I SHALL write the last paragraph first. As I rose to go, after our talk together, Ronnie said to me: "If anyone had asked me, five minutes before you came in to give the story I have given to you I would have said, 'No, no, NO and you KNOW that is it no!'
I was seeing Ronnie for the firs time after his nine months' trip abroad. I said, "I'm not going to ask you how you reacted to the Eiffel Tower, or wherever you were. I want something different - something you have never told before - the story of your Great Love, perhaps" - and I laughed as I said that. I knew better certainly, than to suppose that Ronnie would divulge one syllable on anything even approaching the sentimental, the emotional or more than the superficially personal aspects of his guarded life.'
He smiled and shook his dark head. He said, "The sweeter a thing is the more impossible it is for me to talk about it. Fine things are finer, I think, when kept to one's self - "
I said, "Then there was something - of course - "
Ronnie evaded.... "If I had not become an actor," he said.
I won't go into all the details of that preliminary talk of ours that led, at long last, to Ronald Colman's talking as, I can swear, he has never talked before for publication. Talking of the romance in his life, unforgotten, forever unforgettable. Of the great romance, his marriage notwithstanding. And all the while he was talking I had the feeling that I must be in a dream from which I would soon awaken. A dream, surely, that I had dared to venture on to the hinterland of Ronald Colman's personal life, private life, romantic life; dared to ask him about anything more intimate than his belief in the art of the theatre, his theory of reincarnation or what he thinks of Hitler.
Perhaps it was one of those potent hours of twilight where a chord is struck and gives forth reverberations whether the player will, or not. Perhaps Ronald may have felt, human-wise, in that hour the sudden need of words, who has been so long silent. Perhaps it was because he had seen Her again, on this last trip of his, and old memories were stirring afresh in his inscrutable heart where, he says, a love once lived can never die.
He said: "It began before the War. We will call her Alice because, if you don't mind, I won't use her real name. She is alive. And Alice is a sweet and tender name. I like it. It fits her, even better than her own.
"I was working, in London, before the War. I spent weekends in Sussex and I met her there. she was one of six children in a wholesome jolly English family. Her mother was - a mother. Her father was adored by every member of his family, by Alice most of all.
I had never been in love before. Not really. Not with marriage in my mind. Funny, but I'd always imagined I would find a girl with sort of golden brown hair and grey eyes, sea grey, and a generous mouth. A girl guiltles of make-up an knowing very little of the unpleasant side of life. I always knew, really, that I would meet this girl. And I knew, also, that there would be a fatalistic aspect to it. I would meet her only to lose her. As Gabriel Rossetti once dreamed of his Blessed Damozel and knew her to be touched with Death and himself with loss so I knew that I would meet the one woman in the world for me - and she would not be for me.
"I MET Alice. I knew her immediately. Not very tall. Golden brown hair. Sea-grey eyes. A red and generous mouth, laughing most of the time - at first. I am forced to believe in the romantic love at first sight of the poets. It happened to me.
"It started out to be the usual thing, once the first startling surprise of finding her was over. We had grand times together. We rode over the downs. We played a lot of tennis, had tea, went to neighborhood balls. I asked her to marrry me. She said that she would. I have never known happiness like that again. I have lived long enough to know that I never will.
"We planned our life together, patterned on the life she and her sisters and brothers had lived in her home. That was her ideal, oknly in a perfect imitation of it could she feel happy. We even found the house we wanted to buy when I should be earning enough money to marry. A brick house, mellowed pale pink by time. There was a garden and a tennis court and there was a sun-dial, old and rather nice. We would have six children. I would go up to the city every morning and she would meet me at the station every night. We would have long week-ends together, riding over the downs as we were doing then. The pattern was there, close around me, secure and safe.
"THEN came the War. Suddenly. It swooped down on us like a martial bird and bore us off. There was no time for goodbyes, either to family or sweethearts, movies and fiction to the contrary. Alice tried to see me off. She missed me. She went to the port at Dover. We embarked from Folkstone. I remember sitting in that train with my battaalion, on a siding, waiting to go. I could see from mly car window the familiar streets I had walked so many times, houses of people I knew. I felt as a dead man might feel, revisiting, himself unseen, old haunts he had known well but which knew him no longer. I knew that I would come back but not as I was then.
"I suppose Alice must have known it, too. I had a letter from her when I reached the front. A pecilled note, scribbled at Dover when she knew that she had missed me. I still have it, somewhere about. I can't remember the wording of it but it told me that she knew I would come safely home again but she would have liked the chance of saying goodbye to the old Ronnie she had known - curious how well we knew each other -
"Because I didn't come back. I won't go into the War and all that it did to all of us. We've had enough of that. Old moorings were torn up and no new ones put down.
We went out. Strangers came back. It was the War that made an actor out of me. When I came back that was all I was good for - acting. I wasn't my own man anymore.
"I didn't realise it at first ... two years of it, four to five months light duty in Scotland then discharged... I tried to get a job. No good. I then tried for a Civil Service post. And while I was waiting for that to mature, if ever, two things happened to me. One was that I knew I didn't want a job and the other was an offer to play a art in a sketch of Rabindranath Tagore's which was being put on at the London Coliseum.
"But first I must go back a bit, I'm getting ahead of myself. During the War I had seen Alice three or four times at home, on leave. They had been unsatisfying and unsatisfactory meetings. We were like two strangers clinging together in a fog, unable to see one another's faces. I w as in love with her. She was in love with me. It was love right enough, God knows. And that single thread, strong as a cable, held us together. I would tell her that once the War was over everything would be as it had been. I think she knew that I was whistling in the dark...
"I ACCEPTED the part at the Coliseum. I told Alice that same day. And if I had told her that I was going into a freak show as the tattooed man she couldn't have been more shocked, more disapproving. She was still in the state of mind of her forebears to whom actors were mummers, little better than gypsies, the kid of people one did not know. Her father was the type of man who would as soon have introduced his daughter to convicted criminals as to an actor I told her that I was doing it only because I badly needed a little money. I wasn't taking it seriously, of course. I would probably be a most frightful crash. I thought I was telling her the whole truth, then. She knew that I was not.
"I played that part. I got some good notices, attention, interest. I was offered a good part in 'Misleading Lady' with Gladys Cooper. In London.
"I told Alice about that. We talked about it and that talk was our real farewell. She couldn't understand. It was the death-rather-than-dishonour attitude. She could never lead the life of an actor's wife. She would be, she told me, all the things an actor's wife should never be; jealous, lonely; out of sympathy. Out of it all. How could e ever have the life we'd planned in Sussex? She wanted that home. She couldn't live outside of Sussex. She wanted children. She wanted her children to be able to look at their father with pride. An actor -
"I KNEW, then, that Alice was the type of woman, essentially fine and good, to whom love is twenty-five percent emotion and seventy-five percent home and children. It was as it should be. She was as all women should be. But for the completion of her real life she needed a man with his feet firmly on the earth. My feet had been shot off the earth.
"WE CAME to an agreement. I should play the part. I did need the money. It was not my fault that I had not been able to get a job. If the play failed, or if I failed in the play, that should be an end of it. If it succeeded - but neither of us quite faced that - "
It was, Ronald said, a most extraordinary opening night. Probably no actor has ever experienced a similar one. He was doing his first part on the London stage. He was face to face, with startling immediacy, with his first real opportunity. And he was hoping that he would fail. And he knew that he was not failing. He was not failing because he forgot that he was Ronald Colman. He became the character he was playing. And he experienced a sense of blessed relief in his ability to sink himself into the life of another. This was what he wanted - more than anything - the playing of other men's lives.
In the audience he glimpsed, now and then, the face of Alice. There was no pride in it. There was no elation at the creditable performance he was giving, at the applause he received. There was, rather, a faint disgust, an instinctive revulsion.
"We had supper together that night," Ronnie told me, "at the Carlton. I told her I would have to to on. I had found the only thing I was good for. We didn't say very much. I can remember mostly silences. We were, again, two strangers who could not see one another's faces. Then she seemed to come, with a great effort, out of the fog. She laid her hand on mine. She said that she cared too much, we cared too much. It would be a terrific job for her to handle but she would do her best. We would be married, as we had planned. We would have our home in Sussex. I would come to her there, when I could.....
"I went to Sussex over the next Sunday. The play was going splendidly. I had got off with a bang, right at the start. I knew that I was set. I told her that I must not marry her. I tried to make her see that she was a woman to whom home and children and an orderly pattern of life were seventy-five percent of love. If I disturbed that pattern I would kill her love. It was a tragedy - a tragedy that it had worked out as it had. But she loved me too little really to accept my pattern of life and I loved her too well to allow her to accept it. I told her that I knew I was losing the realest thing in the world - for an unreality. But unreality was the only kind of world I I could live in now. I wasn't blind to what I was doing. I knew that it would mark me for the rest of my days.
"And so, because she knew that what I said was true, it was goodbye -
"I MET her again seven years ago, in Venice. We must have been on the same train because, when I stepped into a gondola at the station on my way to my hotel she was there, too. I saw her before she saw me. And it was intensely painful. Not because I was disillusioned but because I was not. I'd heard that she was married. I'd heard that there were children. Like most men, I suppose, I'd thought with a vague sense of comfort, that she'd probably got stodgy and domestic and somehow unromantic. She hadn't. She was more beautiful than ever but in a way that made most of the modern women I had come to know seem thin as paper dolls, and as false ... She was what she had been in her first youth; the same golden brown hair and clear grey eyes and her mouth with the laughing look to it. Wholesome. Real. Human. I felt a sense of loss such as I had never known before nor have ever known again. I'd been through a lot. My first two years on the stage had been extraordinarily successful. Then had come the down curve. I'd gone on tour and, in those days, to get back on the London stage again after touring was a terrific struggle. I'd been married, not every happily. I was tired. I felt a loneliness that amounted to physical pain. I had fantastic notions - perhaps it was not too late, even now - perhaps she was not as happy as she looked. Then I spoke to her -
"That night we dined together. She told me about her marriage. To a chap she had known all of her life, a neighbour. He was a barrister in London. He went up to town mornings and they had long weekend together. They had two children. Boys. One was named after her husband. The other after her father. She showed me their photographs. Her life had risen up about her, strong arms, encompassing her. I knew that she had got what she really wanted. I said: "Then you are perfectly happy?" I remember the words she used when, after thinking a bit, she answered me. She said - and they were wise words - 'No, imperfectly happy, Ronnie, it's much the best way - '
"I knew what she she meant but I wanted to her her say it. She did say it, in her honest way. She said, too, that I was not being very fair. I must know that she meant she could never be perfectly happy because perfection happens only once, at the beginning of things, and when it is done a minor chord runs through all the rest of your life making the sweet things sweeter and the safe things safer because you know. There were tears in her eyes when she told me this. And I knew that she was thinking of two young people who had walked on the Sussex downs and said goodbye - but I also knew that she was thinking of them as of people in a dream. A dream she had dreamed and still remembered and was haunted by and woke from to savour more strongly the happiness of her real life.
"I said good night to her after dinner. For a little bit I'd been tempted to ask her to take a gondola ride with me. Her husband was joining her in the morning. They were celebrating an anniversary. Then I knew that it wouldbe no use. I was, I thought, bringing my make-believe world of the theatre into her real and honest world where dreams are dreams and actualities are separate.
"I SAW her again, in Colombo, on this last trip of mine. She was there with her husband, a terribly nice fellow, and their two sons. Now there is a little girl, too, at home in Sussex. We all had breakfast together on the morning of my arrival. They were leaving at noon. And I was very glad, this time, that we had not taken a gondola ride together seven years ago. She is happy now. And not 'imperfectly' any longer, I am sure. She is more mature now, of course, but even more beautiful with the full-blown, warm beauty that again makes other, more modern women seem thin and insufficient. She is a woman. She is what we mean, really, when we think of Woman. Her eyes are serene and full of pride in her husband, in her sons. Hers is truly a complete life.
"She asked me politely curious questions about my life in Hollywood. She wanted to know whether I had ever met Garbo. The boys were interested in Douglas Fairbanks, Senior, she said. They didn't go to the cinema ery often. There were so many things to do ... Sussex and Hollywood are a long way apart.
"Sussex and Hollywood are a very long way apart. I know it now. I knew it then. I have become a shadow on a screen. She could never have mated with a shadow. Because she is the realest thing in the world."
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