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Theatre – viii

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Michael got himself demobbed the moment the war was finished and stepped straight into a part. He returned to the stage a much better actor than he left it. The breeziness he had acquired in the army was effective. He was a well set-up, normal, high-spirited fellow, with a ready smile and a hearty laugh. He was well suited to drawing-room comedy. His light voice gave a peculiar effect to a flippant line, and though he never man-aged to make love convincingly he could carry off a chaffing love scene, making a proposal as if it were rather a joke, or a declaration as though he were laughing at himself, in a manner that the audience found engaging. He never attempted to play anyone but himself. He specialized in men about town, gentlemanly gamblers, guardsmen and young scamps with a good side to them. Managers liked him. He worked hard and was amenable to direction. So long as he could get work he didn’t mind much what sort of part it was. He stuck out for the salary he thought he was worth, but if he couldn’t get it was prepared to take less rather than be idle.

He was making his plans carefully. During the winter that followed the end of the war there was an epidemic of influenza. His father and mother died. He inherited nearly four thousand pounds, and this with his own savings and Julia’s brought up their joint capital to seven thousand. But the rent of theatres had gone up enormously, the salaries of actors and the wages of stagehands had increased, so that the expense of running a theatre was very much greater than it had been before the war. A sum that would then have been amply sufficient to start management on was now inadequate. The only thing was to find some rich man to go in with them so that a failure or two to begin with would not drive them from the field. It was said that you could always find a mug in the city to write a fat cheque for the production of a play, but when you came down to business you discovered that the main condition was that the leading part should be played by some pretty lady in whom he was interested. Years before, Michael and Julia had often joked about the rich old woman who would rail in love with him and set him up in management. He had long since learnt that no rich old woman was to be found to set up in management a young actor whose wife was an actress to whom he was perfectly faithful. In the end the money was found by a rich woman, and not an old one either, but who was interested not in him but in Julia.

Mrs. de Vries was a widow. She was a short stout woman with a fine Jewish nose and fine Jewish eyes, a great deal of energy, a manner at once effusive and timid, and a somewhat virile air. She had a passion for the stage. When Julia and Michael had decided to try their luck in London Jimmie Langton, to whose rescue she had sometimes come when it looked as though he would be forced to close his repertory theatre, had written to her asking her to do what she could for them. She had seen Julia act in Middlepool. She gave parties so that the young actors might get to know managers, and asked them to stay at her grand house near Guildford, where they enjoyed a luxury they had never dreamt of. She did not much like Michael. Julia accepted the flowers with which Dolly de Vries filled her flat and her dressing-room, she was properly delighted with the presents she gave her, bags, vanity cases, strings of beads in semiprecious stones, brooches; but appeared to be unconscious that Dolly’s generosity was due to anything but admiration for her talent. When Michael went away to the war Dolly pressed her to come and live in her house in Montagu Square, but Julia, with protestations of extravagant gratitude, refused in such a way that Dolly, with a sigh and a tear, could only admire her the more. When Roger was born Julia asked her to be his godmother.

For some time Michael had been turning over in his mind the possibility that Dolly de Vries might put up the money they needed, but he was shrewd enough to know that while she might do it for Julia she would not do it for him. Julia refused to approach her.

“She’s already been so kind to us I really couldn’t ask her, and it would be so humiliating if she refused.”

“It’s a good gamble, and even if she lost the money she wouldn’t feel it. I’m quite sure you could get round her if you tried.”

Julia was pretty sure she could too. Michael was very simple-minded in some ways; she did not feel called upon to point out to him the obvious facts.

But he was not a man who let a thing drop when he had set his mind to it. They were going to Guildford to spend the week-end with Dolly, and were driving down after the Saturday night’s performance in the new car that Julia had given Michael for his birthday. It was a warm beautiful night. Michael had bought options, though it wrung his heart to write the cheques, on three plays that they both liked, and he had heard of a theatre that they could get on reasonable terms. Everything was ready for the venture except the capital. He urged Julia to seize the opportunity that the week-end presented.

“Ask her yourself then,” said Julia impatiently. “I tell you, I’m not going to.”

“She wouldn’t do it for me. You can twist her round your little finger.”

“We know a thing or two about financing plays now. People finance plays for two reasons, either because they want notoriety, or because they’re in love with someone. A lot of people talk about art, but you don’t often find them paying out hard cash unless they’re going to get something out of it for themselves.”

“Well, we’ll give Dolly all the notoriety she wants.”

“That doesn’t happen to be what she’s after.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can’t you guess?”

Light dawned on him, and he was so surprised that he slowed down. Was it possible that what Julia suspected was true? He had never even thought that Dolly liked him much, and as for supposing she was in love with him - why, the notion had never crossed his mind. Of course Julia had sharp eyes, not much got by her, but she was a jealous little thing, she was always thinking women were making a dead set at him. It was true that Dolly had given him a pair of cuff links at Christmas, but he thought that was only so that he shouldn’t feel left out in the cold because she had given Julia a brooch that must have cost at least two hundred pounds. That might be only her cunning. Well, he could honestly say he’d never done a thing to make her think there was anything doing. Julia giggled.

“No, darling, it’s not you she’s in love with.”

It was disconcerting the way Julia knew what he was thinking. You couldn’t hide a thing from that woman.

“Then why did you put the idea into my head? I wish to goodness you’d express yourself so that a fellow can understand.”

Julia did.

“I never heard such nonsense,” he cried. “What a filthy mind you’ve got, Julia!”

“Come off it, dear.”

“I don’t believe there’s a word of truth in it. After all I’ve got eyes in my head. Do you mean to say I shouldn’t have noticed it?” He was more irritable than she had ever known him. “And even if it were true I suppose you can take care of yourself. It’s a chance in a thousand, and I think it would be madness not to take it.”

“Claudio and Isabella in Measure for Measure.”

“That’s a rotten thing to say, Julia. God damn it, I am a gentleman.”

“‘Nemo me impune lacessit.’”

They drove the rest of the journey in stormy silence. Mrs. de Vries was waiting up for them.

“I didn’t want to go to bed till I’d seen you,” she said as she folded Julia in her arms and kissed her on both cheeks. She gave Michael a brisk handshake.

Julia spent a happy morning in bed reading the Sunday papers. She read first the theatrical news, then the gossip columns, after that the woman’s pages, and finally cast an eye over the headlines of the world’s news. The book reviews she ignored; she could never understand why so much space was wasted on them. Michael, who had the room next hers, had come in to say good morning, and then gone out into the garden. Presently there was a timid little knock at her door and Dolly came in. Her great black eyes were shining. She sat on the bed and took Julia’s hand.

“Darling, I’ve been talking to Michael. I’m going to put up the money to start you in management.”

Julia’s heart gave a sudden beat.

“Oh, you mustn’t. Michael shouldn’t have asked you I won’t have it. You’ve been far, far too kind to us already.”

Dolly leant over and kissed Julia on the lips. Her voice was lower than usual and there was a little tremor in it.

“Oh, my love, don’t you know there isn’t anything in the world I wouldn’t do for you? It’ll be so wonderful; it’ll bring us so close together and I shall be so proud of you.”

They heard Michael come whistling along the pas sage, and when he came into the room Dolly turned to him with her great eyes misty with tears.

“I’ve just told her.”

He was brimming over with excitement.

“What a grand woman!” He sat down on the other side of the bed and took Julia’s disengaged hand. “What d’you say, Julia?”

She gave him a little reflective look.

“‘Vous l’avez voulu, Georges Dandin.’”

“What’s that?”

“Molière.”

As soon as the deed of partnership had been signed and Michael had got his theatre booked for the autumn he engaged a publicity agent. Paragraphs were sent to the papers announcing the new venture and Michael and the publicity agent prepared interviews for him and Julia to give to the Press. Photographs of them, singly and together, with and without Roger, appeared in the weeklies. The domestic note was worked for all it was worth. They could not quite make up their minds which of the three plays they had it would be best to start with. Then one afternoon when Julia was sitting in her bedroom reading a novel, Michael came in with a manuscript in his hand.

“Look here, I want you to read this play at once. It’s just come in from an agent. I think it’s a knockout. Only we’ve got to give an answer right away.”

Julia put down her novel.

“I’ll read it now.”

“I shall be downstairs. Let me know when you’ve finished and I’ll come up and talk it over with you. It’s got a wonderful part for you.”

Julia read quickly, skimming over the scenes in which she was not concerned, but the principal woman’s part, the part of course she would play, with concentration. When she had turned the last page she rang the bell and asked her maid (who was also her dresser) to tell Michael she was ready for him.

“Well, what d’you think?”

“The play’s all right. I don’t see how it can fail to be a success.”

He caught something doubtful in her tone.

“What’s wrong then? The part’s wonderful. I mean, it’s the sort of thing that you can do better than anyone in the world. There’s a lot of comedy and all the emotion you want.”

It’s a wonderful part, I know that; it’s the man’s part.”

“Well, that’s a damned good part too.”

“I know; but he’s fifty, and if you make him younger you take all the point out of the play. You don’t want to take the part of a middle-aged man.”

“But I wasn’t thinking of playing that. There’s only one man for that. Monte Vernon. And we can get him. I’ll play George.”

“But it’s a tiny part. You can’t play that.”

“Why not?”

“But I thought the point of going into management was that we should both play leads.”

“Oh, I don’t care a hang about that. As long as we can find plays with star parts for you I don’t matter. Perhaps in the next play there’ll be a good part for me too.”

Julia leant back in her chair, and the ready tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks.

“Oh, what a beast I am.”

He smiled, and his smile was as charming as ever. He came over to her and kneeling by her side put his arms round her.

“Lor lumme, what’s the matter with the old lady now?”

When she looked at him now she wondered what there was in him that had ever aroused in her such a frenzy of passion. The thought of having sexual relations with him nauseated her. Fortunately he found himself very comfortable in the bedroom she had furnished for him. He was not a man to whom sex was important, and he was relieved when he discovered that Julia no longer made any demands on him. He thought with satisfaction that the birth of the baby had calmed her down, he was bound to say that he had thought it might, and he was only sorry they had not had one before. When he had two or three times, more out of amiability than out of desire, suggested that they should resume marital relations and she had made excuses, either that she was tired, not very well, or had two performances next day, to say nothing of a fitting in the morning, he accepted the situation with equanimity. Julia was much easier to get on with, she never made scenes any more, and he was happier than he had ever been before. It was a damned satisfactory marriage he had made, and when he looked at other people’s marriages he couldn’t help seeing he was one of the lucky ones. Julia was a damned good sort and clever, as clever as a bagful of monkeys; you could talk to her about anything in the world. The best companion a chap ever had, my boy. He didn’t mind saying this, he’d rather spend a day alone with her than play a round of golf.

Julia was surprised to discover in herself a strange feeling of pity for him because she no longer loved him. She was a kindly woman, and she realized that it would be a bitter blow to his pride if he ever had an inkling how little he meant to her. She continued to flatter him. She noticed that for long now he had come to listen complacently to her praise of his exquisite nose and beautiful eyes. She got a little private amusement by seeing how much he could swallow. She laid it on with a trowel. But now she looked more often at his straight thin-lipped mouth. It grew meaner as he grew older, and by the time he was an old man it would be no more than a cold hard line. His thrift, which in the early days had seemed an amusing, rather touching trait, now revolted her. When people were in trouble, and on the stage they too often are, they got sympathy and kind friendly words from Michael, but very little cash. He looked upon himself as devilish generous when he parted with a guinea, and a five-pound note was to him the extreme of lavishness. He had soon discovered that Julia ran the house extravagantly, and insisting that he wanted to save her trouble took the matter in his own hands. After that nothing was wasted. Every penny was accounted for. Julia wondered why servants stayed with them. They did because Michael was so nice to them. With his hearty, jolly, affable manner he made them anxious to please him, and the cook shared his satisfaction when she had found a butcher from whom they could get meat a penny a pound cheaper than elsewhere. Julia could not but laugh when she thought how strangely his passion for economy contrasted with the devil-may-care, extravagant creatures he portrayed so well on the stage. She had often thought that he was incapable of a generous impulse, and now, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, he was prepared to stand aside so that she might have her chance. She was too deeply moved to speak. She reproached herself bitterly for all the unkind things she had for so long been thinking of him.

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