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A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12543

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

One day Geraldine needed a doctor. Henry was startled, frightened, almost shocked. But when the doctor, having seen Geraldine, came into the study to chat with Geraldine's husband, Henry put on a calm demeanour, said he had been expecting the doctor's news, said also that he saw no cause for anxiety or excitement, and generally gave the doctor to understand that he was in no way disturbed by the work of Nature to secure a continuance of the British Empire. The conversation shifted to Henry's self, and soon Henry was engaged in a detailed description of his symptoms.

'Purely nervous,' remarked the doctor-'purely nervous.'

'You think so?'

'I am sure of it.'

'Then, of course, there is no cure for it. I must put up with it.'

'Pardon me,' said the doctor, 'there is an absolutely certain cure for nervous dyspepsia-at any rate, in such a case as yours.'

'What is it?'

'Go without breakfast'

'But I don't eat too much, doctor,' Henry said plaintively.

'Yes, you do,' said the doctor. 'We all do.'

'And I'm always hungry at meal-times. If a meal is late it makes me quite ill.'

'You'll feel somewhat uncomfortable for a few days,' the doctor blandly continued. 'But in a month you'll be cured.'

'You say that professionally?'

'I guarantee it.'

The doctor shook hands, departed, and then returned. 'And eat rather less lunch than usual,' said he. 'Mind that.'

Within three days Henry was informing his friends: 'I never have any breakfast. No, none. Two meals a day.' It was astonishing how frequently the talk approached the great food topic. He never sought an opportunity to discuss the various methods and processes of sustaining life, yet, somehow, he seemed to be always discussing them. Some of his acquaintances annoyed him excessively-for example, Doxey.

'That won't last long, old chap,' said Doxey, who had called about finance. 'I've known other men try that. Give me the good old English breakfast. Nothing like making a good start.'

'Ass!' thought Henry, and determined once again, and more decisively, that Doxey should pass out of his life.

His preoccupation with this matter had the happy effect of preventing him from worrying too much about the perils which lay before Geraldine. Discovering the existence of an Anti-Breakfast League, he joined it, and in less than a week every newspaper in the land announced that the ranks of the Anti-Breakfasters had secured a notable recruit in the person of Mr. Henry Shakspere Knight. It was widely felt that the Anti-Breakfast Movement had come to stay.

Still, he was profoundly interested in Geraldine, too. And between his solicitude for her and his scientific curiosity concerning the secret recesses of himself the flat soon overflowed with medical literature.

The entire world of the theatre woke up suddenly and simultaneously to the colossal fact of Henry's genius. One day they had never thought of him; the next they could think of nothing else. Every West End manager, except two, wrote to him to express pleasure at the prospect of producing a play by him; the exceptional two telegraphed. Henry, however, had decided upon his arrangements. He had grasped the important truth that there was only one John Pilgrim in the world.

He threw the twenty-five chapters of The Plague-Spot into a scheme of four acts, and began to write a drama without the aid of Mr. Alfred Doxey. It travelled fast, did the drama; and the author himself was astonished at the ease with which he put it together out of little pieces of the novel. The scene of the third act was laid in the gaming-saloons of Monte Carlo; the scene of the fourth disclosed the deck of a luxurious private yacht at sea under a full Mediterranean moon. Such flights of imagination had hitherto been unknown in the serious drama of London. When Henry, after three months' labour, showed the play to John Pilgrim, John Pilgrim said:

'This is the play I have waited twenty years for!'

'You think it will do, then?' said Henry.

'It will enable me,' observed John Pilgrim, 'to show the British public what acting is.'

Henry insisted on an agreement which gave him ten per cent. of the gross receipts. Soon after the news of the signed contract had reached the press, Mr. Louis Lewis, the English agent of Lionel Belmont, of the United States Theatrical Trust, came unostentatiously round to Ashley Gardens, and obtained the American rights on the same terms.

Then Pilgrim said that he must run through the manuscript with Henry, and teach him those things about the theatre which he did not know. Henry arrived at Prince's at eleven o'clock, by appointment; Mr. Pilgrim came at a quarter to twelve.

'You have the sense du théatre, my friend,' said Pilgrim, turning over the leaves of the manuscript. 'That precious and incommunicable gift-you have it. But you are too fond of explanations. Now, the public won't stand explanations. No long speeches. And so whenever I glance through a play I can tell instantly whether it is an acting play. If I see a lot of speeches over four lines long, I say, Dull! Useless! Won't do! For instance, here. That speech of Veronica's while she's at the piano. Dull! I see it. I feel it. It must go! The last two lines must go!'

So saying, he obliterated the last two lines with a large and imperial blue pencil.

'But it's impossible,' Henry protested. 'You've not read them.'

'I don't need to read them,' said John Pilgrim. 'I know they won't do. I know the public won't have them. It must be give and take-give and take between the characters. The ball must be kept in the air. Ah! The theatre!' He paused, and gave Henry a piercing glance. 'Do you know how I came to be du théatre-of the theatre, young man?' he demanded. 'No? I will tell you. My father was an old fox-hunting squire in the Quorn country. One of the best English families, the Pilgrims, related to the Earls of Waverley. Poor, unfortunately. My eldest brother was brought up to inherit the paternal mortgages. My second brother went into the army. And they wanted me to go into the Church. I refused. "Well," said my old father, "damn it, Jack! if you won't go to heaven, you may as well ride straight to hell. Go on the stage." And I did, sir. I did. Idea

for a book there, isn't there?'

The blue-pencilling of the play proceeded. But whenever John Pilgrim came to a long speech by Hubert, the part which he destined for himself, he hesitated to shorten it. 'It's too long! It's too long!' he whispered. 'I feel it's too long. But, somehow, that seems to me essential to the action. I must try to carry it off as best I can.'

At the end of the second act Henry suggested an interval for lunch, but John Pilgrim, opening Act III. accidentally, and pouncing on a line with his blue pencil, exclaimed with profound interest:

'Ah! I remember noting this when I read it. You've got Hubert saying here: "I know I'm a silly fool." Now, I don't think that's quite in the part. You must understand that when I study a character I become that character. Perhaps it would not be too much to say that I know more about that character than the author does. I merge myself into the character with an intense effort. Now, I can't see Hubert saying "I know I'm a silly fool." Of course I've no objection whatever to the words, but it seemed to me-you understand what I mean? Shall we strike that out?'

A little farther on Henry had given Veronica a little epigram: 'When a man has to stand on his dignity, you may be sure his moral stature is very small.'

'That's more like the sort of thing that Hubert would say,' John Pilgrim whispered. 'Women never say those things. It's not true to nature. But it seems to fit in exactly with the character of Hubert. Shall we-transfer--?' His pencil waved in the air....

'Heavenly powers!' Mr. Pilgrim hoarsely murmured, as they attained the curtain of Act III., 'it's four o'clock. And I had an appointment for lunch at two. But I never think of food when I am working. Never!'

Henry, however, had not broken his fast since the previous evening.

The third and the greatest crisis in the unparalleled popularity of Henry Shakspere Knight began to prepare itself. The rumour of its coming was heard afar off, and every literary genius in England and America who was earning less than ten thousand pounds a year ground his teeth and clenched his hands in impotent wrath. The boom and resounding of The Plague-Spot would have been deafening and immense in any case; but Henry had an idea, and executed it, which multiplied the advertisement tenfold. It was one of those ideas, at once quite simple and utterly original, which only occur to the favourites of the gods.

The serial publication of The Plague-Spot finished in June, and it had been settled that the book should be issued simultaneously in England and America in August. Now, that summer John Pilgrim was illuminating the provinces, and he had fixed a definite date, namely, the tenth of October, for the reopening of Prince's Theatre with the dramatic version of The Plague-Spot. Henry's idea was merely to postpone publication of the book until the production of the play. Mark Snyder admitted himself struck by the beauty of this scheme, and he made a special journey to America in connection with it, a journey which cost over a hundred pounds. The result was an arrangement under which the book was to be issued in London and New York, and the play to be produced by John Pilgrim at Prince's Theatre, London, and by Lionel Belmont at the Madison Square Theatre, New York, simultaneously on one golden date.

The splendour of the conception appealed to all that was fundamental in the Anglo-Saxon race.

John Pilgrim was a finished master of advertisement, but if any man in the wide world could give him lessons in the craft, that man was Lionel Belmont. Macalistairs, too, in their stately, royal way, knew how to impress facts upon, the public.

Add to these things that Geraldine bore twins, boys.

No earthly power could have kept those twins out of the papers, and accordingly they had their share in the prodigious, unsurpassed and unforgettable publicity which their father enjoyed without any apparent direct effort of his own.

He had declined to be interviewed; but one day, late in September, his good-nature forced him to yield to the pressure of a journalist. That journalist was Alfred Doxey, who had married on the success of Love in Babylon, and was already in financial difficulties. He said he could get twenty-five pounds for an interview with Henry, and Henry gave him the interview. The interview accomplished, he asked Henry whether he cared to acquire for cash his, Doxey's, share of the amateur rights of Love in Babylon. Doxey demanded fifty pounds, and Henry amiably wrote out the cheque on the spot and received Doxey's lavish gratitude. Love in Babylon is played on the average a hundred and fifty times a year by the amateur dramatic societies of Great Britain and Ireland, and for each performance Henry touches a guinea. The piece had run for two hundred nights at Prince's, so that the authors got a hundred pounds each from John Pilgrim.

On the morning of the tenth of October Henry strolled incognito round London. Every bookseller's shop displayed piles upon piles of The Plague-Spot. Every newspaper had a long review of it. The Whitehall Gazette was satirical as usual, but most people felt that it was the Whitehall Gazette, and not Henry, that thereby looked ridiculous. Nearly every other omnibus carried the legend of The Plague-Spot; every hoarding had it. At noon Henry passed by Prince's Theatre. Two small crowds had already taken up positions in front of the entrances to the pit and the gallery; and several women, seated on campstools, were diligently reading the book in order the better to appreciate the play.

Twelve hours later John Pilgrim was thanking his kind patrons for a success unique even in his rich and gorgeous annals. He stated that he should cable the verdict of London to the Madison Square Theatre, New York, where the representation of the noble work of art which he had had the honour of interpreting to them was about to begin.

'It was a lucky day for you when you met me, young man,' he whispered grandiosely and mysteriously, yet genially, to Henry.

On the fa?ade of Prince's there still blazed the fiery sign, which an excited electrician had forgotten to extinguish:


Shakspere Knight.

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