/*bootstrap*/ My Maugham Collection Concordance Library: Theatre – xxvii
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Theatre – xxvii

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They had been rehearsing for a fortnight when Roger arrived from Austria. He had been spending a few weeks on a Carinthian lake, and after a day or two in London was to go and stay with friends in Scotland. Since Michael had to dine early to go to the theatre Julia went to meet him by herself. When she was dressing, Evie, sniffing as usual, told her that she was taking as much pains to make herself look nice as if she were going to meet a young man. She wanted Roger to be proud of her, and certainly she looked very young and pretty in her summer frock as she strolled up and down the platform. You would have thought, but wrongly, that she was perfectly unconscious of the attention she attracted. Roger, after a month in the sun, was very brown, but he was still rather spotty and he seemed thinner than when he had left London at the New Year. She hugged him with exuberant affection. He smiled slightly.

They were to dine by themselves. Julia asked him if he would like to go to a play afterwards or to the pictures, but he said he preferred to stay at home.

“That’ll be much nicer,” she answered, “and we’ll just talk.”

There was indeed a subject that Michael had invited her to discuss with Roger when the opportunity arose. Now that he was going to Cambridge so soon he ought to make up his mind what he wanted to do. Michael was afraid that he would drift through his time there and then go into a broker’s office or even on the stage. Thinking that Julia had more tact than he, and more influence with the boy, he had urged her to put before him the advantages of the Foreign Office and the brilliant possibilities of the Bar. Julia thought it would be strange if in the course of two or three hours’ conversation she could not find a way to lead to this important topic. At dinner she tried to get him to talk about Vienna. But he was reticent.

“Oh, I just did the usual things, you know. I saw the sights and worked hard at my German. I knocked about in beer places. I went to the opera a good deal.”

She wondered if he had had any love affairs.

“Anyhow, you haven’t come back engaged to a Viennese maiden,” she said, thinking to draw him out.

He gave her a reflective, but faintly amused look. You might almost have thought that he had seen what she was driving at. It was strange; though he was her own son she did not feel quite at home with him.

“No,” he answered, “I was too busy to bother with that sort of thing.”

“I suppose you went to all the theatres.”

“I went two or three times.”

“Did you see anything that would be any use to me?”

“You know, I never thought about that.”

His answer might have seemed a little ungracious but that it was accompanied by a smile, and his smile was very sweet. Julia wondered again how it was that he had -inherited so little of Michael’s beauty and of her charm. His red hair was nice, but his pale lashes gave his face a sort of empty look. Heaven only knew where with such a father and such a mother he had got his rather lumpy figure. He was eighteen now; it was time he fined down. He seemed a trifle apathetic; he had none of her sparkling vitality; she could picture the vividness with which she would have narrated her experiences if she had just spent six months in Vienna. Why, already she had made a story about her stay at St. Malo with Aunt Carrie and her mother that made people roar with laughter. They all said it was as good as a play, and her own impression was that it was much better than most. She told it to Roger now. He listened with his slow, quiet smile; but she had an uneasy feeling that he did not think it quite so funny as she did. She sighed in her heart. Poor lamb, he could have no sense of humour. Then he made some remark that led her to speak of Nowadays. She told him its story, and explained what she was doing with her part; she talked to him of the cast and described the sets. At the end of dinner it suddenly struck her that she had been talking entirely of herself and her own interests. She did not know how she had been led to do this, and the suspicion flashed across her mind that Roger had guided the conversation in that direction so that it should be diverted from him and his affairs. But she put it aside. He really wasn’t intelligent enough for that. It was later when they sat in the drawing-room listening to the radio and smoking, that Julia found the chance to slip in, apparently in the most casual fashion, the question she had prepared.

“Have you made up your mind what you’re going to be yet?”

“No. Is there any hurry?”

“You know how ignorant I am about everything. Your father says that if you’re going to be a barrister you ought to work at law when you go to Cambridge. On the other hand, if you fancy the Foreign Office you should take up modern languages.”

He looked at her for so long, with that queer, reflective air of his, that Julia had some difficulty in holding her light, playful and yet affectionate expression.

“If I believed in God I’d be a priest,” he said at last.

“A priest?”

Julia could hardly believe her ears. She had a feeling of acute discomfort. But his answer sank into her mind and in a flash she saw him as a cardinal, inhabiting a beautiful palazzo in Rome, filled with wonderful pictures, and surrounded by obsequious prelates; and then again as a saint, in a mitre and vestments heavily embroidered with gold, with benevolent gestures distributing bread to the poor. She saw herself in a brocaded dress and string of pearls. The mother of the Borgias.

“That was all right in the sixteenth century,” she said. “It’s too late in the day for that.”

“Much.”

“I can’t think what put such an idea in your head.” He did not answer, so that she had to speak again. “Aren’t you happy?”

“Quite, ”he smiled.

“What is it you want?”

Once again he gave her his disconcerting stare. It was hard to know if he was serious, for his eyes faintly shimmered with amusement.

“Reality.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see, I’ve lived all my life in an atmosphere of make-believe. I want to get down to brass tacks. You and father are all right breathing this air, it’s the only air you know and you think it’s the air of heaven. It stifles me.

Julia listened to him attentively, trying to understand what he meant.

“We’re actors, and successful ones. That’s why we’ve been able to surround you with every luxury since you were born. You could count on the fingers of one hand the actors who’ve sent their son to Eton.”

“I’m very grateful for all you’ve done for me.”

“Then what are you reproaching us for?”

“I’m not reproaching you. You’ve done everything you could for me. Unfortunately for me you’ve taken away my belief in everything.”

“We’ve never interfered with your beliefs. I know we’re not religious people, we’re actors, and after eight performances a week one wants one’s Sundays to oneself. I naturally expected they’d see to all that at school.”

He hesitated a little before he spoke again. One might have thought that he had to make a slight effort over himself to continue.

“When I was just a kid, I was fourteen, I was standing one night in the wings watching you act. It must have been a pretty good scene, you said the things you had to say so sincerely, and what you were saying was so moving, I couldn’t help crying. I was all worked up. I don’t know how to say it quite, I was uplifted; I felt terribly sorry for you, I felt a bloody little hero; I felt I’d never do anything again that was beastly or underhand. And then you had to come to the back of the stage, near where I was standing, the tears were streaming down your face; you stood with your back to the audience and in your ordinary voice you said to the stage manager: what the bloody hell is that electrician doing with the lights? I told him to leave out the blue. And then in the same breath you turned round and faced the audience with a great cry of anguish and went on with the scene.”

“But, darling, that was acting. If an actress felt the emotions she represented she’d tear herself to pieces. I remember the scene well. It used to bring down the house. I’ve never heard such applause in my life.”

“I suppose I was a fool to be taken in by it. I believed you meant what you said. When I saw that it was all pretence it smashed something. I’ve never believed in you since. I’d been made a fool of once; I made up my mind that I wouldn’t ever be made a fool of again.”

She gave him her delightful and disarming smile.

“Darling, I think you’re talking nonsense.”

“Of course you do. You don’t know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting. It’s second nature to you. You act when there’s a party here. You act to the servants, you act to father, you act to me. To me you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother. You don’t exist, you’re only the innumerable parts you’ve played. I’ve often wondered if there was ever a you or if you were never anything more than a vehicle for all these other people that you’ve pretended to be. When I’ve seen you go into an empty room I’ve sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I’ve been afraid to in case I found nobody there.”

She looked up at him quickly. She shivered, for what he said gave her an eerie sensation. She listened to him attentively, with a certain anxiety, for he was so serious that she felt he was expressing something that had burdened him for years. She had never in his whole life heard him talk so much.

“D’you think I’m only sham?”

“Not quite. Because sham is all you are. Sham is your truth. Just as margarine is butter to people who don’t know what butter is.”

She had a vague feeling of guilt. The Queen in Hamlet: “And let me wring your heart; for so I shall, if be made of penetrable stuff.” Her thoughts wandered.

(“I wonder if I’m too old to play Hamlet. Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt played him. I’ve got better legs than any of the men I’ve seen in the part. I’ll ask Charles what he thinks. Of course there’s that bloody blank verse. Stupid of him not to write it in prose. Of course I might do it in French at the Française. God, what a stunt that would be.”)

She saw herself in a black doublet, with long silk hose. “Alas, poor Yorick.” But she bethought herself.

“You can hardly say that your father doesn’t exist. Why, he’s been playing himself for the last twenty years.” (“Michael could play the King, not in French, of course,” but if we decided to have a shot at it in London.”)

“Poor father, I suppose he’s good at his job, but he’s not very intelligent, is he? He’s so busy being the handsomest man in England.”

“I don’t think it’s very nice of you to speak of your father like that.”

“Have I told you anything you don’t know?” he asked coolly.

Julia wanted to smile, but would not allow the look of somewhat pained dignity to leave her face.

“It’s our weakness, not our strength, that endears us to those who love us,” she replied.

“In what play did you say that?”

She repressed a gesture of annoyance. The words had come naturally to her lips, but as she said them she remembered that they were out of a play. Little brute! But they came in very appositely.

“You’re hard,” she said plaintively. She was beginning to feel more and more like Hamlet’s mother. “Don’t you love me?”

“I might if I could find you. But where are you? If one stripped you of your exhibitionism, if one took your technique away from you, if one peeled you as one peels an onion of skin after skin of pretence and insincerity, of tags of old parts and shreds of faked emotions, would one come upon a soul at last?” He looked at her with his grave sad eyes and then he smiled a little. “I like you all right.”

“Do you believe I love you?”

“In your way.”

Julia’s face was suddenly discomposed.

“If you only knew the agony I suffered when you were ill! I don’t know what I should have done if you’d died!”

“You would have given a beautiful performance of a bereaved mother at the bier of her only child.”

“Not nearly such a good performance as if I’d had the opportunity of rehearsing it a few times,” Julia answered tartly. “You see, what you don’t understand is that acting isn’t nature; it’s art, and art is something you create. Real grief is ugly; the business of the actor is to represent it not only with truth but with beauty. If I were really dying as I’ve died in half a dozen plays, d’you think I’d care whether my gestures were graceful and my faltering words distinct enough to carry to the last row of the gallery? If it’s a sham it’s no more a sham than a sonata of Beethoven’s, and I’m no more of a sham than the pianist who plays it. It’s cruel to say that I’m not fond of you. I’m devoted to you. You’ve been the only thing in my life.”

“No. You were fond of me when I was a kid and you could have me photographed with you. It made a lovely picture and it was fine publicity. But since then you haven’t bothered much about me. I’ve bored you rather than otherwise. You were always glad to see me, but you were thankful that I went my own way and didn’t want to take up your time. I don’t blame you; you hadn’t got time in your life for anyone but yourself.”

Julia was beginning to grow a trifle impatient. He was getting too near the truth for her comfort.

“You forget that young things are rather boring.”

“Crashing, I should think,” he smiled. “But then why do you pretend that you can’t bear to let me out of your sight? That’s just acting too.”

“You make me very unhappy. You make me feel as if I hadn’t done my duty to you.”

“But you have. You’ve been a very good mother. You’ve done something for which I shall always be grateful to you, you’ve left me alone.”

“I don’t understand what you want.”

“I told you. Reality.”

“But where are you going to find it?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps it doesn’t exist. I’m young still; I’m ignorant. I thought perhaps that at Cambridge, meeting people and reading books, I might discover where to look for it. If they say it only exists in God, I’m done.”

Julia was disturbed. What he said had not really penetrated to her understanding, his words were lines and the important thing was not what they meant, but whether they “got over”, but she was sensitive to the emotion she felt in him. Of course he was only eighteen, and it would be silly to take him too seriously, she couldn’t help thinking he’d got all that from somebody else, and that there was a good deal of pose in it. Did anyone have ideas of his own and did anyone not pose just a wee, wee bit? But of course it might be that at the moment he felt everything he said, and it wouldn’t be very nice of her to make light of it.

“Of course I see what you mean,” she said. “My greatest wish in the world is that you should be happy. I’ll manage your father, and you can do as you like. You must seek your own salvation, I see that. But I think you ought to make sure that all these ideas of yours aren’t just morbid. Perhaps you were too much alone in Vienna and I dare say you read too much. Of course your father and I belong to a different generation and I don’t suppose we can help you. Why don’t you talk it over with someone more of your own age? Tom, for instance.”

“Tom? A poor little snob. His only ambition in life is to be a gentleman, and he hasn’t the sense to see that the more he tries the more hopeless it is.”

“I thought you liked him so much. Why, at Taplow last summer you just lived in his pocket.”

“I didn’t dislike him. I made use of him. He could tell me a lot of things that I wanted to know. But I thought him an insignificant, silly little thing.”

Julia remembered how insanely jealous she had been of their friendship. It made her angry to think of all the agony she had wasted.

“You’ve dropped him, haven’t you?” he asked suddenly.

She was startled.

“I suppose I have more or less.”

“I think it’s very wise of you. He wasn’t up to your mark.”

He looked at her with his calm, reflective eyes, and on a sudden Julia had a sickening fear that he knew that Tom had been her lover. It was impossible, she told herself, it was only her guilty conscience that made her think so; at Taplow there had been nothing; it was incredible that any of the horrid gossip had reached his ears; and yet there was something in his expression that made her certain that he knew. She was ashamed.

“I only asked him to come down to Taplow because I thought it would be nice for you to have a boy of that age to play around with.”

“It was.”

There was in his eyes a faint twinkle of amusement. She felt desperate. She would have liked to ask him what he was grinning at, but dared not; for she knew; he was not angry with her, she could have borne that, he was merely diverted. She was bitterly hurt. She would have cried, but that he would only laugh. And what could she say to him? He believed nothing she said. Acting! For once she was at a loss how to cope with a situation. She was up against something that she did not know, something mysterious and rather frightening. Could that be reality? At that moment they heard a car drive up.

“There’s your father,” she exclaimed.

What a relief! The scene was intolerable, and she was thankful that his arrival must end it. In a moment Michael, very hearty, with his chin thrust out and his belly pulled in, looking for all his fifty odd years incredibly handsome, burst into the room and, in his manly way, thrust out his hand to greet, after a six months’ absence, his only begotten son.

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