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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 36. Collapse
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The Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 36. Collapse Post by :mikman Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :931

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The Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 36. Collapse

Late of that same afternoon G.J., in the absence of the chairman, presided as honorary secretary over a meeting of the executive committee of the Lechford hospitals. In the course of the war the committee had changed its habitation more than once. The hotel which had at first given it a home had long ago been commandeered by the Government for a new Government department, and its hundreds of chambers were now full of the clicking of typewriters and the dictation of officially phrased correspondence, and the conferences which precede decisions, and the untamed footsteps of messenger-flappers, and the making of tea, and chatter about cinemas, blouses and headaches. Afterwards the committee had been the guest of a bank and of a trust company, and had for a period even paid rent to a common landlord. But its object was always to escape the formality of rent-paying, and it was now lodged in an untenanted mansion belonging to a viscount in a great Belgravian square. Its sign was spread high across the facade; its posters were in the windows; and on the door was a notice such as in 1914 nobody had ever expected to see in that quadrangle of guarded sacred castles: "Turn the handle and walk in." The mansion, though much later in date, was built precisely on the lines of a typical Bloomsbury boarding-house. It had the same basement, the same general disposition of rooms, the same abundance of stairs and paucity of baths, the same chilly draughts and primeval devices for heating, and the same superb disregard for the convenience of servants. The patrons of domestic architecture had permitted architects to learn nothing in seventy years except that chimney-flues must be constructed so that they could be cleaned without exposing sooty infants to the danger of suffocation or incineration.

The committee sat on the first floor in the back drawing-room, whose furniture consisted of a deal table, Windsor chairs, a row of hat-pegs, a wooden box containing coal, half a poker, two unshaded lights; the walls, from which all the paper had been torn off, were decorated with lists of sub-committees, posters, and rows of figures scrawled here and there in pencil. The room was divided from the main drawing-room by the usual folding-doors. The smaller apartment had been chosen in the winter because it was somewhat easier to keep warm than the other one. In the main drawing-room the honorary secretary camped himself at a desk near the fireplace.

When the clock struck, G.J., one of whose monastic weaknesses was a ritualistic regard for punctuality, was in his place at the head of the table, and the table well filled with members, for the honorary secretary's harmless foible was known and admitted. The table and the chairs, the scraping of the chair-legs on the bare floor, the agenda papers and the ornamentation thereof by absent-minded pens, were the same as in the committee's youth. But the personnel of the committee had greatly changed, and it was enlarged--as its scope had been enlarged. The two Lechford hospitals behind the French lines were now only a part of the committee's responsibilities. It had a special hospital in Paris, two convalescent homes in England, and an important medical unit somewhere in Italy. Finance was becoming its chief anxiety, for the reason that, though soldiers had not abandoned in disgust the practice of being wounded, philanthropists were unquestionably showing signs of fatigue. It had collected money by postal appeals, by advertisements, by selling flags, by competing with drapers' shops, by intimidation, by ruse and guile, and by all the other recognised methods. Of late it had depended largely upon the very wealthy, and, to a less extent, upon G.J., who having gradually constituted the committee his hobby, had contributed some thousands of pounds from his share of the magic profits of the Reveille Company. Everybody was aware of the immense importance of G.J.'s help. G.J. never showed it in his demeanour, but the others continually showed it in theirs. He had acquired authority. He had also acquired the sure manner of one accustomed to preside.

"Before we begin on the agenda," he said--and as he spoke a late member crept apologetically in and tiptoed to the heavily charged hat-pegs--"I would like to mention about Miss Trewas. Some of you know that through an admirable but somewhat disordered sense of patriotism she has left us at a moment's notice. I am glad to say that my friend Mrs. Carlos Smith, who, I may tell you, has had a very considerable experience of organisation, has very kindly agreed, subject of course to the approval of the committee, to step temporarily into the breach. She will be an honorary worker, like all of us here, and I am sure that the committee will feel as grateful to her as I do."

As there had been smiles at the turn of his phrase about Miss Trewas, so now there were fervent, almost emotional, "Hear-hears."

"Mrs. Smith, will you please read the minutes of the last meeting."

Concepcion was sitting at his left hand. He kept thinking, "I'm one of those who get things done." Two hours ago, and the idea of enlisting her had not even occurred to him, and already he had taken her out of her burrow, brought her to the offices, coached her in the preliminaries of her allotted task, and introduced several important members of the committee to her! It was an achievement.

Never had the minutes been listened to with such attention as they obtained that day. Concepcion was apparently not in the least nervous, and she read very well--far better than the deserter Miss Trewas, who could not open her mouth without bridling. Concepcion held the room. Those who had not seen before the celebrated Concepcion Iquist now saw her and sated their eyes upon her. She had been less a woman than a legend. The romance of South America enveloped her, and the romance of her famous and notorious uncle, of her triumph over the West End, her startling marriage and swift widowing, her journey to America and her complete disappearance, her attachment to Lady Queenie, and now her dramatic reappearance.

And the sharp condiment to all this was the general knowledge of the bachelor G.J.'s long intimacy with her, and of their having both been at Lechford House on the night of the raid, and both been at the inquest on the body of Lady Queenie Paulle on that very day. But nobody could have guessed from their placid and self-possessed demeanour that either of them had just emerged from a series of ordeals. They won a deep and full respect. Still, some people ventured to have their own ideas; and an ingenuous few were surprised to find that the legend was only a woman after all, and a rather worn woman, not indeed very recognisable from her innumerable portraits. Nevertheless the respect for the pair was even increased when G.J. broached the first item on the agenda--a resolution of respectful sympathy with the Marquis and Marchioness of Lechford in their bereavement, of profound appreciation of the services of Lady Queenie on the committee, and of an intention to send by the chairman to the funeral a wreath to be subscribed for by the members. G.J. proposed the resolution himself, and it was seconded by a lady and supported by a gentleman whose speeches gave no hint that Lady Queenie had again and again by her caprices nearly driven the entire committee into a lunatic asylum and had caused several individual resignations. G.J. put the resolution without a tremor; it was impressively carried; and Concepcion wrote down the terms of it quite calmly in her secretarial notes. The performance of the pair was marvellous, and worthy of the English race.

Then arrived Sir Stephen Bradern. Sir Stephen was chairman of the French Hospitals Management Sub-committee.

G.J. said:

"Sir Stephen, you are just too late for the resolution as to Lady Queenie Paulle."

"I deeply apologise, Mr. Chairman," replied the aged but active Sir Stephen, nervously stroking his rather long beard. "I hope, however, that I may be allowed to associate myself very closely with the resolution." After a suitable pause and general silence he went on: "I've been detained by that Nurse Smaith that my sub-committee's been having trouble with. You'll find, when you come to them, that she's on my sub-committee's minutes. I've just had an interview with her, and she says she wants to see the executive. I don't know what you think, Mr. Chairman--" He stopped.

G.J. smiled.

"I should have her brought in," said the lady who had previously spoken. "If I might suggest," she added.

A boy scout, who seemed to have long ago grown out of his uniform, entered with a note for somebody. He was told to bring in Nurse Smaith.

She proved to be a rather short and rather podgy woman, with a reddish, not rosy, complexion, and red hair. The ugly red-bordered cape of the British Red Cross did not suit her better than it suited any other wearer. She was in full, strict, starched uniform, and prominently wore medals on her plenteous breast. She looked as though, if she had a sister, that sister might be employed in a large draper's shop at Brixton or Islington. In saying "Gid ahfternoon" she revealed the purity of a cockney accent undefiled by Continental experiences. She sat down in a manner sternly defensive. She was nervous and abashed, but evidently dangerous. She belonged to the type which is courageous in spite of fear. She had resolved to interview the committee, and though the ordeal frightened her, she desperately and triumphantly welcomed it.

"Now, Nurse Smaith," said G.J. diplomatically. "We are always very glad to see our nurses, even when our time is limited. Will you kindly tell the committee as briefly as possible just what your claim is?"

And the nurse replied, with medals shaking:

"I'm claiming, as I've said before, two weeks' salary in loo of notice, and my fare home from France; twenty-five francs salary and ninety-five francs expenses. And I sy nothing of excess luggage."

"But you didn't _come home."

"I have come home, though."

One of those members whose destiny it is always to put a committee in the wrong remarked:

"But surely, Nurse, you left our employ nearly a year ago. Why didn't you claim before?"

"I've been at you for two months at least, and I was ill for six months in Turin; they had to put me off the train there," said Nurse Smaith, getting self-confidence.

"As I understand," said G.J. "You left us in order to join a Serbian unit of another society, and you only returned to England in February."

"I didn't leave you, sir. That is, I mean, I left you, but I was told to go."

"Who told you to go?"

"Matron."

Sir Stephen benevolently put in:

"But the matron had always informed us that it was you who said you wouldn't stay another minute. We have it in the correspondence."

"That's what _she says. But I say different. And I can prove it."

Said G.J.:

"There must be some misunderstanding. We have every confidence in the matron, and she's still with us."

"Then I'm sorry for you."

He turned warily to another aspect of the subject.

"Do I gather that you went straight from Paris to Serbia?"

"Yes. The unit was passing through, and I joined it."

"But how did you obtain your passport? You had no certificate from us?"

Nurse Smaith tossed her perilous red hair.

"Oh! No difficulty about that. I am not _without friends, as you may say." Some of the committee looked up suspiciously, aware that the matron had in her report hinted at mysterious relations between Nurse Smaith and certain authorities. "The doctor in charge of the Serbian unit was only too glad to have me. Of course, if you're going to believe everything matron says--" Her tone was becoming coarser, but the committee could neither turn her out nor cure her natural coarseness, nor indicate to her that she was not using the demeanour of committee-rooms. She was firmly lodged among them, and she went from bad to worse. "Of course, if you're going to swallow everything matron says--! It isn't as if I was the only one."

"May I ask if you are at present employed?"

"I don't _quite see what that's got to do with it," said Nurse Smaith, still gaining ground.

"Certainly not. Nothing. Nothing at all. I was only hoping that these visits here are not inconvenient to you."

"Well, as it seems so important, I _my sy I'm going out to Salonika next week, and that's why I want this business settled." She stopped, and as the committee remained diffidently and apprehensively silent, she went on: "It isn't as if I was the only one. Why! When we were in the retreat of the Serbian Army owver the mahntains I came across by chance, if you call it chance, another nurse that knew all about _her_--been under her in Bristol for a year."

A young member, pricking up, asked:

"Were you in the Serbian retreat, Nurse?"

"If I hadn't been I shouldn't be here now," said Nurse Smaith, entirely recovered from her stage-fright and entirely pleased to be there then. "I lost all I had at Ypek. All I took was my medals, and them I did take. There were fifty of us, British, French and Russians. We had nearly three weeks in the mahntains. We slept rough all together in one room, when there was a room, and when there wasn't we slept in stables. We had nothing but black bread, and that froze in the haversacks, and if we took our boots off we had to thaw them the next morning before we could put them on. If we hadn't had three saucepans we should have died. When we went dahn the hills two of us had to hold every horse by his head and tail to keep them from falling. However, nearly all the horses died, and then we took the packs off them and tried to drag the packs along by hand; but we soon stopped that. All the bridle-paths were littered with dead horses and oxen. And when we came up with the Serbian Army we saw soldiers just drop down and die in the snow. I read in the paper there were no children in the retreat, but I saw lots of children, strapped to their mother's backs. Yes; and they fell down together and froze to death. Then we got to Scutari, and glad I was."

She glanced round defiantly, but not otherwise moved, at the committee, the hitherto invisible gods of hospitals and medical units. The nipping wind of reality had blown into the back drawing-room. The committee was daunted. But some of its members, less daunted than the rest, had the presence of mind to wonder why it seemed strange and strangely chilling that a rather coarse, stout woman with a cockney accent and little social refinement should have passed through, and emerged so successfully from, the unimaginable retreat. If Nurse Smaith had been beautiful and slim and of elegant manners they could not have controlled their chivalrous enthusiasm.

"Very interesting," said someone.

Glancing at G.J., Nurse Smaith proceeded:

"You sy I didn't come home. But the money for my journey was due to me. That's what I sy. Twenty-five francs for two weeks' wages and ninety-five francs journey money."

"As regards the journey money," observed Sir Stephen blandly, "we've never paid so much, if my recollection serves me. And of course we have to remember that we're dealing with public funds."

Nurse Smaith sprang up, looking fixedly at Concepcion. Concepcion had thrown herself back in her chair, and her face was so drawn that it was no more the same face.

"Even if it is public funds," Concepcion shrieked, "can't you give ninety-five francs in memory of those three saucepans?" Then she relapsed on to the table, her head in her hands, and sobbed violently, very violently. The sobs rose and fell in the scale, and the whole body quaked.

G.J. jumped to his feet. Half the shocked and alarmed committee was on its feet. Nurse Smaith had run round to Concepcion and had seized her with a persuasive, soothing gesture. Concepcion quite submissively allowed herself to be led out of the room by Nurse Smaith and Sir Stephen. Her sobs weakened, and when the door was closed could no longer be heard. A lady member had followed the three. The committee was positively staggered by the unprecedented affair. G.J., very pale, said:

"Mrs. Smith is in competent hands. We can't do anything. I think we had better sit down." He was obeyed.

A second doctor on the committee remarked with a curious slight smile:

"I said to myself when I first saw her this afternoon that Mrs. Smith had some of the symptoms of a nervous breakdown."

"Yes," G.J. concurred. "I very much regret that I allowed Mrs. Smith to come. But she was determined to work, and she seemed perfectly calm and collected. I very much regret it."

Then, to hide his constraint, he pulled towards him the sheet of paper on which Concepcion had been making notes, and, remembering that a list of members present had always to be kept, he began to write down names. He was extremely angry with himself. He had tried Concepcion too high. He ought to have known that all women were the same. He had behaved like an impulsive fool. He had been ridiculous before the committee. What should have been a triumph was a disaster. The committee would bind their two names together. And at the conclusion of the meeting news of the affairs would radiate from the committee's offices in every direction throughout London. And he had been unfair to Concepcion. Their relations would be endlessly complicated by the episode. He foresaw trying scenes, in which she would make all the excuses, between her and himself.

"Perhaps it would be simpler if we decided to admit Nurse Smaith's claim," said a timid voice from the other end of the table.

G.J. murmured coldly, gazing at the agenda paper and yet dominating his committee:

"The question will come up on the minutes of the Hospitals Management Sub-committee. We had better deal with it then. The next business on the agenda is the letter from the Paris Service de Sante."

He was thinking: "How is she now? Ought I to go out and see?" And the majority of the committee was vaguely thinking, not without a certain pleasurable malice: "These Society women! They're all queer!"

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