The Tragic Muse
PETER SHERRINGHAM had an idea, as he ceased speaking, that Miriam was on the point of breaking out with some strong word of resentment at his allusion to the contingent nature of her prospects. But it only twisted the weapon in his wound to hear her saying with extraordinary mildness, “ It ’s perfectly true that my glories are still to come, that I may fizzle out and that my little success of to-day is perhaps a mere flash in the pan. Stranger things have been—something of that sort happens every day. But don’t we talk too much of that part of it?” she asked, with a weary tolerance that was noble in its effect. " Surely it’s vulgar to consider only the noise one’s going to make ; especially when one remembers how unintelligent nine tenths of it will be. It is n’t to my glories that I cling ; it’s simply to my idea, even if it’s destined to let me drop into obscurity. I like it better than anything else — a thousand times better (I ‘m sorry to have to put it in such a way) than tossing up my head as the fine lady of a little coterie.”
“ A little coterie ? I don’t know what you ’re talking about! ” Peter retorted, with considerable heat.
” A big coterie, then ! It’s only that, at the best. A nasty, prim ‘ official ’ woman, who is perched on her little local pedestal and thinks she’s a queen forever because she’s ridiculous for an hour! Oh, you need n’t tell me. I’ve seen them abroad, I could imitate them here. I could do one for you on the spot, if I were not so tired. It’s scarcely worth mentioning, perhaps, but I’m ready to drop.” Miriam picked up the white mantle she had tossed off, flinging it round her with her usual amplitude of gesture. “They are waiting for me, and I confess I’m hungry. If I don’t hurry they ’ll eat up all the nice things. Don’t say I have n’t been obliging, and come back when you ‘re better. Goodnight.”
“ I quite agree with you that we’ve talked too much about the vulgar side of our question,” Peter responded, walking round to get between her and the French window, by which she apparently had a view of leaving the room. “ That ’s because I’ve wanted to bribe you. Bribery is almost always vulgar.”
“ Yes, you should do better. Merci ! There ’s a cab ; some of them have come for me. I must go.” Miriam added, listening for a sound that reached her from the road.
Sherringham listened too, making out no cab. “Believe me, it is n’t wise to turn your back on such an affection as mine and on such a confidence,” he went on, speaking almost in a warning tone (there was a touch of superior sternness in it, as of a rebuke for real folly, but it was meant to be tender), and stopping her within a few feet of the window. “ Such things are the most precious that life has to give us,” he added, all but didactically.
Miriam had listened again for a moment; then she appeared to give up t he idea of the cab. The reader need hardly be told, at this stage of her youthful history, that the right way for her lover to soothe her was not to represent himself as acting for her highest good. “ I like your calling it confidence,” she presently said ; and the deep note of the few words had something of the distant mutter of thunder.
“ What is it, then, when I offer you everything I am, everything I have, everything I shall achieve?”
She seemed to measure him for a moment, as if she were thinking whether she should try to pass him. But she remained where she was, and she returned, “ I ‘m sorry for you, yes, but I ‘m also rather ashamed of yon.”
“ Ashamed of me ? ”
“ A brave offer to see me through — that ’s what I should call confidence. You say, to-day, that you hate the theatre ; and do you know what has made you do it ? The fact that it has too large a place in your mind to let you repudiate it and throw it over with a good conscience. It has a deep fascination for you, and yet you are not strong enough to make the concession of taking up with it publicly, in my person. You ‘re ashamed of yourself for that, as all your constant high claims for it are on record ; so you blaspheme against it. to try and cover your retreat and your treachery and straighten out your personal situation. But it won’t do, my dear fellow — it won’t do at all,” Miriam proceeded, with a triumphant, almost judicial lucidity which made her companion stare ; “ you have not the smallest excuse of stupidity, and your perversity is no excuse at all. Leave her alone altogether—a poor girl who’s making her way — or else come frankly to help her, to give her the benefit of your wisdom. Don’t lock her up for life under the pretense of doing her good. What does one most good is to see a little honesty. You ’re the best judge, the best critic, the best observer, the best believer, that I ’ve ever come across; you ’re committed to it by everything you’ve said to me for a twelvemonth, by the whole turn of your mind, by the way you’ve followed up this business of ours. If an art is noble and beneficent, one should n’t be afraid to offer it one’s arm. Your cousin is n’t ; he can make sacrifices.”
“ My cousin ? " shouted Peter. “ Why, was n’t it only the other day that you were throwing his sacrifices in his teeth ? ”
Under this imputation upon her consistency Miriam flinched but for an instant. “ I did that to worry you,” she smiled.
“ Why should you wish to worry me if you care so little about me ? ”
“ Care little about you ? Have n’t I told you often, did n’t I tell you yesterday. how much I care ? Ain’t I showing it now by spending half the night here with you (giving myself away to all those cynics), taking all this trouble to persuade you to hold up your head and have the courage of your opinions ? ”
“ You invent my opinions for your convenience,” said Peter. “ As long ago as the night I introduced you, in Paris, to Mademoiselle Voisin, you accused me of looking down on those who practice your art. I remember you almost scratched my eyes out because I did n’t kotow enough to your friend Dashwood. Perhaps I did n’t; but if, already at that time, I was so wide of the mark, you can scarcely accuse me of treachery now.”
“ I don’t remember, but I dare say you ’re right.” Miriam meditated. “ What I accused you of then was probably simply what I reproach you with now : the germ, at least, of your deplorable weakness. You consider that we do awfully valuable work, and yet you would n’t for the world let people suppose that you really take our side. If your position was even at that time so false, so much the worse for you, that’s all. Oh, it’s refreshing,” the girl exclaimed, after a pause during which Sherringham seemed to himself to taste the full bitterness of despair, so baffled and derided he felt — “ oh, it’s refreshing to see a man burn his ships in a cause that appeals to him, give up something for it and break with hideous timidities and snobberies ! It’s the most beautiful sight in the world.”
Sherringham, sore as he was, and angry, and exasperated, nevertheless burst out laughing at this. “ You ’re magnificent, you give me at this moment the finest possible illustration of what you mean by burning one’s ships. Verily, verily, there’s no one like you : talk of timidity, talk of refreshment! If I had any talent for it I’d go on the stage tomorrow, to spend my life with you the better.”
If you ’ll do that, I ’ll be your wife the day after your first appearance. That would be really respectable,” said Miriam.
“ Unfortunately I ’ve no talent.”
“ That would only make it the more respectable.”
“You’re just like Nick,” Peter rejoined : “ you’ve taken to imitating Gabriel Nash. Don’t you see that it’s only if it were a question of my going on the stage myself that there would be a certain fitness in your contrasting me invidiously with Nick Dormer and in my giving up one career for another? But simply to stand in the wing and hold your shawl and your smelling-bottle!” Peter concluded mournfully, as if he had ceased to debate.
“ Holding my shawl and my smellingbottle is a mere detail, representing a very small part of the various precious services, the protection and encouragement, for which a woman in my position might be indebted to a man interested in her work and accomplished and determined, as you very justly describe yourself.”
“ And would it be your idea that such a man should live on the money earned by an exhibition of the person of his still more accomplished and still more determined wife ? ”
“ Why not, if they work together — if there’s something of his spirit and his support in everything she does ? ” Miriam demanded. " Je vous attendais, with the famous ‘ person ; ’ of course that’s the great stick they heat us with. Yes, we show it for money, those of us who have anything to show, and some, no doubt, who have n’t, which is the real scandal. What will you have ? It’s only the envelope of the idea and the form of expression, which ought to be conceded to us; and in proportion as the idea takes hold of us do we become unconscious of the clumsy body. Poor old ‘ person ’ — if you knew what we think of it! If you don’t forget it, that’s your own affair : it shows that you ’re dense before the idea.”
“ That I’m dense ? ”
“I mean the public is—the public who pays us. After all, they expect us to look at them too, who are not half so well worth it. If you should see some of the creatures who have the face to plant themselves there in the stalls, before one, for three mortal hours ! I dare say it would be simpler to have no bodies, but we ’re all in the same box, and it would be a great injustice to the idea, and we ‘re all showing ourselves, all the while ; only some of us are not worth paying.”
“ You ’re extraordinarily droll, but somehow I can’t laugh at you,” said Peter, his handsome face lengthened to a point that sufficiently attested the fact. “ Do you remember the second time I ever saw you — the day you recited at my place?” he abruptly inquired, a good deal as if he were drawing from his quiver an arrow which, if it was the last, was also one of the most pointed.
“ Perfectly, and what an idiot I was, though it was only yesterday ! ”
“ You expressed to me then a deep detestation of the sort of self-exposure to which the profession you were seeking to enter would commit you. If you compared yourself to a contortionist at a country fair, I’m only taking my cue from you.”
“ I don’t know what I may have said then,” replied Miriam, whose steady flight was not arrested by this ineffectual bolt ; “ I was, no doubt, already wonderful for talking of things I know nothing about. I was only on the brink of the stream, and I perhaps thought the water colder than it is. One warms it a bit one’s self, when once one is in. Of course I’m a contortionist and of course there’s a hateful side ; but don’t you see how that very fact puts a price on every compensation, on the help of those who are ready to insist on the other side, the grand one, and especially on the sympathy of the person who is ready to insist most and to keep before us the great thing, the element that makes up for everything ? ”
“ The element ? ” Peter questioned, with a vagueness which was pardonably exaggerated. “ Do you mean your success ? ”
“ I mean what you ‘ve so often been eloquent about,” the girl returned, with an indulgent shrug — “ the way we simply stir people’s souls. Ah, there’s where life can help us,” she broke out, with a change of tone, “ there ’s where human relations and affections can help us; love and faith and joy and suffering and experience — I don’t know what to call ’em! They suggest things, they light them up and sanctify them, as you may say ; they make them appear worth doing.” She became radiant for a moment, as if with a splendid vision ; then melting into still another accent, which seemed all nature and harmony, she proceeded : “ I must tell you that in the matter of what we can do for each other I have a tremendously high ideal. I go in for closeness of union, for identity of interest. A true marriage, as they call it, must do one a lot of good ! ”
Sherringham stood there looking at her a minute, during which her eyes sustained the rummage of his gaze without a relenting gleam of the sense of cruelty or of paradox. With a passionate but inarticulate ejaculation he turned away from her and remained, on the edge of the window, his hands in his pockets, gazing defeatedly, doggedly, into the featureless night, into the little black garden which had nothing to give him but a familiar smell of damp. The warm darkness had no relief for him, and Miriam’s histrionic hardness flung him back against a fifth-rate world, against a bedimmed, star-punctured nature which had no consolation — the bleared, irresponsive eyes of the London heaven. For the brief space that he glared at these things he dumbly and helplessly raged. What he wanted was something that was not in that thick prospect. What was the meaning of this sudden offensive importunity of “art,” this senseless mocking catch, like some irritating chorus of conspirators in a bad opera, in which Miriam’s voice was so incongruously conjoined with Nick’s and in which Biddy’s sweet little pipe had not scrupled still more bewilderingly to mingle ? Art be damned : what commission, after all, had he ever given it to better him or bother him ? If the pointless groan in which Peter exhaled a part of his humiliation had been translated into words, these words would have been as heavily charged with the genuine British mistrust of the bothersome principle as if the poor fellow speaking them had never quitted his island. Several acquired perceptions had struck a deep root in him, but there was an immemorial compact formation which lay deeper still. He tried, at the present hour, to rest upon it, spiritually, but found it inelastic; and at the very moment when he was most conscious of this absence of the rebound, or of any tolerable ease, his vision was solicited by an object which, as he immediately guessed, could only add to the complication of things.
An undefined shape hovered before him in the garden, half-way between the gate and the house ; it remained outside of the broad shaft of lamplight projected from the window. It wavered for a moment, after it had become aware of Peter’s observation, and then whisked round the corner of the little villa. This characteristic movement so effectually dispelled the mystery (it could only be Mrs. Rooth who resorted to such conspicuous secrecies) that, to feel that the game was up and his interview over, Sherringliam had no need of seeing the figure reappear, on second thoughts, and dodge about in the dusk with a vexatious sportive imbecility. Evidently Miriam’s warning of a few minutes before had been founded : a cab had deposited her anxious mother at the garden-door. Mrs. Rooth had entered with precautions; she had approached the house and retreated ; she had effaced herself — had peered and waited and listened. Maternal solicitude and muddled calculations had drawn her away from a festival as yet only imperfectly commemorative. The heroine of the occasion, of course, had been intolerably missed, so that the old woman had both obliged the company and quieted her own nerves by jumping insistently into a hansom and rattling up to St. John’s Wood to reclaim the absentee. But if she had wished to be in time she had also desired not to be abrupt, and would have been still more embarrassed to say what she aspired to promote than to phrase what she had proposed to hinder. She wanted to abstain tastefully, to interfere felicitously, and, more generally and justifiably (the small hours had come), to see what her young charges were doing. She would probably have gathered that they were quarreling, and she appeared now to be telegraphing to Sherringham to know if it were over. He took no notice of her signals, if signals they were; he only felt that before he made way for the odious old woman there was one faint little spark he might strike from Miriam’s flint.
Without letting her guess that her mother was on the premises he turned again to his companion, half expecting that she would have taken her chance to regard their discussion as more than terminated and by the other egress flit away from him in silence. But she was still there ; she was in the act of approaching him, with a manifest intention of kindness, and she looked indeed, to his surprise, like an angel of mercy.
Don’t let us part so disagreeably.” she said, “ with your trying to make me feel as if I were merely disobliging. It’s no use talking — we only hurt each other. Let us hold our tongues, like decent people, and go about our business. It is n’t. as if you had n’t any cure — when you have such a capital one. Try it, try it, my dear friend — you ’ll see ! I wish you the highest promotion and the quickest — every success and every reward. When you ‘ve got them all, some day, and I’ve become a great swell too, we’ll meet, on that solid basis, and you ’ll be so glad I’ve been nasty now.”
“ Surely before I leave you I’ve a right to ask you this,” Sherringham answered, holding fast in both his own the cool hand of farewell that she had finally tormented him with. “ Are you ready to follow up by a definite promise your implied assurance that I have a remedy ? ”
“ A definite promise ? ” Miriam benignly gazed, with the perfection of evasion. “ I don’t ‘ imply ’ that you have a remedy. I declare it on the housetops. That delightful girl ” —
“ I’m not talking of any delightful girl but you! ” Peter broke in with a voice which, as he afterwards learned, struck Mrs. Rooth’s ears, in the garden, with affright. “I simply hold you, under pain of being convicted of the grossest prevarication, to the strict sense of what you said a quarter of an hour ago.”
“ Ah, I’ve said so many things ; one has to do that to get rid of you. You rather hurt my hand,” she added, jerking it away in a manner that showed that if she was an angel of mercy her mercy was partly for herself.
“ As I understand you, then, I may have some hope if I do renounce my profession?” Peter pursued. “If I break with everything, my prospects, my studies, my training, my emoluments, my past and my future, the service of my country and the ambition of my life, and engage to take up instead the business of watching your interests so far as I may learn how, and ministering to your triumphs so far as may in me lie — if after further reflection I decide to go through these preliminaries, have I your word that I may definitely look to you to reward me with your precious hand ? ”
“ I don’t think you have any right to put the question to me now,” said Miriam, with a promptitude partly produced. perhaps, by the clear-cut form Peter’s solemn speech had given (it was a charm to hear it) to each item of his enumeration. “ The case is so very contingent, so dependent on what you ingeniously call your further reflection. While you reserve yourself you ask me to commit myself. If it’s a question of further reflection, why did you drag me up here ? And then,” she added, “ I ’m so far from wishing you to take any such monstrous step.”
“ Monstrous, you call it ? Just now you said it would be sublime.”
“ Sublime if it’s done with spontaneity, with passion ; ridiculous if it’s done after further reflection. As you said, perfectly, awhile ago, it is n’t a thing to reason about.”
“ Ah, what a help you’d be to me in diplomacy ! ” Sherringham cried, “ Will you give me a year to consider ? ”
“ Would you trust me for a year ? ”
“ Why not, if I’m ready to trust you for life ? ”
“ Oh, I should n’t be free then, worse luck. And how much you seem to take for granted one must like you ! ”
“ Remember that you’ve made a great point of your liking me. Would n’t you do so still more if I were heroic ? ”
Miriam looked at him a moment. “ I think I should pity you, in such a cause. Give it all to her ; don’t throw away a real happiness ! ”
“ Ah, you can’t back out of your position with a few vague and even rather impertinent words ! ” Sherringham declared. " You accuse me of swallowing my protestations, but you swallow yours. You’ve painted in heavenly colors the sacrifice I ’m talking of, and now you must take the consequences.”
“ The consequences ?”
“ Why, my coming back in a year to square myself.”
“ Ah, you ’re tiresome ! ” cried Miriam. “ Come back when you like. I don’t wonder you’ve grown desperate, but fancy me, then ! ” she added, looking past him at a now interlocutor.
“Yes, but if he ‘ll square himself ! ” Peter heard Mrs. Rooth’s voice respond, conciliatingly, behind him. She had stolen up to the window now, she had passed the threshold, she was in the room, but her daughter had not been startled. “What is it he wants to do, dear?” she continued, to Miriam.
“ To induce me to marry him if he ’ll go upon the stage. He ’ll practice over there, where he’s going, and then he ’ll come back and appear. Is n’t it too dreadful ? Talk him out of it, stay with him, soothe him ! ” the girl hurried on, “ You ’ll find some drinks and some biscuits in the cupboard — keep him with you, pacify him, give him his little supper. Meanwhile I ’ll go to mine ; I ’ll take the brougham; don’t follow! ”
With these words Miriam bounded into the garden, and her white drapery shone for an instant in the darkness before she disappeared. Peter looked about him, to pick up his hat, and while he did so he heard the bang of the gate and the quick carriage getting into motion. Mrs. Rooth appeared to sway excitedly, for a moment, in opposed directions : that of the impulse to rush after Miriam and that of the extraordinary possibility to which the young lady had alluded. She seemed in doubt, but at a venture, detaining him with a maternal touch, she twinkled up at their visitor like an insinuating glow-worm. " I’m so glad you came.”
“ I’m not. I’ve got nothing by it,” he said, finding his hat.
“ Oh, it was so beautiful! ” she coaxed. “The play — yes, wonderful. I ’m afraid it’s too late for me to avail myself of the privilege your daughter offers me. Good-night.”
“ Oh, it’s a pity ; won’t you take anything?” asked Mrs. Rooth. " When I heard your voice so high, I was scared and I hung back.” But before he could reply she added, “ Are you really thinking of the stage ?”
“ It comes to the same thing.”
“ Do you mean you’ve proposed ? ”
“ Oh, unmistakably.”
“ And what does she say ? ”
“ Why, you heard : she says I ’m an ass.”
“ Ah, the little rascal! ” laughed Mrs. Rooth. “ Leave her to me. I ‘ll help you. But you are mad. Give up nothing—least of all your advantages.”
“ I won’t give up your daughter,” said Peter, reflecting that if this was cheap it was at any rate good enough for Mrs. Rooth. He mended it a little indeed by adding darkly, " But you can’t make her take me.”
“ I can prevent her taking any one else.”
“ Oh, can you ! ” Peter ejaculated, with more skepticism than ceremony.
“ You ’ll see — you ’ll see.” He passed into the garden, but, after she bad blown out the candles and drawn the window to, Mrs. Rooth went with him. “ All you’ve got to do is to be yourself — to be true to your fine position,” she explained, as they proceeded. “ Trust me with the rest — trust me and be quiet.”
“ How can one be quiet, after this magnificent evening ? ”
“ Yes, but it’s just that! ” panted the eager old woman. “ It has launched her so, on this sea of dangers, that to make up for the loss of the old security (don’t you know?) we must take a still firmer hold.”
“Ay, of what? ” asked Sherringham, as Mrs. Rooth’s comfort became vague while she stopped with him at the garden-door.
“ Ah, you know: of the real life, of the true anchor! ” Her hansom was waiting for her, and she added, “ I kept it, you see : but a little extravagance, on the night one’s fortune has come ! ”
Peter stared. Yes, there were people whose fortune had come; but he managed to stammer, “ Are you following her again ? ”
“For you — for you!” And Mrs. Rooth clambered into the vehicle. From the seat, enticingly, she offered him the place beside her. “ Won’t you come too ? I know he asked you.” Peter declined, with a quick gesture, and as he turned away he heard her call after him, to cheer him on his lonely walk, “ I shall keep this up ; I shall never lose sight of her ! ”
When Mrs. Dallow returned to London, just before London broke up, the fact was immediately known in Calcutta Gardens and was promptly communicated to Nick Dormer by his sister Bridget. He had learnt it in no other way — he had had no correspondence with Julia during her absence. He gathered that his mother and sisters were not ignorant of her whereabouts (he never mentioned her name to them) ; but as to this he was not sure whether the source of their information was the Morning Post or a casual letter received by the inscrutable Biddy. He knew that Biddy had some epistolary commerce with Julia, and he had an impression that Grace occasionally exchanged letters with Mrs. Gresham. Biddy, however, who, as he was well aware, was always studying what he would like, forbore to talk to him about the absent mistress of Harsh, beyond once dropping the remark that she had gone from Florence to Venice and was enjoying gondolas and sunsets too much to leave them. Nick’s comment on this was that she was a happy woman to have such a go at Titian and Tintoret: as he spoke, and for some time afterwards, the sense of how he himself should enjoy a similar “ go ” made him ache with ineffectual longing.
He had forbidden himself, for the present, to think of absence, not only because it would be inconvenient and expensive, but because it would be a kind of retreat from the enemy, a concession to difficulty. The enemy was no particular person and no particular body of persons: not his mother: not Mr. Carteret, who, as Nick heard from the doctor at Beauclere, lingered on, sinking and sinking till his vitality appeared to have the vertical depth of a gold-mine ; not his pacified constituents, who had found a healthy diversion in returning another Liberal, wholly without Mrs. Dallow’s aid (she had not participated even to the extent of a responsive telegram in the election) ; not his late colleagues in the House, nor the biting satirists of the newspapers, nor the brilliant women he took down at dinner-parties (there was only one sense in which he ever took them down), nor his friends, nor his foes, nor his private thoughts, nor the periodical phantom of his shocked father : it was simply the general awkwardness of his situation. This awkwardness was connected with the sense of responsibility that Gabriel Nash so greatly deprecated — ceasing to roam, of late, on purpose to miss as few scenes as possible of the drama, rapidly growing dull, alas, of his friend’s destiny ; but that compromising relation scarcely drew the soreness from it. The public flurry produced by Nick’s collapse had only been large enough to mark the flatness of his position when it was over. To have had a few jokes cracked, audibly, at one’s expense was not an ordeal worth talking of; the hardest thing about it was merely that there had not been enough of them to yield a proportion of good ones. Nick had felt, in short, the benefit of living in an age and in a society where number and pressure have, for the individual figure, especially when it’s a zero, compensations almost equal to their cruelties.
No, the pinch, for our young man’s conscience, after a few weeks had passed, was simply an acute mistrust of the superficiality of performance into which the desire to justify himself might hurry him. That desire was passionate as regards Julia Dallow; it was ardent also as regards his mother ; and, to make it absolutely uncomfortable, it was complicated with the conviction that neither of them would recognize his justification even when she should see it. They probably could n’t if they would, and very likely they would n’t if they could. He assured himself, however, that this limitation would n’t matter ; it was their affair—his own was simply to have the right sort of thing to show. The work he was now attempting was not the right sort of thing; though doubtless Julia, for instance, would dislike it almost as much as if it were. The two portraits of Miriam, after the first exhilaration of his finding himself at large, filled him with no private glee : they were not in the direction in which, for the present, he wished really to move. There were moments when he felt almost angry, though of course he held his tongue, when, by the few persons who saw them, they were pronounced wonderfully clever. That they were wonderfully clever was just the detestable thing in them, so active had that cleverness been in making them seem better than they were. There were people to whom he would have been ashamed to show them, and these were the people whom it would give him most pleasure some day to please. Not only had he many an hour of disgust with his actual work, but he thought he saw, as in an ugly revelation, that nature had cursed him with an odious facility and that the lesson of his life, the sternest and wholesomest, would be to keep out of the trap it had laid for him. He had fallen into this trap on the threshold, and he had only scrambled out with his honor. He had a talent, for appearance, and that was the fatal thing; he had a damnable suppleness and a gift of immediate response, a readiness to oblige, that made him seem to take up causes which he really left lying, enabled him to learn enough about them in an hour to have all the air of having made them his own. Many people called them their own who had taken them in much less. He was too clever by half, since this pernicious overflow had been at the bottom of deep disappointments and heart-burnings. He had assumed a virtue, and enjoyed assuming it, and the assumption had cheated his father and his mother, and his affianced wife, and his rich benefactor, and the candid burgesses of Harsh, and the cynical reporters of the newspapers. His enthusiasms had been but young curiosity, his speeches had been young agility, his professions and adhesions had been like postage-stamps without glue : the head was all right, but they would n’t stick. He stood ready now to wring the neck of the irrepressible vice which certainly would like nothing better than to get him into further trouble. His only real justification would be to turn patience (his own, of course) inside out; yet if there should be a way to misread that recipe, his humbugging genius could be trusted infallibly to discover it. Cheap and easy results would dangle before him, little amateurish conspicuities, helped by his history, at exhibitions ; putting it in his power to triumph with a quick “ What do you say to that ? " over those he had wounded. The fear of this danger was corrosive ; it poisoned even legitimate joys. If he should have a striking picture at the Academy next year, it would n’t be a crime : yet he could n’t help suspecting any conditions that would enable him to he striking so soon. In this way he felt quite enough how Gabriel Nash “ had ” him whenever he railed at his fever for proof, and how inferior as a productive force the desire to win over the ill-disposed might be to the principle of quiet growth. Nash had a foreign manner of lifting up his finger and waving it before him, as if to put an end to everything, whenever it became, in conversation or discussion, to any extent a question whether any one would like anything.
It was presumably, in some degree at least, a due respect, for the principle of quiet growth that kept Nick on the spot at present, made him stick fast to Rosedale Road and Calcutta Gardens and deny himself the simplifications of absence. Do what he would he could not despoil himself of the impression that the disagreeable was somehow connected with the salutary, and the quiet ” with the disagreeable, when stubbornly borne ; so he resisted a hundred impulses to run away to Paris or to Florence, and the temptation to persuade himself by material motion that he was launched. He stayed in London because it seemed to him that there he was more conscious of what he had undertaken, and he had a horror of shirking that consciousness. One element in it, indeed, was the perception that he would have found no great convenience in a foreign journey, even had his judgment approved such a subterfuge. The stoppage of his supplies from Beauclere had now become an historic fact, with something of the majesty of its class about it: he had had time to see what a difference this would make in his life. His means were small and he had several old debts, the number of which, as he believed, loomed large to his mother’s imagination. He could never tell her that she exaggerated, because he told her nothing of that sort now : they had no intimate talk, for an impenetrable partition, a tall bristling hedge of untrimmed misconceptions, had sprung up between them. Poor Biddy had made a hole in it, through which she squeezed, from side to side, to keep up communications, at the cost of many rents and scratches; but Lady Agnes walked straight and stiff, never turning her head, never stopping to pluck the least little daisy of consolation. It was in this manner she wished to signify that she had accepted her wrongs. She draped herself in them as in a kind of Roman mantle, and she had never looked so proud and wasted and handsome as now that her eyes rested only upon ruins.
Nick was extremely sorry for her, though he thought there was a dreadful want of grace in her never setting a foot in Rosedale Road (she mentioned his studio no more than if it had been a private gambling - house, or something worse) ; sorry because he was well aware that, for the hour, everything must appear to her to have crumbled. The luxury of Broadwood would have to crumble ; his mind was very clear about that. Biddy’s prospects had withered to the finest, dreariest dust, and Biddy, indeed, taking a lesson from her brother’s perversities, seemed little disposed to better a bad business. She professed the most peacemaking sentiments, but when it came really to doing something to brighten up the scene she showed herself portentously corrupted. After Peter Sherringham’s heartless flight she had wantonly slighted an excellent opportunity to repair her misfortune. Lady Agnes had reason to know, about the end of June, that young Mr. Grindon, the only son (the other children were girls) of an immensely rich industrial and political baronet in the north, was literally waiting for the faintest sign. This reason she promptly imparted to her younger daughter, whose intelligence had to take it in, but who had shown it no other consideration. Biddy had set her charming face as a stone; she would have nothing to do with signs, and she, practically speaking, willfully, wickedly, refused a magnificent offer, so that the young man carried his noble expectations elsewhere. How much in earnest he had been was proved by the fact that, before Goodwood had come and gone, he was captured by Lady Muriel Macpherson. It was superfluous to insist on the frantic determination to get married revealed by such an accident as that. Nick knew of this episode only through Grace, and he deplored its having occurred in the midst of other disasters.
He knew, or he suspected, something more as well—something about his brother Percival which, if it should come to light, no season would be genial enough to gloss over. It had usually been supposed that Percy’s store of comfort against the ills of life was confined to the infallibility of his rifle. He was not sensitive, but he had always the consolation of killing something. It had suddenly come to Nick’s ears, however, that he had another resource as well, in the person of a robust countrywoman, housed in an ivied corner of Warwickshire, in whom he had long been interested and whom, without any flourish of magnanimity, he had ended by making his wife. The situation of the latest born of the pledges of this affection, a blooming boy (there had been two or three previously), was therefore perfectly regular and of a nature to make a difference in the worldly position, as the phrase is, of his moneyless uncle. If there be degrees in the absolute and Percy had an heir (others, moreover, would supposably come), Nick would have to regard himself as still more moneyless than before. His brother’s last step was doubtless, under the circumstances, to be commended; but such discoveries were enlivening only when they were made in other families, and Lady Agnes would scarcely enjoy learning to what tune she had become a grandmother.
Nick forbore, from delicacy, to intimate to Biddy that he thought it a pity she could n’t care for Mr. Grindon; but he had a private sense that if she had been capable of such an achievement it would have lightened a little the weight he himself had to carry. He bore her a slight grudge, which lasted until Julia Dallow came back ; when the circumstance of the girl’s being summoned immediately down to Harsh created a diversion that was perhaps, after all, only fanciful. Biddy, as we know, entertained a theory, which Nick had found occasion to combat, that Mrs. Dallow had not treated him perfectly well; therefore in going to Harsh the very first time Julia held out a hand to her, so jealous a little sister must have recognized a special inducement. The inducement might have been that Julia had comfort for her, that she was acting by the direct advice of this acute lady, that they were still in close communion on the question of the offers Biddy was not to accept, that in short Peter Sheriingham’s sister had taken upon herself to see that Biddy should remain free until the day of the fugitive’s inevitable return. Once or twice, indeed, Nick wondered whether Mrs. Dallow herself was visited, in a larger sense, by the thought of retracing her steps — whether she wished to draw out her young friend’s opinion as to how she might do so gracefully. During the few days she was in town Nick had seen her twice, in Great Stanhope Street, but not alone. She had said to him, on one of these occasions, in her odd, explosive way, I should have thought you ’d have gone away somewhere—it must be such a bore.” Of course she firmly believed he was staying for Miriam, which he really was not ; and probably she had written this false impression off to Peter, who, still more probably, would prefer to regard it as just. Nick was staying for Miriam only in the sense that he should be very glad of the money he might receive for the portrait he was engaged in painting. That money would be a great convenience to him, in spite of the obstructive ground Miriam had taken in pretending (she had blown half a gale about it) that he had had no right to dispose of such a production without her consent. His answer to this was simply that the purchaser was so little of a stranger that it did n’t go, as it were, out of the family, out of hers. It did n’t. matter that Miriam should protest that if Mr. Sherringham had formerly been no stranger he was now utterly one, so that there could be nothing less soothing to him than to see her hated image on his wall. He would back out of the bargain, and Nick would be left with his work on his hands. Nick jeered at this shallow theory, and, when she came to sit, the question served as well as another to sprinkle their familiar silences with chaff. Nick already knew something, as we have seen, of the conditions in which his distracted kinsman had left England; and this connected itself, in casual meditation, with some of the calculations that he attributed to Julia and Biddy. There had naturally been a sequel to the queer behavior in which Peter had indulged, at the theatre, on the eve of his departure — a sequel embodied in a remark dropped by Miriam in the course of the first sitting she gave Nick after her great night. “ Fancy ” — so this observation ran — “ fancy the dear man finding time, in the press of all his last duties, to ask me to marry him ! ”
“ He told me you had found time, in the press of all yours, to say you would,” Nick replied. And this was pretty much all that had passed on the subject between them, save, of course, that Miriam immediately made it clear that Peter had grossly misinformed him. What had happened was that she had said she would do nothing of the sort. She professed a desire not to be confronted again with this trying theme, and Nick easily fell in with it, from a definite preference he now had not to handle that kind of subject with her. If Julia had false ideas about him, and if Peter had them too, his part of the business was to take the simplest course to establish that falsity. There were difficulties indeed attached even to the simplest course, but there would be a difficulty the less if, in conversation, one should forbear to meddle with the general suggestive topic of intimate unions. It is certain that in these days Nick cultivated the practice of forbearances for which he did not receive, for which perhaps he never would receive, due credit.
He had been convinced for some time that one of the next things he should hear would be that Mrs. Dallow had arranged to marry Mr. Macgeorge or some such leader of multitudes. He could think of that now, he found — think of it with resignation, even when Julia was before his eyes, looking so handsomely forgetful that her air had to be taken as referring still more to their original intimacy than to his comparatively superficial offense. What made this accomplishment of his own remarkable was that there was something else he thought of quite as much — the fact that he had only to see her again to feel by how great a charm she had in the old days taken possession of him. This charm operated apparently in a very direct, primitive way: her presence diffused it and fully established it, but her absence left comparatively little of it behind. It dwelt in the very facts of her person — it was something that she happened physically to be ; yet (considering that the question was of something very like loveliness) its envelope of associations, of memories and recurrences, had no great density. She packed it up and took it away with her, as if she had been a woman who had come to sell a set of laces. The laces were as wonderful as ever when they were taken out of the box, but to get another look at them you had to send for the woman. What was above all remarkable was that Miriam Rooth was much less irresistible to our young man than Mrs. Dallow could be when Mrs. Dallow was on the spot. He could paint Miriam, day after day, without any agitating blur of vision ; in fact the more he saw of her the clearer grew the atmosphere through which she blazed, the more her richness became one with that of the flowering picture. There are reciprocities and special sympathies, in such relations; mysterious affinities they used to be called, divinations of private congruity. Nick had an unexpressed conviction that if, as he had often wanted and proposed, he had embarked with Mrs. Dallow in this particular quest of a great prize, disaster would have overtaken them on the deep waters. Even with the limited risk, indeed, disaster had come ; but it was of a different kind, and it had the advantage for him that now she could n’t reproach and accuse him as the cause of it — could n’t do so, at least, on any ground he was obliged to recognize. She would never know how much he had cared for her, how much he cared for her still ; inasmuch as the conclusive proof, for himself. was his conscious reluctance to care for another woman, which she positively misread. Some day he would doubtless try to do that; but such a day seemed as yet far off, and he had no spite, no vindictive impulse, to help him. The soreness that was mingled with his liberation, the sense of indignity even, as of a full cup suddenly dashed, by a blundering hand, from his lips, demanded certainly a balm ; but it found it, for the time, in another passion, not in a rancorous exercise of the same — a passion strong enough to make him forget what a pity it was that he was not made to care for two women at once.
As soon as Mrs. Dallow returned to England he broke ground, to his mother, on the subject of her making Julia understand that she and the girls now regarded their occupancy of Broadwood as absolutely terminated. He had already, several weeks before, picked a little at this arid tract, but in the interval the soil appeared to have formed again. It was disagreeable to him to impose such a renunciation on Lady Agnes, and it was especially disagreeable to have to phrase it and discuss it and perhaps insist upon it. He would have liked the whole business to be tacit — a little triumph of silent delicacy. But he found reasons to suspect that what in fact would be most tacit was Julia’s certain endurance of any chance indelicacy. Lady Agnes had a theory that they had virtually—"practically,” as she said — given up the place, so that there was no need of making a splash about it; but Nick discovered, in the course of a conversation with Biddy more rigorous perhaps than any to which he had ever subjected her, that none of their property had been removed from the delightful house—none of the things (there were ever so many things) that Lady Agnes had caused to be conveyed there when they took possession. Her ladyship was the proprietor of innumerable articles of furniture, relics and survivals of her former greatness, and moved about the world with a train of heterogeneous baggage ; so that her quiet, overflow into the spaciousness of Broadwood had had all the luxury of a final subsidence. What Nick had to propose to her now was a dreadful combination, a relapse into all the things she most hated—seaside lodgings, bald storehouses in the Marylebone Road, little London rooms crammed with things that caught the dirt and made them stuffy. He was afraid he should really finish her, and he himself was surprised, in a degree, at his insistence. He would n’t have supposed that he should have cared so much, but he found he did care intensely. He cared enough — it says everything — to explain to his mother that, practically, her retention of Broadwood would be the violation of an agreement. Julia had given them the place on the understanding that he was to marry her, and since he was not to marry her they had no right to keep the place. “ Yes, you make the mess and we pay the penalty ! ” Lady Agnes flashed out; but this was the only overt protest that she made, except indeed to contend that their withdrawal would be an act ungracious and offensive to Julia. She looked as she had looked during the months that succeeded his father’s death, but she gave a general grim assent to the proposition that, let Julia take it as she would, their own duty was unmistakably clear.
It was Grace who was the principal representative of the idea that Julia would be outraged by such a step; she never ceased to repeat that she had never heard of anything so “nasty.”Nick would have exported this of Grace, but he felt rather deserted and betrayed when Biddy murmured to him that she knew — that there was really no need of their sacrificing their mother’s comfort to a mere fancy. She intimated that if Nick would only consent to their going on with Broadwood as if nothing had happened (or rather as if everything had happened), she would answer for Julia. For almost the first time in his life Nick disliked what Biddy said to him, and he gave her a sharp rejoinder, embodying the general opinion that they all had enough to do to answer for themselves. He remembered afterwards the way she looked at him, startled, even frightened, with rising tears, before turning away. He held that it would be time enough to judge how Julia would take it after they had thrown up the place ; and he made it his duty to see that his mother should address to Mrs. Dallow, by letter, a formal notification of their retirement. Mrs. Dallow could protest then if she liked. Nick was aware that, in general, he was not practical; he could imagine why, from his early years, people should, have joked him about it. But this time he was determined that his behavior should be founded on a rigid view of things as they were. He did n’t see his mother’s letter to Julia, but he knew that it went. He thought she would have been more loyal if she had shown it to him, though of course there could be but little question of loyalty now. That it had really been written, however, very much on the lines he dictated, was clear to him from the subsequent surprise which Lady Agnes’s blankness did not prevent him from divining.
Julia answered her letter, but in unexpected terms: she had apparently neither resisted nor protested ; she had simply been very glad to get her house back again and had not accused any of them of nastiness. Nick saw no more of her letter than he had seen of his mother’s, but he was able to say to Grace (to Lady Agnes he was studiously mute), " My poor child, you see, after all, that we have n’t kicked up such a row.” Grace shook her head and looked gloomy and deeply wise, replying that he had no cause to triumph — they were so far from having seen the end of it yet. Then he guessed that his mother had complied with his wish on the calculation that it would be a mere form, that Julia would entreat them not to be so fantastic, and that he would then, in the presence of her wounded surprise, consent to a quiet continuance, so much in the interest (the air of Broadwood had a purity!) of the health of all of them. But since Julia jumped at their relinquishment he had no chance to be mollified : he had only to persist in having-been right.
At bottom, probably, he himself was a little surprised at her eagerness. Literally speaking, it was not perfectly graceful. He was sorry his mother had been so deceived, but he was sorrier still for Biddy’s mistake — it showed she might be mistaken about other things. Nothing was left now but for Lady Agnes to say, as she did, substantially, whenever she saw him, “ We are to prepare to spend the autumn at Worthing, then, or some other horrible place ? I don’t know their names: it’s the only thing we can afford.” There was an implication in this that if he expected her to drag her girls about to country-houses, in a continuance of the fidgety effort to work them off, he must understand at once that she was now too weary and too sad and too sick. She had done her best for them, and it had all been vain and cruel, and now the poor creatures must look out for themselves, To the grossness of Biddy’s misconduct she need n’t refer, nor to the golden opportunity this young lady had forfeited by her odious treatment of Mr. Grindon. It was clear that this time Lady Agnes was incurably discouraged ; so much so as to fail to glean the dimmest light from the fact that the girl was really making a long stay at Harsh. Biddy went to and fro two or three times and then, in August, fairly settled there ; and what her mother mainly saw in her absence was the desire to keep out of the way of household reminders of her depravity. In fact, as it turned out, Lady Agnes and Grace, in the first days of August, gathered themselves together for another visit to the old lady who had been Sir Nicholas’s godmother; after which they went somewhere else, so that the question of Worthing had not to be immediately faced.
Nick stayed on in London with a passion of work fairly humming in his ears; he was conscious, with joy, that for three or four months, in the empty Babylon, he would have generous days. But toward the end of August he got a letter from Grace in which she spoke of her situation, and her mother’s, in a manner that made him feel he ought to do something felicitous. They were paying a third visit (he knew that in Calcutta Gardens lady’s-maids had been to and fro with boxes, replenishments of wardrobes), and yet somehow the outlook for the autumn was dark. Grace did n’t say it in so many words, but what he read between the lines was that they had no more invitations. What therefore was to become of them ? People liked them well enough when Biddy was with them, but they did n’t care for her mother and her, tout pur, and Biddy was cooped up indefinitely with Julia. This was not the manner in which Grace used to allude to her sister’s happy visits to Mrs. Dallow, and the change of tone made Nick wince with a sense of all that had collapsed. Biddy was a little fish worth landing, in short, scantily as she seemed disposed to bite, and Grace’s rude probity could admit that she herself was not.
Nick had an inspiration ; by way of doing something felicitous he went down to Brighton and took lodgings for the three ladies, for several weeks, the quietest and sunniest he could find. This he intended as a kindly surprise, a reminder of how he had his mother’s comfort, at heart, how he could exert himself and save her trouble. But he had no sooner concluded his bargain (it was a more costly one than he had at first calculated) than he was bewildered, as he privately phrased it quite “ stumped,” at learning that the three ladies were to pass the autumn at Broadwood with Julia. Mrs. Dallow had taken the place into familiar use again, and she was now correcting their former surprise at her crude concurrence (this was infinitely characteristic of Julia) by inviting them to share it with her. Nick wondered, vaguely, what she was " up to ; ” but when his mother treated herself to the fine irony of addressing him an elaborately humble inquiry as to whether he would consent to their accepting the merciful refuge (she repeated this expression three times), he replied that she might do exactly as she liked : he would only mention that he should not feel himself at liberty to come and see her at Broadwood. This condition proved, apparently, to Lady Agnes’s mind, no hindrance, and she and her daughters were presently reinstalled in the very apartments they had learned to love. This time it was even better than before; they had still fewer expenses. The expenses were Nick’s: he had to pay a forfeit to the landlady at Brighton for backing out of his contract. He said nothing to his mother about this bungled business — he was literally afraid ; but an event that befell at the same moment reminded him afresh that it was not the time to choose to squander money. Mr. Carteret drew his last breath ; quite painlessly it seemed, as the closing scene was described at Beauclere when our young man went down to the funeral. Two or three weeks afterwards the contents of his will were made public in the Illustrated London News, where it definitely appeared that he left a very large fortune, not a penny of which was to go to Nick. The provision for Mr. Chayter’s declining years was very handsome.
Miriam had mounted, at a bound, in her new part, several steps in the ladder of fame, and at the climax of the London season this fact was brought home to her from hour to hour. It produced a thousand solicitations and entanglements, so that she rapidly learned that it takes up a great deal of one’s time to be celebrated. Even though, as she boasted, she had reduced to a science the practice of “ working ” her mother (she made use of the good lady socially, to the utmost, pushing her perpetually into the breach), there were many occasions on which it was represented to her that she could not be disobliging without damaging her cause. She made almost an income out of the photographers (their appreciation of her as a subject knew no bounds), and she supplied the newspapers with columns of irreducible copy. To the gentlemen who sought speech of her on behalf of these organs she poured forth, vindictively, floods of unscrupulous romance; she told them all different tales, and as her mother told them others more marvelous yet, publicity was cleverly caught by rival versions, surpassing each other in authenticity. The whole case was remarkable, was unique; for if the girl was advertised by the bewilderment of her readers, she seemed to every skeptic, when he went to see her, as fine as if he had discovered her for himself. She was still accommodating enough, however, from time to time, to find an hour to come and sit to Nick Dormer, and he helped himself, further, by going to her theatre whenever he could. He was conscious that Julia Dallow would probably hear of that and triumph with a fresh sense of how right she had been ; but this reflection only made him sigh resignedly, so true it struck him as being that there are some things explanation can never better, can never touch.
Miriam brought Basil Dashwood once to see her portrait, and Basil, who commended it in general, directed his criticism mainly to two points — its not yet being finished and its not having gone into that year’s Academy. The young actor was visibly fidgety: he felt the contagion of Miriam’s rapid pace, the quick beat of her success, and, looking at everything now from the standpoint of that speculation, could scarcely contain his impatience at the painter’s clumsy slowness. He thought the second picture much better than the other one, but somehow it ought, by that time, to be before the public; having a great deal of familiar proverbial wisdom, he put forth, with vehemence, the idea that in every great crisis there is nothing like striking while the iron is hot. He even betrayed a sort of impression that with a little good-will Nick might wind up the job and still get the Academy people to take him in. Basil knew some of them; he all but offered to speak to them — the case was so exceptional; he had no doubt he could get something done. Against the appropriation of the work by Peter Sherringham he explicitly and loudly protested, in spite of the homeliest recommendations of silence from Miriam ; and it was, indeed, easy to guess how such an arrangement would interfere with his own conception of the eventual right place for the two portraits—the vestibule of the theatre, where every one going in and out would see them, suspended face to face and surrounded by photographs, artistically disposed, of the young actress in a variety of characters.
Dashwood showed a largeness of view in the way he jumped to the conviction that, in this position, the pictures would really help to draw. Considering the virtue he attributed to Miriam, the idea was exempt from narrow prejudice.
Moreover, though a trifle feverish, he was really genial; he repeated, more than once, “Yes, my dear sir, you’ve done it this time.’ This was a favorite formula with him ; when some allusion was made to the girl’s success, he greeted it also with a comfortable “This time she has done it.”There was a hint of knowledge and far calculation in his tone. It appeared before he went that this time even he himself had done it — he had taken up something that would really answer. He told Nick more about Miriam, more about her affairs at that moment, at least, than she herself had communicated, contributing strongly to our young man’s impression that, one by one, every element of a great destiny was being dropped into her cup. Nick himself tasted of success, vicariously, for the hour. Miriam let Dashwood talk only to contradict him, and contradicted him only to show how indifferently she could do it. She treated him as if she had nothing more to learn about his folly, but as if it had taken intimate friendship to reveal to her the full extent of it. Nick did n’t mind her intimate friendships, but he ended by disliking Dashwood, who irritated him — a circumstance in which poor Julia, if it had come to her knowledge, would doubtless have found a damning eloquence. Miriam was more pleased with herself than ever: she now made no scruple of admitting that she enjoyed all her advantages. She was beginning to have a fuller vision of how successful success could be; she took everything as it came — dined out every Sunday, and even went into the country till the Monday morning; she had a hundred distinguished names on her lips, and wonderful tales about the people who were making up to her. She struck Nick as less serious than she had been hitherto, as making even an aggressive show of frivolity; but he was conscious of no obligation to reprehend her for it — the less as he had a dim vision that some effect of that sort, some irritation of his curiosity, was what she desired to produce. She would perhaps have liked, for reasons best known to herself, to look as if she were throwing herself away, not being able to do anything else. He could n’t talk to her as if he took an immense interest in her career, because in fact he did n’t; she remained to him, primarily and essentially, a pictorial object, with the nature of whose vicissitudes he was concerned (putting common charity and his personal goodnature, of course, aside) only so far as they had something to say in her face. How could he know, in advance, what twist of her life would say most ? so possible was it even that complete failure or some incalculable perversion would only make her, for his particular purpose, more magnificent.
After she had left him, at any rate, the day she came with Basil Dashwood, and still more on a later occasion, as he turned back to his work when he had put her into her carriage, the last time, for that year, that he saw her — after she had left him it occurred to him, in the light of her quick distinction, that there were mighty differences in the famous artistic life. Miriam was already in a glow of glory, which moreover was probably but a faint spark in relation to the blaze to come ; and as he closed the door upon her and took up his palette to rub it with a dirty doth, the little room in which his own battle was practically to be fought looked wofully cold and gray and mean. It was lonely, and yet it was peopled with unfriendly shadows (so thick he saw them gathering in winter twilights to come), the duller conditions, the longer patiences, the less immediate and personal joys. His late beginning was there, and his wasted youth, the mistakes that would still bring forth children after their image, the sedentary solitude, the clumsy obscurity, the poor explanations, the foolishness that he foresaw in having to ask people to wait, and wait longer, and wait again, for a fruition which, to their sense at least, would be an anticlimax. He cared enough for it, whatever it would be, to feel that his pertinacity might enter into comparison even with such a productive force as Miriam’s. This was, after all, in his bare studio, the most collective dim presence, the one that was most sociable to him as he sat there, and that made it the right place, however wrong it was — the sense that it was to the thing in itself he was attached. This was Miriam’s case, but the contrast, which she showed him she also felt, was in the number of other things that she got with the thing in itself.
I hasten to add that our young man had hours when this fine substance struck him as requiring, for a complete appeal, no adjunct whatever — as being, in its own splendor, a summary of all adjuncts and apologies. I have related that the great collections, the National Gallery and the Museum, were sometimes rather a series of dead surfaces to him; but the sketch I have attempted of him will have been inadequate if it fails to suggest that there were other days when, as he strolled through them, he plucked, right and left, perfect nosegays of reassurance. Bent as he was on working in the modern, which spoke to him with a thousand voices, he judged it better, for long periods, not to haunt the earlier masters, whose conditions had been so different (later he came to see that it did n’t matter much, especially if one didn’t go); but he was liable to accidental deflections from this theory — liable in particular to want to take a look at one of the great portraits of the past. These were the things that were the most inspiring, in the sense that they were the things that, while generations, while worlds had come and gone, seemed most to survive and testify. As he stood before them, sometimes, the perfection of their survival struck him as the supreme eloquence, the reason that included all others, thanks to the language of art, the richest and most universal. Empires and systems and conquests had rolled over the globe, and every kind of greatness had risen and passed away, but the beauty of the great pictures had known nothing of death or change, and the ages had only sweetened their freshness. The same faces, the same figures, looked out at different centuries, knowing a deal the century did n’t, and when they joined hands they made the indestructible thread on which the pearls of history were strung.
Miriam notified her artist that her theatre was to close on the 10th of August, immediately after which she was to start, with the company, on a tremendous tour of the provinces. They were to make a lot of money, but they were to have no holiday, and she did n’t want one; she only wanted to keep at it and make the most of her limited Opportunities for practice ; inasmuch as, at that rate, playing but two parts a year (and such parts — she despised them!), she should n’t have mastered the rudiments of her trade before decrepitude would compel her to lay it by. The first time she came to the studio after her visit with Dashwood she sprang up abruptly, at the end of half an hour, saying she could sit no more — she had had enough of it. She was visibly restless and preoccupied, and though Nick had not waited till now to discover that she had more moods than he had tints on his palette, he had never yet seen her fitfulness at this particular angle. It was a trifle unbecoming, and he was ready to let her go. She looked round the place as if she were suddenly tired of it, and then she said mechanically, in a heartless London way, while she smoothed down her gloves, “ So you’re just going to stay on?” After he had confessed that this was his dark purpose she continued in the same casual, talk-making manner, “ I dare say it ’s the best thing for you. You’re just going to grind, eh ? ”
“I see before me an eternity of grinding.”
“ All alone, by yourself, in this dull little hole ? You will be conscientious, you will be virtuous.”
“Oh, my solitude will be mitigated — I shall have models and people.”
“ What people — what models ? ” Miriam asked, before the glass, arranging her hat.
“ Well, no one so good as you.”
“ That’s a prospect ! ” the girl laughed; " for all the good you’ve got out of me! ”
“You’re no judge of that quantity,” said Nick, “and even I can’t measure it just yet. Have I been rather a brute ? I can easily believe it; I have n’t talked to you — I have n’t amused you as I might. The truth is, painting people is a very absorbing, exclusive occupation. You can’t do much to them besides.”
“ Yes, it’s a cruel honor.”
“ Cruel — that’s too much,” Nick objected.
“I mean it’s one you should n’t confer on people you like, for when it’s over it’s over: it kills your interest in them, and after you’ve finished them you don’t like them any more.”
“ Surely I like you,” Nick returned, sitting tilted back, before his picture, with his hands in his pockets.
“ We’ve done very well ; it’s something not to have quarreled,” said Miriam, smiling at him now and seeming more in it. “ I would n’t have had you slight your work—I would n’t have had you do it badly. But there’s no fear of that for you,” she went on. “You’re the real thing and the rare bird. I have n’t lived with you this way without seeing that: you ‘re the sincere artist so much more than I. No, no, don’t protest,”she added, with one of her sudden fine transitions to a deeper tone. “You’ll do things that will hand on your name when my screeching is happily over. Only you do seem to me, I confess, rather high and dry here — I speak from the point of view of your comfort and of my personal interest in you. You strike me as kind of lonely, as the Americans say — rather cut off and isolated in your grandeur. Have n’t you any confrères — fellow-artists and people of that sort ? Don’t they come near you ? ”
“ I don’t know them much, I’ve always been afraid of them, and how can they take me seriously ? ”
“ Well, I ’ve got confrères, and sometimes I wish I had n’t! But does your sister never come near you any more, or is it only the fear of meeting me? ”
Nick was aware that his mother had a theory that Biddy was constantly bundled home from Rosedale Road at the approach of improper persons : she was as angry at this as if she would n’t have been more so if the child had been suffered to stay ; but the explanation he gave his present visitor was nearer the truth. He reminded Miriam that he had already told her (he had been careful to do this, so as not to let it appear she was avoided) that his sister was now most of the time in the country, staying with an hospitable relation.
“ Oh, yes,” the girl rejoined to this, “ with Mr. Sherringham’s sister, Mrs.
— what’s her name ? I always forget it.” And when Nick had pronounced the word with a reluctance he doubtless failed sufficiently to conceal (he hated to talk about Mrs. Dallow ; he did n’t know what business Miriam had with her), she exclaimed. “ That’s the one
— the beauty, the wonderful beauty. I shall never forget how handsome she looked the day she found me here. I don’t in the least resemble her, but I should like to have a try at that type, some day, in a comedy of manners. But who will write me a comedy of manners ? There it is ! The trouble would be, no doubt, that I should push her àla charge.”
Nick listened to these remarks in silence, saying to himself that if Miriam should have the bad taste (she seemed trembling on the brink of it) to make an allusion to what had passed between the lady in question and himself, he should dislike her utterly. It would show him she was a vulgar creature, after all. Her good genius interposed, however, as against this hard penalty, and she quickly, for the moment at least, whisked away from the topic, demanding, apropos of comrades and visitors, what had become of Gabriel Nash, whom she had not encountered for so many days.
“ I think he ’s tired of me,” said Nick ; “ he has n’t been near me, either. But, after all, it’s natural — he has seen me through.”
“ Seen you through ? Why, you’ve only just begun.”
“Precisely, and at bottom he does n’t like to see me begin. He ’s afraid I ’ll do something.”
“ Do you mean he’s jealous ? ”
“ Not in the least, for from the moment one does anything one ceases to compete with him. It leaves him the field more clear. But that’s just the discomfort, for him — he feels, as you said just now, kind of lonely ; he feels rather abandoned and even, I think, a little betrayed. So far from being jealous, he yearns for me and regrets me. The only thing he really takes seriously is to speculate and understand, to talk about the reasons and the essence of things ; the people who do that are the highest. The applications, the consequences, the vulgar little effects, belong to a lower plane, to which one must doubtless be tolerant and indulgent, but which is after all an affair of comparative accidents and trifles. Indeed, he ’ll probably tell me frankly, the next time I see him, that he can’t but feel that to come down to the little questions of action — the little prudences and compromises and simplifications of practice — is, for the superior person, a really fatal descent. One may be inoffensive and even commendable after it, but one can scarcely pretend to be interesting. Il en faut comme ça, but one does n’t haunt them. He ’ll do his best for me ; he ’ll come back again, but he ’ll come back sad, and finally he ’ll fade away altogether. He ’ll go off to Granada, or somewhere.”
“ The simplifications of practice ? ” cried Miriam, “ Why, they are just precisely the most blessed things on earth. What should we do without them? ”
“ What — indeed ? ” Nick echoed. “ But if we need them, it’s because we ’re not superior persons. We ’re awful Philistines.”
“ I ’ll be one with you,” the girl smiled. “ Poor Nash is n’t worth talking about. What was it but a little question of action when he preached to you, as I know he did, to give up your seat ? ”
“ Yes, he has a weakness for giving up — he’ll go with you as far as that. But I’m not giving up any more, you see. I’m pegging away, and that’s gross.”
“He’s an idiot — n’en parlons plus ! ” Miriam dropped, gathering up her parasol, but lingering.
“ Ah, never for me ! He helped me at a difficult time.”
“ You ought to he ashamed to confess it.”
“ Oh, you are a Philistine,” said Nick.
“ Certainly I am,” Miriam returned, going toward the door, “ if it makes me one to he sorry, awfully sorry, and even rather angry, that I have n’t before me a period of the same sort of unsociable pegging away that you have. For want of it I shall never really be good. However, if you don’t tell people I’ve said so, they ‘ll never know. Your conditions are far better than mine, and far more respectable; you can do as many things as you like, in patient obscurity, while I’m pitchforked into the mêlée, and into the most improbable fame, upon the back of a solitary cheval de bataille, a poor, broken-winded screw. I foresee that I shall be condemned for the greater part of the rest of my days (do you see that ?) to play the stutf I ‘m acting now. I ‘m studying Juliet, and I want awfully to do her, but really I ‘m mortally afraid lest, if I should succeed, I should find myself in such a box. Perhaps they ‘d want Juliet forever, instead of my present part. You see amid what delightful alternatives one moves. What I want most I never shall have had — five quiet years of hard, allround work, in a perfect company, with a manager more perfect still, playing five hundred parts and never being heard of. I may be too particular, but that’s what I should have liked. I think I’m disgusting, with my successful crudities. It’s discouraging; it makes one not care much what happens. What’s the use, in such an age, of being good ? ”
“Good? Your haughty claim is that you ’re bad.”
“ I mean good, you know — there are other ways. Don’t be stupid.” And Nick’s visitor tapped him—he was at the door with her — with her parasol.
“ I scarcely know what to say to you, for certainly it’s your fault if you get on so fast.”
“ I ‘m too clever — I’m a humbug.”
“ That’s the way I used to be,” said Nick.
Miriam rested her wonderful eyes on him; then she turned them over the room, slowly, after which she attached them again, kindly, musingly, on his own. “ All, the pride of that — the sense of purification! He ‘used’ to be ! Poor me ! Of course you ‘ll say, ‘ Look at the sort of thing I ‘ve undertaken to produce, compared with what you have.’ So it’s all right. Become great in the proper way and don’t expose me.” She glanced back once more into the studio, as if she were leaving it forever, and gave another last look at the unfinished canvas on the easel. She shook her head sadly. “ Poor Mr. Sherringham — with that ! ” she murmured.
“ Oh, I ‘ll finish it — it will be very decent,” said Nick.
“ Finish it by yourself? ”
“ Not necessarily. You’ll come hack and sit when you return to London.”
“ Never, never, never again.”
Nick stared. “ Why, you’ve made me the most profuse offers and promises.”
“ Yes, but they were made in ignorance, and I’ve backed out of them. I’m capricious too—faites la part de ça. I see it would n’t do — I did n’t know it then. We “re too far apart— I am, as you say, a Philistine.” And as Nick protested, with vehemence, against this unscrupulous bad faith, she added, “ You ‘ll find other models ; paint Gabriel Nash.”
“ Gabriel Nash — as a substitute for you?”
“ It will be a good way to get rid of him. Paint Mrs. Dallow, too,” Miriam went on, as she passed out of the door which Nick had opened for her — “ paint Mrs. Dallow, if you wish to eradicate the last possibility of a throb.”
It was strange that since only a moment before Nick had been in a state of mind to which the superfluity of this reference would have been the clearest thing about it, he should now have been moved to receive it, quickly, naturally, irreflectively, with the question, “The last possibility? Do you mean in her or in me ? ”
“Oh, in you. I don’t know anything about her.”
“ But that would n’t be the effect,” rejoined Nick, with the same supervening candor. " I believe that if she were to sit to me the usual law would be reversed.”
“ The usual law ? ”
“ Which you cited awhile since, and of which I recognize the general truth. In the case you speak of I should probably make a frightful picture.”
“ And fall in love with her again ? Then, for God’s sake, risk the daub ! ” Miriam laughed out, swimming away to her victoria.