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"Did you – did you mention your connection with me?" asked Craddock, with some little anxiety not wholly concealed.
"You wouldn't have liked that, would you? But you can make your mind easy. I didn't and I don't suppose I shall, I wouldn't vex you for the world."
"That is not so good a reason as I should expect from you."
"No? Try this one then. You made a fool of me, you see, you outwitted me. I don't want people to know that for my sake far more than yours. The r?le of the brilliant successful dramatist is more to my mind than the r?le of your dupe."
"These are offensive expressions," said Craddock.
"Certainly. But why should you care? No doubt other people have used them before to you. By the way again, there was another fellow there last night who knew you, under Lady Crowborough's slightly moulting wing. Lathom: that was his name. I congratulated him also. There was something rather taking about him: a weird sort of guilelessness and gratitude. He's coming to the play with me sometime next week. And now if you want to hear the first act of the 'Lane without a Turning,' we had better begin? I'm going to Mrs. Fortescue's party later on. Who is Mrs. Fortescue?"
"The prettiest bore in London, which is saying a good deal, both as regards looks and as regards ennui. But she is so convinced she is only twenty-eight, she is worth your study as showing the lengths to which credulity can go. By all means let me hear your first act."
Armstrong got up.
"I want you to tell me when you have heard it," he said, "and when I have told you how the second and third acts will go, whether you exercise your option or not. You are going to Egypt in a few days, you tell me, and I don't want this hung up till you get back."
"I have no doubt I shall be able to tell you," said Craddock.
In spite of this assurance, Craddock found himself an hour afterwards, in a state of bewildered indecision. The finished first act, together with a very full scenario of the other two, gave him, as he was well aware, sufficient data for his conclusions, but he was strangely embarrassed at the recital of the brilliant and farcical medley, which, as the author had said, turned the original play upside down, parodied it, and winged it with iridescent absurdity. He knew well the unaccountableness of the public, well, too, he knew the value of a reputation such as "Easter Eggs" had brought its author, and it seemed to him a frantic imperilment of that reputation to flaunt this rainbowed farce in the face of the public. Armstrong had acquired the name of an observant and kindly humorist, here he laughed at (not with) the gentle lives of ungifted people. Again, in the original play, he involved his puppets in a net of inextricable tragedy: here, as by a conjuring-trick he let them escape, with shouts of ridicule at the suppose Destiny that had entangled them. The play might easily be a failure the more stupendous because of the stupendous success of "Easter Eggs": on the other hand there was the chance, the bare chance, that its inimitable and mocking wit might be caught by the rather stolid Ass… But he had to decide: he knew quite well that he had sufficient data for his decision, and he did not in the least desire merely to annoy Armstrong by a plea for further opportunity of consideration.But he most sincerely wished that the play had never been written. And that wish gave him an idea that for the moment seemed brilliant. He was harvesting money in sheaves, he could well afford it…
"I will exercise my option," he said at length, "and then I will destroy the play. For your convenience, my dear fellow, you needn't even put on paper the last two acts. You can take your cheque away with you to-night."
Frank Armstrong considered this munificent proposal for a moment in silence, looking very ugly.
"You didn't purchase the right to destroy my work," he said.
"I purchased the right to possess it."
For a minute more Armstrong frowned and glowered. Then suddenly his face cleared, and he gave an astonishing shout of laughter.
"All right," he said, "Draw the cheque, and here are my manuscript and notes, which you are going to destroy. To-morrow I shall begin a new play exactly like it. How's that? Gosh, what an ass I am! I ought to have got your cheque first and cashed it before I told you. But you gave yourself away so terribly by telling me you would purchase and destroy it that I was off my guard. But now – "
Once again the sense of imperfect mastery struck Craddock. There was this difference about it now that it forced itself rather as being a sense of mastery on the other side. He was thrown back on the original debate in his mind. Doubt of success prevailed.
"I take no option," he said curtly.
Frank got up.
"Thank God," he said. "Good night."
Craddock sat quiescent for a few minutes after Armstrong had left him, feeling rather battered and bruised, and yet conscious of having passed a stimulating evening. And he did not wonder that that section of London who spend most of their time and money in procuring tonic entertainments that shall keep their pulses racing, should pursue this flaring young man with eager hospitalities. He was liable, it is true, to behave like a young bull-calf: he might, and often did, lower his head, and, fixing a steady and vicious eye on you, charge you with the most masculine vigour, but it was quite impossible to be dull when he was there. There was a strength, a driving force about him that raised the level of vitality at social gatherings, and though it was a little disconcerting to have him suddenly attack you, he might equally well attack somebody else, which was excessively amusing. Moreover many women found a personal attack exciting and inspiriting. To be tossed and tumbled conversationally did not do one any harm, and so virile and brutal an onslaught as his had something really fascinating about it. To be sure, he had no manners, but yet he had not bad manners. He would not plan an impertinence, he only ran at a red rag, of which, apparently, the world held many for him. If he was bored, it is true that he yawned, but he didn't yawn in order to impress upon you your boring qualities, he only expressed naturally and unaffectedly, his own lack of interest in what you were saying. To be sure, also, he was ugly and clumsy, but when there were so many pretty little men about, who talked in the softest of voices and manicured their nails, a great rough young male like this, who said he hated dancing, and asked leave to smoke his pipe instead of a cigarette, brought a sense of reality into the room with him. He was not rough and uncouth on purpose: merely that big clever brain of his was too busy to bother about the frills and finishings of life. Scandal and tittle-tattle had no interest for him, but when he told you about his own early years, or even when with inimitable mimicry he showed you how Craddock felt for a whisker, and looked at his plump little hands, he was immensely entertaining. Very likely he would soon become tiresome and familiar, but it would be time to drop him then.
Craddock was not in the least surprised at this lionizing of young Armstrong. Not only had he written the play which was undeniably the bull's-eye of the year, which in itself was sufficient, but, unlike most writers and artists, the strength of whose personality is absorbed into their achievements, he had this dominating personal force. Craddock knew well the mercantile value of the social excitement over the author of "Easter Eggs" (as he had said to Armstrong a dozen people talking was worth the shouting of two dozen journals), and while it lasted there was no question that stalls and dress-circles would overflow for his plays. Apparently, too, they had the no less valuable attraction for pit and gallery: there was a sincerity about his work that appealed to those who were not warmed by the mere crackle of epigrams and neat conversation. But while he welcomed Armstrong's appearance as a lion as a remunerative asset at the box-office, he was not so sure that he entirely approved of a possible intimacy between his new artist and his new playwright. He could not have definitely accounted for his distaste, but it was there, and though he was in the rapids that preceded his departure for Egypt, he found time next morning to go round to Charles' studio, ostensibly to see the finished portrait of his mother, but with a mind alert to sound a warning note as to undesirable companionship.
Charles the Joyful, as Craddock had christened him, received his visitor with arms open but with palette and brush and mahl-stick. The confidence which he had so easily won from the boy, at that first meeting by their weir, burned with a more serene brightness than ever, and his gratitude towards his patron was renewed morning by morning when he came into the comfortable well-appointed studio which had been given him.
"Oh, I say, Mr. Craddock," he exclaimed, "but it is jolly of you to come round to see me. Do say that you'll stop for lunch. It will be quite beastly by the way, but I promised to cook lunch for Lady Crowborough who is coming. But there are things in tins to eke out with."
Indeed this was a very different sort of prot?g? from him who had spilt the port last night, so much easier to deal with, so much more conscious of benefits. Gratitude and affection were so infinitely more becoming than the envious mistrust that Frank habitually exhibited. And how handsome the boy was, with his fresh colour, his kindled eyes, and unconscious grace of pose as he stood there palette on thumb! How fit to draw after him, like a magnet, the glances of some tall English girl. And at the thought, and at the remembrance of the injury he had done Charles, Craddock felt his dislike of him stir and hiss once more.
"I can't do that my dear Charles," he said, "as I have only a quarter of an hour to spare. Besides I am far too prudent to think of incurring Lady Crowborough's enmity by spoiling her t?te-?-t?te with you. But on this grey morning I felt it would do me good to see your Serene Joyfulness, and also the presentment of your Joyfulness' Mother which you tell me is finished."
Charles looked deprecating.
"I'm rather frightened," he said. "You see, I've changed it a lot since you saw it. I took out the whole of the head and painted it quite fresh and quite differently."
Craddock frowned … it was as if Armstrong had interpolated an act in "Easter Eggs" without permission.
"My dear fellow, I don't think you had any business to do that without consulting me," he said. "I had said I would buy the picture: you knew too that I immensely admired it as it was. Where is it? Let me see it."
Charles seemed to resent this somewhat hectoring and school-master-like tone. Below the Serene Joyfulness there was something rather more firm and masculine than Craddock had expected.
"Oh, I can't concede to you the right to tell me how I shall paint," he said. "Just after you saw the picture the other day I suddenly saw I could do better than that. I must do my best. And as a matter of fact I don't think you will mind when you see it. Here it is, anyhow."
He wheeled the picture which was on an easel, face to the wall into position, and stood rather stiff and high-headed.
"I shall be sorry if you don't like it," he said, "but I can't help it."
Somehow it struck Craddock that Charles had grown tremendously in self-reliance and manliness since he had first seen that shy incredulous boy at the weir. He was disposed to take credit to himself for this: these weeks of happy expansion, of freedom from the dragging sense of dependence had made a man of him. And then still blameful he looked at the picture. Long he looked at it and silently, and quickly in his mind the conviction grew that he must climb quite completely down from his hectoring attitude. But, after all, it was not so difficult: there were compensations, for the lower he had to go, the higher the picture soared, soared like some sunlit ship-in-air.
"You were perfectly right," he said at length. "It was the rashest presumption in me to suppose that I knew better than you. That will make you famous. I was an utter fool, my dear Charles, to have imagined that you could have spoiled it."
"Oh, that's all right," said Charles, tall amid his certainties.
Again Craddock looked long at it.
"Is it finished now?" he asked humbly.
"I think so. It seems to be what I see, and a picture is finished when that's the case. I daresay I shall see more sometime: then I shall do another."
Craddock felt no call on his superlatives.
"I must say I shall be seriously anxious if I thought you were going to scrape it out again," he said, "though this time I shouldn't dream of interfering. Now what other work have you got on hand? I am off to Egypt in two days, and I should like to know I leave you busy. Did Mrs. Fortescue come to your studio? I recommended her to."
"I know: it was awfully good of you, and I am going to paint her. You told me to charge two hundred guineas, which seemed a tremendous lot."
"Not in the least. You won't remain at that figure long."
Charles made a face of comic distaste.
"I – I don't quite know how to paint her," he said. "I can't make her as young as it is clear she thinks herself, and I can't make her such a bore as I think her."
"How could your portrait show you think her a bore?" asked Craddock.
"How it shall not is my difficulty. I must try not to get a weary brush. Then Lady Crowborough says she will sit to me when she comes back in the spring. I shall love doing that. By the way – "
Charles hesitated a moment.
"You've been so extraordinarily kind to me," he said, "that perhaps you don't mind my consulting you. She told me to propose myself to go down and see my copy of the Reynolds picture when it was framed and in its place, and for the last month I've been ready to do so any day. But Mr. Wroughton wrote me rather a queer letter. He suggested that I should go down after they left for Egypt. It read to me rather as if he didn't want to see me. And I was so friendly with them all. What can have happened?"
Craddock assumed his most reassuring manner.
"Happened?" he said. "What on earth could have happened? You know our respected host down at the Mill House. I assure you when I was there three weeks ago for one night he could think about nothing but his underclothing for Egypt, and the price of pith-helmets. He had already, I believe, begun to pack his steamer-trunks and his medicine-chests. Do not give it another thought."
Charles gave a sigh of relief.
"I'm so glad you think that is the reason," he said. "All the same I should have liked to go down and say goodbye to – to them."
"To her, don't you mean?" said Craddock.
Charles flushed and laughed.
"Well, yes, to her," he said. "Why not?"
"Why not indeed? Every sensible young man likes to say some goodbye to a charming girl, if he can do no more than that. My dear fellow, if only I was your age, I should take a leaping heart to Egypt. And now that we've pricked that little troublesome bubble, tell me a little more about yourself and your life. I meant to have seen much more of you this last week or two, but I have been distractedly busy, and have seen no one but people on business. Apart from your work, have you been going about much?"
"Hardly at all. I don't know so many people you see. I dined with Lady Crowborough, though, a couple of nights ago, and she took me to a big party. Oh, and I met there such a strange queer fellow, name of Armstrong, who said he knew you. He wrote "Easter Eggs": such a ripping play. Have you seen it? He is going to take me to it next week."
Craddock puffed the smoked-out end of his cigarette from its amber tube into the grate.
"Yes, I know him," he said. "I should not have thought there was much in common between you."
"I'm not sure. I should like to find out. And, heavens, how I should like to paint his portrait. Where's the charcoal?"
Charles seized a stick and spread a loose sheet of paper on the table.
"Eye like that," he said, "with the eyebrow like a pent-house over it. Face, did you ever see such a jaw, square like that and hungry. That's the sort of face it pays to paint. There's something to catch hold of. And his ears are pointed, like a Satyr's. I think I must ask him to sit to me. I'll give him the portrait if he will."
Craddock took up this six-line sketch.
"Yes, very like, indeed," he said, "and a terrible face. And now I must go. But I wonder if you will resent a word of advice."
"Try," said Charles encouragingly.
"Well, I will. Now, my dear Charles, you are a young man just beginning your career, and it is immensely important you should get among the right people. The Latin quarter in Paris is one thing: Bohemianism in London is quite another. For the next forty years your work will be to paint these charming mothers and daughters of England. They have got to come and sit to you in your studio. They won't if they find that it savours of the Bohemian. You can't be too careful as to your friends, for the strongest and most self-sufficient people take their colour from their friends: they can't help it."
He laid his plump white hand, which he had been observing, on Charles' shoulder.
"You must pardon me," he said, "but I have got to the time of life when an unmarried man wishes he had a son growing up. But I have none, – I have to expend my unfruitful potentiality of parentage elsewhere. If you were my son, I should choose your friends for you so carefully."
There was something pathetic and unexpected about this, which could not but touch Charles. But somehow he felt as if he ought to have been more touched…
"? propos of Armstrong?" he suggested.
"? propos of intimacy with Mr. Armstrong in general," said Craddock, feeling somehow that he had missed fire, and that it was as well to get behind a hedge again.
Charles nodded. Then suddenly he felt his own lack of responsiveness: he felt also, though without touch of priggishness, that here was a man who had been wonderfully good to him, and who felt the burden of the years that were not lightened by the tie of fatherhood with youth. It struck him suddenly, vaguely but convincingly.
"You have been as kind as a father to me," he said quickly. "I hope I don't pay you with a son's proverbial ingratitude. You have been like a father to me – I – I've often wanted to tell you that."
He looked up a moment at Craddock, and then seized with a fit of misgiving at his blurted outspokenness, shied away from the subject, like some young colt.
"But I should like to paint Armstrong's portrait," he said. "I promise you that you would not think I had wasted my time."
Craddock appeared to accept this sudden switching off of sentiment.
"I will leave you free from any option of mine regarding it," he said. "To have it on the wall opposite me would certainly cause me indigestion, if it was as like as your charcoal sketch. The truth is he has not behaved very nicely to me. I tried to befriend him, as I have tried to befriend you, but with less success in amicable relationship. It is a mere nothing, but I felt I might do worse than give you a word of warning. It is of course for your private ear alone. Goodbye, my dear Charles. I shall let you know when I get back from the land of bondage. And accept my long experience to make your mind easy over the matter of going down to see your admirable copy of that Reynolds picture. I should not for instance, confide in Lady Crowborough. God bless you!"
Craddock took the unusual step of walking back to Berkeley Square after he had left Charles, and as he pursued his portly way up the Brompton Road, he thought rather intently over what he had said, and again, as on the evening when he had let drop a few lying words to Philip Wroughton, he felt he had not spoken amiss. He could not possibly prevent an acquaintance between his two prot?g?s, nor could he certainly prevent it ripening into an intimacy, but he felt he had spoken well when he hinted that Armstrong had not behaved very nicely to him. As a rule, he did not much believe in the stability of such an emotion as gratitude, but he believed very strongly in the child-like simplicity of Charles. In this his conclusions were firmly founded, for in the course of his life he had never come across, as a matter of fact, so guileless and unsuspicious a nature. He almost regretted the necessity of deceiving him, for the feat was so inconspicuous a one. Charles was a child, a child with a divine gift, of which he himself was in the position to take secure advantage. After all nurses and kind mothers habitually deceived children: they told them that if they squinted and the wind changed, their squint would be permanent: they told them that many poor beggars would be glad of the food they rejected, in order to induce them to swallow it, and thus, incidentally, to extinguish altogether the outside chance of a poor beggar getting it: they told them that God would be angry with them if they disobeyed orders and got their feet wet… Charles was just a child. Though certainly he had grown a good deal lately. But his soul was a child's.
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