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Intentionally he did the utmost he could for the reading, giving drama and significance to the bare sketch. Here and there he had written upwards of a page of dialogue in his wonderful neat hand, and once, when he found a dozen lines of a speech by Akroyd, he passed them over to him, asking him to read them aloud (which he did, moving about the room with excellent gesticulations). Then as one of the ludicrous "turnings" approached Armstrong would drop his voice, speak slowly and huskily – "Surely he can't be fooling us this time," thought Akroyd – as the tragic moment approached. Then came another ludicrous legitimate situation of the impasse, another thwarting of ridiculous Destiny. Life became a series of brilliant conjuring tricks, all carefully explained, and the gorgeous conjuror was Akroyd.
He felt there must be no further mention of Tranby, for his nerves could not stand it. At the end he got up, and shook hands with Armstrong.
"I am much obliged to you for offering me the most brilliant piece of work I have seen for years," he said. "I will certainly accept it, and put it on when we open after Christmas. I will send you a contract to sign to-morrow – "
Frank Armstrong lit a cigarette.
"We might talk over the lines of it to-night," he said. "Else perhaps I might not sign it."
Akroyd, as was his custom, became so great an artist and so magnificent a gentleman when any question of money was brought forward that it was almost impossible to proceed.
"I am sure you will find my proposals framed on the most generous lines," he said.
Armstrong allowed the faintest shadow of a grin to hover about his mouth.
"No doubt," he said, "but there is no reason that you should not tell me what they are. Advance, for instance, on account of royalties. What do you propose?"
Akroyd put a hand to his fine brow, frowning a little.
"I think I suggested some sum to you," he said. "Eight hundred pounds advance, was it? Something like that."
Again Armstrong boiled within himself… Yet after all this was business. Akroyd wanted to pay as little as he could: he himself wanted to obtain the most possible. But it was mean, when he knew quite well that he had himself proposed a thousand pounds. It was great fun, too … the thought of Craddock now on the bosom of the treacherous Mediterranean, perhaps being sea-sick…
"Oh, no," he said quite good naturedly. "A thousand was the sum you proposed. But I don't accept it."
The interview did not last long after this: a mere mention of Tranby's name was enough, and a quarter of an hour afterwards Akroyd went home in a taxi (as the streets were now empty) having yielded on every point, but well pleased with his acquisition. Fifteen hundred pounds down and royalties on a high scale was a good deal to give. But it seemed to him that there was a good deal to be got.
Frank sat up for another half-hour alone, in a big arm-chair, hugging his knees, and occasionally bursting out into loud unaccountable laughter.What an excellent ten-minutes scene the last half-hour would make in a play called, say "The Actor Manager" or "The Middleman." How mean people were! And how delightful fifteen hundred pounds was! But what work, what work to bring his play up to the level of the first act! But he would do it: he was not going to be content with anything but his best.
Then he laughed again.
"'The Middleman … The Sweater Thwarted.' Good play for Tranby."
He put down his expired pipe, and rose to open the window. The room was full of tobacco-smoke, the table hideous with remains of supper: it was all rather stale and sordid. Stale and sordid, too, now it was over, was his encounter with Akroyd, and his complete victory. He had scored, oh, yes, he had scored.
He leaned out for a moment into the cool freshness of the night-air, that smelt of frost, finding with distaste that his coat-sleeve on which he leaned his face reeked of tobacco. It reeked of Akroyd, too, somehow, of meanness and cunning and his own superior cunning. It was much healthier out of the window…
"Gosh, I wish I hadn't been such a pig to that jolly fellow at the play," he said to himself.
Philip Wroughton was sitting (not on the steps, for that would have been risky, but on a cushion on the steps of the Mena Hotel) occasionally looking at his paper, occasionally looking at the Pyramids, in a state of high content. To relieve the reader's mind at once, it may be stated that Egypt thoroughly suited him, he had not sneezed nor ached nor mourned since he got here nearly a month ago. The voyage from Marseilles, it is true, had been detestably rough, but he blamed nobody for that since he had come under the benediction of the Egyptian sun, not the captain, nor Messrs. Thomas Cook & Sons, nor Joyce – nobody. This was the sun's doing: there never was such a sun: it seemed regulated for him as a man can order the regulation of the temperature of his bath-water. It was always warm enough; it was never too hot. If you had your white umbrella you put it up; if you had forgotten it, it didn't matter: several times he had assured Joyce that it didn't matter. In every way he felt stronger and better than he had done for years, and to-day, greatly daring, he was going to mount himself, with assistance, on an Egyptian ass, and ride to see the Sphinx and make the tour of the great pyramid, in company with Craddock. It may be added that his reason for sitting on the hotel steps was largely in order to make a minute survey of the donkeys on hire just beyond. He wanted one that was not too spirited, or looked as if it wanted to canter. There was a pinkish one there that might do, but it flapped its ears in rather an ominous manner… Perhaps Craddock would choose one for him. And glancing again at his paper he observed with singular glee that there were floods in the Thames valley.
Lady Crowborough and Joyce had gone into Cairo that morning to do some shopping and lunch with friends. This happened with considerable frequency. Not infrequently also they went to a dinner or a dance in that gay city, and stopped the night there. These dinners and dances had at first been supposed to be for Joyce's sake; they were actually, and now avowedly, for Lady Crowborough's sake, though Joyce, for more reasons than one, was delighted to accompany her. On such days as the two did not go into town, it was pretty certain that small relays of British officers and others would ride out to have lunch or tea with them at Ulena, and Lady Crowborough had several new flirts. Altogether she was amazing, prodigious. She rode her donkey every morning, as beveiled as the Temple, in a blue cotton habit and with a fly-whisk, accompanied by a handsome young donkey-boy with milk white teeth, and an engaging smile. He called her "Princess," being a shrewd young man, and it is to be feared that he was to be numbered also among the new flirts. Also, as he ran behind her donkey he used to call out in Arabic "Make way for the bride O-ah!" which used to evoke shouts of laughter from his fellows. Then Lady Crowborough would ask what he was saying that made them all laugh, and with an ingenuous smile he explained that he told the dogs to get out of the way of the Princess. "And they laugh," he added "'cause they very glad to see you." This was perfectly satisfactory and she said "None of your nonsense."
Joyce beyond any doubt whatever was enjoying it all very much. The sun, the colour, the glories of the antique civilization, the kaleidoscopic novelties of the Oriental world, the gaiety and hospitality so lavishly welcoming her grandmother and herself, all these made to a girl accustomed to the restrictions and bondage of her dutiful filialness to a thoroughly selfish father, a perpetual festa and spectacle. But though she was in no way beginning to weary of it, or even get accustomed to it, she found as the full days went by that two questions, one retrospective, the other anticipatory, were beginning to occupy and trouble her. With regard to the future she was aware that Craddock was exercising his utmost power to please her and gratify her, and felt no doubt whatever as to what this accumulation of little benefits was leading up to. Before long she knew well he would ask her again to give him the right to think for her always, to see after her welfare in things great and small. In a hundred ways, too, she knew that her father wished him all success in his desire. Often he made dreadfully disconcerting remarks that were designed to be understood in the way Joyce understood them. "Ah, Joyce," he would say, "Mr. Craddock as usual has seen to that for you… I declare Mr. Craddock guesses your inclination before you know it yourself. He has ordered your donkey for half-past ten."… She felt that assuredly Mr. Craddock was going to send his bill in – "account rendered" this time – and ask for payment. But not possibly, not conceivably could she imagine herself paying it.
The retrospective affair occupied her more secretly, but more engrossingly. Behind all the splendour and gaiety and interest and sunlight there hung a background which concerned her more intimately than any of those things: compared with it, nothing else had colour or brightness. And her father had told her that this background was stained and daubed with dirt, with commonness, with things not to be associated with… Never had the subject been ever so remotely alluded to again between them: Charles' name had not crossed her lips or his. She had never asked him who his informant was, but she felt that any such question was superfluous. She knew; her whole heart and mind told her that she knew. Whether she had ever actually believed the tale she scarcely remembered: anyhow she had accepted it as far as action went. But now, without further evidence on the subject, she utterly and passionately disbelieved it. By communing with herself she had arrived at the unshakeable conviction that it not only was not, but could not be true. Through quietly thinking of Charles, through telling over, like rosary beads, the hours of their intercourse together, she had seen that. It was as clear as the simplest logical proposition.
But she saw also that when Craddock repeated the question he had asked her last June, he would ask it far more urgently and authentically. There had been no fire behind it then: now, she saw that he was kindled. Before, he used to look at her with unconcealed glances of direct admiration, make her great speeches of open compliment, comparing her to a Greek Victory, a Bacchante. Now he looked at her more shyly, more surreptitiously, and he paid her compliments no longer, just because they no longer expressed all he had to say about her: they had become worn, like defaced coins out of currency.
But this acquired seriousness and sincerity of feeling on his part, which before would have earned at any rate her sympathy, now, in the conviction she held that it was he who had spoken of Charles to her father, made him the more detestable as a wooer, even as in ordinary converse he now excited her disgustful antipathy. He was as pleasant, as agreeable, as clever and adaptable as before, but her conjectured knowledge had spread through his whole personality staining and poisoning it. He had thought – so she now supposed – to put a rival out of the field by this treacherous stab in the back, to unhorse him and ride over him. In that he had bitterly erred, and though still thinking he had succeeded, deep in her heart was his disgraceful failure blazoned. And daily she felt the nightmare of his renewed proposal was coming nearer. Very possibly, she thought, he was delaying speech until they should go up the Nile, and should be leading a more leisurely, and, she was afraid, a more intimate life in the comparative quietude of Luxor, where they proposed to make a long stay. For that reason, largely, she gladly joined her grandmother in her amazing activities in Cairo and gave the kindliest welcome to those pleasant young English soldiers who were so ready to come out to them.
But most of all Joyce loved to wander over the hot yellow sands of the desert, or go out alone if possible, and sit looking at the pyramids, or at the wonderful beast that lay looking earthwards with fathomless eyes of everlasting mystery, as if waiting patiently through the unnumbered centuries for the dawning of some ultimate day. Or else, ensconced in some wrinkles of the undulating ground, she would watch the hawks circling in the fathomless sky, or let her eyes wander over the peacock green of the springing crops to the city sparkling very small and bright on the edge of the Nile. A long avenue of carob trees, giving the value of Prussian blue against the turquoise of the sky and the vivid green of the rising maize and corn led in a streak across the plain to it.
She was not conscious of consecutive or orderly thought in these solitary vigils. But she knew that in some way, even as her mind and her eye were expanded by those new wonders of old time that waited alert and patient among the desert sands, so her soul also was growing in the stillness of its contemplation. She made no efforts to pry it open, so to speak, to unfold its compacted petals, for it basked in the sun and psychical air that was appropriate to it, expanding daily, silent, fragrant…
Philip had not to wait long for his escorting Craddock. He mused gleefully over the news of floods in the Thames valley, he remembered it was New Year's day to-morrow, he kept his eye on the pinkish donkey, and felt confidently daring. The pinkish donkey looked very quiet, except for the twitching ears; he hoped that Craddock would approve his choice and not want to mount him on the one that shook itself. Craddock had proposed this expedition himself, and for a minute or two Philip wondered whether he wanted to talk about anything special, Joyce for example. But he felt so well that he did not care just now what Craddock talked about, or what happened to anybody. He felt sure, too, that he would be hungry by lunch time. Really, it was insane to have let that Reynolds hang on the wall so many years and rot like blotting paper in the Thames valley. But then he had no notion that he could get five thousand pounds for it. He owed a great deal to Craddock, who at this moment came out of the hotel, large and fat and white, reassuring himself as to that point about a whisker… Suddenly he struck Philip as being rather like a music-master on holiday at Margate who had ordered new smart riding-clothes in order to create an impression on the pier. But he looked rich.
As usual he was very, very deferential and attentive, highly approved Philip's penchant for the pinkish donkey, and selected for himself a small one that resembled in some essential manner a depressed and disappointed widow. His large legs almost touched the ground on either side of it, he could almost have progressed in the manner of the ancient velocipede. And Philip having made it quite clear that if his donkey attempted to exceed a foot's pace, he should go straight home, and give no backshish at all, they made a start as smooth and imperceptible as the launching of a ship.
Craddock had interesting communications to make regarding the monarchs of the fourth dynasty, but his information was neither given nor taken as if it was of absorbing importance. Philip, indeed, was entirely wrapped up in observation of his donkey's movements, and the satisfaction he felt in not being in the Thames valley.
"Indeed, so long ago as that," he said. "How it takes one back! And even then the Nile floods came up here did they? Ah, by the way, the Thames is in flood. Probably my lawn is under water: I should have been a cripple with rheumatism if I had stopped there. Don't make those clicking noises, Mohammed. We are going quite fast enough. Yes, and there were three dynasties before that! I don't find the movement at all jerky or painful, my dear Craddock. I should not wonder if I rode again. Fancy my riding! I should not have believed it possible. As for you, you manage like a positive jockey. What do I say, Mohammed, if I should want to stop?"
The positive jockey, whose positiveness apparently consisted in size and weight, decided to slide away from the fourth dynasty to times and persons who more immediately concerned him.
"Indeed it is difficult to imagine such things as floods and rain," he said, "when we bask in this amazing illumination. I can't express to you my gratitude in allowing me to join your happy harmonious party."
Philip just waved his fly-whisk in the direction of the Sphinx, as if to acknowledge without making too much of its presence.
"Dear Joyce!" he said. "I think it has been and will continue to be a happy time for her. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to bring her out, though of course it entailed a certain sacrifice. Alone, I should have been able to compass the journey, I think, on the interest of what the Reynolds picture brought me: with her I have had necessarily to part with capital. Still, of what use is money except to secure health and enjoyment for others? She is looking wonderfully well."
Craddock, who had till now been standing outside his topic, took a sudden header into the very depth of it, rather adroitly.
"There is no money I would not spend on Miss Joyce's health and enjoyment," he said. "There is nothing nearer to my heart than that."
This sounded very pleasing and satisfactory, for the more Philip saw of Craddock, the more he liked him as a prospective son-in-law. But everything seemed slightly remote and unimportant to-day, in comparison with his own sense of comfort and well-being.
"My dear friend, I renew my assurance of sympathy and good wishes," he said. "Ah, I was afraid my donkey was going to stumble then. But I held it up: I held it up."
Craddock's habit of attention to Philip found expression before he continued that which he had come out to say.
"Anyone can see you are a rider," he said rather mechanically. "Of course you must know that my pleasure in being out here with you consisted largely in the furthering of the hope that is nearest my heart. But since we have been here (I am coming to you for counsel) I have seen so little of Miss Joyce. Often, of course, she is engaged, and that I quite understand. But she has seemed to me rather to avoid me, to – to shun my presence. And hers, I may say, grows every day more dear and precious to me."
Craddock was really moved. Beneath his greed for money, his unscrupulousness in getting it, his absorption in his plundering of and battening on those less experienced than he, there was something that was capable of feeling, and into that something Joyce had certainly made her way. The depth of the feeling was not to be gauged by the fact, that, in its service, he would do a dishonourable thing, for that, it is to to be feared, was a feat that presented no overwhelming natural difficulties to him. But his love for Joyce had grown from liking and admiration into a thing of fire, into a pure and luminous element. It did not come wholly from outside; it was not like some rainbow winged butterfly, settling for a moment on carrion. It was more like some celestial-hued flower growing, if you will, out of a dung-heap. It might, it is true, have been fed and nourished in a soil of corruption and dishonour, but by that divine alchemy that love possesses, none of this had passed into its colour and its fragrance. It was not dimmed or cankered by the nature of the soil from which it grew, it was splendid with its own nature. And every day, even as he had said, it became more dear and precious to him.
"I don't know if you have noticed any of this, I mean any of her avoidance of me."
Philip was able to console, quite truthfully. He hadn't noticed anything at all, being far too much taken up in himself.
"Indeed I have seen nothing of the kind," he said, "and I do not think I am naturally very unobservant. Besides, Joyce, I think, guesses how warmly I should welcome you as a son-in-law. Ah, I held my donkey up again! He would have been down unless I had been on the alert. No, no, my dear Craddock, you are inventing trouble for yourself. Lovers habitually do that: they fancy their mistress is unkind. I recommend you to wait a little, be patient, until we get out of all this va-et-vient of Cairo. It is true Joyce is much taken up with my mother and her social excesses – I think I am not harsh in calling them excesses at her age. In the romance and poetry of – of Luxor and all that – you will find my little Joyce a very tender-hearted girl, very affectionate, very grateful for affection. Not that I admit she has shunned or avoided you, not for a moment. Far from it. Don't you remember how pleased she was when she knew you were coming with us? Mohammed, stop the donkey: I am out of breath."
Craddock reined in also: the depressed widow was not very unwilling to stop and he stepped off her, and stood by Philip.
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