It took another three weeks and a decent amount of gin for Ned to tell Maggie how he felt. He had suffered in silence throughout, watching her giggle at Ulysses’s terrible jokes, letting him paw her during breaks in rehearsal, and spending a suspiciously long time in his dressing room with the door closed. Everyone was gossiping about her and Ned’s face burned bright indignance on her behalf. He refused to think the worst, saving a friendly smile for her whenever he saw her. She was grateful; the other actresses shunned her once they found out that she had the lead female part.
Ned’s generosity even extended to Maggie’s talents. She was not a natural actress, though she worked hard. Most nights the audience let their displeasure show and she would run from the stage in tears. Ned longed to comfort her but it was Ulysses she turned to. To Maggie’s credit, she was relentless in her pursuit of improvement, and Ned wheedled himself back into her good graces by coming to the theatre early each day so that she could rehearse whilst Ulysses slept off the excesses of the night before.
The whole company tripped out after the Saturday night performance, the prospect of a day off enticing them into indulging a little more than they dared during the week. Ned had noticed that Ulysses was already growing tired of Maggie, his attentions flitting amongst the pretty ballet girls who had gathered to sip their sherry in a booth near the window.
‘Let’s get a breath of fresh air,’ he suggested to Maggie who was standing on her own by the bar. ‘I thought you were marvellous tonight. The hard work is beginning to pay off.’
His chest puffed out as she smiled at him, her whole face lightening as she cast off the cloud that Ulysses’s behaviour had hung above her. She stepped outside where they stood by the entrance, light from the street lamp bestowing a warm yellow glow on her.
‘Don’t be upset about Harrow,’ Ned told her.
‘What d’you mean?’ She looked put out.
‘Oh, Maggie, I don’t mean nothin’ bad by it. Only everyone knows his reputation. He’s a known rogue is old Ulysses Harrow.’ He grinned at her but his smile faded as she frowned.
‘I’m no idiot, Ned.’ Her arms were crossed and she stood away from him now. ‘I only went with him because I wanted the job. I have more ambition than you give me credit for.’
‘Clearly.’ Ned was taken aback. How had his precious country town girl turned so quickly into this jaded woman? ‘I am glad though. That you are not hurt by his behaviour. I had rather hoped…’
The words would not come but she guessed anyway and laughed, not in a pleasant manner. ‘Oh, Ned, what on earth do you have to offer me?’
‘Offer? Well, I, I, I…’ he stuttered as shock and hurt made his tongue feel twice as large in his mouth. She laughed again. ‘Oh my poor, poor Ned. Find someone worthier to waste your affections on. I have another in my sights already. And here, he has arrived.’
For the first time Ned noticed that even her way of speaking had changed. Now she spoke as though she had been brought up on Park Lane and never even set foot in a blacksmith’s. She smiled politely at Mr Willoughby, the theatre manager as he approached.
‘Mr Willoughby, how kind of you to join us,’ Maggie told him as he greeted her. Ned may as well have been invisible.
‘This is no place for a lady, Miss Lenahan,’ the older man told her. ‘I thought that I should do the gentlemanly thing and escort you home. My carriage is only around the corner. Unless you are otherwise engaged?’ For the first time he looked hard at Ned.
‘Oh no!’ She quickly corrected him. ‘Ned and I were just discussing how the play had gone. I was about to leave.’
‘Good, good. Now Ned I hope you’ve listened to Miss Lenahan. You missed a cue quite obviously tonight and that really isn’t good enough.’ Willoughby scolded Ned as though he were a schoolboy getting his sums wrong. ‘This is your first serious role. I do hope you’re not only good as a comedian.’
It was too much, this comparison to his failure of a father, and Ned forgot himself. ‘Sir, I only missed my cue because I was helping Maggie backstage.’
‘Ned, how dare you!’ His former friend was outraged.
‘Not very chivalrous, Mr Bennett, not at all.’ Willoughby looked down on him with disdain.
He tried to apologise, followed them all the way to the end of the street where the Willoughby carriage sat waiting, but all to no avail. Once the run was finished, Ned Bennett was out of favour and finished at the Theatre Royal. The last of his earnings he ran through in a matter of weeks, frittering it away on beer and gin until the tragic point when we first met up with him, ejected from the tavern on Union Street after running a tab he could not settle.
‘Why don’t you try the local theatre, whasitcalled?’ Sean turned to Ned during a break in his custom.
‘Which one?’ he asked.
But he knew the theatre Sean meant. The Olympia had recently reopened with a new owner. He could see the building now, sitting on the corner with its proud new signage. Hope dared to plant a seed in his heart as Sean handed him a playbill for that night. Othello. Ned knew Shakespeare. He was still an actor, though perhaps not so clever an actor as that duplicitous Maggie Lenahan. He would get his own back, the only way he knew how. This lowly Lambeth theatre should welcome him with open arms and when he was a success he would find Maggie. She would come to rue the day she had crossed Ned Bennett.