Magnus was having one of his tiresome spells, during which he was right about everything. We were indeed asked to dine as Lind’s guests after the showing of Hommage. What we saw in the pokey little viewing-room was a version of the film that was almost complete; everything that was to be cut out had been removed, but a few shots—close-ups of Magnus—had still to be taken and incorporated. It was a source of astonishment, for I saw nothing that I had not seen while it was being filmed; but the skill of the cutting, and the juxtapositions, and the varieties of pace that had been achieved, were marvels to me. Clearly much of what had been done owed its power to the art of Harry Kinghovn, but the unmistakable impress of Lind’s mind was on it, as well. His films possessed a weight of implication—in St. Paul’s phrase, “the evidence of things not seen”—that was entirely his own.The greatest surprise was the way in which Eisengrim emerged. His unique skill as a conjuror was there, of course, but somehow magic is not so impressive on the screen as it is in direct experience, just as he had said himself at Sorgenfrei. No, it was as an actor that he seemed like a new person. I suppose I had grown used to him over the years, and had seen too much of his backstage personality, which was that of the theatre martinet, the watchful, scolding, impatient star of the Soiree of Illusions. The distinguished, high-bred, romantic figure I saw on the screen was someone I felt I did not know. The waif I had known when we were boys in Deptford, the carnival charlatan I had seen in Austria as Faustus LeGrand in Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite, the successful stage performer, and the amusing but testy and incalculable permanent guest at Sorgenfrei could not be reconciled with this fascinating creature, and it couldn’t all be the art of Lind and Kinghovn. I must know more. My document demanded it.
Liesl, too, was impressed, and I am sure she was as curious as I. So far as I knew, she had at some time met Magnus, admired him, befriended him, and financed him. They had toured the world together with their Soiree of Illusions, combining his art as a public performer with her skill as a technician, a contriver of magical apparatus, and her artistic taste, which was far beyond his own. If he was indeed the greatest conjuror of his time, or of any time, she was responsible for at least half of whatever had made him so. Moreover, she had educated him, in so far as he was formally educated, and had transformed him from a tough little carnie into someone who could put up a show of cultivation. Or was that the whole truth? She seemed as surprised by his new persona on the screen as I was. This was clearly one of Magnus’s great days. The film people were delighted with him, as entrepreneurs always are with anybody who looks as if he could draw in money, and at dinner he was clearly the guest of honour.
We went to the Cafe Royal, where a table had been reserved in the old room with the red plush benches against the wall, and the lush girls with naked breasts holding up the ceiling, and the flattering looking-glasses. We ate and drank like people who were darlings of Fortune. Ingestree was on his best behaviour, and it was not until we had arrived at brandy and cigars that he said—
“I passed the Irving statue this afternoon. Quite by chance. Nothing premeditated. But I saw your flowers. And I want to repeat how sorry I am to have spoken slightingly about your old friend Lady Tresize. May we toast her now?”
“Here’s to Milady,” said Magnus, and emptied his glass.
“Why was she called that?” said Liesl. “It sounds terribly pretentious if she was simply the wife of a theatrical knight. Or it sounds frowsily romantic, like a Dumas novel. Or it sounds as if you were making fun of her. Or was she a cult figure in the theatre? The Madonna of the Greasepaint? You might tell us, Magnus.”
“I suppose it was all of those things. Some people thought her pretentious, and some thought the romance that surrounded her was frowsy, and people always made a certain amount of fun of her, and she was a cult figure as well. In addition she was a wonderfully kind, wise, courageous person who was not easy to understand. I’ve been thinking a lot about her today. I told you that I was a busker beside the Irving statue when I came to London. It was there Holroyd picked me up and took me to Milady. She decided I should have a job, and made Sir John give me one, which he didn’t want to do.”
“Magnus, do please, I implore you, stop being mysterious. You know very well you mean to tell us all about it. You want to, and furthermore, you must do it to please me.” Liesl was laying herself out to be irresistible, and I have never known a woman who was better at the work.
“Do it for the sake of the subtext,” said Ingestree, who was also making himself charming, like a naughty boy who has been forgiven.
“All right. So I shall. My show under the shadow of Irving was not extensive. The buskers I was working with wouldn’t give me much of a chance, but they allowed me to draw a crowd by making some showy passes with cards. It was stuff I had learned long ago with Willard—shooting a deck into the air and making it slide back into my hand like a beautiful waterfall, and that sort of thing. It can be done with a deck that is mounted on a rubber string, but I could do it with any deck. It’s simply a matter of hours of practice, and confidence that you can do it. I don’t call it conjuring. More like juggling. But it makes people gape.
“One day, a week or two after I had begun in this underpaid, miserable work, I noticed a man hanging around at the back of the crowd, watching me very closely. He wore a long overcoat, though it wasn’t a day for such a coat, and he had a pipe stuck in his mouth as if it had grown there. He worried me because, as you know, my passport wasn’t all it should have been. I thought he might be a detective. So as soon as I had done my short trick, I made for a near-by alley. He was right behind me. ‘Hi!’ he shouted, ‘I want a word with you.’ There was no getting away, so I faced him. ‘Are you interested in a better job than that?’ he asked. I said I was. ‘Can you do a bit of juggling?’ said he. Yes, I could do juggling, though I wouldn’t call myself a juggler. ‘Any experience walking a tightrope?’ Because of the work I had done with Duparc I was able to say I could. ‘Then you come to this address tomorrow morning at twelve,’ said he, and gave me a card on which was his name—James Holroyd—and he had scribbled a direction on it.
“Of course I was there, next day at noon. The place was a pub called The Crown and Two Chairmen, and when I asked for Mr. Holroyd I was directed upstairs to a big room, in which there were a few people. Holroyd was one of them, and he nodded to me to wait.
“Queer room. Just an empty space, with some chairs piled in a corner, and a few odds and ends of pillars, and obelisks and altar-like boxes. Which I knew were Masonic paraphernalia, also stacked against a wall. It was one of those rooms common enough in London, where lodges met, and little clubs had their gatherings, and which theatrical people rented by the day for rehearsal space.
“The people who were there were grouped around a man who was plainly the boss. He was short, but by God he had presence; you would have noticed him anywhere. He wore a hat, but not as I had ever seen a hat worn before. Willard and Charlie were hat men, but somehow their hats always looked sharp and dishonest—you know, too much down on one side? Holroyd wore a hat, a hard hat of the kind that Winston Churchill made famous later; a sort of top hat that had lost courage and hadn’t grown the last three inches, or acquired any gloss. As I came to know Holroyd I sometimes wondered if he had been born in that hat and overcoat, because I hardly ever saw him without both. But this little man’s hat looked as if it should have had a plume in it. It was a perfectly ordinary, expensive felt hat, but he gave it an air of costume, and when he looked from under the brim you felt he was sizing up your costume, too. And that was what he was doing. He took a look at me and said, in a kind of mumble, ‘That’s your find, eh? Doesn’t look much, does he, mph? Not quite as if he might pass for your humble, what? Eh, Holroyd? Mph?’
“ ‘That’s for you to say, of course,’ said Holroyd.
“ ‘Then I say no. Must look again. Must be something better than that, eh?’
“ ‘Won’t you see him do a few tricks?’
“ ‘Need I? Surely the appearance is everything, mph?’
“ ‘Not everything. Guvnor. The tricks are pretty important. At least the way you’ve laid it out makes the tricks very important. And the tightrope, too. He’d look quite different dressed up.’
“ ‘Of course. But I don’t think he’ll do. Look again, eh, like a good chap?’
“ ‘Whatever you say. Guvnor. But I’d have bet money on this one. Let him flash a trick or two, just to see.’
“The little man wasn’t anxious to waste time on me, but I didn’t mean to waste time either. I threw a couple of decks in the air, made them do a fancy twirl, and let them slip back into my hands. Then I twirled on my toes, and made the decks do it again, in a spiral, which looks harder than it is. There was clapping from a corner—the kind of soft clapping women produce by clapping in gloves they don’t want to split I bowed toward the corner, and that was the first time I saw Milady.
“It was a time when women’s clothes were plain; the line of the silhouette was supposed to be simple. There was nothing plain or simple about Milady’s clothes. Drapes and swags and swishes, and scraps of fur everywhere, and the colours and fabrics were more like upholstery than garments. She had a hat like a witch’s, but with more style to it, and some soft stuff wrapped around the crown dangled over the brim to one shoulder. She was heavily made up—really she wore an extraordinary amount of make-up—in colours that were too emphatic for daylight. But neither she nor the little man seemed to be meant for daylight; I didn’t realize it at the time, but they always looked as if they were ready to step on the stage. Their clothes, and manner and demeanour all spoke of the stage.”
“The Crummies touch,” said Ingestree. “They were about the last to have it.”
“I don’t know who Crummies was,” said Magnus. “Ramsay will tell me later. But I must make it clear that these two didn’t look in the least funny to me. Odd, certainly, and unlike anything I had ever seen, but not funny. In fact, ten years later I still didn’t think them funny, though I know lots of people laughed. But those people didn’t know them as I did. And as I’ve told you I first saw Milady when she was applauding my tricks with the cards, so she looked very good to me.
“ ‘Let him show what he can do. Jack,’ she said. And then to me, with great politeness, ‘You do juggling, don’t you? Let us see you juggle.’
“I had nothing to juggle with, but I didn’t mean to be beaten. And I wanted to prove to the lady that I was worth her kindness. So with speed and I hope a reasonable amount of politeness I took her umbrella, and the little man’s wonderful hat, and Holroyd’s hat and the soft cap I was wearing myself, and balanced the brolly on my nose and juggled the three hats in an arch over it. Not easy, let me tell you, for all the hats were of different sizes and weights, and Holroyd’s hefted like iron. But I did it, and the lady clapped again. Then she whispered to the little man she called Jack.
“ ‘I see what you mean. Nan,’ he said, ‘but there must be some sort of resemblance. I hope I’m not vain, but I can’t persuade myself we can manage a resemblance, mphm?’
“I put on a little more steam. I did some clown juggling, pretending every time the circle went round that I was about to drop Holroyd’s hat, and recovering it with a swoop, and at last keeping that one in the air with my right foot. That made the little man laugh, and I knew I had had a lucky inspiration. Obviously Holroyd’s hat was rather a joke among them. ‘Come here, m’boy,’ said the boss. ‘Stand back to back with me.’ So I did, and we were exactly of a height. ‘Extraordinary,’ said the boss; ‘I’d have sworn he was shorter.’
“ ‘He’s a little shorter. Guvnor,’ said Holroyd, ‘but we can put him in lifts.’
“ ‘Aha, but what will you do about the face?’ said the boss. ‘Can you get away with the face?’
“ ‘I’ll show him what to do about the face,’ said the lady. ‘Give him his chance. Jack. I’m sure he’s lucky for us and I’m never wrong. After all, where did Holroyd find him?’
“So I got the job, though I hadn’t any idea what the job was, and nobody thought to tell me. But the boss said I was to come to rehearsal the following Monday, which was five days away. In the meantime, he said, I was to give up my present job, and keep out of sight. I would have accepted that, but again the lady interfered.
“ ‘You can’t ask him to do that. Jack,’ she said. ‘What’s he to live on in the meantime?’
“ ‘Holroyd will attend to it,’ said the little man. Then he offered the lady his arm, and put his hat back on his head (after Holroyd had dusted it, quite needlessly) and they swept out of that grubby assembly room in the Crown and Two Chairmen as if it were a palace.
“I said to Holroyd, ‘What’s this about lifts? I’m as tall as he is; perhaps a bit taller.’
“ ‘If you want this job, m’boy, you’ll be shorter and stay shorter,’ said Holroyd. Then he gave me thirty shillings, explaining that it was an advance on salary. He also asked for a pledge in return, just so that I wouldn’t make off with the thirty shillings; I gave him my old silver watch. I respected Holroyd for that; he belonged to my world. It was clear that it was time for me to go, but I still didn’t know what the job was, or what I was letting myself in for. That was obviously the style around there. Nobody explained anything. You were supposed to know.
“So, not being a fool, I set to work to find out. I discovered downstairs in the bar that Sir John Tresize and his company were rehearsing above, which left me not much wiser, except that it was some sort of theatricals. But when I went back to the buskers and told them I was quitting, and why, they were impressed, but not pleased.
“ ‘You gone legit on us,’ said the boss of the group, who was an escape-man, like the one we saw this morning. ‘You and your Sir John-bloody-Tresize. Amiet and Oh Thello and the like of them. If you want my opinion, you’ve got above yourself, and when they find out, don’t come whinin’ back to me, that’s all. Don’t come whinin’ bloody back here.’ Then he kicked me pretty hard in the backside, and that was the end of my engagement as an open-air entertainer.
“I didn’t bother to resent the kick. I had a feeling something important had happened to me, and I celebrated by taking a vacation. Living for five days on thirty shillings was luxury to me at that time. I thought of augmenting my money by doing a bit of pocket-picking, but I rejected the idea for a reason that will show you what had happened to me; I thought such behaviour would be unsuitable to one who had been given a job because of the interference of a richly-dressed lady with an eye for talent.
“The image of the woman called Nan by Sir John Tresize dominated my mind. Her umbrella, as I balanced it on my nose, gave forth an expensive smell of perfume, and I could recall it even in the petrol stink of London streets. I was like a boy who is in love for the first time. But I wasn’t a boy; it was 1930, so I must have been twenty-two, and I was a thorough young tough side-show performer, vaudeville rat, pick-pocket, dope-pusher, a forger in a modest way, and for a good many years the despised utensil of an arse-bandit. Women, to me, were members of a race who were either old and tougher than the men who work in carnivals, or the flabby, pallid strumpets I had occasionally seen in Charlie’s room when I went to rouse him to come to the aid of Willard. But so far as any sexual association with a woman went, I was a virgin. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was a hoor from the back and a virgin from the front, and so far as romance was concerned I was as pure as the lily in the dell. And there I was, over my ears in love with Lady Tresize, professionally known as Miss Annette de la Borderie, who cannot have been far off sixty and was, as Ingestree is eager to tell you, not a beauty. But she had been kind to me and said she would show me what to do about my face—whatever that meant—and I loved her.
“What do I mean? That I was constantly aware of her, and what I believed to be her spirit transfigured everything around me. I held wonderful mental conversations with her, and although they didn’t make much sense they gave me a new attitude toward myself. I told you I put aside any notion of picking a pocket in order to refresh my exchequer because of her. What was stranger was that I felt in quite a different way about the poor slut that helped the escape-artist who kicked me; he was rough with her, I knew, and I pitied her, though I had taken no notice of her before then. It was the dawn of chivalry in me, coming rather late in life. Most men, unless they are assembled on the lowest, turnip-like principle, have a spell of chivalry at some time in their lives. Usually it comes at about sixteen. I understand boys quite often wish they had a chance to die for the one they love, to show that their devotion stops at nothing. Dying wasn’t my line; a good religious start in life had given me too much respect for death to permit any extravagance of that sort. But I wanted to live for Lady Tresize, and I was overjoyed by the notion that, if I could do whatever Holroyd and Sir John wanted, I might be able to manage it.
“It wasn’t lunacy. She had that effect, in lesser measure, on a lot of people, as I found out when I joined the Tresize Company. Everybody called Sir John ‘Guvnor’, because that was his style; lots of heads of theatrical companies were called Guvnor. But they called Lady Tresize ‘Milady’. It would have been reasonable enough for her maid to do that, but everybody did it, and it was respectful, and affectionately mocking at the same time. She understood both the affection and the mockery, because Milady was no fool.
“Five days is a long time to be cut off from Paradise, and I had nothing to occupy my time. I suppose I walked close to a hundred miles through the London streets. What else was there to do? I bummed around the Victoria and Albert Museum quite a lot, looking at the clocks and watches, but I wasn’t dressed for it and I suppose a young tough who hung around for hours made the guards nervous. I looked like a ruffian, and I suppose I was one, and I held no grudge when I was politely warned away. I saw a few free sights—churches and the like—but they meant little to me. I liked the streets best, so I walked and stared, and slept in a Salvation Army hostel for indigents. But I was no indigent; I was rich in feeling, and that was a luxury I had rarely known.
“As the Monday drew near when I was to present myself again I worried a lot about my clothes. All I owned was what I stood up in, and my very poor things were a good protective covering in the streets, where I looked like a thousand others, but they weren’t what I needed for a great step upward in the theatrical world. There was nothing to be done, and with my experience I knew my best plan was to present an appearance of honest poverty, so I spent some money on a bath, and washed the handkerchief I wore around my throat in the bathwater, and got a street shoeshine boy to do what he could with my dreadful shoes, which were almost falling apart.
“When the day came, I was well ahead of time, and had my first taste of a theatrical rehearsal. Milady didn’t appear at it, and that was a heavy disappointment, but there was plenty to take in, all the same.
“It was education by observation. Nobody paid any heed to me. Holroyd nodded when I went into the room, and told me to keep out of the way, so I sat on a windowsill and watched. Men and women appeared very promptly to time, and a stage manager set out a few chairs to mark entrances and limits to the stage on the bare floor. Bang on the stroke of ten Sir John came in, and sat down in a chair behind a table, tapped twice with a silver pencil, and they went to work.
“You know what early rehearsals are like. You would never guess they were getting up a play. People wandered on and off the stage area, reading from sheets of paper that were bound up in brown covers; they mumbled and made mistakes as if they had never seen print before. Sir John mumbled worse than anyone. He had a way of talking that I could hardly believe belonged to a human being, because almost everything he said was cast in an interrogative tone, and was muddled up with a lot of ‘Eh?’ and ‘Mphm?’ and a queer noise he made high up in the back of his nose that sounded like ‘Quonk?’ But the actors seemed used to it and amid all the muttering and quonking a good deal of work seemed to be done. Now and then Sir John himself would appear in a scene, and then the muttering sank almost to inaudibility. Very soon I was bored.
“It was not my plan to be bored, so I looked for something to do. I was a handy fellow, and a lot younger than the stage manager, so when the chairs had to be arranged in a different pattern I nipped forward and gave him a hand, which he allowed me to do without comment. Before the rehearsal was finished I was an established chair lifter, and that was how I became an assistant stage manager. My immediate boss was a man called Macgregor, whose feet hurt; he had those solid feet that seem to be all in one piece, encased in heavy boots; he was glad enough to have somebody who would run around for him. It was from him, during a break in the work, that I found out what we were doing.
“ ‘It’s the new piece,’ he explained. ‘Scaramouche. From the novel by Rafael Sabatini. You’ll have heard of Rafael Sabatini? You haven’t? Well, keep your lugs open and you’ll get the drift of it. Verra romantic, of course.’
“ ‘What am I to do, Mr. Macgregor?’ I asked.
“ ‘Nobody’s told me,’ he said. ‘But from the cut of your jib I’d imagine you were the Double.’
“ ‘Double what?’
“ ‘The Double in Two, two,’ he said, in a very Scotch way. I learned long ago, from you, Ramsay, that it’s no use asking questions of a Scot when he speaks like that—dry as an old soda biscuit. So I held my peace.
“I picked up a little information by listening and asking an occasional question when some of the lesser actors went downstairs to the bar for a modest lunch. After three or four days I knew that Scaramouche was laid in the period of the French Revolution, though when that was I did not know. I had never heard that the French had a revolution. I knew the Americans had had one, but so far as detail went it could have been because George Washington shot Lincoln. I was pretty strong on the kings of Israel; later history was closed to me. But the story of the play leaked out in dribbles. Sir John was a young Frenchman who was ‘born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad’; that was what one of the other actors said about him. The astonishing thing was that nobody thought it strange that Sir John was so far into middle age that he was very near to emerging from the far side of it. This young Frenchman got himself into trouble with the nobility because he had advanced notions. To conceal himself he joined a troupe of travelling actors, but his revolutionary zeal was so great that he could not hold his tongue, and denounced the aristocracy from the stage, to the scandal of everyone. When the Revolution came, which it did right on time when it was needed, he became a revolutionary leader, and was about to revenge himself on the nobleman who had vilely slain his best friend and nabbed his girl, when an elderly noblewoman was forced to declare that she was his mother and then, much against her will, further compelled to tell him that his deadly enemy whom he held at the sword’s point was—his father!
“Verra romantic, as Macgregor said, but not so foolish as I have perhaps led you to think. I give it to you as it appeared to me on early acquaintance. I was only interested in what I was supposed to do to earn my salary. Because I now had a salary—or half a salary, because that was the pay for the rehearsal period. Holroyd had presented me with a couple of pages of wretchedly typed stuff, which was my contract. I signed it Jules LeGrand, so that it agreed with my passport. Holroyd looked a little askew at the name, and asked me if I spoke French. I was glad that I could say yes, but he gave me a pretty strong hint that I might consider finding some less foreign name for use on the stage. I couldn’t imagine why that should be, but I found out when we reached Act Two, scene two.
“We had approached this critical point—critical for me, that’s to say—two or three times during the first week of rehearsal, and Sir John had asked the actors to ‘walk through’ it, without doing more than find their places on the stage. It was a scene in which the young revolutionary lawyer, whose name was Andre-Louis, was appearing on the stage with the travelling actors. They were a troupe of Italian Comedians, all of whom played strongly marked characters such as Polichinelle the old father, Climene the beautiful leading lady, Rhodomont the braggart, Leandre the lover, Pasquariel, and other figures from the Commedia dell’ Arte. I didn’t know what that was, but I picked up the general idea, and it wasn’t so far away from vaudeville as you might suppose. Indeed, some of it reminded me of poor Zovene, the wretched juggler. Andre-Louis (that was Sir John) had assumed the role of Scaramouche, a dashing, witty scoundrel.
“In Act Two, scene two, the Italian Comedians were giving a performance, and at the very beginning of it Scaramouche had to do some flashy juggling tricks. Later, he seized his chance to make a revolutionary speech which was not in the play as the Comedians had rehearsed it; when his great enemy and some aristocratic chums stormed the stage to punish him, he escaped by walking across the stage on a tightrope, far above their heads, making jeering gestures as he did so. Very showy. And clearly not for Sir John. So I was to appear in a costume exactly like his, do the tricks, get out of the way so Sir John could make his revolutionary speech, and take over again when it was time to walk the tightrope.
“This would take some neat managing. When Macgregor said, ‘Curtain up,’ I leapt onto the stage area from the audience’s right, and danced toward the left, juggling some plates; when Polichinelle broke the plates with his stick, causing a lot of clatter and uproar, I pretended to dodge behind his cloak, and Sir John popped into sight immediately afterward. Sounds simple, but as we had to pretend to have the plates, and the cloak, and everything else, I found it confusing. The tightrope trick was ‘walked’ in the same way; Sir John was always talking about ‘walking’ something when we weren’t ready to do it in reality. At the critical moment when the aristocrats rushed the stage, Sir John retreated slowly toward the left side, keeping them off with a stick; then he hopped backward onto a chair—which I must say he did with astonishing spryness—and there was a flurry of cloaks, during which he got out of the way and I emerged above on the tightrope, having stepped out on it from the wings. Easy, you would say, for an old carnival hand? But it wasn’t easy at all, and after a few days it looked as if I would lose my job. Even when we were ‘walking’, I couldn’t satisfy Sir John.
“As usual, nobody said anything to me, but I knew what was up one morning when Holroyd appeared with a fellow who was obviously an acrobat and Sir John talked with him. I hung around, officiously helping Macgregor, and heard what was said, or enough of it. The acrobat seemed to be very set on something he wanted, and it wasn’t long before he was on his way, and Sir John was in an exceedingly bad temper. All through the rehearsal he bullied everybody. He bullied Miss Adele Chesterton, the pretty girl who played the second romantic interest; she was new to the stage and a natural focus for temper. He bullied old Frank Moore, who played Polichinelle, and was a very old hand and an extraordinarily nice person. He was crusty with Holroyd and chivvied Macgregor. He didn’t shout or swear, but he was impatient and exacting, and his annoyance was so thick it cut down the visibility in the room to about half, like dark smoke. When the time came to rehearse Two, two, he said he would leave it out for that day, and he brought the rehearsal to an early close. Holroyd asked me to wait after the others had gone, but not to hang around. So I kept out of the way near the door while Sir John, Holroyd, and Milady held a summit conference at the farther end of the room.
“I couldn’t hear much of what they said, but it was about me, and it was hottish. Holroyd kept saying things like, ‘You won’t get a real pro to agree to leaving his name off the bills,’ and ‘It’s not as easy to get a fair resemblance as you might suppose—not under the conditions.’ Milady had a real stage voice, and when she spoke her lowest it was still as clear as a bell at my end of the room, and her talk was all variations on ‘Give the poor fellow a chance. Jack—everybody must have at least one chance.’ But of Sir John I could hear nothing. He had a stage voice, too, and knew how far it could be heard, so when he was being confidential he mumbled on purpose and threw in a lot of Eh and Quonk, which seemed to convey meaning to people who knew him.
“After ten minutes Milady said, so loudly that there could be no pretence that I was not to hear, ‘Trust me. Jack. He’s lucky for us. He has a lucky face. I’m never wrong. And if I can’t get him right, we’ll say no more about it.’ Then she swept down the room to me, using the umbrella, with more style than you’d think possible, as a walking-stick, and said, ‘Come with me, my dear boy; we must have a very intimate talk.’ Then something struck her, and she turned to the two men; ‘I haven’t a penny,’ she said, and from the way both Sir John and Holroyd jumped forward to press pound notes on her you could tell they were both devoted to her. That made me feel warmly toward them, even though they had been talking about sacking me a minute before.
“Milady led the way, and I tagged behind. We went downstairs, where she poked her head into the Public Bar, which was just opening and said, in a surprisingly genial voice, considering that she was Lady Tresize talking to a barman, ‘Do you think I could have Rab Noolas for a private talk, for about half an hour, Joey?’, and the barman shouted back, ‘Whatever you say, Milady,’ and she led me into a gloomy pen, surrounded on three sides by dingy etched glass, with Saloon Bar on the door. When I closed the door behind us this appeared in reverse and I understood that we were now in Rab Noolas. The barman came behind the counter on our fourth side and asked us what it would be. ‘A pink gin, Joey,’ said Milady, and I said I’d have the same, not knowing what it was. Joey produced them, and we sat down, and from the way Milady did so I knew it was a big moment. Fraught, as they say, with consequence.
“ ‘Let us be very frank. And I’ll be frank first, because I’m the oldest. You simply have no notion of the wonderful opportunity you have in Scaramouche. Such a superb little cameo. I say to all beginners: they aren’t tiny parts, they’re little cameos, and the way you carve them is the sign of what your whole career will be. Show me a young player who can give a superb cameo in a small part, and I’ll show you a star of the future. And yours is one of the very finest opportunities I have ever seen in my life in the theatre, because you must be so marvellous that nobody—not the sharpest-eyed critic or the most adoring fan—can distinguish you from my husband. Suddenly, before their very eyes, stands Sir John, juggling marvellously, and of course they adore him. Then, a few minutes later, they see Sir John walking the tightrope, and they see half a dozen of his little special tricks of gesture and turns of the head, and they are thunderstruck because they can’t believe that he has learned to walk the tightrope. And the marvel of it, you see, is that it’s you, all the time! You must use your imagination, my dear boy. You must see what a stunning effect it is. And what makes it possible? You do!’
“ ‘Oh I do see all that, Milady,’ I said. ‘But Sir John isn’t pleased. I wish I knew why. I’m honestly doing the very best I can, considering that we haven’t anything to juggle with, or any tightrope. How can I do better?’
“ ‘Ah, but you’ve put your finger on it, dear boy. I knew from the moment I saw you that you had great, great understanding—not to speak of a lucky face. You have said it yourself. You’re doing the best you can. But that’s not what’s wanted, you see. You must do the best Sir John can.’
“ ‘But—Sir John can’t do anything,’ I said. ‘He can’t juggle and he can’t walk rope. Otherwise why would he want me?’
“ ‘No, no; you haven’t understood. Sir John can, and will, do something absolutely extraordinary: he will make the public—the great audiences of people who come to see him in everything—believe he is doing those splendid, skilful things. He can make them want to believe he can do anything. They will quite happily accept you as him, if you can get the right rhythm.’
“ ‘But I still don’t understand. People aren’t as stupid as that. They’ll guess it’s a trick.’
“ ‘A few, perhaps. But most of them will prefer to believe it’s a reality. That’s what the theatre’s about, you see. People want to believe that what they see is true, even if only for the time they’re in the playhouse. That’s what theatre is, don’t you understand? Showing people what they wish were true.’
“Then I began to get the idea. I had seen that look in the faces of the people who watched Abdullah, and who saw Willard swallow needles and thread and pull it out of his mouth with the needles all dangling from the thread. I nervously asked Milady if she would like another pink gin. She said she certainly would, and gave me a pound note to pay for it. When I demurred she said, ‘No, no; you must let me pay. I’ve got more money than you, and I won’t presume on your gallantry—though I value it, my dear, don’t imagine I don’t value it.’
“When the gins came, she continued: ‘Let us be very, very frank. Your marvellous cameo must be a great secret. If we tell everybody, we stifle some of their pleasure. You saw that young man who came this morning, and argued so tiresomely? He could juggle and he could walk the rope, quite as well as you, I expect, but he was no use whatever, because he had the spirit of a circus person; he wanted his name on the programme, and he wanted featured billing. Wanted his name to come at the bottom of the bills, you see, after all the cast had been listed, “AND Trebelli”. An absurd request. Everybody would want to know who Trebelli was and they would see at once that he was the juggler and rope-walker. And Romance would fly right up the chimney. Besides which I could see that he would never deceive anyone for an instant that he was Sir John. He had a brassy, horrid personality. Now you, my dear, have the splendid qualification of having very little personality. One hardly notices you. You are almost a tabula rasa.’
“ ‘Excuse me, Milady, but I don’t know what that is.’
“ ‘No? Well, it’s a—it’s a common expression. I’ve never really had to define it. It’s a sort of charming nothing; a dear, sweet little zero, in which one can paint any face one chooses. An invaluable possession, don’t you see? One says it of children when one’s going to teach them something perfectly splendid. They’re wide open for teaching.’
“ ‘I want to be taught. What do you want me to learn?’
“ ‘I knew you were quite extraordinarily intelligent. More than intelligent, really. Intelligent people are so often thoroughly horrid. You are truly sensitive. I want you to learn to be exactly like Sir John.’
“ ‘Imitate him, you mean?’
“ ‘Imitations are no good. There have been people on the music-halls who have imitated him. No; if the thing is to work as we all want it to work, you must quite simply be him.’
“ ‘How, if I don’t imitate him?’
“ ‘It’s a very deep thing. Of course you must imitate him, but be careful he doesn’t catch you at it, because he doesn’t like it. Nobody does, do they? What I mean is—oh, dear, it’s so dreadfully difficult to say what one really means—you must catch his walk, and his turn of the head, and his gestures and all of that, but the vital thing is that you must catch his rhythm.’
“ ‘How would I start to do that?’
“ ‘Model yourself on him. Make yourself like a marvellously sensitive telegraph wire that takes messages from him. Or perhaps like wireless, that picks up things out of the air. Do what he did with the Guvnor.’
“ ‘I thought he was the Guvnor.’
“ ‘He is now, of course. But when we both worked under the dear old Guvnor at the Lyceum Sir John absolutely adored him, and laid himself open to him like Danae to the shower of gold—you know about that, of course?—and became astonishingly like him in a lot of ways. Of course Sir John is not so tall as the Guvnor; but you’re not tall either, are you? It was the Guvnor’s romantic splendour he caught. Which is what you must do. So that when you dance out before the audience juggling those plates they don’t feel as if the electricity had suddenly been cut off. Another pink gin, if you please.’
“I didn’t greatly like pink gin. In those days I couldn’t afford to drink anything, and pink gin is a bad start. But I would have drunk hot fat to prolong this conversation. So we had another one each, and Milady dealt with hers much better than I did. A pink gin later—call it ten minutes—I was thoroughly confused, except that I wanted to please her, and must find out somehow what she was talking about.
“When she wanted to leave I rushed to call her a taxi, but Holroyd was ahead of me, and in much better condition. He must have been in the Public Bar. We both bowed her into the cab I seem to remember having one foot in the gutter and the other on the pavement and wondering what had happened to my legs—and when she drove off he took me by the arm and steered me back into the Public Bar, where we tucked into a corner with old Frank Moore.
“ ‘She’s been giving him advice and pink gin,’ said Holroyd.
“ ‘Better give him a good honest pint of half-and-half to straighten him out,’ said Frank, and signalled to the barman.
“They seemed to know what Milady had been up to, and were ready to put it in language that I could understand, which was kind of them. They made it seem very simple: I was to imitate Sir John, but I was to do it with more style than I had been showing. I was supposed to be imitating a great actor who was imitating an eighteenth-century gentleman who was imitating a Commedia dell’ Arte comedian—that’s how simple it was. And I was doing everything too bloody fast, and slick and cheap, so I was to drop that and catch Sir John’s rhythm.
“ ‘But I don’t get it about all this rhythm,’ I said. ‘I guess I know about rhythm in juggling; it’s getting everything under control so you don’t have to worry about dropping things because the things are behaving properly. But what the hell’s all this human rhythm? You mean like dancing?’
“ ‘Not like any dancing I suppose you know,’ said Holroyd. ‘But yes—a bit like dancing. Not like this Charleston and all that jerky stuff. More a fine kind of complicated—well, rhythm.’
“ ‘I don’t get it at all,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to get Sir John’s rhythm. Sir John got his rhythm from somebody called the Guvnor. What Guvnor? Is the whole theatre full of Guvnors?’
“ ‘Ah, now we’re getting to it,’ said old Frank. ‘Milady talked about the Guvnor, did she? The Guvnor was Irving, you muggins. You’ve heard of Irving?’
“ ‘Never,’ I said.
“Old Frank looked wonderingly at Holroyd. ‘Never heard of Irving. He’s quite a case, isn’t he?’
“ ‘Not such a case as you might think, Frank,’ said Holroyd. ‘These kids today have never heard of anybody. And I suppose we’ve got to remember that Irving’s been dead for twenty-five years. You remember him. You played with him. I just remember him. But what’s he got to do with a lad like this?—Well, now just hold on a minute. Milady thinks there’s a connection. You know how she goes on. Like a loony, sometimes. But just when you can’t stand it any more she proves to be right, and righter than any of us. You remember where I found you?’ he said to me.
“ ‘In the street. I was doing a few passes with the cards.’
“ ‘Yes, but don’t you remember where? I do. I saw you and I came back to rehearsal and said to Sir John, I think I’ve got what we want. Found him under the Guvnor’s statue, picking up a few pennies as a conjuror. And that was when Milady pricked up her ears. Oh Jack, she said, it’s a lucky sign; Let’s see him at once. And when Sir John wanted to ask perfectly reasonable questions about whether you would do for height, and whether a resemblance could be contrived between you and him, she kept nattering on about how you must be a lucky find because I saw you, as she put it, working the streets under Irving’s protection. You know how the Guvnor stood up for all the little people of the theatre. Jack, she said, I’m sure this boy is a lucky find. Do let’s have him. And she’s stood up for you ever since, though I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to hear that Sir John wants to get rid of you.’
“The pint of half-and-half had found its way to the four pink gins, and I was having something like a French Revolution in my innards. I was feeling sorry for myself. ‘Why does he hate me so,’ I said, snivelling a bit. ‘I’m doing everything I know to please him.’
“ ‘You’d better have it straight,’ said Holroyd. ‘The resemblance is a bit too good. You look too much like him.’
“ ‘Just what I said when I first set eyes on you,’ said old Frank. ‘My God, I said, what a Double! You might have been spit out of his mouth.’
“ ‘Well, isn’t that what they want?’ I said.
“ ‘You have to look at it reasonable,’ said Holroyd. ‘Put it like this: you’re a famous actor, getting maybe just the tiniest bit past your prime—though still a top-notcher, mind you—and for thirty years everybody’s said how distinguished you are, and what a beautiful expressive face you have, and how Maeterlinck damn near threw up his lunch when you walked on the stage in one of his plays, and said to the papers that you had stolen his soul, you were so good—meaning spiritual, romantic, poetic, and generally gorgeous. You still get lots of fan letters from people who find some kind of ideal in you. You’ve had all the devotion—a bit cracked some of it, but mostly very real and touching—that a great actor inspires in people, most of whom have had some kind of short-change experience in life. So: you want a Double. And when the Double comes—and such a Double that you can’t deny him—he’s a seedy little carnie, with the shifty eyes of a pickpocket and the breath of somebody that eats the cheapest food, and you wouldn’t trust him with sixpenn’ worth of copper, and every time you look at him you heave. He looks like everything inside yourself that you’ve choked off and shut out in order to be what you are now. And he looks at you all the time—you do this, you know—as if he knew something about you you didn’t know yourself. Now: fair’s fair. Wouldn’t you want to get rid of him? Yet here’s your wife, who’s stood by you through thick and thin, and held you up when you were ready to sink under debts and bad luck, and whom you love so much everybody can see it, and thinks you’re marvellous because of it, and what does she say? She says this nasty mess of a Double is lucky, and has to be given his chance. You follow me? Try to be objective. I don’t want to say hard things about you, but truth’s truth and must be served. You’re not anybody’s first pick for a Double, but there you are. Sir John’s dead spit, as Frank here says.’
“Very soon I was going to have to leave them. My stomach was heaving. But I was still determined to find out whatever I could to keep my job. I wanted it now more desperately than before. ‘So what do I do?’ I asked.
“Holroyd puffed at his pipe, groping for an answer, and it was old Frank who spoke. He spoke very kindly. ‘You just keep on keeping on,’ he said. ‘Try to find the rhythm. Try to get inside Sir John.’
“These were fatal words. I rushed out into the street, and threw up noisily and copiously in the gutter. Try to get inside Sir John! Was this to be another Abdullah?
“It was, but in a way I could not have foreseen. Experience never repeats itself in quite the same way. I was beginning another servitude, much more dangerous and potentially ruinous, but far removed from the squalor of my experience with Willard. I had entered upon a long apprenticeship to an egoism.
“Please notice that I say egoism, not egotism, and I am prepared to be pernickety about the distinction. An egotist is a self-absorbed creature, delighted with himself and ready to tell the world about his enthralling love affair. But an egoist, like Sir John, is a much more serious being, who makes himself, his instincts, yearnings, and tastes the touchstone of every experience. The world, truly, is his creation. Outwardly he may be courteous, modest, and charming—and certainly when you knew him Sir John was all of these—but beneath the velvet is the steel; if anything comes along that will not yield to the steel, the steel will retreat from it and ignore its existence. The egotist is all surface; underneath is a pulpy mess and a lot of self-doubt. But the egoist may be yielding and even deferential in things he doesn’t consider important; in anything that touches his core he is remorseless.
“Many of us have some touch of egoism. We who sit at this table are no strangers to it. You, I should think, Jurgen, are a substantial egoist, and so are you. Harry. About Ingestree I can’t say. But Liesl is certainly an egoist and you, Ramsay, are a ferocious egoist battling with your demon because you would like to be a saint. But none of you begins to approach the egoism of Sir John. His egoism was fed by the devotion of his wife, and the applause he could call forth in the theatre. I have never known anyone who came near him in the truly absorbing and damning sin of egoism.”
“Damning?” I leapt on the word.
“We were both brought up to believe in damnation, Dunny,” said Eisengrim, and he was deeply serious. “What does it mean? Does it mean shut off from the promptings of compassion; untouched by the feelings of others except in so far as they can serve us; blind and deaf to anything that is not grist to our mill? If that is what it means, and if that is a form of damnation, I have used the word rightly.
“Don’t misunderstand. Sir John wasn’t cruel, or dishonourable or overreaching in common ways; but he was all of these things where his own interest as an artist was concerned; within that broad realm he was without bowels. He didn’t make Adele Chesterton cry at every rehearsal because he was a brute. He hadn’t brought Holroyd—who was a tough nut in every other way—to a condition of total subjection to his will because he liked to domineer over a fellow-being. He hadn’t turned Milady into a kind of human oilcan who went about cooling wheels he had worn red-hot because he didn’t know that she was a woman of rare spirit and fine sensitivity. He did these things and a thousand others because he was wholly devoted to an ideal of theatrical art that was contained—so far as he was concerned—within himself. I think he knew perfectly well what he did, and he thought it worth the doing. It served his art, and his art demanded a remorseless egoism.
“He was one of the last of a kind that has now vanished. He was an actor-manager. There was no Arts Council to keep him afloat when he failed, or pick up the bill for an artistic experiment or act of daring. He had to find the money for his ventures, and if the money was lost on one production he had to get it back from another, or he would soon appeal to investors in vain. Part of him was a financier. He asked people to invest in his craft and skill and sense of business. Beyond that, he asked people to invest in his personality and charm, and the formidable technique he had acquired to make personality and charm vivid to hundreds of thousands of people who bought theatre seats. In justice it must be said that he had a particular sort of taste and flair that lifted him above the top level of actors to the very small group of stars with an assured following. He wasn’t personally greedy, though he liked to live well. He did what he did for art. His egoism lay in his belief that art, as he embodied it, was worth any sacrifice on his part and on the part of people who worked with him.
“When I became part of his company the fight against time had begun. Not simply the fight against the approach of age, because he was not deluded about that. It was the fight against the change in the times, the fight to maintain a nineteenth-century idea of theatre in the twentieth century. He believed devoutly in what he did; he believed in Romance, and he couldn’t understand that the concept of Romance was changing.
“Romance changes all the time. His plays, in which a well-graced hero moved through a succession of splendid adventures and came out on top—even when that meant dying for some noble cause—were becoming old hat. Romance at that time meant Private Lives, which was brand-new. It didn’t look to its audiences like Romance, but that was what it was. Our notion of Romance, which is so often exploration of squalor and degradation, will become old hat, too. Romance is a mode of feeling that puts enormous emphasis—but not quite a tragic emphasis—on individual experience. Tragedy puts something above humanity; so does Comedy; Romance puts humanity first. The people who liked Sir John’s kind of Romance were middle-aged, or old. Oh, lots of young people came to see him, but they weren’t the most interesting kind of young people. Perhaps they weren’t really young. The interesting young people were going to see a different sort of play. They were flocking to Private Lives. You couldn’t expect Sir John to understand. His ideal of Romance was far from that, and he had shaped a formidable egoism to serve his ideal.”
“It’s the peril of the actor,” said Ingestree. “Do you remember what Aldous Huxley said? ‘Acting inflames the ego in a way which few other professions do. For the sake of enjoying regular emotional self-abuse, our societies condemn a considerable class of men and women to a perpetual inability to achieve non-attachment. It seems a high price to pay for our amusements.’ A profound comment. I used to be deeply influenced by Huxley.”
“I gather you got over it,” said Eisengrim, “or you wouldn’t be talking about non-attachment over the ruins of a tremendous meal and a huge cigar you have been sucking like a child at its mother’s breast.”
“I thought you had forgiven me,” said Ingestree, being as winsome as his age and appearance allowed. “I don’t pretend to have set aside the delights of this world; I tried that and it was no good. But I have my intellectual fopperies, and they pop out now and then. Do go on about Sir John and his egoism.”
“So I shall,” said Magnus, “but at another time. The waiters are hovering and I perceive the delicate fluttering of paper in the hands of the chief bandit yonder.”
I watched with envy as Ingestree signed the bill without batting an eyelash. I suppose it was company money he was spending. We went out into the London rain and called for cabs.