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Chapter 40

Lady Agnes would doubtless have done better, in her own interest or in
that of her child, to have secured his company for the very next
evening. This she had indeed attempted, but her application of her
thought had miscarried, Peter bethinking himself that he was importantly
engaged. Her ladyship, moreover, couldn't presume to answer for Nick,
since after all they must of course _have_ Nick, though, to tell the
truth, the hideous truth, she and her son were scarcely on terms. Peter
insisted on Nick, wished particularly to see him, and gave his hostess
notice that he would make each of them forgive everything to the other.
She returned that all her son had to forgive was her loving him more
than her life, and she would have challenged Peter, had he allowed it,
on the general ground of the comparative dignity of the two arts of
painting portraits and governing nations. Our friend declined the
challenge: the most he did was to intimate that he perhaps saw Nick more
vividly as a painter than as a governor. Later he remembered vaguely
something his aunt had said about their being a governing family.

He was going, by what he could ascertain, to a very queer climate and
had many preparations to make. He gave his best attention to these, and
for a couple of hours after leaving Lady Agnes rummaged London for books
from which he might extract information about his new habitat. It made
apparently no great figure in literature, and Peter could reflect that
he was perhaps destined to find a salutary distraction in himself
filling the void with a volume of impressions. After he had resigned
himself to necessary ignorance he went into the Park. He treated himself
to an afternoon or two there when he happened to drop upon London in
summer--it refreshed his sense of the British interests he would have to
stand up for. Moreover, he had been hiding more or less, and now all
that was changed and this was the simplest way not to hide. He met a
host of friends, made his situation as public as possible and accepted
on the spot a great many invitations; all subject, however, to the
mental reservation that he should allow none of them to interfere with
his being present the first night of Miriam's new venture. He was going
to the equator to get away from her, but to repudiate the past with some
decency of form he must show an affected interest, if he could muster
none other, in an occasion that meant so much for her. The least
intimate of her associates would do that, and Peter remembered how, at
the expense of good manners, he had stayed away from her first
appearance on any stage at all. He would have been shocked had he found
himself obliged to go back to Paris without giving her at the imminent
crisis the personal countenance she had so good a right to expect.

It was nearly eight o'clock when he went to Great Stanhope Street to
dress for dinner and learn that a note awaiting him on the hall-table
and which bore the marks of hasty despatch had come three or four hours
before. It exhibited the signature of Miriam Rooth and let him know that
she positively expected him at the theatre by eleven o'clock the next
morning, for which hour a dress-rehearsal of the revived play had been
hurriedly projected, the first night being now definitely fixed for the
impending Saturday. She counted on his attendance at both ceremonies,
but with particular reasons for wishing to see him in the morning. "I
want you to see and judge and tell me," she said, "for my mind's like a
flogged horse--it won't give another kick." It was for the Saturday he
had made Lady Agnes his promise; he had thought of the possibility of
the play in doing so, but had rested in the faith that, from valid
symptoms, this complication would not occur till the following week. He
decided nothing on the spot as to the conflict of occupations--it was
enough to send Miriam three words to the effect that he would sooner
perish than fail her on the morrow.

He went to the theatre in the morning, and the episode proved curious
and instructive. Though there were twenty people in the stalls it bore
little resemblance to those _répétitions générales_ to which, in Paris,
his love of the drama had often attracted him and which, taking place at
night, in the theatre closed to the public, are virtually first
performances with invited spectators. They were to his sense always
settled and stately, rehearsals of the _première_ even more than
rehearsals of the play. The present occasion was less august; it was not
so much a concert as a confusion of sounds, and it took audible and at
times disputatious counsel with itself. It was rough and frank and
spasmodic, but was lively and vivid and, in spite of the serious
character of the piece, often exceedingly droll: while it gave
Sherringham, oddly enough, a more present sense than ever of bending
over the hissing, smoking, sputtering caldron in which a palatable
performance is stewed. He looked into the gross darkness that may result
from excess of light; that is, he understood how knocked up, on the eve
of production, every one concerned in the preparation of a piece might
be, with nerves overstretched and glasses blurred, awaiting the test
and the response, the echo to be given back by the big, receptive,
artless, stupid, delightful public. Peter's interest had been great in
advance, and as Miriam since his arrival had taken him much into her
confidence he knew what she intended to do and had discussed a hundred
points with her. They had differed about some of them and she had always
said: "Ah but wait till you see how I shall do it at the time!" That was
usually her principal reason and her most convincing argument. She had
made some changes at the last hour--she was going to do several things
in another way. But she wanted a touchstone, wanted a fresh ear, and, as
she told Sherringham when he went behind after the first act, that was
why she had insisted on this private trial, to which a few fresh ears
were to be admitted. They didn't want to allow it her, the theatre
people, they were such a parcel of donkeys; but as to what she meant in
general to insist on she had given them a hint she flattered herself
they wouldn't soon forget.

She spoke as if she had had a great battle with her fellow-workers and
had routed them utterly. It was not the first time he had heard her talk
as if such a life as hers could only be a fighting life and of her frank
measure of the fine uses of a faculty for making a row. She rejoiced she
possessed this faculty, for she knew what to do with it; and though
there might be a certain swagger in taking such a stand in advance when
one had done the infinitely little she had yet done, she nevertheless
trusted to the future to show how right she should have been in
believing a pack of idiots would never hold out against her and would
know they couldn't afford to. Her assumption of course was that she
fought for the light and the right, for the good way and the thorough,
for doing a thing properly if one did it at all. What she had really
wanted was the theatre closed for a night and the dress-rehearsal, put
on for a few people, given instead of _Yolande_. That she had not got,
but she would have it the next time. She spoke as if her triumphs behind
the scenes as well as before would go by leaps and bounds, and he could
perfectly see, for the time, that she would drive her coadjutors in
front of her like sheep. Her tone was the sort of thing that would have
struck one as preposterous if one hadn't believed in her; but if one did
so believe it only seemed thrown in with the other gifts. How was she
going to act that night and what could be said for such a hateful way of
doing things? She thrust on poor Peter questions he was all unable to
answer; she abounded in superlatives and tremendously strong objections.
He had a sharper vision than usual of the queer fate, for a peaceable
man, of being involved in a life of so violent a rhythm: one might as
well be hooked to a Catharine-wheel and whiz round in flame and smoke.

It had only been for five minutes, in the wing, amid jostling and
shuffling and shoving, that they held this conference. Miriam, splendid
in a brocaded anachronism, a false dress of the beginning of the
century, and excited and appealing, imperious, reckless and
good-humoured, full of exaggerated propositions, supreme determinations
and comic irrelevancies, showed as radiant a young head as the stage had
ever seen. Other people quickly surrounded her, and Peter saw that
though, she wanted, as she said, a fresh ear and a fresh eye she was
liable to rap out to those who possessed these advantages that they
didn't know what they were talking about. It was rather hard for her
victims--Basil Dashwood let him into this, wonderfully painted and in a
dress even more beautiful than Miriam's, that of a young dandy under
Charles the Second: if you were not in the business you were one kind
of donkey and if you _were_ in the business you were another kind. Peter
noted with a certain chagrin that Gabriel Nash had failed; he preferred
to base his annoyance on that ground when the girl, after the remark
just quoted from Dashwood, laughing and saying that at any rate the
thing would do because it would just have to do, thrust vindictively but
familiarly into the young actor's face a magnificent feather fan. "Isn't
he too lovely," she asked, "and doesn't he know how to do it?" Dashwood
had the sense of costume even more than Peter had inferred or supposed
he minded, inasmuch as it now appeared he had gone profoundly into the
question of what the leading lady was to wear. He had drawn patterns and
hunted up stuffs, had helped her to try on her clothes, had bristled
with ideas and pins. It would not have been quite clear, Peter's ground
for resenting Nash's cynical absence; it may even be thought singular he
should have missed him. At any rate he flushed a little when their young
woman, of whom he inquired whether she hadn't invited her oldest and
dearest friend, made answer: "Oh he says he doesn't like the
kitchen-fire--he only wants the pudding!" It would have taken the
kitchen-fire to account at that point for the red of Sherringham's
cheek; and he was indeed uncomfortably heated by helping to handle, as
he phrased it, the saucepans.

This he felt so much after he had returned to his seat, which he forbore
to quit again till the curtain had fallen on the last act, that in spite
of the high beauty of that part of the performance of which Miriam
carried the weight there were moments when his relief overflowed into
gasps, as if he had been scrambling up the bank of a torrent after an
immersion. The girl herself, out in the open of her field to win, was of
the incorruptible faith: she had been saturated to good purpose with the
great spirit of Madame Carré. That was conspicuous while the play went
on and she guarded the whole march with fagged piety and passion.
Sherringham had never liked the piece itself; he held that as barbarous
in form and false in feeling it did little honour to the British
theatre; he despised many of the speeches, pitied Miriam for having to
utter them, and considered that, lighted by that sort of candle, the
path of fame might very well lead nowhere.

When the ordeal was over he went behind again, where in the
rose-coloured satin of the silly issue the heroine of the occasion said
to him: "Fancy my having to drag through that other stuff to-night--the
brutes!" He was vague about the persons designated in this allusion, but
he let it pass: he had at the moment a kind of detached foreboding of
the way any gentleman familiarly connected with her in the future would
probably form the habit of letting objurgations and some other things
pass. This had become indeed now a frequent state of mind with him; the
instant he was before her, near her, next her, he found himself a
helpless subject of the spell which, so far at least as he was
concerned, she put forth by contact and of which the potency was
punctual and absolute: the fit came on, as he said, exactly as some
esteemed express-train on a great line bangs at a given moment into the
station. At a distance he partly recovered himself--that was the
encouragement for going to the shaky republic; but as soon as he entered
her presence his life struck him as a thing disconnected from his will.
It was as if he himself had been one thing and his behaviour another; he
had shining views of this difference, drawn as they might be from the
coming years--little illustrative scenes in which he saw himself in
strange attitudes of resignation, always rather sad and still and with a
slightly bent head. Such images should not have been inspiring, but it
is a fact that they were something to go upon. The gentleman with the
bent head had evidently given up something that was dear to him, but it
was exactly because he had got his price that he was there. "Come and
see me three or four hours hence," Miriam said--"come, that is, about
six. I shall rest till then, but I want particularly to talk with you.
There will be no one else--not the tip of any tiresome nose. You'll do
me good." So of course he drove up at six.

Henry James