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Chapter 41


"I don't know; I haven't the least idea; I don't care; don't ask
me!"--it was so he met some immediate appeal of her artistic egotism,
some challenge of his impression of her at this and that moment. Hadn't
she frankly better give up such and such a point and return to their
first idea, the one they had talked over so much? Peter replied to this
that he disowned all ideas; that at any rate he should never have
another as long as he lived, and that, so help him heaven, they had
worried that hard bone more than enough.

"You're tired of me--yes, already," she said sadly and kindly. They were
alone, her mother had not peeped out and she had prepared herself to
return to the Strand. "However, it doesn't matter and of course your
head's full of other things. You must think me ravenously
selfish--perpetually chattering about my vulgar shop. What will you have
when one's a vulgar shop-girl? You used to like it, but then you weren't
an ambassador."

"What do you know about my being a minister?" he asked, leaning back in
his chair and showing sombre eyes. Sometimes he held her handsomer on
the stage than off, and sometimes he reversed that judgement. The former
of these convictions had held his mind in the morning, and it was now
punctually followed by the other. As soon as she stepped on the boards
a great and special alteration usually took place in her--she was in
focus and in her frame; yet there were hours too in which she wore her
world's face before the audience, just as there were hours when she wore
her stage face in the world. She took up either mask as it suited her
humour. To-day he was seeing each in its order and feeling each the
best. "I should know very little if I waited for you to tell me--that's
very certain," Miriam returned. "It's in the papers that you've got a
high appointment, but I don't read the papers unless there's something
in them about myself. Next week I shall devour them and think them, no
doubt, inane. It was Basil told me this afternoon of your promotion--he
had seen it announced somewhere, I'm delighted if it gives you more
money and more advantages, but don't expect me to be glad that you're
going away to some distant, disgusting country."

"The matter has only just been settled and we've each been busy with our
own affairs. But even if you hadn't given me these opportunities," Peter
went on, "I should have tried to see you to-day, to tell you my news and
take leave of you."

"Take leave? Aren't you coming to-morrow?"

"Oh yes, I shall see you through that. But I shall rush away the very
moment it's over."

"I shall be much better then--really I shall," the girl said.

"The better you are the worse you are."

She returned his frown with a beautiful charity. "If it would do you any
good I'd be bad."

"The worse you are the better you are!" Peter laughed. "You're a
devouring demon."

"Not a bit! It's you."

"It's I? I like that."

"It's you who make trouble, who are sore and suspicious and supersubtle,
not taking things as they come and for what they are, but twisting them
into misery and falsity. Oh I've watched you enough, my dear friend, and
I've been sorry for you--and sorry as well for myself; for I'm not so
taken up with myself, in the low greedy sense, as you think. I'm not
such a base creature. I'm capable of gratitude, I'm capable of
affection. One may live in paint and tinsel, but one isn't absolutely
without a soul. Yes, I've got one," the girl went on, "though I do smear
my face and grin at myself in the glass and practise my intonations. If
what you're going to do is good for you I'm very glad. If it leads to
good things, to honour and fortune and greatness, I'm enchanted. If it
means your being away always, for ever and ever, of course that's
serious. You know it--I needn't tell you--I regard you as I really don't
regard any one else. I've a confidence in you--ah it's a luxury! You're
a gentleman, _mon bon_--ah you're a gentleman! It's just that. And then
you see, you understand, and that's a luxury too. You're a luxury
altogether, dear clever Mr. Sherringham. Your being where I shall never
see you isn't a thing I shall enjoy; I know that from the separation of
these last months--after our beautiful life in Paris, the best thing
that ever happened to me or that ever will. But if it's your career, if
it's your happiness--well, I can miss you and hold my tongue. I _can_ be
disinterested--I can!"

"What did you want me to come for?" he asked, all attentive and
motionless. The same impression, the old impression, was with him again;
the sense that if she was sincere it was sincerity of execution, if she
was genuine it was the genuineness of doing it well. She did it so well
now that this very fact was charming and touching. In claiming from him
at the theatre this hour of the afternoon she had wanted honestly (the
more as she had not seen him at home for several days) to go over with
him once again, on the eve of the great night--it would be for her
second creation the critics would lie so in wait; the first success
might have been a fluke--some of her recurrent doubts: knowing from
experience of what good counsel he often was, how he could give a
worrying question its "settler" at the last. Then she had heard from
Dashwood of the change in his situation, and that had really from one
moment to the other made her think sympathetically of his
preoccupations--led her open-handedly to drop her own. She was sorry to
lose him and eager to let him know how good a friend she was conscious
he had been to her. But the expression of this was already, at the end
of a minute, a strange bedevilment: she began to listen to herself, to
speak dramatically, to represent. She uttered the things she felt as if
they were snatches of old play-books, and really felt them the more
because they sounded so well. This, however, didn't prevent their really
being as good feelings as those of anybody else, and at the moment her
friend, to still a rising emotion--which he knew he shouldn't
still--articulated the challenge I have just recorded, she had for his
sensibility, at any rate, the truth of gentleness and generosity.

"There's something the matter with you, my dear--you're jealous," Miriam
said. "You're jealous of poor Mr. Dormer. That's an example of the way
you tangle everything up. Lord, he won't hurt you, nor me either!"

"He can't hurt me, certainly," Peter returned, "and neither can you; for
I've a nice little heart of stone and a smart new breastplate of iron.
The interest I take in you is something quite extraordinary; but the
most extraordinary thing in it is that it's perfectly prepared to
tolerate the interest of others."

"The interest of others needn't trouble it much!" Miriam declared. "If
Mr. Dormer has broken off his marriage to such an awfully fine
woman--for she's that, your swell of a sister--it isn't for a ranting
wretch like me. He's kind to me because that's his nature and he notices
me because that's his business; but he's away up in the clouds--a
thousand miles over my head. He has got something 'on,' as they say;
he's in love with an idea. I think it's a shocking bad one, but that's
his own affair. He's quite _exalté_; living on nectar and ambrosia--what
he has to spare for us poor crawling things on earth is only a few dry
crumbs. I didn't even ask him to come to rehearsal. Besides, he thinks
you're in love with me and that it wouldn't be honourable to cut in.
He's capable of that--isn't it charming?"

"If he were to relent and give up his scruples would you marry him?"
Peter asked.

"Mercy, how you chatter about 'marrying'!" the girl laughed. "_C'est la
maladie anglaise_--you've all got it on the brain."

"Why I put it that way to please you," he explained. "You complained to
me last year precisely that this was not what seemed generally wanted."

"Oh last year!"--she made nothing of that. Then differently, "Yes, it's
very tiresome!" she conceded.

"You told me, moreover, in Paris more than once that you wouldn't listen
to anything but that."

"Well," she declared, "I won't, but I shall wait till I find a husband
who's charming enough and bad enough. One who'll beat me and swindle me
and spend my money on other women--that's the sort of man for me. Mr.
Dormer, delightful as he is, doesn't come up to that."

"You'll marry Basil Dashwood." He spoke it with conviction.

"Oh 'marry'?--call it marry if you like. That's what poor mother
threatens me with--she lives in dread of it."

"To this hour," he mentioned, "I haven't managed to make out what your
mother wants. She has so many ideas, as Madame Carré said."

"She wants me to be some sort of tremendous creature--all her ideas are
reducible to that. What makes the muddle is that she isn't clear about
the creature she wants most. A great actress or a great lady--sometimes
she inclines for one and sometimes for the other, but on the whole
persuading herself that a great actress, if she'll cultivate the right
people, may _be_ a great lady. When I tell her that won't do and that a
great actress can never be anything but a great vagabond, then the dear
old thing has tantrums, and we have scenes--the most grotesque: they'd
make the fortune, for a subject, of some play-writing rascal, if he had
the wit to guess them; which, luckily for us perhaps, he never will. She
usually winds up by protesting--_devinez un peu quoi_!" Miriam added.
And as her companion professed his complete inability to divine: "By
declaring that rather than take it that way I must marry _you_."

"She's shrewder than I thought," Peter returned. "It's the last of
vanities to talk about, but I may state in passing that if you'd marry
me you should be the greatest of all possible ladies."

She had a beautiful, comical gape. "Lord o' mercy, my dear fellow, what
natural capacity have I for that?"

"You're artist enough for anything. I shall be a great diplomatist: my
resolution's firmly taken, I'm infinitely cleverer than you have the
least idea of, and you shall be," he went on, "a great diplomatist's
wife."

"And the demon, the devil, the devourer and destroyer, that you are so
fond of talking about: what, in such a position, do you do with that
element of my nature? _Où le fourrez-vous_?" she cried as with a real
anxiety.

"I'll look after it, I'll keep it under. Rather perhaps I should say
I'll bribe it and amuse it; I'll gorge it with earthly grandeurs."

"That's better," said Miriam; "for a demon that's kept under is a shabby
little demon. Don't let's be shabby." Then she added: "Do you really go
away the beginning of next week?"

"Monday night if possible."

"Ah that's but to Paris. Before you go to your new post they must give
you an interval here."

"I shan't take it--I'm so tremendously keen for my duties. I shall
insist on going sooner. Oh," he went on, "I shall be concentrated now."

"I'll come and act there." She met it all--she was amused and amusing.
"I've already forgotten what it was I wanted to discuss with you," she
said--"it was some trumpery stuff. What I want to say now is only one
thing: that it's not in the least true that because my life pitches me
in every direction and mixes me up with all sorts of people--or rather
with one sort mainly, poor dears!--I haven't a decent character, I
haven't common honesty. Your sympathy, your generosity, your patience,
your precious suggestions, our dear sweet days last summer in Paris, I
shall never forget. You're the best--you're different from all the
others. Think of me as you please and make profane jokes about my mating
with a disguised 'Arty'--I shall think of _you_ only in one way. I've a
great respect for you. With all my heart I hope you'll be a great
diplomatist. God bless you, dear clever man."

She got up as she spoke and in so doing glanced at the clock--a movement
that somehow only added to the noble gravity of her discourse: she was
considering his time so much more than her own. Sherringham, at this,
rising too, took out his watch and stood a moment with his eyes bent
upon it, though without in the least seeing what the needles marked.
"You'll have to go, to reach the theatre at your usual hour, won't you?
Let me not keep you. That is, let me keep you only long enough just to
say this, once for all, as I shall never speak of it again. I'm going
away to save myself," he frankly said, planted before her and seeking
her eyes with his own. "I ought to go, no doubt, in silence, in decorum,
in virtuous submission to hard necessity--without asking for credit or
sympathy, without provoking any sort of scene or calling attention to my
fortitude. But I can't--upon my soul I can't. I can go, I can see it
through, but I can't hold my tongue. I want you to know all about it, so
that over there, when I'm bored to death, I shall at least have the
exasperatingly vain consolation of feeling that you do know--and that it
does neither you nor me any good!"

He paused a moment; on which, as quite vague, she appealed. "That I 'do
know' what?"

"That I've a consuming passion for you and that it's impossible."

"Oh impossible, my friend!" she sighed, but with a quickness in her
assent.

"Very good; it interferes, the gratification of it would interfere
fatally, with the ambition of each of us. Our ambitions are inferior and
odious, but we're tied fast to them."

"Ah why ain't we simple?" she quavered as if all touched by it. "Why
ain't we of the people--_comme tout le monde_--just a man and a girl
liking each other?"

He waited a little--she was so tenderly mocking, so sweetly ambiguous.
"Because we're precious asses! However, I'm simple enough, after all,
to care for you as I've never cared for any human creature. You have, as
it happens, a personal charm for me that no one has ever approached, and
from the top of your splendid head to the sole of your theatrical shoe
(I could go down on my face--there, abjectly--and kiss it!) every inch
of you is dear and delightful to me. Therefore good-bye."

She took this in with wider eyes: he had put the matter in a way that
struck her. For a moment, all the same, he was afraid she would reply as
on the confessed experience of so many such tributes, handsome as this
one was. But she was too much moved--the pure colour that had risen to
her face showed it--to have recourse to this particular facility. She
was moved even to the glimmer of tears, though she gave him her hand
with a smile. "I'm so glad you've said all that, for from you I know
what it means. Certainly it's better for you to go away. Of course it's
all wrong, isn't it?--but that's the only thing it can be: therefore
it's all right, isn't it? Some day when we're both great people we'll
talk these things over; then we shall be quiet, we shall be rich, we
shall be at peace--let us hope so at least--and better friends than
others about us will know." She paused, smiling still, and then said
while he held her hand: "Don't, _don't_ come to-morrow night."

With this she attempted to draw her hand away, as if everything were
settled and over; but the effect of her movement was that, as he held
her tight, he was simply drawn toward her and close to her. The effect
of this, in turn, was that, releasing her only to possess her the more
completely, he seized her in his arms and, breathing deeply "I love you,
you know," clasped her in a long embrace. His demonstration and her
conscious sufferance, almost equally liberal, so sustained themselves
that the door of the room had time to open slowly before either had
taken notice. Mrs. Rooth, who had not peeped in before, peeped in now,
becoming in this manner witness of an incident she could scarce have
counted on. The unexpected indeed had for Mrs. Rooth never been an
insuperable element in things; it was her position in general to be too
acquainted with all the passions for any crude surprise. As the others
turned round they saw her stand there and smile, and heard her ejaculate
with wise indulgence: "Oh you extravagant children!"

Miriam brushed off her tears, quickly but unconfusedly. "He's going
away, the wretch; he's bidding us farewell."

Peter--it was perhaps a result of his acute agitation--laughed out at
the "us" (he had already laughed at the charge of puerility), and Mrs.
Rooth went on: "Going away? Ah then I must have one too!" She held out
both her hands, and Sherringham, stepping forward to take them, kissed
her respectfully on each cheek, in the foreign manner, while she
continued: "Our dear old friend--our kind, gallant gentleman!"

"The gallant gentleman has been promoted to a great post--the proper
reward of his gallantry," Miriam said. "He's going out as minister to
some impossible place--where is it?"

"As minister--how very charming! We _are_ getting on." And their
companion languished up at him with a world of approval.

"Oh well enough. One must take what one can get," he answered.

"You'll get everything now, I'm sure, shan't you?" Mrs. Rooth asked with
an inflexion that called back to him comically--the source of the sound
was so different--the very vibrations he had heard the day before from
Lady Agnes.

"He's going to glory and he'll forget all about us--forget he has ever
known such low people. So we shall never see him again, and it's better
so. Good-bye, good-bye," Miriam repeated; "the brougham must be there,
but I won't take you. I want to talk to mother about you, and we shall
say things not fit for you to hear. Oh I'll let you know what we
lose--don't be afraid," she added to Mrs. Rooth. "He's the rising star
of diplomacy."

"I knew it from the first--I know how things turn out for such people as
you!" cried the old woman, gazing fondly at Sherringham. "But you don't
mean to say you're not coming to-morrow night?"

"Don't--don't; it's great folly," Miriam interposed; "and it's quite
needless, since you saw me to-day."

Peter turned from the mother to the daughter, the former of whom broke
out to the latter: "Oh you dear rogue, to say one has _seen_ you yet!
You know how you'll come up to it--you'll be beyond everything."

"Yes, I shall be there--certainly," Peter said, at the door, to Mrs.
Rooth.

"Oh you dreadful goose!" Miriam called after him. But he went out
without looking round at her.

Henry James