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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 8. Dealing With Elsie
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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 2 - Chapter 8. Dealing With Elsie Post by :davebrucesr Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :503

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

PART II CHAPTER VIII. DEALING WITH ELSIE

I

The 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 Marloes Road and was not particularly anxious for his vehicle to be seen therein--especially on a wet night--but that nevertheless he would endeavour to reach it. When he did reach it, and observed the large concourse of shining automobiles that struggled together in the rain in front of the illuminated number named by Edward Henry, the chauffeur admitted to himself that for once he had been mistaken, and his manner of receiving money from Edward Henry was generously respectful.

Originally, the headquarters of the Azure Society had been a seminary and schoolmistress's house. The thoroughness with which the buildings had been transformed showed that money was not among the things which the Society had to search for. It had rich resources, and it had also high social standing; and the deferential commissionaires at the doors and the fluffy-aproned, appealing girls who gave away programmes in the _foyer were a proof that the Society, while doubtless anxious about such subjects as the persistence of individuality after death, had no desire to reconstitute the community on a democratic basis. It was above such transient trifles of reform, and its high endeavours were confined to questions of immortality, of the infinite, of sex, and of art: which questions it discussed in fine raiment and with all the punctilio of courtly politeness.

Edward Henry was late, in common with some two hundred other people, of whom the majority were elegant women wearing Paris or almost-Paris gowns with a difference. As on the current of the variegated throng he drifted through corridors into the bijou theatre of the Society, he could not help feeling proud of his own presence there--and yet at the same time he was scorning, in his Five Towns way, the preciosity and the simperings of those his fellow-creatures. Seated in the auditorium, at the end of a row, he was aware of an even keener satisfaction, as people bowed and smiled to him; for the theatre was so tiny and the reunion so choice that it was obviously an honour and a distinction to have been invited to such an exclusive affair. To the evening first fixed for the dramatic soiree of the Azure Society he had received no invitation. But shortly after the postponement due to Elsie April's indisposition an envelope addressed by Marrier himself, and containing the sacred card, had arrived for him in Bursley. His instinct had been to ignore it, and for two days he had ignored it, and then he noticed in one corner the initials, "E.A." Strange that it did not occur to him immediately that E.A. stood, or might stand, for Elsie April!

Reflection brings wisdom and knowledge. In the end he was absolutely convinced that E.A. stood for Elsie April; and at the last moment, deciding that it would be the act of a fool and a coward to decline what was practically a personal request from a young and enchanting woman, he had come to London--short of sleep, it is true, owing to local convivialities, but he had come! And, curiously, he had not communicated with Marrier. Marrier had been extremely taken up with the dramatic soiree of the Azure Society--which Edward Henry justifiably but quite privately resented. Was he not paying three pounds a week to Marrier?

And now, there he sat, known, watched, a notoriety, the card who had raised Pilgrim to the skies, probably the only theatrical proprietor in the crowded and silent audience; and he was expecting anxiously to see Elsie April again--across the footlights! He had not seen her since the night of the stone-laying, over a week earlier. He had not sought to see her. He had listened then to the delicate tones of her weak, whispering, thrilling voice, and had expressed regret for Rose Euclid's plight. But he had done no more. What could he have done? Clearly he could not have offered money to relieve the plight of Rose Euclid, who was the cousin of a girl as wealthy and as sympathetic as Elsie April. To do so would have been to insult Elsie. Yet he felt guilty, none the less. An odd situation! The delicate tones of Elsie's weak, whispering, thrilling voice on the scaffolding haunted his memory, and came back with strange clearness as he sat waiting for the curtain to ascend.

There was an outburst of sedate applause, and a turning of heads to the right. Edward Henry looked in that direction. Rose Euclid herself was bowing from one of the two boxes on the first tier. Instantly she had been recognized and acknowledged, and the clapping had in no wise disturbed her. Evidently she accepted it as a matter of course. How famous, after all, she must be, if such an audience would pay her such a meed! She was pale, and dressed glitteringly in white. She seemed younger, more graceful, much more handsome, more in accordance with her renown. She was at home and at ease up there in the brightness of publicity. The imposing legend of her long career had survived the eclipse in the United States. Who could have guessed that some ten days before she had landed heart-broken and ruined at Tilbury from the _Minnetonka_?

Edward Henry was impressed.

"She's none so dusty!" he said to himself in the incomprehensible slang of the Five Towns. The phrase was a high compliment to Rose Euclid, aged fifty and looking anything you like over thirty. It measured the extent to which he was impressed.

Yes, he felt guilty. He had to drop his eyes, lest hers should catch them. He examined guiltily the programme, which announced "The New Don Juan," a play "in three acts and in verse"--author unnamed. The curtain went up.


II

And with the rising of the curtain began Edward Henry's torture and bewilderment. The scene disclosed a cloth upon which was painted, to the right, a vast writhing purple cuttle-fish whose finer tentacles were lost above the proscenium arch, and to the left an enormous crimson oblong patch with a hole in it. He referred to the programme, which said: "Act II. or A castle in a forest"; and also, "Scenery and costumes designed by Saracen Givington, A.R.A." The cuttle-fish, then, was the purple forest, or perhaps one tree in the forest, and the oblong patch was the crimson castle. The stage remained empty, and Edward Henry had time to perceive that the footlights were unlit and that rays came only from the flies and from the wings.

He glanced round. Nobody had blenched. Quite confused, he referred again to the programme and deciphered in the increasing gloom: "Lighting by Cosmo Clark," in very large letters.

Two yellow-clad figures of no particular sex glided into view, and at the first words which they uttered Edward Henry's heart seemed in apprehension to cease to beat. A fear seized him. A few more words and the fear became a positive assurance and realization of evil. "The New Don Juan" was simply a pseudonym for Carlo Trent's "Orient Pearl"!... He had always known that it would be. Ever since deciding to accept the invitation he had lived under just that menace. "The Orient Pearl" seemed to be pursuing him like a sinister destiny.

Weakly he consulted yet again the programme. Only one character bore a name familiar to the Don Juan story, to wit "Haidee," and opposite that name was the name of Elsie April. He waited for her--he had no other interest in the evening--and he waited in resignation; a young female troubadour (styled in the programme "the messenger") emerged from the unseen depths of the forest in the wings and ejaculated to the hero and his friend, "The Woman appears." But it was not Elsie that appeared. Six times that troubadour-messenger emerged and ejaculated, "The Woman appears," and each time Edward Henry was disappointed. But at the seventh heralding--the heralding of the seventh and highest heroine of this drama in hexameters--Elsie did at length appear.

And Edward Henry became happy. He understood little more of the play than at the historic breakfast-party of Sir John Pilgrim; he was well confirmed in his belief that the play was exactly as preposterous as a play in verse must necessarily be; his manly contempt for verse was more firmly established than ever--but Elsie April made an exquisite figure between the castle and the forest; her voice did really set up physical vibrations in his spine. He was deliciously convinced that if she remained on the stage from everlasting to everlasting, just so long could he gaze thereat without surfeit and without other desire. The mischief was that she did not remain on the stage. With despair he saw her depart, and the close of the act was ashes in his mouth.

The applause was tremendous. It was not as tremendous as that which had greeted the plate-smashing comedy at the Hanbridge Empire, but it was far more than sufficiently enthusiastic to startle and shock Edward Henry. In fact, his cold indifference was so conspicuous amid that fever that in order to save his face he had to clap and to smile.

And the dreadful thought crossed his mind, traversing it like the shudder of a distant earthquake that presages complete destruction:

"Are the ideas of the Five Towns all wrong? Am I a provincial after all?"

For hitherto, though he had often admitted to himself that he was a provincial, he had never done so with sincerity: but always in a manner of playful and rather condescending badinage.


III

"Did you ever see such scenery and costumes?" someone addressed him suddenly, when the applause had died down. It was Mr. Alloyd, who had advanced up the aisle from a back row of the stalls.

"No, I never did!" Edward Henry agreed.

"It's wonderful how Givington has managed to get away from the childish realism of the modern theatre," said Mr. Alloyd, "without being ridiculous."

"You think so!" said Edward Henry, judicially. "The question is--has he?"

"Do you mean it's too realistic for you?" cried Mr. Alloyd. "Well, you _are advanced! I didn't know you were as anti-representational as all that!"

"Neither did I!" said Edward Henry. "What do you think of the play?"

"Well," answered Mr. Alloyd, low and cautiously, with a somewhat shamed grin, "between you and me I think the play's bosh."

"Come, come!" Edward Henry murmured as if in protest.

The word "bosh" was almost the first word of the discussion which he had comprehended, and the honest familiar sound of it did him good. Nevertheless, keeping his presence of mind, he had forborne to welcome it openly. He wondered what on earth "anti-representational" could mean. Similar conversations were proceeding around him, and each could be very closely heard, for the reason that, the audience being frankly intellectual and anxious to exchange ideas, the management had wisely avoided the expense and noise of an orchestra. The _entr'acte was like a conversazione of all the cultures.

"I wish you'd give us some scenery and costumes like this in _your theatre," said Alloyd, as he strolled away.

The remark stabbed him like a needle; the pain was gone in an instant, but it left a vague fear behind it, as of the menace of a mortal injury. It is a fact that Edward Henry blushed and grew gloomy--and he scarcely knew why. He looked about him timidly, half defiantly. A magnificently-arrayed woman in the row in front, somewhat to the right, leaned back and towards him, and behind her fan said:

"You're the only manager here, Mr. Machin! How alive and alert you are!" Her voice seemed to be charged with a hidden meaning.

"D'you think so?" said Edward Henry. He had no idea who she might be. He had probably shaken hands with her at his stone-laying, but if so he had forgotten her face. He was fast becoming one of the oligarchical few who are recognized by far more people than they recognize.

"A beautiful play!" said the woman. "Not merely poetic but intellectual! And an extraordinarily acute criticism of modern conditions!"

He nodded. "What do you think of the scenery?" he asked.

"Well, of course candidly," said the woman, "I think it's silly. I daresay I'm old-fashioned." ...

"I daresay," murmured Edward Henry.

"They told me you were very ironic," said she, flushing but meek.

"They!" Who? Who in the world of London had been labelling him as ironic? He was rather proud.

"I hope if you _do do this kind of play--and we're all looking to you, Mr. Machin," said the lady, making a new start, "I hope you won't go in for these costumes and scenery. That would never do!"

Again the stab of the needle!

"It wouldn't," he said.

"I'm delighted you think so," said she.

An orange telegram came travelling from hand to hand along that row of stalls, and ultimately, after skipping a few persons, reached the magnificently-arrayed woman, who read it, and then passed it to Edward Henry.

"Splendid!" she exclaimed. "Splendid!"

Edward Henry read: "Released. Isabel."

"What does it mean?"

"It's from Isabel Joy--at Marseilles."

"Really!"

Edward Henry's ignorance of affairs round about the centre of the universe was occasionally distressing--to himself in particular. And just now he gravely blamed Mr. Marrier, who had neglected to post him about Isabel Joy. But how could Marrier honestly earn his three pounds a week if he was occupied night and day with the organizing and management of these precious dramatic soirees? Edward Henry decided that he must give Mr. Marrier a piece of his mind at the first opportunity.

"Don't you know?" questioned the dame.

"How should I?" he parried. "I'm only a provincial."

"But surely," pursued the dame, "you knew we'd sent her round the world. She started on the _Kandahar_, the ship that you stopped Sir John Pilgrim from taking. She almost atoned for his absence at Tilbury. Twenty-five reporters, anyway!"

Edward Henry sharply slapped his thigh, which in the Five Towns signifies: "I shall forget my own name next."

Of course! Isabel Joy was the advertising emissary of the Militant Suffragette Society, sent forth to hold a public meeting and make a speech in the principal ports of the world. She had guaranteed to circuit the globe and to be back in London within a hundred days, to speak in at least five languages, and to get herself arrested at least three times _en route_.... Of course! Isabel Joy had possessed a very fair share of the newspapers on the day before the stone-laying, but Edward Henry had naturally had too many preoccupations to follow her exploits. After all, his momentary forgetfulness was rather excusable.

"She's made a superb beginning!" said the resplendent dame, taking the telegram from Edward Henry and inducting it into another row. "And before three months are out she'll be the talk of the entire earth. You'll see!"

"Is everybody a suffragette here?" asked Edward Henry, simply, as his eyes witnessed the satisfaction spread by the voyaging telegram....

"Practically," said the dame. "These things always go hand in hand," she added in a deep tone.

"What things?" the provincial demanded.

But just then the curtain rose on the second act.


IV

"Won't you cam up to Miss April's dressing-room?" said Mr. Harrier, who in the midst of the fulminating applause after the second act seemed to be inexplicably standing over him, having appeared in an instant out of nowhere like a genie.

The fact was that Edward Henry had been gently and innocently dozing. It was in part the deep obscurity of the auditorium, in part his own physical fatigue, and in part the secret nature of poetry that had been responsible for this restful slumber. He had remained awake without difficulty during the first portion of the act, in which Elsie April--the orient pearl--had had a long scene of emotion and tears, played, as Edward Henry thought, magnificently in spite of its inherent ridiculousness; but later, when gentle Haidee had vanished away and the fateful troubadour-messenger had begun to resume her announcements of "The woman appears," Edward Henry's soul had miserably yielded to his body and to the temptation of darkness. The upturned lights and the ringing hosannahs had roused him to a full sense of sin, but he had not quite recovered all his faculties when Marrier startled him.

"Yes, yes! Of course! I was coming," he answered a little petulantly. But no petulance could impair the beaming optimism on Mr. Harrier's features. To judge by those features, Mr. Marrier, in addition to having organized and managed the soiree, might also have written the piece and played every part in it, and founded the Azure Society and built its private theatre. The hour was Mr. Marrier's.

Elise April's dressing-room was small and very thickly populated, and the threshold of it was barred by eager persons who were half in and half out of the room. Through these Mr. Marrier's authority forced a way. The first man Edward Henry recognized in the tumult of bodies was Mr. Rollo Wrissell, whom he had not seen since their meeting at Slossons.

"Mr. Wrissell," said the glowing Marrier, "let me introduce Mr. Alderman Machin, of the Regent Theatah."

"Clumsy fool!" thought Edward Henry, and stood as if entranced.

But Mr. Wrissell held out a hand with the perfection of urbane insouciance.

"How d'you do, Mr. Machin?" said he. "I hope you'll forgive me for not having followed your advice."

This was a lesson to Edward Henry. He learnt that you should never show a wound, and if possible never feel one. He admitted that in such details of social conduct London might be in advance of the Five Towns, despite the Five Towns' admirable downrightness.

Lady Woldo was also in the dressing-room, glorious in black. Her beauty was positively disconcerting, and the more so on this occasion as she was bending over the faded Rose Euclid, who sat in a corner surrounded by a court. This court, comprising comparatively uncelebrated young women and men, listened with respect to the conversation of the peeress who called Rose "my dear," the great star-actress, and the now somewhat notorious Five Towns character, Edward Henry Machin.

"Miss April is splendid, isn't she?" said Edward Henry to Lady Woldo.

"Oh! My word, yes!" replied Lady Woldo, nicely, warmly, yet with a certain perfunctoriness. Edward Henry was astonished that everybody was not passionately enthusiastic about the charm of Elsie's performance. Then Lady Woldo added: "But what a part for Miss Euclid! What a part for her!"

And there were murmurs of approbation.

Rose Euclid gazed at Edward Henry palely and weakly. He considered her much less effective here than in her box. But her febrile gaze was effective enough to produce in him the needle-stab again, the feeling of gloom, of pessimism, of being gradually overtaken by an unseen and mysterious avenger.

"Yes, indeed!" said he.

He thought to himself: "Now's the time for me to behave like Edward Henry Machin, and teach these people a thing or two!" But he could not.

A pretty young girl summoned all her forces to address the great proprietor of the Regent, to whom, however, she had not been introduced, and with a charming nervous earnest lisp said:

"But don't you think it's a great play, Mr. Machin?"

"Of course!" he replied, inwardly employing the most fearful and shocking anathemas.

"We were sure _you would!"

The young people glanced at each other with the satisfaction of proved prophets.

"D'you know that not another manager has taken the trouble to come here!" said a second earnest young woman.

Edward Henry's self-consciousness was now acute. He would have paid a ransom to be alone on a desert island in the Indian seas. He looked downwards, and noticed that all these bright eager persons, women and men, were wearing blue stockings or socks.

"Miss April is free now," said Marrier in his ear.

The next instant he was talking alone to Elsie in another corner while the rest of the room respectfully observed.

"So you deigned to come!" said Elsie April. "You did get my card."

A little paint did her no harm, and the accentuation of her eyebrows and lips and the calculated disorder of her hair were not more than her powerful effulgent physique could stand. In a costume of green and silver she was magnificent, overwhelmingly magnificent. Her varying voice and her glance at once sincere, timid and bold, produced the most singular sensations behind Edward Henry's soft frilled shirt-front. And he thought that he had never been through any experience so disturbing and so fine as just standing in front of her.

"I ought to be saying nice things to her," he reflected. But, no doubt because he had been born in the Five Towns, he could not formulate in his mind a single nice thing.

"Well, what do you think of it?" she asked, looking full at him, and the glance too had a strange significance. It was as if she had said: "Are you a man, or aren't you?"

"I think you're splendid," he exclaimed.

"Now please!" she protested. "Don't begin in that strain. I know I'm very good for an amateur--"

"But really! I'm not joking."

She shook her head.

"What do you think of my part for Rose? Wouldn't she be tremendous in it? Wouldn't she be tremendous?... What a chance!"

He was acutely uncomfortable, but even his discomfort was somehow a joy.

"Yes," he admitted. "Yes."

"Oh! Here's Carlo Trent," said she.

He heard Trent's triumphant voice, carrying the end of a conversation into the room: "If he hadn't been going away," Carlo Trent was saying, "Pilgrim would have taken it. Pilgrim--"

The poet's eyes met Edward Henry's, and the sentence was never finished.

"How d'ye do, Machin?" murmured the poet.

Then a bell began to ring and would not stop.

"You're staying for the reception afterwards?" said Elsie April as the room emptied.

"Is there one?"

"Of course."

It seemed to Edward Henry that they exchanged silent messages.


V

Some time after the last hexameter had rolled forth, and the curtain had finally fallen on the immense and rapturous success of Carlo Trent's play in three acts and in verse, Edward Henry, walking about the crowded stage, where the reception was being held, encountered Elsie April, who was still in her gorgeous dress of green and silver. She was chatting with Marrier, who instantly left her, thus displaying a discretion such as an employer would naturally expect from a factotum to whom he was paying three pounds a week.

Edward Henry's heart began to beat in a manner which troubled him and made him wonder what could be happening at the back of the soft-frilled shirt front that he had obtained in imitation of Mr. Seven Sachs.

"Not much elbow-room here!" he said lightly. He was very anxious to be equal to the occasion.

She gazed at him under her emphasized eyebrows. He noticed that there were little touches of red on her delightful nostrils.

"No," she answered with direct simplicity. "Suppose we try somewhere else?"

She turned her back on all the amiable and intellectual babble, descended three steps on the prompt side, and opened a door. The swish of her brocaded spreading skirt was loud and sensuous. He followed her into an obscure chamber in which several figures were moving to and fro and talking.

"What's this place?" he asked. Involuntarily his voice was diminished to a whisper.

"It's one of the discussion-rooms," said she. "It used to be a classroom, I expect, before the Society took the buildings over. You see the theatre was the general schoolroom."

They sat down unobtrusively in an embrasure. None among the mysterious moving figures seemed to remark them.

"But why are they talking in the dark?" Edward Henry asked behind his hand.

"To begin with, it isn't quite dark," she said. "There's the light of the street-lamp through the window. But it has been found that serious discussions can be carried on much better without too much light.... I'm not joking." (It was as if in the gloom her ears had caught his faint sardonic smile.)

Said the voice of one of the figures:

"Can you tell me what is the origin of the decay of realism? Can you tell me that?"

Suddenly, in the ensuing silence, there was a click, and a tiny electric lamp shot its beam. The hand which held the lamp was the hand of Carlo Trent. He flashed it and flashed the trembling ray in the inquirer's face. Edward Henry recalled Carlo's objection to excessive electricity in the private drawing-room at Wilkins's.

"Why do you ask such a question?" Carlo Trent challenged the inquirer, brandishing the lamp. "I ask you why do you ask it?"

The other also drew forth a lamp and, as it were, cocked it and let it off at the features of Carlo Trent. And thus the two stood, statuesque and lit, surrounded by shadowy witnessers of the discussion.

The door creaked, and yet another figure, silhouetted for an instant against the illumination of the stage, descended into the discussion chamber.

Carlo Trent tripped towards the new-comer, bent with his lamp, lifted delicately the hem of the new-comer's trousers, and gazed at the colour of his sock, which was blue.

"All right!" said he.

"The champagne and sandwiches are served," said the new-comer.

"You've not answered me, sir," Carlo Trent faced once more his opponent in the discussion. "You've not answered me."

Whereupon, the lamps being extinguished, they all filed forth, the door swung to of its own accord, shutting out the sound of babble from the stage, and Edward Henry and Elsie April were left silent and solitary to the sole ray of the street-lamp.

All the Five Towns' shrewdness in Edward Henry's character, all the husband in him, all the father in him, all the son in him, leapt to his lips, and tried to say to Elsie:

"Shall _we go and inspect the champagne and sandwiches, too?"

And failed to say these incantatory words of salvation!

And the romantic, adventurous fool in him rejoiced at their failure. For he was adventurously happy in his propinquity to that simple and sincere creature. He was so happy, and his heart was so active, that he even made no caustic characteristic comment on the singular behaviour of the beings who had just abandoned them to their loneliness. He was also proud because he was sitting alone nearly in the dark with a piquant and wealthy, albeit amateur actress, who had just participated in a triumph at which the spiritual aristocracy of London had assisted.


VI

Two thoughts ran through his head, shooting in and out and to and fro among his complex sensations of pleasure. The first was that he had never been in such a fix before, despite his enterprising habits. And the second was that neither Elsie April nor anybody else connected with his affairs in London had ever asked him whether he was married, or assumed by any detail of behaviour towards him that there existed the possibility of his being married. Of course he might, had he chosen, have informed a few of them that a wife and children possessed him, but then really would not that have been equivalent to attaching a label to himself: "Married"? a procedure which had to him the stamp of provinciality.

Elsie April said nothing. And as she said nothing he was obliged to say something, if only to prove to both of them that he was not a mere tongue-tied provincial. He said:

"You know I feel awfully out of it here in this Society of yours!"

"Out of it?" she exclaimed, and her voice thrilled as she resented his self-depreciation.

"It's over my head--right over it!"

"Now, Mr. Machin," she said, dropping somewhat that rich low voice, "I quite understand that there are some things about the Society you don't like, trifles that you're inclined to laugh at. _I know that. Many of us know it. But it can't be helped in an organization like ours. It's even essential. Don't be too hard on us. Don't be sarcastic."

"But I'm not sarcastic!" he protested.

"Honest?" She turned to him quickly. He could descry her face in the gloom, and the forward bend of her shoulders, and the backward sweep of her arms resting on the seat, and the straight droop of her Egyptian shawl from her inclined body.

"Honest!" he solemnly insisted.

The exchange of this single word was so intimate that it shifted their conversation to a different level--level at which each seemed to be assuring the other that intercourse between them could never be aught but utterly sincere thenceforward, and that indeed in future they would constitute a little society of their own, ideal in its organization.

"Then you're too modest," she said decidedly. "There was no one here to-night who's more respected than you are. No one! Immediately I first spoke to you--I daresay you don't remember that afternoon at the Grand Babylon Hotel!--I knew you weren't like the rest. And don't I know them? Don't I know them?"

"But how did you know I'm not like the rest?" asked Edward Henry. The line which she was taking had very much surprised him--and charmed him. The compliment, so serious and urgent in tone, was intensely agreeable, and it made an entirely new experience in his career. He thought: "Oh! there's no mistake about it. These London women are marvellous! They're just as straight and in earnest as the best of our little lot down there. But they've got something else. There's no comparison!" The unique word to describe the indescribable floated into his head: "Scrumptious!" What could not life be with such semi-divine creatures? He dreamt of art drawing-rooms softly shaded at midnight. And his attitude towards even poetry was modified.

"I knew you weren't like the rest," said she, "by your look. By the way you say everything you _do say. We all know it. And I'm sure you're far more than clever enough to be perfectly aware that we all know it. Just see how everyone looked at you to-night!"

Yes, he had in fact been aware of the glances.

"I think I ought to tell you," she went on, "that I was rather unfair to you that day in talking about my cousin--in the taxi. You were quite right to refuse to go into partnership with her. She thinks so too. We've talked it over, and we're quite agreed. Of course it did seem hard--at the time, and her bad luck in America seemed to make it worse. But you were quite right. You can work much better alone. You must have felt that instinctively--far quicker than we felt it."

"Well," he murmured, confused, "I don't know--"

Could this be she who had too openly smiled at his skirmish with an artichoke?

"Oh, Mr. Machin!" she burst out. "You've got an unprecedented opportunity, and thank Heaven you're the man to use it! We're all expecting so much from you, and we know we shan't be disappointed."

"D'ye mean the theatre?" he asked, alarmed as it were amid rising waters.

"The theatre," said she, gravely. "You're the one man that can save London. No one _in London can do it!... _You have the happiness of knowing what your mission is, and of knowing, too, that you are equal to it. What good fortune! I wish I could say as much for myself. I want to do something! I try! But what can I do? Nothing--really! You've no idea of the awful loneliness that comes from a feeling of inability."

"Loneliness," he repeated. "But surely--" he stopped.

"Loneliness," she insisted. Her little chin was now in her little hand, and her dim face upturned.

And suddenly a sensation of absolute and marvellous terror seized Edward Henry. He was more afraid than he had ever been--and yet once or twice in his life he had felt fear. His sense of true perspective--one of his most precious qualities--returned. He thought: "I've got to get out of this." Well, the door was not locked. It was only necessary to turn the handle, and security lay on the other side of the door! He had but to rise and walk. And he could not. He might just as well have been manacled in a prison-cell. He was under an enchantment.

"A man," murmured Elsie, "a man can never realize the loneliness--" She ceased.

He stirred uneasily.

"About this play," he found himself saying. And yet why should he mention the play in his fright? He pretended to himself not to know why. But he knew why. His instinct had seen in the topic of the play the sole avenue of salvation.

"A wonderful thing, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes," he said. And then--most astonishingly to himself--added: "I've decided to do it."

"We knew you would," she said calmly. "At any rate I did.... You'll open with it, of course."

"Yes," he answered desperately. And proceeded, with the most extraordinary bravery, "If you'll act in it."

Immediately on hearing these last words issue from his mouth he knew that a fool had uttered them, and that the bravery was mere rashness. For Elsie's responding gesture reinspired him afresh with the exquisite terror which he had already begun to conjure away.

"You think Miss Euclid ought to have the part," he added quickly, before she could speak.

"Oh! I do!" cried Elsie, positively and eagerly. "Rose will do simply wonders with that part. You see she can speak verse. I can't. I'm nobody. I only took it because--"

"Aren't you anybody?" he contradicted. "Aren't you anybody? I can just tell you--"

There he was again, bringing back the delicious terror! An astounding situation!

But the door creaked. The babble from the stage invaded the room. And in a second the enchantment was lifted from him. Several people entered. He sighed, saying within himself to the disturbers:

"I'd have given you a hundred pounds apiece if you'd been five minutes sooner."

And yet simultaneously he regretted their arrival. And, more curious still, though he well remembered the warning words of Mr. Seven Sachs concerning Elsie April, he did not consider that they were justified.... She had not been a bit persuasive ... only....


VII

He sat down to the pianisto with a strange and agreeable sense of security. It is true that, owing to the time of year, the drawing-room had been, in the figurative phrase, turned upside down by the process of spring-cleaning, which his unexpected arrival had surprised in fullest activity. But he did not mind that. He abode content among rolled carpets, a swathed chandelier, piled chairs, and walls full of pale rectangular spaces where pictures had been. Early that morning, after a brief night spent partly in bed and partly in erect contemplation of his immediate past and his immediate future, he had hurried back to his pianisto and his home--to the beings and things that he knew and that knew him.

In the train he had had the pleasure of reading in sundry newspapers that "The Orient Pearl," by Carlo Trent (who was mentioned in terms of startling respect and admiration), had been performed on the previous evening at the dramatic soiree of the Azure Society, with all the usual accompaniments of secrecy and exclusiveness, in its private theatre in Kensington, and had been accepted on the spot by Mr. E.H. Machin ("that most enterprising and enlightened recruit to the ranks of theatrical managers") for production at the new Regent Theatre. And further that Mr. Machin intended to open with it. And still further that his selection of such a play, which combined in the highest degree the poetry of Mr. W.B. Yeats with the critical intellectuality of Mr. Bernard Shaw, was an excellent augury for London's dramatic future, and that the "upward movement" must on no account be thought to have failed because of the failure of certain recent ill-judged attempts, by persons who did not understand their business, to force it in particular directions. And still further that he, Edward Henry, had engaged for the principal part Miss Rose Euclid, perhaps the greatest emotional actress the English-speaking peoples had ever had, but who unfortunately had not been sufficiently seen of late on the London stage, and that this would be her first appearance after her recent artistic successes in the United States. And lastly that Mr. Marrier (whose name would be remembered in connection with ... etc., etc.) was Mr. E.H. Machin's acting manager and technical adviser. Edward Henry could trace the hand of Marrier in all the paragraphs. Marrier had lost no time.

Mrs. Machin, senior, came into the drawing-room just as he was adjusting the "Tannhaeuser" overture to the mechanician. The piece was one of his major favourites.

"This is no place for you, my lad," said Mrs. Machin, grimly, glancing round the room. "But I came to tell ye as th' mutton's been cooling at least five minutes. You gave out as you were hungry."

"Keep your hair on, mother," said he, springing up.

Barely twelve hours earlier he had been mincing among the elect and the select and the intellectual and the poetic and the aristocratic; among the lah-di-dah and Kensingtonian accents; among rouged lips and blue hose and fixed simperings; in the centre of the universe. And he had conducted himself with considerable skill accordingly. Nobody, on the previous night, could have guessed from the cut of his fancy waistcoat or the judiciousness of his responses to remarks about verse, that his wife often wore a white apron, or that his mother was--the woman she was! He had not unskilfully caught many of the tricks of that metropolitan environment. But now they all fell away from him, and he was just Edward Henry--nay, he was almost the old Denry again.

"Who chose this mutton?" he asked as he bent over the juicy and rich joint and cut therefrom exquisite thick slices with a carving-knife like a razor.

"_I did, if ye want to know," said his mother. "Anything amiss with it?" she challenged.

"No. It's fine."

"Yes," said she. "I'm wondering whether you get aught as good as that in those grand hotels as you call 'em."

"We don't," said Edward Henry. First, it was true; and secondly, he was anxious to be propitiatory, for he had a plan to further.

He looked at his wife. She was not talkative, but she had received him in the hall with every detail of affection, if a little absent-mindedly owing to the state of the house. She had not been caustic, like his mother, about this male incursion into spring-cleaning. She had not informed the surrounding air that she failed to understand why them as were in London couldn't stop in London for a bit, as his mother had. Moreover, though the spring-cleaning fully entitled her to wear a white apron at meals, she was not wearing a white apron: which was a sign to him that she still loved him enough to want to please him. On the whole he was fairly optimistic about his plan of salvation. Nevertheless, it was not until nearly the end of the meal--when one of his mother's apple-pies was being consumed--that he began to try to broach it.

"Nell," he said, "I suppose you wouldn't care to come to London with me?"

"Oh!" she answered smiling, a smile of a peculiar quality. It was astonishing how that simple woman could put just one tenth of one per cent of irony into a good-natured smile. "What's the meaning of this?" Then she flushed. The flush touched Edward Henry in an extraordinary manner.

("To think," he reflected incredulously, "that only last night I was talking in the dark to Elsie April--and here I am now!" And he remembered the glory of Elsie's frock, and her thrilling voice in the gloom, and that pose of hers as she leaned dimly forward.)

"Well," he said aloud, as naturally as he could, "that theatre's beginning to get up on its hind-legs now, and I should like you to see it."

A difficult pass for him, as regards his mother! This was the first time he had ever overtly spoken of the theatre in his mother's presence. In the best bedroom he had talked of it--but even there with a certain self-consciousness and false casualness. Now, his mother stared straight in front of her with an expression of which she alone among human beings had the monopoly.

"I should like to," said Nellie, generously.

"Well," said he, "I've got to go back to town to-morrow. Wilt come with me, lass?"

"Don't be silly, Edward Henry," said she. "How can I leave mother in the middle of all this spring-cleaning?"

"You needn't leave mother. We'll take her too," said Edward Henry, lightly.

"You won't!" observed Mrs. Machin.

"I _have to go to-morrow, Nell," said Edward Henry. "And I was thinking you might as well come with me. It will be a change for you."

(He said to himself, "And not only have I to go to-morrow, but you absolutely must come with me, my girl. That's the one thing to do.")

"It would be a change for me," Nellie agreed--she was beyond doubt flattered and calmly pleased. "But I can't possibly come to-morrow. You can see that for yourself, dear."

"No, I can't!" he cried impatiently. "What does it matter? Mother'll be here. The kids'll be all right. After all, spring-cleaning isn't the Day of Judgment."

"Edward Henry," said his mother, cutting in between them like a thin blade, "I wish you wouldn't be blasphemous. London's London, and Bursley's Bursley." She had finished.

"It's quite out of the question for me to come to-morrow, dear. I must have notice. I really must."

And Edward Henry saw with alarm that Nellie had made up her mind, and that the flattered calm pleasure in his suggestion had faded from her face.

"Oh! Dash these domesticated women!" he thought, and shortly afterwards departed, brooding, to the offices of the Thrift Club.


VIII

He timed his return with exactitude, and, going straight upstairs to the chamber known indifferently as "Maisie's room" or "nurse's room," sure enough he found the three children there alone! They were fed, washed, night-gowned and even dressing-gowned; and this was the hour when, while nurse repaired the consequences of their revolutionary conduct in the bathroom and other places, they were left to themselves. Robert lay on the hearthrug, the insteps of his soft pink feet rubbing idly against the pile of the rug, his elbows digging into the pile, his chin on his fists, and a book perpendicularly beneath his eyes. Ralph, careless adventurer rather than student, had climbed to the glittering brass rail of Maisie's new bedstead and was thereon imitating a recently-seen circus performance. Maisie, in the bed according to regulation, and lying on the flat of her back, was singing nonchalantly to the ceiling. Carlo, unaware that at that moment he might have been a buried corpse but for the benignancy of Providence in his behalf, was feeling sympathetic towards himself because he was slightly bored.

"Hello, kids!" Edward Henry greeted them. As he had seen them before mid-day dinner, the more formal ceremonies of salutation after absence--so hateful to the Five Towns temperament--were happily over and done with.

Robert turned his head slightly, inspected his father with a judicial detachment that hardly escaped the inimical, and then resumed his book.

("No one would think," said Edward Henry to himself, "that the person who has just entered this room is the most enterprising and enlightened of West End theatrical managers.")

"'Ello, father!" shrilled Ralph. "Come and help me to stand on this wire-rope."

"It isn't a wire-rope," said Robert from the hearthrug, without stirring, "it's a brass-rail."

"Yes, it is a wire-rope, because I can make it bend," Ralph retorted, bumping down on the thing. "Anyhow, it's going to be a wire-rope."

Maisie simply stuck several fingers into her mouth, shifted to one side, and smiled at her father in a style of heavenly and mischievous flirtatiousness.

"Well, Robert, what are you reading?" Edward Henry inquired, in his best fatherly manner--half authoritative and half humorous--while he formed part of the staff of Ralph's circus.

"I'm not reading--I'm learning my spellings," replied Robert.

Edward Henry, knowing that the discipline of filial politeness must be maintained, said, "'Learning my spellings'--what?"

"Learning my spellings, father," Robert consented to say, but with a savage air of giving way to the unreasonable demands of affected fools. Why indeed should it be necessary in conversation always to end one's sentence with the name or title of the person addressed?

"Well, would you like to go to London with me?"

"When?" the boy demanded cautiously. He still did not move, but his ears seemed to prick up.

"To-morrow?"

"No thanks ... father." His ears ceased their activity.

"No? Why not?"

"Because there's a spellings examination on Friday, and I'm going to be top-boy."

It was a fact that the infant (whose programmes were always somehow arranged in advance, and were in his mind absolutely unalterable) could spell the most obstreperous words. Quite conceivably he could spell better than his father, who still showed an occasional tendency to write "separate" with three "e's" and only one "a."

"London's a fine place," said Edward Henry.

"I know," said Robert, negligently.

"What's the population of London?"

"I don't know," said Robert, with curtness; though he added after a pause, "But I can spell population--p,o,p,u,l,a,t,i,o,n."

"_I_'ll come to London, father, if you'll have me," said Ralph, grinning good-naturedly.

"Will you!" said his father.

"Fahver," asked Maisie, wriggling, "have you brought me a doll?"

"I'm afraid I haven't."

"Mother said p'r'aps you would."

It was true there had been talk of a doll; he had forgotten it.

"I tell you what I'll do," said Edward Henry. "I'll take you to London, and you can choose a doll in London. You never saw such dolls as there are in London--talking dolls that shut and open their eyes and say papa and mamma, and all their clothes take off and on."

"Do they say 'father'?" growled Robert.

"No, they don't," said Edward Henry.

"Why don't they?" growled Robert.

"When will you take me?" Maisie almost squealed.

"To-morrow."

"Certain sure, fahver?"

"Yes."

"You promise, fahver?"

"Of course I promise."

Robert at length stood up, to judge for himself this strange and agitating caprice of his father's for taking Maisie to London. He saw that, despite spellings, it would never do to let Maisie alone go. He was about to put his father through a cross-examination, but Henry Edward dropped Ralph (who had been climbing up him as up a telegraph pole) on to the bed and went over to the window, nervously, and tapped thereon.

Carlo followed him, wagging an untidy tail.

"Hello, Trent!" murmured Edward Henry, stooping and patting the dog.

Ralph exploded into loud laughter.

"Father's called 'Carlo'--'Trent,'" he roared. "Father, have you forgotten his name's 'Carlo'?" It was one of the greatest jokes that Ralph had heard for a long time.

Then Nellie hurried into the room, and Edward Henry, with a "Mustn't be late for tea," as hurriedly left it.

Three minutes later, while he was bent over the lavatory basin, someone burst into the bathroom. He lifted a soapy face.

It was Nellie, with disturbed features.

"What's this about your positively promising to take Maisie to London to-morrow to choose a doll?"

"I'll take 'em all," he replied with absurd levity. "And you too!"

"But really--" she pouted, indicating that he must not carry the ridiculous too far.

"Look here, d----n it," he said impulsively, "I _want you to come. And I want you to come to-morrow. I knew it was the confounded infants you wouldn't leave. You don't mean to tell me you can't arrange it--a woman like you!"

She hesitated.

"And what am I to do with three children in a London hotel?"

"Take nurse, naturally."

"Take nurse?" she cried.

He imitated her, with a grotesque exaggeration, yelling loudly, "Take nurse?" Then he planted a soap-sud on her fresh cheek.

She wiped it off carefully, and smacked his arm. The next moment she was gone, having left the door open.

"He _wants me to go to London to-morrow," he could hear her saying to his mother on the landing.

"Confound it!" he thought. "Didn't she know that at dinner-time?"

"Bless us!" His mother's voice.

"And take the children--and nurse!" His wife continued, in a tone to convey the fact that she was just as much disturbed as her mother-in-law could possibly be by the eccentricities of the male.

"He's his father all over, that lad is!" said his mother, strangely.

And Edward Henry was impressed by these words, for not once in seven years did his mother mention his father.

Tea was an exciting meal.

"You'd better come too mother," said Edward Henry, audaciously. "We'll shut the house up."

"I come to no London," said she.

"Well, then, you can use the motor as much as you like while we're away."

"I go about gallivanting in no motor," said his mother. "It'll take me all my time to get this house straight against you come back."

"I haven't a _thing to go in!" said Nellie, with a martyr's sigh.

After all (he reflected), though domesticated, she was a woman.

He went to bed early. It seemed to him that his wife, his mother and the nurse were active and whispering up and down the house till the very middle of the night. He arose not late; but they were all three afoot before him, active and whispering.


IX

He found out, on the morning after the highly complex transaction of getting his family from Bursley to London, that London held more problems for him than ever. He was now not merely the proprietor of a theatre approaching completion, but really a theatrical manager with a play to produce, artistes to engage, and the public to attract. He had made two appointments for that morning at the Majestic--(he was not at the Grand Babylon, because his wife had once stayed with him at the Majestic, and he did not want to add to his anxieties the business of accustoming her to a new and costlier luxury)--one appointment at nine with Marrier, and the other at ten with Nellie, family and nurse. He had expected to get rid of Marrier before ten.

Among the exciting mail which Marrier had collected for him from the Grand Babylon and elsewhere, was the following letter:

"BUCKINGHAM PALACE HOTEL.

"DEAR FRIEND,--We are all so proud of you. I should like some time to finish our interrupted conversation. Will you come and have lunch with me one day here at 1.30? You needn't write. I know how busy you are. Just telephone you are coming. But don't telephone between 12 and 1, because at that time I _always take my constitutional in St. James's Park.--Yours sincerely, E.A."

"Well," he thought, "that's a bit thick, that is! She's stuck me up with a dramatist I don't believe in, and a play I don't believe in, and an actress I don't believe in--and now she--"

Nevertheless, to a certain extent he was bluffing himself. For, as he pretended to put Elsie April back into her place, he had disturbing and delightful visions of her. A clever creature! Uncannily clever! Wealthy! Under thirty! Broad-minded! No provincial prejudices!... Her voice, that always affected his spine! Her delicious flattery!... She was no mean actress either! And the multifariousness of her seductive charm! In fact, she was a regular woman of the world, such as you would read about--if you did read!... He was sitting with her again in the obscurity of the discussion-room at the Azure Society's establishment. His heart was beating again.

Pooh!...

A single wrench and he ripped up the letter, and cast it into one of the red-lined waste-paper baskets with which the immense and rather shabby writing-room of the Majestic was dotted.

Before he had finished dealing with Mr. Marrier's queries and suggestions--some ten thousand in all--the clock struck, and Nellie tripped into the room. She was in black silk, with hints here and there of gold chains. As she had explained, she had nothing to wear, and was therefore obliged to fall back on the final resource of every woman in her state. For in this connection "nothing to wear" signified "nothing except my black silk"--at any rate in the Five Towns.

"Mr. Marrier--my wife. Nellie, this is Mr. Marrier."

Mr. Marrier was profuse: no other word would describe his demeanour. Nellie had the timidity of a young girl. Indeed she looked quite youthful, despite the ageing influences of black silk.

"So that's your Mr. Marrier! I understood from you he was a clerk!" said Nellie, tartly, suddenly retransformed into the shrewd matron, as soon as Mr. Marrier had profusely gone. She had conceived Marrier as a sort of Penkethman! Edward Henry had hoped to avoid this interview.

He shrugged his shoulders in answer to his wife's remark.

"Well," he said, "where are the kids?"

"Waiting in the lounge with nurse, as you said to be." Her mien delicately informed him that while in London his caprices would be her law, which she would obey without seeking to comprehend.

"Well," he went on, "I expect they'd like the parks as well as anything. Suppose we take 'em and show 'em one of the parks? Shall we? Besides, they must have fresh air."

"All right," Nellie agreed. "But how far will it be?"

"Oh!" said Edward Henry, "we'll crowd into a taxi."

They crowded into a taxi, and the children found their father in high spirits. Maisie mentioned the doll.... In a minute the taxi had stopped in front of a toy-shop surpassing dreams, and they invaded the toy-shop like an army. When they emerged, after a considerable interval, nurse was carrying an enormous doll, and Nellie was carrying Maisie, and Ralph was lovingly stroking the doll's real shoes. Robert kept a profound silence--a silence which had begun in the train.

"You haven't got much to say, Robert," his father remarked, when the taxi set off again.

"I know," said Robert, gruffly. Among other things, he resented his best clothes on a week-day.

"What do you think of London?"

"I don't know," said Robert.

His eyes never left the window of the taxi.

Then they visited the theatre--a very fatiguing enterprise, and also, for Edward Henry, a very nervous one. He was as awkward in displaying that inchoate theatre as a newly-made father with his first-born. Pride and shame fought for dominion over him. Nellie was full of laudations. Ralph enjoyed the ladders.

"I say," said Nellie, apprehensive for Maisie, on the pavement, "this child's exhausted already. How big's this park of yours? Because neither nurse nor I can carry her very far."

"We'll buy a pram," said Edward Henry. He was staring at a newspaper placard which said: "Isabel Joy on the war-path again. Will she win?"

"But--"

"Oh, yes. We'll buy a pram! Driver--"

"A pram isn't enough. You'll want coverings for her--in this wind."

"Well, we'll buy the necessary number of eider-downs and blankets, then," said Edward Henry. "Driver--"

A tremendous business! For in addition to making the purchases he had to feed his flock in an A.B.C. shop, where among the unoccupied waitresses Maisie and her talkative, winking doll enjoyed a triumph. Still there was plenty of time.

At a quarter past twelve he was displaying the varied landscape beauties of the park to his family. Ralph insisted on going to the bridge over the lake, and Robert silently backed him. And therefore the entire party went. But Maisie was afraid of the water and cried. Now the worst thing about Maisie was that when once she had begun to cry it was very difficult to stop her. Even the most remarkable dolls were powerless to appease her distress.

"Give me the confounded pram, nurse," said Edward Henry. "I'll cure her."

But he did not cure her. However, he had to stick grimly to the perambulator. Nellie tripped primly in black silk on one side of it. Nurse had the wayward Ralph by the hand. And Robert, taciturn, stalked alone, adding up London and making a very small total of it.

Suddenly Edward Henry halted the perambulator, and, stepping away from it, raised his hat. An excessively elegant young woman leading a Pekinese by a silver chain stopped as if smitten by a magic dart and held spellbound.

"How do you do, Miss April?" said Edward Henry, loudly. "I was hoping to meet you. This is my wife. Nellie--this is Miss April." Nellie bowed stiffly in her black silk. (Naught of the fresh maiden about her now!) And it has to be said that Elsie April in all her young and radiant splendour and woman-of-the-worldliness was equally stiff. "And there are my two boys. And this is my little girl--in the pram."

Maisie screamed, and pushed an expensive doll out of the perambulator. Edward Henry saved it by its boot as it fell.

"And this is her doll. And this is nurse," he finished. "Fine breezy morning, isn't it?"

In due course the processions moved on.

"Well, that's done!" Edward Henry muttered to himself. And sighed.

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