Full Online Books
BOOK CATEGORIES
Authors Authors Short Stories Short Stories Long Stories Long Stories Funny Stories Funny Stories Love Stories Love Stories Stories For Kids Stories For Kids Poems Poems Essays Essays Nonfictions Nonfictions Plays Plays Folktales Folktales Fairy Tales Fairy Tales Fables Fables Learning Kitchen Learning Kitchen
LINKS
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Free Classified Website Without Registration Free Classified Website Daniel Company
Twitter Twitter Add book
donate
Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 7. Corner-Stone
Famous Authors (View All Authors)
The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 7. Corner-Stone Post by :ferfer Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2420

Click below to download : The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 7. Corner-Stone (Format : PDF)

The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 7. Corner-Stone

PART II CHAPTER VII. CORNER-STONE

I

On a morning in spring Edward Henry got out of an express at Euston which had come, not from the Five Towns, but from Birmingham. Having on the previous day been called to Birmingham on local and profitable business, he had found it convenient to spend the night there and telegraph home that London had summoned him. It was in this unostentatious, this half-furtive fashion, that his visits to London now usually occurred. Not that he was afraid of his wife! Not that he was afraid even of his mother! Oh, no! He was merely rather afraid of himself--of his own opinion concerning the metropolitan, non-local, speculative and perhaps unprofitable business to which he was committed. The fact was that he could scarcely look his women in the face when he mentioned London. He spoke vaguely of "real estate" enterprise, and left it at that. The women made no inquiries; they too left it at that. Nevertheless ...!

The episode of Wilkins's was buried, but it was imperfectly buried. The Five Towns definitely knew that he had stayed at Wilkins's for a bet, and that Brindley had discharged the bet. And rumours of his valet, his electric brougham, his theatrical supper-parties, had mysteriously hung in the streets of the Five Towns like a strange vapour. Wisps of the strange vapour had conceivably entered the precincts of his home, but nobody ever referred to them; nobody ever sniffed apprehensively nor asked anybody else whether there was not a smell of fire. The discreetness of the silence was disconcerting. Happily his relations with that angel his wife were excellent. She had carried angelicism so far as not to insist on the destruction of Carlo; and she had actually applauded, while sticking to her white apron, the sudden and startling extravagances of his toilette.

On the whole, though little short of thirty-five thousand pounds would ultimately be involved--not to speak of a liability of nearly three thousand a year for sixty-four years for ground-rent--Edward Henry was not entirely gloomy as to his prospects. He was, indubitably thinner in girth; novel problems and anxieties, and the constant annoyance of being in complete technical ignorance of his job, had removed some flesh. (And not a bad thing, either!) But on the other hand his chin exhibited one proof that life was worth living, and that he had discovered new faith in life and a new conviction of youthfulness.

He had shaved off his beard.

"Well, sir!" a voice greeted him full of hope and cheer, immediately his feet touched the platform.

It was the voice of Mr. Marrier. Edward Henry and Mr. Marrier were now in regular relations. Before Edward Henry had paid his final bill at Wilkins's and relinquished his valet and his electric brougham, and disposed for ever of his mythical "man" on board the Minnetonka, and got his original luggage away from the Hotel Majestic, Mr. Marrier had visited him and made a certain proposition. And such was the influence of Mr. Marrier's incurable smile and of his solid optimism and of his obvious talent for getting things done on the spot (as witness the photography), that the proposition had been accepted. Mr. Marrier was now Edward Henry's "representative" in London. At the Green Room Club Mr. Marrier informed reliable cronies that he was Edward Henry's "confidential adviser." At the Turk's Head, Hanbridge, Edward Henry informed reliable cronies that Mr. Marrier was a sort of clerk, factotum, or maid-of-all-work. A compromise between these two very different conceptions of Mr. Marrier's position had been arrived at in the word "representative." The real truth was that Edward Henry employed Mr. Marrier in order to listen to Mr. Marrier. He turned on Mr. Marrier like a tap, and nourished himself from a gushing stream of useful information concerning the theatrical world. Mr. Marrier, quite unconsciously, was bit by bit remedying Edward Henry's acute ignorance.

The question of wages had caused Edward Henry some apprehensions. He had learnt in a couple of days that a hundred pounds a week was a trifle on the stage. He had soon heard of performers who worked for "nominal" salaries of forty and fifty a week. For a manager twenty pounds a week seemed to be a usual figure. But in the Five Towns three pounds a week is regarded as very goodish pay for any sub-ordinate, and Edward Henry could not rid himself all at once of native standards. He had therefore, with diffidence, offered three pounds a week to the aristocratic Marrier. And Mr. Marrier had not refused it, nor ceased to smile. On three pounds a week he haunted the best restaurants, taxi-cabs, and other resorts, and his garb seemed always to be smarter than Edward Henry's--especially in such details as waistcoat slips.

Of course Mr. Marrier had a taxi-cab waiting exactly opposite the coach from which Edward Henry descended. It was just this kind of efficient attention that was gradually endearing him to his employer.

"How goes it?" said Edward Henry, curtly, as they drove down to the Grand Babylon Hotel--now Edward Henry's regular headquarters in London.

Said Mr. Marrier:

"I suppose you've seen another of 'em's got a knighthood?"

"No," said Edward Henry. "Who?" He knew that by "'em" Mr. Marrier meant the great race of actor-managers.

"Gerald Pompey. Something to do with him being a sheriff in the City, you know. I bet you what you laike he went in for the Common Council simply in order to get even with old Pilgrim. In fact I know he did. And now a foundation-stone-laying has dan it."

"A foundation-stone-laying?"

"Yes. The new City Guild's building, you knaow. Royalty--Temple Bar business--sheriffs--knighthood. There you are!"

"Oh!" said Edward Henry. And then after a pause added: "Pity _we can't have a foundation-stone-laying!"

"By the way, old Pilgrim's in the deuce and all of a haole, I heah. It's all over the Clubs." (In speaking of the Clubs Mr. Marrier always pronounced them with a capital letter.) "I told you he was going to sail from Tilbury on his world-tour, and have a grand embarking ceremony and seeing-off! Just laike him! Greatest advertiser the world ever saw! Well, since that P. & O. boat was lost on the Goodwins, Cora Pryde has absolutely declined to sail from Tilbury. Ab-so-lute-ly! Swears she'll join the steamer at Marseilles. And Pilgrim has got to go with her, too."

"Why?"

"Well, even Pilgrim couldn't have a grand embarking ceremony without his leading lady! He's furious, I hear."

"Why shouldn't he go with her?"

"Why not? Because he's formally announced his grand embarking ceremony! Invitations are out. Barge from London Bridge to Tilbury, and so on! What he wants is a good excuse for giving it up. He'd never be able to admit that he'd had to give it up because Cora Pryde made him! He wants to save his face."

"Well," said Edward Henry, absently. "It's a queer world. You've got me a room at the Grand Bab?"

"Rather!"

"Then let's go and have a look at the Regent first," said Edward Henry.

No sooner had he expressed the wish than Mr. Harrier's neck curved round through the window, and with three words to the chauffeur he had deflected the course of the taxi.

Edward Henry had an almost boyish curiosity about his edifice. He would go and give it a glance at the oddest moments. And just now he had a swift and violent desire to behold it. With all speed the taxi shot down Shaftesbury Avenue and swerved to the right....

There it was! Yes, it really existed, the incredible edifice of his caprice and of Mr. Alloyd's constructive imagination! It had already reached a height of fifteen feet; and, dozen of yards above that, cranes dominated the sunlit air, swinging loads of bricks in the azure; and scores of workmen crawled about beneath these monsters. And he, Edward Henry, by a single act of volition, was the author of it! He slipped from the taxi, penetrated within the wall of hoardings, and gazed, just gazed! A wondrous thing--human enterprise! And also a terrifying thing!... That building might be the tomb of his reputation. On the other hand, it might be the seed of a new renown compared to which the first would be as naught! He turned his eyes away, in fear--yes, in fear!

"I say," he said. "Will Sir John Pilgrim be out of bed yet, d'ye think?" He glanced at his watch. The hour was about eleven.

"He'll be at breakfast."

"I'm going to see him, then. What's his address?"

"25 Queen Anne's Gate. But do you knaow him? I do. Shall I cam with you?"

"No," said Edward Henry, shortly. "You go on with my bags to the Grand Bab, and get me another taxi. I'll see you in my room at the hotel at a quarter to one. Eh?"

"Rather!" agreed Mr. Marrier, submissive.


II

"Sole proprietor of the Regent Theatre."

These were the words which Edward Henry wrote on a visiting-card and which procured him immediate admittance to the unique spectacle--reputed to be one of the most enthralling sights in London--of Sir John Pilgrim at breakfast.

In a very spacious front-room of his flat (so celebrated for its Gobelins tapestries and its truly wonderful parquet-flooring) sat Sir John Pilgrim at a large hexagonal mahogany table. At one side of the table a small square of white diaper was arranged, and on this square were an apparatus for boiling eggs, another for making toast, and a third for making coffee. Sir John, with the assistance of a young Chinaman and a fox-terrier, who flitted around him, was indeed eating and drinking. The vast remainder of the table was gleamingly bare, save for newspapers and letters opened and unopened which Sir John tossed about. Opposite to him sat a secretary whose fluffy hair, neat white _chemisette_, and tender years gave her an appearance of helpless fragility in front of the powerful and ruthless celebrity. Sir John's crimson-socked left foot stuck out from the table, emerging from the left half of a lovely new pair of brown trousers, and resting on a piece of white paper. Before this white paper knelt a man in a frock-coat who was drawing an outline on the paper round Sir John's foot.

"You _are a bootmaker, aren't you?" Sir John was saying airily.

"Yes, Sir John."

"Excuse me!" said Sir John. "I only wanted to be sure. I fancied from the way you caressed my corn with that pencil that you might be an artist on one of the illustrated papers. My mistake!" He was bending down. Then suddenly straightening himself he called across the room: "I say, Givington, did you notice my pose then--my expression as I used the word 'caressed'? How would that do?"

And Edward Henry now observed in a corner of the room a man, standing in front of an easel and sketching somewhat grossly thereon in charcoal. This man said:

"If you won't bother me, Sir John, I won't bother you."

"Ah! Givington! Ah! Givington!" murmured Sir John still more airily--at breakfast he was either airy or nothing. "You're getting on in the world. You aren't merely an A.R.A.;--you're making money! A year ago you'd never have had the courage to address me in that tone. Well, I sincerely congratulate you.... Here, Snip, here's my dentist's bill--worry it, worry it! Good dog! Worry it!" (The dog growled now over a torn document beneath the table.) "Miss Taft, you might see that a _communique goes out to the effect that I gave my first sitting to Mr. Saracen Givington, A.R.A., this morning. The activities of Mr. Saracen Givington are of interest to the world, and rightly so! You'd better come round to the other side for the right foot, Mr. Bootmaker. The journey is simply nothing."

And then, and not till then, did Sir John Pilgrim turn his large and handsome middle-aged blond face in the direction of Alderman Edward Henry Machin.

"Pardon my curiosity," said Sir John, "but who are you?"

"My name is Machin--Alderman Machin," said Edward Henry. "I sent up my card and you asked me to come in."

"Ha!" Sir John exclaimed, seizing an egg. "Will you crack an egg with me, Alderman? I can crack an egg with anybody."

"Thanks," said Edward Henry. "I'll be very glad to." And he advanced towards the table.

Sir John hesitated. The fact was that, though he dissembled his dismay with marked histrionic skill, he was unquestionably overwhelmed by astonishment. In the course of years he had airily invited hundreds of callers to crack an egg with him--the joke was one of his favourites--but nobody had ever ventured to accept the invitation.

"Chung," he said weakly, "lay a cover for the Alderman."

Edward Henry sat down quite close to Sir John. He could discern all the details of Sir John's face and costume. The tremendous celebrity was wearing a lounge-suit somewhat like his own, but instead of the coat he had a blue dressing-jacket with crimson facings; the sleeves ended in rather long wristbands, which were unfastened, the opal cuff-links drooping each from a single hole. Perhaps for the first time in his life Edward Henry intimately understood what idiosyncratic elegance was. He could almost feel the emanating personality of Sir John Pilgrim, and he was intimidated by it; he was intimidated by its hardness, its harshness, its terrific egotism, its utterly brazen quality. Sir John's glance was the most purely arrogant that Edward Henry had ever encountered. It knew no reticence. And Edward Henry thought: "When this chap dies he'll want to die in public, with the reporters round his bed and a private secretary taking down messages."

"This is rather a lark," said Sir John, recovering.

"It is," said Edward Henry, who now felicitously perceived that a lark it indeed was, and ought to be treated as such. "It shall be a lark!" he said to himself.

Sir John dictated a letter to Miss Taft, and before the letter was finished the grinning Chung had laid a place for Edward Henry, and Snip had inspected him and passed him for one of the right sort.

"Had I said that this is rather a lark?" Sir John inquired, the letter accomplished.

"I forget," said Edward Henry.

"Because I don't like to say the same thing twice over if I can help it. It _is a lark though, isn't it?"

"Undoubtedly," said Edward Henry, decapitating an egg. "I only hope that I'm not interrupting you."

"Not in the least," said Sir John. "Breakfast is my sole free time. In another half hour I assure you I shall be attending to three or four things at once." He leant over towards Edward Henry. "But between you and me, Alderman, quite privately, if it isn't a rude question, what did you come for?"

"Well," said Edward Henry, "as I wrote on my card, I'm the sole proprietor of the Regent Theatre--"

"But there is no Regent Theatre," Sir John interrupted him.

"No. Not strictly. But there will be. It's in course of construction. We're up to the first floor."

"Dear me! A suburban theatre, no doubt?"

"Do you mean to say, Sir John," cried Edward Henry, "that you haven't noticed it? It's within a few yards of Piccadilly Circus."

"Really!" said Sir John. "You see my theatre is in Lower Regent Street and I never go to Piccadilly Circus. I make a point of not going to Piccadilly Circus. Miss Taft, how long is it since I went to Piccadilly Circus? Forgive me, young woman, I was forgetting--you aren't old enough to remember. Well, never mind details.... And what is there remarkable about the Regent Theatre, Alderman?"

"I intend it to be a theatre of the highest class, Sir John," said Edward Henry. "Nothing but the very best will be seen on its boards."

"That's not remarkable, Alderman. We're all like that. Haven't you noticed it?"

"Then secondly," said Edward Henry, "I am the sole proprietor. I have no financial backers, no mortgages, no partners. I have made no contracts with anybody."

"That," said Sir John, "is not unremarkable. In fact many persons who do not happen to possess my own robust capacity for belief might not credit your statement."

"And thirdly," said Edward Henry, "every member of the audience--even in the boxes, the most expensive seats--will have a full view of the whole of the stage--or, in the alternative, at _matinees_, a full view of a lady's hat."

"Alderman," said Sir John, gravely, "before I offer you another egg, let me warn you against carrying remarkableness too far. You may be regarded as eccentric if you go on like that. Some people, I am told, don't want a view of the stage."

"Then they had better not come to my theatre," said Edward Henry.

"All which," commented Sir John, "gives me no clue whatever to the reason why you are sitting here by my side and calmly eating my eggs and toast, and drinking my coffee."

Admittedly, Edward Henry was nervous. Admittedly, he was a provincial in the presence of one of the most illustrious personages in the Empire. Nevertheless, he controlled his nervousness, and reflected:

"Nobody else from the Five Towns would or could have done what I am doing. Moreover, this chap is a mountebank. In the Five Towns they would kow-tow to him, but they would laugh at him. They would mighty soon add _him up. Why should I be nervous? I'm as good as he is." He finished with the thought which has inspired many a timid man with new courage in a desperate crisis: "The fellow can't eat me."

Then he said aloud:

"I want to ask you a question, Sir John."

"One?"

"One. Are you the head of the theatrical profession, or is Sir Gerald Pompey?"

"_Sir Gerald Pompey?"

"_Sir Gerald Pompey. Haven't you seen the papers this morning?"

Sir John Pilgrim turned pale. Springing up, he seized the topmost of an undisturbed pile of daily papers, and feverishly opened it.

"Bah!" he muttered.

He was continually thus imitating his own behaviour on the stage. The origin of his renowned breakfasts lay in the fact that he had once played the part of a millionaire-ambassador who juggled at breakfast with his own affairs and the affairs of the world. The stage-breakfast of a millionaire-ambassador created by a playwright on the verge of bankruptcy had appealed to his imagination and influenced all the mornings of his life.

"They've done it just to irritate me as I'm starting off on my world's tour," he muttered, coursing round the table. Then he stopped and gazed at Edward Henry. "This is a political knighthood," said he. "It has nothing to do with the stage. It is not like my knighthood, is it?"

"Certainly not," Edward Henry agreed. "But you know how people will talk, Sir John. People will be going about this very morning and saying that Sir Gerald is at last the head of the theatrical profession. I came here for your authoritative opinion. I know you're unbiased."

Sir John resumed his chair.

"As for Pompey's qualifications as a head," he murmured, "I know nothing of them. I fancy his heart is excellent. I only saw him twice, once in his own theatre, and once in Bond Street. I should be inclined to say that on the stage he looks more like a gentleman than any gentleman ought to look, and that in the street he might be mistaken for an actor.... How will that suit you?"

"It's a clue," said Edward Henry.

"Alderman!" exclaimed Sir John, "I believe that if I didn't keep a firm hand on myself I should soon begin to like you. Have another cup of coffee. Chung!... Good-bye, Bootmaker, good-bye!"

"I only want to know for certain who is the head," said Edward Henry, "because I mean to invite the head of the theatrical profession to lay the corner-stone of my new theatre."

"Ah!"

"When do you start on your world's tour, Sir John?"

"I leave Tilbury, with my entire company, scenery and effects, on the morning of Tuesday week, by the _Kandahar_. I shall play first at Cairo."

"How awkward!" said Edward Henry. "I meant to ask you to lay the stone on the very next afternoon--Wednesday, that is!"

"Indeed!"

"Yes, Sir John. The ceremony will be a very original affair--very original!"

"A foundation-stone-laying!" mused Sir John. "But if you're already up to the first floor, how can you be laying the foundation-stone on Wednesday week?"

"I didn't say foundation-stone. I said corners-tone," Edward Henry corrected him. "An entire novelty! That's why we can't be ready before Wednesday week."

"And you want to advertise your house by getting the head of the profession to assist?"

"That is exactly my idea."

"Well," said Sir John, "whatever else you may lack, Mr. Alderman, you are not lacking in nerve, if you expect to succeed in _that_."

Edward Henry smiled. "I have already heard, in a roundabout way," he replied, "that Sir Gerald Pompey would not be unwilling to officiate. My only difficulty is that I'm a truthful man by nature. Whoever officiates I shall of course have to have him labelled, in my own interests, as the head of the theatrical profession, and I don't want to say anything that isn't true."

There was a pause.

"Now, Sir John, couldn't you stay a day or two longer in London, and join the ship at Marseilles instead of going on board at Tilbury?"

"But I have made all my arrangements. The whole world knows that I am going on board at Tilbury."

Just then the door opened, and a servant announced:

"Mr. Carlo Trent."

Sir John Pilgrim rushed like a locomotive to the threshold and seized both Carlo Trent's hands with such a violence of welcome that Carlo Trent's eyeglass fell out of his eye and the purple ribbon dangled to his waist.

"Come in, come in!" said Sir John. "And begin to read at once. I've been looking out of the window for you for the last quarter of an hour. Alderman, this is Mr. Carlo Trent, the well-known dramatic poet. Trent, this is one of the greatest geniuses in London.... Ah! You know each other? It's not surprising! No, don't stop to shake hands. Sit down here, Trent. Sit down on this chair.... Here, Snip, take his hat. Worry it! Worry it! Now, Trent, don't read to _me_. It might make you nervous and hurried. Read to Miss Taft and Chung and to Mr. Givington over there. Imagine that they are the great and enlightened public. You have imagination, haven't you, being a poet?"

Sir John had accomplished the change of mood with the rapidity of a transformation scene--in which form of art, by the way, he was a great adept.

Carlo Trent, somewhat breathless, took a manuscript from his pocket, opened it, and announced: "The Orient Pearl."

"Oh!" breathed Edward Henry.

For some thirty minutes Edward Henry listened to hexameters, the first he had ever heard. The effect of them on his moral organism was worse than he had expected. He glanced about at the other auditors. Givington had opened a box of tubes and was spreading colours on his palette. The Chinaman's eyes were closed while his face still grinned. Snip was asleep on the parquet. Miss Taft bit the end of a pencil with her agreeable teeth. Sir John Pilgrim lay at full length on a sofa, occasionally lifting his legs. Edward Henry despaired of help in his great need. But just as his desperation was becoming too acute to be borne, Carlo Trent ejaculated the word "Curtain." It was the first word that Edward Henry had clearly understood.

"That's the first act," said Carlo Trent, wiping his face. Snip awakened.

Edward Henry rose, and, in the hush, tiptoed round to the sofa.

"Good-bye, Sir John," he whispered.

"You're not going?"

"I am, Sir John."

The head of his profession sat up. "How right you are!" said he. "How right you are! Trent, I knew from the first words it wouldn't do. It lacks colour. I want something more crimson, more like the brighter parts of this jacket, something--" He waved hands in the air. "The Alderman agrees with me. He's going. Don't trouble to read any more, Trent. But drop in any time--any time. Chung, what o'clock is it?"

"It is nearly noon," said Edward Henry, in the tone of an old friend. "Well, I'm sorry you can't oblige me, Sir John. I'm off to see Sir Gerald Pompey now."

"But who says I can't oblige you?" protested Sir John. "Who knows what sacrifices I would not make in the highest interests of the profession? Alderman, you jump to conclusions with the agility of an acrobat, but they are false conclusions! Miss Taft, the telephone! Chung, my coat! Good-bye, Trent, good-bye!"

An hour later Edward Henry met Mr. Marrier at the Grand Babylon Hotel.

"Well, sir," said Mr. Marrier, "you are the greatest man that ever lived!"

"Why?"

Mr. Marrier showed him the stop-press news of a penny evening paper, which read: "Sir John Pilgrim has abandoned his ceremonious departure from Tilbury, in order to lay the corner-stone of the new Regent Theatre on Wednesday week. He and Miss Cora Pryde will join the _Kandahar at Marseilles."

"You needn't do any advertaysing," said Mr. Marrier. "Pilgrim will do all the advertaysing for you."


III

Edward Henry and Mr. Marrier worked together admirably that afternoon on the arrangements for the corner-stone-laying. And--such was the interaction of their separate enthusiasms--it soon became apparent that all London (in the only right sense of the word "all") must and would be at the ceremony. Characteristically, Mr. Marrier happened to have a list or catalogue of all London in his pocket, and Edward Henry appreciated him more than ever. But towards four o'clock Mr. Marrier annoyed and even somewhat alarmed Edward Henry by a mysterious change of mien. His assured optimism slipped away from him. He grew uneasy, darkly preoccupied, and inefficient. At last, when the clock in the room struck four, and Edward Henry failed to hear it, Mr. Marrier said:

"I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to excuse me now."

"Why?"

"I told you I had an appointment for tea at four."

"Did you? What is it?" Edward Henry demanded, with an employer's instinctive assumption that souls as well as brains can be bought for such sums as three pounds a week.

"I have a lady coming to tea here. That is, downstairs."

"In this hotel?"

"Yes."

"Who is it?" Edward Henry pursued lightly, for though he appreciated Mr. Harrier, he also despised him. However, he found the grace to add: "May one ask?"

"It's Miss Elsie April."

"Do you mean to say, Marrier," complained Edward Henry, "that you've known Miss Elsie April all these months and never told me?... There aren't two, I suppose? It's the cousin or something of Rose Euclid?"

Mr. Marrier nodded. "The fact is," he said, "she and I are joint honorary organizing secretaries for the annual conference of the Azure Society. You know--it leads the New Thought movement in England."

"You never told me that, either?"

"Didn't I, sir? I didn't think it would interest you. Besides, both Miss April and I are comparatively new members."

"Oh," said Edward Henry, with all the canny provincial's conviction of his own superior shrewdness; and he repeated, so as to intensify this conviction and impress it on others, "Oh!" In the undergrowth of his mind was the thought: "How dare this man whose brains belong to me be the organizing secretary of something that I don't know anything about and don't want to know anything about?"

"Yes," said Mr. Marrier, modestly.

"I say," Edward Henry inquired warmly, with an impulsive gesture, "who is she?"

"Who is she?" repeated Mr. Marrier, blankly.

"Yes. What does she do?"

"Doesn't do anything," said Mr. Marrier. "Very good amateur actress. Goes about a great deal. Her mother was on the stage. Married a wealthy wholesale corset-maker."

"Who did? Miss April?" Edward Henry had a twinge.

"No. Her mother. Both parents dead, and Miss April has an income--a considerable income."

"What do you call considerable?"

"Five or six thousand a year."

"The deuce!" murmured Edward Henry.

"May have lost a bit of it, of course," Mr. Marrier hedged. "But not much, not much!"

"Well," said Edward Henry, smiling, "what about _my tea? Am I to have tea all by myself?"

"Will you come down and meet her?" Mr. Marrier's expression approached the wistful.

"Well," said Edward Henry, "it's an idea, isn't it? Why should I be the only person in London who doesn't know Miss Elsie April?"

It was ten minutes past four when they descended into the electric publicity of the Grand Babylon. Amid the music and the rattle of crockery and the gliding waiters and the large nodding hats that gathered more and more thickly round the tables, there was no sign of Elsie April.

"She may have been and gone away again," said Edward Henry, apprehensive.

"Oh, no! She wouldn't go away." Mr. Marrier was positive.

In the tone of a man with an income of two hundred pounds a week he ordered a table to be prepared for three.

At ten minutes to five he said:

"I hope she _hasn't been and gone away again!"

Edward Henry began to be gloomy and resentful. The crowded and factitious gaiety of the place actually annoyed him. If Elsie April had been and gone away again, he objected to such silly feminine conduct. If she was merely late, he equally objected to such unconscionable inexactitude. He blamed Mr. Marrier. He considered that he had the right to blame Mr. Marrier because he paid him three pounds a week. And he very badly wanted his tea.

Then their four eyes, which for forty minutes had scarcely left the entrance staircase, were rewarded. She came, in furs, gleaming white kid gloves, gold chains, a gold bag, and a black velvet hat.

"I'm not late, am I?" she said, after the introduction.

"No," they both replied. And they both meant it. For she was like fine weather. The forty minutes of waiting were forgotten, expunged from the records of time--just as the memory of a month of rain is obliterated by one splendid sunny day.


IV

Edward Henry enjoyed the tea, which was bad, to an extraordinary degree. He became uplifted in the presence of Miss Elsie April; whereas Mr. Marrier, strangely, drooped to still deeper depths of unaccustomed inert melancholy. Edward Henry decided that she was every bit as piquant, challenging and delectable as he had imagined her to be on the day when he ate an artichoke at the next table to hers at Wilkins's. She coincided exactly with his remembrance of her, except that she was now slightly more plump. Her contours were effulgent--there was no other word. Beautiful she was not, for she had a turned-up nose; but what charm she radiated! Every movement and tone enchanted Edward Henry. He was enchanted not at intervals, by a chance gesture, but all the time--when she was serious, when she smiled, when she fingered her tea-cup, when she pushed her furs back over her shoulders, when she spoke of the weather, when she spoke of the social crisis, and when she made fun, with a certain brief absence of restraint--rather in her artichoke manner of making fun.

He thought and believed:

"This is the finest woman I ever saw!" He clearly perceived the inferiority of other women, whom, nevertheless, he admired and liked, such as the Countess of Chell and Lady Woldo.

It was not her brains, nor her beauty, nor her stylishness that affected him. No! It was something mysterious and dizzying that resided in every particle of her individuality.

He thought:

"I've often and often wanted to see her again. And now I'm having tea with her!" And he was happy.

"Have you got that list, Mr. Harrier?" she asked, in her low and thrilling voice. So saying, she raised her eyebrows in expectation--a delicious effect, especially behind her half-raised white veil.

Mr. Marrier produced a document.

"But that's _my list!" said Edward Henry.

"Your list?"

"I'd better tell you." Mr. Marrier essayed a rapid explanation. "Mr. Machin wanted a list of the raight sort of people to ask to the corner-stone-laying of his theatah. So I used this as a basis."

Elsie April smiled again:

"Very good!" she approved.

"What _is your list, Marrier?" asked Edward Henry.

It was Elsie who replied:

"People to be invited to the dramatic soiree of the Azure Society. We give six a year. No title is announced. Nobody except a committee of three knows even the name of the author of the play that is to be performed. Everything is kept a secret. Even the author doesn't know that his play has been chosen. Don't you think it's a delightful idea?... An offspring of the New Thought!"

He agreed that it was a delightful idea.

"Shall I be invited?" he asked.

She answered gravely, "I don't know."

"Are you going to play in it?"

She paused.... "Yes."

"Then you must let me come. Talking of plays--"

He stopped. He was on the edge of facetiously relating the episode of "The Orient Pearl" at Sir John Pilgrim's. But he withdrew in time. Suppose that "The Orient Pearl" was the piece to be performed by the Azure Society! It might well be! It was (in his opinion) just the sort of play that that sort of society would choose! Nevertheless he was as anxious as ever to see Elsie April act. He really thought that she could and would transfigure any play. Even his profound scorn of New Thought (a subject of which he was entirely ignorant) began to be modified--and by nothing but the enchantment of the tone in which Elsie April murmured the words, "Azure Society!"

"How soon is the performance?" he demanded.

"Wednesday week," said she.

"That's the very day of my corner-stone-laying," he said. "However, it doesn't matter. My little affair will be in the afternoon."

"But it can't be," said she, solemnly. "It would interfere with us, and we should interfere with it. Our Annual Conference takes place in the afternoon. All London will be there."

Said Mr. Marrier, rather shamefaced:

"That's just it, Mr. Machin. It positively never occurred to me that the Azure Conference is to be on that very day. I never thought of it until nearly four o'clock. And then I scarcely knew how to explain it to you. I really don't know how it escaped me."

Mr. Marrier's trouble was now out, and he had declined in Edward Henry's esteem. Mr. Marrier was afraid of him. Mr. Marrier's list of personages was no longer a miracle of foresight; it was a mere coincidence. He doubted if Mr. Marrier was worth even his three pounds a week. Edward Henry began to feel ruthless, Napoleonic. He was capable of brushing away the whole Azure Society and New Thought movement into limbo.

"You must please alter your date," said Elsie April. And she put her right elbow on the table and leaned her chin on it, and thus somehow established a domestic intimacy for the three amid all the blare and notoriety of the vast tea-room.

"Oh, but I can't!" he said easily, familiarly. It was her occasional "artichoke" manner that had justified him in assuming this tone. "I can't!" he repeated. "I've told Sir John I can't possibly be ready any earlier, and on the day after he'll almost certainly be on his way to Marseilles. Besides, I don't _want to alter my date. My date is in the papers by this time."

"You've already done quite enough harm to the Movement as it is," said Elsie April, stoutly, but ravishingly.

"Me--harm to the Movement?"

"Haven't you stopped the building of our church?"

"Oh! So you know Mr. Wrissell?"

"Very well, indeed."

"Anybody else would have done the same in my place!" Edward Henry defended himself. "Your cousin, Miss Euclid, would have done it, and Marrier here was in the affair with her."

"Ah!" exclaimed Elsie April. "But we didn't belong to the Movement then! We didn't know.... Come now, Mr. Machin. Sir John Pilgrim will of course be a great draw. But even if you've got him and manage to stick to him, we should beat you. You'll never get the audience you want if you don't change from Wednesday week. After all, the number of people who count in London is very small. And we've got nearly all of them. You've no idea--"

"I won't change from Wednesday week," said Edward Henry. This defiance of her put him into an extremely agitated felicity.

"Now, my dear Mr. Machin--"

He was acutely aware of the charm she was exerting, and yet he discovered that he could easily withstand it.

"Now, my dear Miss April, please don't try to take advantage of your beauty!"

She sat up. She was apparently measuring herself and him.

"Then you won't change the day, truly?" Her urbanity was in no wise impaired.

"I won't," he laughed lightly. "I daresay you aren't used to people like me, Miss April."

(She might get the better of Seven Sachs, but not of him, Edward Henry Machin from the Five Towns!)

"Marrier!" said he, suddenly, with a bluff, humorous downrightness, "you know you're in a very awkward position here, and you know you've got to see Alloyd for me before six o'clock. Be off with you. I will be responsible for Miss April."

("I'll show these Londoners!" he said to himself. "It's simple enough when you once get into it.")

And he did in fact succeed in dismissing Mr. Marrier, after the latter had talked Azure business with Miss April for a couple of minutes.

"I must go too," said Elsie, imperturbable, impenetrable.

"One moment," he entreated, and masterfully signalled Marrier to depart. After all he was paying the fellow three pounds a week.

She watched Marrier thread his way out. Already she had put on her gloves.

"I must go," she repeated; her rich red lips then closed definitely.

"Have you a motor here?" Edward Henry asked.

"No."

"Then if I may I'll see you home."

"You may," she said, gazing full at him. Whereby he was somewhat startled and put out of countenance.


V

"Are we friends?" he asked roguishly.

"I hope so," she said, with no diminution of her inscrutability.

They were in a taxi-cab, rolling along the Embankment towards the Buckingham Palace Hotel, where she said she lived. He was happy. "Why am I happy?" he thought. "_What is there in her that makes me happy?" He did not know. But he knew that he had never been in a taxi-cab, or anywhere else, with any woman half so elegant. Her elegance flattered him enormously. Here he was, a provincial man of business, ruffling it with the best of them!... And she was young in her worldly maturity. Was she twenty-seven? She could not be more. She looked straight in front of her, faintly smiling.... Yes, he was fully aware that he was a married man. He had a distinct vision of the angelic Nellie, of the three children, and of his mother. But it seemed to him that his own case differed in some very subtle and yet effective manner from the similar case of any other married man. And he lived, unharassed by apprehensions, in the lively joy of the moment.

"But," she said, "I hope you won't come to see me act."

"Why?"

"Because I should prefer you not to. You would not be sympathetic to me."

"Oh, yes, I should."

"I shouldn't feel it so." And then, with a swift disarrangement of all the folds of her skirt, she turned and faced him. "Mr. Machin, do you know why I've let you come with me?"

"Because you're a good-natured woman," he said.

She grew even graver, shaking her head.

"No! I simply wanted to tell you that you've ruined Rose--my cousin."

"Miss Euclid? Me ruined Miss Euclid!"

"Yes. You robbed her of her theatre--her one chance."

He blushed. "Excuse me," he said. "I did no such thing. I simply bought her option from her. She was absolutely free to keep the option or let it go."

"The fact remains," said Elsie April, with humid eyes, "the fact remains that she'd set her heart on having that theatre, and you failed her at the last instant. And she has nothing, and you've got the theatre entirely in your own hands. I'm not so silly as to suppose that you can't defend yourself legally. But let me tell you that Rose went to the United States heart-broken, and she's playing to empty houses there--empty houses! Whereas she might have been here in London, interested in her theatre, and preparing for a successful season."

"I'd no idea of this," breathed Edward Henry. He was dashed. "I'm awfully sorry!"

"Yes, no doubt. But there it is!"

Silence fell. He knew not what to say. He felt himself in one way innocent, but he felt himself in another way blackly guilty. His remorse for the telephone-trick which he had practised on Rose Euclid burst forth again after a long period of quiescence simulating death, and acutely troubled him.... No, he was not guilty! He insisted in his heart that he was not guilty! And yet--and yet--No taxi-cab ever travelled so quickly as that taxi-cab. Before he could gather together his forces it had arrived beneath the awning of the Buckingham Palace Hotel.

His last words to her were:

"Now I shan't change the day of my stone-laying. But don't worry about your Conference. You know it'll be perfectly all right!" He spoke archly, with a brave attempt at cajolery. But in the recesses of his soul he was not sure that she had not defeated him in this their first encounter. However, Seven Sachs might talk as he chose--she was not such a persuasive creature as all that! She had scarcely even tried to be persuasive.

At about a quarter-past six when he saw his underling again he said to Mr. Marrier:

"Marrier, I've got a great idea. We'll have that corner-stone-laying at night. After the theatres. Say half-past eleven. Torchlight! Fireworks from the cranes! It'll tickle old Pilgrim to death. I shall have a marquee with matchboarding sides fixed up inside, and heat it with a few of those smokeless stoves. We can easily lay on electricity. It will be absolutely the most sensational stone-laying that ever was. It'll be in all the papers all over the blessed world. Think of it! Torches! Fireworks from the cranes!... But I won't change the day--neither for Miss April nor anybody else."

Mr. Marrier dissolved in laudations.

"Well," Edward Henry agreed with false diffidence. "It'll knock spots off some of 'em in this town!"

He felt that he had snatched victory out of defeat. But the next moment he was capable of feeling that Elsie April had defeated him even in his victory. Anyhow, she was a most disconcerting and fancy-monopolizing creature.

There was one source of unsullied gratification, he had shaved off his beard.


VI

"Come up here, Sir John," Edward Henry called. "You'll see better, and you'll be out of the crowd. And I'll show you something."

He stood, in a fur coat, at the top of a short flight of rough-surfaced steps between two unplastered walls--a staircase which ultimately was to form part of an emergency exit from the dress-circle of the Regent Theatre. Sir John Pilgrim, also in a fur coat, stood near the bottom of the steps, with the glare of a Wells light full on him and throwing his shadow almost up to Edward Henry's feet. Around, Edward Henry could descry the vast mysterious forms of the building's skeleton--black in places, but in other places lit up by bright rays from the gaiety below, and showing glimpses of that gaiety in the occasional revelation of a woman's cloak through slits in the construction. High overhead two gigantic cranes interlaced their arms; and, even higher than the cranes, shone the stars of the clear spring night.

The hour was nearly half-past twelve. The ceremony was concluded--and successfully concluded. All London had indeed been present. Half the aristocracy of England, and far more than half the aristocracy of the London stage! The entire preciosity of the Metropolis! Journalists with influence enough to plunge the whole of Europe into war! In one short hour Edward Henry's right hand (peeping out from that superb fur coat which he had had the wit to buy) had made the acquaintance of scores upon scores of the most celebrated right hands in Britain. He had the sensation that in future, whenever he walked about the best streets of the West End, he would be continually compelled to stop and chat with august and renowned acquaintances, and that he would always be taking off his hat to fine ladies who flashed by nodding from powerful motor-cars. Indeed, Edward Henry was surprised at the number of famous people who seemed to have nothing to do but attend advertising rituals at midnight or thereabouts. Sir John Pilgrim had, as Marrier predicted, attended to the advertisements. But Edward Henry had helped. And on the day itself the evening newspapers had taken the bit between their teeth and run off with the affair at a great pace. The affair was on all the contents-bills hours before it actually happened. Edward Henry had been interviewed several times, and had rather enjoyed that. Gradually he had perceived that his novel idea for a corner-stone-laying had caught the facile imagination of the London populace. For that night at least he was famous--as famous as anybody!

Sir John had made a wondrous picturesque figure of himself as, in a raised corner of the crowded and beflagged marquee, he had flourished a trowel, and talked about the great and enlightened public, and about the highest function of the drama, and about the duty of the artist to elevate, and about the solemn responsibility of theatrical managers, and about the absence of petty jealousies in the world of the stage. Everybody had vociferously applauded, while reporters turned rapidly the pages of their note-books. "Ass!" Edward Henry had said to himself with much force and sincerity--meaning Sir John--but he too had vociferously applauded; for he was from the Five Towns, and in the Five Towns people are like that! Then Sir John had declared the corner-stone well and truly laid (it was on the corner which the electric sign of the future was destined to occupy), and after being thanked had wandered off, shaking hands here and there absently, to arrive at length in the office of the clerk-of-the-works, where Edward Henry had arranged suitably to refresh the stone-layer and a few choice friends of both sexes.

He had hoped that Elsie April would somehow reach that little office. But Elsie April was absent, indisposed. Her absence made the one blemish on the affair's perfection. Elsie April, it appeared, had been struck down by a cold which had entirely deprived her of her voice, so that the performance of the Azure Society's Dramatic Club, so eagerly anticipated by all London, had had to be postponed. Edward Henry bore the misfortune of the Azure Society with stoicism, but he had been extremely disappointed by the invisibility of Elsie April at his stone-laying. His eyes had wanted her.

Sir John, awaking apparently out of a dream when Edward Henry had summoned him twice, climbed the uneven staircase and joined his host and youngest rival on the insecure planks and gangways that covered the first floor of the Regent Theatre.

"Come higher," said Edward Henry, mounting upward to the beginnings of the second story, above which hung suspended from the larger crane the great cage that was employed to carry brick and stone from the ground.

The two fur coats almost mingled.

"Well, young man," said Sir John Pilgrim, "your troubles will soon be beginning."

Now Edward Henry hated to be addressed as "young man," especially in the patronizing tone which Sir John used. Moreover, he had a suspicion that in Sir John's mind was the illusion that Sir John alone was responsible for the creation of the Regent Theatre--that without Sir John's aid as a stone-layer it could never have existed.

"You mean my troubles as a manager?" said Edward Henry, grimly.

"In twelve months from now--before I come back from my world's tour--you'll be ready to get rid of this thing on any terms. You will be wishing that you had imitated my example and kept out of Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is sinister, my Alderman--sinister."

"Come up into the cage, Sir John," said Edward Henry. "You'll get a still better view. Rather fine, isn't it, even from here?"

He climbed up into the cage, and helped Sir John to climb.

And, standing there in the immediate silence, Sir John murmured with emotion:

"We are alone with London!"

Edward Henry thought:

"Cuckoo!"

They heard footsteps resounding on loose planks in a distant corner.

"Who's there?" Edward Henry called.

"Only me!" replied a voice. "Nobody takes any notice of me!"

"Who is it?" muttered Sir John.

"Alloyd, the architect," Edward Henry answered, and then calling loud, "Come up here, Alloyd."

The muffled and coated figure approached, hesitated, and then joined the other two in the cage.

"Let me introduce Mr. Alloyd, the architect--Sir John Pilgrim," said Edward Henry.

"Ah!" said Sir John, bending towards Alloyd. "Are you the genius who draws those amusing little lines and scrawls on transparent paper, Mr. Alloyd? Tell me, are they really necessary for a building, or do you only do them for your own fun? Quite between ourselves, you know! I've often wondered."

Said Mr. Alloyd, with a pale smile:

"Of course everyone looks on the architect as a joke!" The pause was somewhat difficult.

"You promised us rockets, Mr. Machin," said Sir John. "My mind yearns for rockets."

"Right you are!" Edward Henry complied. Close by, but somewhat above them, was the crane-engine, manned by an engineer whom Edward Henry was paying for overtime. A signal was given, and the cage containing the proprietor and the architect of the theatre and Sir John Pilgrim bounded most startlingly up into the air. Simultaneously it began to revolve rapidly on its cable, as such cages will, whether filled with bricks or with celebrities.

"Oh!" ejaculated Sir John, terror-struck, clinging hard to the side of the cage.

"Oh!" ejaculated Mr. Alloyd, also clinging hard.

"I want you to see London," said Edward Henry, who had been through the experience before.

The wind blew cold above the chimneys.

The cage came to a standstill exactly at the peak of the other crane. London lay beneath the trio. The curves of Regent Street and of Shaftesbury Avenue, the right lines of Piccadilly, Lower Regent Street and Coventry Street, were displayed at their feet as on an illuminated map, over which crawled mannikins and toy-autobuses. At their feet a long procession of automobiles were sliding off, one after another, with the guests of the evening. The Metropolis stretched away, lifting to the north, and sinking to the south into the jewelled river on whose curved bank rose messages of light concerning whisky, tea and beer. The peaceful nocturnal roar of the city, dwindling every moment now, reached them like an emanation from another world.

"You asked for a rocket, Sir John," said Edward Henry. "You shall have it."

He had taken a box of fusees from his pocket. He struck one, and his companions in the swaying cage now saw that a tremendous rocket was hung to the peak of the other crane. He lighted the fuse.... An instant of deathly suspense!... And then with a terrific and a shattering bang and splutter the rocket shot towards the kingdom of heaven and there burst into a vast dome of red blossoms which, irradiating a square mile of roofs, descended slowly and softly on the West End like a benediction.

"You always want crimson, don't you, Sir John?" said Edward Henry, and the easy cheeriness of his voice gradually tranquillized the alarm natural to two very earthly men who for the first time found themselves suspended insecurely over a gulf.

"I have seen nothing so impressive since the Russian Ballet," murmured Mr. Alloyd, recovering.

"You ought to go to Siberia, Alloyd," said Edward Henry.

Sir John Pilgrim, pretending now to be extremely brave, suddenly turned on Edward Henry and in a convulsive grasp seized his hand.

"My friend," he said hoarsely, "a thought has just occurred to me. You and I are the two most remarkable men in London!" He glanced up as the cage trembled. "How thin that steel rope seems!"

The cage slowly descended, with many twists.

Edward Henry said not a word. He was too deeply moved by his own triumph to be able to speak.

"Who else but me," he reflected, exultant, "could have managed this affair as I've managed it? Did anyone else ever take Sir John Pilgrim up into the sky like a load of bricks, and frighten his life out of him?"

As the cage approached the platforms of the first story he saw two people waiting there; one he recognized as the faithful, harmless Marrier; the other was a woman.

"Someone here wants you urgently, Mr. Machin!" cried Marrier.

"By Jove!" exclaimed Alloyd under his breath. "What a beautiful figure! No girl as attractive as that ever wanted _me urgently! Some folks do have luck!"

The woman had moved a little away when the cage landed. Edward Henry followed her along the planking.

It was Elsie April.

"I thought you were ill in bed," he breathed, astounded.

Her answering voice reached him, scarcely audible:

"I'm only hoarse. My Cousin Rose has arrived to-night in secret at Tilbury by the _Minnetonka_."

"The _Minnetonka_!" he muttered. Staggering coincidence! Mystic heralding of misfortune!

"I was sent for," the pale ghost of a delicate voice continued. "She's broken, ruined; no courage left. Awful fiasco in Chicago! She's hiding now at a little hotel in Soho. She absolutely declined to come to my hotel. I've done what I could for the moment. As I was driving by here just now I saw the rocket and I thought of you. I thought you ought to know it. I thought it was my duty to tell you."

She held her muff to her mouth. She seemed to be trembling.

A heavy hand was laid on his shoulder.

"Excuse me, sir," said a strong, rough voice, "are you the gent that fired off the rocket? It's against the law to do that kind o' thing here, and you ought to know it. I shall have to trouble you--"

It was a policeman of the C Division.

Sir John was disappearing, with his stealthy and conspiratorial air, down the staircase.

If you like this book please share to your friends :
NEXT BOOKS

The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 8. Dealing With Elsie The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 8. Dealing With Elsie

The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 8. Dealing With Elsie
PART II CHAPTER VIII. DEALING WITH ELSIEIThe headquarters of the Azure Society were situate in Marloes Road--for no other reason than that it happened so. Though certain famous people inhabit Marloes Road, no street could well be less fashionable than this thoroughfare, which is very arid and very long, and a very long way off the centre of the universe."The Azure Society, you know!" Edward Henry added, when he had given the exact address to the chauffeur of the taxi.The chauffeur, however, did not know, and did not seem to be ashamed of his ignorance. His attitude indicated that he despised
PREVIOUS BOOKS

The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 6. Lord Woldo And Lady Woldo The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 6. Lord Woldo And Lady Woldo

The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 6. Lord Woldo And Lady Woldo
PART I CHAPTER VI. LORD WOLDO AND LADY WOLDOIThe next morning, Joseph, having opened wide the window, informed his master that the weather was bright and sunny, and Edward Henry arose with just that pleasant degree of fatigue which persuades one that one is if anything rather more highly vitalized than usual. He sent for Mr. Bryany, as for a domestic animal, and Mr. Bryany, ceremoniously attired, was received by a sort of jolly king who happened to be trimming his beard in the royal bathroom but who was too good-natured to keep Mr. Bryany waiting. It is remarkable how the
NEXT 10 BOOKS | PREVIOUS 10 BOOKS | RANDOM 10 BOOKS
LEAVE A COMMENT