Fiction

FOOTLIGHTS ROUND MY HEART

The beautiful actress from Montreal was a big success on the London stage. But she played her biggest and best role after the final curtain

RONALD R. SMITH October 15 1951
Fiction

FOOTLIGHTS ROUND MY HEART

The beautiful actress from Montreal was a big success on the London stage. But she played her biggest and best role after the final curtain

RONALD R. SMITH October 15 1951

Fiction

FOOTLIGHTS ROUND MY HEART

The beautiful actress from Montreal was a big success on the London stage. But she played her biggest and best role after the final curtain

RONALD R. SMITH

WHEN are you going to marry me, Claire?” “Don’t, Robert.” She put her hand on my knee without looking at me. “You’ll spoil everything. I feel so completely at ease with myself. You’ll spoil it.” “I’m sorry, Claire. It was stupid of me.” “No, it wasn’t.” But it was. Claire had come to England from

Montreal about two years ago and for fourteen months had gone through the mill with a repertory company. I had known her for seven months. She was desperately anxious to succeed as an actress—to prove to herself that she had not been presumptuous in choosing that profession. And her conscientiousness was beginning to prove her most dangerous obstacle. She gave so much thought to every gesture, every inflection, leaving nothing to well up spontaneously, suppressing her natural lyricism, that on the stage, to a discerning eye, her acting was efficient but hard and contrived.

It was to break down the tyranny of her mind that Vauxhall, the producer, had suggested to old Lord Benstoke that he put his house at our disposal, with Vauxhall and his wife coming along, during his absence in Jamaica. Claire and I played tennis, walked in the woods, seeing the Vauxhalls only at mealtimes. Now after three glorious weeks —glorious for me at any rate — I was driving Claire back to London.

We had reached the suburbs and the spell was beginning to wear thin; Claire was sitting up straight, her hands on her knees. And as we weaved through the thickening traffic I saw with foreboding the knuckles of her hands whiten. With foreboding and at the same time with an ashamed satisfaction. Claire was fond of me and being without coquetry she had never tried to conceal it. I wanted her succeas as badly as she did: I

had spent months trying to write a part for her that would be a perfect vehicle for her talent. But I wanted her. And I was afraid of the theatre; it is a possessive animal.

I drew up outside her flat in Chelsea. She sat still and then turned abruptly toward me: “I know that Vivienne Franquist would have been only too delighted to have the part you insisted on giving to me. She would almost inevitably have assured it a long run. You must think I am detestably egotistical, Robert.”

“I wrote the part for you, Claire.”

She spoke as though she had not heard me. “I’m not as ungrateful as I seem. I’m not really. If only you knew what I want, what I am trying to do . . .” She turned her face away.

Pedestrians streamed by; the traffic whined and growled. She suddenly seemed to realize we were not exactly alone. She pressed my hand as it rested on the steering wheel and slipped out of the car before I could move. “Don’t see me again until after it’s over, Robert. Please.” She ran up the three steps and disappeared through the glasspanelled doors.

The “it” she spoke of was the first night of my play, The Wrathful Dove. I looked at my watch. It was nearly eleven. In almost exactly twelve hours the first performance would be over.

FOR THE AUTHOR a first night is not the glamorous thing it is often made out to be—at least for me it is not. The play has become familiar to the point of nausea, to the point of meaninglessness. It was a great relief for me when the lights went up for the interval. The applause had been warm without being wild. I slipped out of my end seat and joined the stream of people making for the bar. I would Continued on page 43

Continued on page 43

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have given a great deal to have been able to go the opposite way—backstage. But I had promised I would not. And even had I been able to do so I should have been hard put to it to know what to say. Claire had not fluffed a line, a syllable; her timing had been meticulous; her rather deep contralto voice, enriched by the Canadian R pronounced well back in the throat, had forced Melthrop, the leading man, to deepen, much to his advantage, his own voice which tended to thin when raised. It was a triumph of machinelike accuracy; artistically it was as flat as a colored postcard. And painfully I was aware that Claire would know that better than anybody.

The bar was crowded. Bella recognized me and handed me a brandy and soda almost at once. That earned me a lot of indignant glares from people who had arrived ahead of me. 1 took my drink to the far corner of the room, leaned against the wall with my back half-turned to the bar. It was depressingly stuffy.

“Hello there! Playing the shrinking genius?”

It was Babcock of the Sunday Herald. He had a glass of beer; his heavy scarlet-jowled face bulging over his low white collar made him look more like a farmer on the spree than the astute and influential dramatic critic that he was.

I told him I was in disgrace as a queue-jumper.

“So in The Wrathful Dove you’ve gone in for what we used to call ‘social significance’ in the thirties?”

“Is it as preachy as all that?”

“No. On the contrary, it’s a tour de force of gilding the pill.”

I tried to explain to him that I had attempted to create two levels: to

make it first of all an entertainment but with a “message” for those who wanted it. I talked more or less coherently but all the time my mind was preoccupied with Claire. And I was acutely aware of Babcock’s gooseberry eyes looking up intently into my face. Finally 1 simply broke off what I was saying and asked: “What did

you think of Claire Hathway?”

He looked into his beer. When he looked up he was grinning and with his wide mouth and the successive arcs of wrinkles he looked remarkably like

a mask of comedy. “Ah, your Canaj dian prodigy. She’s a smart girl. She never misses a trick.”

He was confirming my own opinion. He was putting it in as kindly a way as he could, but it gave me a sick shocked feeling. And would he put it that way in his notice? When he wanted he could damn a performance in an acid epigram that left a scar on an actor’s mind for all time.

“It’s the part that’s a bit thin,” l said. “A bit artificial. Don’t be too hard on her because of that—which is my fault.”

He did not speak at once but his bulbous eyes said clearly: “So that’s

how you feel about her!”

“Why should I be hard on her?” he said at last. “She’s a competent actress. She could teach a good deal to a lot of our little darlings who put their faith in a South Kensington accent and divine inspiration.”

Competent. The word that rings like a knell in an actor’s ears.

Vauxhall interrupted us: sombre and ravenlike in spite of his bustling manner, carrying his cudgel of a walking stick to reinforce his rheumatic joints. He gestured with an empty wineglass. “Not a hitch so far.” He raised his stick. “I’m touching wood, mark you.” “How’s Claire?” I said.

“Steady as a rock.” Then he recognized Babcock. He made an elaborate gesture with his fingers holding his stick between his knees. “Sign against the evil eye,” he said, “O thou cutthroat bandit on the path of fame.” Babcock grinned and was about to reply when the bell shrilled to announce the curtain going up. Vauxhall thrust his glass into my hand. “Time hounds me,” he croaked. “Poisons my being.” He weaved his way through the shifting crowd, opening a passage with his stick.

I returned to the auditorium with Babcock. Competent, a rock, a machine . . . delightful, heart-warming adjectives to describe an actress!

When I got to my place I looked at the seat and turned round and went back to the bar. Why should I torture myself with the spectacle of Claire giving what she knew to be a technically immaculate performance—and which she must also despairingly know was as flat as a chapter out of a textbook?

I had another drink. Bella said: “They’re liking it. I only heard one panning it and that was a woman with a face like a codfish.”

I left the bar, went round and joined

“I’d rather you wouldn’t be there, Robert. I’m going to be awfully 'ervous. Do you mind?” ^K^Of course not.” 1 minded a great I Qft About the whole thing. I hated tamely handing her back OU* •• -EVIL-EYL OW taxi to FLEAGLE IS GlVIN' YO' A'FULL.WHAMMY"’ FUM HIS—c/G H.'.'-EVILEST

it turned left onto the highway with a sort of tragic despair that made me feel a complete idiot, but was no less real for that. When I turned I saw Mrs. Blacker had been watching too. She nodded her cropped head. “When a young woman’s both clever and nice a man’s lucky.” jÇMPl\/Wtn t deny it. But I had toO

with him uniii we neaiu the applause as the curtain fell on the final act. I stayed a few minutes, longer until the first storm of bustling backstage had died down a little. Then I went up

k to lights gnrtden

...... one was smiling,

... talking to the half dozen so men there. She spotted me as soon as I entered and looked steadily and seriously at me for a moment and then said laughing: “And here’s the

man who makes all the puppets dance.’’ I exchanged a word here and there and generally hung about until they

left. Vauxhall was the last to leave. “Don’t nauseate each other with too much mutual admiration,” he said.

“They seemed to like you,” I said to Claire. She had turned to face her dressing table; standing behind her I addressed her face in the mirror.

“They seemed to like the play.” She raised her eyes. “They tell me you were talking to Mr. Babcock. I can guess what he said.”

“He said you could teach a lot of actresses a good deal.”

The reflection of her heavily painted lips smiled brightly at me. But the

self contempt in her voice was hard to listen to; “He said I was a competent little actress, didn’t he?”

I bent and kissed her neck to hide my face: her skin had the warm,

nutmeggy, spicy smell of theatrical make-up. In the mirror I saw her close her eyes. I raised my face: “He said

precisely what I have told you.” I repeated his exact words.

She laughed a little harshly and said: “If you’ll leave me I’ll be with you in ten m nutes.”

“I’ll be with Old Mick in his hutch.” In the taxi going to Mellini’s restaurant che said after a long brittle silence: “I lost one of my gloves this

morning.”

“I have it in my pocket, Claire.” That made her cry. “This is pathetic,” she said. “Disgusting. Forgive me.”

I told the driver to drive around for a while. I thought, with a cold lucidity that startled me: The time to catch

a woman is on the rebound, when she has had a micunderstanding with hatlover. That fascinating, unscrupu o us old charmer, the Theatre, had perhaps overplayed his hand.

She was sitting very upright in her corner. Lights swept in and out of the taxi, lighting and obscuring her face. She was dabbing below her eyes with a padded handkerchief. I leaned toward her until my lips touched her ear; it was burning hot. I spoke softly. She listened and then said: “Yes. You know I do.”

As 1 spoke again my lips touched the cold smooth button of an ear-clip. It jerked away as she shook her head. “No. No. What do you want with a ‘competent little actress’?”

“Nothing, Claire. I want a wife.” “It’s sympathy.” Her voice hardened. “And I hate sympathy. You’re sorry for me. I won’t have it!”

“I’m angry with you. With your egotism. Your personal-sal vs tion-atany-price attitude.” To the devil with the driver, I thought. “I’m simply a competent little playwright but I’m not prepared to let this vanity-in-disguise come between me and the woman I want. And I’d do the same if I were only a competent little shoeshine boy. I want you, I need you. That’s all I need to know. Heaven forbid that I should ever try to make a self-righteous horse-deal out of it.”

I could see her staring at me through the alternating light and darkness: her lips were trembling slightly. “Do I seem like that?” she said. “Do I seem as bad as that?”

“Yes.”

“But can’t you see that I’m terrified thatlateryou might find me empty, shallow, superficial . . .”

“Claire,” I said angrily. “Did you ever know a stupid woman who thought she was stupid?”

“I— I don’t know.”

I took her in my arms. She clung to me like a drowning woman.

“Brunswick road, the Chelsea Bridge end,” I said to the driver.

“Okay, guv’nor,” His tone seemed to suggest: I seen more delicate

proposals. But you made it. Good luck to you!

WE STARTED our married life with a small staff of servants and a butler because old Benstoke again lent us his country house for three weeks. And he didn’t stop at that: he got us the tenancy of a dower house on the estate of a friend. There our staff was reduced to a daily woman, a Mrs. Blacker, a village woman with grey cropped hair, a stern, square face like an elderly field marshal, and a staggering capacity for work: so much so that Claire got into the habit of running round after her with cups of

coffee and bits of cake to hold her up for a few minutes.

Those were very good days. After the play had run a fortnight Claire had handed over her part to the Franquist girl. The notices had been far from bad: it looked as though we were going to have quite a run. Njuouy had* actually called Claire “competent” but they had played around with synonyms that came perilously near it: “adroit,” “dexterous,” “expert.” And Claire joked about it. “What marvelous notices,” she said, “if only I’d been a contortionist.”

She seemed to have abandoned the stage without regret and she looked back at the Claire of that period with a sort, of amused sympathy. At first 1 encouraged her to help me with my work to distract her. But I soon found that she had in abundance precisely that quality that I lacked: she could visualize a scene on the stage with all its technical difficulties with a clarity that startled me; and for the first time 1 began to see clearly my work from the actors’ and producer’s point of view. Where I had groped before I could now move confidently without fear of error.

Our happiness reached such a high point that like all emotions when they reach their extremity, it became tinged with its opposite: it was touched with a sort of fine sadness that only made the happiness still more acute. Claire felt it too, I know.

We were walking one autumn morning across the fields toward a little wood. The dew was still on the grass and the landscape was veiled in grey mist. Suddenly the sun burst through the clouds. The mist turned into a silver vapor as delicate as a flute note; we walked through a field of sparkling diamonds. The dying leaves on the trees flushed into coloramber, gold, red, orange and a dozen shades of green. Diagonal shafts of golden light penetrated the still-thick foliage and dappled the ground. It was all suddenly enchanting, fragile, insubstantial. Claire caught my arm and we stood still. “That’s how I feel,” she said, almost in a whisper. “So unbelievably happy, so beautifully happy that it’s frightening. It seems as though at any moment it might dissolve, shatter.”

I pressed her arm against my ribs. “No,” I said. “No.”

And as I spoke a cloud crossed the sun. The colors faded out of the leaves; the silver drained from the mist leaving it grey and opaque. The outlines of the trees hardened and darkened. The bejeweled field became wet grass a little chilly to the ankles. Neither of us spoke for a while. Then Claire said in a voice she tried to make matter of fact: “Let’s go back, shall we?”

WHEN we got back Mrs. Blacker had a message for us. “Mr. Vauxhall wants you to give him a ring right away. Both Miss Franquist and her understudy, Miss Boone, are down with ’flu.”

We stood in the hall looking at each other. Mrs. Blacker had her workworn spongy hands hidden under her apron why she always did that 1 never knew and her fierce bulldog face turned impatiently from one to the other. She was a decisive woman; she expected prompt decisions from others. Finally she could stand our shilly-shallying no longer. She looked Claire squarely in the eye and said: ‘‘You'll have to do it. you know, and you might as well face it.”

Claire looked at me and smiled. “Mrs. Blacker’s right, of course. There’s nobody else.”

“Do you mind, Claire? I mean, if you really hate the idea of doing it . . .”

“I don’t mind at all. It will only be for a few days.”

Mrs. Blacker went back to her kitchen.

We rang up Vauxhall and told him. He was delighted.

“I’ll drive you up,” I said. “We’ll hâve Cunne, at Me.Hini’s before we go on to the theatre.”

Claire was standing by the window looking out. The sun had still not dissipated the mist and in the far meadow the grazing cows seemed to be wading in a white sea that came halfway to their bellies.

“Of course not.” I minded a great deal. About the whole thing. I hated it. I hated tamely handing her back to the theatre.

We arranged for the village taxi to rfílíc her. She left early so that she could cali on Vivienne Franquist and the Boone girl. ' M1 be back as early as I can,” she said. '

I watched the car with its fluttering plume of blue smoke from the exhaust as it rolled down the lane and until

it turned left onto the highway with a sort of tragic despair that, made me feel a complete idiot, but was no less real for that.

When I turned I saw Mrs. Blacker had been watching too. She nodded her cropped head. “When a young woman's both clever and nice a man’s lucky.”

I didn’t deny it. But I had to shakç off my abandoned spaniel misery. “Just the same,” I said, “now we’vtf

got ux iftiHl au y Ou bay

if you and I sneak off to the pictures at Barnboro?”

“Trentham’s better,” she said. “We’ll go there.”

When we got back 1 took Mrs. Blacker to her cottage and reached home at about eleven. In the yellow autumn moonlight the dower house seemed wrapped in a brooding decadent melancholy. I went up to my workroom and tried to read.

Just before midnight I heard the taxi stop and I ran downstairs.

Claire’s cheeks were fresh and cool.

* #"«• »U " ^ 1 » ,l_ ' Vi»t r - “ '*** Çrtyti •»

She had an orchid, a waxy perrectum, pinned to her coat. She saw me looking at it. “Vauxy,” she said. “Kvery-

body’s been so nice to me. After the first terrifying five minutes I thoroughly enjoyed it. You gave me some marvelous lines, Robert; I never quite realized it before.”

“My genius also runs to making tea. Shall I make you some?”

“I’d love it.” She laid her coat on the back of a chair, careful not tojgrïïsïi the waxy abominatio

In the kitchen * ^nigged the kettle in. I losing her. That inveterate old seducer, the theatre, was getting away with it. Her eyes were still shining from his blandishments. What

to do? Nothing. I could hardly play the outraged husband. In the middle of the twentieth century this was a legitimate form of bigamy. The trouble was that Claire was incapable of bigamy. When she gave herself she gave herself wholly. If the theatre took hepit 'YOlild leave ïnë~fiothing -except possibly a pleasant, slightly absent companion. And, by heaven, I wanted more than that.

The kettle began to hiss furiously at me.

When I took the tea in Claire put her arms round me and looked up into

my face. “Have we really a right to be as happy as this?” she said. Her “we” had a sardonic sound for me. “We’ll simply have to put up with it,” I said, “until we can find an excuse for being a little miserable.”

That was Wednesday night. Vivienne had said that she would be ht for Monday. Each of the next three evenings I saw Claire off with the same futile feeling of anguish. And each night I had to conceal the despair inflicted on me by the sparkle and vivacity she brought home with her. On Saturday she returned with a bouquet of flowers the cast had given her. She put them in a big crackleware vase in the lounge. “Well, that’s that,” she said, and sighed. I tried my best to interpret it as relief at the end of an ordeal but I was never good at fooling myself.

THE following morning I awoke at eight to hear a key turning in the lock. It couldn’t be Mrs. Blacker because on Sundays she only came for a couple of hours mid-morning. I got out of bed and went down. It was Mrs. Blacker. “After all these late nights thought you’d like breakfast in bed,” she said.

“Not for me, thank you,” I said. “I strew crumbs and spill things. But the breadwinner upstairs will no doubt revel in it. I’ll go and tell her.”

“I wouldn’t want her bothering until nine.”

“To hear is to obey. I’ll go into the village and get the Sunday papers. We may as well do the thing properly.” It was a superb morning with a nip in the air. Smoke rose from the chimneys in the village in straight interweaving spirals. The smell of frying bacon was everywhere. The old woman at the newsagents squawked at me in a friendly way for messing her up while she was sorting the papers. I collected four and as I walked back through the village I opened the Sunday Herald at Babcock’s column.

It was headed: Playwright’s Wife

Triumphs.

And below: “I have heen a critic of the theatre for a quarter of a century and I thought I had witnessed every phenomenon the stage had to offer. I was wrong.” Then he went on to sketch a brief history of The Wrathful Dove: Claire’s opening, her marriage

and withdrawal, Vivienne’s influenza and Claire’s return to fill the breach. But it was the third paragraph that brought me to a standstill.

“Four months ago,” it read, “Miss Claire Hath way was a clever actreas who knew every artifice of the stage and used her knowledge with skill. Last night she threw overboard all her science and became one of the subtlest interpreters I have seen on the stage for many years. She could inject wit into a silence, a whole volume of pathos into a monosyllable, express crushing contempt with a swing of her skirt.” And so it went on for another twenty lines or more.

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I folded the paper into four and stuffed it into the pocket of my tweed jacket. Mrs. Blacker heard me enter the house and shouted for me to go up; she would bring my breakfast with Claire’s.

Claire was half-sitting in bed, her knees drawn up. She had evidently washed and run a comb through her hair. But she was wearing no mase-up. It made her look incredibly young.

She chuckled when she saw me: “Do you know that this is the first time I have had breakfast in bed since I was thirteen and had German measles?” she said.

“Which must he at least twelve months ago.” I threw three newspapers on the bed. “The week’s horror to sharpen your appetite.”

She patted the bed and I sat down beside her. That fourth paper bulked hard and ugly in my pocket and suddenly I knew that I had never felt so contemptible in my life. T brought out the paper and tossed it down on the bed, with my life: “There’s a little

something in here that might interest you.” I pointed to Babcock’s article.

C^LAIRE looked at me, puzzled, and A then began to read. With her head bent her hair fell forward over her cheeks. Somewhere a late-rising cock crowed. 1 got up and walked to the window. I heard Claire whistle and I looked round. She raised her eyebrows at me and said: “My goodness!” Then she went on reading. I looked out again over the lawns. I heard the sound of crumpling paper. Claire’s cheeks were a little flushed; her eyes were bright. “Well, isn’t he a darling!” she said. “Once upon a time I would have been in the clouds, reading that.”

I stood at the foot of the bed. “But now?”

She laid her hands flat on the dovecolored counterpane and looked at them; the pale eggshell tan on her forearms faded into a creamy whiteness a little above her elbows. “Do you want me to go back?” she said.

She surely wasn’t trying to manoeuvre me into a position where I was supposed to persuade her to go back? “Not if you don’t want to. And I’ve no right to stop you if you do.” “But if I did it wouldn’t be the same between us. We would lose something,, wouldn’t we?”

“But you would also gain something.. That’s the way things usually are.” How reasonable we were being, how judicial. I walked away to the window.

“Hasn’t the work I’ve done with you down here on the new play been useful?”

“Invaluable.” I could say that witfy honesty. She was being generous; she was trying to make it appear that the choice was really a very difficult one to make. I would have been ashamed to be less generous. “But when you set that against Babcock’s ‘one of the subtlest interpreters I have seen on the stage for many years’ . . , ?”

She smiled, a faint curling of the^ corners of her mouth. “Oh, those four nights were a gorgeous romp. I enjoyed myself. Perhaps even I wasn’t bad. And if I wasn’t I’m terribly happy about it because it at least showed you what from the very beginning I wanted to prove to you: that I have a little

talent, that 1 wasn’t simply a stagestruck little idiot. I’ll go back if you want me to.” She brushed a lock of hair back from her face. “But I’m afraid it wouldn’t last, Robert.”

For the first time it occurred to me that she might actually believe that I wanted her to go back to the stage.

I didn’t really know what to think. “Why not? Why wouldn’t it last, Claire?”

“Because its roots are in this”—she made a little gesture with her hand —“us, here together Without thi*, whatever talent. I have would shrivel and die—as it was dead before I had this.”

I sat down on the bed and said very slowly: “But wouldn’t you still have

She looked down-at her hands which were clasped now. “What I gave to (he other I would have to take from this. You wouldn’t want me to spoil this, Robert? And if I did, I wouldn’t have the other. We’d end with nothing

at all.” She looked up. “I’m saying it badly. But it’s true. I don’t want you to think I’m simply being selfish in n ^t wanting to go back.”

I felt terribly ashamed of myself, and very happy; I wanted to laugh aloud. 1 said: “Well, if everything must be

sacrificed on the altar of your selfindulgence -so be it.”

She looked up anxiously into my face -the 'jght from the window was behind më-^A'ntil she saw my expression and then the'cornersof her mouth began to quiver upward. 1 leaned over her. She began to laugh and

wriggled away from me. “Hush, now,” she said. “Mrs. Blacker is coming up.’* There was a tap on the door and Mrs. Blacker came in carrying a loaded tray. Claire collected herself first. “My, that smells good. Mrs. Blacker,” she said.

Mrs. Blacker gave us a stern and very discerning look as she set the tray down on the night table. “Well don’t go and play about and let it spoil.” she said. “You know you don’t like tepid coffee.”

Which was true.

But really cold it tfn’t at all. it