When I returned to our drawing-room Roly was already aboard ship.
“One of my embarrassments—how susceptible the young are to embarrassment—was that my dear Mum had outfitted me with a vast woolly steamer-rug in a gaudy design. The company kept pestering Macgregor to know what tartan it was, and he thought it looked like Hunting Cohen, so The Hunting Cohen it was from that time forth. I didn’t need it, God knows, because the C.P.R. ship was fiercely hot inside, and it was too late in the season for anyone to sit on deck in any sort of comfort.
“My Mum was so solicitous in seeing me off that the company pretended to think I needed a lot of looking after, and made a great game of it. Not unkind (except for Charlton and Woulds, who were bullies) but very jokey and hard to bear, especially when I wanted to be glorious in the eyes of Audrey Sevenhowes. But my Mum had also provided me with a Baedeker’s Canada, the edition of 1922, which had somehow found its way into the shop, and although it was certainly out of date a surprising number of people asked for a loan of it, and informed themselves that the Government of Canada issued a four-dollar bill, and that the coloured porters on the sleeping-cars expected a minimum tip of twenty-five cents a day, and that a guard’s van was called a caboose on Canadian railways, and similar useful facts.
“The Co. may have thought me funny, but they were a quaint sight themselves when they assembled on deck for a publicity picture before we left Liverpool. There were plenty of these company pictures taken through the whole length of the tour, and in every one of them Emilia Pauncefort’s extraordinary travelling coat (called behind her back the Coat of Many Colours) and the fearful man’s cap that Gwenda Lewis fastened to her head with a hatpin, so that she would be ready for all New World hardships, and the fur cap C. Pengelly Spickernell wore, assuring everybody that a skin cap with earflaps was absolutely de rigueur in the Canadian winter, Grover Paskin’s huge pipe, with a bowl about the size of a brandy-glass, and Eugene Fitzwarren’s saucy Homburg and coat with velvet collar, in the Edwardian manner—all these strange habiliments figured prominently. Even though the gaudy days of the Victorian mummers had long gone, these actors somehow got themselves up so that they couldn’t have been taken for anything else on God’s earth but actors.
“It was invariable, too, that when Holroyd had mustered us for one of these obligatory pictures. Sir John and Milady always appeared last, smiling in surprise, as if a picture were the one thing in the world they hadn’t expected, and as if they were joining in simply to humour the rest of us. Sir John was an old hand at travelling in Canada, and he wore an overcoat of Raglan cut and reasonable weight, but of an amplitude that spoke of the stage—and, as our friend has told us, the sleeves were always a bit short so that his hands showed to advantage. Milady wore fur, as befitted the consort of an actor-knight; what fur it was nobody knew, but it was very furry indeed, and soft, and smelled like money. She topped herself with one of those cloche hats that were fashionable then, in a hairy purple felt; not the happiest choice, because it almost obscured her eyes, and threw her long duck’s-bill nose into prominence.
“But never—never, I assure you—in any of these pictures would you find Mungo Fetch. Who can have warned him off? Whose decision was it that a youthful Sir John, in clothes that were always too tight and sharply cut, wouldn’t have done in one of these pictures which always appeared in Canadian papers with a caption that read: ‘Sir John Tresize and his London company, including Miss Annette de la Borderie (Lady Tresize), who are touring Canada after a triumphant season in the West End.’ “
“It was a decision of common sense,” said Magnus. “It never worried me. I knew my place, which is more than you did, Roly.”
“Quite right. I fully admit it. I didn’t know my place. I was under the impression that a university man was acceptable everywhere, and inferior to no one. I hadn’t twigged that in a theatrical company—or any artistic organization, for that matter—the hierarchy is decided by talent, and that art is the most rigorously aristocratic thing in our democratic world. So I always pushed in as close to Audrey Sevenhowes as I could, and I even picked up the trick from Charlton of standing a bit sideways, to show my profile, which I realize now would have been better kept a mystery. I was an ass. Oh, indeed I was a very fine and ostentatious ass, and don’t think I haven’t blushed for it since.”
“Stop telling us what an ass you were,” said Kinghovn. “Even I recognize that as an English trick to pull the teeth of our contempt. ‘Oh, I say, what a jolly good chap: says he’s an ass, don’t yer know; he couldn’t possibly say that if he was really an ass.’ But I’m a tough-minded European; I think you really were an ass. If I had a time-machine, I’d whisk myself back into 1932 and give you a good boot in the arse for it. But as I can’t, tell me why you were included on the tour. Apparently you were a bad actor and an arguing nuisance as a chair-lifter. Why would anybody pay you money, and take you on a jaunt to Canada?”
“You need a drink, Harry. You are speaking from the deep surliness of the deprived boozer. Don’t fuss; it’ll be the canonical, appointed cocktail hour quite soon, and then you’ll regain your temper. I was taken as Sir John’s secretary. The idea was that I’d write letters to fans that he could sign, and do general dog’s-body work, and also get on with Jekyll-and-Hyde.
“That was where the canker gnawed, to use an appropriately melodramatic expression. I had thought, you see, that I was to write a dramatization of Stevenson’s story, and as Magnus has told you I was full of great ideas about Dostoyevsky and masks. I used to quote Stevenson at Sir John: ‘I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens,’ I would say, and entreat him to let me put the incongruous denizens on the stage, in masks. He merely shook his head and said, ‘No good, m’boy; my public wouldn’t like it.’ Then I would have at him with another quotation, in which Jekyll tells of ‘those appetites I had long secretly indulged, and had of late begun to pamper’. Once he asked me what I had in mind. I had lots of Freudian capers in mind: masochism, and sadism, and rough-stuff with girls. That rubbed his Victorianism the wrong way. ‘Unwholesome rubbish,’ was all he would say.
“In the very early days of our association I was even so daring as to ask him to scrap Jekyll-and-Hyde and let me do a version of Dorian Gray for him. That really tore it! ‘Don’t ever mention that man to me again,’ he said; ‘Oscar Wilde dragged his God-given genius in unspeakable mire, and the greatest kindness we can do is to forget his name. Besides, my public wouldn’t hear of it.’ So I was stuck with Jekyll-and-Hyde.
“Stuck even worse than I had at first supposed. Ages and ages before, at the beginning of their career together, Sir John and Milady had concocted The Master of Ballantrae themselves, with their own innocent pencils. They made the scenario, down to the last detail, then found some hack to supply dialogue. This, I discovered to my horror, was what they had done again. They had made a scheme for Jekyll-and-Hyde, and they expected me to write some words for it, and he had the gall to say they would polish. Those two mountebanks polish my stuff! I was no hack; hadn’t I got a meritorious second in Eng. Lit at Cambridge? And it would have been a first, if I had been content to crawl and stick to the party line about everything on the syllabus from Beowulf on down! Don’t laugh, you people. I was young and I had pride.”
“But no stage experience,” said Lind.
“Perhaps not, but I wasn’t a fool. And you should have seen the scenario Sir John and Milady had cobbled up between them. Stevenson must have turned in his grave. Do you know The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? It’s tremendously a written book. Do you know what I mean? Its quality is so much in the narrative manner; extract the mere story from it and it’s just a tale of bugaboo. Chap drinking a frothy liquid that changes from clear to purple and then to green—green if you can imagine anything so corny—and he shrinks into his wicked alter ego. I set myself to work to discover a way of getting the heart of the literary quality into a stage version.
“Masks would have helped enormously. But those two had seized on what was, for them, the principal defect of the original, which was that there was no part for a woman in it. Well, imagine! What would the fans of Miss Annette de la Borderie say to that? So they had fudged up a tale in which Dr. Jekyll had a secret sorrow; it was that a boyhood friend had married the girl he truly loved, who discovered after the marriage that she truly loved Jekyll. So he adored her honourably, while her husband went to the bad through drink. The big Renunciation ploy, you see, which was such a telling card in The Master.
“To keep his mind off his thwarted love, Dr. Jekyll took to mucking with chemicals, and discovered the Fateful Potion. Then the husband of the True Love died of booze, and Jekyll and she were free to marry. But by that time he was addicted to the Fateful Potion. Had taken so much of it that he was likely to give a shriek and dwindle into Hyde at any inconvenient moment. So he couldn’t marry his True Love and couldn’t tell her why. Great final scene, where he is locked in his laboratory, changed into Hyde, and quite unable to change back, because he’s run out of the ingredients of the F.P.; True Love, suspecting something’s up, storms the door with the aid of a butler and footman who break it in; as the blows on the door send him into the trembles, Jekyll, with one last superhuman clutching at his Better Self, realizes that there is only one honourable way out; he takes poison, and hops the twig just as True Love bursts in; she holds the body of Hyde in her arms, weeping piteously, and the power of her love is so great that he turns slowly back into the beautiful Dr. Jekyll, redeemed at the very moment of death.”
“A strong curtain,” said I. “I don’t know what you’re complaining about. I should like to have seen that play. I remember Tresize well; he could have done it magnificently.”
“You must be pulling my leg,” said Ingestree, looking at me in reproach.
“Not a bit of it. Good, gutsy melodrama. You’ve described it in larky terms, because you want us to laugh. But I think it would have worked. Didn’t you ever try?”
“Oh yes, I tried. I tried all through that Canadian tour. I would slave away whenever I got a chance, and then show my homework to Sir John, and he would mark it up in his own spidery handwriting. Kept saying I had no notion of how to make words effective, and wrote three sentences where one would do.
“I tried everything I knew. I remember saying to myself one night, as I lay in my berth in a stifling hot Canadian train, What would Aldous Huxley do, in my position? And it came to me that Aldous would have used what we call a distancing-technique—you know, he would have written it all apparently straight, but with a choice of vocabulary that gave it all an ironic edge, so that the perceptive listener would realize that the whole play was ambiguous, and could be taken as a hilarious send-up. So I tried a scene or two like that, and I don’t believe Sir John even twigged; he just sliced out all the telling adjectives, and there it was, melodrama again. I never met a man with such a deficient literary sense.”
“Did it ever occur to you that perhaps he knew his job?” said Lind. “I’ve never found that audiences liked ambiguity very much. I’ve got all my best effects by straight statement.”
“Dead right,” said Kinghovn. “When Jurgen wants ambiguity he tips me the wink and I film the scene a bit skew-whiff, or occasionally going out of focus, and that does the trick.”
“You’re telling me this now,” said Ingestree, “and I expect you’re right, in your unliterary way. But there was nobody to tell me anything then, except Sir John, and I could see him becoming more and more stagily patient with me, and letting whatever invisible audience he acted to in his offstage moments admire the way in which the well-graced actor endured the imbecilities of the dimwitted boy. But I swear there was something to be said on my side, as well. But as I say I was an ass. Am I never to be forgiven for being an ass?”
“That’s a very pretty theological point,” I said. “ ‘In the law of God there is no statute of limitations.’ “
“My God! Do you remember that one?” said Ingestree.
“Oh yes; I’ve read Stevenson too. you know, and that chilly remark comes in Jekyll and Hyde, so you are certainly familiar with it. Are we ever forgiven for the follies even of our earliest years? That’s something that torments me often.”
“Bugger theology!” said Kinghovn. “Get on with the story.”
“High time Harry had a drink,” said Liesl. “I’ll call for some things to be sent up. And we might as well have dinner here, don’t you think? I’ll choose.”
When she had gone into the bedroom to use the telephone Magnus looked calculatingly at Ingestree, as if at some curious creature he had not observed before. “You describe the Canadian tour simply as a personal Gethsemane, but it was really quite an elaborate affair,” he said. “I suppose one of your big problems was trying to fit a part into Jekyll-and-Hyde for the chaste and lovely Sevenhowes. Couldn’t you have made her a confidential maid to the True Love, with stirring lines like, ‘Ee, madam, Dr. Jekyll ‘e do look sadly mazy-like these latter days, madam’? That would have been about her speed. A rotten actress. Do you know what became of her? Neither do I. What becomes of all those pretty girls with a teaspoonful of talent who seem to drift off the stage before they are thirty? But really, my dear Roly, there was a great deal going on. I was working like a galley-slave.”
“I’m sure you were,” said Ingestree; “toadying to Milady, as I said earlier. I use the word without malice. Your approach was not describable as courtier-like, nor did it quite sink to the level of fawning; therefore I think toadying is the appropriate expression.”
“Call it toadying if it suits your keen literary sense. I have said several times that I loved her, but you choose not to attach any importance to that. Loved her not in the sense of desiring her, which would have been grotesque, and never entered my head, but simply in the sense of wishing to serve her and do anything that was in my power to make her happy. Why I felt that way about a woman old enough to be my mother is for you dabblers in psychology to say, but nothing you can think of will give the real quality of my feeling; there is a pitiful want of resonance in so much psychological explanation of what lies behind things. If you had felt more, Roly, and been less remorselessly literary, you might have seen possibilities in the plan for the Jekyll and Hyde play. A man redeemed and purged of evil by a woman’s love—now there’s a really unfashionable theme for a play in our time! So unfashionable as to be utterly incredible. Yet Sir John and Milady seemed to know what such themes were all about. They were more devoted than any people I have ever known.”
“Like a couple of old love-birds,” said Ingestree.
“Well, what would you prefer? A couple of old scratching cats? Don’t forget that Sir John was a symbol to countless people of romantic love in its most chivalrous expression. You know what Agate wrote about him once—’He touches women as if they were camellias.’ Can you name an actor on the stage today who makes love like that? But there was never a word of scandal about them, because off the stage they were inseparables.
“I think I penetrated their secret: undoubtedly they began as lovers but they had long been particularly close friends. Is that common? I haven’t seen much of it, if it is. They were sillies, of course. Sir John would never hear a word that suggested that Milady was unsuitably cast as a young woman, though I know he was aware of it. And she was a silly because she played up to him, and clung quite pitiably to some mannerisms of youth. I knew them for years, you know; you only knew them on that tour. But I remember much later, when a newspaper interviewer touched the delicate point. Sir John said with great dignity and simplicity, ‘Ah, but you see, we always felt that our audiences were ready to make allowances if the physical aspect of a character was not ideally satisfied, because they knew that so many other fine things in our performances were made possible thereby.’
“He had a good point, you know. Look at some of the leading women in the Comedie Francaise; crone is not too hard a word when first you see them, but in ten minutes you are delighted with the art, and forget the appearance, which is only a kind of symbol, anyhow. Milady had extraordinary art, but alas, poor dear, she did run to fat. It’s better for an actress to become a bag of bones, which can always be equated somehow with elegance. Fat’s another thing. But what a gift of comedy she had, and how wonderfully it lit up a play like Rosemary, where she insisted on playing a character part instead of the heroine. Charity, Roly, charity.”
“You’re a queer one to be talking about charity. You ate Sir John. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. You ate that poor old ham.”
“That’s one of your belittling words, like ‘toady’. I’ve said it: I apprenticed myself to an egoism, and if in the course of time, because I was younger and had a career to make, the egoism became more mine than his, what about it? Destiny, m’boy? Inevitable, quonk?”
“Oh, God, don’t do that, it’s too horribly like him.
“Thank you. I thought so myself. And, as I tell you, I worked to achieve it!
“You had quite a jolly time on the voyage to Canada, as I recall. But don’t you remember those rehearsals we held every day, in such holes and corners of the ship as the Purser could make available to us? Macgregor and I were too busy to be seasick, which was a luxury you didn’t deny yourself. You were sick the night of the ship’s concert. Those concerts are utterly a thing of the past. The Purser’s assistant was busy almost before the ship left Liverpool, ferreting out what possible talent there might be on board—ladies who could sing ‘The Rosary’ or men who imitated Harry Lauder. A theatrical company was a godsend to the poor man. And in the upshot C. Pengelly Spickernell sang “Melisande in the Wood” and “The Floral Dance” (nicely contrasted material, was what he called it) and Grover Paskin told funny stories (insecurely cemented together with “And that reminds me of the time—”) and Sir John recited Clarence’s Dream from Richard III; Milady made the speech hitting up the audience for money for the Seaman’s Charities, and did it with so much charm and spirit that they got a record haul.
“But that’s by the way. We worked on the voyage and after we’d docked at Montreal the work was even harder. We landed on a Friday, and opened on Monday at Her Majesty’s for two weeks, one given wholly to Scaramouche and the second to The Corsican Brothers and Rosemary. We did first-rate business, and it was the beginning of what the old actors loved to call a triumphal tour. You wouldn’t believe how we were welcomed, and how the audiences ate up those romantic plays—”
“I remember some fairly cool notices,” said Roly.
“But not cool audiences, that’s what counts. Provincial critics are always cool; they have to show they’re not impressed by what comes from the big centres of culture. The audiences thought we were wonderful.”
“Magnus, the audiences thought England was wonderful. The Tresize company came from England, and if the truth is to be told it came from a special England many of the people in those audiences cherished—the England they had left when they were young, or the England they had visited when they were young, and in many cases an England they simply imagined and wished were a reality.
“Even in 1932 all that melodrama was terribly old hat, but every audience had a core of people who were happy just to be listening to English voices repeating noble sentiments. The notion that everybody wants the latest is a delusion of intellectuals; a lot of people want a warm, safe place where Time hardly moves at all, and to a lot of those Canadians that place was England. The theatre was almost the last stronghold of the old colonial Canada. You know very well it was more than twenty years since Sir John had dared to visit New York, because his sort of theatre was dead there. But it did very well in Canada because it wasn’t simply theatre there—it was England, and they were sentimental about it.
“Don’t you remember the smell of mothballs that used to sweep up onto the stage when the curtain rose, from all the bunny coats and ancient dress suits in the expensive seats? There were still people who dressed for the theatre, though I doubt if they dressed for anything else, except perhaps a regimental ball or something that also reminded them of England. Sir John was exploiting the remnants of colonialism. You liked it because you knew no better.”
“I knew Canada,” said Magnus. “At least, I knew the part of it that had responded to Wanless’s World of Wonders and Happy Hannah’s jokes. The Canada that came to see Sir John was different but not wholly different. We didn’t tour the villages; we toured the cities with theatres that could accommodate our productions, but we rushed through many a village I knew as we jaunted all those thousands of miles on the trains. As we travelled, I began to think I knew Canada pretty well. But quite another thing was that I knew what entertains people, what charms the money out of their pockets, and feeds their imagination.
“The theatre to you was a kind of crude extension of Eng. Lit. at Cambridge, but the theatre I knew was the theatre that makes people forget some things and remember others, and refreshes dry places in the spirit. We were both ignorant young men, Roly. You were the kind that is so scared of life that you only know how to despise it, for fear you might be tricked into liking something that wasn’t up to the standards of a handful of people you admired. I was the kind that knew very little that wasn’t tawdry and tough and ugly, but I hadn’t forgotten my Psalms, and I thirsted for something better as the hart pants for the water-brooks. So Sir John’s plays, and the decent manners he insisted on in his company, and the regularity and honesty of the Friday treasury, when I got my pay without having to haggle or kick back any part of it to some petty crook, did very well for me.”
“You’re idealizing your youth, Magnus. Lots of the company just thought the tour was a lark.”
“Yes, but even more of the company were honest players and did their best in the work they had at hand. You saw too much of Charlton and Woulds, who were no good and never made any mark in the profession. And you were under the thumb of Audrey Sevenhowes, who was another despiser, like yourself. Of course we had our ridiculous side. What theatrical troupe hasn’t? But the effect we produced wasn’t ridiculous. We had something people wanted, and we didn’t give them short weight. Very different from my carnival days, when short weight was the essence of everything.”
“So for you the Canadian tour was a time of spiritual growth,” said Lind.
“It was a time when I was able to admit that honesty and some decency of life were luxuries within my grasp,” said Magnus. “Can you imagine that? You people all have the flesh and finish of those who grew up feeling reasonably safe in the world. And you grew up as visible people. Don’t forget that I had spent most of my serious hours inside Abdullah.”
“Melodrama has eaten into your brain,” said Roly. “When I knew you, you were inside Sir John, inside his body and inside his manner and voice and everything about him that a clever double could imitate. Was it really different?”
“I wish you two would stop clawing one another,” said Kinghovn. “If it was all so different—and I’m quite ready to believe it was—how was it different? If its possible to find out, of course. You two sound as if you had been on different tours.”
“Not a bit of it. It was the same tour, right enough,” said Magnus; “but I probably remember more of its details than Roly. I’m a detail man; it’s the secret of being a good illusionist. Roly has the big, broad picture, as it would have appeared to someone of his temperament and education. He saw everything it was proper for the Cantab and One to notice; I saw and tried to understand everything that passed before my eyes.
“Do you remember Morton W. Penfold, Roly? No, I didn’t think you would. But he was one of the casters on which that tour rolled. He was our Advance.
“The tour was under the management of a syndicate of rich Canadians who wanted to encourage English theatre companies to visit Canada, partly because they wanted to stem what they felt was a too heavy American influence, partly in the hope that they might make a little money, partly because they felt the attraction of the theatre in the ignorant way rich businessmen sometimes do. When we arrived in Montreal some of them met the ship and bore Sir John and Milady away, and there was a great deal of wining and dining before we opened on Monday. Morton W. Penfold was their representative, and he went ahead of us like a trumpeter all across the country. Arranged about travel and saw that tickets for everybody were forthcoming whenever we mounted a train. Saw that trains were delayed when necessary, or that an improvised special helped us to make a difficult connection. Arranged that trucks and sometimes huge sleighs were ready to lug the scenery to and from the theatres. Arranged that there were enough stagehands for our heavy shows, and a rough approximation of the number of musicians we needed to play our music, and college boys or other creatures of the right height and bulk who were needed for the supers in The Master and Scaramouche. Saw that a horse of guaranteed good character and continence was hired to pull Climene’s cart. Placed the advertisements in the local papers ahead of our appearance, and also tasty bits of publicity about Sir John and Milady; had a little anecdote ready for every paper that made it clear that the name Tresize was Cornish and that the emphasis came on the second syllable; also provided a little packet of favourable reviews from London, Montreal, and Toronto papers for the newspapers in small towns where there was no regular critic, and such material might prime the pump of a local reporter’s invention. He also saw that the information was provided for the programmes, and warned local theatre managers that Madame de Plougastel’s Salon was not a misprint for Madame de Plougastel’s Saloon, which some of them were apt to think.
“Morton W. Penfold was a living marvel, and I learned a lot from him on the occasions when he was in the same town with us for a few days. He was more theatrical than all but the most theatrical of the actors; had a big square face with a blue jaw, a hypnotist’s eyebrows, and a deceptive appearance of dignity and solemnity, because he was a fellow of infinite wry humour. He wore one of those black Homburg hats that politicians used to affect, but he never dinted the top of it, so that he had something of the air of a Mennonite about the head; wore a stiff choker collar and one of those black satin stocks that used to be called a dirty-shirt necktie, because it covered everything within the V of his waistcoat. Always wore a black suit, and had a dazzling ten-cent shoeshine every day of his life. His business office was contained in the pockets of his black overcoat; he could produce anything from them, including eight-by-ten-inch publicity pictures of the company.
“He was pre-eminently a great fixer. He seemed to know everybody, and have influence everywhere. In every town he had arranged for Sir John to address the Rotarians, or the Kiwanians, or whatever club was meeting on an appropriate day. Sir John always gave the same speech, which was about ‘cementing the bonds of the British Commonwealth’; he could have given it in his sleep, but he was too good an actor not to make it seem tailor-made for every new club.
“If we were going to be in a town that had an Anglican Cathedral over a weekend it was Morton W. Penfold who persuaded the Dean that it was a God-given opportunity to have Sir John read the Second Lesson at the eleven o’clock service. His great speciality was getting Indian tribes to invest a visiting English actor as a Chief, and he had convinced the Blackfoot that Sir John should be re-christened Soksi-Poyina many years before the tour I am talking about.
“Furthermore, he knew the idiosyncrasies of the liquor laws in every Canadian province we visited, and made sure the company did not run dry; this was particularly important as Sir John and Milady had a taste for champagne, and liked it iced but not frozen, which was not always a simple requirement in that land of plentiful ice. And in every town we visited, Morton W. Penfold had made sure that our advertising sheets, full-size, half-size, and folio, were well displayed and that our little flyers, with pictures of Sir John in some of his most popular roles, were on the reception desks of all the good hotels.
“And speaking of hotels, it was Morton W. Penfold who took particulars of everybody’s taste in accommodation on that first day in Montreal, and saw that wherever we went reservations had been made in the grand railway hotels, which were wonderful, or in the dumps where people like James Hailey and Gwenda Lewis stayed, for the sake of economy.
“Oh, those cheap hotels! I stayed in the cheapest, where one electric bulb hung from a string in the middle of the room, where the sheets were like cheesecloth, and where the mattresses—when they were revealed as they usually were after a night’s restless sleep—were like maps of strange worlds, the continents being defined by unpleasing stains, doubtless traceable to the incontinent dreams of travelling salesmen, or the rapturous deflowerings of brides from the backwoods.
“Was he well paid for his innumerable labours? I don’t know, but I hope so. He said very little that was personal, but Macgregor told me that Morton W. Penfold was born into show business, and that his wife was the granddaughter of the man whom Blondin the Magnificent had carried across Niagara Gorge on his shoulders in 1859. It was under his splendid and unfailing influence that we travelled thousands of miles across Canada and back again, and played a total of 148 performances in forty-one towns, ranging from places of about twenty thousand souls to big cities. I think I could recite the names of the theatres we played in now, though they showed no great daring in what they called themselves; there were innumerable Grands, and occasional Princesses or Victorias, but most of them were just called Somebody’s Opera House.”
“Frightful places,” said Ingestree, doing a dramatic shudder.
“I’ve seen worse since,” said Magnus. “You should try a tour in Central America, to balance your viewpoint. What was interesting about so many of the Canadian theatres, outside the big cities, was that they seemed to have been built with big ideas, and then abandoned before they were equipped. They had pretty good foyers and auditoriums with plush seats, and invariably eight boxes, four on each side of the stage, from which nobody could see very well. All of them had drop curtains with views of Venice or Rome on them, and a spyhole through which so many actors had peeped that it was ringed with a black stain from their greasepaint. Quite a few had special curtains on which advertisements were printed for local merchants; Sir John didn’t like those, and Holroyd had to do what he could to suppress them.
“Every one had a sunken pen for an orchestra, with a fancy balustrade to cut it off from the stalls, and nobody ever seemed to sweep in there. At performance time a handful of assassins would creep into the pen from a low door beneath the stage, and fiddle and thump and toot the music to which they were accustomed. C. Pengelly Spickernell used to say bitterly that these musicians’ were all recruited from the local manager’s poor relations; it was his job to assemble as many of them as could get away from their regular work on a Monday morning and take them through the music that was to accompany our plays. Sir John was fussy about music, and always had a special overture for each of his productions, and usually an entr’acte as well.
“God knows it was not very distinguished music. When we heard it, it was a puzzle to know why ‘Overture to Scaramouche’ by Hugh Dunning did any more for the play that followed than if the orchestra had played ‘Overture to The Master of Ballantrae’ by Festyn Hughes. But there it was, and to Sir John and Milady these two lengths of mediocre music were as different as daylight and dark, and they used to sigh and raise their eyebrows at one another when they heard the miserable racket coming from the other side of the curtain, as if it were the ravishing of a masterpiece. In addition to this specially written music we carried a substantial body of stuff with such titles as ‘Minuet d’Amour’, ‘Peasant Dance’, and ‘Gaelic Memories’, which did for Rosemary; and for The Corsacan Brothers Sir John insisted on an overture that had been written for Irving’s production of Robespierre by somebody called Litolff. Another great standby was ‘Suite: At the Play’, by York Bowen. But except in the big towns the orchestra couldn’t manage anything unfamiliar, so we generally ended up with ‘Three Dances from Henry VIII’, by Edward German, which I suppose is known to every bad orchestra in the world. C. Pengelly Spickernell used to grieve about it whenever anybody would listen, but I honestly think the audiences liked that bad playing, which was familiar and had associations with a good time.
“Backstage there was nothing much to work with. No light, except for a few rows of red, white, and blue bulbs that hardly disturbed the darkness when they were full on. The arrangements for hanging and setting our scenery were primitive, and only in the big towns was there more than one stagehand with anything that could be called experience. The others were jobbed in as they were needed, and during the day they worked in factories or lumber-yards. Consequently we had to carry everything we needed with us, and now and then we had to do some rapid improvising. It wasn’t as though these theatres weren’t used; most of them were busy for at least a part of each week for seven or eight months every year. It was simply that the local magnate, having put up the shell of a theatre, saw no reason to go further. It made touring adventurous, I can tell you.
“The dressing-rooms were as ill equipped as the stages. I think they were worse than those in the vaude houses I had known, because those at least were in constant use and had a frowsy life to them. In many towns there were only two wash-basins backstage for a whole company, one behind a door marked M and the other behind a door marked F. These doors, through years of use, had ceased to close firmly, which at least meant that you didn’t need to knock to find out if they were occupied. Sir John and Milady used small metal basins of their own, to which their dressers carried copper jugs of hot water—when there was any hot water.
“One thing that astonished me then, and still surprises me, is that the stage door, in nine towns out of ten, was up an unpaved alley, so that you had to pick your way through mud, or snow in the cold weather, to reach it. You knew where you were heading because the only light in the alley was one naked electric bulb, stuck laterally into a socket above the door, with a wire guard around it. It was not the placing of the stage door that surprised me, but the fact that, for me, that desolate and dirty entry was always cloaked in romance. I would rather go through one of those doors, even now, than walk up a garden path to be greeted by a queen.”
“You were stage-struck,” said Roly. “You rhapsodize. I remember those stage doors. Ghastly.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Magnus. “But I was very, very happy. I’d never been so well placed, or had so much fun in my life. How Macgregor and I used to labour to teach those stagehands their job! Do you remember how, in the last act of The Corsican Brothers, when the Forest of Fontainebleau was supposed to be covered in snow, we used to throw down coarse salt over the stage-cloth, so that when the duel took place Sir John could kick some of it aside to get a firm footing? Can you imagine trying to explain how that salt should be placed to some boob who had laboured all day in a planing-mill, and had no flair for romance? The snow was always a problem, though you’d think that Canadians, of all people, would understand snow. At the beginning of that act the forest is supposed to be seen in that dull but magical light that goes with snowfall. Old Boissec the wood-cutter—Grover Paskin in one of his distinguished cameos—enters singing a little song; he represents the world of everyday, drudging along regardless of the high romance which is shortly to burst upon the scene. Sir John wanted a powdering of snow to be falling as the curtain rose; just a few flakes, falling slowly so that they caught a little of the winter light. Nothing so coarse as bits of paper for us! It had to be fuller’s earth, so that it would drift gently, and not be too fiercely white. Do you think we could get one of those stagehands on the road to grasp the importance of the speed at which that snow fell, and the necessity to get it exactly right? If we left it to them they threw great handfuls of snow bang on the centre of the stage, as if some damned great turkey with diarrhoea were roosting up in a tree. So it was my job to get up on the catwalk, if there was one, and on something that had been improvised and was usually dangerous if there wasn’t, and see that the snow was just as Sir John wanted it. I suppose that’s being stage-struck, but it was worth every scruple of the effort it took. As I said, I’m a detail man, and without the uttermost organization of detail there is no illusion, and consequently no romance. When I was in charge of the snow the audience was put in the right mood for the duel, and for the Ghost at the end of the play.”
“You really can’t blame me for despising it,” said Roly. “I was one of the New Men; I was committed to a theatre of ideas.”
“I don’t suppose I’ve ever had more than half a dozen ideas in my life, and even those wouldn’t have much appeal for a philosopher,” said Magnus. “Sir John’s theatre didn’t deal in ideas, but in feelings. Chivalry, and loyalty and selfless love don’t rank as ideas, but it was wonderful how they seized on our audiences; they loved such things, even if they had no intention of trying them out in their own lives. No use arguing about it, really. But people used to leave our performances smiling, which isn’t always the case with a theatre of ideas.”
“Art as soothing syrup, in fact.”
“Perhaps. But it was very good soothing syrup. We never made the mistake of thinking it was a universal panacea.”
“Soothing syrup in aid of a dying colonialism.”
“I expect you’re right. I don’t care, really. It’s true we thumped the good old English drum pretty loudly, but that was one of the things the syndicate wanted. When we visited Ottawa, Sir John and Milady were the Governor General’s guests at Rideau Hall.”
“Yes, and what a bloody nuisance that was! Actors ought never to stay in private houses or official residences. I had to scamper out there every morning with the letters, and get my orders for the day. Run the gamut of snotty aides who never seemed to know where Lady Tresize was to be found.”
“Didn’t she ever tell you funny stories about that? Probably not. I don’t think she liked you much better than you liked her. Certainly she told me that it was like living in a very pretty little court, and that all sorts of interesting people came to call. Don’t you remember that the Governor General and his suite came to Scaramouche one night when we were playing in the old Russell Theatre? ‘God Save the King’ was played after they came in, and the audience was so frozen with etiquette that nobody dared to clap until the G.G. had been seen to do so. There were people who sucked in their breath when I thumbed my nose while walking the tightrope; they thought I was Sir John, you see, and they couldn’t imagine a knight committing such an unspeakable rudery in the presence of an Earl. But Milady told me the Earl was away behind the times; he didn’t know what it meant in Canadian terms, and thought it still meant something called ‘fat bacon’, which I suppose was Victorian. He guffawed and thumbed his nose and muttered, ‘Fat bacon, what?’ at the supper party afterward, at which Mr. Mackenzie King was a guest; Mr. King was so taken aback he could hardly eat his lobster. Apparently he got over it though, and Milady said she had never seen a man set about a lobster with such whole-souled enthusiasm. When he surfaced from the lobster he talked to her very seriously about dogs. Funny business, when you think of it—I mean all those grandees sitting at supper at midnight, after a play. That must have been romantic too, in its way, although there were no young people present—except the aides and one or two ladies-in-waiting, of course. In fact, I thought a lot of Canada was romantic.”
“I didn’t. I thought it was the rawest, roughest, crudest place I had ever set eyes on, and in the midst of that, all those viceregal pretensions were ridiculous.”
“I wonder if that’s what you really thought, Roly? After all, what were you comparing it with? Norwich, and Cambridge, and a brief sniff at London. And you weren’t in a condition to see anything except through the spectacles of a thwarted lover and playwright. You were being put through the mincer by the lovely Sevenhowes; you were her toy for the tour, and your agonies were the sport of her chums Charlton and Woulds. Whenever we were on one of those long train hops from city to city, we all saw it in the dining-car.
“Those dining-cars! There was romance for you! Rushing through the landscape; that fierce country north of Lake Superior, and the marvellous steppes of the prairies, in an elegant, rather too hot, curiously shaped dining-room, full of light, glittering with tablecloths and napkins so white they looked blue, shining silver (or something very close), and all those clean, courteous, friendly black waiters—if that wasn’t romance you don’t know the real thing when you see it! And the food! Nothing hotted up or melted out in those days, but splendid stuff that came on fresh at every big stop; cooked brilliantly in the galley by a real chef; fresh fish, tremendous meat, real fruit—don’t you remember what their baked apples were like? With thick cream! Where does one get thick cream now? I remember every detail. The cube sugar was wrapped in pretty white paper with Castor printed on it, and every time we put it in our coffee I suppose we enriched our dear friend Boy Staunton, so clear in the memory of Dunny and myself, because he came from our town, though I didn’t know that at the time…” (My ears pricked up: I swear my scalp tingled. Magnus had mentioned Boy Staunton, the Canadian tycoon, and also my lifelong friend, whom I was pretty sure Magnus had murdered. Or, if not murdered, had given a good push on a path that looked like suicide. This was what I wanted for my document. Had Magnus, who withheld death cruelly from Willard, given it almost as a benefaction to Boy Staunton? Would his present headlong, confessional mood carry him to the point where he would admit to murder, or at least give a hint that I, who knew so much but not enough, would be able to interpret?… But I must miss nothing, and Magnus was still rhapsodizing about C.P.R. food as once it was.) “… And the sauces; real sauces, made by the chef—exquisite!
“There were bottled sauces, too. Commercial stuff I learned to hate because at every meal that dreary utility actor Jim Hailey asked for Garton’s; then he would wave it about saying, ‘Anybody want any of the Handkerchief?’ because, as he laboriously pointed out, if you spelled Garton’s backward it came out Snotrag; poor Hailey was that depressing creature, a man of one joke. Only his wife laughed and blushed because he was being ‘awful’, and she never failed to tell him so. But I suppose you didn’t see because you always tried to sit at the table with Sevenhowes and Charlton and Woulds; if she was cruel and asked Eric Foss to sit with them instead, you sat as near as you could and hankered and glowered as they laughed at jokes you couldn’t hear.
“Oh, the trains, the trains! I gloried in them because with Wanless’s I had done so much train travel and it was wretched. I began my train travel, you remember, in darkness and fear, hungry, with my poor little bum aching desperately. But here I was, unmistakably a first-class passenger, in the full blaze of that piercing, enveloping, cleansing Canadian light. I was quite content to sit at a table with some of the technical staff, or sometimes with old Mac and Holroyd, and now and then with that Scheherazade of the railways, Morton W. Penfold, when he was making a hop with us.
“Penfold knew all the railway staff; I think he knew all the waiters. There was one conductor we sometimes encountered on a transcontinental, who was a special delight to him, a gloomy man who carried a real railway watch—one of those gigantic nickel-plated turnips that kept very accurate time. Penfold would hail him: ‘Lester, when do you think we’ll be in Sault Ste Marie?’ Then Lester would pull up the watch out of the well of his waistcoat, and look sadly at it, and say, ‘Six fifty-two, Mort, if we’re spared.’ He was gloomy-religious, and everything was conditional on our being spared; he didn’t seem to have much confidence in either God or the C.P.R.
“Penfold knew the men on the locomotives, too, and whenever we came to a long, straight stretch of track, he would say, ‘I wonder if Fred is dipping his piles.’ This was because one of the oldest and best of the engineers was a martyr to haemorrhoids, and Penfold swore that whenever we came to an easy piece of track, Fred drew off some warm water from the boiler into a basin, and sat in it for a few minutes, to ease himself. Penfold never laughed; he was a man of deep, private humour, and his solemn, hypnotist’s face never softened, but the liquid on his lower eyelid glittered and occasionally spilled over, and his head shook; that was his laugh.
“Now and then, on long hauls, the train carried a private car for Sir John and Milady; these luxuries could not be hired—or only by the very rich—but sometimes a magnate who owned one, or a politician who had the use of one, would put it at the disposal of the Tresizes, who had armies of friends in Canada. Sir John, and Milady especially, were not stingy about their private car, and always asked a few of the company in, and now and then, on very long hauls, they asked us all in and we had a picnic meal from the dining-car. Now surely that was romance, Roly? Or didn’t you find it so? All of us perched around one of those splendid old relics, most of which had been built not later than the reign of Edward the Seventh, full of marquetry woodwork (there was usually a little plaque somewhere that told you where all the woods came from) and filigree doodads around the ceiling, and armchairs with a fringe made of velvet bobbles everywhere that fringe could be imagined. In a sort of altar-like affair at one end of the drawing-room area were magazines in thick leather folders—and what magazines! Always The Sketch and The Tatler and Punch and The Illustrated London News—it was like a club on wheels. And lashings of drink for everybody—that was Penfold’s craft at work—but it wasn’t at all the thing for anybody to guzzle and get drunk, because Sir John and Milady didn’t like that.”
“He was a great one to talk,” said Ingestree. “He could drink any amount without showing it, and it was believed everywhere that he drank a bottle of brandy a day just to keep his voice mellow.”
“Believed, but simply not true. It’s always believed that star actors drink heavily, or beat their wives, or deflower a virgin starlet every day to slake their lust. But Sir John drank pretty moderately. He had to. Gout. He never spoke about it, but he suffered a lot with it. I remember one of those parties when the train lurched and Felicity Larcombe stumbled and stepped on his gouty foot, and he turned dead white, but all he said was, ‘Don’t speak of it, my dear,’ when she apologized.”
“Yes, of course you’d have seen that. You saw everything. Obviously, or you couldn’t tell us so much about it now. But we saw you seeing everything, you know. You weren’t very good at disguising it, even if you tried. Audrey Sevenhowes and Charlton and Woulds had a name for you—the Phantom of the Opera. You were always somewhere with your back against a wall, looking intently at everything and everybody. ‘There’s the Phantom, at it again,’ Audrey used to say. It wasn’t a very nice kind of observation. It had what I can only call a wolfish quality about it, as if you were devouring everything. Especially devouring Sir John. I don’t suppose he made a move without you following him with your eyes. No wonder you knew about the gout. None of the rest of us did.”
“None of the rest of you cared, if you mean the little clique you travelled with. But the older members of the company knew, and certainly Morton W. Penfold knew, because it was one of his jobs to see that the same kind of special bottled water was always available for Sir John on every train and in every hotel. Gout’s very serious for an actor. Any suggestion that a man who is playing the Master of Ballantrae is hobbling is bad for publicity. It was clear enough that Sir John wasn’t young, but it was of the uttermost importance that on the stage he should seem young. To do that he had to be able to walk slowly; it’s not too hard to seem youthful when you’re leaping about the stage in a duel, but it’s a very different thing to walk as slowly as he had to when he appeared as his own ghost at the end of The Corsican Brothers. Detail, my dear Roly; without detail there can be no illusion. And one of the odd things about Sir John’s kind of illusion (and my own, when later on I became a master illusionist) is that the showiest things are quite simply arranged, but anything that looks like simplicity is extremely difficult.
“The gout wasn’t precisely a secret, but it wasn’t shouted from the housetops, either. Everybody knew that Sir John and Milady travelled a few fine things with them—a bronze that he particularly liked, and she always had a valuable little picture of the Virgin that she used for her private devotions, and a handsome case containing miniatures of their children—and that these things were set up in every hotel room they occupied, to give it some appearance of personal taste. But not everybody knew about the foot-bath that had to be carried for Sir John’s twice-daily treatment of the gouty foot; a bathtub wouldn’t do, because it was necessary that all of his body be at the temperature of the room, while the foot was in a very hot mineral solution.
“I’ve seen him sitting in his dressing-gown with the foot in that thing at six o’clock, and at half-past eight he was ready to step on the stage with the ease of a young man. I never thought it was the mineral bath that did the trick; I think it was more an apparatus for concentrating his will, and determination that the gout shouldn’t get the better of him. If his will ever failed, he was a goner, and he knew it.
“I’ve often had reason to marvel at the heroism and spiritual valour that people put into causes that seem absurd to many observers. After all, would it have mattered if Sir John had thrown in the towel, admitted he was old, and retired to cherish his gout? Who would have been the loser? Who would have regretted The Master of Ballantrae? It’s easy to say No one at all, but I don’t think that’s true. You never know who is gaining strength as a result of your own bitter struggle; you never know who sees The Master of Ballantrae, and quite improbably draws something from it that changes his life, or gives him a special bias for a lifetime.
“As I watched Sir John fighting against age—watched him wolfishly, I suppose Roly would say—I learned something without knowing it. Put simply it is this; no action is ever lost—nothing we do is without result. It’s obvious, of course, but how many people ever really believe it, or act as if it were so?”
“You sound woefully like my dear old Mum,” said Ingestree. “No good action is ever wholly lost, she would say.”
“Ah, but I extend your Mum”s wisdom,” said Magnus. “No evil action is ever wholly lost, either.”
“So you pick your way through life like a hog on ice, trying to do nothing but good actions? Oh, Magnus! What balls!”
“No, no, my dear Roly, I am not quite such a fool as that. We can’t know the quality or the results of our actions except in the most limited way. All we can do is to try to be as sure as we can of what we are doing so far as it relates to ourselves. In fact, not to flail about and be the deluded victims of our passions. If you’re going to do something that looks evil, don’t smear it with icing and pretend it’s good; just bloody well do it and keep your eyes peeled. That’s all.”
“You ought to publish that. Reflections While Watching an Elderly Actor Bathing His Gouty Foot. It might start a new vogue in morality.”
“I was watching a little more than Sir John’s gouty foot, I assure you. I watched him pumping up courage for Milady, who had special need of it. He wasn’t a humorous man; I mean, life didn’t appear to him as a succession of splendid jokes, big and small, as it did to Morton W. Penfold. Sir John’s mode of perception was romantic, and romance isn’t funny except in a gentle, incidental way. But on a tour like that, Sir John had to do things that had their funny side, and one of them was to make that succession of speeches, which Penfold arranged, at service clubs in the towns where we played. It was the heyday of service clubs, and they were hungrily looking for speakers, whose job it was to say something inspirational, in not more than fifteen minutes, at their weekly luncheon meetings. Sir John always cemented the bonds of the Commonwealth for them, and while he was waiting to do it they levied fines on one another for wearing loud neckties, and recited their extraordinary creeds, and sang songs they loved but which were as barbarous to him as the tribal chants of savages. So he would come back to Milady afterward, and teach her the songs, and there they would sit, in the drawing—room of some hotel suite, singing
Rotary Ann, she went out to get some clams,
Rotary Ann, she went out to get some clams,
Rotary Ann, she went out to get some clams,
But she didn’t get a—clam
—and at the appropriate moments they would clap their hands to substitute for the forbidden words ‘God-damn’, which good Rotarians knew, but wouldn’t utter.
“I tell you it was eerie to see those two, so English, so Victorian, so theatrical, singing those utterly uncharacteristic words in their high-bred English accents, until they were laughing like loonies. Then Sir John would say something like ‘Of course one shouldn’t laugh at them Nan, because they’re really splendid fellows at heart, and do marvels for crippled children—or is it tuberculosis? I can never remember.’ But the important thing was that Milady had been cheered up. She never showed her failing spirits—at least she thought she didn’t—but he knew. And I knew.
“It was another of those secrets like Sir John’s gout, which Mac and Holroyd and some of the older members of the company were perfectly well aware of but never discussed. Milady had cataracts, and however courageously she disguised it, the visible world was getting away from her. Some of the clumsiness on stage was owing to that, and much of the remarkable lustre of her glance—that bluish lustre I had noticed the first time I saw her—was the slow veiling of her eyes. There were days that were better than others, but as each month passed the account was further on the debit side. I never heard them mention it. Why would I? Certainly I wasn’t the kind of person they would have confided in. But I was often present when all three of us knew what was in the air.
“I have you to thank for that, Roly. Ordinarily it would have been the secretary who would have helped Milady when something had to be read, or written, but you were never handily by, and when you were it was so clear that you were far too busy with literary things to be just a useful pair of eyes that it would have been impertinence to interrupt you. So that job fell to me, and Milady and I made a pretence about it that was invaluable to me.
“It was that she was teaching me to speak—to speak for the stage, that’s to say. I had several modes of speech; one was the tough-guy language of Willard and Charlie, and another was a half-Cockney lingo I had picked up in London; I could speak French far more correctly than English, but I had a poor voice, with a thin, nasal tone. So Milady had me read to her, and as I read she helped me to place my voice differently, breathe better, and choose words and expressions that did not immediately mark me as an underling. Like so many people of deficient education, when I wanted to speak classy—that was what Charlie called it—I always used as many big words as I could. Big words, said Milady, were a great mistake in ordinary conversation, and she made me read the Bible to her to rid me of the big-word habit. Of course the Bible was familiar ground to me, and she noticed that when I read it I spoke better than otherwise, but as she pointed out, too fervently. That was a recollection of my father’s Bible-reading voice. Milady said that with the Bible and Shakespeare it was better to be a little cool, rather than too hot; the meaning emerged more powerfully. ‘Listen to Sir John,’ she said, ‘and you’ll find that he never pushes a line as far as it will go.’ That was how I learned about never doing your damnedest; your next-to-damnedest was far better.
“Sir John was her ideal, so I learned to speak like Sir John, and it was quite a long time before I got over it, if indeed I ever did completely get over it. It was a beautiful voice, and perhaps too beautiful for everybody’s taste. He produced it in a special way, which I think he learned from Irving. His lower lip moved a lot, but his upper lip was almost motionless, and he never showed his upper teeth; completely loose lower jaw, lots of nasal resonance, and he usually spoke in his upper register, but sometimes he dropped into deep tones, with extraordinary effect. She insisted on careful phrasing, long breaths, and never accentuating possessive pronouns—she said that made almost anything sound petty.
“So I spent many an hour reading the Bible to her, and refreshing my memory of the Psalms. ‘Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death. Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved.’ We had that almost every day. That, and ‘Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.’ It was not long before I understood that Milady was praying, and I was helping her, and after the first surprise—I had been so long away from anybody who prayed, except for Happy Hannah, whose prayers were like curses—I was pleased and honoured to do it. But I didn’t intrude upon her privacy; I was content to be a pair of eyes, and to learn to be a friendly voice. May I put in here that this was another side of apprenticeship to Sir John’s egoism, and it was not something I had greedily sought. On the contrary it was something to which I seemed to be fated. If I stole something from the old man, the impulse for the theft was not wholly mine; I seemed to be pushed into it.
“One of the things that pushed me was that as Milady’s sight grew dimmer, she liked to have somebody near to whom she could speak in French. As I’ve told you, she came from the Channel Islands, and from her name I judge that French was her cradle-tongue. So, under pretence of correcting my French pronunciation, we had many a long talk, and I read the Bible to her in French, as well as in English. That was a surprise for me! Like so many English-speaking people I could not conceive of the words of Christ in any language but my own, but as we worked through Le Nouveau Testament in her chunky old Geneva Bible, there they were, coloured quite differently. Je suis le chemin, & la verite, & la vie; nul ne vient au Pere sinon par moi. Sounded curiously frivolous, but nothing to Bienheureux sont les debonnaires: car ils heriteront la terre. I thought I concealed the surprise in my voice at that one, but Milady heard it (she heard everything) and explained that I must think of debonnaire as meaning clement, or perhaps les doux. But of course we all interpret Holy Writ to suit ourselves as much as we dare; I liked les debonnaires, because I was striving as hard as I could to be debonair myself, and I had an eye on at least a good-sized chunk of la terre for my inheritance. Learning to speak English and French with an upper-class accent—or at least a stage accent, which was a little more precise than merely upper class—was part of my campaign.
“As well as reading aloud, I listened to her as she rehearsed her lines. The old plays, like The Master of Ballantrae, were impressed on her memory forever, but she liked to go over her words for Rosemary and Scaramouche before every performance, and I read her cues for her. I learned a good deal from that, too, because she had a fine sense of comedy (something Sir John had only in a lesser degree), and I studied her manner of pointing up a line so that something more than just the joke—the juice in which the joke floated—was carried to the audience. She had a charming voice, with a laugh in it, and I noticed that clever Felicity Larcombe was learning that from her, as well as I.
“Indeed, I became a friend of Milady’s, and rather less of an adorer. Except for old Zingara, who was a very different pair of shoes, she was the only woman I had ever known who seemed to like me, and think I was of any interest or value. She nibbed it into me about how lucky I was to be working with Sir John, and doing marvellous little cameos which enhanced the value of a whole production, but I had enough common sense to see that she was right, even though she exaggerated.
“One thing about me that she could not understand was that I had no knowledge of Shakespeare. None whatever. When I knew the Bible so well, how was it that I was in darkness about the other great classic of English? Had my parents never introduced me to Shakespeare? Of course Milady could have had no idea of the sort of people my parents were. I suppose my father must have heard of Shakespeare, but I am sure he rejected him as a fellow who had frittered away his time in the theatre, that Devil’s domain where lies were made attractive to frivolous people.
“I have often been amazed at how well comfortable and even rich people understand the physical deprivations of the poor, without having any notion of their intellectual squalor, which is one of the things that makes them miserable. It’s a squalor that is bred in the bone, and rarely can education do much to root it out if education is simply a matter of schooling. Milady had come of quite rich parents, who had daringly allowed her to go on the stage when she was no more than fourteen. In Sir Henry Irving’s company, of course, which wasn’t like kicking around from one stage door to another, and snatching for little jobs in pantomime. To be one of the Guvnor’s people was to be one of the theatrically well-to-do, not simply in wages but in estate. And at the Lyceum she had taken in a lot of Shakespeare at the pores, and had whole plays by heart. How could anyone like that grasp the meagreness of the household in which I had been a child, and the remoteness of intellectual grace from the Deptford life? So I was a pauper in a part of life where she had always been wrapped in plenty.
“I was on friendly terms, with proper allowance for the disparity in our ages and importance to the company, by the time we had journeyed across Canada and played Vancouver over Christmas. We were playing two weeks at the Imperial; the holiday fell on the middle Sunday of our fortnight that year, and Sir John and Milady entertained the whole company to dinner at their hotel. It was the first time I had ever eaten a Christmas dinner, though during the previous twenty-three years I suppose I must have taken some sort of nourishment on the twenty-fifth of December, and it was the first time I had ever been in a private dining-room in a first-class hotel.
“It seemed elegant and splendid to me, and the surprise of the evening was that there was a Christmas gift for everybody. They were vanity things and manicure sets and scarves and whatnot for the girls, and the men had those big boxes of cigarettes that one never sees any more and notecases and all the range of impersonal but pleasant stuff you would expect. But I had a bulky parcel, and it was a complete Shakespeare—one of those copies illustrated with photographs of actors in their best roles; this one had a coloured frontispiece of Sir John as Hamlet, looking extremely like me, and across it he had written, ‘A double blessing is a double grace—Christmas Greetings, John Tresize.’ Everybody wanted to see it, and the company was about equally divided between those who thought Sir John was a darling to have done that for a humble member of his troupe, and those who thought I must be gaining a power that was above my station; the latter group did not say anything, but their feelings could be deduced from the perfection of their silence.
“I was in doubt about what I should do, because it was the first time in my life that anybody had ever given me anything; I had earned things, and stolen things, but I had never been given anything before and I was embarrassed, suspicious, and clumsy in my new role.
“Milady was behind it, of course, and perhaps she expected me to bury myself in the book that night, and emerge, transformed by poetry and drama, a wholly translated Mungo Fetch. The truth is that I had a nibble at it, and read a few pages of the first play in the book, which was The Tempest, and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. There was a shipwreck, and then an old chap beefing to his daughter about some incomprehensible grievance in the past, and it was not my line at all, and I gave up.
“Milady was too well bred ever to question me about it, and when we were next alone I managed to say some words of gratitude, and I don’t know whether she ever knew that Shakespeare and I had not hit it off. But the gift was very far from being a dead loss: in the first place it was a gift, and the first to come my way; in the second it was a sign of something much akin to love, even if the love went no further than the benevolence of two people with a high sense of obligation to their dependants and colleagues, down to the humblest. So the book became something more than an unreadable volume; it was a talisman, and I cherished it and gave it an importance among my belongings that was quite different from what it was meant to be. If it had been a book of spells, and I a sorcerer’s apprentice who was afraid to use it, I could not have held it in greater reverence. It contained something that was of immeasurable value to the Tresizes, and I cherished it for that. I never learned anything about Shakespeare, and on the two or three occasions when I have seen Shakespearean plays in my life they have puzzled and bored me as much as The Tempest, but my superstitious veneration of that book has never failed, and I have it still.
“There’s evidence, if you need it, that I am not really a theatre person. I am an illusionist, which is a different and probably a lesser creature. I proved it that night. After the dinner and the gifts, we had an impromptu entertainment, a very mixed bag. Audrey Sevenhowes danced the Charleston, and did it very well; C. Pengelly Spickernell sang two or three songs, vaguely related to Christmas, and Home, and England. Grover Paskin sang a comic song about an old man who had a fat sow, and we all joined in making pig-noises on cue. I did a few tricks, and was the success of the evening.
“Combined with the special gift, that put me even more to the bad with the members of the company who were always looking for hidden meanings and covert grabs for power. My top trick was when I borrowed Milady’s Spanish shawl and produced from beneath it the large bouquet the company had clubbed together to give her; as I did it standing in the middle of the room, with no apparent place to conceal anything at all, not to speak of a thing the size of a rosebush, it was neatly done, but as sometimes happens with illusions, it won almost as much mistrust as applause. I know why. I had not at that time grasped the essential fact that an illusionist must never seem to be pleased with his own cleverness, and I suppose I strutted a bit. The Cantab and Sevenhowes and Charlton and Woulds sometimes spoke of me as The Outsider, and that is precisely what I was. I don’t regret it now. I’ve lived an Outsider’s life, though not in quite the way they meant; I was outside something beyond their comprehension.
“That was an ill-fated evening, as we discovered on the following day. There was champagne, and Morton W. Penfold, who was with us, gained heroic stature for finding it in what the English regarded as a desert. Everybody drank as much as they could get, and there were toasts, and these were Sir John’s downfall. The Spartan regime of a gouty man was always a burden to him, and he didn’t see why he should drink whisky when everybody else was drinking the wine he loved best. He proposed a toast to The Profession, and told stories about Irving; it called for several glasses, though not really a lot, and before morning he was very ill. A doctor came, and saw that there was more than gout wrong with him. It was an inflamed appendix, and it had to come out at once.
“Not a great calamity for most people, even though such an operation wasn’t as simple then as it is now, but it was serious for a star actor, half-way through a long tour. He would be off the stage for not less than three weeks.
“Sir John’s illness brought out the best and the worst in his company. All the old hands, and the people with a thoroughly professional attitude, rallied round at once, with all their abilities at top force. Holroyd called a rehearsal for ten o’clock Monday morning, and Gordon Barnard, who was our second lead, sailed through Scaramouche brilliantly; he was very different from Sir John, as a six-foot-two actor of the twentieth century must be different from a five-foot-two actor who is still in the nineteenth, but there was no worry whatever about him. Darton Flesher, who had to step into Barnard’s part, needed a good deal of help, solid man though he was. But then somebody had to fill in for Flesher, and that was your friend Leonard Woulds, Roly, who proved not to know the lines which, as an understudy, he should have had cold. So it was a busy day.
“Busy for Morton W. Penfold, who had to tell the papers what had happened, and get the news on the Canadian Press wire, and generally turn a misfortune into some semblance of publicity. Busy for Felicity Larcombe, who showed herself a first-rate person as well as a first-rate actress; she undertook to keep an eye on Milady, so far as anyone could, because Milady was in a state—busy also for Gwenda Lewis, who was a dull actress and silly about her dull husband, Jim Hailey; but Gwenda had been a nurse before she went on the stage, and she helped Felicity to keep Milady in trim to act that evening. Busy for old Frank Moore and Macgregor, who both spread calm and assurance through the company—you know how easily a company can be rattled—and lent courage where it was wanted.
“The consequence was that that night we played Scaramouche very well, to a capacity audience, and did excellent business until it was time for us to leave Vancouver. The only hitch, which both the papers mentioned humorously, was that when Scaramouche walked the tightrope, it looked as if Sir John had mischievously broken out of the hospital and taken the stage. But there was nothing anybody could do about that, though I did what I could by wearing my red mask.
It seemed as though the public were determined to help us through our troubles, because we played to full houses all week. Whenever Milady made her first entrance, there was warm applause, and this was a change indeed, because usually Morton W. Penfold had to arrange for the local theatre manager to be in the house at that time to start the obligatory round when she came on. Indeed, by the end of the week, Penfold was able to circulate a funny story to the papers that Sir John had announced from his hospital bed that it was obvious that the most profitable thing a visiting star could do was to go to bed and send his understudy on in his place. Dangerous publicity, but it worked.
“So everything appeared to be in good order, except that we had to defer polishing up The Lyons Mail, which we had intended to put into the repertory instead of The Corsican Brothers for our return journey across Canada.
“Not everything was satisfactory, however, because the Sevenhowes, Charlton, and Woulds faction were making mischief. Not very serious mischief in the theatre, because Holroyd would not have put up with that, but personal mischief in the company was much more difficult to check. They tried sucking up to Gordon Barnard, who was now the leading man, telling him how much easier it was to act with him than with Sir John. Barnard wouldn’t have any of that, because he was a decent fellow, and he knew his own shortcomings. One of these was that in The Master and Scaramouche we used a certain number of extras, and these inexperienced people tended to look wooden on the stage unless they were jollied, or harried, into more activity than they could generate by themselves; Sir John was an expert jollier and harrier—as I understand Irving also was—and he had his own ways of hissing remarks and encouragement to these inexperienced people that kept them up to the mark; Barnard couldn’t manage it, because when he hissed the extras immediately froze in their places, and looked at him in terror. Just a question of personality, but there it was; he was a good actor, but a poor inspirer. When this happened, Charlton and Woulds laughed, sometimes so that the audience could see them, and Macgregor had to speak to them about it.
“They also made life hard for poor old C. Pengelly Spickemell, in ways that only actors understand; when they were on stage with him, they would contrive to be in his way when he had to make a move, and in a few seconds the whole stage picture was a little askew, and it looked as if it were his fault; also, in Scaramouche, where he played one of the Commedia dell’ Arte figures, and wore a long, dragging cloak, one or other of them would contrive to be standing on the end of it when he had a move to make, pinning him to the spot; it was only necessary for them to do this two or three times to put him in terror lest it should happen every time, and he was a man with no ability to defend himself against such harassment.
“They were ugly to Gwenda Lewis, overrunning her very few cues, but Jim Hailey settled that by going to their dressing-room and talking it over with them in language he had learned when he had been in the Navy. Trivial things, but enough to make needless trouble, because a theatrical production is a mechanism of exquisitely calculated details. On tour it was useless to threaten them with dismissal, because they could not be replaced, and although there was a tariff of company fines for unprofessional conduct it was hard for Macgregor to catch them red-handed.Their great triumph had nothing to do with performance, but with the private life of the company. I fear this will embarrass you, Roly, but I think it has to be told. The great passion the Cantab felt for Audrey Sevenhowes was everybody’s business; love and a cough cannot be hid, as the proverb says. I don’t think Audrey was really an ill-disposed girl, but her temperament was that of a flirt of a special order; such girls used to be called cock-teasers; she liked to have somebody mad about her, without being obliged to do anything about it. She saw herself, I suppose, as lovely Audrey, who could not be blamed for the consequences of her fatal attraction. I am pretty sure she did not know what was going on, but Charlton and Woulds began a campaign to bring that affair to the boil; they filled the Cantab full of the notion that he must enjoy the favours of Miss Sevenhowes to the fullest—in the expression they used, he must ‘tear off a branch’ with Audrey—or lose all claim to manhood. This put the Cantab into a sad state of self-doubt, because he had never torn off a branch with anybody, and they assured him that he mustn’t try to begin with the Sevenhowes, as he might expose himself as a novice, and become an object of ridicule. Might make a Horlicks of it, in fact. They bustled the poor boob into thinking that he must have a crash course in the arts of love, as a preparation for his great conquest; they would help him in this educational venture.
“It would have been nothing more than rather nasty joking and manipulation of a simpleton if they had kept their mouths shut, but of course that was not their way. I disliked them greatly at that time, but since then I have met many people of their kind, and I know them to be much more conceited and stupid than really cruel. They both fancied themselves as lady-killers, and such people are rarely worse than fools.
“They babbled all they were up to around the company; they chattered to Eric Foss, who was about their own age, but a different sort of chap; they let Eugene Fitzwarren in on their plan, because he looked worldly and villainous, and they were too stupid to know that he was a past president of the Anglican Stage Guild and a great worker on behalf of the Actors’ Orphanage, and altogether a highly moral character. So very soon everybody in the company knew about it, and thought it a shame, but didn’t know precisely what to do to stop the nonsense.
“It was agreed that there was no use talking to the Cantab, who wasn’t inclined to take advice from anybody who could have given him advice worth having. It was also pretty widely felt that interfering with a young man’s sexual initiation was rather an Old Aunty sort of thing to do, and that they had better let nature take its course. The Cantab must tear off a branch some time; even C. Pengelly Spickernell agreed to that; and if he was fool enough to be manipulated by a couple of cads, whose job was it to protect him?
“It became clear in the end that Mungo Fetch was elected to protect him, though only in a limited sense.—No, Roly, you can’t possibly want to go to the loo again. You’d better sit down and hear this out.—The great worriers about the Cantab were Holroyd and Macgregor, and they were worrying on behalf of Sir John and Milady. Not that the Tresizes knew about the great plot to deprive the Cantab of his virginity; Sir John would have dealt with the matter summarily, but he was in hospital in Vancouver, and Milady was much bereft by his absence and telephoned to the hospital wherever we were. But Macgregor and Holroyd felt that this tasteless practical joke somehow reflected on those two, whom they admired wholeheartedly, and whose devotion to each other established a standard of sexual behaviour for the company that must be respected, if not fully maintained.
“Holroyd kept pointing out to Macgregor that the Cantab was in a special way a charge delivered over to Sir John by his Mum, and that it was therefore incumbent on the company as a whole—or the sane part of it, he said—to watch over the Cantab while Sir John and Milady were unable to do so. Macgregor agreed, and added Calvinist embroideries to the theme; he was no great friend to sex, and I think he held it against the Creator that the race could not be continued without some recourse to it; but he felt that such recourse should be infrequent, hallowed by church and law, and divorced as far as possible from pleasure. It seems odd, looking back, that nobody felt any concern about Audrey Sevenhowes; some people assumed that she was in on the joke, and the others were confident she could take care of herself.
“Charlton and Woulds laid their plan with gloating attention to detail. Charlton explained to the Cantab, and to any man who happened to be near, that women are particularly open to seduction in the week just preceding the onset of their menstrual period; during this time, he said, they simply ravened for intercourse. Furthermore, they had to be approached in the right way; nothing coarsely direct, no grabbing at the bosom or anything of that sort, but a psychologically determined application of a particular caress; this was a firm, but not rough, placing of the hand on the waist, on the right side, just below the ribs; the hand should be as warm as possible, and this could easily be achieved by keeping it in the trousers pocket for a few moments before the approach. This was supposed to impart special, irresistible warmth to the female liver; Liesl tells me it is a very old belief.”
“I think Galen mentions it,” said Liesl, “and like so much of Galen, it is just silly.”
“Charlton considered himself an expert at detecting the menstrual state of women, and he had had his eye on Miss Sevenhowes; she would be ripe and ready to fall when we were in Moose Jaw, and therefore the last place in which the Cantab could achieve full manhood would be Medicine Hat. He approached Morton W. Penfold for information about the altars to Aphrodite in Medidne Hat, and was informed that, so far as the advance agent knew, they were few and of a Spartan simplicity. Penfold advised against the whole plan; if that was the kind of thing they wanted, they had better put it on ice till they got to Toronto. Anyhow he wanted no part of it. But Charlton and Woulds had no inclination to let their great plan rest until after Sir John had rejoined the company, for though they mocked him, they feared him.
They played on the only discernible weakness in the strong character of Morton W. Penfold. His whole reputation, Charlton pointed out, rested on his known ability to supply anything, arrange anything, and do anything that a visiting theatrical company might want in Canada; here they were, asking simply for an address, and he couldn’t supply it. They weren’t asking him to take the Cantab to a bawdy-house, wait, and escort him home again; they just wanted to know where a bawdy-house might be found. Penfold was touched in his vanity. He made some inquiries among the locomotive crew, and returned with the address of a Mrs. Quiller in Medicine Hat, who was known to have obliging nieces.
“We were playing a split week, of which Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were spent in Medicine Hat. On Thursday, with Charlton and Woulds at his elbow, the Cantab telephoned Mrs. Quiller. She had no idea what he was talking about, and anyways she never did business over the phone. Might he drop in on Friday night? It all depended; was he one of them actors? Yes, he was. Well, if he come on Friday night she supposed she’d be at home but she made no promises. Was he comin’ alone? Yes, he would be alone.
“All day Friday the Cantab looked rather green, and Charlton and Woulds stuck to him like a couple of bridesmaids, giving any advice that happened to come into their heads. At half past five Holroyd sent for me in the theatre, and I found him in the tiny stage-manager’s office, with Macgregor and Morton W.
Penfold. ‘I suppose you know what’s on tonight?’ said he. ‘Scaramouche, surely?’ I said. ‘Don’t be funny with me, boy,’ said Holroyd; ‘you know what I mean.’ ‘Yes, I think I do,’ said I. ‘Then I want you to watch young Ingestree after the play, and follow him, and stay as close to him as you can without being seen, and don’t leave him till he’s back in his hotel.’ ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do that—’ I began, but Holroyd wasn’t having it. ‘Yes, you do,’ he said; ‘there’s nothing green about you, and I want you to do this for the company; nothing is to happen to that boy, do you understand?’ ‘But he’s going with the full intention of having something happen to him,’ I said; ‘you don’t expect me to hold off the girls with a gun, do you?’ ‘I just want you to see that he doesn’t get robbed, or beaten up, or anything worse than what he’s going for,” said Holroyd. ‘Oh. Nature, Nature, what an auld bitch ye are!’ said Macgregor, who was taking all this very heavily.
“I thought I had better get out before I laughed in their faces; Holroyd and Macgregor were like a couple of old maids. But Morton W. Penfold knew what was what. ‘Here’s ten dollars,’ he said; ‘I hear it’s the only visiting card Old Ma Quiller understands; tell her you’re there to keep an eye on young Ingestree, but you mustn’t be seen; in her business I suppose she gets used to queer requests and odd provisos.’ I took it, and left them, and went off for a good laugh by myself. This was my first assignment as guardian angel.
“All things considered, everything went smoothly. After the play I left Macgregor to do some of my tidy-up work himself, and followed the Cantab after he had been given a back-slapping send-off by Charlton and Woulds. He didn’t walk very fast, though it was a cold January night, and Medicine Hat is a cold town. After a while he turned in to an unremarkable-looking house, and after some inquiries at the door he vanished inside. I chatted for a few minutes with an old fellow in a tuque and mackinaw who was shovelling away an evening snowfall, then I knocked at the door myself.
“Mrs. Quiller answered in person, and though she was not the first madam I had seen—now and then one of the sisterhood would appear in search of Charlie, who had a bad habit of forgetting to settle his bills—she was certainly the least remarkable. I am always amused when madams in plays and films appear as wonderful, salty characters, full of hard-won wisdom and overflowing, compassionate understanding. Damned old twisters, any I’ve ever seen. Mrs. Quiller might have been any suburban housewife, with a dyed perm and bifocal specs. I asked if I could speak to her privately, and waggled the ten-spot, and followed her into her living-room. I explained what I had come for, and the necessity that I was not to be seen; I was just someone who had been sent by friends of Mr. Ingestree to see that he got home safely. ‘I getcha,’ said Mrs. Quiller; ‘the way that guy carries on, I think he needs a guardeen.’
“I settled down in the kitchen with Mrs. Quiller, and accepted a cup of tea and some soda crackers—her nightly snack, she explained—and we talked very comfortably about the theatre. After a while we were joined by the old snow-shoveller, who said nothing, and devoted himself to a stinking cigar. She was not a theatre-goer herself, Mrs. Quiller said—too busy at night for that; but she liked a good fillum. The last one she seen was Laugh, Clown, Laugh with Lon Chaney in it, and this girl Loretta Young. Now there was a sweet fillum, but it give you a terrible idea of the troubles of people in show business, and did I think it was true to life? I said I thought it was as true as anything dared to be, but the trials of people in the theatre were so many and harrowing that the public would never believe them if they were shown as they really were. That touched the spot with Mrs. Quiller, and we had a fine discussion about the surprises and vicissitudes life brought to just about everybody, which lasted some time.
“Then Mrs. Quiller grew restless. ‘I wonder what’s happened to that friend of yours,’ she said; ‘he’s takin’ an awful long time.’ I wondered, too, but I thought it better not to make any guesses. It was not long till another woman came into the kitchen; I would have judged her to be in her early hard-living thirties, and she had never been a beauty; she had an unbecoming Japanese kimono clutched around her, and her feet were in slippers to which remnants of maribou still clung. She looked at me with suspicion. ‘It’s okay,’ said Mrs. Quiller, ‘this fella’s the guardeen. Anything wrong, Lil?’ ‘Jeez, I never seen such a guy,’ said Lil; ‘nothin’ doing yet. He just lays there with the droops, laughin’, and talkin’. I never heard such a guy. He keeps sayin’ it’s all so ridiculous, and would I believe he’d once been a member of some Marlowe Society or something. What are they, anyway? A bunch o’ queers? But anyways I’m sick of it. He’s ruining my self-confidence. Is Pauline in yet? Maybe she could do something with him.’
“Mrs. Quiller obviously had great qualities of generalship. She turned to me. ‘Unless you got any suggestions, I’m goin’ to give him the bum’s rush,’ she said. ‘When he come in I thought, his heart’s not in it. What do you say?’ I said I thought she had summed up the situation perfectly. ‘Then you go back up there, Lil, and tell him to come back when he feels better,’ said Mrs. Quiller. ‘Don’t shame him none, but get rid of him. And no refund, you understand.’
“So that was how it was. Shortly afterward I crept from Mrs. Quiller’s back door, and followed the desponding Cantab back to his hotel. I don’t know what he told Charlton and Woulds, but they hadn’t much to say to him from then on. The odd thing was that Audrey Sevenhowes was quite nice to him for the rest of the tour. Not in a teasing way—or with as little tease as she could manage—but just friendly. A curious story, but not uncommon, would you say, gentlemen?”
“I say it’s time we all had a drink, and dinner,” said Liesl. She took the arm of the silent Ingestree and sat him at the table beside herself, and we were all especially pleasant to him, except Magnus who, having trampled his old enemy into the dirt, seemed a happier man and, in some strange way, cleansed. It was as if he were a scorpion, which had discharged its venom, and was frisky and playful in consequence. I taxed him with it as we left the dinner table.
“How could you,” I said. “Ingestree is a harmless creature, surely? He has done some good work. Many people would call him a distinguished man, and a very nice fellow.”
Magnus patted my arm and laughed. It was a low laugh, and a queer one. Merlin’s laugh, if ever I heard it.