PETER SHERRINGHAM would not for a moment have admitted that he was jealous of Nick Dormer, but he would almost have liked to be accused of it; for this would have given him an opportunity to declare, with plausibility, that so uncomfortable a passion had no application to his case. How could a man be jealous when he was not a suitor ; how could he pretend to guard a property which was neither his own nor destined to become his own ? There could be no question of loss when one had nothing at stake, and no question of envy when the responsibility of possession was exactly what one prayed to be delivered from. The measure of one’s susceptibility was one’s pretensions, and Peter was not only ready to declare over and over again that, thank God, he had none ; his spiritual detachment was still more complete — he literally suffered from the fact that the declaration was but little elicited. He connected an idea of virtue and honor with his attitude ; for surely it was a high example of conduct to have quenched a personal passion for the sake of the public service. He had gone over the whole question at odd, irrepressible hours ; he had returned, spiritually speaking, the buffet administered to him. in a moment, that day in Rosedale Road, by the spectacle of the crânerie with which Nick could let worldly glories slide. Resolution for resolution, he preferred, after all, another sort, and his own crânerie would be shown in the way he should stick to his profession and stand up for British interests. If Nick had leaped over a wall he would leap over a river. The course of his river was already traced and his loins were already girded. Thus he was justified in holding that the measure of a man’s susceptibility was a man’s attitude : that was the only thing he was bound to give an account of.
He was perpetually giving an account of it to his own soul, in default of other listeners. He was quite angry at having tasted a sweetness in Miriam’s assurance, at the carriage door, bestowed indeed with very little solemnity, that Nick did n’t care for her. Wherein did it concern him that Nick cared for her or that Nick didn’t? Wherein did it signify to him that Gabriel Nash should have taken upon himself to disapprove of a union between the young actress and the young painter, and to frustrate an accident that might perhaps be happy ? For those had also been cooling words, at the hour, though Peter blushed, on the morrow, to think that he had perceived in them anything but Nash’s personal sublimity. He was ashamed of having been refreshed, and refreshed by so sickly a draught, because it was his theory that he was not in a fever. As for keeping an eye on Nick, it would soon become clear to that young man and that young man’s charming friend that he was too much engrossed with other matters to do anything of the sort. Nick and Miriam and Gabriel Nash could straighten out their complications according to their light. He would never speak to Nick of Miriam ; he felt, indeed, just now as if he should never speak to Nick of anything. He had traced the course of his river, as I say, and the real proof would be the way he should fly through the air. It was a case for action — for vigorous, unmistakable action. He had done very little since his arrival in London but moon round a fille de théàtre who was taken up partly, though she bluffed it off, with another man, and partly with arranging new petticoats for a beastly old " poetic drama; ” but this little waste of time should instantly be made up. He bad given himself a certain rope, and he had danced to the end of his rope, and now he would dance back. That was all right — so right that Sherringham could only express to himself how right it was by whistling gayly.
He whistled as he went to dine with a great personage, the day after his meeting with Nick in Balaklava Place; a great personage to whom he had originally paid his respects — it was high time — the day before that meeting, the Monday of that week. The sense of omissions to repair, of a superior line to take, perhaps made him study with more intensity to please the personage, who gave him ten minutes and asked him live questions. A great many doors were successively opened before any palpitating pilgrim who was about to enter the presence of this distinguished man ; but they were discreetly closed again behind Sherringham, and I must ask the reader to pause with me at the nearer end of the momentary vista. This particular pilgrim fortunately felt that he could count upon being recognized not only as a faithful if obscure official in the great hierarchy, but as a clever young man who happened to be connected by blood with people his lordship had intimately known. No doubt it was simply as the clever young man that Peter received the next morning, from her ladyship, a note asking him to dine on the morrow. He had received such cards before, and he always responded to the invitation they embodied : he did so, however, on the present occasion, with a sense of unusual intention. In due course his intention was translated into words: before the gentlemen left the dining-room he took the liberty of asking his noble host if during the next few days there would be three minutes more that he might, in his extreme benevolence, bestow upon him.
“ What is it you want ? Tell me now, ” his lordship replied, motioning to the rest of the company to pass out and detaining Peter in the dining-room.
Peter’s excellent training covered every contingency: he could be concise or diffuse, as the occasion reouired. Even he himself, however, was surprised at the quick felicity of the terms in which he was conscious of conveying that if it were compatible with higher conveniences he should peculiarly like to be transferred to duties in a more distant quarter of the globe. Indeed, though Sherringham was fond of thinking of himself as a man of emotions controlled by training, it is not impossible that there was a greater candor than he knew in the expression of his face and even the slight tremor of his voice as he presented this petition. He had wished extremely that his manner should be good in doing so, but perhaps the best part of it, for his interlocutor, was just the part in which it failed — in which it confessed a secret that the highest diplomacy would not have confessed, Sherringham remarked to the minister that he did n’t care in the least where the place might be, nor how little coveted a post; the further away the better, and the climate did n’t matter. He would only prefer, of course, that there should be really something to do, although he would make the best of it even if there were not. He stopped in time, or at least he thought he did, not to appear to suggest that he covertly sought relief from the misery of a hindered passion in a flight to latitudes unfavorable to human life. His august patron gave him a sharp look which, for a moment, seemed the precursor of a sharper question ; but the moment elapsed and the question did not come. This considerate omission, characteristic of a true man of the world, and representing quick guesses and still quicker indifferences, made Sherringham from that moment his lordship’s ardent partisan. What did come was a good-natured laugh and the exclamation, “ You know there are plenty of swamps and jungles, if you want that sort of thing.” Sherringham replied that it was very much that sort of thing he did want; whereupon his lordship continued, “ I ’ll see — I ’ll see : if anything turns up, you shall hear.”
Something turned up the very next day : our young man, taken at his word, found himself indebted to the post for a large, stiff, engraved official letter, in which the high position of minister to the smallest of Central American republics was offered to him. The republic, though small, was big enough to be “ shaky,” and the position, though high, was not so exalted that there were not much greater altitudes above it to which it was a stepping-stone. Sherringham took one thing with another, rejoiced at his easy triumph, reflected that he must have been even more noticed at headquarters than he had hoped, and, on the spot, consulting nobody and waiting for nothing, signified his cordial acceptance of the place. Nobody with a grain of sense would have advised him to do anything else. It made him happier than he had supposed he should ever be again ; it made him feel, professionally, in the train, as they said in Paris ; it was serious, it was interesting, it was exciting, and Sherringham’s imagination, letting itself loose into the future, began once more to scale the crowning heights. It was very simple to hold one’s course if one really tried, and he blessed republics and the torrid zone. A further communication informed him that he would be expected to return to Paris, for a short interval, a week later, and that he would before that time be advised of the date at which he was to proceed to his remoter duties.
The first thing Peter now did was to go and see Lady Agnes Dormer ; it is not unworthy of note that he took, on the other hand, no step to make his promotion known to Miriam Rooth. To render it more probable he should find her he went at the luncheon-hour; and she was indeed on the point of sitting down to that repast with Grace. Biddy was not at home— Biddy was never at home now, her mother said : she was always at Nick’s place, she spent her life there, she ate and drank there, she almost slept there. What she found to do there, in so many hours, or what was the irresistible spell, Lady Agnes could not pretend that she had succeeded in discovering. She spoke of this baleful resort only as “ Nick’s place,” and she spoke of it at first as little as possible. She thought it very probable, however, that Biddy would come in early that afternoon: there was something or other, some common social duty, that she had condescended to promise she would perform with Grace. Poor Lady Agnes, whom Sherringham found in a very grim yet very tremulous condition (she assured her visitor her nerves were all gone), almost abused her younger daughter for two minutes, having evidently a deep-seated need of abusing some one. I must add, however, that she did n’t wait to meet Grace’s eye before recovering, by a rapid gyration, her view of the possibilities of things—those possibilities from which she still might squeeze, as a mother, the drop that would sweeten her cup. “ Dear child,” she had the presence of mind to add, " her only fault is, after all, that she adores her brother. She has a capacity for adoration, and must always take her gospel from some one.”
Grace declared to Peter that her sister would have stayed at home if she had dreamed he was coming, and Lady Agnes let him know that she had heard all about the hour he had spent with the poor child at Nick’s place, and about his extraordinary good-nature in taking the two girls to the play. Peter lunched in Calcutta Gardens, spending an hour there which proved at first unexpectedly and, as it seemed to him, unfairly dismal. He knew from his own general perceptions, from what Biddy had told him and from what he had heard Nick say in Balaklava Place, that Lady Agnes would have been wounded by her son’s apostasy ; but it was not till he saw her that he appreciated the dark difference this young man’s behavior had made in the outlook of his family. Evidently that behavior had, as he phrased it, pulled the bottom out of innumerable private calculations. These were things that no outsider could measure, and they were none of an outsider’s business ; it was enough that Lady Agnes struck him really as a woman who had received her death-blow. She looked ten years older ; she was white and haggard and tragic. Her eyes burned with a strange intermittent fire which made him say to himself that her children had better look out for her. When they were not filled with this unnatural flame they were suffused with comfortless tears; and altogether the afflicted lady was very bad — very bad indeed. It was because he had known she would be very bad that he had, in his kindness, called upon her in exactly this manner; but he recognized that to undertake to he kind to her in proportion to her need might carry one very far. He was glad he himself had not a wronged, mad mother, and he wondered how Nick Dormer could endure the home he had ruined. Apparently he did n’t endure it very much, but had taken definitive and highly convenient refuge in Rosedale Road.
Peter’s judgment of his young kinsman was considerably confused, and a sensible element, in it was the consciousness that he was perhaps just now not in the best state of mind for judging him at all. At the same time, though he held, in general, that an intelligent man had a legible warrant for doing as he liked, he could scarcely help asking himself whether, in the exercise of a manly freedom, it had been absolutely indispensable that Nick should work such domestic woe. He admitted, indeed, that this was an anomalous vision of Nick, as the worker of domestic woe. Then he saw that Lady Agnes’s grievance (there came a moment, later, when she asserted as much) was not quite what Nick, in Balaklava Place, had represented it — with questionable taste, perhaps — to a mocking actress ; was not a mere shocked quarrel with his adoption of a " low ” career, or a horror, the oldfashioned horror, of the strange licenses taken by artists under pretext of being conscientious: the day for this was past, and English society thought the brush and the fiddle as good as anything else, with two or three exceptions. It was not what he had taken up, but what he had put down, that made the sorry difference, and the tragedy would have been equally great if he had become a wine-merchant or a horse-dealer. Peter had gathered at first that Lady Agnes would not trust herself to speak directly of her trouble, and he obeyed what he supposed to be the best discretion in making no allusion to it. But a few minutes before they rose from luncheon she broke out, and when he attempted to utter a word of mitigation there was something that went to his heart in the way she returned, “ Oh, you don’t know — you don’t know ! ”
He perceived Grace’s eyes fixed upon him at this instant with a look of supplication, and he was uncertain as to what she wanted — that he should say something more to console her mother or should hurry away from the subject. Grace looked old and plain and (he had thought, on coming in) rather cross, but she evidently wanted something. “ You don’t know,” Lady Agnes repeated, with a trembling voice — “ you don’t know.” She had pushed her chair a little away from the table ; she held her pocket-handkerchief pressed hard to her mouth, almost stuffed into it, and her eyes were fixed upon the floor. She made him feel as if he did know — knew what towering piles of confidence and hope had been dashed to the earth. Then Lady Agnes finished her sentence, unexpectedly : “ You don’t know what my life with my husband was.” Here, on the other hand, Peter was slightly at fault — he did n’t exactly see what her life with her husband had to do with it. What was clear to him, however, was that they literally had looked for the very greatest things from Nick. It was not quite easy to see why this had been the case — it had not been precisely Sherringham’s own prefigurement. Nick appeared to have had the faculty of communicating that sort of faith to women ; he had originally given Julia a tremendous dose of it, though she had since shaken off the effects.
“ Do you really think he would have done such great things, politically speaking?” Peter inquired. “Do you consider that the root of the matter was in him ? ”
Lady Agnes hesitated a moment, looking rather hard at her visitor. “ I only think what all his friends — all his father’s friends — have thought. He was his father’s son, after all. No young man ever had a finer training, and he gave, from the first, repeated proof of having the highest sort of ability, the highest sort of ambition. See how he got in, everywhere. Look at his first seat — look at his second,” Lady Agnes continued. “ Look at what every one says at this moment.”
“ Look at all the papers ! ” said Grace. “ Did you ever hear him speak ? ” she asked. And when Peter reminded her that he had spent his life in foreign lands she went on, “ Well, you lost something.”
“ It was very charming,” said Lady Agnes quietly.
“ Of course he is charming, whatever he does,” Peter rejoined. “ He ’ll he a charming artist.”
“ Oh, heaven ! ” groaned Lady Agnes, rising quickly.
“ He won’t — that’s the worst,” Grace amended. “ It is n’t as if he’d do things people would like. I’ve been to his place, and I never saw such a horrid lot of things — not at all clever or pretty.”
“ You know nothing whatever about the matter ! ” Lady Agnes exclaimed, with unexpected asperity. Then she added, to Peter, that, as it happened, her children did have a good deal of artistic taste; Grace was the only one who was totally deficient in it. Biddy was very clever — Biddy really might learn to do pretty things. And anything the poor child could learn was now no more than her duty—there was so little knowing what the future had in store for them all.
“ You think too much of the future ;— you take terribly gloomy views,” said Peter, looking for his hat.
“ What other views can one take, when one’s son has deliberately thrown away a fortune ? ”
“ Thrown one away ? Do you mean through not marrying” —
“ I mean through killing, by his perversity, the best friend he ever had.”
Sherringham stared a moment; then, with laughter, “ Ah, but Julia is n’t dead of it ! ”
“ I’m not talking of Julia,” said Lady Agnes, with a good deal of majesty. “Nick is n’t mercenary, and I’m not complaining of that.”
“ She means Mr. Carteret,” Grace explained. “ He would have done anything, if Nick had stayed in the House.”
“ But he’s not dead ? ”
“ Charles Carteret is dying,” said Lady Agnes — “ his end is very, very near. He has been a sort of providence to us — he was Sir Nicholas’s second self. But he won’t stand such nonsense, and that chapter ’s closed.”
“ You mean he has dropped Nick out of his will ? ”
“ Cut him off utterly. He has given him notice.”
“ The old scoundrel! But Nick will work the better for that — he 'll depend on himself.”
“ Yes, and whom shall we depend on ? ” Grace demanded.
“ Don’t be vulgar, for God’s sake ! her mother ejaculated, with a certain inconsequence.
“ Oh, leave Nick alone — he’ll make a lot of money,” Peter declared cheerfully, following his two companions into the hall.
“ I don’t in the least care whether he does or not,” said Lady Agnes. " You must come up-stairs again — I’ve lots to say to you yet,” she went on, seeing that Peter had taken his hat. “ You must arrange to come and dine with us immediately ; it’s only because I’ve been so steeped in misery that I did n’t write to you the other day — directly after you called. We don’t give parties, as you may imagine. but if you’ll come just as we are, for old acquaintance’ sake ” —
“ Just with Nick — if Nick will come — and dear Biddy,” Grace interposed.
“ Nick must certainly come, as well as dear Biddy, whom I hoped so much to find,” Peter rejoined. “ Because I’m going away — I don’t know when X shall see them again.”
“ Wait with mamma. Biddy will come in, now, at any moment,” Grace urged.
“ You ’re going away? ” asked Lady Agnes, pausing at the foot of the stairs and turning her white face upon him. Something in the tone of her voice showed that she had been struck by his own tone.
“ I have had promotion, and you must congratulate me. They are sending me out as minister to a little hot hole in Central America — five thousand miles away. I shall have to go rather soon.”
“ Oh, I’m so glad!” Lady Agnes breathed. Still she paused, at the foot of the stair, and still she gazed.
“ How very delightful, because it will lead, straight off, to all sorts of other good things ! ” Grace exclaimed.
“ Oh, I’m crawling up, and I’m an excellency,” Peter laughed.
“ Then, if you dine with us, your excellency must have great people to meet you.”
“ Nick and Biddy — they are great enough.”
“ Come up-stairs — come up-stairs,” said Lady Agnes, turning quickly and beginning to ascend.
“ Wait for Biddy — I’m going out,” Grace continued, extending her hand to her kinsman. “ I shall see you again — not that you care ; but good-by now. Wait for Biddy,” the girl repeated, in a lower tone, fastening her eyes on his with the same urgent, mystifying gleam that he thought he had perceived in them at luncheon.
“ Oh, I 'll go and see her in Rosedale Road,” he answered.
“ Do you mean to-day — now ? ”
“ I don’t know about to-day, but before I leave England.”
“ Well, she ’ll be in immediately,” said Grace. “ Good-by to your excellency.”
“ Come up, Peter —please come up,” called Lady Agnes, from the top of the stairs.
He mounted, and when he found himself in the drawing-room with her, with the door closed, she told him that she was exceedingly interested in his line prospects, that she wished to hear all about his new position. She rang for coffee, and she indicated the seat he would find most comfortable ; he had for a moment an apprehension that she would tell him he might, if he liked, light a cigar. For Peter Sherringham had suddenly become restless — too restless to occupy a comfortable chair ; he seated himself in it only to jump up again, and he went to the window — while he communicated to his hostess the very little that he knew about his prospective post — on hearing a vehicle drive up to the door. A strong light had just been thrown into his mind, and it seemed to grow stronger when, looking out of the window, he saw Grace Dormer issue from the house in a bonnet and jacket which had all the air of having been assumed with extraordinary speed. Her jacket was unbuttoned, her gloves were dangling from her hand, and she was tying her bonnet-strings. The vehicle into which she hastily sprang was a hansom-cab which had been summoned by the butler from the doorstep, and which rolled away with her after she had given the cabman an address.
“ Where is Grace going in such a hurry ? " he asked of Lady Agnes ; to which she replied that she had not the least idea — her children, at the pass they had all come to, knocked about as they liked.
Peter sat down again ; he stayed a quarter of an hour, and then he stayed longer, and during this time his appreciation of what Lady Agnes had in her mind gathered force. She showed him clearly enough what she had in her mind, although she showed it by no clumsy nor reprehensible overtures. It looked out of her sombre, conscious eyes and quavered in her preoccupied, perfunctory tones. She manifested an extravagant interest in his future proceedings, the probable succession of events in his career, the different honors he would be likely to come in for, the salary attached to his actual appointment, the salary attached to the appointments that would follow — they would be sure to, would n’t they ? — and what he might reasonably expect to save. Oh, he must save — Lady Agnes was an advocate of saving ; and he must take tremendous pains, and he must get on and be clever and ambitious ; he must make himself indispensable and rise to the top. She was urgent and suggestive and sympathetic ; she threw herself into the vision of his achievements and emoluments as if to satisfy a little the sore hunger with which Nick’s treachery had left her. This was touching to Peter Sherringham, and he did not remain unmoved even at those more importunate moments when, as she fell into silence, fidgeting feverishly with a morsel ot fancy-work that she had plucked from a table, her whole presence became an intense repressed appeal to him. What that appeal would have been had it been uttered was: " Oh, Peter, take little Biddy ; oh, my dear young friend, understand your interests at the same time that you understand mine; be kind and reasonable and clever ; save me all further anxiety and tribulation and accept my lovely, faultless child from my hands.”
That was what Lady Agnes had always meant, more or less, that was what Grace had meant, and they meant it with singular lucidity on the present occasion. Lady Agnes meant it so much that from one moment to another Peter scarcely knew what she might do ; and Grace meant it so much that she had rushed away in a hansom to fetch her sister from the studio. Grace, however, was a fool, for Biddy certainly would n’t come. The news of his promotion had set them off, adding brightness to their idea of his being an excellent match; bringing home to them sharply the sense that if he were going away to strange countries he must take Biddy with him — that something at all events must be settled about Biddy before he went. They had suddenly begun to throb with the conviction that they had no time to lose.
Strangely enough, the perception of all this had not the effect of throwing Peter on the defensive, or at least of making him wish to bolt. When once he had discovered what was in the air he recognized a propriety, a real felicity in it; could not deny that he was, in certain ways, a good match, since it was quite probable he would go far; and was even generous enough (as he had no fear of being dragged to the altar) to enter into the conception that he might offer some balm to a mother who had had a horrid disappointment. The feasibility of marrying Biddy was not exactly augmented by the idea that his doing so would be a great offset to what Nick had made Lady Agnes suffer ; but, at any rate, Peter did not dislike his strenuous companion so much as to wish to punish her for being strenuous. He was not afraid of her, whatever she might do ; and though he was unable to grasp the practical relevancy of Biddy’s being produced on the instant he was willing to linger for half an hour on the chance of her turning up.
There was a certain contagion in Lady Agnes’s appeal — it made him appeal sensibly to himself. For, indeed, as it is time to say, the glass of our young man’s spirit had been polished for that reflection. It was only at this moment that he became really candid with himself. When he made up his mind that his only safety was in flight, and took the strong measure of asking for assistance to flee, he was very conscious that another and probably still more effectual safeguard (especially if the two should be conjoined) lay in the hollow of his hand. Julia Dallow’s words in Paris had come back to him, and had seemed much wiser than when they were spoken : “ She ’ll save you disappointments ; you would know the worst that can happen to you, and it would n’t be bad.” Julia had put it into a nutshell — Biddy would probably save him disappointments. And then she was — well, she was Biddy. Peter knew better what that was since the hour he had spent with her in Rosedale Road. But he had brushed away the sense of it, though he was aware that in doing so he took only half measures, was even guilty of a sort of fraud upon himself. If he was sincere in wishing to put a gulf between his future and that portion of his past and present which was associated with Miriam Rooth, there was a very simple way to do so. He had dodged that way, dishonestly fixing upon another which, taken alone, was far from being so good ; but Lady Agnes brought him back to it. She held him in magnanimous contemplation of it, during which the safety, as Julia had called it, of the remedy became fascinating to his mind, especially as that safety appeared not to exclude a concomitant sweetness. It would be simple and it would swallow up his problems ; it would put an end to all alternatives, which, as alternatives were otherwise putting an end to him, would be an excellent thing. It would Settle the whole question of his future, and it was high time this should be settled.
Peter took two cups of coffee while he made out his future with Lady Agnes, but though he drank them slowly he had finished them before Biddy turned up. He stayed three quarters of an hour, saying to himself that she would n’t come — why should she come ? Lady Agnes said nothing about this ; she really, in vulgar vocables, said nothing about any part of the business. But she made him fix the next day but one for coming to dinner, and her repeated declaration that there would be no one else, not another creature but themselves, had almost the force of a legal paper. In giving his word that he would come without fail, and not write the next day to throw them over for some function that he should choose to dub obligatory, Peter felt quite as if he were putting his name to such a document. He went away at half past three ; Biddy, of course, had n’t come, and he had been certain she would n’t. He could n’t imagine what Grace’s idea had been, nor what pretext she had put forward to her sister. Whatever it had been, Biddy had seen through it and hated such machinations. Peter could only like her the better for that.
Lady Agnes would doubtless have done better, in her own interest or in that of her child, to have made sure of Peter’s company for the very next evening. This she had indeed attempted, but the plan had succumbed to difficulties. Peter had a theory that he was inextricably engaged; moreover her ladyship could not take upon herself to answer for Nick. Of course they must have Nick, though, to tell the truth, the hideous truth, she and her son were scarcely upon terms. Peter insisted on Nick; he wished particularly to see him; and he gave his hostess notice that he would make each of them forgive everything to the other. Lady Agnes declared 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. Peter 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 Lady Agnes had said about their being a governing family.
He was going, by what he could ascertain, to a very queer climate, and he had many preparations to make. He gave his best attention to these, and for a Couple of hours after leaving Lady Agnes he rummaged London for books from which he might extract information about his new habitat. It made apparently no great figure in literature, so that Peter could reflect that he was perhaps destined to find a salutary distraction in filling the void with a volume of impressions. After he had gathered that there were no books he went into the Park. He treated himself to an afternoon or two there when he happened to drop upon London in the 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 break with 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 that, at the expense of good manners, he had stayed away from her first appearance on any stage. He would have been shocked if he had found himself obliged to go back to Paris without giving her his personal countenance at the imminent crisis, so good a right had she to expect it.
It was nearly eight o’clock when he went to Great Stanhope Street to dress for dinner and learn that a note which he found on the hall table, and which bore the marks of hasty dispatch, had come in three or four hours before. It exhibited the signature of Miriam Rooth and informed him that she positively expected him at the theatre at eleven o’clock the next morning, for which hour a dress rehearsal of the revived play had been hurriedly determined upon, the first night being now definitely fixed for the impending Saturday. She counted upon his attendance at both ceremonies, but she had particular reasons for wishing to see him at the rehearsal. " 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 in relation to the conflict — it was enough to dash off three words to Miriam 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, and were 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 it was vivid and strong, and, in spite of the serious character of the piece, often exceedingly droll ; and it gave Sherringham, oddly enough, a livelier sense than he had ever had of bending over the hissing, smoking, sputtering caldron in which an adequate performance is cooked. 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 play 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. Sherringham’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, she 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 performance, to which a few fresh ears were to be admitted. They didn’t want to let her have it — they were a parcel of donkeys ; but as to what she meant, in general. to have, she had given them a hint which she flattered herself they would n’t soon forget.
Miriam spoke as if she had had a great battle with her fellow-workers and had routed them utterly. It was not the first time Sherringham had heard her talk as if such a life as hers could only be a fighting life, and as if she frankly recognized the fine uses of a faculty for making a row. She rejoiced that she had this faculty, for she knew what to do with it; and though there might he arrogance and swagger in taking such a stand in advance, when one had done the infinitely little that she had done, yet she trusted to the future to show how right she should have been in believing that a pack of idiots would never hold out against her, would know that they could n’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 Sherringliam perfectly believed, 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 didn’t believe in her; but if one did believe in her 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 asked Sherringham questions that he was quite 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 was only 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 and reckless and goodnatured, full of exaggerated propositions, supreme determinations, and comical irrelevancies, showed as radiant a young head as the stage had ever seen. Other people quickly surrounded her, and Sherringham saw that though she wanted a fresh ear and a fresh eye she was liable to tell those who possessed these advantages that they did n’t know what they were talking about. It was rather hard with her (Basil Dashwood let him into this, wonderfully painted and in a dress even more beautiful than Miriam’s — that of a young dandy of the ages of silk) : if you were not in the business you were one kind of donkey, and if you were in the business you were another kind. Sherringham noted with a certain displeasure that Gabriel Nash was not there ; he preferred to believe that it was from this observation that his annoyance happened to come when Miriam, 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. “ Is n’t he too lovely,” she asked, “ and does n’t he know how to do it? ” Basil Dashwood had the sense of costume even more than Sherringham supposed, inasmuch as it now appeared that he had gone profoundly into the question of what his clever comrade 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 is not perfectly easy to explain why Sherringham grudged Gabriel Nash the cynicism of his absence; it may even be thought singular that he should have missed him. At any rate he flushed a little when Miriam, of whom he inquired whether she hadn’t invited her oldest and dearest friend, exclaimed, “ 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 moment, 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 was a moment when his emancipation led him to give a suppressed gasp of relief, as if he were scrambling up the bank of a torrent after an undue immersion. The girl herself, at any rate, as was wholly right, was of the incorruptible faith; she had been saturated to good purpose with the great spirit of Madame Carré. That was conspicuous as the play went on and she watched over the detail with weary passion. Sherringham had never liked the piece itself; he thought that, as clumsy in form and false in feeling, it did little honor to the British theatre ; he hated 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 rehearsal was over he went behind again, and in the rose - colored satin of the dénoûment, 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 Miriam 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 Central America; but as soon as he entered her presence his life struck him as a thing disconnected from his will. It was as if he had been one thing and his behavior another; he had glimpses of pictures 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, with a slightly bent head. Such images should not have been inspiring, but it is a fact that they were decidedly fascinating. 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 end of any one’s nose. You ’ll do me good. ” So of course Peter drove up to Balaklava Place about six.
“ I don’t know—I haven’t the least idea — I don’t care — don’t ask me,” he broke out immediately, in answer to some question which she put to him, with little delay, about his sense of the way she had done certain things at the theatre. Had she not, frankly, better give up that way and return to their first idea, the one they had talked over so much ? Sherringham declared that it was not his idea; that, at any rate, he should never have another as long as he lived; and that, so help him heaven, they had talked such things over more than enough.
“ You ’re tired of me — yes, already,” said Miriam, sadly and kindly. They were alone, her mother had not peeped out, and she had prepared herself to return to the theatre. “ However, it does n’t matter, and of course your head is full of other things. You must think me ravenously selfish — perpetually chattering about my little shop. What will you have when one’s a shop-girl? You used to like it, but then you were n’t a minister.”
“ What do you know about my being a minister ? ” Sherringham asked, leaning back in his chair and gazing at her from sombre eyes. Sometimes he thought she looked better on the stage than she did off it, and sometimes he thought the exact contrary. The former of these convictions had held his mind in the morning, and it was now punctually followed by the other. In general, as soon as she stepped on the boards a great and special alteration 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 humor. To-day Sherringham was seeing each in its order, and he thought each the best.
“ I should know very little if I waited for you to tell me — that’s very certain,” Miriam answered. “ 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 driveling too, no doubt. It was Basil Dashwood told me, this afternoon, of your promotion — he has 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 have each been busy with our own affairs. Even if you had n’t given me these opportunities,” Sherringham went on, “ I should have tried to see you to-day, to tell you my news and take leave of you.”
“ Take leave ? Are n’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.”
Miriam returned his gaze with a beautiful charity. “ If it would do you any good I would be bad.”
“ The worse you are the better you are ! ” laughed Sherringham. “ You ’re a kind of devouring demon.”
“ Not a bit! It’s you.”
“ It ’s 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 a torment and a misery. Oh, I’ve watched you enough, my dear friend, and I’ve been sorry for you — and sorry for myself ; for I 'm not so taken up with myself as you think. I’m not such a low creature. I’m capable of gratitude, I’m capable of affection. One may live in paint and tinsel, but one is n’t absolutely without a soul. Yes, I’ve got one,” the girl went on, “ though I do practice my intonations. If what you are going to do is good for you, I ’m very glad. If it leads to good things, to honor and fortune and greatness, I’m enchanted. If it means your being away always, forever and ever, of course that’s serious. You know it — I need n’t tell you — I regard you as I really don’t regard any one else. I have 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, Mr. Sherringham. Your being where I shall never see you is not 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, I can miss you and hold my tongue. I can be disinterested — I can ! ”
“ What did you desire me to come for ? ” Sherringham asked, 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. When she asked him, at the theatre, to grant her the hour in the afternoon, she wanted, candidly (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 attempt the critics would lie so in wait — the first success might have been a fluke), some of her recurrent doubts ; knowing from experience what good ideas he often had, how he could give a worrying alternative its quietus 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 that 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, did n’t prevent them from being as good feelings as those of anybody else, and at the moment Sherringham, to still a rising emotion — which he knew he should n’t still — articulated the challenge I have just recorded, she seemed to him to have at any rate the truth of gentleness and generosity.
“ There ’s something the matter with you—you’re jealous,” said Miriam. “ You 're jealous of 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, my dear, and neither can you ; for I have 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 need n’t trouble it much! ” Miriam declared. “If Mr. Dormer has broken off his marriage to such an awfully fine woman (for she is that, your swell of a sister), it is n’t for a loud 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 crumbs. I did n’t even ask him to come to the rehearsal. Besides, he thinks you ’re in love with me, and that it would n’t be honorable to cut in. He ’s capable of that — is n’t it charming?”
“ If he were to relent and give up his scruples, would you many him ? asked Sherringham.
“ Mercy, how you talk about marrying ! ” the girl laughed. “ You ve all got it on the brain.”
“ Why, I put it that way to please you, because you complained to me last year precisely that that was not what seemed generally to be wanted.”
“ Oh, last year ! ” Miriam murmured. Then, differently, “Yes, it’s very tiresome ! ” she exclaimed.
“ You told me, moreover, in Paris, more than once, that you would n’t listen to anything but that.”
“ Well, I won’t, but I shall wait till I find a husband who ’s 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, does n’t come up to that.”
“ You 'll marry Basil Dashwood,”Sherringham replied.
“ Oh, marry ? — call it marry, if you like. That’s what poor mother says — she lives in dread of it.”
“ To this hour,” said Sherringham, “ I have n’t managed to make out what your mother wants. She has so many ideas, as Madame Carré said.”
“ She wants me to be a tremendous sort of creature — all her ideas are reducible to that. What makes the muddle is that she is n’t clear about the kind of 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 she persuades 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 fellow, 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. It’s the last of vanities to talk about it. but I may mention in passing that if you would marry me you should be the greatest of all possible ladies.”
“ Heavens, my dear fellow, what natural capacity have I for that ? ”
“ You ’re artist enough for anything. I shall be a great diplomatist; my resolution is firmly taken. I 'm infinitely cleverer than you have the least idea of, and you shall be 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 ? ”
“ I 'll look after it, I 'll keep it under. Rather, perhaps, I should say, I 'll bribe it and lull 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 us be shabby.” Then she added, “ Do you really go away the beginning of next week ? ”
“ Monday night , if possible.”
“ That’s to Paris. Before you go to your new post they must give you an interval here.”
“ I sha’n’t take it — I’m so tremendously keen for my duties. I shall insist on going sooner. Oh, I shall be concentrated now.”
“ I 'll come and act there,” said Miriam, with her handsome smile. “ I’ve already forgotten what it was I wanted to discuss with you : 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 have n’t a decent character, I have n’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 matrimonial prospects — I shall think of you only in one way. I have a great respect for you. With all my heart I hope you 'll be a great diplomatist. God bless you ! ”
Miriam got up as she spoke, and in so doing she glanced at the clock — a movement which somehow only added to the noble gravity of her discourse : it was as if she were considering his time, not 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 perceiving 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,” Sherringham went on, deliberately, standing before her and soliciting 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.”
He paused a moment, upon which Miriam asked, “That I do know what ? ”
“ That I have a consuming passion for you, and that it’s impossible.”
“ Ah, 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 odious, but we are tied fast to them.”
“Ah, why ain’t we simple ? ” Miriam quavered. “ Why ain’t we of the people — comme tout le monde — just a man and a girl liking each other ?”
Sherringham hesitated a moment; she was so tenderly mocking, so sweetly ambiguous, as she said this. “ Because we are precious asses ! However, I 'm simple enough, after all, to care for you as I have 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-by.”
Miriam stared, at this, 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 if she had often heard that sort of thing before. But she was too much moved — the pure color 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, is n’t it ? — but that ‘s the only thing it can be : therefore it’s all right, is n’t it ? Some day when we are great people we 'll talk these things over ; then we shall be quiet, we shall be at peace — let us hope so, at least — and better friends than people will know.” She paused a moment, smiling still ; then she said, while be held her hand, “ Don’t, don’t come tomorrow 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 hand 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 more, he seized her in his arms, and breathing deeply, “ I love you ! ” clasped her in a long embrace. It was so long that it gave the door of the room time to open before either of them had taken notice. Mrs. Booth, who had not peeped in before, peeped in now, becoming in this matter witness of an incident she could scarcely have expected. The unexpected, indeed, for Mrs. Rooth. had never been an unpardonable element in things ; it was her system, in general, to be too harmonious to be surprised. As the others turned round they saw her standing there and smiling at them, and heard her ejaculate, with wise indulgence —
“ Oh, you extravagant children ! ”
Miriam brushed off her tears, quickly but unconfusedly. “ He’s going away — he “s bidding us farewell.”
Sherringham — it was perhaps a result of his general agitation — laughed out at the “ us,” and Mrs. Rooth returned, “ Going away ? Ah, then I must have one too! ” And she held out both her hands. Sherringham stepped forward and, taking 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 the old woman gave him a curious little upward interrogative leer.
“ Oh, well enough. One must take what one can get,” he answered.
“ You ’ll get everything now, I’m sure, sha’n’t you?” Mrs. Rooth asked, with an inflection that called back to him, comically (the source was so different), the very vibrations he had noted the day before in Lady Agnes’s voice.
“ He’s going to glory, and he 'll forget all about us — forget that he has ever known such people. So we shall never see him again, and it’s better so. Good-by, good-by,” 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 are not coining to-morrow night? ”
“ Don’t — don’t; it’s great folly,” Miriam interposed; “and it’s quite needless, since you saw me to-day.”
Sherringham stood looking 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 transcendent.”
“ Yes, I shall be there — certainly,” said Sherringham, at the door, to Mrs. Rooth.
“ Oh, you dreadful goose ! ” Miriam called after him. But he went out without looking round at her.