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It was not until he had walked as far as Hyde Park corner that he knew he was waging a war instead of merely conducting a child's education. He was at war, he with his obese person and half-century of years, with the generation that had sprung up after him, and was now realising the zenith of its youthful vigour. Already it trod on his heels, already he seemed to hear in his ears its intolerant laughter at his portly progress, and his first acute attack of middle-age stabbed him like the lumbago from which he occasionally suffered. It seemed to him a devilish complaint, not to be acquiesced in, but to be ostentatiously disregarded and denied. Even since last June, when he had first felt the charm and the need of girlhood, he had suspected this foe, and the fact that Charles admitted the attraction which was his magnet also, stiffened his resistance. He hated the young generation, chiefly because his own youth had been a bloodless affair, but he did not feel himself old, except when he met the guileless eyes of Charles, or the vindictive glance of young Armstrong. Both of these, in their widely different fashions, illumined the truth, and thus for them, these young and vigorous males, he cherished an enmity that rivalled Armstrong's. But he was not shelved and done with yet. As far as the attainment of love went, he entered the lists against Charles, as far as hard business capacity went, he was willing to meet Armstrong. But he had suffered an initial defeat on either hand. On the one side Armstrong had taken this remodelled play into his own control, on the other – this was more subtle – Charles had been able to paint that rough sketch of Joyce among the forget-me-nots. Yet he had weapons against these attacks. He could and would write feebly appreciative notices of the play, more damning than any slash of onslaught, he could and would go southwards with Joyce, and her approving father, the day after to-morrow.
And then with a spasm of satisfaction he thought of Lady Crowborough. With one if not both feet in the grave, she was kissing her hands as vigorously and contentedly as ever. Her conviction of perennial youth overrode the disabilities of years: age was a mere question of conviction: he had only to convince himself. Even at this moment she, who had attained middle-age before he was born, was lunching with a boy whose father he himself might be, and tasting all the delights of flirtation and unspeakable decoctions over a gas-stove… "The new flirt…" He could hear her say it with unctuous serenity. And the "new flirt" was that child Charles, he who was so much younger than anyone Craddock had ever known. Of course Lady Crowborough was a freak, but if a woman did not feel old at ninety (according to her own account) what excuse was there for a man feeling middle-aged at fifty, or a little less? He determined to have no lunch whatever, but have a Turkish bath and a swim at the Bath Club instead.
Just as Craddock might have made a certain sinister suggestion to Philip Wroughton about Charles, had he known that after she left them she read and re-read two common-place little letters and regarded something that had once been a straw hat, so to-day he might not have foregone lunch and sat in the agreeable tropics underneath the Bath Club (as a matter of fact these processes made him so hungry that he indulged in a sandwich or two afterwards) in the heroic hue-and-cry after his vanished youth, if he had been aware of Charles' immediate occupation after he had left him.There was another canvas, a big one, leaning with averted face in the corner of his studio. It represented a girl kneeling among forget-me-nots at the edge of a stream. Behind was a spouting-weir. He had half a dozen sketches of the weir to help him, some very carefully finished, which he had made in preparation for that picture of the bathing-boy, and he had so many sketches, more vivid than these, more brilliantly lit by the steadfast lamp within his brain, to help him.
But he had felt he could not show this to Craddock: he did not know if he could ever show it to anybody, it was his own, or hers, if ever she cared for it or for him… But it was not Craddock's. Eagerly now he pulled it into the light.
It mattered not what he worked on, in this picture, so long as he worked at it The figure that knelt there, dressed in stained blue, had suffused the whole, so that the grey camp sheltering below the weir, the loosestrife and meadow-sweet, the rope of hurrying water, woven by the force of the stream, were all part of her. Unsuspicious and trustful by nature, relying on Craddock's experience and knowledge of the world, on his brief assurance that there was nothing below the curt note which had given Charles leave to see his Reynolds' copy after the family had gone, he wiped off his mind, almost without an effort, the vague doubts that had for the last week or two tarnished and dimmed it. Craddock, who had been so uniformly kind to him, who had almost lapsed into parental sentiment to-day, had not thought his doubts worth a moment's debate. Besides, what could have occurred to change the friendliness of the family into this cold acidity? What, also, could be more reasonable than the explanation which Craddock threw off, over his shoulder, so to speak, of Philip's amazing solicitude for the complete provision of his own comfort.
"Blue! Blue! What a world of blues! Sky, dress, eyes, forget-me-nots, reflection of sky, reflection of dress, and eyes that looked straight into his." These reflections came not into his picture … he caught and kept these…
Craddock's prophecy (the wish perhaps being father to it) that the two young men whom he had benefited would not find much in common, seemed at their first meeting to be likely of fulfilment. They met at the theatre, and Charles' enthusiastic appreciation of the piece, at the second time of witnessing it, seemed to rouse Armstrong's contempt.
"I wish you had told me you had seen it before," he said as they lounged and smoked between the acts, "and we could have gone to something else."
"But there's nothing else I should have liked so much," said Charles eagerly. "I think that scene between Violet and the curate is simply priceless. Do tell me about it? Did you know people like that?"
Frank beckoned to the man in the box-office.
"Just show me the returns for this week," he said. Then he answered Charles.
"Yes: I used to think they were like that," he said. "I expect they were far harder and meaner and fouler really. People can't be as gutless as I've made them all out to be."
"Oh, but they're not gutless, do you think? They are kind and jolly, and slightly ridiculous… Isn't that it? Like most people in fact, but you've seen the funny side of them."
The man from the box-office had returned, and handed Armstrong a strip of paper.
"Fuller than ever, Mr. Armstrong, you see," he said with a sort of proprietorship, like the head-waiter at a restaurant when guests find a dish to their taste. "And advance bookings go well on to the other side of Christmas."
Unaccountably, the dish was not to Armstrong's taste.
"Blasted fools people are," he remarked, and nodded curtly to the man.
"I'm one of them, you know," said Charles.
"Yes: I forgot that. But don't you ever despise your pictures – anyhow distrust them – just because they are popular?"
"I haven't yet been in the position to find out what effect popularity would have on my own estimate," he said. "Oh, but wait a minute – I went to a gallery the other day, where there was a picture of mine, and there happened to be some people round it, so I went among them and listened to what they said. They were rather complimentary, and – and I think I liked them for it. Anyhow it didn't affect my own estimate."
Frank Armstrong glared at the well-dressed, well-fed loungers in the entrance.
"Somehow, I think fellows like these must be all wrong in their taste," he said.
"Then would you like unpopularity? Would you be better pleased if the theatre was empty, and there was no advance booking?"
Frank Armstrong grinned.
"No: I should curse like mad," he said. "It happened to me once, and I had no use for it."
Then his surliness broke down.
"I don't mind telling you," he said. "The fact is that I sold my play inside out from Iceland to Peru and Madagascar, and I don't get a penny more or less whether it runs to Doomsday or only New Year's Day. I feel all these people are defrauding me."
"Oh, what a pity!" said Charles. "I am sorry. But they'll come flocking to your next play."
The thought that there were three more plays of his to be pouched by Craddock sealed Armstrong's good humour up again. It had put in a very inconspicuous appearance, and now popped back like a lizard into its hole. He shrugged his shoulders.
"There's the bell," he said, "if you want to hear the third act."
"Don't want to miss a word," said Charles cordially.
Through the first half of the act Armstrong so yawned and fidgetted in the stall next him, that about the middle of it Charles felt that good manners prompted him to suggest that they should not remain till the end. Yet another way round, good manners were horrified at such a course. It would appear that the play bored him… But he decided to risk it, Armstrong was so obviously tired of it all.
"Shall we go?" he suggested.
Armstrong slid from his seat into the gangway.
"I thought the third act would be too much for you," he observed.
They went quickly and quietly up through the swing-doors, and Charles, rather troubled, laid a hand on the other's arm.
"It wasn't that a bit, indeed it wasn't," he said. "But you were yawning and grunting, you know – I thought you wanted to get out. I – I was enjoying it."
Armstrong knew he was behaving rudely to his guest, but to-night the thronged theatre, also, in part, the buoyancy of the Serene Joyfulness, had got on his nerves.
"Then go back and enjoy the rest of it," he said.
Charles' good humour was quite unimpaired: it was as fresh as paint.
"I think I will," he said. "Thanks awfully for bringing me. I'm enjoying myself tremendously. Good night."
Somehow for the moment that annoyed Armstrong even more, and there is no doubt that he would have found a pungently-flavoured reply. But there was no reply possible: on the word Charles had turned and gone back through the swing-doors once more. Then it dawned on Armstrong that his annoyance with Charles was really annoyance with himself at his own ill-mannered behaviour. For half-a-minute he hesitated, more than half disposed to follow him, to say a whispered word of regret if necessary… Then again the balance wavered, and he went out into the street. People with such infernally good tempers as his new acquaintance, he thought, should not be allowed at large. They did not fit in with his own ideas of the world, where everyone sought and grasped and snarled, unless he had some specific reason for making himself pleasant.
He looked aimlessly up and down Shaftesbury Avenue as he stood on the steps of the theatre, uncertain what to do with himself. There was a party he was bidden to, but he felt no inclination to stand and fire off the cheap neat gibes that he knew were considered his contribution to such gatherings, his payment for a supper and a cigarette, nor, as on some nights, did the illuminated street with the flaring sky-signs up above, and the flaring gaiety of the pavements below, allure him in the least. Sometimes he wandered up and down Piccadilly for an hour at a time in absorbed yet incurious observation of it all. It all bore out his theory of life: the spoiler and the spoiled, the barterer and bartered, everybody wanted something, everybody had to pay for it. But to-night the street seemed a mere galaxy of coloured shifting glass… Should he then go home, and work for an hour on his remodelled "Lane without a Turning"?.. He thought with a little spasm of inward amusement at the title that had occurred to him to-day, namely, "It's a Long Lane that has Five Turnings." They were all there in the play, five distinct turnings, parodies of passion; five separate times would the stalls make a fixed face so as not to show they were shocked, five separate times would they be utterly fooled and have fixed their faces for nothing. Those who happened to remember the original play – there would not be many of them – would laugh a little first because they would guess what was not going to happen: those who had never seen that sombre and serious work would merely find here the most entrancingly unexpected farcical situations developing on legitimate lines out of tragical data.
Strolling, he found himself underneath the brilliantly lit doors of Mr. Akroyd's theatre, where within at this hour, as Armstrong well knew, Mr. Fred Akroyd was being nobler than anybody who had ever yet worn a frock-coat and patent-leather shoes, with a pith helmet to indicate India. The third act would only just have begun: Akroyd was even now probably beginning to dawn like a harvest moon on the blackness of night and the plentiful crop. The moon would reach the zenith in about twenty minutes. Then it died in the garden of the Viceroy at Simla (blue incredible Himalayas behind) … and, if he sent his card in, he felt sure that Mr. Akroyd (after death in the garden) would be charmed to talk to him for ten minutes. It would be well to make some sort of contract without delay in case Craddock changed his mind about an option on this bewildering topsy-turvy of a Lane. For the moment he even felt grateful to Craddock for the hint he had given him as to the possibility of getting a larger advance on royalties out of Akroyd than the thousand pounds which that eminent actor-manager had offered. He would certainly act on the suggestion.
Akroyd was just expiring when he arrived, and after waiting five minutes he was shown into his dressing-room. The actor was still a little prostrate and perspiring profusely, with his efforts, and extended a languid hand… People sometimes said that if he acted on the stage as well as he acted off…
"Delighted to see you, my dear fellow," he said. "Sit down while I rest for a minute. It takes too much out of me, this last act. Cruel work! I feel the whole pulse of the theatre beating in my own veins … arteries."
"Strong pulse for a dying man," observed Armstrong.
"Yes: very good. You don't know, you authors, how we slave for you. Well, well; as long as you give us good strong parts, we have no quarrel with you. How's 'Easter Eggs,' by the way?"
"Oh, booked full over Christmas," said Armstrong negligently. "Such rot as it is too! I don't wonder you refused to look at it. No strong part in it. But I've got something fully in my head, and partly on paper, which might suit you better. I hear that this – this present strain on you isn't likely to continue after the middle of December. So if you feel inclined you might come round to my rooms, and you can have some supper there while I read you what I've done, and tell you about the rest."
A reassuring alacrity possessed Akroyd at this, and he made a good and steady convalescence from his prostration. He always made a point of walking home after the theatre, for the sake of his health, he said. He did not walk very fast, and often he took off his hat, and held it in his hand, so as to get the refreshing breezes of the night on his brow which "much thought expands." His tall massive form and fine tragic face often attracted a good deal of attention, and people would whisper his name as he went by. But he put up with these small penalties of publicity: it was very good for the hair to let the wind play upon it…
Akroyd some ten years ago had sprung to the front of his profession by his masterly acting of a comedy part which verged on farce. Since then he had drifted into noble middle-aged parts, such as bachelor marquises who made marriage possible between fine young fellows and girls whom the marquis was secretly in love with, husbands of fifty with wives of twenty-five, all those parts in fact in which Tact, Nobility, Breadth of View and Unselfish Wisdom untie knots for everybody else and give everybody else a Splendid Time. But his drifting, though in part dictated by his conviction that he handled these virtues as if born to the job, was due also to the fact that during these years he had really not been given a comedy that seemed to him worth risking. He knew he could always make a success as a prime minister or a marquis without any risk at all, and his luck, as less fortunate managers called it, was proverbial, for he never had a failure. But it was not luck at all that was responsible for these successes: it was fine business capacity, and a knowledge of what his following among play goers expected of him. He always gave the public what they expected, and then never disappointed them. But in his secret heart he had a longing (provided the risk was not too great) to play a rousing comic part again, to set his stalls laughing instead of leaving them dim-eyed. He was aware that he must do it soon if he was going to do it at all … there is an age when even the most self-reliant do not feel equal to the strain of being funny.
"It's rather out of your line," said Armstrong abruptly, as he sat Akroyd down to his oysters. "But you once did a part of the same kind: it was the first play I ever saw. You were marvellously good in it."
"Ah, 'The Brittlegings,'" said Akroyd, considerably stimulated. "Old history, I'm afraid. Time of the Georges."
"Well, it's the time of the Georges again," remarked Armstrong. "The play is called 'It's a Long Lane that has Five Turnings.'"
Akroyd when discussing theatrical matters always criticised freely. An author once had suggested forty-two as a suitable age for the part that he was to play. He had considered this and replied "Forty-three. I think forty-three."
"That's a very long title," he said.
"It was a long Lane," said Armstrong. "Anyhow, it is the title. Dramatis personae – "
"Tell me what you have designed to be my part," said Akroyd.
"I think I shall leave you to guess. There are many points, by the way, that want discussion, and I should like your advice. But I think I will read straight through the first act without interruption."
Akroyd, as has been stated, was a very shrewd business man, but his keen appreciation of the wit and effectiveness of this act made it difficult for him to bring his business capacity into full working order. Many times throughout it had he checked his laughter, throughout it too had he seen himself in the glorious tragico-farcical situations provided for him, (he had no difficulty in guessing his part) in a sort of parody of his own manner. It was a brilliant piece of work, he saw himself brilliantly interpreting it. But at the end he, with an effort, put the cork into his admiration.
"Yes, yes: very clever, very sparkling," he said, "but hardly in my line, do you think? Hardly in yours, perhaps either. It would be taking a great risk: I should not expect there to be much money in it. Appreciative stalls perhaps: it is hard to say. However, read the scenario of the rest."
Frank Armstrong felt he knew quite well what this meant. It was the usual decrying of work by the intending purchaser, in order to get it cheaper, and it roused in him all the resentment that as producer he had so often felt for Craddock as capitalist. He threw the manuscript onto the table, resolved to play the same game.
"Hardly worth while," he said. "Obviously the play doesn't appeal to you, though I think it might have ten years ago, before you took to the heavy work business. I was thinking of you as I saw you first. Jove, it's thirsty work reading, and now I shall have to read it all over again to somebody else to-morrow."
"Ah, you rush at conclusions altogether too much," said Akroyd slightly alarmed. "Much necessarily depends on the working out of the play. It is admirably laid down: the scenes are full of wit and interest. I – I insist on hearing the rest."
"Shan't bother you," said Armstrong, taking whisky and soda, and enjoying himself keenly.
"Then let me take it away and read it," said Akroyd. "Really, my dear fellow, it is hardly fair to ask me here to listen to an act and the scenario of the rest, and then refuse."
"But I feel now I read it how much more suitable it would be for Tranby," said Armstrong. "I will telephone to him and read it to him to-morrow. He has been asking me if I hadn't got anything for him. I hope the oysters are good."
"Let me read it myself then, now," said Akroyd, holding out a hand that almost trembled with anxiety.
Frank gave up his obstinacy with an indifferent yawn.
"O, well: I'll tell you the rest of it," he said.
But having begun, his indifference vanished, while Akroyd's anxiety increased. To think of Tranby, his esteemed and gifted colleague, having this marvel of dexterous fooling submitted to him to-morrow, was to picture himself on the edge of a precipice. He felt giddy, his head swam at the propinquity of that catastrophic gulf. Fortunately he could crawl away now, for Armstrong was continuing.
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