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Chapter 45


Peter Sherringham said so little during the performance that his
companion was struck by his dumbness, especially as Miriam's acting
seemed to Nick magnificent. He held his breath while she was on the
stage--she gave the whole thing, including the spectator's emotion, such
a lift. She had not carried out her fantastic menace of not exerting
herself, and, as Mrs. Rooth had said, it little mattered for whom she
acted. Nick was conscious in watching her that she went through it all
for herself, for the idea that possessed her and that she rendered with
extraordinary breadth. She couldn't open the door a part of the way to
it and let it simply peep in; if it entered at all it must enter in full
procession and occupy the premises in state.

This was what had happened on an occasion which, as the less tormented
of our young men felt in his stall, grew larger with each throb of the
responsive house; till by the time the play was half over it appeared to
stretch out wide arms to the future. Nick had often heard more applause,
but had never heard more attention, since they were all charmed and
hushed together and success seemed to be sitting down with them. There
had been of course plenty of announcement--the newspapers had abounded
and the arts of the manager had taken the freest license; but it was
easy to feel a fine, universal consensus and to recognise everywhere
the light spring of hope. People snatched their eyes from the stage an
instant to look at each other, all eager to hand on the torch passed to
them by the actress over the footlights. It was a part of the impression
that she was now only showing to the full, for this time she had verse
to deal with and she made it unexpectedly exquisite. She was beauty,
melody, truth; she was passion and persuasion and tenderness. She caught
up the obstreperous play in soothing, entwining arms and, seeming to
tread the air in the flutter of her robe, carried it into the high
places of poetry, of art, of style. And she had such tones of nature,
such concealments of art, such effusions of life, that the whole scene
glowed with the colour she communicated, and the house, pervaded with
rosy fire, glowed back at the scene. Nick looked round in the intervals;
he felt excited and flushed--the night had turned to a feast of
fraternity and he expected to see people embrace each other. The crowd,
the agitation, the triumph, the surprise, the signals and rumours, the
heated air, his associates, near him, pointing out other figures who
presumably were celebrated but whom he had never heard of, all amused
him and banished every impulse to question or to compare. Miriam was as
happy as some right sensation--she would have fed the memory with deep
draughts.

One of the things that amused him or at least helped to fill his
attention was Peter's attitude, which apparently didn't exclude
criticism--rather indeed mainly implied it. This admirer never took his
eyes off the actress, but he made no remark about her and never stirred
out of his chair. Nick had had from the first a plan of going round to
speak to her, but as his companion evidently meant not to move he
scrupled at being more forward. During their brief dinner together--they
were determined not to be late--Peter had been silent, quite recklessly
grave, but also, his kinsman judged, full of the wish to make it clear
he was calm. In his seat he was calmer than ever and had an air even of
trying to suggest that his attendance, preoccupied as he was with deeper
solemnities, was more or less mechanical, the result of a conception of
duty, a habit of courtesy. When during a scene in the second act--a
scene from which Miriam was absent--Nick observed to him that one might
judge from his reserve that he wasn't pleased he replied after a moment:
"I've been looking for her mistakes." And when Nick made answer to this
that he certainly wouldn't find them he said again in an odd tone: "No,
I shan't find them--I shan't find them." It might have seemed that since
the girl's performance was a dazzling success he regarded his evening as
rather a failure.

After the third act Nick said candidly: "My dear fellow, how can you sit
here? Aren't you going to speak to her?"

To which Peter replied inscrutably: "Lord, no, never again. I bade her
good-bye yesterday. She knows what I think of her form. It's very good,
but she carries it a little too far. Besides, she didn't want me to
come, and it's therefore more discreet to keep away from her."

"Surely it isn't an hour for discretion!" Nick cried. "Excuse me at any
rate for five minutes."

He went behind and reappeared only as the curtain was rising on the
fourth act; and in the interval between the fourth and the fifth he went
again for a shorter time. Peter was personally detached, but he
consented to listen to his companion's vivid account of the state of
things on the stage, where the elation of victory had lighted up the
place. The strain was over, the ship in port--they were all wiping their
faces and grinning. Miriam--yes, positively--was grinning too, and she
hadn't asked a question about Peter nor sent him a message. They were
kissing all round and dancing for joy. They were on the eve, worse luck,
of a tremendous run. Peter groaned irrepressibly for this; it was, save
for a slight sign a moment later, the only vibration caused in him by
his cousin's report. There was but one voice of regret that they hadn't
put on the piece earlier, as the end of the season would interrupt the
run. There was but one voice too about the fourth act--it was believed
all London would rush to see the fourth act. The crowd about her was a
dozen deep and Miriam in the midst of it all charming; she was receiving
in the ugly place after the fashion of royalty, almost as hedged with
the famous "divinity," yet with a smile and a word for each. She was
really like a young queen on her accession. When she saw him, Nick, she
had kissed her hand to him over the heads of the courtiers. Nick's
artless comment on this was that she had such pretty manners. It made
Peter laugh--apparently at his friend's conception of the manners of a
young queen. Mrs. Rooth, with a dozen shawls on her arm, was as red as
the kitchen-fire, but you couldn't tell if Miriam were red or pale: she
was so cleverly, finely made up--perhaps a little too much. Dashwood of
course was greatly to the fore, but you hadn't to mention his own
performance to him: he took it all handsomely and wouldn't hear of
anything but that _her_ fortune was made. He didn't say much indeed, but
evidently had ideas about her fortune; he nodded significant things and
whistled inimitable sounds--"Heuh, heuh!" He was perfectly satisfied;
moreover, he looked further ahead than any one.

It was on coming back to his place after the fourth act that Nick put
in, for his companion's benefit, most of these touches in his sketch of
the situation. If Peter had continued to look for Miriam's mistakes he
hadn't yet found them: the fourth act, bristling with dangers, putting a
premium on every sort of cheap effect, had rounded itself without a
flaw. Sitting there alone while Nick was away he had leisure to meditate
on the wonder of this--on the art with which the girl had separated
passion from violence, filling the whole place and never screaming; for
it had often seemed to him in London of old that the yell of theatrical
emotion rang through the shrinking night like the voice of the Sunday
newsboy. Miriam had never been more present to him than at this hour;
but she was inextricably transmuted--present essentially as the romantic
heroine she represented. His state of mind was of the strangest and he
was conscious of its strangeness, just as he was conscious in his very
person of a lapse of resistance which likened itself absurdly to
liberation. He felt weak at the same time that he felt inspired, and he
felt inspired at the same time that he knew, or believed he knew, that
his face was a blank. He saw things as a shining confusion, and yet
somehow something monstrously definite kept surging out of them. Miriam
was a beautiful, actual, fictive, impossible young woman of a past age,
an undiscoverable country, who spoke in blank verse and overflowed with
metaphor, who was exalted and heroic beyond all human convenience and
who yet was irresistibly real and related to one's own affairs. But that
reality was a part of her spectator's joy, and she was not changed back
to the common by his perception of the magnificent trick of art with
which it was connected. Before his kinsman rejoined him Peter, taking a
visiting-card from his pocket, had written on it in pencil a few words
in a foreign tongue; but as at that moment he saw Nick coming in he
immediately put it out of view.

The last thing before the curtain rose on the fifth act that young man
mentioned his having brought a message from Basil Dashwood, who hoped
they both, on leaving the theatre, would come to supper with him in
company with Miriam and her mother and several others: he had prepared a
little informal banquet in honour of so famous a night. At this, while
the curtain was about to rise, Peter immediately took out his card again
and added something--he wrote the finest small hand you could see. Nick
asked him what he was doing, and he waited but an instant. "It's a word
to say I can't come."

"To Dashwood? Oh I shall go," said Nick.

"Well, I hope you'll enjoy it!" his companion replied in a tone which
came back to him afterwards.

When the curtain fell on the last act the people stayed, standing up in
their places for acclamation. The applause shook the house--the recall
became a clamour, the relief from a long tension. This was in any
performance a moment Peter detested, but he stood for an instant beside
Nick, who clapped, to his cousin's diplomatic sense, after the fashion
of a school-boy at the pantomime. There was a veritable roar while the
curtain drew back at the side most removed from our pair. Peter could
see Basil Dashwood holding it, making a passage for the male "juvenile
lead," who had Miriam in tow. Nick redoubled his efforts; heard the
plaudits swell; saw the bows of the leading gentleman, who was hot and
fat; saw Miriam, personally conducted and closer to the footlights, grow
brighter and bigger and more swaying; and then became aware that his own
comrade had with extreme agility slipped out of the stalls. Nick had
already lost sight of him--he had apparently taken but a minute to
escape from the house; and wondered at his quitting him without a
farewell if he was to leave England on the morrow and they were not to
meet at the hospitable Dashwood's. He wondered even what Peter was "up
to," since, as he had assured him, there was no question of his going
round to Miriam. He waited to see this young lady reappear three times,
dragging Dashwood behind her at the second with a friendly arm, to whom,
in turn, was hooked Miss Fanny Rover, the actress entrusted in the piece
with the inevitable comic relief. He went out slowly with the crowd and
at the door looked again for Peter, who struck him as deficient for once
in finish. He couldn't know that in another direction and while he was
helping the house to "rise" at its heroine, his kinsman had been
particularly explicit.

On reaching the lobby Peter had pounced on a small boy in buttons, who
seemed superfluously connected with a desolate refreshment-room and,
from the tips of his toes, was peeping at the stage through the glazed
hole in the door of a box. Into one of the child's hands he thrust the
card he had drawn again from his waistcoat and into the other the
largest silver coin he could find in the same receptacle, while he bent
over him with words of adjuration--words the little page tried to help
himself to apprehend by instantly attempting to peruse the other words
written on the card.

"That's no use--it's Italian," said Peter; "only carry it round to Miss
Rooth without a minute's delay. Place it in her hand and she'll give you
some object--a bracelet, a glove, or a flower--to bring me back as a
sign that she has received it. I shall be outside; bring me there what
she gives you and you shall have another shilling--only fly!"

His small messenger sounded him a moment with the sharp face of London
wage-earning, and still more of London tip-earning, infancy, and
vanished as swiftly as a slave of the Arabian Nights. While he waited in
the lobby the audience began to pour out, and before the urchin had
come back to him he was clapped on the shoulder by Nick.

"I'm glad I haven't lost you, but why didn't you stay to give her a
hand?"

"Give her a hand? I hated it."

"My dear man, I don't follow you," Nick said. "If you won't come to
Dashwood's supper I fear our ways don't lie together."

"Thank him very much; say I've to get up at an unnatural hour." To this
Peter added: "I think I ought to tell you she may not be there."

"Miss Rooth? Why it's all _for_ her."

"I'm waiting for a word from her--she may change her mind."

Nick showed his interest. "For you? What then have you proposed?"

"I've proposed marriage," said Peter in a strange voice.

"I say--!" Nick broke out; and at the same moment Peter's messenger
squeezed through the press and stood before him.

"She has given me nothing, sir," the boy announced; "but she says I'm to
say 'All right!'"

Nick's stare widened. "You've proposed through _him_?"

"Aye, and she accepts. Good-night!"--on which, turning away, Peter
bounded into a hansom. He said something to the driver through the roof,
and Nick's eyes followed the cab as it started off. This young man was
mystified, was even amused; especially when the youth in buttons,
planted there and wondering too, brought forth:

"Please sir, he told me he'd give me a shilling and he've forgot it."

"Oh I can't pay you for _that_!" Nick laughed. But he fished out a dole,
though he was vexed at the injury to the supper.

Henry James