Edward Benson.

Thorley Weir



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He thought over this ill-success, guessed without getting within miles of the truth at the primary reason for it, as he drove through the white sunshine from his interview with the astounded and grateful Charles, and almost immediately became aware that in the last hour, his feelings for Joyce had undergone a curious intensification. Inspired, as he had been all his life by desires that were entirely material, he had been used, by the aid of his clever brain, to compass and possess them. Often, of course, he had not been able for the mere wanting, to obtain the coveted object, and hitherto, it had almost invariably happened that this temporary check stirred him up to such further efforts as were necessary. A wish denied him hitherto, had connoted a wish intensified, and since there is a great deal of truth latent in the commonplace that to want a thing enough always earns the appropriate reward of desire, he had not often fainted or failed before reaching his goal. Even now, though up till now his desire for Joyce had been scarcely more than a wish, it seemed to him different from all other wishes; it was becoming a desire as simple and primal as hunger for food or sleep… Some internal need dictated it. This was disturbing, and since he had other immediate work on hand, he turned his attention to a typewritten manuscript, of which he had read part, last night; he proposed to finish it in the train.

Craddock, as has been said, had a mind profoundly critical and appreciative: he had also quite distinct and segregate, an astonishing flair for perceiving what the public would appreciate. Often he bought pictures which from an artistic point of view he thought frankly contemptible because he saw signs so subtle that they were instinctively perceived rather than reasoned – that the public was going to see something in either an old outworn mode, or in some new and abominable trickery. He then transferred his purchases to Thistleton's Gallery, and gladly parted with them on advantageous terms. But this flair of his was by no means confined to mere pictorial representations, and he was always glad to read a novel or a play in manuscript, with a view to purchasing it himself, and disposing of his acquired rights to publisher or playwright. Living as he publicly did in the centre of things, an assiduous diner out and frequenter of fashionable stair-cases, he yet had a quiet and secret life of his own as distinct from the other as are the lives of inhabitants in adjoining houses, whose circle of friends are as diverse as bishops from ballet-dancers. He preferred to deal in the work of men who were young or unknown, and at present had not been able to get producers for their possible masterpieces. He was thus often able by liberal offers to secure an option of purchase (at a specified figure) over the output of their next few years. Often to the sick-heartedness of their deferred hopes, such prospects seemed dictated by a princely liberality, and they were gladly accepted.

Scores of such plays he read and found wanting, but every now and then he came across something which with judicious handling and backed by the undoubted influence he had with the public through the press, he felt sure he could waft into desirable havens. Only this morning by the weir-side he had found a gem of very pure ray, which he believed to be easily obtainable, and now as he read this manuscript in the train, he fancied that his jewel-box need not be locked up again yet. The public he thought to be tired of problem-dramas: they liked their thinking to be peptonized for them, and presented in a soft digestible form. Just at present, too, they had no use for high romance on the one hand, or, on the other, subtle situations and delicate unravellings. They wanted to be shown the sort of thing, that, with a little laughter and no tears, might suitably happen to perfectly commonplace, undistinguished (though not indistinguishable) persons, and in this comedy of suburban villadom, with curates and stockbrokers and churchwardens behaving naturally and about as humorously as they might be expected to behave without straining themselves, he felt sure that he held in his hand a potential success on a large scale.

The author was young and desperately poor: he had already had a play on the boards at the first night of which Arthur Craddock had been present, which had scored as complete a failure as could possibly have been desired to produce suitable humility in a young man. But Craddock, who always thought for himself instead of accepting the opinions of others, had seen what good writing there was in it, how curiously deft was the handling of the material, and knew that the failure was largely due to the choice of subject, though ten years ago it would probably have been welcomed as vigorously as it was now condemned. It was an excellent play of ten years ago, or perhaps ten years to come, with its lurid story too difficult for the indolent theatre-goer of this particular year to grasp, and its climax of inextricable misery. He had therefore immediately written to Frank Armstrong, the author, and at an ensuing interview told him what, in his opinion, were the lines on which to build a popular success. Then, guessing, or, rather knowing, that Armstrong must have attempted drama many times before he had produced so mature a piece of work as the unfortunate "Lane Without a Turning," he said:

"I daresay you have something in your desk at home, rather like what I have been sketching to you, which you have very likely failed to get produced before now. Send it to me, and let me read it."

It was this play "Easter-Eggs" which Craddock finished as the train slowed down into Paddington Station. It could not be described as so fine a play as that which had achieved so complete a failure, but it had all that the other lacked in popular and effective sentiment. Even to a man of Craddock's experience in the want of discernment in theatrical managers, it was quite astounding that it had ever been refused, but he could guess why this had been its fate. For there was no "star-part" in it; there was no character, overwhelmingly conspicuous, who could dominate the whole play and turn it into a "one-man" show. The success of it must depend on level competent acting, without limelight and slow music. It was a domestic drama without villain or hero or dominating personality, and when he again read over the list of acting managers to whom Frank Armstrong had submitted it, he saw how absurd it was to suppose that Tranby or Akroyd or Miss Loughton could ever have considered its production. But he saw also how a company of perfectly-unknown artists could admirably present it, with a great saving of salaries. It needed moderate talent evenly distributed, and one part mishandled would wreck it as surely as would some ranting actor-manager who tried to force a dominant personality into the play, and only succeeded in upsetting the whole careful balance of it. Even as Craddock drove back to his sumptuous and airless flat in Berkeley Square he jotted down a half-dozen names of those who filled minor parts in star-plays quite excellently. He wanted them without the stars.

And then quite suddenly, his mind, usually so obedient, bolted, and proceeded at top-speed in quite another direction. Without intention, he found himself wondering what Joyce was doing, whether she would have told her father about his proposal, or confided in that astutest of grandmothers, whether she was in the punt with panting dogs, or still troubled with the undoubted indisposition of Buz, who had not been at all well, so she had told him, this last day or two. Her life seemed to him a deplorable waste of heavenly maidenhood, partly owing to a selfish father, partly, now at least, because she had not consented to waste it no longer. Youth lasted so short a time and its possessors so often squandered it on things that profited not, ailing dogs, for instance, and swans' nests among the reeds.

Then he caught sight of his own large face in the mirror of his motor, and felt terribly old. He, too, had squandered his youth in the amassing of knowledge, in all that could have been acquired when the leap of the blood thrilled less imperatively, in the passion devoted to passionless things, in the mere acquisition of wealth, in the formation of his unerring taste and acumen. But he knew that his blood had tuned itself to a brisker and more virile pulse, since Joyce had shaken her head and smiled, and been a little troubled. Or was it over the indisposition of Buz that she was troubled?

Then, arriving at his flat, he became his own man again, and cordially telephoned to Frank Armstrong to have lunch with him.

CHAPTER III

An hour later Frank Armstrong was sitting opposite Craddock eating lunch with the steadfast and business-like air of a man who was not only hungry now, but knew from long experience that it was prudent to eat whenever edibles could be had for nothing. Some minutes before Craddock had suggested a slice of cold meat to give solidity to the very light repast that was so suitable to the heat of the day, and since then Armstrong had been consuming ham and firm pieces of bread without pause or speech. But nobody was less greedy than he; only, for years of his life he had been among the habitually hungry. In appearance he was rugged and potentially fierce: a great shock of black hair crowned a forehead that projected like a pent-house over deep-set angry eyes, and it might be guessed that he was a person both easy and awkward to quarrel with, for his expression was suspicious and resentful, as of some wild beast, accustomed to ill-usage, but whom ill-usage had altogether failed in taming. But though this ugliness of expression was certainly the predominant characteristic of that strong distrustful face, a less casual observer might easily form the conclusion that there were better things below, a certain eagerness, a certain patience, a certain sensibility.

He looked up at Craddock after a while, with a queer crooked smile on his large mouth, not without charm.

"I will now cease being a pig," he said. "But when one is really hungry one can't think about anything else. It is no more hoggish, really, than the longing for sleep if you haven't slept for nights, or for water when one is thirsty. I had no breakfast this morning. Now what have you got to talk to me about?"

Craddock was a strong believer in the emollient effects of food, and had determined to talk no business till his client was at ease in a chair with tobacco and quiescent influences.

"Ah, no breakfast!" he said. "I myself find that I work best before I eat."

Frank Armstrong laughed.

"I don't," he said. "I work best after a large meal. No: I did not have breakfast, because it would have been highly inconvenient to pay for it. There are such people, you know. I have often been one of them."

Arthur Craddock found this peremptory young savage slightly alarming. For himself he demanded that social intercourse should be conducted in a sort of atmosphere of politeness, of manners. Just as in landscape-painting you had to have atmosphere, else the effect was of cast-iron, so in dealings with your fellow-men. There should be no such things as edges, particularly raw ones. He thought he had seldom seen anybody so unatmospheric.

"My dear fellow," he said. "Do you mean that you have been actually in want of money to pay for food? Why did you not tell me? You knew what an interest I took in you and your work."

Frank looked at him quite unatmospherically.

"But why should my having breakfast matter to you?" he said. "You wanted my work, if you thought it good: if not, I was no more to you than all the rest of the brutes who go without breakfast. Now about the play. At least, I don't suppose you asked me to lunch in order to talk about breakfast. I quite expect you to tell me it's twaddle, indeed, I know it is. But does it by any chance seem to you remunerative twaddle?"

Craddock really suffered in this want of atmosphere. He gasped, mentally speaking, like an unaccustomed aeronaut in rarefied air.

"Ah, I can't agree with you that it is twaddle," he said. "The plot no doubt is slender, but the dialogue is excellent, and you show considerable precision and fineness of line in the character-drawing."

"But what characters?" said the candid author. "The curate, the housemaid, the churchwarden. Lord, what people, without a shred of life or force in them. But it answered your description of what theatre-goers liked. I wrote it last year, in a reaction after the 'Lane without a Turning.'"

"Ah, was that it?" said Craddock. "It puzzled me to know how a boy like you – you are a boy, my dear fellow – could possibly write anything so bitter and hopeless as that, and something so quietly genial as 'Easter Eggs.'"

"Easily enough. I myself wrote the one: it was me, and as I found out, nobody liked it. 'Easter Eggs' is merely my observation of a quantity of blameless chattering people. I lived in Surbiton when I was quite a boy. They were rather like that: there were teaparties and sewing-societies to relieve distress among the poor. Packets of cross-overs used to be sent to Cancer Hospitals. Let's get back to the subject. Remunerative or not?"

"Without doubt remunerative," agreed Craddock again gasping.

"But I have given three of our leading actors the opportunity of remunerating themselves and me, and they won't touch it. Are their souls above remuneration, and do they only want topping high art?"

Arthur Craddock did not see his way to telling Armstrong that he had sent his play to exactly those managers who would be quite certain to refuse it, because that was information which he had excellent reason, if he was to conclude an advantageous bargain, for keeping to himself.

"Nevertheless, I am right about your play," he said, "and Tranby and Akroyd are wrong."

Frank shrugged his shoulders.

"So you tell me," he observed.

"Yes, and I am willing to back my opinion. I will here and now buy this play from you and pay for it at a figure which you will not consider ungenerous, considering it is a pure speculation on my part. But there are certain conditions."

Frank Armstrong pulled his chair up closer to the table, and put his elbows on it. Craddock could see that his fingers were trembling.

"Name your conditions, if you will be so good," he said. "Perhaps you would also tell me more about the not ungenerous figure."

Craddock held up a white plump hand of deprecation. He positively could not get on without manners and life's little insincerities. As this young man seemed to have none of them, he had to supply sufficient for two. He was glad to observe that signal of nervousness on Armstrong's part: it argued well for the acceptance of his bargain.

"You are so direct, my dear fellow," he said. "You demand a 'yes' or a 'no' like a cross-examining counsel. You must permit me to explain the situation. I take a great interest in your work and in you, and I am willing to run a considerable risk in order to give your work a chance of being fairly judged and appreciated. Now there is nothing more difficult to gauge than the likings of the public, and while I tell you that your play will be without doubt remunerative, I may be hopelessly in error. But I see in it certain qualities which I think will attract, though in your previous play, which, frankly, I think a finer piece of work than this, the public was merely repelled. But here – "

Armstrong's elbow gave a jerk that was quite involuntary.

"Shall we come to the point?" he said. "Of course this is all very gratifying, but we can talk about the play's merits afterwards. How much do you offer me for 'Easter Eggs' and on what conditions?"

Craddock drummed with his plump fingers on the table. Looking across at the strong rough face opposite him he could see suspense and anxiety very clearly written there. He felt a rather nasty pleasure in that: it was like poking up some fierce animal with a stick, where there are bars between which prevent its retaliating violence. But perhaps it would be kinder to put it out of its suspense, for Armstrong wanted to know this more than he had wanted lunch even.

"I offer you ?500 down for all rights of your play," he said, "on conditions that you let me have three more of your plays within the next three years at the same price, should I choose to buy them."

Armstrong did not take his eyes off him, nor did the stringency of their gaze relax.

"Did you say ?500?" he asked in an odd squeaky little voice.

"I did."

Then the tension relaxed. The young man got up and rubbed the backs of his hands across his eyes.

"If I'm asleep," he said, "I hope I shan't wake for a long time. It's deuced pleasant. I don't quite know what five hundred pounds mean – I can't see to the end of them. I thought perhaps you were going to offer me ?50. I should certainly have accepted it. Why didn't you?"

This was a good opportunity for Craddock.

"Because I do not happen to be a sweater," he said, "and because like an honest man I prefer paying a fair price for good work."

Armstrong gave a great shout of laughter.

"And because there isn't much difference to you between fifty pounds and five hundred," he said.

He paused.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I had no business to say that. But I don't understand your offer. By the way, of course I accept it."

Craddock had tried to look hurt when this rather ruthless suggestion as to the reason for his generosity was made, but he did not feel within himself that his attempt was very successful, and was glad to look benign again when Frank Armstrong apologised.

The tremulousness of his hands had ceased, and he looked straight at his benefactor with his distrustful gaze. Then once more the crooked rather charming smile came on his mouth.

"Personally, I am sure you rather detest me," he said, "so I suppose it seems to you worth while financially to run this risk with your money. So, though I'm bewildered, I tell you frankly, with the prospect of five hundred pounds, I'm not grateful to you. I wish I was. Of course, if 'Easter Eggs' makes anything of a hit, you will do pretty well, and I shall be a popular playwright – "

He broke off a moment, and pushed back his hair.

"Ah, I see: that's where you come in," he said. "You have an option to buy three more plays by a popular playwright at the same price. Again if any of the three new ones makes a success, you won't do very badly."

Craddock went on the whisker-hunt for a moment.

"And if 'Easter Eggs' is put on, and fails, as your other play did," he observed, "shall I not be considerably out of pocket? And another failure would not encourage me to exercise my option over any future work of yours. However, let it be me this time who asks you to come to the point. Do you accept my offer or not? I may mention that I shall not renew it. I cannot waste my time over arrangements that come to nothing."

Armstrong nodded at him with comparative friendliness.

"Good Lord, yes. I accept it," he said. "I told you I should have accepted ?50."

Craddock got up.

"Then if you have finished your lunch, we might draw up an agreement over our cigarettes."

"Certainly. I daresay you will let me have a cigar, too. And when I've signed, or whatever I have to do, will you give me a cheque straight off? I shall have a banking account, I suppose, and I shan't be hungry again for ever, as far as I can see. By George, I ought to be grateful to you. But I think the sort of experience I've been through don't give a fellow much practice in gratitude. Gratitude is an acquired virtue. It is the prosperous who mainly acquire it."

Craddock patted him on the shoulder.

"My dear fellow, you may leave the cynicism of the Lane that had no Turning behind you," he said.

Armstrong suddenly drew up his shirt-cuff and showed a long scar healed years ago which ran nearly up to his elbow.

"That's where my father threw a knife at me once," he said. "It was a bad shot, for he threw it at my head. It's healed, you might think: it looks healed. It bleeds inside, though."

This was a savage young beast, it seemed, that Craddock had got hold of, one who had been set in slippery places, that sloped hell-wards. Craddock had known some who had learned patience from their sojournings in such resorts, he had known others who had simply been broken by it, others again, and of those possibly the joyful and attractive Charles Lathom was one, who seemed to have taken no colour from their surroundings, but emerged with their serenity and sweetness undisturbed. But never yet had he seen anyone who came out of dark places with mere anger and resentment against his sufferings, and yet with strength quite unimpaired. Armstrong seemed to him like that: the flames apparently had but hardened and annealed him. He had suffered under the lash of circumstance, not stout-heartedly nor with any loss of spirit, and now when for the first time he saw daylight, ahead, he was in no wise grateful for the dispersal of the darkness. He did not hail the sun or melt to the benignancy of its beams: he came out iron, remembering the hunger of the years that had starved his body and his soul, without subduing either, for physically he was hard and muscular, morally he was cynical, expecting from others little except such emotions as he himself shared, the instinct of self-defence, and the stoical bearing of such blows as he could not ward off. He was not in himself kind or unselfish or loving, and up till now he had practically never come across such qualities in others, and there was really no reason why he should believe in their existence. Hitherto, nobody as far as he remembered, had done him a good turn, unless thereby he reaped a personal benefit, and indeed Armstrong saw little reason why anybody should; for the world as he had known it, was not run on lines of altruistic philanthropy. The strong spoiled the weak, and the weak looked for opportunities of preying on the weaker. The rich paid as little as they could for the service of the poor, which was obviously the course that common-sense indicated, while the poor, the workers, combined so far as was possible, to make the rich pay more. There was no reason for either side to act otherwise, and thus he was puzzled to know why Craddock had offered him more than was necessary in order to get this play from him, and the ensuing contract.



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