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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 21. The Leave-Train
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The Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 21. The Leave-Train Post by :vharris Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2459

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The Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 21. The Leave-Train

"What o'clock--your train?"

"Nine-thirty."

"But you can catch it. You must catch it."

He shook his head. "It's fate," he muttered, bitterly resigned. "What is written is written."

Christine sprang to the floor, shuffled off the black gauze in almost a single movement, and seized some of her clothes.

"Quick! You shall catch your train. The clock is wrong--the clock is too soon."

She implored him with positive desperation. She shook him and dragged him, energised in an instant by the overwhelming idea that for him to miss his train would be fatal to him--and to her also. She could and did believe in the efficacy of mascots against bullets and shrapnel and bayonets. But the traditions of a country of conscripts were ingrained in her childhood and youth, and she had not the slightest faith in the efficacy of no matter what mascot to protect from the consequences of indiscipline. And already during her short career in London she had had good reason to learn the sacredness of the leave-train. Fantastic tales she had heard of capital executions for what seemed trifling laxities--tales whispered half proudly by the army in the rooms of horrified courtesans--tales in which the remote and ruthless imagined figure of the Grand Provost-Marshal rivalled that of God himself. And, moreover, if this man fell into misfortune through her, she would eternally lose the grace of the most clement Virgin who had confided him to her and who was capable of terrible revenges. She secretly called on the Virgin. Nay, she became the Virgin. She found a miraculous strength, and furiously pulled the poor sot out of bed. The fibres of his character had been soaked away, and she mystically replaced them with her own. Intimidated and, as it were, mesmerised, he began to dress. She rushed as she was to the door.

"Marthe! Marthe!"

"Madame?" replied the fat woman in alarm.

"Run for a taxi."

"But, madame, it is raining terribly."

"_Je m'en fous_! Run for a taxi."

Turning back into the room she repeated; "The clock is too soon." But she knew that it was not. Nearly nude, she put on a hat.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Do not worry. I come with you."

She took a skirt and a jersey and then threw a cloak over everything. He was very slow; he could find nothing; he could button nothing. She helped him. But when he began to finger his leggings with the endless laces and the innumerable eyelets she snatched them from him.

"Those--in the taxi," she said.

"But there is no taxi."

"There will be a taxi. I have sent the maid."

At the last moment, as she was hurrying him on to the staircase, she grasped her handbag. They stumbled one after the other down the dark stairs. He had now caught the infection of her tremendous anxiety. She opened the front door. The glistening street was absolutely empty; the rain pelted on the pavements and the roadway, each drop falling like a missile and raising a separate splash, so that it seemed as if the flood on the earth was leaping up to meet the flood from the sky.

"Come!" she said with hysterical impatience. "We cannot wait. There will be a taxi in Piccadilly, I know."

Simultaneously a taxi swerved round the corner of Burlington Street. Marthe stood on the step next to the driver. As the taxi halted she jumped down. Her drenched white apron was over her head and she was wet to the skin.

In the taxi, while the officer struck matches, Christine knelt and fastened his leggings; he could not have performed the nice operation for himself. And all the time she was doing something else--she was pushing forward the whole taxi, till her muscles ached with the effort. Then she sat back on the seat, smoothed her hair under the hat, unclasped the bag, and patted her features delicately with the powder-puff. Neither knew the exact time, and in vain they tried to discern the faces of clocks that flew past them in the heavy rain. Christine sighed and said:

"These tempests. This rain. They say it is because of the big cannons--which break the clouds."

The officer, who had the air of being in a dream, suddenly bent towards her and replied with a most strange solemnity:

"It is to wash away the blood!"

She had not thought of that. Of course it was! She sighed again.

As they neared Victoria the officer said:

"My kit-bag! It's at the hotel. Shall I have time to pay my bill and get it? The Grosvenor's next to the station, you know."

She answered unhesitatingly: "You will go direct to the train. I will try the hotel."

"Drive round to the Grosvenor entrance like hell," he instructed the driver when the taxi stopped in the station yard.

In the hotel she would never have got the bag, owing to her difficulties in explaining the situation in English to a haughty reception-clerk, had not a French-Swiss waiter been standing by. She flung imploring French sentences at the waiter like a stream from a hydrant. The bill was produced in less than half a minute. She put down money of her own to pay for it, for she had refused to wait at the station while the officer fished in the obscurities of his purse. The bag, into which a menial had crammed a kit probably scattered about the bedroom, arrived unfastened. Once more at the station, she gave the cabman all the change which she had received at the hotel counter. By a miracle she made a porter understand what was needed and how urgently it was needed. He said the train was just going, and ran. She ran after him. The ticket-collector at the platform gate allowed the porter to pass, but raised an implacable arm to prevent her from following. She had no platform ticket, and she could not possibly be travelling by the train. Then she descried her officer standing at an open carriage door in conversation with another officer and tapping his leggings with his cane. How aristocratic and disdainful and self-absorbed the pair looked! They existed in a world utterly different from hers. They were the triumphant and negligent males. She endeavoured to direct the porter with her pointing hand, and then, hysterical again, she screamed out the one identifying word she knew: "Edgar!"

It was lost in the resounding echoes of the immense vault. Edgar certainly did not hear it. But he caught the great black initials, "E.W." on the kit-bag as the porter staggered along, and stopped the aimless man, and the kit-bag was thrown into the apartment. Doors were now banging. Christine saw Edgar take out his purse and fumble at it. But Edgar's companion pushed Edgar into the train and himself gave a tip which caused the porter to salute extravagantly. The porter, at any rate, had been rewarded. Christine began to cry, not from chagrin, but with relief. Women on the platform waved absurd little white handkerchiefs. Heads and khaki shoulders stuck out of the carriage windows of the shut train. A small green flag waved; arms waved like semaphores. The train ought to have been gliding away, but something delayed it, and it was held as if spellbound under the high, dim semicircle of black glass, amid the noises of steam, the hissing of electric globes, the horrible rattle of luggage trucks, the patter of feet, and the vast, murmuring gloom. Christine saw Edgar leaning from a window and gazing anxiously about. The little handkerchiefs were still courageously waving, and she, too, waved a little wisp. But he did not see her; he was not looking in the right place for her.

She thought: Why did he not stay near the gate for me? But she thought again: Because he feared to miss the train. It was necessary that he should be close to his compartment. He knows he is not quite sober.

She wondered whether he had any relatives, or any relations with another woman. He seemed to be as solitary as she was.

On the same side of the platform-gate as herself a very tall, slim, dandy of an officer was bending over a smartly-dressed girl, smiling at her and whispering. Suddenly the girl turned from him with a disdainful toss of the head and said in a loud, clear Cockney voice:

"You can't tell the tale to me, young man. This is my second time on earth."

Christine heard the words, but was completely puzzled. The train moved, at first almost imperceptibly. The handkerchiefs showed extreme agitation. Then a raucous song floated from the train:

"John Brown's baby's got a pimple on his--_shoooo_--
John Brown's baby's got a pimple on his--_shoooo_--
John Brown's baby's got a pimple on his--_shoooo_--
and we all went marching home.
Glory, glory, Alleluia!
Glory, glory ..."


The rails showed empty where the train had been, and the sound of the song faded and died. Some of the women were crying. Christine felt that she was in a land of which she understood nothing but the tears. She also felt very cold in the legs.

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