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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The First Night
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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The First Night Post by :xpress Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2195

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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 9. The First Night

PART II CHAPTER IX. THE FIRST NIGHT

I

It was upon an evening in June--and a fine evening, full of the exquisite melancholy of summer in a city--that Edward Henry stood before a window, drumming thereon as he had once, a less-experienced man with hair slightly less grey, drummed on the table of the mighty and arrogant Slosson. The window was the window of the managerial room of the Regent Theatre. And he could scarcely believe it--he could scarcely believe that he was not in a dream--for the room was papered, carpeted and otherwise furnished. Only its electric light fittings were somewhat hasty and provisional, and the white ceiling showed a hole and a bunch of wires--like the nerves of a hollow tooth--whence one of Edward Henry's favourite chandeliers would ultimately depend.

The whole of the theatre was at least as far advanced towards completion as that room. A great deal of it was more advanced; for instance, the auditorium, _foyer_, and bars, which were utterly finished, so far as anything ever is finished in a changing world. Wonders, marvels and miracles had been accomplished. Mr. Alloyd, in the stress of the job, had even ceased to bring the Russian Ballet into his conversations. Mr. Alloyd, despite a growing tendency to prove to Edward Henry by authentic anecdote, about midnight, his general proposition that women as a sex treated him with shameful unfairness, had gained the high esteem of Edward Henry as an architect. He had fulfilled his word about those properties of the auditorium which had to do with hearing and seeing--in so much that the auditorium was indeed unique in London. And he had taken care that the Clerk of the Works took care that the builder did not give up heart in the race with time.

Moreover, he had maintained the peace with the terrible London County Council, all of whose inspecting departments seemed to have secretly decided that the Regent Theatre should be opened, not in June as Edward Henry had decided, but at some vague future date towards the middle of the century. Months earlier Edward Henry had ordained and announced that the Regent Theatre should be inaugurated on a given date in June, at the full height and splendour of the London season, and he had astounded the theatrical world by adhering through thick and thin to that date, and had thereby intensified his reputation as an eccentric; for the oldest inhabitant of that world could not recall a case in which the opening of a new theatre had not been promised for at least three widely different dates.

Edward Henry had now arrived at the eve of the dread date, and if he had arrived there in comparative safety, with a reasonable prospect of avoiding complete shame and disaster, he felt and he admitted that the credit was due as much to Mr. Alloyd as to himself. Which only confirmed an early impression of his that architects were queer people--rather like artists and poets in some ways, but with a basis of bricks and mortar to them.

His own share in the enterprise of the Regent had in theory been confined to engaging the right people for the right tasks and situations; and to signing cheques. He had depended chiefly upon Mr. Marrier, who, growing more radiant every day, had gradually developed into a sort of chubby Napoleon, taking an immense delight in detail and in choosing minor hands at round-sum salaries on the spur of the moment. Mr. Marrier refused no call upon his energy. He was helping Carlo Trent in the production and stage-management of the play. He dried the tears of girlish neophytes at rehearsals. He helped to number the stalls. He showed a passionate interest in the tessellated pavement of the entrance. He taught the managerial typewriting girl how to make afternoon tea. He went to Hitchin to find a mediaeval chair required for the third act, and found it. In a word, he was fully equal to the post of acting manager. He managed! He managed everything and everybody except Edward Henry, and except the press-agent, a functionary whose conviction of his own indispensability and importance was so sincere that even Marrier shared it and left him alone in his Bismarckian operations. The press-agent, who sang in musical comedy chorus at night, knew that if the Regent Theatre succeeded it would be his doing and his alone.

And yet Edward Henry, though he had delegated everything, had yet found a vast amount of work to do; and was thereby exhausted. That was why he was drumming on the pane. That was why he was conscious of a foolish desire to shove his fist through the pane. During the afternoon he had had two scenes with two representatives of the Libraries (so called because they deal in theatre-tickets and not in books) who had declined to take up any of his tickets in advance. He had commenced an action against a firm of bill-posters. He had settled an incipient strike in the 'limes' departments, originated by Mr. Cosmo Clark's views about lighting. He had dictated answers to seventy-nine letters of complaint from unknown people concerning the supply of free seats for the first night. He had responded in the negative to a request from a newspaper critic who, on the score that he was deaf, wanted a copy of the play. He had replied finally to an official of the County Council about the smoke-trap over the stage. He had replied finally to another official of the County Council about the electric sign. He had attended to a new curiosity on the part of another official of the County Council about the iron curtain. But he had been almost rude to still another official of the County Council about the wiring of the electric light in the dressing-rooms. He had been unmistakably and pleasurably rude in writing to Slossons about their criticisms of the lock on the door of Lord Woldo's private entrance to the theatre. Also he had arranged with the representative of the Chief Commissioner of Police concerning the carriage regulations for "setting-down and taking-up."

And he had indeed had more than enough. His nerves, though he did not know it, and would have scorned the imputation, were slowly giving way. Hence, really, the danger to the pane! Through the pane, in the dying light, he could see a cross-section of Shaftesbury Avenue, and an aged newspaper-lad leaning against a lamp-post and displaying a poster which spoke of Isabel Joy. Isabel Joy yet again! That little fact of itself contributed to his exasperation. He thought, considering the importance of the Regent Theatre and the salary he was paying to his press-agent, that the newspapers ought to occupy their pages solely with the metropolitan affairs of Edward Henry Machin. But the wretched Isabel had, as it were, got London by the throat. She had reached Chicago from the West, on her triumphant way home, and had there contrived to be arrested, according to boast, but she was experiencing much more difficulty in emerging from the Chicago prison than in entering it. And the question was now becoming acute whether the emissary of the Militant Suffragettes would arrive back in London within the specified period of a hundred days. Naturally, London was holding its breath. London will keep calm during moderate crises--such as a national strike or the agony of the House of Lords--but when the supreme excitation is achieved London knows how to let itself go.

"If you please, Mr. Machin--"

He turned. It was his typewriter, Miss Lindop, a young girl of some thirty-five years, holding a tea-tray.

"But I've had my tea once!" he snapped.

"But you've not had your dinner, sir, and it's half-past eight!" she pleaded.

He had known this girl for less than a month, and he paid her fewer shillings a week than the years of her age--and yet somehow she had assumed a worshipping charge of him, based on the idea that he was incapable of taking care of himself. To look at her appealing eyes one might have thought that she would have died to ensure his welfare.

"And they want to see you about the linoleum for the gallery stairs," she added timidly. "The County Council man says it must be taken up."

The linoleum for the gallery stairs! Something snapped in him. He almost walked right through the young woman and the tea-tray.

"I'll linoleum them!" he bitterly exclaimed, and disappeared.


II

Having duly "linoleumed them," or rather having very annoyingly quite failed to "linoleum them," Edward Henry continued his way up the right-hand gallery staircase, and reached the auditorium, where to his astonishment a good deal of electricity, at one penny three farthings a unit, was blazing. Every seat in the narrow and high-pitched gallery, where at the sides the knees of one spectator would be on a level with the picture-hat of the spectator in the row beneath, had a perfect and entire view of the proscenium opening. And Edward Henry now proved this unprecedented fact by climbing to the topmost corner seat and therefrom surveying the scene of which he was monarch. The boxes were swathed in their new white dust-sheets; and likewise the higgledy-piggledy stalls, not as yet screwed down to the floor, save three or four stalls in the middle of the front row, from which the sheet had been removed. On one of these seats, far off though it was, he could descry a paper bag--probably containing sandwiches--and on another a pair of gloves and a walking-stick. Several alert ladies with sketch-books walked uneasily about in the aisles. The orchestra was hidden in the well provided for it, and apparently murmuring in its sleep. The magnificent drop-curtain, designed by Saracen Givington, A.R.A., concealed the stage.

Suddenly Mr. Marrier and Carlo Trent appeared through the iron door that gave communication--to initiates--between the wings and the auditorium; they sat down in the stalls. And the curtain rose with a violent swish, and disclosed the first "set" of "The Orient Pearl."

"What about that amber, Cosmo?" Mr. Marrier cried thickly, after a pause, his mouth occupied with sandwich.

"There you are!" came the reply.

"Right!" said Mr. Marrier. "Strike!"

"Don't strike!" contradicted Carlo Trent.

"Strike, I tell you! We must get on with the second act." The voices resounded queerly in the empty theatre.

The stage was invaded by scene-shifters before the curtain could descend again.

Edward Henry heard a tripping step behind him. It was the faithful typewriting girl.

"I say," he said. "Do you mind telling me what's going on here? It's true that in the rush of more important business I'd almost forgotten that a theatre is a place where they perform plays."

"It's the dress-rehearsal, Mr. Machin," said the woman, startled and apologetic.

"But the dress-rehearsal was fixed for three o'clock," said he. "It must have been finished three hours ago."

"I think they've only just done the first act," the woman breathed. "I know they didn't begin till seven. Oh! Mr. Machin, of course it's no affair of mine, but I've worked in a good many theatres, and I do think it's such a mistake to have the dress-rehearsal quite private. If you get a hundred or so people in the stalls then it's an audience, and there's much less delay and everything goes much better. But when it's private a dress-rehearsal is just like any other rehearsal."

"Only more so--perhaps," said Edward Henry, smiling.

He saw that he had made her happy; but he saw also that he had given her empire over him.

"I've got your tea here," she said, rather like a hospital-nurse now. "Won't you drink it?"

"I'll drink it if it's not stewed," he muttered.

"Oh!" she protested, "of course it isn't! I poured it off the leaves into another teapot before I brought it up."

She went behind the barrier, and reappeared balancing a cup of tea with a slice of sultana cake edged on to the saucer. And as she handed it to him--the sustenance of rehearsals--she gazed at him and he could almost hear her eyes saying: "You poor thing!"

There was nothing that he hated so much as to be pitied.

"You go home!" he commanded.

"Oh, but--"

"You go home! See?" He paused, threatening. "If you don't clear out on the tick I'll chuck this cup and saucer down into the stalls."

Horrified, she vanished.

He sighed his relief.

After some time the leader of the orchestra climbed into his chair, and the orchestra began to play, and the curtain went up again, on the second act of the masterpiece in hexameters. The new scenery, which Edward Henry had with extraordinary courage insisted on Saracen Givington substituting for the original incomprehensibilities displayed at the Azure Society's performance, rather pleased him. Its colouring was agreeable, and it did resemble something definite. You could, though perhaps not easily, tell what it was meant to represent. The play proceeded, and the general effect was surprisingly pleasant to Edward Henry. And then Rose Euclid as Haidee came on for the great scene of the act. From the distance of the gallery she looked quite passably youthful, and beyond question she had a dominating presence in her resplendent costume. She was incomparably and amazingly better than she had been at the few previous rehearsals which Edward Henry had been unfortunate enough to witness. She even reminded him of his earliest entrancing vision of her.

"Some people may _like this!" he admitted, with a gleam of optimism. Hitherto, for weeks past, he had gone forward with his preparations in the most frigid and convinced pessimism. It seemed to him that he had become involved in a vast piece of machinery, and that nothing short of blowing the theatre up with dynamite would bring the cranks and pistons to a stop. And yet it seemed to him also that everything was unreal, that the contracts he signed were unreal, and the proofs he passed, and the posters he saw on the walls of London, and the advertisements in the newspapers. Only the cheques he drew had the air of being real. And now, in a magic flash, after a few moments gazing at the stage, he saw all differently. He scented triumph from afar off, as one sniffs the tang of the sea. On the morrow he had to meet Nellie at Euston, and he had shrunk from meeting her, with her terrible remorseless, provincial, untheatrical common sense; but now, in another magic flash, he envisaged the meeting with a cock-a-doodle-doo of hope. Strange! He admitted it was strange.

And then he failed to hear several words spoken by Rose Euclid. And then a few more. As the emotion of the scene grew, the proportion of her words audible in the gallery diminished. Until she became, for him, totally inarticulate, raving away there and struggling in a cocoon of hexameters.

Despair seized him. His nervous system--every separate nerve of it--was on the rack once more.

He stood up in a sort of paroxysm, and called loudly across the vast intervening space:

"Speak more distinctly, please."

A fearful silence fell upon the whole theatre. The rehearsal stopped. The building itself seemed to be staggered. Somebody had actually demanded that words should be uttered articulately!

Mr. Marrier turned towards the intruder, as one determined to put an end to such singularities.

"Who's up theyah?"

"I am," said Edward Henry. "And I want it to be clearly understood in my theatre that the first thing an actor has to do is to make himself heard. I daresay I'm devilish odd, but that's how I look at it."

"Whom do you mean, Mr. Machin?" asked Marrier in a different tone.

"I mean Miss Euclid of course. Here I've spent heaven knows how much on the acoustics of this theatre, and I can't make out a word she says. I can hear all the others. And this is the dress-rehearsal!"

"You must remember you're in the gallery," said Mr. Marrier, firmly.

"And what if I am? I'm not giving gallery seats away to-morrow night. It's true I'm giving half the stalls away, but the gallery will be paid for."

Another silence.

Said Rose Euclid, sharply, and Edward Henry caught every word with the most perfect distinctness:

"I'm sick and tired of people saying they can't make out what I say! They actually write me letters about it! Why _should people make out what I say?"

She quitted the stage.

Another silence....

"Ring down the curtain," said Mr. Marrier in a thrilled voice.


III

Shortly afterwards Mr. Marrier came into the managerial office, lit up now, where Edward Henry was dictating to his typewriter and hospital-nurse, who, having been caught in hat and jacket on the threshold, had been brought back and was tapping his words direct on to the machine.

It was a remarkable fact that the sole proprietor of the Regent Theatre was now in high spirits and good humour.

"Well, Marrier, my boy," he saluted the acting-manager, "how are you getting on with that rehearsal?"

"Well, sir," said Mr. Marrier, "I'm not getting on with it. Miss Euclid refuses absolutely to proceed. She's in her dressing-room."

"But why?" inquired Edward Henry with bland surprise. "Doesn't she _want to be heard--by her gallery-boys?"

Mr. Marrier showed an enfeebled smile.

"She hasn't been spoken to like that for thirty years," said he.

"But don't you agree with me?" asked Edward Henry.

"Yes," said Marrier, "I _agree with you--"

"And doesn't your friend Carlo want his precious hexameters to be heard?"

"We baoth agree with you," said Marrier. "The fact is, we've done all we could, but it's no use. She's splendid, only--" He paused.

"Only you can't make out ten per cent of what she says," Edward Henry finished for him. "Well, I've got no use for that in my theatre." He found a singular pleasure in emphasizing the phrase, "my theatre."

"That's all very well," said Marrier. "But what are you going to _do about it? I've tried everything. _You've come in and burst up the entire show, if you'll forgive my saying saoh!"

"Do?" exclaimed Edward Henry. "It's perfectly simple. All you have to do is to act. God bless my soul, aren't you getting fifteen pounds a week, and aren't you my acting-manager? Act, then! You've done enough hinting. You've proved that hints are no good. You'd have known that from your birth up, Marrier, if you'd been born in the Five Towns. Act, my boy."

"But haow? If she won't go on, she won't."

"Is her understudy in the theatre?"

"Yes. It's Miss Cunningham, you know."

"What salary does she get?"

"Ten pounds a week."

"What for?"

"Well--partly to understudy, I suppose."

"Let her earn it, then. Go on with the rehearsal. And let her play the part to-morrow night. She'll be delighted, you bet."

"But--"

"Miss Lindop," Edward Henry interrupted, "will you please read to Mr. Marrier what I've dictated?" He turned to Marrier. "It's an interview with myself for one of to-morrow's papers."

Miss Lindop, with tears in her voice if not in her eyes, obeyed the order and, drawing the paper from the machine, read its contents aloud.

Mr. Marrier started back--not in the figurative but in the literal sense--as he listened.

"But you'll never send that out!" he exclaimed.

"Why not?"

"No paper will print it!"

"My dear Marrier," said Edward Henry, "don't be a simpleton. You know as well as I do that half-a-dozen papers will be delighted to print it. And all the rest will copy the one that does print it. It'll be the talk of London to-morrow, and Isabel Joy will be absolutely snuffed out."

"Well," said Mr. Marrier, "I never heard of such a thing!"

"Pity you didn't, then!"

Mr. Marrier moved away.

"I say," he murmured at the door, "don't you think you ought to read that to Rose first?"

"I'll read it to Rose like a bird," said Edward Henry.

Within two minutes--it was impossible to get from his room to the dressing-rooms in less--he was knocking at Rose Euclid's door. "Who's there?" said a voice. He entered and then replied: "I am."

Rose Euclid was smoking a cigarette and scratching the arm of an easy-chair behind her. Her maid stood near by with a whisky-and-soda.

"Sorry you can't go on with the rehearsal, Miss Euclid," said Edward Henry very quickly. "However, we must do the best we can. But Mr. Marrier thought you'd like to hear this. It's part of an interview with me that's going to appear to-morrow in the press."

Without pausing, he went on to read: "I found Mr. Alderman Machin, the hero of the Five Towns and the proprietor and initiator of London's newest and most up-to-date and most intellectual theatre, surrounded by a complicated apparatus of telephones and typewriters in his managerial room at the Regent. He received me very courteously. "Yes," he said in response to my question, "the rumour is quite true. The principal part in 'The Orient Pearl' will be played on the first night by Miss Euclid's understudy, Miss Olga Cunningham, a young woman of very remarkable talent. No, Miss Euclid is not ill or even indisposed. But she and I have had a grave difference of opinion. The point between us was whether Miss Euclid's speeches ought to be clearly audible in the auditorium. I considered they ought. I may be wrong. I may be provincial. But that was and is my view. At the dress-rehearsal, seated in the gallery, I could not hear her lines. I objected. She refused to consider the objection or to proceed with the rehearsal. _Hinc illae lachrymae_!" ... "Not at all," said Mr. Machin in reply to a question, "I have the highest admiration for Miss Euclid's genius. I should not presume to dictate to her as to her art. She has had a very long experience of the stage, very long, and doubtless knows better than I do. Only, the Regent happens to be my theatre, and I'm responsible for it. Every member of the audience will have a complete uninterrupted view of the stage, and I intend that every member of the audience shall hear every word that is uttered on the stage. I'm odd, I know. But then I've a reputation for oddness to keep up. And by the way, I'm sure that Miss Cunningham will make a great reputation for herself."

"Not while I'm here, she won't!" exclaimed Rose Euclid, standing up, and enunciating her words with marvellous clearness.

Edward Henry glanced at her, and then continued to read: "Suggestions for headlines. 'Piquant quarrel between manager and star-actress.' 'Unparalleled situation.' 'Trouble at the Regent Theatre.'"

"Mr. Machin," said Rose Euclid, "you are not a gentleman."

"You'd hardly think so, would you?" mused Edward Henry, as if mildly interested in this new discovery of Miss Euclid's.

"Maria," said the star to her maid, "go and tell Mr. Marrier I'm coming."

"And I'll go back to the gallery," said Edward Henry. "It's the place for people like me, isn't it? I daresay I'll tear up this paper later, Miss Euclid--we'll see."


IV

On the next night a male figure in evening dress and a pale overcoat might have been seen standing at the corner of Piccadilly Circus and Lower Regent Street, staring at an electric sign in the shape of a shield which said, in its glittering, throbbing speech of incandescence:

THE REGENT

ROSE EUCLID

IN

"THE ORIENT PEARL"

The figure crossed the Circus, and stared at the sign from a new point of view. Then it passed along Coventry Street, and stared at the sign from yet another point of view. Then it reached Shaftesbury Avenue and stared again. Then it returned to its original station. It was the figure of Edward Henry Machin, savouring the glorious electric sign of which he had dreamed. He lit a cigarette, and thought of Seven Sachs gazing at the name of Seven Sachs in fire on the facade of a Broadway Theatre in New York. Was not this London phenomenon at least as fine? He considered it was. The Regent Theatre existed--there it stood! (What a name for a theatre!) Its windows were all illuminated. Its entrance-lamps bathed the pavement in light, and in this radiance stood the commissionaires in their military pride and their new uniforms. A line of waiting automobiles began a couple of yards to the north of the main doors and continued round all sorts of dark corners and up all manner of back streets towards Golden Square itself. Marrier had had the automobiles counted and had told him the number, but such was Edward Henry's condition that he had forgotten. A row of boards reared on the pavement against the walls of the facade said: "Stalls Full," "Private Boxes Full," "Dress Circle Full," "Upper Circle Full," "Pit Full," "Gallery Full." And attached to the ironwork of the glazed entrance canopy was a long board which gave the same information in terser form: "House Full." The Regent had indeed been obliged to refuse quite a lot of money on its opening night. After all, the inauguration of a new theatre was something, even in London! Important personages had actually begged the privilege of buying seats at normal prices, and had been refused. Unimportant personages--such as those whose boast in the universe was that they had never missed a first night in the West End for twenty, thirty, or even fifty years--had tried to buy seats at abnormal prices, and had failed: which was in itself a tragedy. Edward Henry at the final moment had yielded his wife's stall to the instances of a Minister of the Crown, and at Lady Woldo's urgent request had put her into Lady Woldo's private landowner's-box, where also was Miss Elsie April, who "had already had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Machin." Edward Henry's first night was an event of magnitude. And he alone was responsible for it. His volition alone had brought into being that grand edifice whose light yellow walls now gleamed in nocturnal mystery under the shimmer of countless electric bulbs.

"There goes pretty nigh forty thousand pounds of my money!" he reflected excitedly.

And he reflected:

"After all, I'm somebody."

Then he glanced down Lower Regent Street and saw Sir John Pilgrim's much larger theatre, now sub-let to a tenant who was also lavish with displays of radiance. And he reflected that on first nights Sir John Pilgrim, in addition to doing all that he himself had done, would hold the great _role on the stage throughout the evening. And he admired the astounding, dazzling energy of such a being, and admitted ungrudgingly:

"He's somebody too! I wonder what part of the world he's illuminating just now!"

Edward Henry did not deny to his soul that he was extremely nervous. He would not and could not face even the bare possibility that the first play presented at the new theatre might be a failure. He had meant to witness the production incognito among the crowd in the pit or in the gallery. But, after visiting the pit a few moments before the curtain went up, he had been appalled by the hard-hearted levity of the pit's remarks on things in general. The pit did not seem to be in any way chastened or softened by the fact that a fortune, that reputations, that careers were at stake. He had fled from the packed pit. (As for the gallery, he decided that he had already had enough of the gallery.) He had wandered about corridors, and to and fro in his own room and in the wings, and even in the basement, as nervous as a lost cat or an author, and as self-conscious as a criminal who knows himself to be on the edge of discovery. It was a fact that he could not look people in the eyes. The reception of the first act had been fairly amiable, and he had suffered horribly as he listened for the applause. Catching sight of Carlo Trent in the distance of a passage, he had positively run away from Carlo Trent. The first _entr'acte had seemed to last for about three months. Its nightmarish length had driven him almost to lunacy. The "feel" of the second act--so far as it mystically communicated itself to him in his place of concealment--had been better. And at the second fall of the curtain the applause had been enthusiastic. Yes, enthusiastic! Curiously, it was the revulsion caused by this new birth of hope that, while the third act was being played, had driven him out of the theatre. His wild hope needed ozone. His breast had to expand in the boundless prairie of Piccadilly Circus. His legs had to walk. His arms had to swing.

Now he crossed the Circus again to his own pavement and gazed like a stranger at his own posters. On several of them, encircled in a scarlet ring, was the sole name of Rose Euclid--impressive! (And smaller, but above it, the legend, "E.H. Machin, Sole Proprietor.") He asked himself impartially, as his eyes uneasily left the poster and slipped round the Circus--deserted save by a few sinister and idle figures at that hour--"Should I have sent that interview to the papers, or shouldn't I?... I wonder. I expect some folks would say that on the whole I've been rather hard on Rose since I first met her!... Anyhow, she's speaking up all right to-night!" He laughed shortly.

A newsboy floated up from the Circus bearing a poster with the name of Isabel Joy on it in large letters.

He thought:

"Be blowed to Isabel Joy!"

He did not care a fig for Isabel Joy's competition now.

And then a small door opened in the wall close by, and an elegant cloaked woman came out on to the pavement. The door was the private door leading to the private box of Lord Woldo, owner of the ground upon which the Regent Theatre was built. The woman he recognized with confusion as Elsie April, whom he had not seen alone since the Azure Society's night.

"What are you doing out here, Mr. Machin?" she greeted him with pleasant composure.

"I'm thinking," said he.

"It's going splendidly," she remarked. "Really!... I'm just running round to the stage-door to meet dear Rose as she comes off. What a delightful woman your wife is! So pretty, and so sensible!"

She disappeared round the corner before he could compose a suitable husband's reply to this laudation of a wife.

Then the commissionaires at the entrance seemed to start into life. And then suddenly several preoccupied men strode rapidly out of the theatre, buttoning their coats, and vanished phantom-like....

Critics, on their way to destruction!

The performance must be finishing. Hastily he followed in the direction taken by Elsie April.


V

He was in the wings, on the prompt side. Close by stood the prompter, an untidy youth with imperfections of teeth, clutching hard at the red-scored manuscript of "The Orient Pearl." Sundry players, of varying stellar degrees, were posed around in the opulent costumes designed by Saracen Givington, A.R.A. Miss Lindop was in the background, ecstatically happy, her cheeks a race-course of tears. Afar off, in the centre of the stage, alone, stood Rose Euclid, gorgeous in green and silver, bowing and bowing and bowing--bowing before the storm of approval and acclamation that swept from the auditorium across the footlights. With a sound like that of tearing silk, or of a gigantic contralto mosquito, the curtain swished down, and swished up, and swished down again. Bouquets flew on to the stage from the auditorium (a custom newly imported from the United States by Miss Euclid, and encouraged by her, though contrary to the lofty canons of London taste). The actress already held one huge trophy, shaped as a crown, to her breast. She hesitated, and then ran to the wings, and caught Edward Henry by the wrist impulsively, madly. They shook hands in an ecstasy.

It was as though they recognized in one another a fundamental and glorious worth; it was as though no words could ever express the depth of appreciation, affection and admiration which each intensely felt for the other; it was as though this moment were the final consecration of twin-lives whose long, loyal comradeship had never been clouded by the faintest breath of mutual suspicion. Rose Euclid was still the unparalleled star, the image of grace and beauty and dominance upon the stage. And yet quite clearly Edward Henry saw close to his the wrinkled, damaged, daubed face and thin neck of an old woman; and it made no difference.

"Rose!" cried a strained voice, and Rose Euclid wrenched herself from him and tumbled with half a sob into the clasping arms of Elsie April.

"You've saved the intellectual theatah for London, my boy! That's what you've done!" Marrier now was gripping his hand. And Edward Henry was convinced that he had.

The strident vigour of the applause showed no diminution. And through the thick, heavy rain of it could be heard the monotonous, insistent detonations of one syllable:

"'Thor! 'Thor! 'Thor! 'Thor! 'Thor!"

And then another syllable was added:

"Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!"

Mechanically Edward Henry lit a cigarette. He had no consciousness of doing so.

"Where is Trent?" people were asking.

Carlo Trent appeared up a staircase at the back of the stage.

"You've got to go on," said Marrier. "Now, pull yourself together. The Great Beast is calling for you. Say a few wahds."

Carlo Trent in his turn seized the hand of Edward Henry, and it was for all the world as though he were seizing the hand of an intellectual and poetic equal, and wrung it.

"Come now!" Mr. Marrier, beaming, admonished him, and then pushed.

"What must I say?" stammered Carlo.

"Whatever comes into your head."

"All right! I'll say something."

A man in a dirty white apron drew back the heavy mass of the curtain about eighteen inches, and Carlo Trent stepping forward, the glare of the footlights suddenly lit his white face. The applause, now multiplied fivefold and become deafening, seemed to beat him back against the curtain. His lips worked. He did not bow.

"Cam back, you fool!" whispered Marrier.

And Carlo Trent stepped back into safe shelter.

"Why didn't you say something?"

"I c-couldn't," murmured weakly the greatest dramatic poet in the world, and began to cry.

"Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!"

"Here!" said Edward Henry, gruffly. "Get out of my way! I'll settle 'em! Get out of my way!" And he riddled Carlo Trent with a fusillade of savagely scornful glances.

The man in the apron obediently drew back the curtain again, and the next second Edward Henry was facing an auditorium crowded with his patrons. Everybody was standing up, chiefly in the aisles and crowded at the entrances, and quite half the people were waving, and quite a quarter of them were shouting. He bowed several times. An age elapsed. His ears were stunned. But it seemed to him that his brain was working with marvellous perfection. He perceived that he had been utterly wrong about "The Orient Pearl." And that all his advisers had been splendidly right. He had failed to catch its charm and to feel its power. But this audience--this magnificent representative audience drawn from London in the brilliant height of the season--had not failed.

It occurred to him to raise his hand. And as he raised his hand it occurred to him that his hand held a lighted cigarette. A magic hush fell upon the magnificent audience, which owned all that endless line of automobiles outside. Edward Henry, in the hush, took a pull at his cigarette.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, pitching his voice well--for municipal politics had made him a practised public speaker, "I congratulate you. This evening you--have succeeded!"

There was a roar, confused, mirthful, humorously protesting. He distinctly heard a man in the front row of the stalls say: "Well, for sheer nerve--!" And then go off into a peal of laughter.

He smiled and retired.

Marrier took charge of him.

"You merit the entire confectioner's shop!" exclaimed Marrier, aghast, admiring, triumphant.

Now Edward Henry had had no intention of meriting cake. He had merely followed in speech the secret train of his thought. But he saw that he had treated a West End audience as a West End audience had never before been treated, and that his audacity had conquered. Hence he determined not to refuse the cake.

"Didn't I tell you I'd settle 'em?" said he.

The band played "God Save the King."


VI

One hour later, in the double-bedded chamber at the Majestic, as his wife lay in bed and he was methodically folding up a creased white tie and inspecting his chin in the mirror, he felt that he was touching again, after an immeasurable interval, the rock-bottom of reality. Nellie, even when he could only see her face--and that in a mirror!--was the most real phenomenon in his existence, and she possessed the strange faculty of dispelling all unreality round about her.

"Well," he said, "how did you get on in the box?"

"Oh!" she replied, "I got on very well with the Woldo woman. She's one of our sort. But I'm not _so set up with your Elsie April."

"Dash this collar!"

Nellie continued:

"And I can tell you another thing, I don't envy Mr. Rollo Wrissell."

"What's Wrissell got to do with it?"

"She means to marry him."

"Elsie April means to marry Wrissell?"

"He was in and out of the box all night. It was as plain as a pikestaff."

"What's amiss with my Elsie April?" Edward Henry demanded.

"She's a thought too _pleasant for my taste," answered Nellie.

Astonishing, how pleasantness is regarded with suspicion in the Five Towns, even by women who can at a pinch be angels!


VII

Often during the brief night he gazed sleepily at the vague next bed and mused upon the extraordinariness of women's consciences. His wife slept like an innocent. She always did. It was as though she gently expired every evening and returned gloriously to life every morning. The sunshiny hours between three and seven were very long to him, but it was indisputable that he did not hear the clock strike six: which was at any rate proof of a little sleep to the good. At five minutes past seven he thought he heard a faint rustling noise in the corridor, and he arose and tiptoed to the door and opened it. Yes, the Majestic had its good qualities! He had ordered that all the London morning daily papers should be laid at his door as early as possible--and there the pile was, somewhat damp, and as fresh as fruit, with a slight odour of ink. He took it in.

His heart was beating as he climbed back into bed with it and arranged pillows so that he could sit up, and unfolded the first paper. Nellie had not stirred.

Once again he was disappointed in the prominence given by the powerful London press to his London enterprise. In the first newspaper, a very important one, he positively could not find any criticism of the Regent's first night. There was nearly a page of the offensive Isabel Joy, who was now appealing, through the newspapers, to the President of the United States. Isabel had been christened the World-Circler, and the special correspondents of the entire earth were gathered about her carpeted cell. Hope still remained that she would reach London within the hundred days. An unknown adherent of the cause for which she suffered had promised to give ten thousand pounds to that cause if she did so. Further, she was receiving over sixty proposals of marriage a day. And so on and so on! Most of this he gathered in an instant from the headlines alone. Nauseating! Another annoying item in the paper was a column and a half given to the foundation-stone-laying of the First New Thought Church, in Dean Street, Soho--about a couple of hundred yards from its original site. He hated the First New Thought Church as one always hates that to which one has done an injury.

Then he found what he was searching for: "Regent Theatre. Production of poetical drama at London's latest playhouse." After all, it was well situated in the paper, on quite an important page, and there was over a column of it. But in his nervous excitation his eyes had missed it. His eyes now read it. Over half of it was given up to a discussion of the Don Juan legend and the significance of the Byronic character of Haidee--obviously written before the performance. A description of the plot occupied most of the rest, and a reference to the acting ended it. "Miss Rose Euclid, in the trying and occasionally beautiful part of Haidee, was all that her admirers could have wished." ... "Miss Cunningham distinguished herself by her diction and bearing in the small part of the Messenger." The final words were, "The reception was quite favourable."

"Quite favourable" indeed! Edward Henry had a chill. Good heavens, was not the reception ecstatically, madly, foolishly enthusiastic? "Why!" he exclaimed within, "I never saw such a reception!" It was true, but then he had never seen any other first night. He was shocked, as well as chilled. And for this reason: for weeks past all the newspapers, in their dramatic gossip, had contained highly sympathetic references to his enterprise. According to the paragraphs, he was a wondrous man, and the theatre was a wondrous house, the best of all possible theatres, and Carlo Trent was a great writer, and Rose Euclid exactly as marvellous as she had been a quarter of a century before, and the prospects of the intellectual-poetic drama in London so favourable as to amount to a certainty of success. In those columns of dramatic gossip there was no flaw in the theatrical world. In those columns of dramatic gossip no piece ever failed, though sometimes a piece was withdrawn, regretfully and against the wishes of the public, to make room for another piece. In those columns of dramatic gossip theatrical managers, actors, and especially actresses, and even authors, were benefactors of society, and therefore they were treated with the deference, the gentleness, the heartfelt sympathy which benefactors of society merit and ought to receive.

The tone of the criticism of the first night was different--it was subtly, not crudely, different. But different it was.

The next newspaper said the play was bad and the audience indulgent. It was very severe on Carlo Trent, and very kind to the players, whom it regarded as good men and women in adversity--with particular laudations for Miss Rose Euclid and the Messenger. The next newspaper said the play was a masterpiece--and would be so hailed in any country but England. England, however--! Unfortunately this was a newspaper whose political opinions Edward Henry despised. The next newspaper praised everything and everybody, and called the reception tumultuously enthusiastic. And Edward Henry felt as though somebody, mistaking his face for a slice of toast, had spread butter all over it. Even the paper's parting assurance that the future of the higher drama in London was now safe beyond question did not remove this delusion of butter.

The two following newspapers were more sketchy or descriptive, and referred at some length to Edward Henry's own speech, with a kind of sub-hint that Edward Henry had better mind what he was about. Three illustrated papers and photographs of scenes and figures, but nothing important in the matter of criticism. The rest were "neither one thing nor the other," as they say in the Five Towns. On the whole, an inscrutable press, a disconcerting, a startling, an appetite-destroying, but not a hopeless press!

The general impression which he gathered from his perusals was that the author was a pretentious dullard, an absolute criminal, a genius; that the actors and actresses were all splendid and worked hard, though conceivably one or two of them had been set impossible tasks--to wit, tasks unsuited to their personalities; that he himself was a Napoleon, a temerarious individual, an incomprehensible fellow; and that the future of the intellectual-poetic drama in London was not a topic of burning actuality.... He remembered sadly the superlative-laden descriptions, in those same newspapers, of the theatre itself, a week or two back, the unique theatre in which the occupant of every seat had a complete and uninterrupted view of the whole of the proscenium opening. Surely that fact alone ought to have ensured proper treatment for him!

Then Nellie woke up and saw the scattered newspapers.

"Well," she asked, "what do they say?"

"Oh!" he replied lightly, with a laugh. "Just about what you'd expect. Of course you know what a first-night audience always is. Too generous. And ours was, particularly. Miss April saw to that. She had the Azure Society behind her, and she was determined to help Rose Euclid. However, I should say it was all right--I should say it was quite all right. I told you it was a gamble, you know."

When Nellie, dressing, said that she considered she ought to go back home that day, he offered no objection. Indeed he rather wanted her to go. Not that he had a desire to spend the whole of his time at the theatre, unhampered by provincial women in London. On the contrary, he was aware of a most definite desire not to go to the theatre. He lay in bed and watched with careless curiosity the rapid processes of Nellie's toilette. He had his breakfast on the dressing-table (for he was not at Wilkins's, neither at the Grand Babylon). Then he helped her to pack, and finally he accompanied her to Euston, where she kissed him with affectionate common sense and caught the twelve five. He was relieved that nobody from the Five Towns happened to be going down by that train.

As he turned away from the moving carriage the evening papers had just arrived at the bookstalls. He bought the four chief organs--one green, one yellowish, one white, one pink--and scanned them self-consciously on the platform. The white organ had a good heading: "Re-birth of the intellectual drama in London. What a provincial has done. Opinions of leading men." Two columns altogether! There was, however, little in the two columns. The leading men had practised a sagacious caution. They, like the press as a whole, were obviously waiting to see which way the great elephantine public would jump. When the enormous animal had jumped they would all exclaim: "What did I tell you?" The other critiques were colourless. At the end of the green critique occurred the following sentence: "It is only fair to state, nevertheless, that the play was favourably received by an apparently enthusiastic audience."

"Nevertheless!" ... "Apparently!"

Edward Henry turned the page to the theatrical advertisements.

"REGENT THEATRE. (Twenty yards from Piccadilly Circus.) 'The Orient Pearl,' by Carlo Trent. Miss ROSE EUCLID. Every evening at 8.30. Matinees every Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30. Box-office open 10 to 10. Sole Proprietor--E.H. Machin."

Unreal! Fantastic! Was this he, Edward Henry? Could it be his mother's son?

Still--"Matinees every Wednesday and Saturday." "_Every Wednesday and Saturday." That word implied and necessitated a long run--anyhow a run extending over months. That word comforted him. Though he knew as well as you do that Mr. Marrier had composed the advertisement, and that he himself was paying for it, it comforted him. He was just like a child.


VIII

"I say, Cunningham's made a hit!" Mr. Marrier almost shouted at him as he entered the managerial room at the Regent.

"Cunningham? Who's Cunningham?"

Then he remembered. She was the girl who played the Messenger. She had only three words to say, and to say them over and over again; and she had made a hit!

"Seen the notices?" asked Marrier.

"Yes. What of them?"

"Oh! Well!" Marrier drawled. "What would you expect?"

"That's just what _I said!" observed Edward Henry.

"You did, did you?" Mr. Marrier exclaimed, as if extremely interested by this corroboration of his views.

Carlo Trent strolled in; he remarked that he happened to be just passing. But discussion of the situation was not carried very far.

That evening the house was nearly full, except the pit and the gallery, which were nearly empty. Applause was perfunctory.

"How much?" Edward Henry inquired of the box-office manager when figures were added together.

"Thirty-one pounds, two shillings."

"Hem!"

"Of course," said Mr. Marrier, "in the height of the London season, with so many counter-attractions--! Besides, they've got to get used to the idea of it."

Edward Henry did not turn pale. Still, he was aware that it cost him a trifle over sixty pounds "to ring the curtain up" at every performance--and this sum took no account of expenses of production nor of author's fees. The sum would have been higher, but he was calculating as rent of the theatre only the ground-rent plus six per cent on the total price of the building.

What disgusted him was the duplicity of the first-night audience, and he said to himself violently, "I was right all the time, and I knew I was right! Idiots! Chumps! Of course I was right!"

On the third night the house held twenty-seven pounds and sixpence.

"Naturally," said Mr. Marrier, "in this hot weathah! I never knew such a hot June! It's the open-air places that are doing us in the eye. In fact I heard to-day that the White City is packed. They simply can't bank their money quick enough."

It was on that day that Edward Henry paid salaries. It appeared to him that he was providing half London with a livelihood: acting-managers, stage-managers, assistant ditto, property men, stage-hands, electricians, prompters, call-boys, box-office staff, general staff, dressers, commissionaires, programme-girls, cleaners, actors, actresses, understudies, to say nothing of Rose Euclid at a purely nominal salary of a hundred pounds a week. The tenants of the bars were grumbling, but happily he was getting money from them.

The following day was Saturday. It rained--a succession of thunderstorms. The morning and the evening performances produced together sixty-eight pounds.

"Well," said Mr. Marrier, "in this kind of weathah you can't expect people to come out, can you? Besides, this cursed week-ending habit--"

Which conclusions did not materially modify the harsh fact that Edward Henry was losing over thirty pounds a day--or at the rate of over ten thousand pounds a year.

He spent Sunday between his hotel and his club, chiefly in reiterating to himself that Monday began a new week and that something would have to occur on Monday.

Something did occur.

Carlo Trent lounged into the office early. The man was for ever being drawn to the theatre as by an invisible but powerful elastic cord. The papers had a worse attack than ever of Isabel Joy, for she had been convicted of transgression in a Chicago court of law, but a tremendous lawyer from St. Louis had loomed over Chicago and, having examined the documents in the case, was hopeful of getting the conviction quashed. He had discovered that in one and the same document "Isabel" had been spelt "Isobel" and--worse--Illinois had been deprived by a careless clerk of one of its "l's." He was sure that by proving these grave irregularities in American justice he could win an appeal.

Edward Henry glanced up suddenly from the newspaper. He had been inspired.

"I say, Trent," he remarked, without any warning or preparation, "you're not looking at all well. I want a change myself. I've a good mind to take you for a sea-voyage."

"Oh!" grumbled Trent. "I can't afford sea-voyages."

"_I can!" said Edward Henry. "And I shouldn't dream of letting it cost you a penny. I'm not a philanthropist. But I know as well as anybody that it will pay us theatrical managers to keep you in health."

"You're not going to take the play off?" Trent demanded suspiciously.

"Certainly not!" said Edward Henry.

"What sort of a sea-voyage?"

"Well--what price the Atlantic? Been to New York?... Neither have I! Let's go. Just for the trip. It'll do us good."

"You don't mean it?" murmured the greatest dramatic poet, who had never voyaged further than the Isle of Wight. His eyeglass swung to and fro.

Edward Henry feigned to resent this remark.

"Of course I mean it. Do you take me for a blooming gas-bag?" He rose. "Marrier!" Then more loudly: "Marrier!" Mr. Marrier entered. "Do you know anything about the sailings to New York?"

"Rather!" said Mr. Marrier, beaming. After all, he was a most precious aid.

"We may be able to arrange for a production in New York," said Edward Henry to Carlo, mysteriously.

Mr. Marrier gazed at one and then at the other, puzzled.

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