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   Chapter 27 HE IS NOT NERVOUS

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 16485

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


'Yes,' said Henry with judicial calm, after he had read Mr. Doxey's stage version of Love in Babylon, 'it makes a nice little piece.'

'I'm glad you like it, old chap,' said Doxey. 'I thought you would.'

They were in Henry's study, seated almost side by side at Henry's great American roll-top desk.

'You've got it a bit hard in places,' Henry pursued. 'But I'll soon put that right.'

'Can you do it to-day?' asked the adapter.

'Why?'

'Because I know old Johnny Pilgrim wants to shove a new curtain-raiser into the bill at once. If I could take him this to-morrow--'

'I'll post it to you to-night,' said Henry. 'But I shall want to see Mr. Pilgrim myself before anything is definitely arranged.'

'Oh, of course,' Mr. Doxey agreed. 'Of course. I'll tell him.'

Henry softened the rigour of his collaborator's pen in something like half an hour. The perusal of this trifling essay in the dramatic form (it certainly did not exceed four thousand words, and could be played in twenty-five minutes) filled his mind with a fresh set of ideas. He suspected that he could write for the stage rather better than Mr. Doxey, and he saw, with the eye of faith, new plumes waving in his cap. He was aware, because he had read it in the papers, that the English drama needed immediate assistance, and he determined to render that assistance. The first instalment of The Plague-Spot had just come out in the July number of Macalistair's Magazine, and the extraordinary warmth of its reception had done nothing to impair Henry's belief in his gift for pleasing the public. Hence he stretched out a hand to the West End stage with a magnanimous gesture of rescuing the fallen.

And yet, curiously enough, when he entered the stage-door of Prince's Theatre one afternoon, to see John Pilgrim, he was as meek as if the world had never heard of him.

He informed the doorkeeper that he had an appointment with Mr. Pilgrim, whereupon the doorkeeper looked him over, took a pull at a glass of rum-and-milk, and said he would presently inquire whether Mr. Pilgrim could see anyone. The passage from the portals of the theatre to Mr. Pilgrim's private room occupied exactly a quarter of an hour.

Then, upon beholding the figure of John Pilgrim, he seemed suddenly to perceive what fame and celebrity and renown really were. Here was the man whose figure and voice were known to every theatre-goer in England and America, and to every idler who had once glanced at a photograph-window; the man who for five-and-twenty years had stilled unruly crowds by a gesture, conquered the most beautiful women with a single smile, died for the fatherland, and lived for love, before a nightly audience of two thousand persons; who existed absolutely in the eye of the public, and who long ago had formed a settled, honest, serious conviction that he was the most interesting and remarkable phenomenon in the world. In the ingenuous mind of Mr. Pilgrim the universe was the frame, and John Pilgrim was the picture: his countless admirers had forced him to think so.

Mr. Pilgrim greeted Henry as though in a dream.

'What name?' he whispered, glancing round, apparently not quite sure whether they were alone and unobserved.

He seemed to be trying to awake from his dream, to recall the mundane and the actual, without success.

He said, still whispering, that the little play pleased him.

'Let me see,' he reflected. 'Didn't Doxey say that you had written other things?'

'Several books,' Henry informed him.

'Books? Ah!' Mr. Pilgrim had the air of trying to imagine what sort of thing books were. 'That's very interesting. Novels?'

'Yes,' said Henry.

Mr. Pilgrim, opening his magnificent chest and passing a hand through his brown hair, grew impressively humble. 'You must excuse my ignorance,' he explained. 'I am afraid I'm not quite abreast of modern literature. I never read.' And he repeated firmly: 'I never read. Not even the newspapers. What time have I for reading?' he whispered sadly. 'In my brougham, I snatch a glance at the contents-bills of the evening papers. No more.'

Henry had the idea that even to be ignored by John Pilgrim was more flattering than to be admired by the rest of mankind.

Mr. Pilgrim rose and walked several times across the room; then addressed Henry mysteriously and imposingly:

'I've got the finest theatre in London.'

'Yes?' said Henry.

'In the world,' Mr. Pilgrim corrected himself.

Then he walked again, and again stopped.

'I'll produce your piece,' he whispered. 'Yes, I'll produce it.'

He spoke as if saying also: 'You will have a difficulty in crediting this extraordinary and generous decision: nevertheless you must endeavour to do so.'

Henry thanked him lamely.

'Of course I shan't play in it myself,' added Mr. Pilgrim, laughing as one laughs at a fantastic conceit.

'No, naturally not,' said Henry.

'Nor will Jane,' said Mr. Pilgrim.

Jane Map was Mr. Pilgrim's leading lady, for the time being.

'And about terms, young man?' Mr. Pilgrim demanded, folding his arms. 'What is your notion of terms?'

Now, Henry had taken the precaution of seeking advice concerning fair terms.

'One pound a performance is my notion,' he answered.

'I never give more than ten shillings a night for a curtain-raiser,' said Mr. Pilgrim ultimatively, 'Never. I can't afford to.'

'I'm afraid that settles it, then, Mr. Pilgrim,' said Henry.

'You'll take ten shillings?'

'I'll take a pound. I can't take less. I'm like you, I can't afford to.'

John Pilgrim showed a faint interest in Henry's singular-indeed, incredible-attitude.

'You don't mean to say,' he mournfully murmured, 'that you'll miss the chance of having your play produced in my theatre for the sake of half a sovereign?'

Before Henry could reply to this grieved question, Jane Map burst into the room. She was twenty-five, tall, dark, and arresting. John Pilgrim had found her somewhere.

'Jane,' said Mr. Pilgrim sadly, 'this is Mr. Knight.'

'Not the author of The Plague-Spot?' asked Jane Map, clasping her jewelled fingers.

'Are you the author of The Plague-Spot?' Mr. Pilgrim whispered-'whatever The Plague-Spot is.'

The next moment Jane Map was shaking hands effusively with Henry. 'I just adore you!' she told him. 'And your Love in Babylon-oh, Mr. Knight, how do you think of such beautiful stories?'

John Pilgrim sank into a chair and closed his eyes.

'Oh, you must take it! you must take it!' cried Jane to John, as soon as she learnt that a piece based on Love in Babylon was under discussion. 'I shall play Enid Anstruther myself. Don't you see me in it, Mr. Knight?'

'Mr. Knight's terms are twice mine,' John Pilgrim intoned, without opening his eyes. 'He wants a pound a night.'

'He must have it,' said Jane Map. 'If I'm in the piece--'

'But, Jane--'

'I insist!' said Jane, with fire.

'Very well, Mr. Knight,' John Pilgrim continued to intone, his eyes still shut, his legs stretched out, his feet resting perpendicularly on the heels. 'Jane insists. You understand-Jane insists. Take your pound, I call the first rehearsal for Monday.'

Thenceforward Henry lived largely in the world of the theatre, a pariah's life, the life almost of a poor relation. Doxey appeared to enjoy the existence; it was Doxey's brief hour of bliss. But Henry, spoilt by editors, publishers, and the reading public, could not easily reconcile himself to the classical position of an author in the world of the theatre. It hurt him to encounter the prevalent opinion that, just as you cannot have a dog without a tail or a stump, so you cannot have a play without an author. The actors and actresses were the play, and when they were pleased with themselves the author was expected to fulfil his sole function of wagging.

Even Jane Map, Henry's confessed adorer, was the victim, Henry thought, of a highly-distorted sense of perspective. The principal comfort which he derived from Jane Map was that she ignored Doxey entirely.

The preliminary rehearsals were desolating. Henry went away from the first one convinced that the piece would have to be rewritten from end to end. No performer could make anything of his own part, and yet

each was sure that all the other parts were effective in the highest degree.

At the fourth rehearsal John Pilgrim came down to direct. He sat in the dim stalls by Henry's side, and Henry could hear him murmuring softly and endlessly:

'Punch, brothers, punch with care-

Punch in the presence of the passenjare!'

The scene was imagined to represent a studio, and Jane Map, as Enid Anstruther, was posing on the model's throne.

'Jane,' Mr. Pilgrim hissed out, 'you pose for all the world like an artist's model!'

'Well,' Jane retorted, 'I am an artist's model.'

'No, you aren't,' said John. 'You're an actress on my stage, and you must pose like one.'

Whereupon Mr. Pilgrim ascended to the stage and began to arrange Jane's limbs. By accident Jane's delightful elbow came into contact with John Pilgrim's eye. The company was horror-struck as Mr. Pilgrim lowered his head and pressed a handkerchief to that eye.

'Jane, Jane!' he complained in his hoarse and conspiratorial whisper, 'I've been teaching you the elements of your art for two years, and all you have achieved is to poke your elbow in my eye. The rehearsal is stopped.'

And everybody went home.

Such is a specimen of the incidents which were continually happening.

However, as the first night approached, the condition of affairs improved a little, and Henry saw with satisfaction that the resemblance of Prince's Theatre to a lunatic asylum was more superficial than real. Also, the tone of the newspapers in referring to the imminent production convinced even John Pilgrim that Henry was perhaps not quite an ordinary author. John Pilgrim cancelled a proof of a poster which he had already passed, and ordered a double-crown, thus:

LOVE IN BABYLON.

A PLAY IN ONE ACT, FOUNDED ON

HENRY SHAKSPERE KNIGHT'S

FAMOUS NOVEL.

BY

Henry Shakspere Knight and Alfred Doxey.

ENID ANSTRUTHER-MISS JANE MAP.

Geraldine met Jane, and asked her to tea at the flat. And Geraldine hired a brougham at thirty pounds a month. From that day Henry's reception at the theatre was all that he could have desired, and more than any mere author had the right to expect. At the final rehearsals, in the absence of John Pilgrim, his word was law. It was whispered in the green-room that he earned ten thousand a year by writing things called novels. 'Well, dear old pal,' said one old actor to another old actor, 'it takes all sorts to make a world. But ten thousand! Johnny himself don't make more than that, though he spends more.'

The mischief was that Henry's digestion, what with the irregular hours and the irregular drinks, went all to pieces.

'You don't look nervous, Harry,' said Geraldine when he came into the drawing-room before dinner on the evening of the production.

'Nervous?' said Henry. 'Of course I'm not.'

'Then, why have you forgotten to brush your hair, dearest?' she asked.

He glanced in a mirror. Yes, he had certainly forgotten to brush his hair.

'Sheer coincidence,' he said, and ate a hearty meal.

Geraldine drove to the theatre. She was to meet there Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie, in whose breasts pride and curiosity had won a tardy victory over the habits of a lifetime; they had a stage-box. Henry remarked that it was a warm night and that he preferred to walk; he would see them afterwards.

No one could have been more surprised than Henry, when he arrived at Prince's Theatre, to discover that he was incapable of entering that edifice. He honestly and physically tried to go in by the stage-door, but he could not, and, instead of turning within, he kept a straight course along the footpath. It was as though an invisible barrier had been raised to prevent his ingress.

'Never mind!' he said. 'I'll walk to the Circus and back again, and then I'll go in.'

He walked to the Circus and back again, and once more failed to get himself inside Prince's Theatre.

'This is the most curious thing that ever happened to me,' he thought, as he stood for the second time in Piccadilly Circus. 'Why the devil can't I go into that theatre? I'm not nervous. I'm not a bit nervous.' It was so curious that he felt an impulse to confide to someone how curious it was.

Then he went into the Criterion bar and sat down. The clock showed seventeen minutes to nine. His piece was advertised to start at eight-thirty precisely. The Criterion Bar is never empty, but it has its moments of lassitude, and seventeen minutes to nine is one of them. After an interval a waiter slackly approached him.

'Brandy-and-soda!' Henry ordered, well knowing that brandy-and-soda never suited him.

He glanced away from the clock, repeated 'Punch, brothers, punch with care,' twenty times, recited 'God save the Queen,' took six small sips at the brandy-and-soda, and then looked at the clock again, and it was only fourteen minutes to nine. He had guessed it might be fourteen minutes to ten.

He caught the eye of a barmaid, and she seemed to be saying to him sternly: 'If you think you can occupy this place all night on a ninepenny drink, you are mistaken. Either you ought to order another or hook it.' He braved it for several more ages, then paid, and went; and still it was only ten minutes to nine. All mundane phenomena were inexplicably contorted that night. As he was passing the end of the short street which contains the stage-door of Prince's Theatre, a man, standing at the door on the lookout, hailed him loudly. He hesitated, and the man-it was the doorkeeper-flew forward and seized him and dragged him in.

'Drink this, Mr. Knight,' commanded the doorkeeper.

'I'm all right,' said Henry. 'What's up?'

'Yes, I know you're all right. Drink it.'

And he drank a whisky-and-soda.

'Come upstairs,' said the doorkeeper. 'You'll be wanted, Mr. Knight.'

As he approached the wings of the stage, under the traction of the breathless doorkeeper, he was conscious of the falling of the curtain, and of the noisiest noise beyond the curtain that he had ever heard.

'Here, Mr. Knight, drink this,' said someone in his ear. 'Keep steady. It's nothing.'

And he drank a glass of port.

His overcoat was jerked off by a mysterious agency.

The noise continued to be terrible: it rose and fell like the sea.

Then he was aware of Jane Map rushing towards him and of Jane Map kissing him rapturously on the mouth. 'Come on,' cried Jane Map, and pulled him by the hand, helter-skelter, until they came in front of a blaze of light and the noise crashed at his ears.

'I've been through this before somewhere,' he thought, while Jane Map wrung his hand. 'Was it in a previous existence? No. The Alhambra!' What made him remember the Alhambra was the figure of little Doxey sheepishly joining himself and Jane. Doxey, with a disastrous lack of foresight, had been in the opposite wing, and had had to run round the stage in order to come before the curtain. Doxey's share in the triumph was decidedly less than half....

'No,' Henry said later, with splendid calm, when Geraldine, Jane, Doxey, and himself were drinking champagne in Jane's Empire dressing-room, 'it wasn't nervousness. I don't quite know what it was.'

He gathered that the success had been indescribable.

Jane radiated bliss.

'I tell you what, old man,' said Doxey: 'we must adapt The Plague-Spot, eh?'

'We'll see about that,' said Henry.

Two days afterwards Henry arose from a bed of pain, and was able to consume a little tea and dry toast. Geraldine regaled his spiritual man with the press notices, which were tremendous. But more tremendous than the press notices was John Pilgrim's decision to put Love in Babylon after the main piece in the bill of Prince's Theatre. Love in Babylon was to begin at the honourable hour of ten-forty in future, for the benefit of the stalls and the dress-circle.

'Have you thought about Mr. Doxey's suggestion?' Geraldine asked him.

'Yes,' said Henry; 'but I don't quite see the point of it.'

'Don't see the point of it, sweetheart?' she protested, stroking his dressing-gown. 'But it would be bound to be a frightful success, after this.'

'I know,' said Henry. 'But why drag in Doxey? I can write the next play myself.'

She kissed him.

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