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CHAPTER 6

Performance

At ten-to-eight Martyn stood by the entrance.

She was dressed in Gay’s clothes and Jacko had made her up very lightly. They had all wished her luck: J.G., Parry Percival, Helena Hamilton, Adam Poole, Clem Smith and even the dressers and stagehands.

There had been something real and touching in their way of doing this so that, even in her terror, she had felt they were good and very kind. Bennington alone had not wished her well but he had kept right away and this abstention, she thought, showed a certain generosity.

She no longer felt sick but the lining of her mouth and throat was harsh as if, in fact, she had actually vomited. She thought her sense of hearing must have become distorted. The actors’ voices on the other side of the canvas wall had the remote quality of voices in a nightmare whereas the hammer-blows of her heart and the rustle of her dress that accompanied them sounded exceeding loud.

She saw the frames of the set, their lashings and painted legends, ‘Act I, P. 2’ and the door which she was to open. She could look into the prompt corner where the ASM followed the lighted script with his finger and where, high above him, the electrician leaned over his perch, watching the play. The stage-lights were reflected into his face. Everything was monstrous in its preoccupation. Martyn was alone.

She tried to command the upsurge of panic in her heart, to practise an approach to her ordeal, to create, in place of these implacable realities, the reality of the house in the play and that part of it in which now, out of sight of the audience, she must already have her being. This attempt went down before the clamour of her nerves. ‘I’m going to fail,’ she thought.

Jacko came round the set. She hoped he wouldn’t speak to her and as if he sensed this wish, he stopped at a distance and waited.

‘I must listen,’ she thought. ‘I’m not listening. I don’t know where they’ve got to. I’ve forgotten which way the door opens. I’ve missed my cue.’ Her inside deflated and despair griped it like a colic.

She turned and found Poole beside her.

‘You’re all right,’ he said. ‘The door opens on. You can do it. Now, my girl. On you go.’

Martyn didn’t hear the round of applause with which a London audience greets a player who appears at short notice.

She was on. She had made her entry and was engulfed in the play.

II

Dr Rutherford sat in the OP box with his massive shoulder turned to the house and his gloved hands folded together on the balustrade. His face was in shadow but the stage-lights just touched the bulging curve of his old-fashioned shirt-front. He was monumentally still. One of the critics, an elderly man, said in an aside to a colleague, that Rutherford reminded him of Watt’s picture of the Minotaur.

For the greater part of the first act he was alone, having, as he had explained in the office, no masochistic itch to invite a guest to a Roman holiday where he himself was the major sacrifice. Towards the end of the act, however, Bob Grantley came into the box and stood behind him. Grantley’s attention was divided. Sometimes he looked down through beams of spot-lights at the stalls, cobbled with heads, sometimes at the stage and sometimes, sideways and with caution, at the doctor himself. Really, Grantley thought, he was quite uncomfortably motionless. One couldn’t tell what he was thinking and one hesitated, the Lord knew, to ask him.

Down on the stage Clark Bennington and Parry Percival and J.G. Darcey had opened the long crescendo leading to Helena’s entrance. Grantley thought suddenly how vividly an actor’s nature could be exposed on the stage: there was for instance a kind of bed-rock niceness about old J.G., a youthfulness of spirit that declaimed itself through the superimposed make-up, the characterization and J.G.’s indisputable middle-age. And Bennington? And Percival? Grantley had begun to consider them in these terms when Percival, speaking one of his colourless lines, turned down-stage. Bennington moved centre, looked at Darcey and neatly sketched a parody of Percival’s somewhat finicking movement. The theatre was filled with laughter. Percival turned quickly, Bennington smiled innocently at him, prolonging the laugh.

Grantley looked apprehensively at the doctor.

‘Is that new?’ he ventured in a whisper. ‘That business?’

The doctor didn’t answer and Grantley wondered if he only imagined that the great hands on the balustrade had closed more tightly over each other.

Helena Hamilton came on to a storm of applause and with her entrance the action was roused to a new excitement and was intensified with every word she uttered. The theatre grew warm with her presence and with a sense of heightened surprise.

‘Now they’re all on,’ Grantley thought, ‘except Adam and the girl.’

He drew a chair forward stealthily and sat behind Rutherford.

‘It’s going enormously,’ he murmured to the massive shoulder. ‘Terrific, old boy.’ And because he was nervous he added: ‘This brings the girl on, doesn’t it?’

For the first time, the doctor spoke. His lips scarcely moved. A submerged voice uttered within him. ‘Hence,’ it said, ‘heap of wrath, foul indigested lump.’

‘Sorry, old boy,’ whispered Grantley and began to wonder what hope in hell there was of persuading the distinguished author to have a drink in the office during the interval with a hand-picked number of important persons.

He was still preoccupied with this problem when a side door in the set opened and a dark girl with short hair walked out on the stage.

Grantley joined in the kindly applause. The doctor remained immovable.

The players swept up to their major climax, Adam came on and five minutes later the curtain fell on the first act. The hands of the audience filled the house with a storm of rain. The storm swelled prodigiously and persisted even after the lights had come up.

‘Ah, good girl,’ Bob Grantley stammered, filled with the sudden and excessive emotion of the theatre. ‘Good old Adam. Jolly good show!’

Greatly daring, he clapped the doctor on the shoulders.

The doctor remained immovable.

Grantley edged away to the back of the box. ‘I must get back,’ he said. ‘Look, John, there are one or two people coming to the office for a drink who would be –’

The doctor turned massively in his seat and faced him.

‘No,’ he said, ‘thank you.’

‘Well, but look, dear boy, it’s just one of those things. You know how it is, John, you know how –’

‘Shut up,’ said the doctor, without any particular malice. ‘I’m going back-stage,’ he added. He rose and turned away from the audience. ‘I have no desire to swill tepid spirits with minor celebrities among the backsides of sandblasted gods. Thank you, however. See you later.’

He opened the pass-door at the back of the box.

‘You’re pleased, aren’t you?’ Grantley said. ‘You must be pleased.’

‘Must I? Must I indeed?’

‘With the girl, at least? So far?’

‘The wench is a good wench. So far. I go to tell her so. By your leave, Robert.’

He lumbered through the pass-door and Grantley heard him plunge dangerously down the narrow stairway to the stage.

III

Dr Rutherford emerged in a kaleidoscopic world: a world where walls fell softly apart, landscapes ascended into darkness and stairways turned and moved aside. A blue haze rose from the stage which was itself in motion. Jacko’s first set revolved bodily, giving way to a new and more distorted version of itself which came to rest, facing the curtain. Masking pieces were run forward to frame it in. The doctor started off for the dressing-room passage and was at once involved with moving flats. ‘If you please, sir.’ ‘Stand aside, there, please.’ ‘Clear stage, by your leave.’ His bulky shape was screened and exposed again and again plunged forward confusedly. Warning bells rang, the call-boy began to chant: ‘Second Act beginners, please. Second Act.’

‘Lights,’ Clem Smith said.

The shifting world stood still. Circuit by circuit the lights came on and bore down on the acting area. The last toggle-line slapped home and was made fast and the sweating stage-hands walked disinterestedly off the set. Clem Smith, with his back to the curtain, made a final check. ‘Clear stage,’ he said and looked at his watch. The curtain-hand climbed an iron ladder.

‘Six minutes,’ said the ASM. He wrote it on his chart. Clem moved into the prompt corner. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Actors, please.’

J. G. Darcey and Parry Percival walked on to the set and took up their positions. Helena Hamilton came out of her dressing-room. She stood with her hands clasped lightly at her waist at a little distance from the door by which she must enter. A figure emerged from the shadows near the passage and went up to her.

‘Miss Hamilton,’ Martyn said nervously, ‘I’m not on for your quick change. I can do it.’

Helena turned. She looked at Martyn for a moment with an odd fixedness. Then a smile of extraordinary charm broke across her face and she took Martyn’s head lightly between her hands.

‘My dear child,’ she murmured, ‘my ridiculous child.’ She hesitated for a moment and then said briskly: ‘I’ve got a new dresser.’

‘A new dresser?’

‘Jacko. He’s most efficient.’

Poole came down the passage. She turned to him and linked her arm through his. ‘She’s going to be splendid in her scene,’ she said. ‘Isn’t she?’

Poole said: ‘Keep it up, Kate. All’s well.’ And in the look he gave Helena Hamilton there was something of comradeship, something of compassion and something, perhaps, of gratitude.

Dr Rutherford emerged from the passage and addressed himself to Martyn: ‘Here!’ he said. ‘I’ve been looking for you, my pretty. You might be a lot worse, considering, but you haven’t done anything yet. When you play this next scene, my poppet, these few precepts in thy –’

‘No, John,’ Poole and Helena Hamilton said together. ‘Not now.’

He glowered at them. Poole nodded to Martyn who began to move away but had not got far before she heard Rutherford say: ‘Have you tackled that fellow? Did you see it? Where is he? By God, when I get at him –’

‘Stand by,’ said Clem Smith.

‘Quiet, John,’ said Poole imperatively. ‘Back to your box, sir.’

The curtain rose on the second act.

For the rest of her life the physical events that were encompassed by the actual performance of the play were to be almost lost for Martyn: indeed she could not be perfectly certain that they had happened at all. She might have been under hypnosis or some partial anaesthesia for all the reality they afterwards retained.

This odd condition which was perhaps the result of some kind of physical compensation for the extreme assault on her nerves and emotion, persisted until she made her final exit in the last act. It happened some time before the curtain. The character she played was the first to relinquish its hold and to fade out of the picture. She came off and returned to her corner near the entry into the passage. The others were all on, the dressers and stage-staff, drawn by the hazards of a first night watched from the side and Jacko was near the prompt corner. The passage and dressing-rooms seemed deserted and Martyn was quite alone. She began to emerge from her trancelike suspension. Parry Percival and J.G. Darcey came off and, in turn, spoke to her.

Parry said incoherently: ‘Darling, you were perfectly splendid. I’m just so angry at the moment I can’t speak but I do congratulate you.’

Martyn saw that he actually trembled with an emotion that was, she must suppose, fury. Out of the dream from which she was not yet fully awakened there came a memory of gargantuan laughter and she thought she associated it with Bennington and with Percival. He said: ‘This settles it. I’m taking action. God, this settles it!’ and darted down the passage.

Martyn thought, still confusedly, that she should go to the dressing-room and tidy her make-up for the curtain call. But it was not her dressing-room, it was Gay’s and she felt uneasy about it. While she hesitated J. G. Darcey came off.

He put his hand on Martyn’s shoulder. ‘Well done, child,’ he said. ‘A very creditable performance.’

Martyn thanked him and, on an impulse, added: ‘Mr Darcey, is Gay still here? Should I say something to her? I’d like to but I know how she must feel and I don’t want to be clumsy.’

He waited for a moment, looking at her. ‘She’s in the greenroom,’ he said. ‘Perhaps later. Not now, I think. Nice of you.’

‘I won’t unless you say so, then.’

He made her a little bow. ‘I am at your service,’ he said and followed Percival down the passage.

Jacko came round the set with the stage-hand who was to fire the effects gun. When he saw Martyn his whole face split in a grin. He took her hands in his and kissed them and she was overwhelmed with shyness.

‘But your face,’ he said, wrinkling his own into a monkey’s grimace. ‘It shines like a good deed in a naughty world. Do not touch it yourself. To your dressing-room. I come in two minutes. Away, before your ears are blasted.’

He moved down-stage, applied his eye to a secret hole in the set through which he could watch the action and held out his arm in warning to the stage-hand who then lifted the effects gun. Martyn went down the passage as Bennington came off. He caught her up: ‘Miss Tarne. Wait a moment, will you?’

Dreading another intolerable encounter Martyn faced him. His make-up had been designed to exhibit the brutality of the character and did so all too successfully. The lips were painted a florid red, the pouches under the eyes and the sensual drag from the nostrils to the mouth had been carefully emphasized. He was sweating heavily through the greasepaint and his face glistened in the dull light of the passage.

‘I just wanted to say’ – he began and at that moment the gun was fired and Martyn gave an involuntary cry; he went on talking –’when I see it,’ he was saying, ‘I suppose you aren’t to be blamed for that. You saw your chance and took it. Gay and Adam tell me you offered to get out and were not allowed to go. That may be fair enough: I wouldn’t know. But I’m not worrying about that.’ He spoke disjointedly. It was as if his thoughts were too disordered for any coherent expression. ‘I just wanted to tell you that you needn’t suppose what I’m going to do – you needn’t think – I mean –’

He touched his shining face with the palm of his hand. Jacko came down the passage and took Martyn by the elbow. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘into your room. You want powdering, Ben. Excuse me.’

Bennington went into his own room. Jacko thrust Martyn into hers, and leaving the door open followed Bennington. She heard him say: ‘Take care with your upper lip. It is dripping with sweat.’ He darted back to Martyn, stood her near the dressing-shelf and, with an expression of the utmost concentration effected a number of what he called running repairs to her make-up and her hair. They heard Percival and Darcey go past on their way to the stage. A humming noise caused by some distant dynamo made itself heard, the tap in the wash-basin dripped, the voices on the stage sounded intermittently. Martyn looked at Gay’s make-up box, at her dressing-gown and at the array of mascots on the shelf and wished very heavily that Jacko would have done. Presently the call-boy came down the passage with his summons for the final curtain. ‘Come,’ said Jacko.

He took her round to the prompt side.

Here she found a group already waiting: Darcey and Percival, Clem Smith, the two dressers and, at a distance, one or two stagehands. They all watched the final scene between Helena Hamilton and Adam Poole. In this scene Rutherford tied up and stated finally the whole thesis of his play. The man was faced with his ultimate decision. Would he stay and attempt, with the woman, to establish a sane and enlightened formula for living in place of the one he himself had destroyed or would he go back to his island community and attempt a further development within himself and in a less complex environment? As throughout the play, the conflict was set out in terms of human and personal relationships. It could be played like many another love scene, purely on those terms. Or it could be so handled that the wider implications could be felt by the audience and in the hands of these two players that was what happened. The play ended with them pledging themselves to each other and to an incredible task. As Poole spoke the last lines the electrician, with one eye on Clem below, played madly over his switchboard. The entire set changed its aspect, seemed to dissolve, turned threadbare, a skeleton, a wraith, while beyond it a wide stylized landscape was flooded with light and became as Poole spoke the tag, the background upon which the curtain fell.

‘Might as well be back in panto,’ said the electrician leaning on his dimmers, ‘we got the transformation scene. All we want’s the bloody fairy queen.’

It was at this moment, when the applause seemed to surge forward and beat against the curtains, when Clem shouted: ‘All on,’ and Dr Rutherford plunged out of the OP pass-door, when the players walked on and linked hands, that Poole, looking hurriedly along the line, said: ‘Where’s Ben?’

One of those panic-stricken crises peculiar to the theatre boiled up on the instant. From her position between Darcey and Percival on the stage Martyn saw the call-boy make some kind of protest to Clem Smith and disappear. Above the applause they heard him hare down the passage, yelling: ‘Mr Bennington! Mr Bennington! Please! You’re on!’

‘We can’t wait,’ Poole shouted. ‘Take it up, Clem.’

The curtain rose and Martyn looked into a sea of faces and hands. She felt herself led forward into the roaring swell, bowed with the others, felt Darcey’s and Percival’s hands tighten on hers, bowed again and with them retreated a few steps up-stage as the first curtain fell.

‘Well?’ Poole shouted into the wings. The call-boy could be heard beating on the dressing-room door.

Percival said: ‘What’s the betting he comes on for a star call?’

‘He’s passed out,’ said Darcey. ‘Had one or two more since he came off.’

‘By God, I wouldn’t cry if he never came to.’

‘Go on, Clem,’ said Poole.

The curtain rose and fell again, twice. Percival and Darcey took Martyn off and it went up again on Poole and Helena Hamilton, this time to those cries of ‘bravo’ that reach the actors as a long open sound like the voice of a singing wind. In the wings, Clem Smith with his eyes on the stage was saying repeatedly: ‘He doesn’t answer. He’s locked in. The b____doesn’t answer.’

Martyn saw Poole coming towards her and stood aside. He seemed to tower over her as he took her hand. ‘Come along,’ he said. Darcey and Percival and the group offstage began to clap.

Poole led her on. She felt herself resisting and heard him say: ‘Yes, it’s all right.’

So bereft was Martyn of her normal stage-wiseness that he had to tell her to bow. She did so and wondered why there was a warm sound of laughter in the applause. She looked at Poole, found he was bowing to her and bent her head under his smile. He returned her to the wings.

They were all on again. Dr Rutherford came out from the OP corner. The cast joined in the applause. Martyn’s heart had begun to sing so loudly that it was like to deafen every emotion but a universal gratitude. She thought Rutherford looked like an old lion standing there in his out-of-date evening-dress, his hair ruffled, his gloved hand touching his bulging shirt, bowing in an unwieldy manner to the audience and to the cast. He moved forward and the theatre was abruptly silent: silent, but for an obscure and intermittent thudding in the dressing-room passage. Clem Smith said something to the ASM and rushed away, jingling keys.

‘Hah,’ said Dr Rutherford with a preliminary bellow. ‘Hah – thankee. I’m much obliged to you, ladies and gentlemen and to the actors. The actors are much obliged, no doubt, to you but not necessarily to me.’ Here the audience laughed and the actors smiled. ‘I am not able to judge,’ the doctor continued with a rich roll in his voice, ‘whether you have extracted from this play the substance of its argument. If you have done so we may all felicitate each other with the indiscriminate enthusiasm characteristic of these occasions: if you have not, I for my part am not prepared to say where the blame should rest.’

A solitary man laughed in the audience. The doctor rolled an eye at him and, with this clownish trick, brought the house down. ‘The prettiest epilogue to a play that I am acquainted with,’ he went on, ‘is (as I need perhaps hardly mention to so intelligent an audience) that written for a boy-actor by William Shakespeare. I am neither a boy nor an actor but I beg leave to end by quoting to you. “If it be true that good wine needs no bush – ”’

‘Gas!’ Parry Percival said under his breath. Martyn, who thought the doctor was going well, glanced indignantly at Parry and was astonished to see that he looked frightened.

‘“ – therefore”,’ the doctor was saying arrogantly, ‘“to beg will not become me –”’

‘Gas!’ said an imperative voice off-stage and someone else ran noisily round the back of the set.

And then Martyn smelt it. Gas.

IV

To the actors it seemed afterwards as if they had been fantastically slow to understand that disaster had come upon the theatre. The curtain went down on Dr Rutherford’s last word. There was a further outbreak of applause. Someone off-stage shouted: ‘The King, for God’s sake,’ and at once the anthem rolled out disinterestedly in the well. Poole ran off the stage and was met by Clem Smith who had a bunch of keys in his hand. The rest followed him.

The area back-stage reeked of gas.

It was extraordinary how little was said. The players stood together and looked about them with the question in their faces that they were unable to ask.

Poole said: ‘Keep all visitors out, Clem. Send them to the foyer.’ And at once the ASM spoke into the prompt telephone. Bob Grantley burst through the pass-door, beaming from ear to ear.

Stupendous!’ he shouted. ‘John! Ella! Adam! My God, chaps, you’ve done it –’

He stood, stock-still, his arms extended, the smile dying on his face.

‘Go back, Bob,’ Poole said. ‘Cope with the people. Ask our guests to go on and not wait for us. Ben’s ill. Clem: get all available doors open. We want air.’

Grantley said: ‘Gas?’

‘Quick,’ Poole said. ‘Take them with you. Settle them down and explain. He’s ill. Then ring me here. But quickly, Bob. Quickly.’

Grantley went out without another word.

‘Where is he?’ Dr Rutherford demanded.

Helena Hamilton suddenly said: ‘Adam?’

‘Go on to the stage, Ella. It’s better you shouldn’t be here, believe me. Kate will stay with you. I’ll come in a moment.’

‘Here you are, Doctor,’ said Clem Smith.

There was a blundering sound in the direction of the passage. Rutherford said, ‘Open the dock doors,’ and went behind the set.

Poole thrust Helena through the prompt entry and shut the door behind her. Draughts of cold air came through the side entrances.

‘Kate,’ Poole said, ‘go in and keep her there if you can. Will you? And, Kate –’

Rutherford reappeared and with him four stage-hands bearing with difficulty the inert body of Clark Bennington, the head swinging upside down between the two leaders, its mouth wide open.

Poole moved quickly but he was too late to shield Martyn.

‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘Go in with Helena.’

‘Anyone here done respiration for gassed cases?’ Dr Rutherford demanded. ‘I can start but I’m not good for long.’

‘I can,’ said the ASM. ‘I was a warden.’

‘I can,’ said Jacko.

‘And I,’ said Poole.

‘In the dock then. Shut these doors and open the outer ones.’

Kneeling by Helena Hamilton and holding her hand, Martyn heard the doors roll back and the shambling steps go into the dock. The doors crashed behind them.

Martyn said: ‘They’re giving him respiration, Dr Rutherford’s there.’

Helena nodded with an air of sagacity. Her face was quite without expression, and she was shivering.

‘I’ll get your coat,’ Martyn said. It was in the improvised dressing-room on the OP side. She was back in a moment and put Helena into it as if she was a child, guiding her arms and wrapping the fur about her.

A voice off-stage – J. G. Darcey’s – said: ‘Where’s Gay? Is Gay still in the greenroom?’

Martyn was astonished when Helena, behind the mask that had become her face, said loudly: ‘Yes. She’s there. In the greenroom.’

There was a moment’s silence and then J.G. said: ‘She mustn’t stay there. Good God –

’ They heard him go away.

Parry Percival’s voice announced abruptly that he was going to be sick. ‘But where?’ he cried distractedly. ‘Where?’

‘In your dressing-room for Pete’s sake,’ Clem Smith said.

‘It’ll be full of gas. Oh, really!’ There was an agonized and not quite silent interval. ‘I couldn’t be more sorry,’ Percival said weakly.

‘I want,’ Helena said, ‘to know what happened. I want to see Adam. Ask him to come, please.’

Martyn made for the door but before she reached it Dr Rutherford came in, followed by Poole. Rutherford had taken off his coat and was a fantastic sight in boiled shirt, black trousers and red braces.

‘Well, Ella,’ he said, ‘this is not a nice business. We’re doing everything that can be done. I’m getting a new oxygen thing in as quickly as possible. There have been some remarkable saves in these cases. But I think you ought to know it’s a thinnish chance. There’s no pulse and so on.’

‘I want,’ she said, holding out her hand to Poole, ‘to know what happened.’

Poole said gently: ‘All right, Ella, you shall. It looks as if Ben locked himself in after his exit and then turned the gas-fire off – and on again. When Clem unlocked the door and went in he found Ben on the floor. His head was near the fire and a coat over both. He could only have been like that for quite a short time.’

‘This theatre,’ she said. ‘This awful theatre.’

Poole looked as if he would make some kind of protest but after a moment’s hesitation he said: ‘All right, Ella. Perhaps it did suggest the means but if he had made up his mind he would, in any case, have found the means.’

‘Why?’ she said. ‘Why has he done it?’

Dr Rutherford growled inarticulately and went out. They heard him open and shut the dock doors. Poole sat down by Helena and took her hands in his. Martyn was going but he looked up at her and said: ‘No, don’t. Don’t go, Kate,’ and she waited near the door.

‘This is no time,’ Poole said, ‘to speculate. He may be saved. If he isn’t, then we shall of course ask ourselves just why. But he was in a bad way, Ella. He’d gone to pieces and he knew it.’

‘I wasn’t much help,’ she said, ‘was I? Though it’s true to say I did try for quite a long time.’

‘Indeed you did. There’s one thing you must be told. If it’s no go with Ben, we’ll have to inform the police.’

She put her hand to her forehead as if she was puzzled. ‘The police?’ she repeated and stared at him. ‘No, darling, no!’ she cried and after a moment whispered. ‘They might think – oh, darling, darling, darling, the Lord knows what they think!’

The door up-stage opened and Gay Gainsford came in, followed by Darcey.

She was in her street clothes and at some time during the evening had made extensive repairs to her face which wore, at the moment, an expression oddly compounded of triumph and distraction. Before she could speak she was seized with a paroxysm of coughing.

Darcey said: ‘Is it all right for Gay to wait here?’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Helena.

He went out and Poole followed him saying he would return.

‘Darling,’ Miss Gainsford gasped. ‘I knew. I knew as soon as I smelt it. There’s a Thing in this theatre. Everything pointed to it. I just sat there and knew.’ She coughed again. ‘Oh I do feel so sick,’ she said.

‘Gay for pity’s sake what are you talking about?’ Helena said.

‘It was Fate, I felt. I wasn’t a bit surprised. I just knew something had to happen tonight.’

‘Do you mean to say,’ Helena murmured, and the wraith of her gift for irony was on her mouth, ‘that you just sat in the greenroom with your finger raised, telling yourself it was Fate?’

‘Darling Aunty – I’m sorry. I forgot – darling, Ella, wasn’t it amazing?’

Helena made a little gesture of defeat. Miss Gainsford looked at her for a moment and then, with the prettiest air of compassion, knelt at her feet. ‘Sweet,’ she said, ‘I’m so terribly, terribly sorry. We’re together in this, aren’t we? He was my uncle and your husband.’

‘True enough,’ said Helena. She looked at Martyn over the head bent in devoted commiseration, and shook her own helplessly. Gay Gainsford sank into a sitting posture and leant her cheek against Helena’s hand. The hand, after a courteous interval, was withdrawn.

There followed a very long silence. Martyn sat at a distance and wondered if there was anything in the world she could do to help. There was an intermittent murmur of voices somewhere offstage. Gay Gainsford, feeling perhaps that she had sustained her position long enough, moved by gradual degrees away from her aunt by marriage, rose and, sighing heavily, transferred herself to the sofa.

Time dragged on, mostly in silence. Helena lit one cigarette from the butt of another, Gay sighed with infuriating punctuality and Martyn’s thoughts drifted sadly about the evaporation of her small triumph.

Presently there were sounds of arrival. One or two persons walked round the set from the outside entry to the dock and were evidently admitted into it.

‘Who can that be, I wonder?’ Helena Hamilton asked idly, and after a moment, ‘Is Jacko about?’

‘I’ll see,’ said Martyn.

She found Jacko off-stage with Darcey and Parry Percival. Percival was saying: ‘Well, naturally, nobody wants to go to the party but I must say that as one is quite evidently useless here I don’t see why one can’t go home.’

Jacko said: ‘You would be recalled by the police, I dare say, if you went.’

He caught sight of Martyn who went up to him. His face was beaded with sweat. ‘What is it, my small?’ he asked. ‘This is a sad epilogue to your success story. Never mind. What is it?’

‘I think Miss Hamilton would like to see you?’

‘Then, I come. It is time, in any case.’

He took her by the elbow and they went in together. When Helena saw him she seemed to rouse herself. ‘Jacko?’ she said.

He didn’t answer and she got up quickly and went to him. ‘Jacko! What is it? Has it happened?’

Jacko’s hands, so refined and delicate that they seemed like those of another man, touched her hair and her face.

‘It has happened,’ he said. ‘We have tried very hard but nothing is any good at all and there is no more to be done. He has taken wing.’

Gay Gainsford broke into a fit of sobbing but Helena stooped her head to Jacko’s shoulder and when his arms had closed about her said: ‘Help me to feel something, Jacko. I’m quite empty of feeling. Help me to be sorry.’

Above her head, Jacko’s face, glistening with sweat, grotesque and primitive, had the fixed inscrutability of a classic mask.