- CHAPTER XXVIII HEWETT ADDISON'S POINT OF VIEW
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HEWETT ADDISON'S POINT OF VIEW
HEWETT ADDISON entertained a small party of intimate friends to supper, after the performance, on the opening night of his new play.
The successful playwright lived in Plantagenet Court, where Phosie and her husband had spent the first years of their married life.
His chambers were in one of the old houses facing the river. There was only one light in the supper-room, hanging low over the table. The decorations and furniture were severely plain, for he disliked ornaments and cared little for pictures.
There were no flowers on the round table, which was of polished oak. The coarser foods were removed, dessert consisting of a single dish of perfect peaches and nectarines. Champagne had been offered to the guests, but Addison himself drank water.
He thought, as he looked at his friends, what an excellent cast they would make for a comedy.
There were the manager of the theatre where his play had been produced and his wife—the man middle-aged, fluent, affable, determined, with a somewhat battered, but still handsome face; the woman many years his junior, a pretty, delicate creature, with big, beautiful eyes, but dangerously shrewish lips.
An actor and his wife were the only other married couple. They were both playing in Addison's piece, the man being the old friend who was mentioned in | | 266 the tenth chapter of this story. He was slight, boyish, attractive, while the lady matched him as prettily as if they were a couple of china figures on a mantelpiece. They were not young, but they always played young parts; charming people, devoted to each other and their children. Time had apparently passed them by, and it was only on very close inspection that one saw his fingers had cracked the fair surface of the little china figures into innumerable wrinkles, brushing away the bloom of youth.
Two young men, Miss Sapio, and Mr Quizzical Quilter completed the party.
Of the young men, one was a popular novelist, and the other a musical critic. Quizzy, with a great expanse of white waistcoat and a buttonhole, struck the incongruous note which amused his host.
Miss Sapio had never looked more handsome. Her red cloak, thrown over the high back of her chair, formed an effective background for her white dress, splendid throat, and tawny hair.
She had cried with joy at Addison's triumph. It had amazed the self-possessed playwright, who took his success, as he would have taken failure, with unmoved serenity.
"Miss Sapio's congratulations would hardly give me satisfaction," observed the manager of the theatre, as they discussed Addison's play after supper. "Because she is so warm-hearted that she likes everybody to succeed.'
"So do I!" exclaimed his wife, but the expression of her thin lips belied the words they spoke so sweetly.
"Well, I don't!" said the musical critic. "There are scores of men I know, scores of them, who ought to fail. It would do them good. They deserve it. There's nothing like a good failure, a howling failure, to show a man's true mettle."
"Do you mean it's a good 'ad.'?" asked Quizzy.| | 267
"No, I didn't mean that at all," said the critic, with a smile.
"Glad to hear it," answered Quizzy. "I don't hold with this new-fangled way of pushin' yourself down the public's throat. What's the good of makin' 'em swaller bad stuff? It's the newspapers we've got to thank for that."
"I don't know what you're driving at, Quizzy," said Addison.
"I'm drivin' at this ridiculous modern puffin' of the theatrical profession," said Quizzy, assuming a judicial air.
"Oh, you really mustn't run down the unfortunate profession, Mr Quilter," put in the youthful-looking actress. "It isn't our fault if we are always being interviewed and photographed. I suppose it's a case of supply and demand. The public wants that sort of thing, so we have to provide it."
"I doubt whether the intelligent public does want it," said the musical critic.
"Where do you find the intelligent public?" asked Addison.
"At your plays, Hughie," said Miss Sapio.
"Is there anything more absurd than all this talk about young actors and actresses in London?" said Quizzy, returning to his point. "They're not people of experience. They're Society people, that's what they are, with their motors and their pet dogs, and gettin' married to peers—it's sickenin', my boy! It's ruining the profession."
"It's generally supposed to be ruining the peerage," said the manager's wife, plaintively.
"I don't agree with you, madam," said Quizzy, hotly. "Our peerage can be trusted to take care of itself, thank God! but all that sort o' thing turns the heads of the young people in the business. They won't learn of their elders. They think themselves superior | | 268 to good old seasoned actors. The public and the players ought to keep to their own sides of the footlights. It's no good mixin' your drinks. They spoil each other."
Quizzy's solemnity was greeted with the laughter he expected.
"I mean it all the same," he concluded.
"I agree with your point of view in many ways," said Addison. "There never was a fine actor yet who hadn't a big dash of the old strolling player in his composition. The methods, morals and manners of Theatre Royal, Back Drawing-Room, do not make for the greatness of dramatic art. We must have the passions on a big scale, even when they deign to dip under the lintels of our doors and sit at our ordinary dinner-tables."
"Is that a plea for melodrama, Mr Addison?" said the manager's wife again plaintively.
"No, Mrs Fountain, it's a protest, from Quizzy's point of view, against confusing the actor with his part."
"I can't say I see the connection," said the novelist.
"I suppose he means that if we have only kid-glove actors we shall have only kid-glove plays," said the musical critic.
The theatrical manager laughed.
"That idea leads the way, if we are to be logical, to a man committing murder before he can act Macbeth, and only a consumptive woman being cast for La Dame Aux Camelias."
"That's a weak argument, Fountain, for this reason," replied Addison, rivalling Quizzy in solemnity. "It would mean so much specialising in theatrical ranks, and no perfect actor is a specialist."
"Can you mention one in London who is not?" asked the manager.
"I said perfect, not popular," said Addison.
Miss Sapio, who had been unusually silent all the | | 269 evening, here broke in, looking thoughtfully at her host.
"I want to get at this point of view you're talking about, Hughie," she said. "Do you mean that experience is everything and intuition of little good?"
"For an actress?" he asked.
"For a human being, never mind the actress," she said quickly.
"Yes," said Addison. "But I mean something beyond material, practical experience. That teaches, but not the best lessons. We have to learn from the two old masters, Joy and Pain. We love the first. We loathe the second. A day comes when we are able to see that our debt of gratitude to them both is exactly equal."
Miss Sapio did not answer. Addison rose from the table with a word of apology.
"Forgive me for being so abominably commonplace," he said, "but I've had a play out, you know, and my brain is taking a rest. Now, shall we sit round the fire?"
Miss Sapio was the last of his guests to depart. Addison, returning to the room after seeing the others out, found her leaning an elbow on the mantelpiece, with one foot on the fender, looking down into the fire.
"Oh, how sleepy I am!" he exclaimed, stopping at the table to pour a very small quantity of whisky into a glass, filled up with soda-water. "Have a drink. Flo?"
She looked up with a tiny start.
"No, thanks, Hughie. Throw over my cloak, old man. I must do a toddle, as Quizzy says."
Addison emptied his glass, and gathered up the yards of rose-red silk, searching for the top of the cloak.
"What poor little dolls those women looked compared with you, my dear Florence," he said absently, still handling the yards of silk.| | 270
"That's only from your point of view," said Miss Sapio, going to his assistance. "Millie Fountain is almost young enough to be my daughter, and the other one is sweetly pretty."
He held up the cloak and she slipped it on to her shoulders.
"You're not sweetly pretty, you know," he said. "You're very beautiful."
Miss Sapio laughed, and Addison dropped his hold of the cloak. She held out her hands with an effusion which would have been affected, or provocative, in any other woman. In her it was absolutely sincere and unpremeditated.
"Good-night, Hughie! I can't speak of your success for it would make me cry again, but you know what I think about it."
"I know," said Addison.
He stood immovable for several seconds, looking at her thoughtfully, critically, keenly.
"Are you angry with me about something, Hughie?" she asked, as simply as a girl.
Addison shook his head slowly.
"On the contrary, I am absolutely satisfied with you, Flo."
"Well, that's something!" she said, and laughed a little awkwardly.
"Absolutely," he repeated.
She fastened the golden clasp of the cloak and stooped to swirl her long train over one arm, then she looked up and saw he was still in the same attitude; his hands on his hips, his mouth a little compressed, his brows drawn together. She was about to speak, but he held up his finger for silence, and spoke himself, in a steady, deliberate voice.
"Flo, will you marry me?"
It was a little sharp exclamation that broke from her | | 271 lips, and all the colour faded out of her face. She looked, for a second, as if she were going to faint. Addison took a step nearer.
"My dear Flo!"
Miss Sapio laid her hand on the mantelpiece. She was trembling from head to foot.
"It can't be!" she said in a low, uncertain voice. "It can't be. It's impossible."
"Why is it impossible?"
"So many, many reasons."
Hewett Addison pushed a couple of chairs close to the hearth, stirred the fire, and lighted a cigarette.
"Sit down beside me," he said. "You must tell me the reasons."
She dropped into one of the chairs, unfastened the clasp of the cloak again, as if it were choking her, and leaned back with closed eyes. Addison poured out a glass of water and put it into her hand without a word. She raised it to her lips for a second, and then he dipped his fingers and drew them across her brow. She smiled faintly at that, and dabbed her forehead with her handkerchief.
A rose she had worn in her dress had been torn by the fastening of the cloak, and its red petals now dropped on to her white dress. Addison picked up several of them, clinging together, and threw them into the fire.
His ruling passion made him remember every trifling incident of this eventful night. Years afterwards, in one of his serious plays, a man dipped two fingers into a glass of water and saved a woman from fainting with one light touch, afterwards picking up some rose petals and carefully burning them, but the critics told him that both these things were unnatural and inartistic.
Miss Sapio recovered and pulled herself up in the chair. Hewett smiled encouragement.
"Well?" he said, taking up the conversation where they had left off.| | 272
She rested her chin on her hand, looking at him.
"Well?" he repeated after a pause.
"Oh, Hughie, you have forgotten my age! You know nothing of my past life—"
"One thing at a time," he interrupted quickly. "I think I can guess your age. I am not a boy, you know, but in my thirty-ninth year."
"But I am—over thirty-nine."
Addison nodded calmly.
"Very well! Let it go at that."
"I have lived a very hard, very strange life," she went on, "but I never wanted to change the past till to-night. You spoke the truth about joy and pain a while ago. I have known both. I have known the heights and the depths of life. Do you realise what I mean? Do you think you know me?"
"I am sure of it," said Addison, in the same unmoved voice.
There was another long pause.
"It is only right to tell you I have been married before," she said in a very low voice. "It was many years ago. Very few people remember it, but at the time—the other man being so well known, although it was only a bubble reputation—no one in the world knows all the story, but if you like—"
Addison's raised hand stopped her.
"Are you legally free to marry again?" he said.
"Is your husband alive?"
"He died, I was told, about four years ago."
"There is no one else to stand between us?"
"Oh, Hughie—no! No!"
Addison, who had not looked at her as he asked these questions, suddenly turned in his chair and laid his hands on her shoulders.
"Will you have me, Flo? I'm an odd, eccentric little beggar—you know that—full of all sorts of mad | | 273 ideas and whimsical nonsense. I should be wretched with an ordinary wife."
"What do you mean by an ordinary wife?" she asked.
"Oh, you know, the usual thing. A wife who would want an 'At Home' day, and stiff dinner-parties, and have stacks of relatives. I don't like conventional women, and I don't like girls, except to look at."
"I thought, once, you had fallen in love with Phosie, before she married Walter Race," said Miss Sapio.
"No, not for a minute," he replied. "I called her a wave of delight from God, and so she is, but I have always loved you."
"In spite of everything, Hughie?"
"Because of everything! If I would have you changed I should not be the man I am, for I know that tolerance and mercy, such as yours, are cheaply bought at any price. Your life has made you what you are—kind, great-hearted, pitiful. I said just now I had always loved you, Flo, but that isn't true. My love is the flower of deep-rooted admiration and honour."
He bent towards her, his hands clasped on the arm of his chair. She suddenly dropped her head and kissed them tenderly. They were wet with her tears.
"Oh, you mustn't do that!" he exclaimed, with a change at last in his quiet voice. "I couldn't bear it from any woman. You mustn't kiss my hands. Dearest Flo, you humble me."
"I love you with all my heart," she said.
It was several minutes before Hewett recovered his self-possession. Miss Sapio had never seen him so moved, and she understood, watching his emotion, something of the loneliness of his highly-strung but restrained nature.
He had told her, often and often, of the strange, fanciful creations of his brain, and in this rare moment of revelation she was thrilled by the sense of his de- | | 274 pendence on her sympathy. The strength of his character had raised her to new heights; his weakness filled her with a poignant feeling of pride, and pain, and gratitude.
From that hour her life, after all its storm and tragedy, was dedicated to him—the shelter of his home, the protection of his solitude, the perfection of his work.
"We will be married soon," said Hewett, when they parted that night.
"Just as you please," answered Miss Sapio.
They had both slipped back into the commonplace. Hewett stood on the kerb, bare-headed, having put her into a taxi.
"I want a holiday now the play is produced," he went on. "Shall we say next week, Flo?"
"To be married? Oh, my dear boy!"
"Why not?" said Addison.
"Yes, why not?" echoed Miss Sapio, with a laugh.
"When shall I see you again?"
"To-morrow. We'll settle it then. Good-night, Flo!"
"Good-night, dear Hughie!"
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