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Chapter 37

"Judge for yourself when you get a chance," Nash had said to him; and as
it turned out he was able to judge two days later, for he found his
cousin in Balaklava Place on the Tuesday following his walk with their
insufferable friend. He had not only stayed away from the theatre on the
Monday evening--he regarded this as an achievement of some
importance--but had not been near Miriam during the day. He had meant to
absent himself from her company on Tuesday as well; a determination
confirmed by the fact that the afternoon turned to rain. But when at ten
minutes to five o'clock he jumped into a hansom and directed his course
to Saint John's Wood it was precisely upon the weather that he shifted
the responsibility of his behaviour.

Miriam had dined when he reached the villa, but she was lying down,
unduly fatigued, before going to the theatre. Mrs. Rooth was, however,
in the drawing-room with three gentlemen, in two of whom the fourth
visitor was not startled to recognise Basil Dashwood and Gabriel Nash.
Dashwood appeared to have become Miriam's brother-in-arms and a second
child--a fonder one--to Mrs. Rooth; it had reached Peter on some late
visit that the young actor had finally moved his lodgings into the
quarter, making himself a near neighbour for all sorts of convenience.
"Hang his convenience!" Peter thought, perceiving that Mrs. Lovick's
"Arty" was now altogether one of the family. Oh the family!--it was a
queer one to be connected with: that consciousness was acute in
Sherringham's breast to-day as he entered Mrs. Rooth's little circle.
The place was filled with cigarette-smoke and there was a messy
coffee-service on the piano, whose keys Basil Dashwood lightly touched
for his own diversion. Nash, addressing the room of course, was at one
end of a little sofa with his nose in the air, and Nick Dormer was at
the other end, seated much at his ease and with a certain privileged
appearance of having been there often before, though Sherringham knew he
had not. He looked uncritical and very young, as rosy as a school-boy on
a half-holiday. It was past five o'clock in the day, but Mrs. Rooth was
not dressed; there was, however, no want of finish in her elegant
attitude--the same relaxed grandeur (she seemed to let you understand)
for which she used to be distinguished at Castle Nugent when the house
was full. She toyed incongruously, in her unbuttoned wrapper, with a
large tinsel fan which resembled a theatrical property.

It was one of the discomforts of Peter's position that many of those
minor matters which are superficially at least most characteristic of
the histrionic life had power to displease him, so that he was obliged
constantly to overlook and condone and pretend. He disliked besmoked
drawing-rooms and irregular meals and untidy arrangements; he could
suffer from the vulgarity of Mrs. Rooth's apartments, the importunate
photographs which gave on his nerves, the barbarous absence of signs of
an orderly domestic life, the odd volumes from the circulating library
(you could see what they were--the very covers told you--at a glance)
tumbled about under smeary cups and glasses. He hadn't waited till now
to feel it "rum" that fate should have let him in for such contacts;
but as he stood before his hostess and her companions he wondered
perhaps more than ever why he should. Her companions somehow, who were
not responsible, didn't keep down his wonder; which was particularly
odd, since they were not superficially in the least of Bohemian type.
Almost the first thing that struck him, as happened, in coming into the
room, was the fresh fact of the high good looks of his cousin, a
gentleman, to one's taste and for one's faith, in a different enough
degree from the stiff-collared, conversible Dashwood. Peter didn't hate
Nick for being of so fine an English grain; he knew rather the brush of
a new wave of annoyance at Julia's stupid failure to get on with him
under that good omen.

It was his first encounter with the late member for Harsh since his
arrival in London: they had been on one side and the other so much taken
up with their affairs. Since their last meeting Nick had, as we know, to
his kinsman's perception, really put on a new character: he had done the
finest stroke of business in the quietest way. This had made him a
presence to be counted with, and in just the sense in which poor Peter
desired least to count. Poor Peter, after his somersault in the blue,
had just lately been much troubled; he was ravaged by contending
passions; he paid every hour in a torment of unrest for what was false
in his position, the impossibility of keeping the presentable parts of
his character together, the opposition of interest and desire. Nick, his
junior and a lighter weight, had settled _his_ problem and showed no
wounds; there was something impertinent and mystifying in it. Yet he
looked, into the bargain, too innocently young and happy, and too
careless and modest and amateurish, to figure as a rival or even as the
genius he was apparently going to try to be--the genius that the other
day, in the studio there with Biddy, Peter had got a startled glimpse of
his power to become. Julia's brother would have liked to be aware of
grounds of resentment, to be able to hold she had been badly treated or
that Nick was basely fatuous, for in that case he might have had the
resource of taking offence. But where was the outrage of his merely
being liked by a woman in respect to whom one had definitely denied
one's self the luxury of pretensions, especially if, as the wrong-doer,
he had taken no action in the matter? It could scarcely be called
wrong-doing to call, casually, on an afternoon when the lady didn't seem
to be there. Peter could at any rate rejoice that Miriam didn't; and he
proposed to himself suggesting to Nick after a little that they should
adjourn together--they had such interesting things to talk about.
Meanwhile Nick greeted him with a friendly freedom in which he could
read neither confusion nor defiance. Peter was reassured against a
danger he believed he didn't recognise and puzzled by a mystery he
flattered himself he hadn't heeded. And he was still more ashamed of
being reassured than of being puzzled.

It must be recorded that Miriam's absence from the scene was not
prolonged. Nick, as Sherringham gathered, had been about a quarter of an
hour in the house, which would have given her, gratified by his
presence, due time to array herself to come down to him. At all events
she was in the room, prepared apparently to go to the theatre, very
shortly after one of her guests had become sensible of how glad he was
she was out of it. Familiarity had never yet cured him of a certain
tremor of expectation, and even of suspense, in regard to her entrances;
a flutter caused by the simple circumstance of her infinite variety. To
say she was always acting would too much convey that she was often
fatiguing; since her changing face affected this particular admirer at
least not as a series of masks, but as a response to perceived
differences, an intensity of that perception, or still more as something
richly constructional, like the shifting of the scene in a play or like
a room with many windows. The image she was to project was always
incalculable, but if her present denied her past and declined
responsibility for her future it made a good thing of the hour and kept
the actual peculiarly fresh. This time the actual was a bright, gentle,
graceful, smiling, young woman in a new dress, eager to go out, drawing
on fresh gloves, who looked as if she were about to step into a carriage
and--it was Gabriel Nash who thus formulated her physiognomy--do a lot
of London things.

The young woman had time to spare, however, and she sat down and talked
and laughed and presently gave, as seemed to Peter, a deeper glow to the
tawdry little room, which could do for others if it had to do for her.
She described herself as in a state of nervous muddle, exhausted,
blinded, _abrutie_, with the rehearsals of the forthcoming piece--the
first night was close at hand, and it was going to be of a vileness:
they would all see!--but there was no correspondence between this
account of the matter and her present bravery of mood. She sent her
mother away--to "put on some clothes or something"--and, left alone with
the visitors, went to a long glass between the windows, talking always
to Nick Dormer, and revised and rearranged a little her own attire. She
talked to Nick, over her shoulder, and to Nick only, as if he were the
guest to recognise and the others didn't count. She broke out at once on
his having thrown up his seat, wished to know if the strange story told
her by Mr. Nash were true--that he had knocked all the hopes of his
party into pie.

Nick took it any way she liked and gave a pleasant picture of his
party's ruin, the critical condition of public affairs: he was as yet
clearly closed to contrition or shame. The pilgrim from Paris, before
Miriam's entrance, had not, in shaking hands with him, made even a
roundabout allusion to his odd "game"; he felt he must somehow show good
taste--so English people often feel--at the cost of good manners. But he
winced on seeing how his scruples had been wasted, and was struck with
the fine, jocose, direct turn of his kinsman's conversation with the
young actress. It was a part of her unexpectedness that she took the
heavy literal view of Nick's behaviour; declared frankly, though without
ill nature, that she had no patience with his mistake. She was horribly
disappointed--she had set her heart on his being a great statesman, one
of the rulers of the people and the glories of England. What was so
useful, what was so noble?--how it belittled everything else! She had
expected him to wear a cordon and a star some day--acquiring them with
the greatest promptitude--and then to come and see her in her _loge_: it
would look so particularly well. She talked after the manner of a lovely
Philistine, except perhaps when she expressed surprise at
hearing--hearing from Gabriel Nash--that in England gentlemen accoutred
with those emblems of their sovereign's esteem didn't so far forget
themselves as to stray into the dressing-rooms of actresses. She
admitted after a moment that they were quite right and the
dressing-rooms of actresses nasty places; but she was sorry, for that
was the sort of thing she had always figured in a corner--a
distinguished man, slightly bald, in evening dress, with orders,
admiring the smallness of a satin shoe and saying witty things. Nash was
convulsed with hilarity at this--such a vision of the British political
hero. Coming back from the glass and making that critic give her his
place on the sofa, she seated herself near Nick and continued to
express her regret at his perversity.

"They all say that--all the charming women, but I shouldn't have looked
for it from you," Nick replied. "I've given you such an example of what
I can do in another line."

"Do you mean my portrait? Oh I've got it, with your name and 'M.P.' in
the corner, and that's precisely why I'm content. 'M.P.' in the corner
of a picture is delightful, but I want to break the mould: I don't in
the least insist on your giving specimens to others. And the artistic
life, when you can lead another--if you've any alternative, however
modest--is a very poor business. It comes last in dignity--after
everything else. Ain't I up to my eyes in it and don't I truly know?"

"You talk like my broken-hearted mother," said Nick.

"Does she hate it so intensely?"

"She has the darkest ideas about it--the wildest theories. I can't
imagine where she gets them; partly I think from a general conviction
that the 'esthetic'--a horrible insidious foreign disease--is eating the
healthy core out of English life (dear old English life!) and partly
from the charming pictures in _Punch_ and the clever satirical articles,
pointing at mysterious depths of contamination, in the other weekly
papers. She believes there's a dreadful coterie of uncannily artful and
desperately refined people who wear a kind of loose faded uniform and
worship only beauty--which is a fearful thing; that Gabriel has
introduced me to it; that I now spend all my time in it, and that for
its sweet sake I've broken the most sacred vows. Poor Gabriel, who, so
far as I can make out, isn't in any sort of society, however bad!"

"But I'm uncannily artful," Nash objected, "and though I can't afford
the uniform--I believe you get it best somewhere in South Audley
Street--I do worship beauty. I really think it's me the weekly papers
mean."

"Oh I've read the articles--I know the sort!" said Basil Dashwood.

Miriam looked at him. "Go and see if the brougham's there--I ordered it
early."

Dashwood, without moving, consulted his watch. "It isn't time yet--I
know more about the brougham than you. I've made a ripping good
arrangement for her stable--it really costs her nothing," the young
actor continued confidentially to Peter, near whom he had placed
himself.

"Your mother's quite right to be broken-hearted," Miriam declared, "and
I can imagine exactly what she has been through. I should like to talk
with her--I should like to see her." Nick showed on this easy amusement,
reminding her she had talked to him while she sat for her portrait in
quite the opposite sense, most helpfully and inspiringly; and Nash
explained that she was studying the part of a political duchess and
wished to take observations for it, to work herself into the character.
The girl might in fact have been a political duchess as she sat, her
head erect and her gloved hands folded, smiling with aristocratic
dimness at Nick. She shook her head with stately sadness; she might have
been trying some effect for Mary Stuart in Schiller's play. "I've
changed since that. I want you to be the grandest thing there is--the
counsellor of kings."

Peter wondered if it possibly weren't since she had met his sister in
Nick's studio that she had changed, if perhaps she hadn't seen how it
might give Julia the sense of being more effectually routed to know that
the woman who had thrown the bomb was one who also tried to keep Nick in
the straight path. This indeed would involve an assumption that Julia
might know, whereas it was perfectly possible she mightn't and more than
possible that if she should she wouldn't care. Miriam's essential
fondness for trying different ways was always there as an adequate
reason for any particular way; a truth which, however, sometimes only
half-prevented the particular way from being vexatious to a particular
observer.

"Yet after all who's more esthetic than you and who goes in more for the
beautiful?" Nick asked. "You're never so beautiful as when you pitch
into it."

"Oh, I'm an inferior creature, of an inferior sex, and I've to earn my
bread as I can. I'd give it all up in a moment, my odious trade--for an
inducement."

"And pray what do you mean by an inducement?" Nick demanded.

"My dear fellow, she means you--if you'll give her a permanent
engagement to sit for you!" Gabriel volunteered. "What singularly crude
questions you ask!"

"I like the way she talks," Mr. Dashwood derisively said, "when I gave
up the most brilliant prospects, of very much the same kind as Mr.
Dormer's, expressly to go on the stage."

"You're an inferior creature too," Miriam promptly pronounced.

"Miss Rooth's very hard to satisfy," Peter observed at this. "A man of
distinction, slightly bald, in evening dress, with orders, in the corner
of her _loge_--she has such a personage ready made to her hand and she
doesn't so much as look at him. Am _I_ not an inducement? Haven't I
offered you a permanent engagement?"

"Your orders--where are your orders?" she returned with a sweet smile,
getting up.

"I shall be a minister next year and an ambassador before you know it.
Then I shall stick on everything that can be had."

"And they call _us_ mountebanks!" cried the girl. "I've been so glad to
see you again--do you want another sitting?" she went on to Nick as if
to take leave of him.

"As many as you'll give me--I shall be grateful for all," he made
answer. "I should like to do you as you are at present. You're totally
different from the woman I painted--you're wonderful."

"The Comic Muse!" she laughed. "Well, you must wait till our first
nights are over--I'm _sur les dents_ till then. There's everything to do
and I've to do it all. That fellow's good for nothing, for nothing but
domestic life"--and she glanced at Basil Dashwood. "He hasn't an
idea--not one you'd willingly tell of him, though he's rather useful for
the stables. We've got stables now--or we try to look as if we had:
Dashwood's ideas are _de cette force_. In ten days I shall have more
time."

"The Comic Muse? Never, never," Peter protested. "You're not to go
smirking through the age and down to posterity--I'd rather see you as
Medusa crowned with serpents. That's what you look like when you look
best."

"That's consoling--when I've just bought a lovely new bonnet, all red
roses and bows. I forgot to tell you just now that when you're an
ambassador you may propose anything you like," Miriam went on. "But
forgive me if I make that condition. Seriously speaking, come to me
glittering with orders and I shall probably succumb. I can't resist
stars and garters. Only you must, as you say, have them all. I _don't_
like to hear Mr. Dormer talk the slang of the studio--like that phrase
just now: it _is_ a fall to a lower state. However, when one's low one
must crawl, and I'm crawling down to the Strand. Dashwood, see if
mamma's ready. If she isn't I decline to wait; you must bring her in a
hansom. I'll take Mr. Dormer in the brougham; I want to talk with Mr.
Dormer; he must drive with me to the theatre. His situation's full of
interest." Miriam led the way out of the room as she continued to
chatter, and when she reached the house-door with the four men in her
train the carriage had just drawn up at the garden-gate. It appeared
that Mrs. Rooth was not ready, and the girl, in spite of a remonstrance
from Nick, who had a sense of usurping the old lady's place, repeated
her injunction that she should be brought on in a cab. Miriam's
gentlemen hung about her at the gate, and she insisted on Nick's taking
his seat in the brougham and taking it first. Before she entered she put
her hand out to Peter and, looking up at him, held his own kindly. "Dear
old master, aren't you coming to-night? I miss you when you're not
there."

"Don't go--don't go--it's too much," Nash freely declared.

"She is wonderful," said Mr. Dashwood, all expert admiration; "she _has_
gone into the rehearsals tooth and nail. But nothing takes it out of
her."

"Nothing puts it into you, my dear!" Miriam returned. Then she pursued
to Peter: "You're the faithful one--you're the one I count on." He was
not looking at her; his eyes travelled into the carriage, where they
rested on Nick Dormer, established on the farther seat with his face
turned toward the farther window. He was the one, faithful or no,
counted on or no, whom a charming woman had preferred to carry off, and
there was clear triumph for him in that fact. Yet it pleased, it
somewhat relieved, his kinsman to see his passivity as not a little
foolish. Miriam noted something of this in Peter's eyes, for she
exclaimed abruptly, "Don't kill him--he doesn't care for me!" With which
she passed into the carriage and let it roll away.

Peter stood watching it till he heard Dashwood again beside him. "You
wouldn't believe what I make him do the whole thing for--a little rascal
I know."

"Good-bye; take good care of Mrs. Rooth," said Gabriel Nash, waving a
bland farewell to the young actor. He gave a smiling survey of the
heavens and remarked to Sherringham that the rain had stopped. Was he
walking, was he driving, should they be going in the same direction?
Peter cared little about his direction and had little account of it to
give; he simply moved away in silence and with Gabriel at his side. This
converser was partly an affliction to him; indeed the fact that he
couldn't only make light of him added to the oppression. It was just to
him nevertheless to note that he could hold his peace occasionally: he
had for instance this afternoon taken little part in the talk at
Balaklava Place. Peter greatly disliked to speak to him of Miriam, but
he liked Nash himself to make free with her, and even liked him to say
such things as might be a little viciously and unguardedly contradicted.
He was not, however, moved to gainsay something dropped by his
companion, disconnectedly, at the end of a few minutes; a word to the
effect that she was after all the best-natured soul alive. All the same,
Nash added, it wouldn't do for her to take possession of a nice life
like Nick's; and he repeated that for his part he would never allow it.
It would be on his conscience to interfere. To which Peter returned
disingenuously that they might all do as they liked--it didn't matter a
button to _him_. And with an effort to carry off that comedy he changed
the subject.

Henry James