Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 31

If he was ruffled by some of her conditions there was thus comfort and
consolation to be drawn from others, beside the essential
fascination--so small the doubt of that now--of the young lady's own
society. He spent the afternoon, they all spent the afternoon, and the
occasion reminded him of pages in _Wilhelm Meister_. He himself could
pass for Wilhelm, and if Mrs. Rooth had little resemblance to Mignon,
Miriam was remarkably like Philina. The movable feast awaiting
them--luncheon, tea, dinner?--was delayed two or three hours; but the
interval was a source of gaiety, for they all smoked cigarettes in the
garden and Miriam gave striking illustrations of the parts she was
studying. Peter was in the state of a man whose toothache has suddenly
stopped--he was exhilarated by the cessation of pain. The pain had been
the effort to remain in Paris after the creature in the world in whom he
was most interested had gone to London, and the balm of seeing her now
was the measure of the previous soreness.

Gabriel Nash had, as usual, plenty to say, and he talked of Nick's
picture so long that Peter wondered if he did it on purpose to vex him.
They went in and out of the house; they made excursions to see what form
the vague meal was taking; and Sherringham got half an hour alone, or
virtually alone, with the mistress of his unsanctioned passion--drawing
her publicly away from the others and making her sit with him in the
most sequestered part of the little gravelled grounds. There was summer
enough for the trees to shut out the adjacent villas, and Basil Dashwood
and Gabriel Nash lounged together at a convenient distance while Nick's
whimsical friend dropped polished pebbles, sometimes audibly splashing,
into the deep well of the histrionic simplicity. Miriam confessed that
like all comedians they ate at queer hours; she sent Dashwood in for
biscuits and sherry--she proposed sending him round to the grocer's in
the Circus Road for superior wine. Peter judged him the factotum of the
little household: he knew where the biscuits were kept and the state of
the grocer's account. When he himself congratulated her on having so
useful an inmate she said genially, but as if the words disposed of him,
"Oh he's awfully handy." To this she added, "You're not, you know";
resting the kindest, most pitying eyes on him. The sensation they gave
him was as sweet as if she had stroked his cheek, and her manner was
responsive even to tenderness. She called him "Dear master" again and
again, and still often "_Cher maître_," and appeared to express
gratitude and reverence by every intonation.

"You're doing the humble dependent now," he said: "you do it
beautifully, as you do everything." She replied that she didn't make it
humble enough--she couldn't; she was too proud, too insolent in her
triumph. She liked that, the triumph, too much, and she didn't mind
telling him she was perfectly happy. Of course as yet the triumph was
very limited; but success was success, whatever its quantity; the dish
was a small one but had the right taste. Her imagination had already
bounded beyond the first phase unexpectedly great as this had been: her
position struck her as modest compared with the probably future now
vivid to her. Peter had never seen her so soft and sympathetic; she had
insisted in Paris that her personal character was that of the good
girl--she used the term in a fine loose way--and it was impossible to be
a better girl than she showed herself this pleasant afternoon. She was
full of gossip and anecdote and drollery; she had exactly the air he
would have wished her to have--that of thinking of no end of things to
tell him. It was as if she had just returned from a long journey and had
had strange adventures and made wonderful discoveries. She began to
speak of this and that, then broke off to speak of something else; she
talked of the theatre, of the "critics," and above all of London, of the
people she had met and the extraordinary things they said to her, of the
parts she was going to take up, of lots of new ideas that had come to
her about the art of comedy. She wanted to do comedy now--to do the
comedy of London life. She was delighted to find that seeing more of the
world suggested things to her; they came straight from the fact, from
nature, if you could call it nature; she was thus convinced more than
ever that the artist ought to _live_ so as to get on with his business,
gathering ideas and lights from experience--ought to welcome any
experience that would give him lights. But work of course _was_
experience, and everything in one's life that was good was work. That
was the jolly thing in the actor's trade--it made up for other elements
that were odious: if you only kept your eyes open nothing could happen
to you that wouldn't be food for observation and grist to your mill,
showing you how people looked and moved and spoke, cried and grimaced,
writhed and dissimulated, in given situations. She saw all round her
things she wanted to "do"--London bristled with them if you had eyes to
see. She was fierce to know why people didn't take them up, put them
into plays and parts, give one a chance with them; she expressed her
sharp impatience of the general literary _bétise_. She had never been
chary of this particular displeasure, and there were moments--it was an
old story and a subject of frank raillery to Sherringham--when to hear
her you might have thought there was no cleverness anywhere but in her
own splendid impatience. She wanted tremendous things done that she
might use them, but she didn't pretend to say exactly what they were to
be, nor even approximately how they were to be handled: her ground was
rather that if _she_ only had a pen--it was exasperating to have to
explain! She mainly contented herself with the view that nothing had
really been touched: she felt that more and more as she saw more of
people's goings-on.

Peter went to her theatre again that evening and indeed made no scruple
of going every night for a week. Rather perhaps I should say he made a
scruple, but a high part of the pleasure of his life during these
arbitrary days was to overcome it. The only way to prove he could
overcome it was to go; and he was satisfied, after he had been seven
times, not only with the spectacle on the stage but with his perfect
independence. He knew no satiety, however, with the spectacle on the
stage, which induced for him but a further curiosity. Miriam's
performance was a thing alive, with a power to change, to grow, to
develop, to beget new forms of the same life. Peter contributed to it in
his amateurish way and watched with solicitude the effect of his care
and the fortune of his hints. He talked it over in Balaklava Place,
suggested modifications and variations worth trying. She professed
herself thankful for any refreshment that could be administered to her
interest in _Yolande_, and with an energy that showed large resource
touched up her part and drew several new airs from it. Peter's
liberties bore on her way of uttering certain speeches, the intonations
that would have more beauty or make the words mean more. She had her
ideas, or rather she had her instincts, which she defended and
illustrated, with a vividness superior to argument, by a happy pictorial
phrase or a snatch of mimicry; but she was always for trying; she liked
experiments and caught at them, and she was especially thankful when
some one gave her a showy reason, a plausible formula, in a case where
she only stood on an intuition. She pretended to despise reasons and to
like and dislike at her sovereign pleasure; but she always honoured the
exotic gift, so that Sherringham was amused with the liberal way she
produced it, as if she had been a naked islander rejoicing in a present
of crimson cloth.

Day after day he spent most of his time in her society, and Miss Laura
Lumley's recent habitation became the place in London to which his
thoughts and his steps were most attached. He was highly conscious of
his not now carrying out that principle of abstention he had brought to
such maturity before leaving Paris; but he contented himself with a much
cruder justification of this lapse than he would have thought adequate
in advance. It consisted simply in the idea that to be identified with
the first fresh exploits of a young genius was a delightful experience.
What was the harm of it when the genius was real? His main security was
thus that his relations with Miriam had been placed under the protection
of that idea of approved extravagance. In this department they made a
very creditable figure and required much less watching and pruning than
when it had been his effort to adjust them to a worldly plan. He had in
fine a sense of real wisdom when he pronounced it surely enough that
this momentary intellectual participation in the girl's dawning fame was
a charming thing. Charming things were not frequent enough in a busy
man's life to be kicked out of the way. Balaklava Place, looked at in
this philosophic way, became almost idyllic: it gave Peter the
pleasantest impression he had ever had of London.

The season happened to be remarkably fine; the temperature was high, but
not so high as to keep people from the theatre. Miriam's "business"
visibly increased, so that the question of putting on the second play
underwent some revision. The girl persisted, showing in her persistence
a temper of which Peter had already caught some sharp gleams. It was
plain that through her career she would expect to carry things with a
high hand. Her managers and agents wouldn't find her an easy victim or a
calculable force; but the public would adore her, surround her with the
popularity that attaches to a good-natured and free-spoken princess, and
her comrades would have a kindness for her because she wouldn't be
selfish. They too would, besides representing her body-guard, form in a
manner a portion of her affectionate public. This was the way her friend
read the signs, liking her whimsical tolerance of some of her vulgar
playfellows almost well enough to forgive their presence in Balaklava
Place, where they were a sore trial to her mother, who wanted her to
multiply her points of contact only with the higher orders. There were
hours when Peter seemed to make out that her principal relation to the
proper world would be to have within two or three years a grand battle
with it resulting in its taking her, should she let it have her at all,
absolutely on her own terms: a picture which led our young man to ask
himself with a helplessness that was not exempt, as he perfectly knew,
from absurdity, what part _he_ should find himself playing in such a
contest and if it would be reserved to him to be the more ridiculous as
a peacemaker or as a heavy backer.

"She might know any one she would, and the only person she appears to
take any pleasure in is that dreadful Miss Rover," Mrs. Rooth whimpered
to him more than once--leading him thus to recognise in the young lady
so designated the principal complication of Balaklava Place. Miss Rover
was a little actress who played at Miriam's theatre, combining with an
unusual aptitude for delicate comedy a less exceptional absence of
rigour in private life. She was pretty and quick and brave, and had a
fineness that Miriam professed herself already in a position to estimate
as rare. She had no control of her inclinations, yet sometimes they were
wholly laudable, like the devotion she had formed for her beautiful
colleague, whom she admired not only as an ornament of the profession
but as a being altogether of a more fortunate essence. She had had an
idea that real ladies were "nasty," but Miriam was not nasty, and who
could gainsay that Miriam was a real lady? The girl justified herself to
her patron from Paris, who had found no fault with her; she knew how
much her mother feared the proper world wouldn't come in if they knew
that the improper, in the person of pretty Miss Rover, was on the
ground. What did she care who came and who didn't, and what was to be
gained by receiving half the snobs in London? People would have to take
her exactly as they found her--that they would have to learn; and they
would be much mistaken if they thought her capable of turning snob too
for the sake of their sweet company. She didn't pretend to be anything
but what she meant to be, the best general actress of her time; and what
had that to do with her seeing or not seeing a poor ignorant girl who
had loved--well, she needn't say what Fanny had done. They had met in
the way of business; she didn't say she would have run after her. She
had liked her because she wasn't a slick, and when Fanny Rover had asked
her quite wistfully if she mightn't come and see her and like her she
hadn't bristled with scandalised virtue. Miss Rover wasn't a bit more
stupid or more ill-natured than any one else; it would be time enough to
shut the door when she should become so.

Peter commended even to extravagance the liberality of such comradeship;
said that of course a woman didn't go into that profession to see how
little she could swallow. She was right to live with the others so long
as they were at all possible, and it was for her and only for her to
judge how long that might be. This was rather heroic on his part, for
his assumed detachment from the girl's personal life still left him a
margin for some forms of uneasiness. It would have made in his spirit a
great difference for the worse that the woman he loved, and for whom he
wished no baser lover than himself, should have embraced the prospect of
consorting only with the cheaper kind. It was all very well, but Fanny
Rover was simply a rank _cabotine_, and that sort of association was an
odd training for a young woman who was to have been good enough--he
couldn't forget that, but kept remembering it as if it might still have
a future use--to be his admired wife. Certainly he ought to have thought
of such things before he permitted himself to become so interested in a
theatrical nature. His heroism did him service, however, for the hour;
it helped him by the end of the week to feel quite broken in to Miriam's
little circle. What helped him most indeed was to reflect that she would
get tired of a good many of its members herself in time; for if it was
not that they were shocking--very few of them shone with that intense
light--they could yet be thoroughly trusted in the long run to bore

There was a lovely Sunday in particular, spent by him almost all in
Balaklava Place--he arrived so early--when, in the afternoon, every sort
of odd person dropped in. Miriam held a reception in the little garden
and insisted on all the company's staying to supper. Her mother shed
tears to Peter, in the desecrated house, because they had accepted,
Miriam and she, an invitation--and in Cromwell Road too--for the
evening. Miriam had now decreed they shouldn't go--they would have so
much better fun with their good friends at home. She was sending off a
message--it was a terrible distance--by a cabman, and Peter had the
privilege of paying the messenger. Basil Dashwood, in another vehicle,
proceeded to an hotel known to him, a mile away, for supplementary
provisions, and came back with a cold ham and a dozen of champagne. It
was all very Bohemian and dishevelled and delightful, very supposedly
droll and enviable to outsiders; and Miriam told anecdotes and gave
imitations of the people she would have met if she had gone out, so that
no one had a sense of loss--the two occasions were fantastically united.
Mrs. Rooth drank champagne for consolation, though the consolation was
imperfect when she remembered she might have drunk it, though not quite
so much perhaps, in Cromwell Road.

Taken in connection with the evening before, the day formed for our
friend the most complete exhibition of his young woman he had yet
enjoyed. He had been at the theatre, to which the Saturday night
happened to have brought the very fullest house she had played to, and
he came early to Balaklava Place, to tell her once again--he had told
her half-a-dozen times the evening before--that with the excitement of
her biggest audience she had surpassed herself, acted with remarkable
intensity. It pleased her to hear this, and the spirit with which she
interpreted the signs of the future and, during an hour he spent alone
with her, Mrs. Rooth being upstairs and Basil Dashwood luckily absent,
treated him to twenty specimens of feigned passion and character, was
beyond any natural abundance he had yet seen in a woman. The impression
could scarcely have been other if she had been playing wild snatches to
him at the piano: the bright up-darting flame of her talk rose and fell
like an improvisation on the keys. Later, the rest of the day, he could
as little miss the good grace with which she fraternised with her
visitors, finding always the fair word for each--the key to a common
ease, the right turn to keep vanity quiet and make humility brave. It
was a wonderful expenditure of generous, nervous life. But what he read
in it above all was the sense of success in youth, with the future loose
and big, and the action of that charm on the faculties. Miriam's limited
past had yet pinched her enough to make emancipation sweet, and the
emancipation had come at last in an hour. She had stepped into her magic
shoes, divined and appropriated everything they could help her to,
become in a day a really original contemporary. He was of course not
less conscious of that than Nick Dormer had been when in the cold light
of his studio this more detached observer saw too how she had altered.

But the great thing to his mind, and during these first days the
irresistible seduction of the theatre, was that she was a rare
revelation of beauty. Beauty was the principle of everything she did and
of the way she unerringly did it--an exquisite harmony of line and
motion and attitude and tone, what was at once most general and most
special in her performance. Accidents and instincts played together to
this end and constituted something that was independent of her talent
or of her merit in a given case, and which as a value to Peter's
imagination was far superior to any merit and any talent. He could but
call it a felicity and an importance incalculable, and but know that it
connected itself with universal values. To see this force in operation,
to sit within its radius and feel it shift and revolve and change and
never fail, was a corrective to the depression, the humiliation, the
bewilderment of life. It transported our troubled friend from the vulgar
hour and the ugly fact; drew him to something that had no warrant but
its sweetness, no name nor place save as the pure, the remote, the
antique. It was what most made him say to himself "Oh hang it, what does
it matter?" when he reflected that an _homme sérieux_, as they said in
Paris, rather gave himself away, as they said in America, by going every
night to the same sordid stall at which all the world might stare. It
was what kept him from doing anything but hover round Miriam--kept him
from paying any other visits, from attending to any business, from going
back to Calcutta Gardens. It was a spell he shrank intensely from
breaking and the cause of a hundred postponements, confusions, and
absurdities. It put him in a false position altogether, but it made of
the crooked little stucco villa in Saint John's Wood a place in the
upper air, commanding the prospect; a nest of winged liberties and
ironies far aloft above the huddled town. One should live at altitudes
when one could--they braced and simplified; and for a happy interval he
never touched the earth.

It was not that there were no influences tending at moments to drag him
down--an abasement from which he escaped only because he was up so high.
We have seen that Basil Dashwood could affect him at times as a chunk of
wood tied to his ankle--this through the circumstance that he made
Miriam's famous conditions, those of the public exhibition of her
genius, seem small and prosaic; so that Peter had to remind himself how
much this smallness was perhaps involved in their being at all. She
carried his imagination off into infinite spaces, whereas she carried
Dashwood's only into the box-office and the revival of plays that were
barbarously bad. The worst was its being so open to him to see that a
sharp young man really in the business might know better than he.
Another vessel of superior knowledge--he talked, that is, as if he knew
better than any one--was Gabriel Nash, who lacked no leisure for
hatefully haunting Balaklava Place, or in other words appeared to enjoy
the same command of his time as Peter Sherringham. The pilgrim from
Paris regarded him with mingled feelings, for he had not forgotten the
contentious character of their first meeting or the degree to which he
had been moved to urge upon Nick Dormer's consideration that his
talkative friend was probably one of the most eminent of asses. This
personage turned up now as an admirer of the charming creature he had
scoffed at, and there was much to exasperate in the smooth gloss of his
inconsistency, at which he never cast an embarrassed glance. He
practised indeed such loose license of regard to every question that it
was difficult, in vulgar parlance, to "have" him; his sympathies hummed
about like bees in a garden, with no visible plan, no economy in their
flight. He thought meanly of the modern theatre and yet had discovered a
fund of satisfaction in the most promising of its exponents; and Peter
could more than once but say to him that he should really, to keep his
opinions at all in hand, attach more value to the stage or less to the
interesting a tress. Miriam took her perfect ease at his expense and
treated him as the most abject of her slaves: all of which was worth
seeing as an exhibition, on Nash's part, of the beautifully
imperturbable. When Peter all too grossly pronounced him "damned"
impudent he always felt guilty later on of an injustice--Nash had so
little the air of a man with something to gain. He was aware
nevertheless of a certain itching in his boot-toe when his
fellow-visitor brought out, and for the most part to Miriam herself, in
answer to any charge of tergiversation, "Oh it's all right; it's the
voice, you know--the enchanting voice!" Nash meant by this, as indeed he
more fully set forth, that he came to the theatre or to the villa simply
to treat his ear to the sound--the richest then to be heard on earth, as
he maintained--issuing from Miriam's lips. Its richness was quite
independent of the words she might pronounce or the poor fable they
might subserve, and if the pleasure of hearing her in public was the
greater by reason of the larger volume of her utterance it was still
highly agreeable to see her at home, for it was there the strictly
mimetic gift he freely conceded to her came out most. He spoke as if she
had been formed by the bounty of nature to be his particular recreation,
and as if, being an expert in innocent joys, he took his pleasure
wherever he found it.

He was perpetually in the field, sociable, amiable, communicative,
inveterately contradicted but never confounded, ready to talk to any one
about anything and making disagreement--of which he left the
responsibility wholly to others--a basis of harmony. Every one knew what
he thought of the theatrical profession, and yet who could say he didn't
regard, its members as embodiments of comedy when he touched with such a
hand the spring of their foibles?--touched it with an art that made even
Peter laugh, notwithstanding his attitude of reserve where this
interloper was concerned. At any rate, though he had committed himself
as to their general fatuity he put up with their company, for the sake
of Miriam's vocal vibrations, with a practical philosophy that was all
his own. And she frankly took him for her supreme, her incorrigible
adorer, masquerading as a critic to save his vanity and tolerated for
his secret constancy in spite of being a bore. He was meanwhile really
not a bore to Peter, who failed of the luxury of being able to regard
him as one. He had seen too many strange countries and curious things,
observed and explored too much, to be void of illustration. Peter had a
sense that if he himself was in the _grandes espaces_ Gabriel had
probably, as a finer critic, a still wider range. If among Miriam's
associates Mr. Dashwood dragged him down, the other main sharer of his
privilege challenged him rather to higher and more fantastic flights. If
he saw the girl in larger relations than the young actor, who mainly saw
her in ill-written parts, Nash went a step further and regarded her,
irresponsibly and sublimely, as a priestess of harmony, a figure with
which the vulgar ideas of success and failure had nothing to do. He
laughed at her "parts," holding that without them she would still be
great. Peter envied him his power to content himself with the pleasures
he could get; Peter had a shrewd impression that contentment wouldn't be
the final sweetener of his own repast.

Above all Nash held his attention by a constant element of easy
reference to Nick Dormer, who, as we know, had suddenly become much more
interesting to his kinsman. Peter found food for observation, and in
some measure for perplexity, in the relations of all these clever people
with each other. He knew why his sister, who had a personal impatience
of unapplied ideas, had not been agreeably affected by Miriam's prime
patron and had not felt happy about the attribution of value to "such
people" by the man she was to marry. This was a side on which he had no
desire to resemble Julia, for he needed no teaching to divine that Nash
must have found her accessible to no light--none even about himself. He,
Peter, would have been sorry to have to confess he couldn't more or less
understand him. He understood furthermore that Miriam, in Nick's studio,
might very well have appeared to Julia a formidable force. She was
younger and would have "seen nothing," but she had quite as much her own
resources and was beautiful enough to have made Nick compare her with
the lady of Harsh even if he had been in love with that benefactress--a
pretension as to which her brother, as we know, entertained doubts.

Peter at all events saw for many days nothing of his cousin, though it
might have been said that Nick participated by implication at least in
the life of Balaklava Place. Had he given Julia tangible grounds and was
his unexpectedly fine rendering of Miriam an act of virtual infidelity?
In that case to what degree was the girl to be regarded as an accomplice
in his defection, and what was the real nature of Miriam's esteem for
her new and (as he might be called) distinguished ally? These questions
would have given Peter still more to think about had he not flattered
himself he had made up his mind that they concerned Nick and his sitter
herself infinitely more than they concerned any one else. That young
lady meanwhile was personally before him, so that he had no need to
consult for his pleasure his fresh recollection of the portrait. But he
thought of this striking production each time he thought of his so
good-looking kinsman's variety of range. And that happened often, for in
his hearing Miriam often discussed the happy artist and his
possibilities with Gabriel Nash, and Nash broke out about them to all
who might hear. Her own tone on the subject was uniform: she kept it on
record to a degree slightly irritating that Mr. Dormer had been
unforgettably--Peter particularly noted "unforgettably"--kind to her.
She never mentioned Julia's irruption to Julia's brother; she only
referred to the portrait, with inscrutable amenity, as a direct
consequence of this gentleman's fortunate suggestion that first day at
Madame Carré's. Nash showed, however, such a disposition to dwell
sociably and luminously on the peculiarly interesting character of what
he called Dormer's predicament and on the fine suspense it was fitted to
kindle in the breast of the truly discerning, that Peter wondered, as I
have already hinted, if this insistence were not a subtle perversity, a
devilish little invention to torment a man whose jealousy was
presumable. Yet his fellow-pilgrim struck him as on the whole but
scantly devilish and as still less occupied with the prefigurement of so
plain a man's emotions. Indeed he threw a glamour of romance over Nick;
tossed off toward him such illuminating yet mystifying references that
they operated quite as a bait to curiosity, invested with amusement the
view of the possible, any wish to follow out the chain of events. He
learned from Gabriel that Nick was still away, and he then felt he could
almost submit to instruction, to initiation. The loose charm of these
days was troubled, however--it ceased to be idyllic--when late on the
evening of the second Sunday he walked away with Nash southward from
Saint John's Wood. For then something came out.

Henry James