William Somerset Maugham
THE door opened and Michael Gosselyn looked up. Julia came in.
"Hulloa! I won't keep you a minute. I was just signing some letters."
"No hurry. I only came to see what seats had been sent to the Dennorants. What's that young man doing here?"
With the experienced actress's instinct to fit the gesture to the word, by a movement of her neat head she indicated the room through which she had just passed.
"He's the accountant. He comes from Lawrence and Hamphreys. He's been here three days."
"He looks very young."
"He's an articled clerk. He seems to know his job. He can't get over the way our accounts are kept. He told me he never expected a theatre to be run on such businesslike lines. He says the way some of those firms in the city keep their accounts is enough to turn your hair grey."
Julia smiled at the complacency on her husband's handsome face.
"He's a young man of tact."
"He finishes today. I thought we might take him back with us and give him a spot of lunch. He's quite a gentleman."
"Is that a sufficient reason to ask him to lunch?" Michael did not notice the faint irony of her tone. "I won't ask him if you don't want him. I merely thought it would be a treat for him. He admires you tremendously. He's been to see the play three times. He's crazy to be introduced to you."
Michael touched a button and in a moment his secretary came in.
"Here are the letters, Margery. What appointments have I got for this afternoon?"
Julia with half an ear listened to the list Margery read out and, though she knew the room so well, idly looked about her. It was a very proper room for the manager of a first-class theatre. The walls had been panelled (at cost price) by a good decorator and on them hung engravings of theatrical pictures by Zoffany and de Wilde. The armchairs were large and comfortable. Michael sat in a heavily carved Chippendale* chair, a reproduction but made by a well-known firm, and his Chippendale table, with heavy ball and claw feet, was immensely solid. On it stood in a massive silver frame a photograph of herself and to balance it a photograph of Roger, their son. Between these was a magnificent silver ink-stand that she had herself given him on one of his birthdays and behind it a rack in red morocco, heavily gilt, in which he kept his private paper in case he wanted to write a letter in his own hand. The paper bore the address, Siddons Theatre, and the envelope his crest, a boar's head with the motto underneath: Nemo me impune lacessit.* A bunch of yellow tulips in a silver bowl, which he had got through winning the theatrical golf tournament three times running, showed Margery's care. Julia gave her a reflective glance. Notwithstanding her cropped peroxide hair and her heavily-painted lips she had the neutral look that marks the perfect secretary. She had been with Michael for five years. In that time she must have got to know him inside and out. Julia wondered if she could be such a fool as to be in love with him.
But Michael rose from his chair.
"Now, darling, I'm ready for you."
Margery gave him his black Homburg* hat and opened the door for Julia and Michael to go out. As they entered the office the young man Julia had noticed turned round and stood up.
"I should like to introduce you to Miss Lambert," said Michael. Then with the air of an ambassador presenting an attache to the sovereign of the court to which he is accredited: "This is the gentleman who is good enough to put some order into the mess we make of our accounts."
The young man went scarlet. He smiled stiffly in answer to Julia's warm, ready smile and she felt the palm of his hand wet with sweat when she cordially grasped it. His confusion was touching. That was how people had felt when they were presented to Sarah Siddons. She thought that she had not been very gracious to Michael when he had proposed asking the boy to luncheon. She looked straight into his eyes. Her own were large, of a very dark brown, and starry. It was no eftort to her, it was as instinctive as brushing away a fly that was buzzing round her, to suggest now a faintly amused, friendly tenderness.
"I wonder if we could persuade you to come and eat a chop with us. Michael will drive you back after lunch."
The young man blushed again and his adam's apple moved in his thin neck.
"It's awfully kind of you." He gave his clothes a troubled look. "I'm absolutely filthy."
"You can have a wash and brush up when we get home."
The car was waiting for them at the stage door, a long car in black and chromium, upholstered in silver leather, and with Michael's crest discreetly emblazoned on the doors. Julia got in.
"Come and sit with me. Michael is going to drive."
They lived in Stanhope Place, and when they arrived Julia told the butler to show the young man where he could wash his hands. She went up to the drawing-room. She was painting her lips when Michael joined her.
"I've told him to come up as soon as he's ready."
"By the way, what's his name?"
"I haven't a notion."
"Darling, we must know. I'll ask him to write in our book."
"Damn it, he's not important enough for that." Michael asked only very distinguished people to write in their book. "We shall never see him again."
At that moment the young man appeared. In the car Julia had done all she could to put him at his ease, but he was still very shy. The cocktails were waiting and Michael poured them out. Julia took a cigarette and the young man struck a match for her, but his hand was trembling so much that she thought he would never be able to hold the light near enough to her cigarette, so she took his hand and held it.
"Poor lamb," she thought, "I suppose this is the most wonderful moment in his whole life. What fun it'll be for him when he tells his people. I expect he'll be a blasted little hero in his office."
Julia talked very differently to herself and to other people: when she talked to herself her language was racy. She inhaled the first whiff of her cigarette with delight. It was really rather wonderful, when you came to think of it, that just to have lunch with her and talk to her for three quarters of an hour, perhaps, could make a man quite important in his own scrubby little circle.
The young man forced himself to make a remark.
"What a stunning room this is."
She gave him the quick, delightful smile, with a slight lift of her fine eyebrows, which he must often have seen her give on the stage.
"I'm so glad you like it." Her voice was rather low and ever so slightly hoarse. You would have thought his observation had taken a weight off her mind. "We think in the family that Michael has such perfect taste."
Michael gave the room a complacent glance.
"I've had a good deal of experience. I always design the sets myself for our plays. Of course, I have a man to do the rough work for me, but the ideas are mine."
They had moved into that house two years before, and he knew, and Julia knew, that they had put it into the hands of an expensive decorator when they were going on tour, and he had agreed to have it completely ready for them, at cost price in return for the work they promised him in the theatre, by the time they came back. But it was unnecessary to impart such tedious details to a young man whose name even they did not know. The house was furnished in extremely good taste, with a judicious mixture of the antique and the modern, and Michael was right when he said that it was quite obviously a gentleman's house. Julia, however, had insisted that she must have her bedroom as she liked, and having had exactly the bedroom that pleased her in the old house in Regent's Park which they had occupied since the end of the war she brought it over bodily. The bed and the dressing-table were upholstered in pink silk, the chaise-longue and the armchair in Nattier blue; over the bed there were fat little gilt cherubs who dangled a lamp with a pink shade, and fat little gilt cherubs swarmed all round the mirror on the dressing-table. On satinwood tables were signed photographs, richly framed, of actors and actresses and members of the royal family. The decorator had raised his supercilious eyebrows, but it was the only room in the house in which Julia felt completely at home. She wrote her letters at a satinwood desk, seated on a gilt Hamlet stool.
Luncheon was announced and they went downstairs.
"I hope you'll have enough to eat," said Julia. "Michael and I have very small appetites."
In point of fact there was grilled sole, grilled cutlets and spinach, and stewed fruit. It was a meal designed to satisfy legitimate hunger, but not to produce fat. The cook, warned by Margery that there was a guest to luncheon had hurriedly made some fried potatoes. They looked crisp and smelt appetizing. Only the young man took them. Julia gave them a wistful look before she shook her head in refusal. Michael stared at them gravely for a moment as though he could not quite tell what they were, and then with a little start, breaking out of a brown study, said No thank you. They sat at a refectory table, Julia and Michael at either end in very grand Italian chairs, and the young man in the middle on a chair that was not at all comfortable, but perfectly in character. Julia noticed that he seemed to be looking at the sideboard and with her engaging smile, leaned forward.
"What is it?"
He blushed scarlet.
"I was wondering if I might have a piece of bread."
She gave the butler a significant glance; he was at that moment helping Michael to a glass of dry white wine, and he left the room.
"Michael and I never eat bread. It was stupid of Jevons not to realize that you might want some."
"Of course bread is only a habit," said Michael."It's wonderful how soon you can break yourself of it if you set your mind to it."
"The poor lamb's as thin as a rail, Michael."
"I don't eat bread not because I'm afraid of getting fat. I don't eat it because I see no point in it. After all, with the exercise I take I can eat anything I like."
He still had at fifty-two a very good figure. As a young man, with a great mass of curling chestnut hair, with a wonderful skin and large deep blue eyes, a straight nose and small ears, he had been the best-looking actor on the English stage. The only thing that slightly spoiled him was the thinness of his mouth. He was just six foot tall and he had a gallant bearing. It was his obvious beauty that had engaged him to go on the stage rather than to become a soldier like his father. Now his chestnut hair was very grey, and he wore it much shorter; his face had broadened and was a good deal lined; his skin no longer had the soft bloom of a peach and his colour was high. But with his splendid eyes and his fine figure he was still a very handsome man. Since his five years at the war he had adopted a military bearing, so that if you had not known who he was (which was scarcely possible, for in one way and another his photograph was always appearing in the illustrated papers) you might have taken him for an officer of high rank. He boasted that his weight had not changed since he was twenty, and for years, wet or fine, he had got up every morning at eight to put on shorts and a sweater and have a run round Regent's Park.
"The secretary told me you were rehearsing this morning, Miss Lambert," the young man remarked. "Does that mean you're putting on a new play?"
"Not a bit of it," answered Michael. "We're playing to capacity."
"Michael thought we were getting a bit ragged, so he called a rehearsal."
"I'm very glad I did. I found little bits of business had crept in that I hadn't given them and a good many liberties were being taken with the text. I'm a great stickler for saying the author's exact words, though, God knows, the words authors write nowadays aren't much."
"If you'd like to come and see our play," Julia said graciously, "I'm sure Michael will be delighted to give you some seats."
"I'd love to come again," the young man answered eagerly. "I've seen it three times already."
"You haven't?" cried Julia, with surprise, though she remembered perfectly that Michael had already told her so. "Of course it's not a bad little play, it's served our purpose very well, but I can't imagine anyone wanting to see it three times."
"It's not so much the play I went to see, it was your performance."
"I dragged that out of him all right," thought Julia, and then aloud: "When we read the play Michael was rather doubtful about it. He didn't think my part was very good. You know, it's not really a star part. But I thought I could make something out of it. Of course we had to cut the other woman a lot in rehearsals."
"I don't say we rewrote the play," said Michael, "but I can tell you it was a very different play we produced from the one the author submitted to us."
"You're simply wonderful in it," the young man said.
("He has a certain charm.") "I'm glad you liked me," she answered.
"If you're very nice to Julia I dare say she'll give you a photograph of herself when you go."
He blushed again and his blue eyes shone. ("He's really rather sweet.") He was not particularly good- looking, but he had a frank, open face and his shyness was attractive. He had curly light brown hair, but it was plastered down and Julia thought how much better he would look if, instead of trying to smooth out the wave with brilliantine, he made the most of it. He had a fresh colour, a good skin and small well-shaped teeth. She noticed with approval that his clothes fitted and that he wore them well. He looked nice and clean.
"I suppose you've never had anything to do with the theatre from the inside before?" she said.
"Never. That's why I was so crazy to get this job. You can't think how it thrills me."
Michael and Julia smiled on him kindly. His admiration made them feel a little larger than life-size.
"I never allow outsiders to come to rehearsals, but as you're our accountant you almost belong to the theatre, and I wouldn't mind making an exception in your favour if it would amuse you to come."
"That would be terribly kind of you. I've never been to a rehearsal in my life. Are you going to act in the next play?"
"Oh, I don't think so. I'm not very keen about acting any more. I find it almost impossible to find a part to suit me. You see, at my time of life I can't very well play young lovers, and authors don't seem to write the parts they used to write when I was a young fellow. What the French call a raisonneur. You know the sort of thing I mean, a duke, or a cabinet minister, or an eminent K.C.* who says clever, witty things and turns people round his little finger. I don't know what's happened to authors. They don't seem able to write good lines any more. Bricks without straw; that's what we actors are expected to make nowadays. And are they grateful to us? The authors, I mean. You'd be surprised if I told you the terms some of them have the nerve to ask."
"The fact remains, we can't do without them," smiled Julia. "If the play's wrong no acting in the world will save it."
"That's because the public isn't really interested in the theatre. In the great days of the English stage people didn't go to see the plays, they went to see the players. It didn't matter what Kemble and Mrs. Siddons acted. The public went to see them. And even now, though I don't deny that if the play's wrong you're dished, I do contend that if the play's right, it's the actors the public go to see, not the play."
"I don't think anyone can deny that," said Julia.
"All an actress like Julia wants is a vehicle. Give her that and she'll do the rest."
Julia gave the young man a delightful, but slightly deprecating smile.
"You mustn't take my husband too seriously. I'm afraid we must admit that he's partial where I'm concerned."
"Unless this young man is a much bigger fool than I think him he must know that there's nothing in the way of acting that you can't do."
"Oh, that's only an idea that people have got because I take care never to do anything but what I can do."
Presently Michael looked at his watch.
"I think when you've finished your coffee, young man, we ought to be going."
The boy gulped down what was left in his cup and Julia rose from the table.
"You won't forget my photograph?"
"I think there are some in Michael's den. Come along and we'll choose one."
She took him into a fair-sized room behind the dining-room. Though it was supposed to be Michael's private sitting-room - "a fellow wants a room where he can get away by himself and smoke his pipe" - it was ch iefly used as a cloak-room when they had guests. There was a noble mahogany desk on which were signed photographs of George V and Queen Mary. Over the chimney-piece was an old copy of Lawrence's portrait of Kemble as Hamlet. On a small table was a pile of typescript plays.
The room was surrounded by bookshelves under which were cupboards, and from one of these Julia took a bundle of her latest photographs. She handed one to the young man.
"This one is not so bad."
"Then it can't be as like me as I thought."
"But it is. It's exactly like you."
She gave him another sort of smile, just a trifle roguish; she lowered her eyelids for a second and then raising them gazed at him for a little with that soft expression that people described as her velvet look. She had no object in doing this. She did it, if not mechanically, from an instinctive desire to please. The boy was so young, so shy, he looked as if he had such a nice nature, and she would never see him again, she wanted him to have his money's worth; she wanted him to look back on this as one of the great moments of his life. She glanced at the photograph again. She liked to think she looked like that. The photographer had so posed her, with her help, as to show her at her best. Her nose was slightly thick, but he had managed by his lighting to make it look very delicate, not a wrinkle marred the smoothness of her skin, and there was a melting look in her fine eyes.
"All right. You shall have this one. You know I'm not a beautiful woman, I'm not even a very pretty one; Coquelin always used to say I had the beaute du diable.* You understand French, don't you?"
"Enough for that."
"I'll sign it for you."
She sat at the desk and with her bold, flowing hand wrote: Yours sincerely, Julia Lambert.