A Very Good Thing For the Girl

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A Very Good Thing For the Girl

By Leonard Merrick

BAGOT told us this tale in the Stage Door Club one night. We were sitting round the fire, talking of perfect love, and somebody asked him if he had ever thought of marrying.

"Once," said the comedian cheerfully.

"Couldn't you afford it?" His talent and the remains of his good looks were worth fifty pounds a week to him then, but there had been days—well, listen to Bagot!

"It wasn't that I couldn't afford it," he said with a laugh; "actors never wait till they can afford it. I escaped in a curious way. What saved me was being such an artist. Fact! I was really smitten. If I hadn't been an artist in spite of myself I should be shivering in the last train home to the suburbs now, instead of talking to you dear boys in an armchair, with a glass at my side. What? Oh, I'll tell you about it with pleasure.

"Of course, you know I made my name as the 'Rev. Simon Tibbits' in poor Pulteney's 'Touch and Go.' Some things a man doesn't forget, and I remember how I felt when I settled for the part better than I remember yesterday. You see it was my first London engagement, and I had been trying to get one in London for sixteen years. Sixteen years I had been 'on the road'—and seen the amateurs with money sauntering on to the West End stage from their 'Varsity club!

"My agent had told me to try my luck at the office over the theatre one morning in July, and when I went in there was nobody there but a young man who I guessed must be Pulteney. He was sitting at the table with a pencil in his hand, fiddling with a cardboard model of one of the scenes, and looking as worried as if he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer.

"‘Have I the honour of speaking to Mr. Pulteney?' said I. In those days I imagined authors were important persons.

"He flushed, and smiled—rather on the wrong side of his mouth, I thought: 'That's my name.'

"‘I was sent round to see you about the part of the clergyman in your farcical comedy, Mr. Pulteney,' I said. I had really been sent to see the stage-manager, but soft soap is never wasted, and I was always a bit of a diplomatist.

"He asked me to sit down, and we talked. He was smoking a cigarette, and I thought for a moment he was going to offer me one. I suppose it occurred to him that it wouldn't be the right thing to ask an actor to smoke in the manager's room, for he threw his own cigarette away. He was a gentleman, poor Pulteney, though he was a deuced bad dramatist.

"The manager came bustling back soon, and began to hum and haw, but Pulteney put in a word that made it all right. I was told it was a capital part, and a big chance for me, and I skipped downstairs and out into the street, feeling as puffed-up as if I owned the Strand. As a matter of fact, the salary wasn't much—I had had better money in the provinces—but the thought of making a hit in the West End so excited me that I was nearly popping with pride.

"Great Cumberland Place! wasn't I sold when the part came. You've no idea how duffing it really was. I don't mind saying that a good many jolly fine comedians would never have got a laugh in it. When I read the jokes I could have cried. It wasn't funny as the author wrote it, dear boys, believe me. I don't want to brag of what I've done—I'm not a man who 'gases' about himself—but it was the 'character' I put into it that made that part!

"Well, the rehearsals weren't beginning for three weeks, and I kept hoping I'd see how to do something with it before the first 'call.' I spoke the lines one way, and I spoke the lines another way, and the more I studied the glummer I felt. I had my dinner at Exeter Hall several times, and listened to the people giving their orders; it was cheap, and I thought I might hear the sort of tone I was trying to get hold of. But I didn't. On the Sunday I went to three churches, and sat through three sermons. Honest Injun! And that was no use. Talk about an R.A.'s difficulty in finding the right model? I spent eight dusty days scouring London for a model for the 'Rev. Simon Tibbits'!

"Then one afternoon I had come out of 'Prober's Avenue.' As it happened I wasn't thinking 'shop'; I wasn't thinking about anything in particular; and all of a sudden I heard a voice. A voice? I heard the voice. I heard the voice I needed for the part!

"I jumped. My heart was in my throat. There, smiling up at a six-foot constable, was a little parson asking the way to Baker Street. He looked like an elderly cherub, with his pink cheeks, and his innocent, inquiring eyes. I held my breath in the hope he would go on talking, but the policeman had answered him, and he tripped along with merely a 'Thank you.' He tripped along with the oddest walk I have ever seen, and I dodged after him, never taking my gaze off his legs, and studying them all the way to Charing Cross.

"As I expected, he was going by 'bus. There was one just moving. Up went his umbrella, and the next moment I was on the step, too, intending to lure him into conversation as soon as I could, and master his voice as nicely as I was mastering his legs.

"‘Full inside,' said the conductor, putting his dirty hand before my face. I was so annoyed I could have punched his head.

"Well, there was nothing for it but to go on top, and wait for some one to get out. Hang it, nobody did get out, and I saw no more of my little model till we reached Baker Street. I meant to let him walk a few yards, and then ask him to direct me to Lord's, but there was a surprise for me; he tripped across the road into the station. 'Oho,' I said to myself, 'training it. So much the better. We're going to have a comfortable chat together, after all, you and I!'

"I kept as close to him when he took his ticket as if I'd designs on his watch, and I heard him say, 'Third-class to Rickmansworth, if you please.' This was rather awkward—I didn't want to pay a long fare, and I didn't know the line well; I had to book as far as Rickmansworth, too. When we got round to the platform the train was there, and he hovered up and down for five minutes or more, looking for a seat to suit him. I began to think we'd both be left behind. Then just as they were slamming the doors, he made up his mind. In he went, and I after him, and—what do you think? We were both on the same side of the compartment, with a fat woman and a soldier between us!

"Two passengers between us, I give you my word, and no room opposite. Not only I couldn't talk to him—I couldn't even see him. Every time we drew into a station I prayed the compartment would thin a bit; I sat tense, watching the faces. Not a sign on them! You've heard of the American rustic who got so exasperated standing up in a crowded car, that at last he shouted, 'Say! ain't none o' you people got homes?' That was how I felt."

Bagot's imitation of the rustic was very good, and we signified our appreciation in the usual way. When the laugh was over, some one told the waiter we were thirsty, and the story-teller filled his pipe.

"Well," he resumed, puffing, "to cut a long journey short, we reached Rickmansworth without my having had a glimpse of my gentleman. I was about desperate now. He hadn't taken a dozen steps when I overtook him, and asked if he would be kind enough to inform me whether any decent apartments were to be had in the village. It didn't seem worth while to have had all this bother just to hear him speak again for ten seconds, and I was wishing myself back in my apartments in Kennington. I said the first thing that came into my head.

"It turned out to be the best question I could have put.

"‘I am a visitor myself,' he said, beaming at me, 'but I believe there are rooms to be had in Cornstalk Terrace. Yes, I am almost positive I noticed a card in a window as I passed through this morning.'

"I stood simply lapping his voice up.

"‘Is it difficult for a stranger to find?' I asked.

"‘No, indeed,' he said, 'it is quite near. But I am going there; if you care to accompany me——'

"‘Oh, you're too good!' I exclaimed, and upon my word I could have hugged him!

"The road was a great deal nearer than I wanted it to be, for he was chirruping to me beautifully, and I hated to part from him. When we arrived I effervesced with gratitude, and he hoped I'd find comfortable quarters; and then I went straight back to the station—and heard I had about three hours to wait for a train! Pleasant? Rickmansworth isn't the sprightliest place I've ever spent three hours in either. I had some nourishment in the bar of the hotel across the way, and I examined the High Street. It wasn't extensive. The barmaid had told me there was a park, so I started to discover it. I wasn't keen on the park, you understand, but I thought it would be a nice quiet spot to rehearse in and see if I had caught the little cleric's voice. As I was going along, past a row of villas, blest if I didn't come across him again, standing at his gate.

"He supposed I had been hunting for lodgings all the time, so, of course, I had to keep the game up. He was a friendly old chap, and, honour bright, I felt sorry to think I was going to turn him into ridicule on the stage. Still he would never know, and actors can't be choosers. He went inside to ask his landlady if she could recommend any diggings to me, and a minute afterwards out he fluttered to say he had quite forgotten there would be a couple of rooms vacant in that very house next day. Scot! I had had no more idea of taking rooms than I had of taking the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but it was too gigantic a chance to miss. I fixed the matter with the old woman there and then—and the next morning my model and I were living under the same roof! … Pass the matches, one of you fellows, my pipe is out. …

"At the back of the house there were some lettuces and a clothes-prop that were called a ' garden.' My parlour was at the back, too; and after dinner I saw the rector airing himself. By now I had learnt he was a rector. I lost no time in joining him, you may be sure—I wasn't paying two rents to go to sleep on the sofa—and we discussed politics and public libraries. It was a bit heavy for me, but I didn't worry much what he talked about so long as I could hear his dulcet tones. I ought to have said there was a bench against the clothes-prop; so far as her means permitted, the old woman did things handsomely.

"There was a bench, and we sat down on it; and while we were sitting there the door opened—and out into the sunshine there came a young and beautiful girl. She wore a white cotton frock, and there was no paint or powder on her face, and she had the kind of eyes that make you want to say your prayers and be good. I'm not going to gush—I'm holding myself in—but on my honour she was just the saintliest picture of English maidenhood ever seen in a poet's dream!

"‘My daughter,' said my model.

"I was so staggered that I bowed like a super at a bob a night.

"Yes, the old woman did things handsomely—there was room for three on the bench. She sat by me, turning a back yard into paradise—I mean the girl, not the old woman—and I forgot to study her father for half an hour. I heard where his living was, and why they were taking a holiday, and I stammered that I was an actor, and was afraid they'd be shocked. I was stupid to own it, though it was all right, and they didn't mind; but there was something in that girl's eyes that forced the truth from you in spite of yourself. I had been going to say I was in the City, but the lie stuck.

"There's some fine country round Rickmansworth—'Ricky,' the natives call it—and we used to explore, the three of us. We'd go to Chorley Wood, and to Chenies—what a good 'back cloth' Chenies would make! By the end of the week we were together nearly all the day. They invited me into their room to supper, and after supper Marion would sing at a decrepit piano. The meals were quite plain, you know—sometimes we'd pick the green stuff in the garden ourselves—but, boys, the peace of that little village room in the lamplight! The minister and his child—the simple, God-fearing man, and that girl with her deep, grave eyes, and earnest voice. Their devotion to each other, the homeliness of it all! To me, a touring player, it was sweet, it was wonderful, to be welcomed in an atmosphere of home.

"If the comedy had been put into rehearsal on the date arranged it would have been better for me. But it wasn't—the rehearsals were postponed—and soon I was thinking much more of Marion than of my part. I used to talk to her of—well, of things I had never talked of to any one except my mother when I was a kid. Somehow I didn't feel ashamed to talk of them to that girl. She took me out of myself. She raised me up. The footlights were forgotten.

"Oh, I had no right to think of her in the way I did, of course I What could I hope for? There was a world between us, and I saw it. I told myself I had done all I came to do, and that I ought to go back to town at once; I told myself I was mad to stay there. But I knew I loved her. I loved her as I have never loved a woman since—and there were moments when I thought that she was fond of me."

Bagot, it was rapidly becoming evident to us, had forgotten that he prefaced the story by congratulating himself on not having married the girl. His voice trembled. We saw that, carried away by his own intensity as a narrator, he was beginning to believe he was a blighted being. But we looked sympathetic, and let him " work it up."

"One day she owned she cared for me," he continued, with a far-away air. "It was the day before they were going home, and we were talking of our 'friendship.' Somehow I—I lost my head, and she was crying in my arms.

"I asked her to marry me. I swore she should never repent it She sat listening to me with her hands limp in her lap, and a look on her face that I shall see till I die. She was afraid—not of me, but that her father wouldn't consent. They had no violent prejudice against the theatre, but she had never been to one in her life; for her to marry an actor seemed an impossible thing.

"I went to him right off. I told him I worshipped her; I implored him to trust her to me. It was an awful shock to him; I don't believe he had had a suspicion of the state of affairs—he reproached himself for letting it come about. But he was very gentle. He said he had hoped for a far different future for her, still that all he wanted was for his child to be happy; he said he couldn't stand in her way if he knew she was really sure of herself. In the end he promised she should marry me if she wanted to in three years' time.

"When I parted from her we considered we were engaged; and in the evening, after they left, I went to town.

"I went to town, and there was a 'call' for the first rehearsal of 'Touch and Go.' I had forgotten business, I had forgotten everything but Marion. That 'call' paralysed me. I saw what I had done, I realised the situation. The girl I was to marry reverenced her father—and I meant to burlesque him on the stage!

"I couldn't do it, I wouldn't! How could I think of it now? It wasn't that I feared their finding it out—as I tell you, they weren't playgoers, and their home was a good way off besides—it was the heartlessness of the thing that frightened me. To 'make myself up' as her father? To speak the bland, hypocritical lines of the part in her father's voice, to mimic him, to turn him into ridicule to amuse a crowd. I say how could I do it?

"All the same it was precious difficult to avoid, for I had studied him so long. But I went to the show the first day and rehearsed as I had expected to rehearse before I met him. Perhaps not so well; it was a strain not to be like him after all my study, and it made me tame and stiff. I rehearsed so the first day, and for three or four days, and presently I began to notice that the Management was a bit unhappy, and that Pulteney nearly twisted his moustache out during my scenes. If an author has written a bad part, trust him to blame the actor! He buttonholed me at last, and begged me to 'put a little more "character" into it.' And I tried to: but I knew it was a failure, for I could only see one 'character' all the time—and that one I wouldn't touch.

"When I was in the stalls once, he and the manager sat down and put their heads together. It was dark in front, and they hadn't seen me as they came round. I heard them say something about 'A pity they hadn't a West End actor for the part.' I knew they were talking of my part, and it got my dander up; I knew I could act any of that hoity-toity West End Company off the stage; I knew I had only to 'let myself go.'

"When I went 'on' again I determined I'd show 'em what I could do; I determined I'd show 'em they had a better comedian than any forty-pound-a-weeker. I sent them into fits; 'Hallo!' they said. The women in the wings stopped talking about their dresses to watch me. The highly-connected amateurs from Oxford and Cambridge began to give at the knees, and I could hear the leading-man's heart drop on to the boards; the actor from the provinces was wiping them out! That rehearsal was the sweetest triumph of my life.

"She'd never know—she'd never know! I kept telling myself she couldn't hear of it. By the time the wig that I ordered was tried on I felt as sure of success as I was of my lines. I was soaked in the part. I wasn't acting the little rector—by George, I was the little rector, trip, face, and chirrup. And the first night came, and I was to play in London at last!

"They told me the house was crammed. All the swell critics were there, all the fashionable first-nighters. I was so nervous that the wig-paste shook in my hands when I 'made-up,' but I was ready much too soon.

"I went downstairs and waited. The doorkeeper gave me a note. Of all the——! It was from Marion. A friend had brought her up to see me, and she was in the theatre. I was stunned, I thought I was going to fall. You know—every man in this room knows—that for an actor to remodel his performance at the last minute would be a miracle. I couldn't do it, it wasn't in my power, but even then I thought I'd try! I said I must try, though it would ruin me! And I heard my cue.

"My first lines 'went' for nothing. I floundered—the audience were ice; I saw the people on the stage looking at me aghast. Then suddenly I got a laugh: a gesture, an intonation, something I had been trying to hold back, had escaped me. The laugh went to my head—I made them laugh again! I said I'd explain to Marion—that she'd understand, that she'd forgive me—and even while I said it, my other self, the 'self' that wasn't acting, knew it was a lie, and I was losing her.

"I couldn't help it—the laughter made me drunk. I did it all! I knew the disgust she must be feeling, but the audience were roaring at me now; I felt the shame that she was suffering with my own heart, but the artist in me swept me on. The manager panted at me in the wings: 'You're great—you're immense. Gad! you're making the hit of the piece!' The stalls were in convulsions, the gallery had got my name. 'Bagot!' they were shouting—after each act, 'Bagot!' Pulteney rushed to me with blessings at the end. The house thundered for me. It was London! I knew that I was 'made'; but across the flare of grinning faces I seemed to see the Angel I had lost, and the horror in her eyes."

Bagot bowed his head: his pipe had fallen, tears dripped down his cheeks. By this time he was quite sure he had been mourning for her ever since beside a lonely hearth.

"She wrote to me next day, breaking it off," he groaned. "She wouldn't listen to reason; she said it might be 'art,' but it wasn't love."

"Did you ever see her afterwards?" we asked.

"Once," he said, "years later. She married some county chap, with an estate and all that. I saw her driving with her little boy. She looked very happy I thought. Women soon forget." After a pause he added bitterly: "If one of you fellows"—he glanced at me—"cares to write the true tragedy of a man's life, there it is. You might call it 'The Price of Success.’"

But we all thought a more appropriate title would be the one that I have used.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1939, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.