BUT a week or so later Michael mentioned her.
"I say, have you ever heard of a girl called Avice Crichton?"
"I'm told she's rather good. A lady and all that sort of thing. Her father's in the army. I was wondering if she'd do for Honor."
"How did you hear about her?"
"Through Tom. He knows her, he says she's clever. She's playing in a Sunday night show. Next Sunday, in point of fact. He says he thinks it might be worth while to go and have a look-see."
"Well, why don't you?"
"I was going down to Sandwich to play golf. Would it bore you awfully to go? I expect the play's rotten, but you'd be able to tell if it was worth while letting her read the part. Tom'll go with you."
Julia's heart was beating nineteen to the dozen.
"Of course I'll go."
She phoned to Tom and asked him to come round and have a snack before they went to the theatre. He arrived before she was ready.
"Am I late or were you early?" she said, when she came into the drawing-room.
She saw that he had been waiting impatiently. He was nervous and eager.
"They're going to ring up sharp at eight," he said. "I hate getting to a play after it's begun."
His agitation told her all she wanted to know. She lingered a little over the cocktails.
"What is the name of this actress we're going to see tonight?" she asked.
"Avice Crichton. I'm awfully anxious to know what you think about her. I think she's a find. She knows you're coming tonight. She's frightfully nervous, but I told her she needn't be. You know what these Sunday night plays are; scratch rehearsals and all that; I said you'd quite understand and you'd make allowances."
All through dinner he kept looking at his watch. Julia acted the woman of the world. She talked of one thing and another and noticed that he listened with distraction. As soon as he could he brought the conversation back to Avice Crichton.
"Of course I haven't said anything to her about it, but I believe she'd be all right for Honor." He had read Nowadays, as he read, before they were produced, all Julia's plays. "She looks the part all right, I'm sure of that. She's had a struggle and of course it would be a wonderful chance for her. She admires you tremendously and she's terribly anxious to get into a play with you."
"That's understandable. It means the chance of a year's run and a lot of managers seeing her."
"She's the right colour, she's very fair; she'd be a good contrast to you."
"What with platinum and peroxide there's no lack of blondes on the stage."
"But hers is natural."
"Is it? I had a long letter from Roger this morning. He seems to be having quite a good time in Vienna."
Tom's interest subsided. He looked at his watch. When the coffee came Julia said it was undrinkable. She said she must have some more made.
"Oh, Julia, it isn't worth while. We shall be awfully late,"
"I don't suppose it matters if we miss the first few minutes."
His voice was anguished.
"I promised we wouldn't be late. She's got a very good scene almost at the beginning."
"I'm sorry, but I can't go without my coffee."
While they waited for it she maintained a bright flow of conversation. He scarcely answered. He looked anxiously at the door. And when the coffee came she drank it with maddening deliberation. By the time they got in the car he was in a state of cold fury and he stared silently in front of him with a sulky pout on his mouth. Julia was not dissatisfied with herself. They reached the theatre two minutes before the curtain rose and as Julia appeared there was a burst of clapping from the audience. Julia, apologizing to the people she disturbed, threaded her way to her seat in the middle of the stalls. Her faint smile acknowledged the applause that greeted her beautifully-timed entrance, but her downcast eyes modestly disclaimed that it could have any connexion with her.
The curtain went up and after a short scene two girls came in, one very pretty and young, the other much older and plain. In a minute Julia turned to Tom and whispered:
"Which is Avice Crichton, the young one or the old one?"
"The young one."
"Oh, of course, you said she was fair, didn't you?"
She gave his face a glance. He had lost his sulky look; a happy smile played on his lips. Julia turned her attention to the stage. Avice Crichton was very pretty, no one could deny that, with lovely golden hair, fine blue eyes and a little straight nose; but it was a type that Julia did not care for.
"Insipid," she said to herself. "Chorus-girly."
She watched her performance for a few minutes. She watched intently, then she leant back in her stall with a little sigh.
"She can't act for toffee,"* she decided.
When the curtain fell Tom turned to her eagerly. He had completely got over his bad temper.
"What do you think of her?"
"She's as pretty as a picture."
"I know that. But her acting. Don't you think she's good?"
"I wish you'd come round and tell her that yourself. It would buck her up tremendously."
He did not realize what he was asking her to do. It was unheard-of that she, Julia Lambert, should go behind and congratulate a small-part actress.
"I promised I'd take you round after the second act. Be a sport, Julia. It'll please her so much."
("The fool. The blasted fool. All right, I'll go through with it.") "Of course if you think it'll mean anything to her, I'll come with pleasure."
After the second act they went through the iron door and Tom led her to Avice Crichton's dressing-room. She was sharing it with the plain girl with whom she had made her first entrance. Tom effected the introductions. She held out a limp hand in a slightly affected manner.
"I'm so glad to meet you, Miss Lambert. Excuse this dressing-room, won't you? But it was no good trying to make it look nice just for one night."
She was not in the least nervous. Indeed, she seemed self-assured.
("Hard as nails. And with an eye to the main chance. Doing the colonel's daughter on me.")
"It's awfully nice of you to come round I'm afraid it's not much of a play, but when one's starting like I am one has to put up with what one can get. I was rather doubtful about it when they sent it me to read, but I took a fancy to the part."
"You play it charmingly," said Julia.
"It's awfully nice of you to say so. I wish we could have had a few more rehearsals. I particularly wanted to show you what I could do."
"Well, you know, I've been connected with the profession a good many years. I always think, if one has talent one can't help showing it. Don't you?"
"I know what you mean. Of course I want a lot more experience, I know that, but it's only a chance I want really. I know I can act. If I could only get a part that I could really get my teeth into."
She waited a little in order to let Julia say that she had in her new play just the part that would suit her, but Julia continued to look at her smilingly. Julia was grimly amused to find herself treated like a curate's wife to whom the squire's lady was being very kind.
"Have you been on the stage long?" she said at last. "It seems funny I should never have heard of you."
"Well, I was in revue for a while, but I felt I was just wasting my time. I was out on tour all last season. I don't want to leave London again if I can help it."
"The theatrical profession's terribly overcrowded," said Julia.
"Oh, I know. It seems almost hopeless unless you've got influence or something. I hear you're putting a new play on soon."
Julia continued to smile with an almost intolerable sweetness.
"If there's a part for me in it, I'd most awfully like to play with you. I'm so sorry Mr. Gosselyn couldn't come tonight."
"I'll tell him about you."
"D'you really think there's a chance for me?" Through her self-assurance, through the country-house manner she assumed in order to impress Julia, there pierced an anxious eagerness. "If you'd put in a word for me it would help so much."
Julia gave her a reflective look.
"I take my husband's advice more often than he takes mine," she smiled.
When they left the dressing-room so that Avice Crichton might change for the third act, Julia caught the questioning glance she gave Tom as she said good-bye to him. Julia was conscious, though she saw no movement, that he slightly shook his head. Her sensibility at that moment was extraordinarily acute and she translated the mute dialogue into words.
"Coming to supper afterwards?"
"No, damn it, I can't, I've got to see her home."
Julia listened to the third act grimly. That was in order since the play was serious. When it was over and a pale shattered author had made a halting speech, Tom asked her where she would like to go for supper.
"Let's go home and talk," she said. "If you're hungry I'm sure we can find you something to eat in the kitchen."
"D'you mean to Stanhope Place?"
She felt his relief that she did not want to go back to the flat. He was silent in the car and she knew that it irked him to have to come back with her. She guessed that someone was giving a supper party to which Avice Crichton was going and he wanted to be there. The house was dark and empty when they reached it. The servants were in bed. Julia suggested that they should go down to the basement and forage.
"I don't want anything to eat unless you do," he said. "I'll just have a whisky and soda and go to bed. I've got a very heavy day tomorrow at the office."
"All right. Bring it up to the drawing-room. I'll go and turn on the lights:"
When he came up she was doing her face in front of a mirror and she continued till he had poured out the whisky and sat down. Then she turned round. He looked very young, and incredibly charming, in his beautiful clothes, sitting there in the big armchair, and all the bitterness she had felt that evening, all the devouring jealousy of the last few days, were dissipated on a sudden by the intensity of her passion. She sat down on the arm of his chair and caressingly passed her hand over his hair. He drew back with an angry gesture.
"Don't do that," he said. "I do hate having my hair mussed about."
It was like a knife in her heart. He had never spoken to her in that tone before. But she laughed lightly and getting up took the whisky he had poured out for her and sat down in a chair opposite him. The movement he had made, the words he had spoken, were instinctive and he was a trifle abashed. He avoided her glance and his face once more bore a sulky look. The moment was decisive. For a while they were silent. Julia's heart beat painfully, but at last she forced herself to speak.
"Tell me," she said, smiling, "have you been to bed with Avice Crichton?"
"Of course not," he cried.
"Why not? She's pretty."
"She's not that sort of girl. I respect her."
Julia let none of her feelings appear on her face. Her manner was wonderfully casual; she might have been talking of the fall of empires or the death of kings.
"D'you know what I should have said? I should have said you were madly in love with her." He still avoided her eyes. "Are you engaged to her by any chance?"
He looked at her now, but the eyes that met Julia's were hostile.
"Have you asked her to marry you?"
"How could I? A damned rotter like me."
He spoke so passionately that Julia was astonished.
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh what's the good of beating about the bush? How could I ask a decent girl to marry me? I'm nothing but a kept boy and, God knows, you have good reason to know it."
"Don't be so silly. What a fuss to make over a few little presents I've given you."
"I oughtn't to have taken them. I knew all the time it was wrong. It all came so gradually that I didn't realize what was happening till I was in it up to my neck. I couldn't afford to lead the life you made me lead; I was absolutely up against it. I had to take money from you."
"Why not? After all, I'm a very rich woman."
"Damn your money."
He was holding a glass in his hands and yielding to a sudden impulse, he flung it into the fireplace. It shattered.
"You needn't break up the happy home," said Julia ironically.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that." He sank back into his chair and turned his head away. "I'm so ashamed of myself. It's not very nice to have lost one's self-respect."
Julia hesitated. She did not quite know what to say.
"It seemed only natural to help you when you were in a hole. It was a pleasure to me."
"I know, you were wonderfully tactful about it. You almost persuaded me that I was doing you a service when you paid my debts. You made it easy for me to behave like a cad."*
"I'm sorry you should feel like that about it."
She spoke rather tartly. She was beginning to feel a trifle irritated.
"There's nothing for you to be sorry about. You wanted me and you bought me. If I was such a skunk as to let myself be bought that was no business of yours."
"How long have you been feeling like this?"
"From the beginning."
"That isn't true."
She knew that what had awakened his conscience was the love that had seized him for a girl who he believed was pure. The poor fool! Didn't he know that Avice Crichton would go to bed with an assistant stage manager if she thought it would get her a part?
"If you're in love with Avice Crichton why don't you tell me so?" He looked at her miserably, but did not answer. "Are you afraid it'll crab her chances of getting a part in the new play? You ought to know me well enough by now to know that I would never let sentiment interfere with business."
He could hardly believe his ears.
"What do you mean by that?"
"I think she's rather a find. I'm going to tell Michael that I think she'll do very well."
"Oh, Julia, you are a brick. I never knew what a wonderful woman you were."
"You should have asked me and I'd have told you."
He gave a sigh of relief.
"My dear, I'm so terribly fond of you."
"I know, and I'm terribly fond of you. You're great fun to go about with and you're always so well turned out, you're a credit to any woman. I've liked going to bed with you and I've a sort of notion you've liked going to bed with me. But let's face it, I've never been in love with you any more than you've been in love with me. I knew it couldn't last. Sooner or later you were bound to fall in love and that would end it. And you have fallen in love, haven't you?"
She was determined to make him say it, but when he did the pang it gave her was dreadful. Notwithstanding, she smiled good-humouredly.
"We've had some very jolly times together, but don't you think the moment has come to call it a day?"
She spoke so naturally, almost jestingly, that no one could have guessed that the pain at her heart seemed past bearing. She waited for his answer with sickening dread.
"I'm awfully sorry, Julia; I must regain my self-respect." He looked at her with troubled eyes. "You aren't angry with me?"
"Because you've transferred your volatile affections from me to Avice Crichton?" Her eyes danced with mischievous laughter. "My dear, of course not. After all they stay in the profession."
"I'm very grateful to you for all you've done for me. I don't want you to think I'm not."
"Oh, my pet, don't talk such nonsense. I've done nothing for you." She got up. "Now you really must go. You've got a heavy day at the office tomorrow and I'm dog-tired."
It was a load off his mind. But he wasn't quite happy for all that, he was puzzled by her tone, which was so friendly and yet at the same time faintly ironical; he felt a trifle let down. He went up to her to kiss her good night. She hesitated for the fraction of a second, then with a friendly smile gave him first one cheek and then the other.
"You'll find your way out, won't you?" She put her hand to her mouth to hide an elaborate yawn. "Oh, I'm so sleepy."
The moment he had gone she turned out the lights and went to the window. She peered cautiously through the curtains. She heard him slam the front door and saw him come out. He looked right and left. She guessed at once that he was looking for a taxi. There was none in sight and he started to walk in the direction of the Park. She knew that he was going to join Avice Crichton at the supper party and tell her the glad news. Julia sank into a chair. She had acted, she had acted marvellously, and now she felt all in. Tears, tears that nobody could see, rolled down her cheeks. She was miserably unhappy. There was only one thing that enabled her to bear her wretchedness, and that was the icy contempt that she could not but feel for the silly boy who could prefer to her a small-part actress who didn't even begin to know how to act. It was grotesque. She couldn't use her hands; why she didn't even know how to walk across the stage.
"If I had any sense of humour I'd just laugh my head off," she cried, "It's the most priceless joke I've ever heard."
She wondered what Tom would do now. The rent of the flat would be falling due on quarter-day. A lot of the things in it belonged to her. He wouldn't much like going back to his bed-sitting room in Tavistock Square. She thought of the friends he had made through her. He'd been clever with them. They found him useful and he'd keep them. But it wouldn't be so easy for him to take Avice about. She was a hard, mercenary little thing, Julia was sure of that, she wouldn't be much inclined to bother about him when his money flowed less freely. The fool to be taken in by her pretence of virtue! Julia knew the type. It was quite obvious, she was only using Tom to get a part at the Siddons and the moment she got it she would give him the air. Julia started when this notion crossed her mind. She had promised Tom that Avice should have the part in Nowadays because it fell into the scene she was playing, but she had attached no importance to her promise. Michael was always there to put his foot down.
"By God, she shall have the part," she said out loud. She chuckled maliciously. "Heaven knows, I'm a good-natured woman, but there are limits to everything."
It would be a satisfaction to turn the tables on Tom and Avice Crichton. She sat on, in the darkness, grimly thinking how she would do it. But every now and then she started to cry again, for from the depths of her subconscious surged up recollections that were horribly painful. Recollections of Tom's slim, youthful body against hers, his warm nakedness and the peculiar feel of his lips, his smile, at once shy and roguish, and the smell of his curly hair.
"If I hadn't been a fool I'd have said nothing. I ought to know him by now. It's only an infatuation. He'd have got over it and then he'd have come hungrily back to me."
Now she was nearly dead with fatigue. She got up and went to bed. She took a sleeping-draught.