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Theatre – iv

Novels > Theatre >


It was getting on for Easter, and Jimmie Langton always closed his theatre for Holy Week. Julia did not quite know what to do with herself; it seemed hardly worth while to go to Jersey. She was surprised to receive a letter one morning from Mrs. Gosselyn, Michael’s mother, saying that it would give the Colonel and herself so much pleasure if she would come with Michael to spend the week at Cheltenham. When she showed the letter to Michael he beamed.

“I asked her to invite you. I thought it would be more polite than if I just took you along.”

“You. are sweet. Of course I shall love to come.”

Her heart beat with delight. The prospect of spending a whole week with Michael was enchanting. It was just like his good nature to come to the rescue when he knew she was at a loose end. But she saw there was something he wanted to say, yet did not quite like to.

“What is it?”

He gave a little laugh of embarrassment.

“Well, dear, you know, my father’s rather old-fashioned, and there are some things he can’t be expected to understand. Of course I don’t want you to tell a lie or anything like that, but I think it would seem rather funny to him if he knew your father was a vet. When I wrote and asked if I could bring you down I said he was a doctor.”

“Oh, that’s all right.”

Julia found the Colonel a much less alarming person than she had expected. He was thin and rather small, with a lined face and close-cropped white hair. His features had a worn distinction. He reminded you of a head on an old coin that had been in circulation too long. He was civil, but reserved. He was neither peppery nor tyrannical as Julia, from her knowledge of the stage, expected a colonel to be. She could not imagine him shouting out words of command in that courteous, rather cold voice. He had in point of fact retired with honorary rank after an entirely undistinguished career, and for many years had been content to work in his garden and play bridge at his club. He read The Times, went to church on Sunday and accompanied his wife to tea-parties. Mrs. Gosselyn was a tall, stoutish, elderly woman, much taller than her husband, who gave you the impression that she was always trying to diminish her height. She had the remains of good looks, so that you said to yourself that when young she must have been beautiful. She wore her hair parted in the middle with a bun on the nape of her neck. Her classic features and her size made her at first meeting somewhat imposing, but Julia quickly discovered that she was very shy. Her movements were stiff and awkward. She was dressed fussily, with a sort of old-fashioned richness which did not suit her. Julia, who was entirely without self-consciousness, found the elder woman’s deprecating attitude rather touching. She had never known an actress to speak to and did not quite know how to deal with the predicament in which she now found herself. The house was not at all grand, a small detached stucco house in a garden with a laurel hedge, and since the Gosselyns had been for some years in India there were great trays of brass ware and brass bowls, pieces of Indian embroidery and highly-carved Indian tables. It was cheap bazaar stuff, and you wondered how anyone had thought it worth bringing home.

Julia was quick-witted. It did not take her long to discover that the Colonel, notwithstanding his reserve, and Mrs. Gosselyn, notwithstanding her shyness; were taking stock of her. The thought flashed through her mind that Michael had brought her down for his parents to inspect her. Why? There was only one possible reason, and when she thought of it her heart leaped. She saw that he was anxious for her to make a good impression. She felt instinctively that she must conceal the actress, and without effort, without deliberation, merely because she felt it would please, she played the part of the simple, modest, ingenuous girl who had lived a quiet country life. She walked round the garden with the Colonel and listened intelligently while he talked of peas and asparagus; she helped Mrs. Gosselyn with the flowers and dusted the ornaments with which the drawing-room was crowded. She talked to her of Michael. She told her how cleverly he acted and how popular he was and she praised his looks. She saw that Mrs. Gosselyn was very proud of him, and with a flash of intuition saw that it would please her if she let her see, with the utmost delicacy, as though she would have liked to keep it a secret but betrayed herself unwittingly, that she was head over ears in love with him.

“Of course we hope he’ll do well,” said Mrs. Gosselyn. “We didn’t much like the idea of his going on the stage; you see, on both sides of the family, we’re army, but he was set on it.”

“Yes, of course I see what you mean.”

“I know it doesn’t mean so much as when I was a girl, but after all he was born a gentleman.”

“Oh, but some very nice people go on the stage nowadays, you know. It’s not like in the old days.”

“No, I suppose not. I’m so glad he brought you down here. I was a little nervous about it. I thought you’d be made-up and... perhaps a little loud. No one would dream you were on the stage.”

(“I should damn well think not. Haven’t I been giving a perfect performance of the village maiden for the last forty-eight hours?”)

The Colonel began to make little jokes with her and sometimes he pinched her ear playfully.

“Now you mustn’t flirt with me, Colonel,” she cried, giving him a roguish delicious glance. “Just because I’m an actress you think you can take liberties with me.”

“George, George,” smiled Mrs. Gosselyn. And then to Julia: “He always was a terrible flirt.”

(“Gosh, I’m going down like a barrel of oysters.”)

Mrs. Gosselyn told her about India, how strange it was to have all those coloured servants, but how nice the society was, only army people and Indian civilians, but still it wasn’t like home, and how glad she was to get back to England.

They were to leave on Easter Monday because they were playing that night, and on Sunday evening after supper Colonel Gosselyn said he was going to his study to write letters; a minute or two later Mrs. Gosselyn said she must go and see the cook. When they were left alone Michael, standing with his back to the fire, lit a cigarette.

“I’m afraid it’s been very quiet down here; I hope you haven’t had an awfully dull time.”

“It’s been heavenly.”

“You’ve made a tremendous success with my people. They’ve taken an enormous fancy to you.”

“God, I’ve worked for it,” thought Julia, but aloud said: “How d’you know?”

“Oh, I can see it. Father told me you were very lady-like, and not a hit like an actress, and mother says you’re so sensible.”

Julia looked down as though the extravagance of these compliments was almost more than she could bear. Michael came over and stood in front of her. The thought occurred to her that he looked like a handsome young footman applying for a situation. He was strangely nervous. Her heart thumped against her ribs.

“Julia dear, will you marry me?”

For the last week she had asked herself whether or not he was going to propose to her, and now that he had at last done so, she was strangely confused.

“Michael!”

“Not immediately, I don’t mean. But when we’ve got our feet on the ladder. I know that you can act me, off the stage, but we get on together like a house on fire, and when we do go into management I think we’d make a pretty good team. And you know I do like you most awfully. I mean, I’ve never met anyone who’s a patch on you.”

(“The blasted fool, why does he talk all that rot? Doesn’t he know I’m crazy to marry him? Why doesn’t he kiss me, kiss me, kiss me? I wonder if I dare tell him I’m absolutely sick with love for him.”)

“Michael, you’re so handsome. No one could refuse to marry you!”

“Darling!”

(“I’d better get up He wouldn’t know how to sit down. God, that scene that Jimmie made him do over and over again!”)

She got on her feet and put up her face to his. He took her in his arms and kissed her lips.

“I must tell mother.”

He broke away from her and went to the door.

“Mother, mother!”

In a moment the Colonel and Mrs. Gosselyn came in. They bore a look of happy expectancy.

(“By God, it was a put-up job.”)

“Mother, father, we’re engaged.”

Mrs. Gosselyn began to cry. With her awkward, lumbering gait she came up to Julia, flung her arms round her, and sobbing, kissed her. The Colonel wrung his son’s hand in a manly way and releasing Julia from his wife’s embrace kissed her too. He was deeply moved. All this emotion worked on Julia and, though she smiled happily, the tears coursed down her cheeks. Michael watched the affecting scene with sympathy.

“What d’you say to a bottle of pop to celebrate?” he said. “It looks to me as though mother and Julia were thoroughly upset.”

“The ladies, God bless ‘em,” said the Colonel when glasses were filled.

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