10 . MICHAEL flattered himself on his sense of humour
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10 . MICHAEL flattered himself on his sense of humour

MICHAEL flattered himself on his sense of humour. On the Sunday evening that followed his conversation with Dolly he strolled into Julia's room while she was dressing. They were going to the pictures after an early dinner.

"Who's coming tonight besides Charles?" he asked her.

"I couldn't find another woman. I've asked Tom."

"Good! I wanted to see him."

He chuckled at the thought of the joke he had up his sleeve. Julia was looking forward to the evening. At the cinema she would arrange the seating so that Tom sat next to her and he would hold her hand while she chatted in undertones to Charles on the other side of her. Dear Charles, it was nice of him to have loved her so long and so devotedly; she would go out of her way to be very sweet to him. Charles and Tom arrived together. Tom was wearing his new dinner jacket for the first time and he and Julia exchanged a little private glance, of satisfaction on his part and of compliment on hers.

"Well, young feller," said Michael heartily, rubbing his hands, "do you know what I hear about you? I hear that you're compromising my wife."

Tom gave him a startled look and went scarlet. The habit of flushing mortified him horribly, but he could not break himself of it.

"Oh my dear," cried Julia gaily, "how marvellous! I've been trying to get someone to compromise me all my life. Who told you, Michael?"

"A little bird," he said archly.

"Well, Tom, if Michael divorces me you'll have to marry me, you know."

Charles smiled with his gentle, rather melancholy eyes.

"What have you been doing, Tom?" he asked.

Charles was gravely, Michael boisterously, diverted by the young man's obvious embarrassment. Julia, though she seemed to share their amusement, was alert and watchful.

"Well, it appears that the young rip has been taking Julia to night clubs when she ought to have been in bed and asleep."

Julia crowed with delight.

"Shall we deny it, Tom, or shall we brazen it out?"

"Well, I'll tell you what I said to the little bird," Michael broke in. "I said to her, as long as Julia doesn't want me to go to night clubs with her…"

Julia ceased to listen to what he said. Dolly, she thought, and oddly enough she described her to herself in exactly the words Michael had used a couple of days before. Dinner was announced and their bright talk turned to other things. But though Julia took part in it with gaiety, though she appeared to be giving her guests all her attention and even listened with a show of appreciation to one of Michael's theatrical stories that she had heard twenty times before, she was privately holding an animated conversation with Dolly. Dolly cowered before her while she told her exactly what she thought of her.

"You old cow," she said to her. "How dare you interfere with my private concerns? No, don't speak. Don't try to excuse yourself. I know exactly what you said to Michael. It was unpardonable. I thought you were a friend of mine. I thought I could rely on you. Well, that finishes it. I'll never speak to you again. Never. Never. D'you think I'm impressed by your rotten old money? Oh, it's no good saying you didn't mean it. Where would you be except for me, I should like to know. Any distinction you've got, the only importance you have in the world, is that you happen to know me. Who's made your parties go all these years? D'you think that people came to them to see you? They came to see me. Never again. Never." It was in point of fact a monologue rather than a conversation.

Later on, at the cinema, she sat next to Tom as she had intended and held his hand, but it seemed to her singularly unresponsive. Like a fish's fin. She suspected that he was thinking uncomfortably of what Michael had said. She wished that she had had an opportunity of a few words with him so that she might have told him not to worry. After all no one could have carried off the incident with more brilliance than she had. Aplomb; that was the word. She wondered what it was exactly that Dolly had told Michael. She had better find out. It would not do to ask Michael, that would look as though she attached importance to it; she must find out from Dolly herself. It would be much wiser not to have a row with her. Julia smiled as she thought of the scene she would have with Dolly. She would be sweetness itself, she would wheedle it all out of her, and never give her an inkling that she was angry. It was curious that it should send a cold shiver down her back to think that people were talking about her. After all if she couldn't do what she liked, who could? Her private life was nobody's business. All the same one couldn't deny that it wouldn't be very nice if people were laughing at her. She wondered what Michael would do if he found out the truth. He couldn't very well divorce her and continue to manage for her. If he had any sense he'd shut his eyes. But Michael was funny in some ways; every now and then he would get up on his hind legs and start doing his colonel stuff. He was quite capable of saying all of a sudden that damn it all, he must behave like a gentleman. Men were such fools; there wasn't one of them who wouldn't cut off his nose to spite his face. Of course it wouldn't really matter very much to her. She could go and act in America for a year till the scandal had died down and then go into management with somebody else. But it would be a bore. And then there was Roger to consider; he'd feel it, poor lamb; he'd be humiliated, naturally it was no good shutting one's eyes to the fact, at her age she'd look a perfect fool being divorced on account of a boy of three-and-twenty. Of course she wouldn't be such a fool as to marry Tom. Would Charles marry her? She turned and in the half-light looked at his distinguished profile. He had been madly in love with her for years; he was one of those chivalrous idiots that a woman could turn round her little finger; perhaps he wouldn't mind being co-respondent* instead of Tom. That might be a very good way out. Lady Charles Tamerley. It sounded all right. Perhaps she had been a little imprudent. She had always been very careful when she went to Tom's flat, but it might be that one of the chauffeurs in the mews had seen her go in or come out and had thought things. That class of people had such filthy minds. As far as the night clubs were concerned, she'd have been only too glad to go with Tom to quiet little places where no one would see them, but he didn't like that. He loved a crowd, he wanted to see smart people, and be seen. He liked to show her off.

"Damn,"she said to herself. "Damn, damn."

Julia didn't enjoy her evening at the cinema as much as she had expected.

NEXT day Julia got Dolly on her private number. "Darling, it seems ages since I've seen you. What have you been doing with yourself all this time?"

"Nothing very much."

Dolly's voice sounded cold.

"Now listen, Roger's coming home tomorrow. You now he's leaving Eton for good. I'm sending the car for him early and I want you to come to lunch. Not a party; only you and me, Michael and Roger."

"I'm lunching out tomorrow."

In twenty years Dolly had never been engaged when Julia wanted her to do something with her. The voice at the other end of the telephone was hostile.

"Dolly, how can you be so unkind? Roger'll be terribly disappointed. His first day at home; besides, I want to see you. I haven't seen you for ages and I miss you terribly. Can't you break your engagement, just for this once, darling, and we'll have a good old gossip after lunch, just you and me?"

No one could be more persuasive than Julia when she liked, no one could put more tenderness into her voice, nor a more irresistible appeal. There was a moment's pause and Julia knew that Dolly was struggling with her wounded feelings.

"All right, darling, I'll manage."

"Darling." But when she rang off Julia through clenched teeth muttered: "The old cow."

Dolly came. Roger listened politely while she told him that he had grown and with his grave smile answered her suitably when she said the sort of things she thought proper to a boy of his age. Julia was puzzled by him. Without talking much he listened, apparently with attention, to what the rest of them were saying, but she had an odd feeling that he was occupied with thoughts of his own. He seemed to observe them with a detached curiosity like that with which he might have observed animals in a zoo. It was faintly disquieting. When the opportunity presented itself she delivered the little bit of dialogue she had prepared for Dolly's benefit.

"Oh, Roger darling, you know your wretched father's busy tonight. I've got a couple of seats for the second house at the Palladium and Tom wants you to dine with him at the Cafe Royal."

"Oh!" He paused for a second. "All right."

She turned to Dolly.

"It's so nice for Roger to have somebody like Tom to go about with. They're great friends, you know."

Michael gave Dolly a glance. There was a twinkle in his eyes. He spoke.

"Tom's a very decent sort of boy. He won't let Roger get into any mischief."

" I should have thought Roger would prefer to go about with his Eton friends," said Dolly.

"Old cow," thought Julia. "Old cow."

But when luncheon was over she asked her to come up to her room.

"I'll get into bed and you can talk to me while I'm resting. A good old girls' gossip, that's what I want."

She put her arm affectionately round Dolly's vast waist and led her upstairs. For a while they spoke of indifferent things, clothes and servants, make-up and scandal; then Julia, leaning on her elbow, looked at Dolly with confiding eyes.

"Dolly, there's something I want to talk to you about. I want advice and you're the only person in the world whose advice I would take. I know I can trust you."

"Of course, darling."

"It appears that people are saying rather disagreeable things about me. Someone's been to Michael and told him that there's a lot of gossip about me and poor Tom Fennell."

Though her eyes still wore the charming and appealing look that she knew Dolly found irresistible, she watched her closely for a start or for some change in her expression. She saw nothing.

"Who told Michael?"

"I don't know. He won't say. You know what he is when he starts being a perfect gentleman."

She wondered if she only imagined that Dolly's features at this slightly relaxed.

"I want the truth, Dolly."

"I'm so glad you've asked me, darling. You know how I hate to interfere in other people's business and if you hadn't brought the matter up yourself nothing would have induced me to mention it."

"My dear, if I don't know that you're a loyal friend, who does?"

Dolly slipped off her shoes and settled down massively in her chair. Julia never took her eyes off her.

"You know how malicious people are. You've always led such a quiet, regular life. You've gone out so little, and then only with Michael or Charles Tamerley. He's different; of course everyone knows he's adored you for ages. It seems so funny that all of a sudden you should run around all over the place with a clerk in the firm that does your accounts."

"He isn't exactly that. His father has bought him a share in the firm and he's a junior partner."

"Yes, he gets four hundred a year."

"How d'you know?" asked Julia quickly.

This time she was certain that Dolly was disconcerted.

"You persuaded me to go to his firm about my income-tax. One of the head partners told me. It seems a little strange that on that he should be able to have a flat, dress the way he does and take people to night clubs."

"For all I know his father may make him an allowance."

"His father's a solicitor in the North of London. You know very well that if he's bought him a partnership he isn't making him an allowance as well."

"Surely you don't imagine that I'm keeping him," said Julia, with a ringing laugh.

"I don't imagine anything, darling. Other people do."

Julia liked neither the words Dolly spoke nor the way she said them. But she gave no sign of her uneasiness.

"It's too absurd. He's Roger's friend much more than mine. Of course I've been about with him. I felt I was getting too set. I'm tired of just going to the theatre and taking care of myself. It's no life. After all if I don't enjoy myself a little now I never shall. I'm getting on, you know, Dolly, it's no good denying it. You know what Michael is; of course he's sweet, but he is a bore."

"No more a bore than he's ever been," said Dolly acidly.

"I should have thought I was the last person anyone would dream would have an affair with a boy twenty years younger than myself."

"Twenty-five," corrected Dolly. "I should have thought so too. Unfortunately he's not very discreet."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, he's told Avice Crichton that he'll get her a part in your next play."

"Who the devil is Avice Crichton?"

"Oh, she's a young actress I know. She's as pretty as a picture."

"He's only a silly kid. I suppose he thinks he can get round Michael. You know what Michael is with his little bits."

"He says he can get you to do anything he wants. He says you just eat out of his hand."

It was lucky for Julia that she was a good actress. For a second her heart stood still. How could he say a thing like that? The fool. The blasted fool. But recovering herself at once she laughed lightly.

"What nonsense! I don't believe a word of it."

"He's a very commonplace, rather vulgar man. It's not surprising if all the fuss you've made of him has turned his head."

Julia, smiling good-naturedly, looked at her with ingenuous eyes.

"But, darling, you don't think he's my lover, do you?"

"If I don't, I'm the only person who doesn't."

"And do you?"

For a minute Dolly did not answer. They looked at one another steadily, their hearts were black with hatred; but Julia still smiled.

"If you give me your solemn word of honour that he isn't, of course I'll believe you."

Julia dropped her voice to a low, grave note. It had a true ring of sincerity:

"I've never told you a lie yet, Dolly, and I'm too old to begin now. I give you my solemn word of honour that Tom has never been anything more to me than just a friend."

"You take a great weight off my mind."

Julia knew that Dolly did not believe her and Dolly was aware that Julia knew it. She went on.

"But in that case, for your own sake, Julia dear, do be sensible. Don't go about with this young man any more. Drop him."

"Oh, I couldn't do that. That would be an admission that people were right in what they thought. After all, my conscience is clear. I can afford to hold my head high. I should despise myself if I allowed my behaviour to be influenced by malicious gossip."

Dolly slipped her feet back into her shoes and getting her lipstick out of her bag did her lips.

"Well, dear, you're old enough to know your own mind."

They parted coldly.

But one or two of Dolly's remarks had been somewhat of a shock to Julia. They rankled. It was disconcerting that gossip had so nearly reached the truth. But did it matter? Plenty of women had lovers and who bothered? And an actress. No one expected an actress to be a pattern of propriety.

"It's my damned virtue. That's at the bottom of the trouble."

She had acquired the reputation of a perfectly virtuous woman, whom the tongue of scandal could not touch, and now it looked as though her reputation was a prison that she had built round herself. But there was worse. What had Tom meant by saying that she ate out of his hand? That deeply affronted her. Silly little fool. How dare he? She didn't know what to do about it either. She would have liked to tax him with it. What was the good? He would deny it. The only thing was to say nothing; it had all gone too far now, she must accept everything. It was no good not facing the truth, he didn't love her, he was her lover because it gratified his self-esteem, because it brought him various things he cared for and because in his own eyes at least it gave him a sort of position.

"If I had any sense I'd chuck him." She gave an angry laugh. "It's easy to say that. I love him."

The strange thing was that when she looked into her heart it was not Julia Lambert the woman who resented the affront, she didn't care for herself, it was the affront to Julia Lambert the actress that stung her. She had often felt that her talent, genius the critics called it, but that was a very grand word, her gift, if you like, was not really herself, not even part of her, but something outside that used her, Julia Lambert the woman, in order to express itself. It was a strange, immaterial personality that seemed to descend upon her and it did things through her that she did not know she was capable of doing. She was an ordinary, prettyish, ageing woman. Her gift had neither age nor form. It was a spirit that played on her body as the violinist plays on his violin. It was the slight to that that galled her.

She tried to sleep. She was so accustomed to sleeping in the afternoon that she could always drop off the moment she composed herself, but on this occasion she turned restlessly from side to side and sleep would not come. At last she looked at the clock. Tom often got back from his office soon after five. She yearned for him; in his arms was peace, when she was with him nothing else mattered. She dialled his number.

"Hulloa? Yes. Who is it?"

She held the receiver to her ear, panic-stricken. It was Roger's voice. She hung up.

NOR did Julia sleep well that night. She was awake when she heard Roger come in, and turning on her light she saw that it was four. She frowned. He came clattering down the stone stairs next morning just when she was beginning to think of getting up.

"Can I come in, mummy?"

"Come in."

He was still in his pyjamas and dressing-gown. She smiled at him because he looked so fresh and young.

"You were very late last night."

"No, not very. I was in by one."

"Liar. I looked at my clock. It was four."

"All right. It was four then," he agreed cheerfully.

"What on earth were you doing?"

"We went on to some place after the show and had supper. We danced."

"Who with?"

"A couple of girls we picked up. Tom knew them before."

"What were their names?"

"One was called Jill and one was called Joan. I don't know what their other names were. Joan's on the stage. She asked me if I couldn't get her an understudy* in your next play."

At all events neither of them was Avice Crichton. That name had been in her thoughts ever since Dolly had mentioned it.

"But those places aren't open till four."

"No, we went back to Tom's flat. Tom made me promise I wouldn't tell you. He said you'd be furious."

"Oh, my dear, it takes a great deal more than that to make me furious. I promise you I won't say a word."

"If anyone's to blame I am. I went to see Tom yesterday afternoon and we arranged it then. All this stuff about love that one hears about in plays and reads in novels. I'm nearly eighteen. I thought I ought to see for myself what it was all about."

Julia sat up in bed and looked at Roger with wide, inquiring eyes.

"Roger, what do you mean?"

He was composed and serious.

"Tom said he knew a couple of girls who were all right. He's had them both himself. They live together and so we phoned and asked them to meet us after the show. He told them I was a virgin and they'd better toss up for me. When we got back to the flat he took Jill into the bedroom and left me the sitting-room and Joan."

For the moment she did not think of Tom, she was so disturbed at what Roger was saying.

"I don't think it's so much really. I don't see it's anything to make all that fuss about."

She could not speak. The tears filled her eyes and ran quickly down her face.

"Mummy, what's the matter? Why are you crying?"

"But you're a little boy."

He came over to her and sitting on the side of her bed took her in his arms.

"Darling, don't cry. I wouldn't have told you if I'd thought it was going to upset you. After all, it had to happen sooner or later."

"But so soon. So soon. It makes me feel so old."

"Not you, darling. Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."

She giggled through her tears.

"You fool, Roger, d'you think Cleopatra would have liked what that silly old donkey said of her? You might have waited a little longer."

"It's just as well I didn't. I know all about it now. To tell you the truth I think it's rather disgusting."

She sighed deeply. It was a comfort to feel him holding her so tenderly. But she felt terribly sorry for herself.

"You're not angry with me, darling?" he asked.

"Angry? No. But if it had to come I wish it hadn't been quite so matter of fact. You talk as though it had just been a rather curious experiment."

"I suppose it was in a way."

She gave him a little smile.

"And you really think that was love?"

"Well, it's what most people mean by it, isn't it?"

"No, they don't, they mean pain and anguish, shame, ecstasy, heaven and hell; they mean the sense of living more intensely, and unutterable boredom; they mean freedom and slavery; they mean peace and unrest."

Something in the stillness with which he listened to her made her give him a glance through her eyelashes. There was a curious expression in his eyes. She did not know what it meant. It was as though he were gravely listening to a sound that came from a long way off.

"It doesn't sound as though it were much fun," he murmured.

She took his smooth face in her hands and kissed his lips.

"I'm a fool, aren't I? You see, I still see you as a little baby boy that I'm holding in my arms."

A twinkle shone in his eyes.

"What are you grinning at, you ape?"

"It made a damned good photograph, didn't it?"

She could not but laugh.

"You pig. You filthy pig."

"I say, about the understudy, is there any chance for Joan?"

"Tell her to come and see me one day."

But when Roger left her she sighed. She was depressed. She felt very lonely. Her life had always been so full and so exciting that she had never had the time to busy herself much with Roger. She got in a state, of course, when he had whooping-cough or measles, but he was for the most part in robust health, and then he occupied a pleasant place in the background of her consciousness. But she had always felt that he was there to be attended to when she was inclined and she had often thought it would be nice when he was old enough really to share her interests. It came to her as a shock now to realize that, without ever having really possessed him, she had lost him. Her lips tightened when she thought of the girl who had taken him from her.

"An understudy. My foot."

Her pain absorbed her so that she could not feel the grief she might have felt from her discovery of Tom's perfidy. She had always known in her bones that he was unfaithful to her. At his age, with his wanton temperament, with herself tied down by her performances at the theatre, by all manner of engagements which her position forced upon her, it was plain that he had ample opportunity to gratify his inclinations. She had shut her eyes. All she asked was that she should not know. This was the first time that an actual fact had been thrust upon her notice.

"I must just put up with it," she sighed. Thoughts wandered through her mind. "It's like lying and not knowing you're lying, that's what's fatal; I suppose it's better to be a fool and know it than a fool and not know it."

TOM went to Eastbourne with his family for Christmas. Julia had two performances on Boxing Day, so the Gosselyns stayed in town; they went to a large party at the Savoy that Dolly de Vries gave to see the New Year in; and a few days later Roger set off for Vienna. While he was in London Julia saw little of Tom. She did not ask Roger what they did when they tore about the town together, she did not want to know, she steeled herself not to think and distracted her mind by going to as many parties as she could. And there was always her acting; when once she got into the theatre her anguish, her humiliation, her jealousy were allayed. It gave her a sense of triumphant power to find, as it were in her pot of grease paint, another personality that could be touched by no human griefs. With that refuge always at hand she could support anything.

On the day that Roger left, Tom rang her up from his office.

"Are you doing anything tonight? What about going out on the binge?"

"No, I'm busy."

It was not true, but the words slipped out of her mouth, independent of her will.

"Oh, are you? Well, what about tomorrow?"

If he had expressed disappointment, if he had asked her to cut the date he supposed she had, she might have had strength to break with him then and there. His casualness defeated her.

"Tomorrow's all right."

"O.K. I'll fetch you at the theatre after the show. Bye-bye."

Julia was ready and waiting when he was shown into her dressing-room. She was strangely nervous. His face lit up when he saw her, and when Evie went out of the room for a moment he caught her in his arms and warmly kissed her on the lips.

"I feel all the better for that," he laughed.

You would never have thought to look at him, so young, fresh and ingenuous, in such high spirits, that he was capable of giving her so much pain. You would never have thought that he was so deceitful. It was quite plain that he had not noticed that for more than a fortnight he had hardly seen her.

("Oh, God, if I could only tell him to go to hell.")

But she looked at him with a gay smile in her lovely eyes.

"Where are we going?"

"I've got a table at Quag's. They've got a new turn there, an American conjurer, who's grand."

She talked with vivacity all through supper. She told him about the various parties she had been to, and the theatrical functions she had not been able to get out of, so that it seemed only on account of her engagements that they had not met. It disconcerted her to perceive that he took it as perfectly natural. He was glad to see her, that was plain, he was interested in what she had been doing and in the people she had seen, but it was plain also that he had not missed her. To see what he would say she told him that she had had an offer to take the play in which she was acting to New York. She told him the terms that had been suggested.

"They're marvellous," he said, his eyes glittering. "What a snip. You can't lose and you may make a packet."

"The only thing is, I don't much care for leaving London."

"Why on earth not? I should have thought you'd jump at it. The play's had a good long run, for all you know it'll be pretty well through by Easter, and if you want to make a stab at America you couldn't have a better vehicle."

"I don't see why it shouldn't run through the summer. Besides, I don't like strangers very much. I'm fond of my friends."

"I think that's silly. Your friends'll get along without you all right. And you'll have a grand time in New York."

Her gay laugh was very convincing.

"One would think you were terribly anxious to get rid of me."

"Of course I should miss you like hell. But it would only be for a few months. If I had a chance like that I'd jump at it."

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