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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Fortunate Youth By William John Locke Characters: 22586

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


PAUL had been four years on the stage. Save as a memory they had as little influence on the colour of his after-life as his years at Bludston or his years in the studios. He was the man born to be king. The attainment of his kingdom alone mattered. The intermediary phases were of no account. It had been a period of struggle, hardship and, as far as the stage itself was concerned, disillusion. After the first year or so, the goddess Fortune, more fickle in Theatreland, perhaps, than anywhere else, passed him by. London had no use for his services, especially when it learned that he aspired to play parts. It even refused him the privilege of walking on and understudying. He drifted into the provinces, where, when he obtained an engagement, he found more scope for his ambitions. Often he was out, and purchased with his savings the bread of idleness. He knew the desolation of the agent's dingy stairs; he knew the heartache of the agent's dingy outer office.

He was familiar, too, with bleak rehearsals, hours of listless waiting for his little scenes; with his powerlessness to get into his simple words the particular intonation required by an overdriven producer. Familiar, too, with long and hungry Sunday railway journeys when pious refreshment rooms are shut; with little mean towns like Bludston, where he and three or four of the company shared the same mean theatrical lodgings; with the dirty, insanitary theatres; with the ceaseless petty jealousies and bickerings of the ill-paid itinerant troupe. The discomforts affected Paul but little, he had never had experience of luxuries, and the life itself was silken ease compared with what it would have been but for Barney Bill's kidnapping. It never occurred to him to complain of nubbly bed and ill-cooked steak and crowded and unventilated dressing rooms; but it always struck him as being absurd that such should continue to be the lot of one predestined to greatness. There was some flaw in the working of destiny. It puzzled him.

Once indeed, being out, but having an engagement ahead, and waiting for rehearsals to begin, he had found himself sufficiently prosperous to take a third-class ticket to Paris, where he spent a glorious month. But the prosperity never returned, and he had to live on his memories of Paris.

During these years books were, as ever, his joy and his consolation. He taught himself French and a little German. He read history, philosophy, a smattering of science, and interested himself in politics. So aristocratic a personage naturally had passionate Tory sympathies. Now and again-but not often, for the theatrical profession is generally Conservative-he came across a furious Radical in the company and tasted the joy of fierce argument. Now and again too, he came across a young woman of high modern cultivation, and once or twice narrowly escaped wrecking his heart on the Scylline rock of her intellect. It was only when he discovered that she had lost her head over his romantic looks, and not over his genius and his inherited right to leadership, that he began to question her intellectual sincerity. And there is nothing to send love scuttling away with his quiver between his legs like a note of interrogation of that sort. The only touch of the morbid in Paul was his resentment at owing anything to his mere personal appearance. He could not escape the easy chaff of his fellows on his "fatal beauty." He dreaded the horrible and hackneyed phrase which every fresh intimacy either with man or woman would inevitably evoke, and he hated it beyond reason. There was a tour during which he longed for small-pox or a broken nose or facial paralysis, so that no woman should ever look at him again and no man accuse him in vulgar jest.

He played small utility parts and understudied the leading man. On the rare occasions when he played the lead, he made no great hit. The company did not, after the generous way of theatre folks, surround him, when the performance was over, with a chorus of congratulation. The manager would say, "Quite all' right, my boy, as far as it goes, but still wooden. You must get more life into it." And Paul, who knew himself to be a better man in every way than the actor whose part he was playing, just as in his childhood days he knew himself to be a better man than Billy Goodge, could not understand the general lack of appreciation. Then he remembered the early struggles of the great actors: Edmund Kean, who on the eve of his first appearance at Drury Lane cried, "If I succeed I shall go mad!"; of Henry Irving (then at his zenith) and the five hundred parts he had played before he came to London; he recalled also the failure of Disraeli's first speech in the House of Commons and his triumphant prophecy. He had dreams of that manager on his bended knees, imploring him, with prayerful hands and streaming eyes, to play Hamlet at a salary of a thousand a week and of himself haughtily snapping his fingers at the paltry fellow.

Well, which one of us who has ever dreamed at all has not had such dreams at twenty? Let him cast at Paul the first stone.

And then, you must remember, Paul's faith in his vague but glorious destiny was the dynamic force of his young life. Its essential mystery kept him alert and buoyant. His keen, self-centred mind realized that his search on the stage for the true expression of his genius was only empirical. If he failed there, it was for him to try a hundred other spheres until he found the right one. But just as in his childish days he could not understand why he was not supreme in everything, so now he could not appreciate the charge of wooden inferiority brought against him by theatrical managers.

He had been on the stage about three years when for the first time in his emancipated life something like a calamity befell him. He lost Jane. Like most calamities it happened in a foolishly accidental manner. He received a letter from Jane during the last three weeks of a tour-they always kept up an affectionate but desultory correspondence-giving a new address. The lease of her aunt's house having fallen in, they were moving to the south side of London. When he desired to answer the letter, he found he had lost it and could not remember the suburb, much less the street and number, whither Jane had migrated. A letter posted to the old address was returned through the post. The tour over, and he being again in London, he went on an errand of inquiry to Cricklewood, found the house empty and the neighbours and tradespeople ignorant. The poorer classes of London in their migrations seldom leave a trail behind them. Their correspondence being rare, it is not within their habits of life to fill up post-office forms with a view to the forwarding of letters. He could not write to Jane because he did not in the least know where she was.

He reflected with dismay that Jane could, for the same reason, no longer write to him. Ironic chance had so arranged that the landlady with whom he usually lodged in town, and whose house he used as a permanent address, had given up letting lodgings at the beginning of the tour, and had drifted into the limbo of London. Jane's only guide to his whereabouts had been the tour card which he had sent her as usual, giving dates and theatres. And the tour was over. On the chance that Jane, not hearing from him, should address a letter to the last theatre on the list, he communicated at once with the local management. But as local managements of provincial theatres shape their existences so as to avoid responsibilities of any kind save the maintenance of their bars and the deduction of their percentages from the box-office receipts, Paul knew that it was ludicrous to expect it to interest itself in the correspondence of an obscure member of a fourth-rate company which had once played to tenth-rate business within its mildewed walls. Being young, he wrote also to the human envelope containing the essence of stale beer, tobacco and lethargy that was the stage doorkeeper. But he might just as well have written to the station master or the municipal gasworks. As a matter of fact Jane and he were as much lost to one another as if the whole of England had been primaeval forest.

It was a calamity which he regarded with dismay. He had many friends of the easy theatrical sort, who knew him as Paul Savelli, a romantically visaged, bright-natured, charming, intellectual, and execrably bad young actor. But there was only one Jane who knew him as little Paul Kegworthy. No woman he had ever met-and in the theatrical world one is thrown willy-nilly into close contact with the whole gamut of the sex-gave him just the same close, intimate, comforting companionship. From Jane he hid nothing. Before all the others he was conscious of pose. Jane, with her cockney common-sense, her shrewdness, her outspoken criticism of follies, her unfailing sympathy in essentials, was welded into the very structure of his being. Only when he had lost her did he realize this. Amidst all the artificialities and pretences and pseudo-emotionalities of his young actor's life, she was the one thing that was real. She alone knew of Bludston, of Barney Bill, of the model days the memory of which made him shiver. She alone (save Barney Bill) knew of his high destiny-for Paul, quick to recognize the cynical scepticism of an indifferent world, had not revealed the Vision Splendid to any of his associates. To her he could write; to her, when he was in London, he could talk; to her he could outpour all the jumble of faith, vanity, romance, egotism and poetry that was his very self, without thought of miscomprehension. And of late she had mastered the silly splenetics of childhood. He had an uncomfortable yet comforting impression that latterly she had developed an odd, calm wisdom, just as she had developed a calm, generous personality. The last time he had seen her, his quick sensitiveness had noted the growth from girl to woman. She was large, full-bosomed, wide-browed, clear-eyed. She had not worried him about other girls. She had reproved him for confessed follies in just the way that man loves to be reproved. She had mildly soared with him into the empyrean of his dreams. She had enjoyed whole-heartedly, from the back row of the dress-circle, the play to which he had taken her-as a member of the profession he had, in Jane's eyes, princely privileges-and on the top of the Cricklewood omnibus she had eaten, with the laughter and gusto of her twenty years, the exotic sandwiches he had bought at the delicatessen shop in Leicester Square. She was the ideal sister.

And now she was gone, like a snow-flake on a river. For a long while it seemed absurd, incredible. He went on all sorts of preposterous adventures to find her. He walked through the city day after day at the hours when girls and men pour out of their honeycombs of offices into the streets. She had never told him where she was employed, thinking the matter of little interest; and he, in his careless way, had never inquired. Once he had suggested calling for her at her office, and she had abruptly vetoed the suggestion. Paul was too remarkable a young man to escape the notice of her associates; her feelings towards him were too fine to be

scratched by jocular allusion. After a time, having failed to meet her in the human torrents of Cheapside and Cannon Street, Paul gave up the search. Jane was lost, absolutely lost-and, with her, Barney Bill. He went on tour again, heavy-hearted. He felt that, in losing these two, he had committed an act of base ingratitude.

He had been four years on the stage and had grown from youth into manhood. But one day at three-and-twenty he found himself as poor in pence, though as rich in dreams, as at thirteen.

Necessity had compelled him to take what he could get. This time it was a leading part; but a leading part in a crude melodrama in a fit-up company. They had played in halls and concert rooms, on pier pavilions, in wretched little towns. It was glorious July Weather and business was bad-so bad that the manager abruptly closed the treasury and disappeared, leaving the company stranded a hundred and fifty miles from London, with a couple of weeks' salary unpaid.

Paul was packing his clothes in the portmanteau that lay on the narrow bed in his tiny back bedroom, watched disconsolately by a sallow, careworn man who sat astride the one cane chair, his hat on the back of his head, the discoloured end of a cigarette between his lips.

"It's all very well for you to take it cheerfully," said the latter. "You're young. You're strong. You're rich. You've no one but yourself. You haven't a wife and kids depending on you."

"I know it makes a devil of a difference," replied Paul, disregarding the allusion to his wealth. As the leading man, he was the most highly paid member of the disastrous company, and he had acquired sufficient worldly wisdom to know that to him who has but a penny the possessor of a shilling appears arrogantly opulent. "But still," said he, "what can we do? We must get back to London and try again."

"If there was justice in this country that son of a thief would get fifteen years for it. I never trusted the skunk. A fortnight's salary gone and no railway fare to London. I wish to God I had never taken it on. I could have gone with Garbutt in The White Woman-he's straight enough-only this was a joint engagement. Oh, the swine!"

He rose with a clatter, threw his cigarette on the floor and stamped on it violently.

"He's a pretty bad wrong 'un," said Paul. "We hadn't been going a fortnight before he asked me to accept half salary, swearing he would make it up, with a rise, as soon as business got better. Like an idiot, I consented."

His friend sat down again hopelessly. "I don't know what's going to become of us. The missus has pawned everything she has got, poor old girl! Oh, it's damned hard! We had been out six months."

"Poor old chap!" said Paul, sitting on the bed beside his portmanteau. "How does Mrs. Wilmer take it?"

"She's knocked endways. You see," cried Wilmer desperately, "we've had to send home everything we could scrape together to keep the kids-there's five of them; and now-and now there's nothing left. I'm wrong. There's that." He fished three or four coppers from his pocket and held them out with a harsh laugh. "There's that after twenty years' work in this profession."

"Poor old chap!" said Paul again. He liked Wilmer, a sober, earnest, ineffectual man, and his haggard, kindly-natured wife. They had put on a brave face all through the tour, letting no one suspect their straits, and doing both him and other members of the company many little acts of kindness and simple hospitality. In the lower submerged world of the theatrical profession in which Paul found himself he had met with many such instances of awful poverty. He had brushed elbows with Need himself. That morning he had given, out of his scanty resources, her railway fare to a tearful and despairing girl who played the low-comedy part. But he had not yet come across any position quite so untenable as that of Wilmer. Forty odd years old, a wife, five children, all his life given honestly to his calling-and threepence half-penny to his fortune.

"But, good God!" said he, after a pause, "your kiddies? If you have nothing-what will happen to them?"

"Lord knows," groaned Wilmer, staring in front of him, his elbows on the back of the chair and his head between his fists.

"And Mrs. Wilmer and yourself have got to get back to London."

"I've got the dress suit I wear in the last act. It's fairly new. I can get enough on it."

"But that's part of your outfit-your line of business; you'll want it again," said Paul.

Wilmer had played butlers up and down the land for many years. Now and again, when the part did not need any special characterization, he obtained London engagements. He was one of the known stage butlers.

"I can hire if I'm pushed," said he. "It's hell, isn't it? Something told me not to go out with a fit-up. We'd never come down to it before. And I mistrusted Larkins-but we were out six months. Paul, my boy, chuck it. You're young; you're clever; you've had a swell education; you come of gentlefolk-my father kept a small hardware shop in Leicester-you have"-the smitten and generally inarticulate man hesitated-"well, you have extraordinary personal beauty; you have charm; you could do anything you like in the world, save act-and you can't act for toffee. Why the blazes do you stick to it?"

"I've got to earn my living just like you," said Paul, greatly flattered by the artless tribute to his aristocratic personality and not offended by the professional censure which he knew to be just. "I've tried all sorts of other things-music, painting, poetry, novel-writing-but none of them has come off."

"Your people don't make you an allowance?"

"I've no people living," said Paul, with a smile-and when Paul smiled it was as if Eros's feathers had brushed the cheek of a Praxitelean Hermes; and then with an outburst half sincere, half braggart-"I've been on my own ever since I was thirteen."

Wilmer regarded him wearily. "The missus and I have always thought you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth."

"So I was," Paul declared from his innermost conviction. "But," he laughed, "I lost it before my teeth came and I could get a grip on it."

"Do you mean to say," exclaimed Wilmer, "that you're not doing this for fun?"

"Fun?" cried Paul. "Fun? Do you call this comic?" He waved his hand comprehensively, indicating the decayed pink-and-purple wall-paper, the ragged oil-cloth on the floor, the dingy window with its dingier outlook, the rickety deal wash-stand with the paint peeling off, a horrible clothless tray on a horrible splotchy chest of drawers, containing the horrible scraggy remains of a meal. "Do you think I would have this if I could command silken sloth? I long like hell, old chap, for silken sloth, and if I could get it, you wouldn't see me here."

Wilmer rose and stretched out his hand. "I'm sorry, dear boy," said he. "The wife and I thought it didn't very much matter to you. We always thought you were a kind of young swell doing it for amusement and experience-and because you never put on side, we liked you."

Paul rose from the bed and put his hand on Wilmer's shoulder. "And now you're disappointed?"

He laughed and his eyes twinkled humorously. His vagabond life had taught him some worldly wisdom. The sallow and ineffectual man looked confused. His misery was beyond the relief of smiles.

"We're all in the same boat, old chap," said Paul, "except that I'm alone and haven't got wife and kids to look after."

"Good-bye, my boy," said Wilmer. "Better luck next time. But chuck it, if you can."

Paul held his hand for a while. Then his left hand dived into his waistcoat pocket and, taking the place of his right, thrust three sovereigns into Wilmer's palm. "For the kiddies," said he.

Wilmer looked at the coins in his palm, and then at Paul, and the tears spurted. "I can't, my boy. You must be as broke as any of us-you-half salary-no, my boy, I can't. I'm old enough to be your father. It's damned good of you-but it's my one pride left-the pride of both of us-the missus and me-that we've never borrowed money-"

"But it isn't borrowed, you silly ass," cried Paul cheerfully. "It's just your share of the spoils, such as they are. I wish to God it was more." With both hands he clasped the thin, ineffectual fingers over the coins and pushed the man' with his young strength out of the door. "It's for the kiddies. Give them my love," he cried, and slammed the door and locked it from the inside.

"Poor old chap!" said he.

Then he went through his pockets and laid the contents on the narrow mantel-piece. These were a gold watch and chain, a cornelian heart fixed to the free end of the chain, a silver cigarette case, a couple of keys, one sovereign, four shillings, three pennies and two half-pennies. A trunk already fastened and filled with books and clothes, and the portmanteau on the bed, contained the rest of his possessions. In current coin his whole fortune amounted to one pound, four shillings and fourpence. Luckily he had paid his landlady. One pound four and fourpence to begin again at three-and-twenty the battle of life on which he had entered at thirteen. He laughed because he was young and strong, and knew that such reverses were foreordained chapters in the lives of those born to a glorious destiny. They were also preordained chapters in the lives of those born to failure, like poor old Wilmer. He was conscious of the wide difference between Wilmer and himself. Good Heavens! To face the world at forty-three, with wife and children and threepence-halfpenny, and the once attendant hope replaced by black-vestured doom! Poor Wilmer! He felt certain that Wilmer had not been able to pay his landlady, and he felt that he had been mean in keeping back the other sovereign.

The sudden loss, however, of three-fourths of his fortune brought him up against practical considerations. The more he had in his pocket when he arrived in London, the longer could he subsist. That was important, because theatrical engagements are not picked up in a hurry. Now; the railway fare would swallow a goodly number of shillings. Obviously it was advisable to save the railway fare; and the only way to do this was to walk to London. His young blood thrilled at the notion. It was romantic. It was also inspiring of health and joy. He had been rather run down lately, and, fearful of the catastrophe which had in fact occurred, he had lived this last week very sparingly--chiefly on herrings and tea. A hundred and fifty miles' tramp along the summer roads, with bread and cheese and an occasional glass of beer to keep him going, would be just the thing to set him up again. He looked in the glass. Yes, his face was a bit pinched and his eyes were rather too bright. A glorious tramp to London, thirty or forty miles a day in the blazing and beautiful sunshine, was exactly what he needed.

Joyously he unpacked his trunk and took from it a Norfolk jacket suit and stockings, changed, and, leaving his luggage with his landlady, who was to obey further instructions as to its disposal, marched buoyantly away through the sun-filled streets of the little town, stick in hand, gripsack on shoulder, and the unquenchable fire of youth and hope in his heart.

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