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Theatre – xi

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Next day Julia had luncheon with Charles Tamerley. His father, the Marquess of Dennorant, had married an heiress and he had inherited a considerable fortune. Julia often went to the luncheon parties he was fond of giving at his house in Hill Street. At the bottom of her heart she had a profound contempt for the great ladies and the noble lords she met there, because she was a working woman and an artist, but she knew the connexion was useful. It enabled them to have first nights at the Siddons which the papers described as brilliant, and when she was photographed at week-end parties among a number of aristocratic persons she knew that it was good publicity. There were one or two leading ladies, younger than she, who did not like her any better be-cause she called at least two duchesses by their first names. This caused her no regret. Julia was not a brilliant conversationalist, but her eyes were so bright, her manner so intelligent, that once she had learnt the language of society she passed for a very amusing woman. She had a great gift of mimicry, which ordinarily she kept in check thinking it was bad for her acting, but in these circles she turned it to good account and by means of it acquired the reputation of a wit. She was pleased that they liked her, these smart, idle women, but she laughed at them up her sleeve because they were dazzled by her glamour. She wondered what they would think if they really knew how unromantic the life of a successful actress was, the hard work it entailed, the constant care one had to take of oneself and the regular, monotonous habits which were essential. But she good-naturedly offered them advice on make-up and let them copy her clothes. She was always beautifully dressed. Even Michael, fondly thinking she got her clothes for nothing, did not know how much she really spent on them.

Morally she had the best of both worlds. Everyone knew that her marriage with Michael was exemplary. She was a pattern of conjugal fidelity. At the same time many people in that particular set were convinced that she was Charles Tamerley’s mistress. It was an affair that was supposed to have been going on so long that it had acquired respectability, and tolerant hostesses when they were asked to the same house for a week-end gave them adjoining rooms. This belief had been started by Lady Charles, from whom Charles Tamerley had been long separated, and in point of fact there was not a word of truth in it. The only foundation for it was that Charles had been madly in love with her for twenty years, and it was certainly on Julia’s account that the Tamerleys, who had never got on very well, agreed to separate. It was indeed Lady Charles who had first brought Julia and Charles together. They happened, all three, to be lunching at Dolly de Vries’s when Julia, a young actress, had made her first great success -in London. It was a large party and she was being made much of Lady Charles, a woman of over thirty then, who had the reputation of being a beauty, though except for her eyes she had not a good feature, but by a sort of brazen audacity managed to produce an effective appearance, leant across the table with a gracious smile.

“Oh, Miss Lambert, I think I used to know your father in Jersey. He was a doctor, wasn’t he? He used to come to our house quite often.”

Julia felt a slight sickness in the pit of her stomach; she remembered now who Lady Charles was before she married, and she saw the trap that was being set for her. She gave a rippling laugh.

“Not at all,” she answered. “He was a vet. He used to go to your house to deliver the bitches. The house was full of them.”

Lady Charles for a moment did not quite know what to say.

“My mother was very fond of dogs,” she answered.

Julia was glad that Michael was not there. Poor lamb, he would have been terribly mortified. He always referred to her father as Dr. Lambert, pronouncing it as though it were a French name, and when soon after the war he died and her mother went to live with her widowed sister at St. Malo he began to speak of her as Madame de Lambert. At the beginning of her career Julia had been somewhat sensitive on the point, but when once she was established as a great actress she changed her mind. She was inclined, especially among the great, to insist on the fact that her father had been a vet. She could not quite have explained why, but she felt that by so doing she put them in their place.

But Charles Tamerley knew that his wife had deliberately tried to humiliate the young woman, and angered, went out of his way to be nice to her. He asked her if he might be allowed to call and brought her some beautiful flowers.

He was then a man of nearly forty, with a small head on an elegant body, not very good-looking but of distinguished appearance. He looked very well-bred, which indeed he was, and he had exquisite manners. He was an amateur of the arts. He bought modern pictures and collected old furniture. He was a lover of music and exceedingly well read. At first it amused him to go to the tiny flat off the Buckingham Palace Road in which these two young actors lived. He saw that they were poor and it excited him to get into touch with what he fondly thought was Bohemia. He came several times and he thought it quite an adventure when they asked him to have a luncheon with them which was cooked and served by a scarecrow of a woman whom they called Evie. This was life. He did not pay much attention to Michael who seemed to him, notwithstanding his too obvious beauty, a somewhat ordinary young man, but he was taken by Julia. She had a warmth, a force of character, and a bubbling vitality which were outside his experience. He went to see her act several times and compared her performance with his recollections of the great foreign actresses. It seemed to him that she had in her something quite individual. Her magnetism was incontestable. It gave him quite a thrill to realize on a sudden that she had genius.

“Another Siddons perhaps. A greater Ellen Terry.”

In those days Julia did not think it necessary to go to bed in the afternoons, she was as strong as a horse and never tired, so he used often to take her for walks in the Park. She felt that he wanted her to be a child of nature. That suited her very well. It was no effort for her to be ingenuous, frank and girlishly delighted with everything. He took her to the National Gallery, and the Tate, and the British Museum, and she really enjoyed it almost as much as she said. He liked to impart information and she was glad to receive it. She had a retentive memory and learnt a great deal from him. If later she was able to talk about Proust and Cezanne with the best of them, so that you were surprised and pleased to find so much culture in an actress, it was to him she owed it. She knew that he had fallen in love with her some time before he knew it himself. She found it rather comic. From her standpoint he was a middle-aged man, and she thought of him as a nice old thing. She was madly in love with Michael. When Charles realized that he loved her his manner changed a little, he seemed struck with shyness and when they were together was often silent.

“Poor lamb,” she said to herself, “he’s such a hell of a gentleman he doesn’t know what to do about it.”

But she had already prepared her course of conduct for the declaration which she felt he would sooner or later bring himself to make. One thing she was going to make quite clear to him. She wasn’t going to let him think that because he was a lord and she was an actress he had only to beckon and she would hop into bed with him. If he tried that sort of thing she’d play the outraged heroine on him, with the outflung arm and the index extended in the same line, as Jane Taitbout had taught her to make the gesture, pointed at the door. On the other hand if he was shattered and tongue-tied, she’d be all tremulous herself, sobs in the voice and all that, and she’d say it had never dawned on her that he felt like that about her, and no, no, it would break Michael’s heart. They’d have a good cry together and then everything would be all right. With his beautiful manners she could count upon him not making a nuisance of himself when she had once got it into his head that there was nothing doing.

But when it happened it did not turn out in the least as she had expected. Charles Tamerley and Julia had been for a walk in St. James’s Park, they had looked at the pelicans, and the scene suggesting it, they had discussed the possibility of her playing Millamant on a Sunday evening. They went back to Julia’s flat to have a cup of tea. They shared a crumpet. Then Charles got up to go. He took a miniature out of his pocket and gave it to her.

“It’s a portrait of Clairon. She was an eighteenth-century actress and she had many of your gifts.”

Julia looked at the pretty, clever face, with the powdered hair, and wondered whether the stones that framed the little picture were diamonds or only paste.

“Oh, Charles, how can you! You are sweet.”

“I thought you might like it. It’s by way of being a parting present.”

“Are you going away?”

She was surprised, for he had said nothing about it. He looked at her with a faint smile.

“No. But I’m not going to see you any more.”

“Why?”

“I think you know just as well as I do.”

Then Julia did a disgraceful thing. She sat down and for a minute looked silently at the miniature. Timing it perfectly, she raised her eyes till they met Charles’s. She could cry almost at will, it was one of her most telling accomplishments, and now without a sound, without a sob, the tears poured down her cheeks. With her mouth slightly open, with the look in her eyes of a child that has been deeply hurt and does not know why, the effect was unbearably pathetic. His face was crossed by a twinge of agony. When he spoke his voice was hoarse with emotion.

“You’re in love with Michael, aren’t you?”

She gave a little nod. She tightened her lips as though she were trying to control herself, but the tears rolled down her cheeks.

“There’s no chance for me at all?” He waited for some answer from her, but she gave none, she raised her hand to her mouth and seemed to bite a nail, and still she stared at him with those streaming eyes. “Don’t you know what torture it is to go on seeing you? D’you want me to go on seeing you?”

Again she gave a little nod.

“Clara’s making me scenes about you. She’s found out I’m in love with you. It’s only common sense that we shouldn’t see one another any more.”

This time Julia slightly shook her head. She gave a sob. She leant back in the chair and turned her head aside. Her whole body seemed to express the hopelessness of her grief. Flesh and blood couldn’t stand it. Charles stepped forward and sinking to his knees took that broken woebegone body in his arms.

“For God’s sake don’t look so unhappy. I can’t bear it. Oh, Julia, Julia, I love you so much, I can’t make you so miserable. I’ll accept anything. I’ll make no demands on you.”

She turned her tear-stained face to him (“God, what a sight I must look now”) and gave him her lips. He kissed her tenderly. It was the first time he had ever kissed her.

“I don’t want to lose you,” she muttered huskily.

“Darling, darling!”

“It’ll be just as it was before?”

“Just.”

She gave a deep sigh of contentment and for a minute or two rested in his arms. When he went away she got up and looked in the glass.

“You rotten bitch,” she said to herself.

But she giggled as though she were not in the least ashamed and then went into the bathroom to wash her face and eyes. She felt wonderfully exhilarated. She heard Michael come in and called out to him.

“Michael, look at that miniature Charles has just given me. It’s on the chimney-piece. Are those diamonds or paste?”

Julia was somewhat nervous when Lady Charles left her husband. She threatened to bring proceedings for divorce, and Julia did not at all like the idea of appearing as intervener. For two or three weeks she was very jittery. She decided to say nothing to Michael till it was necessary, and she was glad she had not, for in due course it appeared that the threats had been made only to extract more substantial alimony from the innocent husband. Julia managed Charles with wonderful skill. It was understood between them that her great love for Michael made any close relation between them out of the question, but so far as the rest was concerned he was everything to her, her friend, her adviser, her confidant, the man she could rely on in any emergency or go to for comfort in any disappointment. It was a little more difficult when Charles, with his fine sensitiveness, saw that she was no longer in love with Michael. Then Julia had to exercise a great deal of tact. It was not that she had any scruples about being his mistress; if he had been an actor who loved her so much and had loved her so long she would not have minded popping into bed with him out of sheer good nature; but she just did not fancy him. She was very fond of him, but he was so elegant, so well-bred, so cultured, she could not think of him as a lover. It would be like going to bed with an objet d’art. And his love of art filled her with a faint derision; after all she was a creator, when all was said and done he was only the public. He wished her to elope with him. They would buy a villa at Sorrento on the bay of Naples, with a large garden, and they would have a schooner so that they could spend long days on the beautiful wine-coloured sea. Love and beauty and art; the world well lost.

“The damned fool,” she thought. “As if I’d give up my career to bury myself in some hole in Italy!”

She persuaded him that she had a duty to Michael, and then there was the baby; she couldn’t let him grow up with the burden on his young life that his mother was a bad woman. Orange trees or no orange trees, she would never have a moment’s peace in that beautiful Italian villa if she was tortured by the thought of Michael’s unhappiness and her baby being looked after by strangers. One couldn’t only think of oneself, could one? One had to think of others too. She was very sweet and womanly. She sometimes asked Charles why he did not arrange a divorce with his wife and marry some nice woman. She could not bear the thought of his wasting his life over her. He told her that she was the only woman he had ever loved and that he must go on loving her till the end.

“It seems so sad,” said Julia.

All the same she kept her eyes open, and if she noticed that any woman had predatory intentions on Charles she took care to queer her pitch. She did not hesitate if the danger seemed to warrant it to show herself extremely jealous. It had been long agreed, with all the delicacy that might be expected from his good breeding and Julia’s good heart, in no definite words, but with guarded hints and remote allusiveness, that if anything happened to Michael, Lady Charles should somehow or other be disposed of and they would then marry. But Michael had perfect health.

On this occasion Julia had much enjoyed lunching at Hill Street. The party had been very grand. Julia had never encouraged Charles to entertain any of the actors or authors he sometimes came across, and she was the only person there who had ever had to earn a living. She had sat between an old, fat, bald and loquacious Cabinet Minister who took a great deal of trouble to entertain her, and a young Duke of Westreys who looked like a stable-boy and who flattered himself that he knew French slang better than a Frenchman. When he discovered that Julia spoke French he insisted on conversing with her in that language. After luncheon she was persuaded to recite a tirade from Phèdre as it was done at the Comédie Française and the same tirade as an English student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art would deliver it. She made the company laugh very much and came away from the party flushed with success. It was a fine bright day and she made up her mind to walk from Hill Street to Stanhope Place. A good many people recognized her as she threaded her way through the crowd in Oxford Street, and though she looked straight ahead of her she was conscious of their glances.

“What a hell of a nuisance it is that one can’t go anywhere without people staring at one.”

She slackened her pace a little. It certainly was a beautiful day.

She let herself into her house with a latch-key and as she got in heard the telephone ringing. Without thinking she took up the receiver.

“Yes?”

She generally disguised her voice when she answered, but for once forgot to.

“Miss Lambert?”

“I don’t know if Miss Lambert’s in. Who is it please?” she asked, assuming quickly a cockney accent.

The monosyllable had betrayed her. A chuckle travelled over the wire.

“I only wanted to thank you for writing to me. You know you needn’t have troubled. It was so nice of you to ask me to lunch, I thought I’d like to send you a few flowers.”

The sound of his voice and the words told her who it was. It was the blushing young man whose name she did not know. Even now, though she had looked at his card, she could not remember it. The only thing that had struck her was that he lived in Tavistock Square.

“It was very sweet of you,” she answered in her own voice.

“I suppose you wouldn’t come to tea with me one day, would you?”

The nerve of it! She wouldn’t go to tea with a duchess; he was treating her like a chorus girl. It was rather funny when you came to think of it.

“I don’t know why not.”

“Will you really?” his voice sounded eager. He had a pleasant voice.

“When?”

She did not feel at all like going to bed that afternoon.

“Today.”

“O.K. I’ll get away from the office. Half-past four? 138, Tavistock Square.”

It was nice of him to have suggested that. He might so easily have mentioned some fashionable place where people would stare at her. It proved that he didn’t just want to be seen with her.

She took a taxi to Tavistock Square. She was pleased with herself. She was doing a good action. It would be wonderful for him in after years to be able to tell his wife and children that Julia Lambert had been to tea with him when he was just a little insignificant clerk in an accountant’s office. And she had been so simple and so natural. No one to hear her prattling away would have guessed that she was the greatest actress in England. And if they didn’t believe him he’d have her photograph to prove it, signed yours sincerely. He’d laugh and say that of course if he hadn’t been such a kid he’d never have had the cheek to ask her.

When she arrived at the house and had paid off the taxi she suddenly remembered that she did not know his name and when the maid answered the door would not know whom to ask for. But on looking for the bell she noticed that there were eight of them, four rows of two, and by the side of each was a card or a name written in ink on a piece of paper. It was an old house that had been divided up into flats. She began looking, rather hopelessly, at the names wondering whether one of them would recall something, when the door opened and he stood before her.

“I saw you drive up and I ran down. I’m afraid I’m on the third floor. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.”

She climbed the uncarpeted stairs. She was a trifle out of breath when she came to the third landing. He had skipped up eagerly, like a young goat, she thought, and she had not liked to suggest that she would prefer to go more leisurely. The room into which he led her was fairly large, but dingily furnished. On the table was a plate of cakes and two cups, a sugar basin and a milk-jug. The crockery was of the cheapest sort.

“Take a pew,” he said. “The water’s just on the boil. I’ll only be a minute. I’ve got a gas-ring in the bath-room.”

He left her and she looked about.

“Poor lamb, he must be as poor as a church mouse.”

The room reminded her very much of some of the lodgings she had lived in when she was first on the stage. She noticed the pathetic attempts he had made to conceal the fact that it was a bedroom as well as a sitting-room. The divan against the wall was evidently his bed at night. The years slipped away from her in fancy and she felt strangely young again. What fun they had had in rooms very like that and how they had enjoyed the fantastic meals they had had, things in paper bags and eggs and bacon fried on the gas-ring! He came in with the tea in a brown pot. She ate a square sponge-cake with pink icing on it. That was a thing she had not done for years. The Ceylon tea, very strong, with milk and sugar in it, took her back to days she thought she had forgotten. She saw herself as a young, obscure, struggling actress. It was rather delicious. It needed a gesture, but she could only think of one: she took off her hat and gave her head a shake.

They talked. He seemed shy, much shyer than he had seemed over the telephone; well, that was not to be wondered at, now she was there he must be rather overcome, and she set herself to put him at his ease. He told her that his parents lived at Highgate, his father was a solicitor, and he had lived there too, but he wanted to be his own master and now in the last year of his articles he had broken away and taken this tiny flat. He was working for his final examination. They talked of the theatre. He had seen her in every play she had acted in since he was twelve years old. He told her that once when he was fourteen he had stood outside the stage door after a matinée and when she came out had asked her to sign her name in his autograph-book. He was sweet with his blue eyes and pale brown hair. It was a pity he plastered it down like that. He had a white skin and rather a high colour; she wondered if he was consumptive. Although his clothes were cheap he wore them well, she liked that, and he looked incredibly clean.

She asked him why he had chosen Tavistock Square. It was central, he explained, and he liked the trees. It was quite nice when you looked out of the window. She got up to look, that would be a good way to make a move, then she would put on her hat and say good-bye to him.

“Yes. it is rather charming, isn’t it. It’s so London: itgives one a sort of jolly feeling.”

She turned to him, standing by her side, as she said this. He put his arm round her waist and kissed her full on the lips. No woman was ever more surprised in her life. She was so taken aback that she never thought of doing anything. His lips were soft and there was a perfume of youth about him which was really rather delightful. But what he was doing was preposterous. He was forcing her lips apart with the tip of his tongue and now he had both arms round her. She did not feel angry, she did not feel inclined to laugh, she did not know what she felt. And now she had a notion that he was gently drawing her along, his lips still pressing hers, she felt quite distinctly the glow of his body, it was as though there was a furnace inside him, it was really remarkable; and then she found herself laid on the divan and he was beside her, kissing her mouth and her neck and her cheeks and her eyes. Julia felt a strange pang in her heart. She took his head in her hands and kissed his lips.

A few minutes later she was standing at the chimney-piece, in front of the looking-glass, making herself tidy.

“Look at my hair.”

He handed her a comb and she ran it through. Then she put on her hat. He was standing just behind her, and over her shoulder she saw his face with those eager blue eyes and a faint smile in them.

“And I thought you were such a shy young man,” she said to his reflection.

He chuckled.

“When am I going to see you again?”

“Do you want to see me again?”

“Rather.”

She thought rapidly. It was too absurd, of course she had no intention of seeing him again, it was stupid of her to have let him behave like that, but it was just as well to temporize. He might be tiresome if she told him that the incident would have no sequel.

“I’ll ring up one of these days.”

“Swear.”

“On my honour.”

“Don’t be too long.”

He insisted on coming down stairs with her and putting her into a cab. She had wanted to go down alone, so that she could have a look at the cards attached to the bells on the lintel.

“Damn it all, I ought at least to know his name.”

But he gave her no chance. When the taxi drove off she sank into one corner of it and gurgled with laughter.

“Raped, my dear. Practically raped. At my time of life. And without so much as by your leave. Treated me like a tart. Eighteenth-century comedy, that’s what it is. I might have been a waiting-maid. In a hoop, with those funny puffy things - what the devil are they called? – that they wore to emphasize their hips, an apron and a scarf round me neck.” Then with vague memories of Farquhar and Goldsmith she invented the dialogue. “La, sir, ‘tis shame to take advantage of a poor country girl. What would Mrs. Abigail, her ladyship’s woman, say an she knew her ladyship’s brother had ravished me of the most precious treasure a young woman in my station of life can possess, videlicet her innocence. Fie, o fie, sir.”

When Julia got home the masseuse was already waiting for her. Miss Phillips and Evie were having a chat.

“Wherever ’ave you been, Miss Lambert?” said Evie. “An’ what about your rest, I should like to know.”

“Damn my rest.”

Julia tore off her clothes, and flung them with ample gestures all over the room. Then, stark naked, she skipped on to the bed, stood up on it for a moment, like Venus rising from the waves, and then throwing herself down stretched herself out.

“What’s the idea?” said Evie.

“I feel good.”

“Well, if I behaved like that people’d say I’d been drinkin’.”

Miss Phillips began to massage her feet. She rubbed gently, to rest and not to tire her.

“When you came in just now, like a whirlwind,” she said, “I thought you looked twenty years younger. Your eyes were shining something wonderful.”

“Oh, keep that for Mr. Gosselyn, Miss Phillips.” And then as an afterthought, “I feel like a two-year-old.”

And it was the same at the theatre later on. Archie Dexter, who was her leading man, came into her dressing-room to speak about something. She had just finished making-up. He was startled.

“Hulloa, Julia, what’s the matter with you tonight? Gosh, you look swell. Why you don’t look a day more than twenty-five.”

“With a son of sixteen it’s no good pretending I’m so terribly young any more. I’m forty and I don’t care who knows it.”

“What have you done to your eyes? I’ve never seen them shine like that before.”

She felt in tremendous form. They had been playing the play, it was called The Powder Puff, for a good many weeks, but tonight Julia played it as though it were the first time. Her performance was brilliant. She got laughs that she had never got before. She always had magnetism, but on this occasion it seemed to flow over the house in a great radiance. Michael happened to be watching the last two acts from the corner of a box and at the end he came into her dressing-room.

“D’you know the prompter says we played nine minutes longer tonight, they laughed so much.”

“Seven curtain calls. I thought the public were going on all night.”

“Well, you’ve only got to blame yourself, darling. There’s no one in the world who could have given the performance you gave tonight.”

“To tell you the truth I was enjoying myself. Christ, I’m hungry. What have we got for supper?”

“Tripe and onions.”

“Oh, how divine!” She flung her arms round his neck and kissed him. “I adore tripe and onions. Oh, Michael, Michael, if you love me, if you’ve got any spark of tenderness in that hard heart of yours, let me have a bottle of beer.”

“Julia.”

“Just this once. It’s not often I ask you to do anything for me.”

“Oh well, after the performance you gave tonight I suppose I can’t say no, but by God, I’ll see that Miss Phillips pitches into you tomorrow.”

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