JULIA, taken by his enthusiasm and his fantastic exuberance, accepted his offer. He started her in modest parts which under his direction she played as she had never played before. He interested the critics in her, he flattered them by letting them think that they had discovered a remarkable actress, and allowed the suggestion to come from them that he should let the public see her as Magda. She was a great hit and then in quick succession he made her play Nora in The Doll's House, Ann in Man and Superman, and Hedda Gabler. Middle-pool was delighted to discover that it had in its midst an actress who it could boast was better than any star in London, and crowded to see her in plays that before it had gone to only from local patriotism. The London paragraphers* mentioned her now and then, and a number of enthusiastic patrons of the drama made the journey to Middlepool to see her. They went back full of praise, and two or three London managers sent representatives to report on her. They were doubtful. She was all very well in Shaw and Ibsen, but what would she do in an ordinary play? The managers had had bitter experien-ces. On the strength of an outstanding performance in one of these queer plays they had engaged an actor, only to discover that in any other sort of play he was no better than anybody else.
When Michael joined the company Julia had been playing in Middlepool for a year. Jimmie started him with Marchbanks in Candida. It was the happy choice one would have expected him to make, for in that part his great beauty was an asset and his lack of warmth no disadvantage.
Julia reached over to take out the first of the cardboard cases in which Michael's photographs were kept. She was sitting comfortably on the floor. She turned the early photographs over quickly, looking for that which he had taken when first he came to Middlepool; but when she came upon it, it gave her a pang. For a moment she felt inclined to cry. It had been just like him then. Candida was being played by an older woman, a sound actress who was cast generally for mothers, maiden aunts or character parts, and Julia with nothing to do but act eight times a week attended the rehearsals. She fell in love with Michael at first sight. She had never seen a more beautiful young man, and she pursued him relentlessly. In due course Jimmie put on Ghosts, braving the censure of respectable Middlepool, and Michael played the boy and she played Regina. They heard one another their parts and after rehearsals lunched, very modestly, together so that they might talk of them. Soon they were inseparable. Julia had little reserve; she flattered Michael outrageously. He was not vain of his good looks, he knew he was handsome and accepted compliments, not exactly with indifference, but as he might have accepted a compliment on a fine old house that had been in his family for generations. It was a well-known fact that it was one of the best houses of its period, one was proud of it and took care of it, but it was just there, as natural to possess as the air one breathed. He was shrewd and ambitious. He knew that his beauty was at present his chief asset, but he knew it could not last for ever and was determined to become a good actor so that he should have something besides his looks to depend on. He meant to learn all he could from Jimmie Langton and then go to London.
"If I play my cards well I can get some old woman to back me and go into management. One's got to be one's own master. That's the only way to make a packet."
Julia soon discovered that he did not much like spending money, and when they ate a meal together, or on a Sunday went for a small excursion, she took care to pay her share of the expenses. She did not mind this. She liked him for counting the pennies, and, inclined to be extravagant herself and always a week or two behind with her rent, she admired him because he hated to be in debt and even with the small salary he was getting managed to save up a little every week. He was anxious to have enough put by so that when he went to London he need not accept the first part that was offered him, but could afford to wait till he got one that gave him a real chance. His father had little more than his pension to live on, and it had been a sacrifice to send him to Cambridge. His father, not liking the idea of his going on the stage, had insisted on this.
"If you want to be an actor I suppose I can't stop you," he said, "but damn it all, I insist on your being educated like a gentleman."
It gave Julia a good deal of satisfaction to discover that Michael's father was a colonel, it impressed her to hear him speak of an ancestor who had gambled away his fortune at White's during the Regency, and she liked the signet ring Michael wore with the boar's head on it and the motto: Nemo me impune lacessit.
"I believe you're prouder of your family than of looking like a Greek god," she told him fondly.
"Anyone can be good-looking," he answered, with his sweet smile, "but not everyone can belong to a decent family. To tell you the truth I'm glad my governor's a gentleman."
Julia took her courage in both hands.
"My father's a vet."
For an instant Michael's face stiffened, but he recovered himself immediately and laughed.
"Of course it doesn't really matter what one's father is. I've often heard my father talk of the vet in his regiment. He counted as an officer of course. Dad always said he was one of the best."
And she was glad he'd been to Cambridge. He had rowed for his College and at one time there was some talk of putting him in the university boat.
"I should have liked to get my blue. It would have been useful to me on the stage. I'd have got a lot of advertisement out of it."
Julia could not tell if he knew that she was in love with him. He never made love to her. He liked her society and when they found themselves with other people scarcely left her side. Sometimes they were asked to parties on Sunday, dinner at midday or a cold, sumptuous supper, and he seemed to think it natural that they should go together and come away together. He kissed her when he left her at her door, but he kissed her as he might have kissed the middle-aged woman with whom he had played Candida. He was friendly, good-humoured and kind, but it was distressingly clear that she was no more to him than a comrade. Yet she knew that he was not in love with anybody else. The love-letters that women wrote to him he read out to Julia with a chuckle, and when they sent him flowers he immediately gave them to her.
"What blasted fools they are," he said. "What the devil do they think they're going to get out of it?"
"I shouldn't have thought it very hard to guess that," said Julia dryly.
Although she knew he took these attentions so lightly she could not help feeling angry and jealous.
"I should be a damned fool if I got myself mixed up with some woman in Middlepool. After all, they're mostly flappers. Before I knew where I was I'd have some irate father coming along and saying, now you must marry the girl."
She tried to find out whether he had had any adventures while he was playing with Benson's company. She gathered that one or two of the girls had been rather inclined to make nuisances of themselves, but he thought it was a terrible mistake to get mixed up with any of the actresses a chap was playing with. It was bound to lead to trouble.
"And you know how people gossip in a company. Everyone would know everything in twenty-four hours. And when you start a thing like that you don't know what you're letting yourself in for. I wasn't risking anything."
When he wanted a bit of fun he waited till they were within a reasonable distance of London and then he would race up to town and pick up a girl at the Globe Restaurant. Of course it was expensive, and when you came to think of it, it wasn't really worth the money; besides, he played a lot of cricket in Benson's company, and golf when he got the chance, and that sort of thing was rotten for the eye.
Julia told a thumping lie.
"Jimmie always says I'd be a much better actress if I had an affair."
"Don't you believe it. He's just a dirty old man. With him, I suppose. I mean, you might just as well say that I'd give a better performance of Marchbanks if I wrote poetry."
They talked so much together that it was inevitable for her at last to learn his views on marriage.
"I think an actor's a perfect fool to marry young. There are so many cases in which it absolutely ruins a chap's career. Especially if he marries an actress. He becomes a star and then she's a millstone round his neck. She insists on playing with him, and if he's in management he has to give her leading parts, and if he engages someone else there are most frightful scenes. And of course, for an actress it's insane. There's always the chance of her having a baby and she may have to refuse a damned good part. She's out of the public eye for months, and you know what the public is, unless they see you all the time they forget that you ever existed."
Marriage? What did she care about marriage? Her heart melted within her when she looked into his deep, friendly eyes, and she shivered with delightful anguish when she considered his shining, russet hair. There was nothing that he could have asked her that she would not gladly have given him. The thought never entered his lovely head.
"Of course he likes me," she said to herself. "He likes me better than anyone, he even admires me, but I don't attract him that way."
She did everything to seduce him except slip into bed with him, and she only did not do that because there was no opportunity. She began to fear that they knew one another too well for it to seem possible that their relations should change, and she reproached herself bitterly because she had not rushed to a climax when first they came in contact with one another. He had too sincere an affection for her now ever to become her lover. She found out when his birthday was and gave him a gold cigarette case which she knew was the thing he wanted more than anything in the world. It cost a good deal more than she could afford and he smilingly reproached her for her extravagance. He never dreamt what ecstatic pleasure it gave her to spend her money on him. When her birthday came along he gave her half a dozen pairs of silk stockings. She noticed at once that they were not of very good quality, poor lamb, he had not been able to bring himself to spring to that, but she was so touched that he should give her anything that she could not help crying.
"What an emotional little thing you are," he said, but he was pleased and touched to see her tears.
She found his thrift rather an engaging trait. He could not bear to throw his money about. He was not exactly mean, but he was not generous. Once or twice at restaurants she thought he undertipped the waiter, but he paid no attention to her when she ventured to remonstrate. He gave the exact ten per cent, and when he could not make the exact sum to a penny asked the waiter for change.
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," he quoted from Polonius.
When some member of the company, momentarily hard up, tried to borrow from him it was in vain. But he refused so frankly, with so much heartiness, that he did not affront.
"My dear old boy, I'd love to lend you a quid, but I'm absolutely stony. I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent at the end of the week."
For some months Michael was so much occupied with his own parts that he failed to notice how good an actress Julia was. Of course he read the reviews, and their praise of Julia, but he read summarily, without paying much attention till he came to the remarks the critics made about him. He was pleased by their approval, but not cast down by their censure. He was too modest to resent an unfavourable criticism.
"I suppose I was rotten," he would say ingenuously.
His most engaging trait was his good humour. He bore Jimmie Langton's abuse with equanimity. When tempers grew frayed during a long rehearsal he remained serene. It was impossible to quarrel with him. One day he was sitting in front watching the rehearsal of an act in which he did not appear. It ended with a powerful and moving scene in which Julia had the opportunity to give a fine display of acting. When the stage was being set for the next act Julia came through the pass door and sat down beside Michael. He did not speak to her, but looked sternly in front of him. She threw him a surprised look. It was unlike him not to give her a smile and a friendly word. Then she saw that he was clenching his jaw to prevent its trembling and that his eyes were heavy with tears.
"What's the matter, darling?"
"Don't talk to me. You dirty little bitch, you've made me cry."
The tears came to her own eyes and streamed down her face. She was so pleased, so flattered.
"Oh, damn it," he sobbed. "I can't help it."
He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and dried his eyes.
("I love him, I love him, I love him.")
Presently he blew his nose.
"I'm beginning to feel better now. But, my God, you shattered me."
"It's not a bad scene, is it?"
"The scene be damned, it was you. You just wrung my heart. The critics are right, damn it, you're an actress and no mistake."
"Have you only just discovered it?"
"I knew you were pretty good, but I never knew you were as good as all that. You make the rest of us look like a piece of cheese. You're going to be a star. Nothing can stop you."
"Well then, you shall be my leading man."
"Fat chance I'd have of that with a London manager." Julia had an inspiration.
"Then you must go into management yourself and make me your leading lady."
He paused. He was not a quick thinker and needed a little time to let a notion sink into his mind. He smiled.
"You know that's not half a bad idea."
They talked it over at luncheon. Julia did most of the talking while he listened to her with absorbed interest.
"Of course the only way to get decent parts consistently is to run one's own theatre," he said. "I know that."
The money was the difficulty. They discussed how much was the least they could start on. Michael thought five thousand pounds was the minimum. But how in heaven's name could they raise a sum like that? Of course some of those Middlepool manufacturers were rolling in money, but you could hardly expect them to fork out five thousand pounds to start a couple of young actors who had only a local reputation. Besides, they were jealous of London.
"You'll have to find your rich old woman," said Julia gaily.
She only half believed all she had been saying, but it excited her to discuss a plan that would bring her into a close and constant relation with Michael. But he was being very serious.
"I don't believe one could hope to make a success in London unless one were pretty well known already. The thing to do would be to act there in other managements for three or four years first; one's got to know the ropes. And the advantage of that would be that one would have had time to read plays. It would be madness to start in management unless one had at least three plays. One of them out to be a winner."
"Of course if one did that, one ought to make a point of acting together so that the public got accustomed to seeing the two names on the same bill."
"I don't know that there's much in that. The great thing is to have good, strong parts. There's no doubt in my mind that it would be much easier to find backers if one had made a bit of a reputation in London."