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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Share - Chapter 39. The Imminent Drive
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The Lion's Share - Chapter 39. The Imminent Drive Post by :39340 Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1458

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The Lion's Share - Chapter 39. The Imminent Drive

CHAPTER XXXIX. THE IMMINENT DRIVE

"Oh!" cried Miss Thompkins. "You can see it from here. It's funny how unreal it seems, isn't it?"

She pointed at one of the large white-curtained windows of the restaurant, through which was visible a round column covered with advertisements of theatres, music-halls, and concert-halls, printed in many colours and announcing superlative delights. Names famous wherever pleasure is understood gave to their variegated posters a pleasant air of distinguished familiarity--names of theatres such as "Varietes," "Vaudeville," "Chatelet," "Theatre Francais," "Folies-Bergere," and names of persons such as "Sarah Bernhardt," "Huegenet," "Le Bargy," "Litvinne," "Lavalliere." But the name in the largest type--dark crimson letters on rose paper--the name dominating all the rest, was the name of Musa. The ingenuous stranger to Paris was compelled to think that as an artist Musa was far more important than anybody else. Along the length of all the principal boulevards, and in many of the lesser streets, the ingenuous stranger encountered, at regular distances of a couple of hundred yards or so, one of these columns planted on the kerb; and all the scores of them bore exactly the same legend; they all spoke of nothing but blissful diversions, and they all put Musa ahead of anybody else in the world of the stage and the platform. Sarah Bernhardt herself, dark blue upon pale, was a trifle compared to Musa on the columns. And it had been so for days. Other posters were changed daily--changed by mysterious hands before even bread-girls were afoot with their yards of bread--but the space given to Musa repeated always the same tidings, namely that Musa ("the great violinist") was to give an orchestral concert at the Salle Xavier, assisted by the Xavier orchestra, on Thursday, September 24, at 9 P.M. Particulars of the programme followed.

Paris was being familiarised with Musa. His four letters looked down upon the fever of the thoroughfares; they were perused by tens of thousands of sitters in cafes and in front of cafes; they caught the eye of men and women fleeing from the wrath to come in taxicabs; they competed successfully with newspaper placards; and on that Thursday--for the Thursday in question had already run more than half its course--they had so entered into the sub-conscious brain of Paris that no habitue of the streets, whatever his ignorant indifference to the art of music, could have failed to reply with knowledge, on hearing Musa mentioned, "Oh, yes!" implying that he was fully acquainted with the existence of the said Musa.

Tommy was right: there did seem to be a certain unreality about the thing, yet it was utterly real.

All the women turned to glance at the name through the window, and some of them murmured sympathetic and interested exclamations and bright hopes. There were five women: Miss Thompkins, Miss Nickall, Madame Piriac, Miss Ingate and Audrey. And there was one man--Mr. Gilman. And the six were seated at a round table in the historic Parisian restaurant. Mr. Gilman had the air triumphant, and he was entitled to it. The supreme moment of his triumph had come. Having given a luncheon to these ladies, he had just asked, with due high negligence, for the bill. If there was one matter in which Mr. Gilman was a truly great expert, it was the matter of giving a meal in a restaurant. He knew how to dress for such an affair--with strict conventionality but a touch of devil-may-care youthfulness in the necktie. He knew how to choose the restaurant; he had about half a dozen in his repertoire--all of the first order and for the most part combining the exclusive with the amusing--entirely different in kind from the pandemonium where Audrey had eaten on the night of her first arrival in Paris; he knew how to get the best out of head-waiters and waiters, who in these restaurants were not head-waiters and waiters but worldly priests and acolytes; his profound knowledge of cookery sprang from a genuine interest in his stomach, and he could compose a menu in a fashion to command the respect of head-waiters and to excite the envy of musicians composing a sonata; he had the wit to look in early and see to the flowers; above all he was aware what women liked in the way of wine, and since this was never what he liked in the way of wine, he would always command a half-bottle of the extra dry for himself, but would have it manipulated with such discretion that not a guest could notice it. He paid lavishly and willingly, convinced by hard experience that the best is inestimable, but he felt too that the best was really quite cheap, for he knew that there were imperfectly educated people in the world who thought nothing of paying the price of a good meal for a mere engraving or a bit of china. Withal, he never expected his guests truly to appreciate the marvels he offered them. They could not, or very rarely. Their twittering ecstatic praise, which was without understanding, sufficed for him, though sometimes he would give gentle diffident instruction. This trait in him was very attractive, proving the genuineness of his modesty.

The luncheon was partly to celebrate the return of various persons to Paris, but chiefly in honour of Musa's concert. Musa could not be present, for distinguished public performers do not show themselves on the day of an appearance. Mr. Gilman had learnt this from Madame Piriac, whom he had consulted as to the list of guests. It is to be said that he bore the absence of Musa from his table with stoicism. For the rest, Madame Piriac knew that he wanted no other men, and she had suggested none. She had assumed that he desired Audrey, and had pointed out that Audrey could not well be invited without Miss Ingate, who, sick of her old Moze, had rejoined Audrey in the splendour of the Hotel du Danube. Mr. Gilman had somehow mentioned Miss Thompkins, whereupon Madame Piriac had declared that Miss Thompkins involved Miss Nickall, who after a complete recovery from the broken arm had returned for a while to her studio. And then Mr. Gilman had closed the list, saying that six was enough, and exactly the right number.

"At what o'clock are you going for the drive?" asked Madame Piriac in her improved, precise English. She looked equally at her self-styled uncle and at Audrey.

"I ordered the car for three o'clock," answered Mr. Gilman. "It is not yet quite three."

The table with its litter of ash-trays, empty cups, empty small glasses, and ravaged sweets, and the half-deserted restaurant, and the polite expectant weariness of the priests and acolytes, all showed that the hour was in fact not quite three--an hour at which such interiors have invariably the aspect of roses overblown and about to tumble to pieces.

And immediately upon the reference to the drive everybody at the table displayed a little constraint, avoiding the gaze of everybody else, thus demonstrating that the imminent drive was a delicate, without being a disagreeable, topic. Which requires explanation.

Mr. Gilman had not been seen by any of his guests during the summer. He had landed them at Boulogne from the _Ariadne_--sound but for one casualty. That casualty was Jane Foley, suffering from pneumonia, which had presumably developed during the evening of exposure spent with Aguilar in the leaking punt and in rain showers. Madame Piriac and Audrey took her to Wimereux and there nursed her through a long and sometimes dangerous illness. Jane possessed no constitution, but she had obstinacy, which saved her. In her convalescence, part of which she spent alone with Audrey (Madame Piriac having to pay visits to Monsieur Piriac), she had proceeded with the writing of a book, and she had also received in conclave the rarely seen Rosamund, who like herself was still a fugitive from British justice. These two had been elaborating a new plan of campaign, which was to include an incursion by themselves into England, and which had in part been confided by Jane to Audrey, who, having other notions in her head, had been somewhat troubled thereby. Audrey's conscience had occasionally told her to throw herself heartily into the campaign, but her individualistic instincts had in the end kept her safely on a fence between the campaign and something else. The something else was connected with Mr. Gilman.

Mr. Gilman had written to her regularly; he had sent dazzling subscriptions to the Suffragette Union; and Audrey had replied regularly. His letters were very simple, very modest, and quite touching. They were dated from various coastal places. However, he never came near Wimereux, though it was a coastal place. Audrey had excusably deemed this odd; but Madame Piriac having once said with marked casualness, "I hinted to him that he might with advantage stay away," Audrey had concealed her thoughts on the point. And one of her thoughts was that Madame Piriac was keeping them apart so as to try them, so as to test their mutual feelings. The policy, if it was a policy, was very like Madame Piriac; it had the effect of investing Mr. Gilman in Audrey's mind with a peculiar romantic and wistful charm, as of a sighing and obedient victim. Then Jane Foley and Rosamund had gone off somewhere, and Madame Piriac and Audrey had returned to Paris, and had found that practically all Paris had returned to Paris too. And on the first meeting with Mr. Gilman it had been at once established that his feelings and those of Audrey had surmounted the Piriac test. Within forty-eight hours all persons interested had mysteriously assumed that Mr. Gilman and Audrey were coupled together by fate and that a delicious crisis was about to supervene in their earthly progress. And they had become objects of exquisite solicitude. They had also become perfect. A circle of friends and acquaintances waited in excited silence for a palpitating event, as a populace waits for the booming gunfire which is to inaugurate a national rejoicing. And when the news exuded that he was taking her for a drive to Meudon, which she had never seen, alone, all decided beyond any doubt that _he would do it during the drive_.

Hence the nice constraint at the table when the drive grew publicly and avowedly imminent.

Audrey, as the phrase is, "felt her position keenly," but not unpleasantly, nor with understanding. Not a word had passed of late between herself and Mr. Gilman that any acquaintance might not have listened to. Indeed, Mr. Gilman had become slightly more formal. She liked him for that, as she liked him for a large number of qualities. She did not know whether she loved him. And strange to say, the question did not passionately interest her. The only really interesting questions were: Would he propose to her? And would she accept him? She had no logical ground for assuming that he would propose to her. None of her friends had informed her of the general expectation that he would propose to her. Yet she knew that everybody expected him to propose to her quite soon--indeed within the next couple of hours. And she felt that everybody was right. The universe was full of mysteries for Audrey. As regards her answer to any proposal, she foresaw--another mystery--that it would not depend upon self-examination or upon reason, or upon anything that could be defined. It would depend upon an instinct over which her mind--nay, even her heart--had no control. She was quite certainly aware that this instinct would instruct her brain to instruct her lips to say "Yes." The idea of saying "No" simply could not be conceived. All the forces in the universe would combine to prevent her from saying "No."

The one thing that might have countered that enigmatic and powerful instinct was a consideration based upon the difference between her age and that of Mr. Gilman. It is true that she did not know what the difference was, because she did not know Mr. Gilman's age. And she could not ask him. No! Such is the structure of society that she could not say to Mr. Gilman, "By the way, Mr. Gilman, how old are you?" She could properly ascertain his tastes about all manner of fundamental points, such as the shape of chair-legs, the correct hour for dining, or the comparative merits of diamonds and emeralds; but this trifle of information about his age could not be asked for. And he did not make her a present of it. She might have questioned Madame Piriac, but she could not persuade herself to question Madame Piriac either. However, what did it matter? Even if she learnt his age to a day, he would still be precisely the same Mr. Gilman. And let him be as old or as young as he might, she was still his equal in age. She was far more than six months older than she had been six months ago.

The influence of Madame Piriac through the summer had indirectly matured her. For above all Madame Piriac had imperceptibly taught her the everlasting joy and duty of exciting the sympathy, admiration and gratitude of the other sex. Hence Audrey had aged at a miraculous rate because in order to please Mr. Gilman she wished--possibly without knowing it--to undo the disparity between herself and him. This may be strange, but it is assuredly more true than strange. To the same ends she had concealed her own age. Nobody except Miss Ingate knew how old she was. She only made it clear, when doubts seemed to exist, that she had passed her majority long before. Further, her wealth, magnified by legend, assisted her age. Not that she was so impressed by her wealth as she had been. She had met American women in Paris compared to whom she was at destitution's door. She knew one woman who had kept a 2,000-ton yacht lying all summer in the outer harbour at Boulogne, and had used it during that period for exactly eleven hours.

Few of these people had an establishment. They would rent floors in hotels, or chateaux in Touraine, or yachts, but they had no home, and yet they seemed very content and beyond doubt they were very free. And so Audrey did not trouble about having a home. She had Moze, which was more than many of her acquaintances had. She would not use it, but she had it. And she was content in the knowledge of the power to create a home when she felt inclined to create one. Not that it would not have been absurd to set about creating a home with Mr. Gilman hanging over her like a destiny. It would have been rude to him to do so; it would have been to transgress against the inter-sexual code as promulgated by Madame Piriac.... She wondered what sort of a place Meudon was, and whether he would propose to her while they were looking at the view together.... She trembled with the sense of adventure, which had little to do with happiness or unhappiness.... But _would he propose to her? Not improbably the whole conception of the situation was false and she was being ridiculous!

Still the nice constraint persisted as the women began to put on their gloves, while Mr. Gilman had a word with the chief priest. And Audrey had the illusion of being a dedicated victim. As she self-consciously and yet proudly handled her gloves she could not help but notice the simple gold wedding-ring on a certain finger. She had never removed it. She had never formally renounced her claim to the status of a widow. That she was not a widow, that she had been guilty of a fraud on a gullible public, was somehow generally known; but the facts were not referred to, save perhaps in rare hints by Tommy, and she had continued to be known as Mrs. Moncreiff. Ignominious close to a daring enterprise! And in the circumstances nothing was more out of place than the ring, bought in cold, wilful, calculating naughtiness at Colchester.

Just when Miss Ingate was beginning to discuss her own plans for the afternoon, Mr. Price entered the restaurant, and as he did so Miss Thompkins, saying something about the small type on the poster outside, went to the window to examine it. Mr. Price, disguised as a discreet dandy-about-town, bore a parcel of music. He removed a most glossy hat; he bowed to the whole company of ladies, who responded with smiles in which was acknowledge that he was a dandy in addition to being a secretary; and lastly with deference he handed the parcel of music to Mr. Gilman.

"So you did get it! What did I tell you?" said Mr. Gilman with negligent condescension. "A minute later, and we should have been gone.... Has Mr. Price got this right?" he asked Audrey, putting the music respectfully in front of her.

It included the reduced score of the Beethoven violin concerto, and other items to be performed that night at the Salle Xavier.

"Oh! Thank you, Mr. Price!" said Audrey. The music was so fresh and glossy and luscious to the eye that it was like a gift of fruit.

"That'll do, then, Price," said Mr. Gilman. "Don't forget about those things for to-night, will you?"

"No, sir. I have a note of all of them."

Mr. Price bowed and turned away, assuming his perfect hat. As he approached the door Tommy intercepted him; and said something to him in a low voice, to which he uncomfortably mumbled a reply. As they had admittedly been friends in Mr. Price's artistic days, exception could not be taken to this colloquy. Nevertheless Audrey, being as suspicious as a real widow, regarded it ill, thinking all manner of things. And when Tommy, humming, came back to her seat on Mr. Gilman's left hand, Audrey thought: "And why, after all, should she be on his left hand? It is of course proper that I should be on his right, but why should Tommy be on his left? Why not Madame Piriac or Miss Ingate?"

"And what am _I going to do this afternoon?" demanded Miss Ingate, lengthening the space between her nose and her upper lip, and turning down the corners of her lower lip.

"You have to try that new dress on, Winnie," said Audrey rather reprovingly.

"Alone? Me go alone there? I wouldn't do it. It's not respectable the way they look at you and add you up and question you in those trying-on rooms, when they've _got you."

"Well, take Elise with you."

"Me take Elise? I won't do it, not unless I could keep her mouth full of pins all the time. Whenever we're alone, and her mouth isn't full of pins, she always talks to me as if I was an actress. And I'm not."

"Well, then," said Miss Nickall kindly, "come with me and Tommy. We haven't anything to do, and I'm taking Tommy to see Jane Foley. Jane would love to see you."

"She might," replied Miss Ingate. "Oh! She might. But I think I'll walk across to the hotel and just go to bed and sleep it off."

"Sleep what off?" asked Tommy, with necklace rattling and orchidaceous eyes glittering.

"Oh! Everything! Everything!" shrieked Miss Ingate.

There was one other customer left in the restaurant, a solitary fair, fat man, and as Mr. Gilman's party was leaving, Audrey last, this solitary fair, fat man caught her eye, bowed, and rose. It was Mr. Cowl, secretary of the National Reformation Society. He greeted her with the assurance of an old and valued friend, and he called her neither Miss nor Mrs.; he called her nothing at all. Audrey accepted his lead.

"And is your Society still alive?" she asked with casual polite disdain.

"Going strong!" said Mr. Cowl. "More flourishing than ever--in spite of our bad luck." He lifted his sandy-coloured eyebrows. "Of course I'm here on Society business. In fact, I often have to come to Paris on Society business." His glance deprecated the appearance of the table over which his rounded form was protruding.

"Well, I'm glad to have seen you again," said Audrey, holding out her hand.

"I wonder," said Mr. Cowl, drawing some tickets from his pocket. "I wonder whether you--and your friends--would care to go to a concert to-night at the Salle Xavier. The concierge at my hotel is giving tickets away, and I took some--rather to oblige him than anything else. For one never knows when a concierge may not be useful. I don't suppose it will be anything great, but it will pass the time, and--er--strangers in Paris----"

"Thank you, Mr. Cowl, but I'm not a stranger in Paris. I live here."

"Oh! I beg your pardon," said Mr. Cowl. "Excuse me. Then you won't take them? Pity! I hate to see anything wasted."

Audrey was both desolated and infuriated.

"Remember me respectfully to Miss Ingate, please," finished Mr. Cowl. "She didn't see me as she passed."

He returned the tickets to his pocket.

Outside, Madame Piriac, standing by her automobile, which had rolled up with the silence of an hallucination, took leave of Audrey.

"_Eh bien! Au revoir!_" said she shortly, with a peculiar challenging half-smile, which seemed to be saying, "Are you going to be worthy of my education? Let us hope so."

And Miss Nickall, with her grey hair growing fluffier under a somewhat rakish hat, said with a smile of sheer intense watchful benevolence:

"Well, good-bye!"

While Nick was ecstatically thanking Mr. Gilman for his hospitality, Tommy called Audrey aside. Madame Piriac's car had vanished.

"Have you heard about the rehearsal this morning?" she asked, in a confidential tone, anxious and yet quizzical.

"No! What about it?" Audrey demanded. Various apprehensions were competing for attention in her brain. The episode of Mr. Cowl had agitated her considerably. And now she was standing right against the column bearing Musa's name in those large letters, and other columns up and down the gay, busy street echoed clear the name. And how unreal it was!... Tickets being given away in half-dozens!... She ought to have been profoundly disturbed by such a revelation, and she was. But here was the drive with Mr. Gilman insisting on a monopoly of all her faculties. And on the top of everything--Tommy with her strange gaze and tone! Tommy carefully hesitated before replying.

"He lost his temper and left it in the middle--orchestra and conductor and Xavier and all! And he swore he wouldn't play to-night."

"Nonsense!"

"Yes, he did."

"Who told you?"

Already the two women were addressing each other as foes.

"A man I know in the orchestra."

"Why didn't you tell us at once--when you came?"

"Well, I didn't want to spoil the luncheon. But of course I ought to have done. You, at any rate, seeing your interest in the concert! I'm sorry."

"My interest in the concert?" Audrey objected.

"Well, my girl," said Tommy, half cajolingly and half threateningly, "you aren't going to stand there and tell me to my face that you haven't put up that concert for him?"

"Put up the concert! Put up the----" Audrey knew she was blushing.

"Paid for it! Paid for it!" said Tommy, with impatience.

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