THREE days later Roger went up to Scotland. By the exercise of some ingenuity Julia had managed that they should not again spend any length of time alone together. When they happened to be by themselves for a few minutes they talked of indifferent things. Julia was not really sorry to see him go. She could not dismiss from her mind the curious conversation she had had with him. There was one point in particular that unaccountably worried her; this was his suggestion that if she went into an empty room and someone suddenly opened the door there would be nobody there. It made her feel very uncomfortable.
"I never set out to be a raving beauty, but the one thing no one has ever denied me is personality. It's absurd to pretend that because I can play a hundred different parts in a hundred different ways I haven't got an individuality of my own. I can do that because I'm a bloody good actress."
She tried to think what happened to her when she went alone into an empty room.
"But I never am alone, even in an empty room. There's always Michael, or Evie, or Charles, or the public; not in the flesh, of course, but in the spirit, as it were. I must speak to Charles about Roger."
Unfortunately he was away. But he was coming back for the dress-rehearsal and the first night; he had not missed these occasions for twenty years, and they had always had supper together after the dress-rehearsal. Michael would remain in the theatre, busy with the lights and so on, so that they would be alone. They would be able to have a good talk.
She studied her part. Julia did not deliberately create the character she was going to act by observation; she had a knack of getting into the shoes of the woman she had to portray so that she thought with her mind and felt with her senses. Her intuition suggested to her a hundred small touches that afterwards amazed people by their verisimilitude;* but when they asked her where she had got them she could not say. Now she wanted to show the courageous yet uneasy breeziness of the Mrs. Marten who played golf and could talk to a man like one good chap to another and yet, essentially a respectable, middle-class woman, hankered for the security of the marriage state.
Michael never liked to have a crowd at a dress-rehearsal,* and this time, anxious to keep the secret of the play till the first night, he had admitted besides Charles only the people, photographers and dressmakers, whose presence was necessary. Julia spared herself. She had no intention of giving all she had to give till the first night. It was enough if her performance was adequate. Under Michael's business-like direction everything went off without a hitch, and by ten o'clock Julia and Charles were sitting in the Grill Room of the Savoy. The first thing she asked him was what he thought of Avice Crichton.
"Not at all bad and wonderfully pretty. She really looked lovely in that second-act dress."
"I'm not going to wear the dress I wore in the second act. Charley Deverill has made me another."
He did not see the slightly humorous glance she gave him, and if he had would not have guessed what it meant. Michael, having taken Julia's advice, had gone to a good deal of trouble with Avice. He had rehearsed her by herself upstairs in his private room and had given her every intonation and every gesture. He had also, Julia had good reason to believe, lunched with her several times and taken her out to supper. The result of all this was that she was playing the part uncommonly well. Michael rubbed his hands.
"I'm very pleased with her. I think she'll make quite a hit. I've half a mind to give her a contract."
"I wouldn't," said Julia. "Not till after the first night. You can never really tell how a performance is going to pan out till you've got an audience."
"She's a nice girl and a perfect lady."
"A nice girl, I suppose, because she's madly in love with you, and a perfect lady because she's resisting your advances till she's got a contract."
"Oh, my dear, don't be so silly. Why, I'm old enough to be her father."
But he smiled complacently. She knew very well that his love-making went no farther than holding hands and a kiss or two in a taxi, but she knew also that it flattered him to imagine that she suspected him capable of infidelity.
But now Julia, having satisfied her appetite with proper regard for her figure, attacked the subject which was on her mind.
"Charles dear, I want to talk to you about Roger."
"Oh yes, he came back the other day, didn't he? How is he?"
"My dear, a most terrible thing has happened. He's come back a fearful prig and I don't know what to do about it."
She gave him her version of the conversation. She left out one or two things that it seemed inconvenient to mention, but what she told was on the whole accurate.
"The tragic thing is that he has absolutely no sense of humour," she finished.
"After all he's only eighteen."
"You could have knocked me down with a feather when he said all those things to me. I felt just like Balaam when his ass broke into light conversation."
She gave him a gay look, but he did not even smile. He did not seem to think her remark as funny as she did.
"I can't imagine where he got his ideas. It's absurd to think that he could have thought out all that nonsense for himself."
"Are you sure that boys of that age don't think more than we older people imagine? It's a sort of puberty of the spirit and its results are often strange."
"It seems so deceitful of Roger to have harboured thoughts like those all these years and never breathed a word about them. He might have been accusing me." She gave a chuckle. "To tell you the truth, when Roger was talking to me I felt just like Hamlet's mother." Then with hardly a break: "I wonder if I'm too old to play Hamlet?"
"Gertrude isn't a very good part, is it?"
Julia broke into a laugh of frank amusement.
"Don't be idiotic, Charles. I wouldn't play the Queen. I'd play Hamlet."
"D'you think it's suited to a woman?"
"Mrs. Siddons played it and so did Sarah Bernhardt. It would set a seal on my career, if you know what I mean. Of course there's the difficulty of the blank verse."
"I have heard actors speak it so that it was indistinguishable from prose," he answered.
"Yes, but that's not quite the same, is it?"
"Were you nice to Roger?"
She was surprised at his going back to that subject so suddenly, but she returned to it with a smile.
"It's hard not to be impatient with the absurdity of the young; they tell us that two and two make four as though it had never occurred to us, and they're disappointed if we can't share their surprise when they have just discovered that a hen lays an egg. There's a lot of nonsense in their ranting and raving, but it's not all nonsense. One ought to sympathize with them; one ought to do one's best to understand. One has to remember how much has to be forgotten and how much has to be learnt when for the first time one faces life. It's not very easy to give up one's ideals, and the brute facts of every day are bitter pills to swallow. The spiritual conflicts of adolescence can be very severe and one can do so little to resolve them. It may be that in a year or two he'll lose sight of the clouds of glory and accept the chain. It may be that he'll find what he's looking for, if not in God, then in art."
"I should hate him to be an actor if that's what you mean."
"No, I don't think he'll fancy that."
"And of course he can't be a playwright, he hasn't a sense of humour."
"I dare say he'll be quite content to go into the Foreign Office. It would be an asset to him there."
"What would you advise me to do?"
"Nothing. Let him be. That's probably the greatest kindness you can do him."
"But I can't help being worried about him."
"You needn't be. Be hopeful. You thought you'd only given birth to an ugly duckling; perhaps he's going to turn into a white-winged swan."
Charles was not giving Julia what she wanted. She had expected him to be more sympathetic.
"I suppose he's getting old, poor dear," she reflected. "He's losing his grip of things. He must have been impotent for years; I wonder it never struck me before."
She asked what the time was.
"I think I ought to go. I must get a long night's rest."
Julia slept well and when she awoke had at once a feeling of exultation. Tonight was the first night. It gave her a little thrill of pleasure to recollect that people had already been assembling at the pit and gallery doors when she left the theatre after the dress-rehearsal, and now at ten in the morning there was probably already a long queue.
"Lucky it's a fine day for them, poor brutes."
In bygone years she had been intolerably nervous before a first night. She had felt slightly sick all day and as the hours passed got into such a state that she almost thought she would have to leave the stage. But by now, after having passed through the ordeal so many times, she had acquired a certain nonchalance. Throughout the early part of the day she felt only happy and mildly excited; it was not till late in the afternoon that she began to feel ill at ease. She grew silent and wanted to be left alone. She also grew irritable, and Michael, having learnt from experience, took care to keep out of her way. Her hands and feet got cold and by the time she reached the theatre they were like lumps of ice. But still the apprehension that filled her was not unpleasant.
Julia had nothing to do that morning but go down to the Siddons for a word-rehearsal at noon, so she lay in bed till late. Michael did not come back to luncheon, having last things to do to the sets, and she ate alone. Then she went to bed and for an hour slept soundly. Her intention was to rest all the afternoon; Miss Phillips was coming at six to give her a light massage, and by seven she wanted to be at the theatre. But when she awoke she felt so much refreshed that it irked her to stay in bed, so she made up her mind to get up and go for a walk. It was a fine, sunny day. Liking the town better than the country and streets more than trees, she did not go into the Park, but sauntered round the neighbouring squares, deserted at that time of year, idly looking at the houses, and thought how much she preferred her own to any of them. She felt at ease and light-hearted. Then she thought it time to go home. She had just reached the corner of Stanhope Place when she heard her name called in a voice that she could not but recognize. "Julia."
She turned round and Tom, his face all smiles, caught her up. She had not seen him since her return from France. He was very smart in a neat grey suit and a brown hat. He was tanned by the sun.
"I thought you were away."
"I came back on Monday. I didn't ring up because I knew you were busy with the final rehearsals. I'm coming tonight; Michael gave me a stall."
"Oh, I'm glad."
It was plain that he was delighted to see her. His face was eager and his eyes shone. She was pleased to discover that the sight of him excited no emotion in her. She wondered as they went on talking what there was in him that had ever so deeply affected her.
"What on earth are you wandering about like this for?"
"I've been for a stroll. I was just going in to tea."
"Come and have tea with me."
His flat was just round the corner. Indeed he had caught sight of her just as he was going down the mews to get to it.
"How is it you're back so early?"
"Oh, there's nothing much on at the office just now. You know, one of our partners died a couple of months ago, and I'm getting a bigger share. It means I shall be able to keep on the flat after all. Michael was jolly decent about it, he said I could stay on rent free till things got better. I hated the idea of turning out. Do come. I'd love to make you a cup of tea."
He rattled on so vivaciously that Julia was amused. You would never have thought to listen to him that there had ever been anything between them. He seemed perfectly unembarrassed.
"All right. But I can only stay a minute."
They turned into the mews and she preceded him up the narrow staircase.
"You toddle along to the sitting-room and I'll put the water on to boil."
She went in and sat down. She looked round the room that had been the scene of so many emotions for her. Nothing was changed. Her photograph stood in its old place, but on the chimney piece was a large photograph also of Avice Crichton. On it was written for Tom from Avice. Julia took everything in. The room might have been a set in which she had once acted; it was vaguely familiar, but no longer meant anything to her. The love that had consumed her then, the jealousy she had stifled, the ecstasy of surrender, it had no more reality than one of the innumerable parts she had played in the past. She relished her indifference. Tom came in, with the tea-cloth she had given him, and neatly set out the tea-service which she had also given him. She did not know why the thought of his casually using still all her little presents made her inclined to laugh. Then he came in with the tea and they drank it sitting side by side on the sofa. He told her more about his improved circumstances. In his pleasant, friendly way he acknowledged that it was owing to the work that through her he had been able to bring the firm that he had secured a larger share in the profits. He told her of the holiday from which he had just returned. It was quite clear to Julia that he had no inkling how much he had made her suffer. That too made her now inclined to laugh.
"I hear you're going to have an enormous success tonight."
"It would be nice, wouldn't it?"
"Avice says that both you and Michael have been awfully good to her. Take care she doesn't romp away with the play."
He said it chaffingly, but Julia wondered whether Avice had told him that this was what she expected to do.
"Are you engaged to her?"
"No. She wants her freedom. She says an engagement would interfere with her career."
"With her what?" The words slipped out of Julia's mouth before she could stop them, but she immediately recovered herself. "Yes, I see what she means of course."
"Naturally, I don't want to stand in her way. I mean, supposing after tonight she got a big offer for America I can quite see that she ought to be perfectly free to accept."
Her career! Julia smiled quietly to herself.
"You know, I do think you're a brick, the way you've behaved to her."
"Oh well, you know what women are!"
As he said this he slipped his arm round her waist and kissed her. She laughed outright.
"What an absurd little thing you are." *
"How about a bit of love?"
"Don't be so silly."
"What is there silly about it? Don't you think we've been divorced long enough?"
"I'm all for irrevocable divorce. And what about Avice?"
"Oh, she's different. Come on."
"Has it slipped your memory that I've got a first night tonight?"
"There's plenty of time."
He put both arms round her and kissed her softly. She looked at him with mocking eyes. Suddenly she made up her mind.
They got up and went into the bedroom. She took off her hat and slipped out of her dress. He held her in his arms as he had held her so often before. He kissed her closed eyes and the little breasts of which she was so proud. She gave him her body to do what he wanted with but her spirit held aloof. She returned his kisses out of amiability, but she caught herself thinking of the part she was going to play that night. She seemed to be two persons, the mistress in her lover's embrace, and the actress who already saw in her mind's eye the vast vague dark audience and heard the shouts of applause as she stepped on to the stage. When, a little later, they lay side by side, he with his arm round her neck, she forgot about him so completely that she was quite surprised when he broke a long silence.
"Don't you care for me any more?"
She gave him a little hug.
"Of course, darling. I dote on you."
"You're so strange today."
She realized that he was disappointed. Poor little thing, she didn't want to hurt his feelings. He was very sweet really.
"With the first night before me I'm not really myself today. You mustn't mind."
When she came to the conclusion, quite definitely now, that she no longer cared two straws for him she could not help feeling a great pity for him. She stroked his cheek gently.
"Sweetie pie. (I wonder if Michael remembered to have tea sent along to the queues. It doesn't cost much and they do appreciate it so enormously.) You know, I really must get up. Miss Phillips is coming at six. Evie will be in a state, she won't be able to think what's happened to me."
She chattered brightly while she dressed. She was conscious, although she did not look at him, that Tom was vaguely uneasy. She put her hat on, then she took his face in both her hands and gave him a friendly kiss.
"Good-bye, my lamb. Have a good time tonight."
"Best of luck."
He smiled with some awkwardness. She perceived that he did not quite know what to make of her. Julia slipped out of the flat, and if she had not been England's leading actress, and a woman of hard on fifty, she would have hopped on one leg all the way down Stanhope Place till she got to her house. She was as pleased as punch. She let herself in with her latchkey* and closed the front door behind her.
"I dare say there's something in what Roger said. Love isn't worth all the fuss they make about it."