea that they were possible. He
saw them in a momentary illusion and confusion: a great academic,
artistic theatre, subsidised and unburdened with money-getting, rich in
its repertory, rich in the high quality and the wide array of its
servants, rich above all in the authority of an impossible
administrator--a manager personally disinterested, not an actor with an
eye to the main chance; pouring forth a continuity of tradition,
striving for perfection, laying a splendid literature under
contribution. He saw the heroine of a hundred "situations," variously
dramatic and vividly real; he saw comedy and drama and passion and
character and English life; he saw all humanity and history and poetry,
and then perpetually, in the midst of them, shining out in the high
relief of some great moment, an image as fresh as an unveiled statue. He
was not unconscious that he was taking all sorts of impossibilities and
miracles for granted; but he was under the conviction, for the time,
that the woman he had been watching three hours, the incarnation of the
serious drama, would be a new and vivifying force. The world was just
then so bright to him that even Basil Dashwood struck him at first as a
conceivable agent of his dream.

It must be added that before Miriam arrived the breeze that filled
Sherringham's sail began to sink a little. He passed out of the
eminently "let" drawing-room, where twenty large photographs of the
young actress bloomed in the desert; he went into the garden by a glass
door that stood open, and found Mr. Dashwood lolling on a bench and
smoking cigarettes. This young man's conversation was a different
music--it took him down, as he felt; showed him, very sensibly and
intelligibly, it must be confessed, the actual theatre, the one they
were all concerned with, the one they would have to make the miserable
best of. It was fortunate that he kept his intoxication mainly to
himself: the Englishman's habit of not being effusive still prevailed
with him after his years of exposure to the foreign infection. Nothing
could have been less exclamatory than the meeting of the two men, with
its question or two, its remark or two, about the new visitor's arrival
in London; its off-hand "I noticed you last night, I was glad you turned
up at last" on one side and its attenuated "Oh yes, it was the first
time; I was very much interested" on the other. Basil Dashwood played a
part in Yolande and Peter had not failed to take with some comfort the
measure of his aptitude. He judged it to be of the small order, as
indeed the part, which was neither that of the virtuous nor that of the
villainous hero, restricted him to two or three inconspicuous effects
and three or four changes of dress. He represented an ardent but
respectful young lover whom the distracted heroine found time to pity a
little and even to rail at; but it was impressed upon his critic that he
scarcely represented young love. He looked very well, but Peter had
heard him already in a hundred contemporary pieces; he never got out of
rehearsal. He uttered sentiments and breathed vows with a nice voice,
with a shy, boyish tremor, but as if he were afraid of being chaffed for
it afterwards; giving the spectator in the stalls the sense of holding
the prompt-book and listening to a recitation. He made one think of
country-houses and lawn-tennis and private theatricals; than which there
couldn't be, to Peter's mind, a range of association more disconnected
from the actor's art.

Dashwood knew all about the new thing, the piece in rehearsal; he knew
all about everything--receipts and salaries and expenses and newspaper
articles, and what old Baskerville said and what Mrs. Ruffler thought:
matters of superficial concern to his fellow-guest, who wondered, before
they had sight of Miriam, if she talked with her "walking-gentleman"
about them by the hour, deep in them and finding them not vulgar and
boring but the natural air of her life and the essence of her
profession. Of course she did--she naturally would; it was all in the
day's work and he might feel sure she wouldn't turn up her nose at the
shop. He had to remind himself that he didn't care if she didn't, that
he would really think worse of her if she should. She certainly was in
deep with her bland playmate, talking shop by the hour: he could see
this from the fellow's ease of attitude, the air of a man at home and
doing the honours. He divined a great intimacy between the two young
artists, but asked himself at the same time what he, Peter Sherringham,
had to say about it. He didn't pretend to control Miriam's intimacies,
it was to be supposed; and if he had encouraged her to adopt a
profession rich in opportunities for comradeship it was not for him to
cry out because she had taken to it kindly. He had already descried a
fund of utility in Mrs. Lovick's light brother; but it irritated him,
all the same, after a while, to hear the youth represent himself as
almost indispensable. He was practical--there was no doubt of that; and
this idea added to Peter's paradoxical sense that as regards the matters
actually in question he himself had not this virtue. Dashwood had got
Mrs. Rooth the house; it happened by a lucky chance that Laura Lumley,
to whom it belonged--Sherringham would know Laura Lumley?--wanted to get
rid, for a mere song, of the remainder of the lease. She was going to
Australia with a troupe of her own. They just stepped into it; it was
good air--the best sort of London air to live in, to sleep in, for
people of their trade. Peter came back to his wonder at what Miriam's
personal relations with this deucedly knowing gentleman might be, and
was again able to assure himself that they might be anything in the
world she liked, for any stake he, the familiar of the Foreign Office,
had in them. Dashwood told him of all the smart people who had tried to
take up the new star--the way the London world had already held out its
hand; and perhaps it was Sherringham's irritation, the crushed sentiment
I just mentioned, that gave a little heave in the exclamation, "Oh
that--that's all rubbish: the less of that the better!" At this Mr.
Dashwood sniffed a little, rather resentful; he had expected Peter to be
pleased with the names of the eager ladies who had "called"--which
proved how low a view he took of his art. Our friend explained--it is to
be hoped not pedantically--that this art was serious work and that
society was humbug and imbecility; also that of old the great comedians
wouldn't have known such people. Garrick had essentially his own circle.

"No, I suppose they didn't 'call' in the old narrow-minded time," said
Basil Dashwood.

"Your profession didn't call. They had better company--that of the
romantic gallant characters they represented. They lived with _them_, so
it was better all round." And Peter asked himself--for that clearly
struck the young man as a dreary period--if _he_ only, for Miriam, in
her new life and among the futilities of those who tried to lionise her,
expressed the artistic idea. This at least, Sherringham reflected, was
a situation that could be improved.

He learned from his companion that the new play, the thing they were
rehearsing, was an old play, a romantic drama of thirty years before,
very frequently revived and threadbare with honourable service. Dashwood
had a part in it, but there was an act in which he didn't appear, and
this was the act they were doing that morning. Yolande had done all
Yolande could do; the visitor was mistaken if he supposed Yolande such a
tremendous hit. It had done very well, it had run three months, but they
were by no means coining money with it. It wouldn't take them to the end
of the season; they had seen for a month past that they would have to
put on something else. Miss Rooth, moreover, wanted a new part; she was
above all impatient to show her big range. She had grand ideas; she
thought herself very good-natured to repeat the same stuff for three
months. The young man lighted another cigarette and described to his
listener some of Miss Rooth's ideas. He abounded in information about
her--about her character, her temper, her peculiarities, her little
ways, her manner of producing some of her effects. He spoke with
familiarity and confidence, as if knowing more about her than any one
else--as if he had invented or discovered her, were in a sense her
proprietor or guarantor. It was the talk of the shop, both with a native
sharpness and a touching young candour; the expansion of the commercial
spirit when it relaxes and generalises, is conscious of safety with
another member of the guild.

Peter at any rate couldn't help protesting against the lame old
war-horse it was proposed to bring into action, who had been ridden to
death and had saved a thousand desperate fields; and he exclaimed on
the strange passion of the good British public for sitting again and
again through expected situations, watching for speeches they had heard
and surprises that struck the hour. Dashwood defended the taste of
London, praised it as loyal, constant, faithful; to which his
interlocutor retorted with some vivacity that it was faithful to sad
trash. He justified this sally by declaring the play in rehearsal sad
trash, clumsy mediocrity with all its convenience gone, and that the
fault was the want of life in the critical sense of the public, which
was ignobly docile, opening its mouth for its dose like the pupils of
Dotheboys Hall; not insisting on something different, on a fresh brew
altogether. Dashwood asked him if he then wished their friend to go on
playing for ever a part she had repeated more than eighty nights on end:
he thought the modern "run" was just what he had heard him denounce in
Paris as the disease the theatre was dying of. This imputation Peter
quite denied, wanting to know if she couldn't change to something less
stale than the greatest staleness of all. Dashwood opined that Miss
Rooth must have a strong part and that there happened to be one for her
in the before-mentioned venerable novelty. She had to take what she
could get--she wasn't a person to cry for the moon. This was a
stop-gap--she would try other things later; she would have to look round
her; you couldn't have a new piece, one that would do, left at your door
every day with the milk. On one point Sherringham's mind might be at
rest: Miss Rooth was a woman who would do every blessed thing there was
to do. Give her time and she would walk straight through the repertory.
She was a woman who would do this--she was a woman who would do that:
her spokesman employed this phrase so often that Peter, nervous, got up
and threw an unsmoked cigarette away. Of course she was a woman; there
was no need of his saying it a hundred times.

As for the repertory, the young man went on, the most beautiful girl in
the world could give but what she had. He explained, after their visitor
sat down again, that the noise made by Miss Rooth was not exactly what
this admirer appeared to suppose. Sherringham had seen the house the
night before and would recognise that, though good, it was very far from
great. She had done very well, it was all right, but she had never gone
above a point which Dashwood expressed in pounds sterling, to the
edification of his companion, who vaguely thought the figure high. Peter
remembered that he had been unable to get a stall, but Dashwood insisted
that "Miriam" had not leaped into commanding fame: that was a thing that
never happened in fact--it happened only in grotesque works of fiction.
She had attracted notice, unusual notice for a woman whose name, the day
before, had never been heard of: she was recognised as having, for a
novice, extraordinary cleverness and confidence--in addition to her
looks, of course, which were the thing that had really fetched the
crowd. But she hadn't been the talk of London; she had only been the
talk of Gabriel Nash. He wasn't London, more was the pity. He knew the
esthetic people--the worldly, semi-smart ones, not the frumpy, sickly
lot who wore dirty drapery; and the esthetic people had run after her.
Mr. Dashwood sketchily instructed the pilgrim from Paris as to the
different sects in the great religion of beauty, and was able to give
him the particular "note" of the critical clique to which Miriam had
begun so quickly to owe it that she had a vogue. The information made
our friend feel very ignorant of the world, very uninitiated and buried
in his little professional hole. Dashwood warned him that it would be a
long time before the general public would wake up to Miss Rooth, even
after she had waked up to herself; she would have to do some really big
thing first. _They_ knew it was in her, the big thing--Peter and he and
even poor Nash--because they had seen her as no one else had; but London
never took any one on trust--it had to be cash down. It would take their
young lady two or three years to pay out her cash and get her
equivalent. But of course the equivalent would be simply a gold-mine.
Within its limits, however, certainly, the mark she had made was already
quite a fairy-tale: there was magic in the way she had concealed from
the first her want of experience. She absolutely made you think she had
a lot of it, more than any one else. Mr. Dashwood repeated several times
that she was a cool hand--a deucedly cool hand, and that he watched her
himself, saw ideas come to her, saw her have different notions, and more
or less put them to the test, on different nights. She was always
alive--she liked it herself. She gave him ideas, long as he had been on
the stage. Naturally she had a great deal to learn, no end even of quite
basic things; a cosmopolite like Sherringham would understand that a
girl of that age, who had never had a friend but her mother--her mother
was greater fun than ever now--naturally _would_ have. Sherringham
winced at being dubbed a "cosmopolite" by his young entertainer, just as
he had winced a moment before at hearing himself lumped in esoteric
knowledge with Dashwood and Gabriel Nash; but the former of these
gentlemen took no account of his sensibility while he enumerated a few
of the elements of the "basic." He was a mixture of acuteness and
innocent fatuity; and Peter had to recognise in him a rudiment or two of
criticism when he said that the wonderful thing in the girl was that she
learned so fast--learned something every night, learned from the same
old piece a lot more than any one else would have learned from twenty.
"That's what it is to be a genius," Peter concurred. "Genius is only the
art of getting your experience fast, of stealing it, as it were; and in
this sense Miss Rooth's a regular brigand." Dashwood condoned the
subtlety and added less analytically, "Oh she'll do!" It was exactly in
these simple words, addressed to her, that her other admirer had phrased
the same truth; yet he didn't enjoy hearing them on his neighbour's
lips: they had a profane, patronising sound and suggested displeasing
equalities.

The two men sat in silence for some minutes, watching a fat robin hop
about on the little seedy lawn; at the end of which they heard a vehicle
stop on the other side of the garden-wall and the voices of occupants
alighting. "Here they come, the dear creatures," said Basil Dashwood
without moving; and from where they sat Peter saw the small door in the
wall pushed open. The dear creatures were three in number, for a
gentleman had added himself to Mrs. Rooth and her daughter. As soon as
Miriam's eyes took in her Parisian friend she fell into a large, droll,
theatrical attitude and, seizing her mother's arm, exclaimed
passionately: "Look where he sits, the author of all my woes--cold,
cynical, cruel!" She was evidently in the highest spirits; of which Mrs.
Rooth partook as she cried indulgently, giving her a slap, "Oh get
along, you gypsy!"

"She's always up to something," Dashwood laughed as Miriam, radiant and
with a conscious stage tread, glided toward Sherringham as if she were
coming to the footlights. He rose slowly from his seat, looking at her
and struck with her beauty: he had been impatient to see her, yet in the
act his impatience had had a disconcerting check.

He had had time to note that the man who had come in with her was
Gabriel Nash, and this recognition brought a low sigh to his lips as he
held out his hand to her--a sigh expressive of the sudden sense that his
interest in her now could only be a gross community. Of course that
didn't matter, since he had set it, at the most, such rigid limits; but
he none the less felt vividly reminded that it would be public and
notorious, that inferior people would be inveterately mixed up with it,
that she had crossed the line and sold herself to the vulgar, making him
indeed only one of an equalised multitude. The way Nash turned up there
just when he didn't want to see him proved how complicated a thing it
was to have a friendship with a young woman so clearly booked for
renown. He quite forgot that the intruder had had this object of
interest long before his own first view of it and had been present at
that passage, which he had in a measure brought about. Had Sherringham
not been so cut out to make trouble of this particular joy he might have
found some adequate assurance that their young hostess distinguished him
in the way in which, taking his hand in both of hers, she looked up at
him and murmured, "Dear old master!" Then as if this were not
acknowledgment enough she raised her head still higher and, whimsically,
gratefully, charmingly, almost nobly, kissed him on the lips before the
other men, before the good mother whose "Oh you honest creature!" made
everything regular.

Henry James