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Theatre – xxvi

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Rehearsals began and distracted Julia’s troubled mind. The revival that Michael put on when she went abroad had done neither very well nor very badly, but rather than close the theatre he was keeping it in the bill till Nowadays was ready. Because he was acting two matinées a week, and the weather was hot, he determined that they should take rehearsals easy. They had a month before them.

Though Julia had been on the stage so long she had never lost the thrill she got out of rehearsing, and the first rehearsal still made her almost sick with excitement. It was the beginning of a new adventure. She did not feel like a leading lady then, she felt as gay and eager as if she were a girl playing her first small part. But at the same time she had a delicious sense of her own powers. Once more she had the chance to exercise them.

At eleven o’clock she stepped on to the stage. The cast stood about idly. She kissed and shook hands with the artists she knew and Michael with urbanity introduced to her those she did not. She greeted Avice Crichton with cordiality. She told her how pretty she was and how much she liked her hat; she told her about the lovely frocks she had chosen for her in Paris.

“Have you seen Tom lately?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t. He’s away on his holiday.”

“Oh, yes. He’s a nice little thing, isn’t he?”

“Sweet.”

The two women smiled into one another’s eyes. Julia watched her when she read her part and listened to her intonations. She smiled grimly. It was exactly what she had expected. Avice was one of those actresses who were quite sure of themselves from the first rehearsal. She didn’t know what was coming to her. Tom meant nothing to Julia any more, but she had a score to settle with Avice and she wasn’t going to forget it. The slut!

The play was a modern version of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, but with the change of manners of this generation it had been treated from the standpoint of comedy. Some of the old characters were introduced, and Aubrey Tanqueray, now a very old man, appeared in the second act. After Paula’s death he had married for the third time. Mrs. Cortelyon had undertaken to compensate him for his unfortunate experience with his second wife, and she was now a cantankerous and insolent old lady. Ellean, his daughter, and Hugh Ardale had agreed to let bygones be bygones, for Paula’s tragic death had seemed to wipe out the recollection of his lapse into extra-conjugal relations; and they had married. He was now a retired brigadier-general who played golf and deplored the decline of the British Empire — “Gad, sir, I’d stand those damned socialists against a wall and shoot ’em if I had my way”, whereas Ellean, by this time an elderly woman, after a prudish youth had become gay, modern and plain-spoken. The character that Michael played was called Robert Humphreys, and like the Aubrey of Pinero’s play he was a widower with an only daughter; he had been a consul in China for many years, and having come into money had retired and was settling on the estate, near where the Tanquerays still lived, which a cousin had left him. His daughter, Honor (this was the part for which Avice Crichton had been engaged), was studying medicine with the intention of practising in India. Alone in London, and friendless after so many years abroad, he had picked up a well-known woman of the town called Mrs. Marten. Mrs. Marten belonged to the same class as Paula, but she was less exclusive; she “did” the summer and the winter season at Cannes and in the intervals lived in a flat in Albemarle Street where she entertained the officers of His Majesty’s brigade. She played a good game of bridge and an even better game of golf. The part well suited Julia.

The author followed the lines of the old play closely. Honor announced to her father that she was abandoning her medical studies and until her marriage wished to live with him, for she had just become engaged to Ellean’s son, a young guardsman. Somewhat disconcerted, Robert Humphreys broke to her his intention of marrying Mrs. Marten. Honor took the information with composure.

“Of course you know she’s a tart, don’t you?” she said coolly.

He, much embarrassed, spoke of the unhappy life she had led and how he wanted to make up to her for all she had suffered.

“Oh, don’t talk such rot,” she answered. “It’s grand work if you can get it.”

Ellean’s son had been one of Mrs. Marten’s numerous lovers just as Ellean’s husband had been one of Paula Tanqueray’s. When Robert Humphreys brought his wife down to his home in the country and this fact was discovered, they decided that Honor must be informed. To their consternation Honor did not turn a hair. She knew already.

“I was as pleased as Punch when I found out,” she told her stepmother.

“You see, darling, you can tell me if he’s all right in bed.”

This was Avice Crichton’s best scene, it lasted a full ten minutes, and Michael had realized from the beginning that it was effective and important. Avice’s cold, matter-of-fact prettiness had been exactly what he had thought would be so telling in the circumstances. But after half a dozen rehearsals he began to think that that was all she had to give. He talked it over with Julia.

“How d’you think Avice is shaping?”

“It’s early days to tell yet.”

“I’m not happy about her. You said she could act. I’ve seen no sign of it yet.”

“It’s a cast-iron part. She can’t really go wrong in it.”

“You know just as well as I do that there’s no such thing as a cast-iron part. However good a part is, it has to be acted for all it’s worth. I’m not sure if it wouldn’t be better to kick her out and get somebody else.”

“That wouldn’t be so easy. I think you ought to give her a chance.”

“She’s so awkward, her gestures are so meaningless.”

Julia reflected. She had her reasons for wishing to keep Avice in the cast. She knew her well enough to be sure that if she were dismissed she would tell Tom that it was because Julia was jealous of her. He loved her and would believe anything she said. He might even think that Julia had put this affront on her in revenge for his desertion. No, no, she must stay. She must play the part, and fail; and Tom must see with his own eyes what a bad actress she was. They both of them thought the play would make her. Fools. It would kill her.

“You know how clever you are, Michael, I’m sure you can train her if you’re willing to take a little trouble.”

“But that’s just it, she doesn’t seem able to take direction. I show her exactly how to say a line and then she goes and says it in her own way. You wouldn’t believe it, but sometimes I can hardly help thinking she’s under the delusion that she knows better than I do.”

“You make her nervous. When you tell her to do something she’s in such a dither she doesn’t know what she’s up to.”

“Good lord, no one could be more easy than I am. I’ve never even been sharp with her.”

Julia gave him an affectionate smile.

“Are you going to pretend that you really don’t know what’s the matter with her?”

“No, what?”

He looked at her with a blank face.

“Come off it, darling. Haven’t you noticed that she’s madly in love with you?”

“With me? But I thought she was practically engaged to Tom. Nonsense. You’re always fancying things like that.”

“But it’s quite obvious. After all she isn’t the first who’s fallen for your fatal beauty, and I don’t suppose she’ll be the last.”

“Heaven knows, I don’t want to queer poor Tom’s pitch.”

“It’s not your fault, is it?”

“What d’you want me to do about it then?”

“Well, I think you ought to be nice to her. She’s very young, you know, poor thing. What she wants is a helping hand. If you took her alone a few times and went through the part with her I believe you could do wonders. Why don’t you take her out to lunch one day and have a talk to her?”

She saw the gleam in Michael’s eyes as he considered the proposition and the shadow of a smile that was outlined on his lips.

“Of course the great thing is to get the play as well acted as we can.”

“I know it’ll be a bore for you, but honestly, for the sake of the play I think it’ll be worth while.”

“You know that I would never do anything to upset you, Julia. I mean, I’d much sooner fire the girl and get someone else in her place.”

“I think that would be such a mistake. I’m convinced that if you’ll only take enough trouble with her she’ll give a very good performance.”

He walked up and down the room once or twice. He seemed to be considering the matter from every side.

“Well, I suppose it’s my job to get the best performance I can out of every member of my cast. In every case you have to find out which is the best method of approach.”

He threw out his chin and drew in his belly. He straightened his back. Julia knew that Avice Crichton would hold the part, and next day at rehearsal he took her aside and had a long talk with her. She knew by his manner exactly what he was saying and, watching them out of the corner of her eye, presently she saw Avice nod and smile. He had asked her to lunch with him. With a contented mind Julia went on studying her part.

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