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Theatre – xxix

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Four hours later it was all over. The play went well from the beginning; the audience, notwithstanding the season, a fashionable one, were pleased after the holidays to find themselves once more in a playhouse, and were ready to be amused. It was an auspicious beginning for the theatrical season. There had been great applause after each act and at the end a dozen curtain calls; Julia took two by herself, and even she was startled by the warmth of her reception. She had made the little halting speech, prepared beforehand, which the occasion demanded. There had been a final call of the entire company and then the orchestra had struck up the National Anthem. Julia, pleased, excited and happy, went to her dressing-room. She had never felt more sure of herself. She had never acted with greater brilliance, variety and resource. The play ended with a long tirade in which Julia, as the retired harlot, castigated the flippancy, the uselessness, the immorality of the idle set into which her marriage had brought her. It was two pages long, and there was not another actress in England who could have held the attention of the audience while she delivered it. With her exquisite timing, with the modulation of her beautiful voice, with her command of the gamut of emotions, she had succeeded by a miracle of technique in making it a thrilling, almost spectacular climax to the play. A violent action could not have been more exciting nor an unexpected denouement more surprising. The whole cast had been excellent with the exception of Avice Crichton. Julia hummed in an undertone as she went into her dressing-room.

Michael followed her in almost at once.

“It looks like a winner all right.” He threw his arms round her and kissed her. “By God, what a performance you gave.”

“You weren’t so bad yourself, dear.”

“That’s the sort of part I can play on my head,” he answered carelessly, modest as usual about his own acting. “Did you hear them during your long speech? That ought to knock the critics.”

“Oh, you know what they are. They’ll give all their attention to the blasted play and then three lines at the end to me.”

“You’re the greatest actress in the world, darling, but by God, you’re a bitch.”

Julia opened her eyes very wide in an expression of the most naive surprise.

“Michael, what do you mean?”

“Don’t look so innocent. You know perfectly well. Do you think you can cod an old trooper like me?”

He was looking at her with twinkling eyes, and it was very difficult for her not to burst out laughing.

“I am as innocent as a babe unborn.”

“Come off it. If anyone ever deliberately killed a performance you killed Avice’s. I couldn’t be angry with you, it was so beautifully done.”

Now Julia simply could not conceal the little smile that curled her lips. Praise is always grateful to the artist. Avice’s one big scene was in the second act. It was with Julia, and Michael had rehearsed it so as to give it all to the girl. This was indeed what the play demanded and Julia, as always, had in rehearsals accepted his direction. To bring out the colour of her blue eyes and to emphasize her fair hair they had dressed Avice in pale blue. To contrast with this Julia had chosen a dress of an agreeable yellow. This she had worn at the dress rehearsal. But she had ordered another dress at the same time, of sparkling silver, and to the surprise of Michael and the consternation of Avice it was in this that she made her entrance in the second act. Its brilliance, the way it took the light, attracted the attention of the audience. Avice’s blue looked drab by comparison. When they reached the important scene they were to have together Julia produced, as a conjurer produces a rabbit from his hat, a large handkerchief of scarlet chiffon and with this she played. She waved it, she spread it out as though to look at it, she screwed it up, she wiped her brow with it, she delicately blew her nose. The audience fascinated could not take their eyes away from the red rag. And she moved up stage so that Avice to speak to her had to turn her back on the audience, and when they were sitting on a sofa together she took her hand, in an impulsive way that seemed to the public exquisitely natural, and sitting well back herself forced Avice to turn her profile to the house. Julia had noticed early in rehearsals that in profile Avice had a sheep-like look. The author had given Avice lines to say that had so much amused the cast at the first rehearsal that they had all burst out laughing. Before the audience had quite realized how funny they were Julia had cut in with her reply, and the audience anxious to hear it suppressed their laughter. The scene which was devised to be extremely amusing took on a sardonic colour, and the character Avice played acquired a certain odiousness. Avice in her inexperience, not getting the laughs she had expected, was rattled; her voice grew hard and her gestures awkward. Julia took the scene away from her and played it with miraculous virtuosity. But her final stroke was accidental. Avice had a long speech to deliver, and Julia nervously screwed her red handkerchief into a ball; the action almost automatically suggested an expression; she looked at Avice with troubled eyes and two heavy tears rolled down her cheeks. You felt the shame with which the girl’s flippancy affected her, and you saw her pain because her poor little ideals of uprightness, her hankering for goodness, were so brutally mocked. The episode lasted no more than a minute, but in that minute, by those tears and by the anguish of her look, Julia laid bare the sordid misery of the woman’s life. That was the end of Avice.

“And I was such a damned fool, I thought of giving her a contract,” said Michael.

“Why don’t you?”

“When you’ve got your knife into her? Not on your life. You’re a naughty little thing to be so jealous. You don’t really think she means anything to me, do you? You ought to know by now that you’re the only woman in the world for me.”

Michael thought that Julia had played this trick on account of the rather violent flirtation he had been having with Avice, and though, of course, it was hard luck on Avice he could not help being a trifle flattered.

“You old donkey,” smiled Julia, knowing exactly what he was thinking and tickled to death at his mistake. “After all, you are the handsomest man in London.”

“All that’s as it may be. But I don’t know what the author’ll say. He’s a conceited little ape and it’s not a bit the scene he wrote.”

“Oh, leave him to me. I’ll fix him.”

There was a knock at the door and it was the author himself who came in. With a cry of delight, Julia went up to him, threw her arms round his neck and kissed him on both cheeks.

“Are you pleased?”

“It looks like a success,” he answered, but a trifle coldly.

“My dear, it’ll run for a year.” She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked him full in the face. “But you’re a wicked, wicked man.”

“You almost ruined my performance. When I came to that bit in the second act and suddenly saw what it meant I nearly broke down. You knew what was in that scene, you’re the author; why did you let us rehearse it all the time as if there was no more in it than appeared on the surface? We’re only actors, how can you expect us to — to fathom your subtlety? It’s the best scene in your play and I almost bungled it. No one in the world could have written it but you. Your play’s brilliant, but in that scene there’s more than brilliance, there’s genius.”

The author flushed. Julia looked at him with veneration. He felt shy and happy and proud.

(“In twenty-four hours the mug’ll think he really meant the scene to go like that.”)

Michael beamed.

“Come along to my dressing-room and have a whisky and soda. I’m sure you need a drink after all that emotion.”

They went out as Tom came in. Tom’s face was red with excitement.

“My dear, it was grand. You were simply wonderful. Gosh, what a performance.”

“Did you like it? Avice was good, wasn’t she?”

“No, rotten.”

“My dear, what do you mean? I thought she was charming.”

“You simply wiped the floor with her. She didn’t even look pretty in the second act.”

Avice’s career!

“I say, what are you doing afterwards?”

“Dolly’s giving a party for us.”

“Can’t you cut it and come along to supper with me? I’m madly in love with you.”

“Oh, what nonsense. How can I let Dolly down?”

“Oh, do.”

His eyes were eager. She could see that he desired her as he had never done before, and she rejoiced in her triumph. But she shook her head firmly. There was a sound in the corridor of a crowd of people talking, and they both knew that a troop of friends were forcing their way down the narrow passage to congratulate her.

“Damn all these people. God, how I want to kiss you. I’ll ring you up in the morning.”

The door burst open and Dolly, fat, perspiring and bubbling over with enthusiasm, swept in at the head of a throng that packed the dressing-room to suffocation. Julia submitted to being kissed by all and sundry. Among others were three or four well-known actresses, and they were prodigal of their praise. Julia gave a beautiful performance of unaffected modesty. The corridor was packed now with people who wanted to get at least a glimpse of her. Dolly had to fight her way out.

“Try not to be too late,” she said to Julia. “It’s going to be a heavenly party.”

“I’ll come as soon as ever I can.”

At last the crowd was got rid of and Julia, having undressed, began to take off her make-up. Michael came in, wearing a dressing-gown.

“I say, Julia, you’ll have to go to Dolly’s party by yourself. I’ve got to see the libraries and I can’t manage it. I’m going to sting them.”

“Oh, all right.”

“They’re waiting for me now. See you in the morning.”

He went out and she was left alone with Evie. The dress she had arranged to wear for Dolly’s party was placed over a chair. Julia smeared her face with cleansing cream.

“Evie, Mr. Fennel will be ringing up tomorrow. Will you say I’m out?”

Evie looked in the mirror and caught Julia’s eyes.

“And if he rings up again?”

“I don’t want to hurt his feelings, poor lamb, but I have a notion I shall be very much engaged for some time now.”

Evie sniffed loudly, and with that rather disgusting habit of hers drew her forefinger across the bottom of her nose.

“I understand,” she said dryly.

“I always said you weren’t such a fool as you looked.” Julia went on with her face. “What’s that dress doing on that chair?”

“That? That’s the dress you said you’d wear for the party.”

“Put it away. I can’t go to the party without Mr. Gosselyn.”

“Since when?”

“Shut up, you old hag. Phone through and say that I’ve got a bad headache and had to go home to bed, but Mr. Gosselyn will come if he possibly can.”

“The party’s being given special for you. You can’t let the poor old gal down like that?”

Julia stamped her feet.

“I don’t want to go to a party. I won’t go to a party.”

“There’s nothing for you to eat at home.”

“I don’t want to go home. I’ll go and have supper at a restaurant.”

“Who with?”

“By myself.”

Evie gave her a puzzled glance.

“The play’s a success, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Everything’s a success. I feel on the top of the world. I feel like a million dollars. I want to be alone and enjoy myself. Ring up the Berkeley and tell them to keep a table for one in the little room. They’ll know what I mean.”

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I shall never in all my life have another moment like this. I’m not going to share it with anyone.”

When Julia had got her face clean she left it. She neither painted her lips nor rouged her cheeks. She put on again the brown coat and skirt in which she had come to the theatre and the same hat. It was a felt hat with a brim, and this she pulled down over one eye so that it should hide as much of her face as possible. When she was ready she looked at herself in the glass.

“I look like a working dressmaker whose husband’s left her, and who can blame him? I don’t believe a soul would recognize me.”

Evie had had the telephoning done from the stage-door, and when she came back Julia asked her if there were many people waiting for her there.

“About three ’undred I should say.”

“Damn.” She had a sudden desire to see nobody and be seen by nobody. She wanted just for one hour to be obscure. “Tell the fireman to let me out at the front and I’ll take a taxi, and then as soon as I’ve got out let the crowd know there’s no use in their waiting.”

“God only knows what I ’ave to put up with,” said Evie darkly.

“You old cow.”

Julia took Evie’s face in her hands and kissed her raddled cheeks; then slipped out of her dressing-room, on to the stage and through the iron door into the darkened auditorium.

Julia’s simple disguise was evidently adequate, for when she came into the little room at the Berkeley of which she was peculiarly fond, the head waiter did not immediately know her.

“Have you got a corner that you can squeeze me into?” she asked diffidently.

Her voice and a second glance told him who she was.

“Your favourite table is waiting for you, Miss Lambert. The message said you would be alone?” Julia nodded and he led her to a table in the corner of the room. “I hear you’ve had a big success tonight, Miss Lambert.” How quickly good news travelled. “What can I order?”

The head-waiter was surprised that Julia should be having supper by herself, but the only emotion that it was his business to show clients was gratification at seeing them.

“I’m very tired, Angelo.”

“A little caviare to begin with, madame, or some oysters?”

“Oysters, Angelo, but fat ones.”

“I will choose them myself, Miss Lambert, and to follow?”

Julia gave a long sigh, for now she could, with a free conscience, order what she had had in mind ever since the end of the second act. She felt she deserved a treat to celebrate her triumph, and for once she meant to throw prudence to the winds.

“Grilled steak and onions, Angelo, fried potatoes, and a bottle of Bass. Give it me in a silver tankard.”

She probably hadn’t eaten fried potatoes for ten years. But what an occasion it was! By a happy chance on this day she had confirmed her hold on the public by a performance that she could only describe as scintillating, she had settled an old score, by one ingenious device disposing of Avice and making Tom see what a fool he had been, and best of all had proved to herself beyond all question that she was free from the irksome bonds that had oppressed her. Her thought flickered for an instant round Avice.

“Silly little thing to try to put a spoke in my wheel. I’ll let her have her laughs tomorrow.”

The oysters came and she ate them with enjoyment. She ate two pieces of brown bread and butter with the delicious sense of imperilling her immortal soul, and she took a long drink from the silver tankard.

“Beer, glorious beer,” she murmured.

She could see Michael’s long face if he knew what she was doing. Poor Michael who imagined she had killed Avice’s scene because she thought he was too attentive to that foolish little blonde. Really, it was pitiful how stupid men were. They said women were vain, they were modest violets in comparison with men. She could not but laugh when she thought of Tom. He had wanted her that afternoon, he had wanted her still more that night. It was wonderful to think that he meant no more to her than a stage-hand. It gave one a grand feeling of confidence to be heart-whole.

The room in which she sat was connected by three archways with the big dining-room where they supped and danced; amid the crowd doubtless were a certain number who had been to the play. How surprised they would be if they knew that the quiet little woman in the corner of the adjoining room, her face half hidden by a felt hat, was Julia Lambert. It gave her a pleasant sense of independence to sit there unknown and unnoticed. They were acting a play for her and she was the audience. She caught brief glimpses of them as they passed the archway, young men and young women, young men and women not so young, men with bald heads and men with fat bellies, old harridans clinging desperately to their painted semblance of youth. Some were in love, and some were jealous, and some were indifferent.

Her steak arrived. It was cooked exactly as she liked it, and the onions were crisp and brown. She ate the fried potatoes delicately, with her fingers, savouring each one as though it were the passing moment that she would bid delay.

“What is love beside steak and onions?” she asked. It was enchanting to be alone and allow her mind to wander. She thought once more of Tom and spiritually shrugged a humorous shoulder. “It was an amusing experience.”

It would certainly be useful to her one of these days. The sight of the dancers seen through the archway was so much like a scene in a play that she was reminded of a notion that she had first had in St. Malo. The agony that she had suffered when Tom deserted her recalled to her memory Racine’s Phèdre which she had studied as a girl with old Jane Taitbout. She read the play again. The torments that afflicted Theseus’ queen were the torments that afflicted her, and she could not but think that there was a striking similarity in their situations. That was a part she could act; she knew what it felt like to be turned down by a young man one had a fancy for. Gosh, what a performance she could give! She knew why in the spring she had acted so badly that Michael had preferred to close down; it was because she was feeling the emotions she portrayed. That was no good. You had to have had the emotions, but you could only play them when you had got over them. She remembered that Charles had once said to her that the origin of poetry was emotion recollected in tranquillity. She didn’t know anything about poetry, but it was certainly true about acting.

“Clever of poor old Charles to get hold of an original idea like that. It shows how wrong it is to judge people hastily. One thinks the aristocracy are a bunch of nitwits, and then one of them suddenly comes out with something like that that’s so damned good it takes your breath away.”

But Julia had always felt that Racine had made a great mistake in not bringing on his heroine till the third act.

“Of course I wouldn’t have any nonsense like that if I played it. Half an act to prepare my entrance if you like, but that’s ample.”

There was no reason why she should not get some dramatist to write her a play on the subject, either in prose or in short lines of verse with rhymes at not too frequent intervals. She could manage that, and effectively. It was a good idea, there was no doubt about it, and she knew the clothes she would wear, not those flowing draperies in which Sarah swathed herself, but the short Greek tunic that she had seen on a bas-relief when she went to the British Museum with Charles.

“How funny things are! You go to those museums and galleries and think what a damned bore they are and then, when you least expect it, you find that something you’ve seen comes in useful. It shows art and all that isn’t really waste of time.”

Of course she had the legs for a tunic, but could one be tragic in one? This she thought about seriously for two or three minutes. When she was eating out her heart for the indifferent Hippolytus (and she giggled when she thought of Tom, in his Savile Row clothes, masquerading as a young Greek hunter) could she really get her effects without abundant draperies? The difficulty excited her. But then a thought crossed her mind that for a moment dashed her spirits.

“It’s all very well, but where are the dramatists? Sarah had her Sardou, Duse her D’Annunzio. But who have I got? ‘The Queen of Scots hath a bonnie bairn and I am but a barren stock.’”

She did not, however, let this melancholy reflection disturb her serenity for long. Her elation was indeed such that she felt capable of creating dramatists from the vast inane as Deucalion created men from the stones of the field.

“What nonsense that was that Roger talked the other day, and poor Charles, who seemed to take it seriously. He’s a silly little prig, that’s all.” She indicated a gesture towards the dance room. The lights had been lowered, and from where she sat it looked more than ever like a scene in a play.” ’All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ But there’s the illusion, through that archway; it’s we, the actors, who are the reality. That’s the answer to Roger. They are our raw material. We are the meaning of their lives. We take their silly little emotions and turn them into art, out of them we create beauty, and their significance is that they form the audience we must have to fulfil ourselves. They are the instruments on which we play, and what is an instrument without somebody to play on it?”

The notion exhilarated her, and for a moment or two she savoured it with satisfaction. Her brain seemed miraculously lucid.

“Roger says we don’t exist. Why, it’s only we who do exist. They are the shadows and we give them substance. We are the symbols of all this confused, aimless struggling that they call life, and it’s only the symbol which is real. They say acting is only make-believe. That make-believe is the only reality.”

Thus Julia out of her own head framed anew the platonic theory of ideas. It filled her with exultation. She felt a sudden wave of friendliness for that immense anonymous public, who had being only to give her opportunity to express herself. Aloof on her mountain top she considered the innumerable activities of men. She had a wonderful sense of freedom from all earthly ties, and it was such an ecstasy that nothing in comparison with it had any value. She felt like a spirit in heaven.

The head-waiter came up to her with an ingratiating smile.

“Everything all right, Miss Lambert?”

“Lovely. You know, it’s strange how people differ. Mrs. Siddons was a rare one for chops; I’m not a bit like her in that; I’m a rare one for steaks.”

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