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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 3. The Charwoman
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The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 3. The Charwoman Post by :Fred_E Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2095

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The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 3. The Charwoman

PART I CHAPTER III. THE CHARWOMAN

I

George entered Alexandra Grove very early the next evening, having dined inadequately and swiftly so that he might reach the neighbourhood of Marguerite at the first moment justifiable. He would have omitted dinner and trusted to Marguerite's kitchen, only that, in view of the secrecy resolved upon, appearances had to be preserved. The secrecy in itself was delicious, but even the short experiences of the morning had shown both of them how extremely difficult it would be for two people who were everything to each other to behave as though they were nothing to each other. George hoped, however, that Mr. Haim would again be absent, and he was anticipating exquisite hours.

At the precise instant when he put his latchkey in the door the door was pulled away from him by a hand within, and he saw a woman of about thirty-five, plump but not stout, in a blue sateen dress, bonneted but not gloved. She had pleasant, commonplace features and brown hair. Several seconds elapsed before George recognized in her Mrs. Lobley, the charwoman of No. 8, and when he did so he was a little surprised at her presentableness. He had met her very seldom in the house. He was always late for breakfast, and his breakfast was always waiting for him. On Sundays he was generally out. If he did catch sight of her, she was invariably in a rough apron and as a rule on her knees. Their acquaintance had scarcely progressed far enough for him to call her 'Mrs. Lob' with any confidence. He had never seen her at night, though upon occasion he had heard her below in the basement, and for him she was associated with mysterious nocturnal goings and comings by the basement door. That she should be using the front door was as startling as that she should be so nobly attired in blue sateen.

"Good evening--Mr. Cannon," she said, in her timid voice, too thin for her body. He noticed that she was perturbed. Hitherto she had always addressed him as 'sir.'

"Excuse me," she said, and with an apologetic air she slipped past him and departed out of the house.

Mr. Haim was visible just within the doorway of the sitting-room, and behind him the table with the tea-things still on it. George had felt considerably self-conscious in Mr. Haim's presence at the office; and he was so preoccupied by his own secret mighty affair that his first suspicion connected the strange apparition of a new Mrs. Lobley and the peculiar look on Mr. Haim's face with some disagreeable premature and dramatic explosion of the secret mighty affair. His thoughts, though absurd, ran thus because they could not run in any other way.

"Ah, Mr. Cannon!" said Mr. Haim queerly. "You're in early to-night."

"A bit earlier," George admitted, with caution. "Have to read, you know." He was using the word 'read' in the examination sense.

"If you could spare me a minute," smiled Mr. Haim

"Certainly."

"Have a cigarette," said Mr. Haim, as soon as George had deposited his hat and come into the room. This quite unprecedented offer reassured George, who in spite of reason had continued to fear that the landlord had something on his mind about his daughter and his lodger. Mr. Haim presented his well-known worn cigarette-case, and then with precise and calm gestures carefully shut the door.

"The fact is," said he, "I wanted to tell you something. I told Mr. Enwright this afternoon, as I thought was proper, and it seems to me that you are the next person who ought to be informed."

"Oh yes?"

"I am going to be married."

"The deuce you are!"

The light words had scarcely escaped from young George before he perceived that his tone was a mistake, and that Mr. Haim was in a state of considerable emotion, which would have to be treated very carefully. And George too now suddenly partook of the emotion. He felt himself to be astonished and even shaken by Mr. Haim's news. The atmosphere of the interview changed in an instant. Mr. Haim moved silently on slippered feet to the mantelpiece, out of the circle of lamplight, and dropped some ash into the empty fire-place.

"I congratulate you," said George.

"Thank you!" said Mr. Haim brightly, seizing gratefully on the fustian phrase, eager to hall-mark it as genuine and put it among his treasures. Without doubt he was flattered. "Yes," he proceeded, as it were reflectively, "I have asked Mrs. Lobley to be my wife, and she has done me the honour to consent." He had the air of having invented the words specially to indicate that Mrs. Lobley was descending from a throne in order to espouse him. It could not have occurred to him that they had ever been used before and that the formula was classic. He smiled again, and went on: "Of course I've known and admired Mrs. Lobley for a long time. What we should have done without her valuable help in this house I don't like to think. I really don't."

"'Her help in this house,'" thought the ruthless George, behind cigarette smoke. "Why doesn't he say right out she's the charwoman? If I was marrying a charwoman, I should say I was marrying a charwoman." And then he had a misgiving: "Should I? I wonder whether I should." And he remembered that ultimately the charwoman was going to be his own mother-in-law. He was aware of a serious qualm.

"Mrs. Lobley has had an uphill fight since her first husband's death," said Mr. Haim. "He was an insurance agent--the Prudential. She's come out of it splendidly. She's always kept up her little home, though it was only two rooms, and she'll only leave it because I can offer her a better one. I have always admired her, and I'm sure the more you know her the more you'll like her. She's a woman in a thousand, Mr. Cannon."

"I expect she is," George agreed feebly. He could not think of anything to say.

"And I'm thankful I _can offer her a better home. I don't mind telling you now that at one time I began to fear I shouldn't have a home. I've had my ambitions, Mr. Cannon. I was meant for a quantity surveyor. I was one--you may say. But it was not to be. I came down in the world, but I kept my head above water. And then in the end, with a little money I had I bought this house. L575. It needed some negotiation. Ground-rent L10 per annum, and seventy years to run. You see, all along I had had the idea of building a studio in the garden. I was one of the first to see the commercial possibilities of studios in Chelsea. But of course I know Chelsea. I made the drawings for the studio myself. Mr. Enwright kindly suggested a few improvements. With all my experience I was in a position to get it put up as cheaply as possible. You'd be surprised at the number of people in the building line anxious to oblige me. It cost under L300. I had to borrow most of it. But I've paid it off. What's the consequence? The consequence is that the rent of the studio and the top rooms brings me in over eight per cent on all I spent on the house and the studio together. And I'm living rent free myself."

"Jolly good!"

"Yes.... If I'd had capital, Mr. Cannon, I could have made thousands out of studios. Thousands. I fancy I've the gift. But I've never had the capital. And that's all there is to it." He smacked his lips, and leaned back against the mantelpiece. "You may tell me I've realized my ambitions. Not all of them, Mr. Cannon. Not all of them. If I'd had money I should have had leisure, and I should have improved myself. Reading, I mean. Study. Literature. Music. Painting. History of architecture. All that sort of thing. I've got the taste for it. I know I've got the taste for it. But what could I do? I gave it up. You'll never know how lucky you are, Mr. Cannon. I gave it up. However, I've nothing to be ashamed of. At any rate I hope not."

George nodded appreciatively. He was touched. He was even impressed. He admitted the _naivete of the ageing man, his vanity, his sentimentality. But he saw himself to be in the presence of an achievement. And though the crown of Mr. Haim's achievement was to marry a charwoman, still the achievement impressed. And the shabby man with the lined, common face was looking back at the whole of his life--there was something positively formidable in that alone. He was at the end; George was at the beginning, and George felt callow and deferential. The sensation of callowness at once heightened his resolve to succeed. All George's sensations seemed mysteriously to transform themselves into food for this great resolve.

"And what does Miss Haim say to all this?" he asked, rather timidly and wildly. It was a venturesome remark; it might well have been called an impertinence; but the mage of Marguerite was involved in all the workings of his mind, and it would not be denied expression.

Mr. Haim lifted his back from the mantelpiece sharply. Then he hesitated, moving forward a little.

"Mr. Cannon," he said, "it's curious you should ask that." His voice trembled, and at the vibration George was suddenly apprehensive. Mr. Haim had soon recovered from his original emotion, but now he seemed to be in danger of losing control of himself.

George nervously cleared his throat and apologized.

"I didn't mean----"

"I'd better tell you," Mr. Haim interrupted him, rather loudly. "We've just had a terrible scene with my daughter, a terrible scene!" He seldom referred to Marguerite by her Christian name, "Mr. Cannon, I had hoped to get through my life without a scandal, and especially an open scandal. But it seems as if I shouldn't--if I know my daughter! It was not my intention to say anything. Far from it. Outsiders ought not to be troubled.... I--I like you, Mr. Cannon. She left us a few minutes ago And as she didn't put her hat on she must be either at the studio or at Agg's...."

"She went out of the house?" George questioned awkwardly.

Mr. Haim nodded, and then without warning he dropped like an inert lump on to a chair and let his head fall on to his hand.

George was frightened as well as mystified. The spectacle of the old man--at one moment boasting ingenuously of his career, and at the next almost hysterical with woe--roused his pity in a very disconcerting manner, and from his sight the Lucas & Enwright factotum vanished utterly, and was supplanted by a tragic human being. But he had no idea how to handle the unexampled situation with dignity; he realized painfully his own lack of experience, and his over-mastering impulse was to get away while it was still possible to get away. Moreover, he desired intensely to see and hear Marguerite.

"Perhaps I had better find out where she is," he absurdly suggested, and departed from the room feeling like a criminal reprieved.

The old man did not stir.

II

"Can I come in?" said George, hatless, pushing open the door of the studio, which was ajar.

There were people in the bright and rather chilly studio, and none of them moved until the figure arriving out of the darkness was identified. Mr. Prince, who in the far corner was apparently cleaning or adjusting his press, then came forward with a quiet, shy, urbane welcome. Marguerite herself stood nearly under the central lamp, talking to Agg, who was seated. The somewhat celebrated Agg immediately rose and said in her somewhat deep voice to Marguerite:

"I must go."

Agg was the eldest daughter of the Agg family, a broad-minded and turbulent tribe who acknowledged the nominal headship of a hard-working and successful barrister. She was a painter, and lived and slept in semi-independence in a studio of her own in Manresa Road, but maintained close and constant relations with the rest of the tribe. In shape and proportions fairly tall and fairly thin, she counted in shops among the stock-sizes; but otherwise she was entitled to call herself unusual. She kept her hair about as short as the hair of a boy who has postponed going to the barber's for a month after the proper time, and she incompletely covered the hair with the smallest possible hat. Her coat was long and straight and her skirt short. Her boots were high, reaching well up the calf, but they had high heels and were laced in some hundreds of holes. She carried a cane in a neatly gloved hand. She was twenty-seven. In style Marguerite and Agg made a great contrast with one another. Each was fully aware of the contrast, and liked it.

"Good evening, Mr. Cannon," said Agg firmly, not shaking hands.

George had met her once in the way of small-talk at her father's house. Having yet to learn the important truth that it takes all sorts to make a world, he did not like her and wondered why she existed. He could understand Agg being fond of Marguerite, but he could not understand Marguerite being fond of Agg; and the friendship between these two, now that he actually for the first time saw it in being, irked him.

"Is anything the matter?... Have you seen father?" asked Marguerite in a serious, calm tone, turning to him. Like George, she had run into the studio without putting on any street attire.

George perceived that there was no secret in the studio as to the crisis in the Haim family. Clearly the topic had been under discussion. Prince as well as Agg was privy to it. He did not quite like that. He was vaguely jealous of both Prince and Agg. Indeed he was startled to find that Marguerite could confide such a matter to Prince--at any rate without consulting himself. While not definitely formulating the claim in his own mind, he had somehow expected of Marguerite that until she met him she would have existed absolutely sole, without any sentimental connexions of any sort, in abeyance, waiting for his miraculous advent. He was glad that Mr. Buckingham Smith was not of the conclave; he felt that he could not have tolerated Mr. Buckingham Smith.

"Yes, I've seen him," George answered.

"Did he tell you?"

"Yes."

Mr. Prince, after a little hovering, retired to his press, and a wheel could be heard creaking.

"What did he tell you?"

"He told me about--the marriage.... And I gathered there'd been a bit of a scene."

"Nothing else?"

"No."

Agg then interjected, fixing her blue eyes on George:

"Marguerite is coming to live with me in my studio."

And her challenging gaze met George's.

"Oh!" George could not suppress his pained inquietude at this decision having been made without his knowledge. Both girls misapprehended his feeling. "That's it, is it?"

"Well," said Agg, "what can Mr. Haim expect? Here Marguerite's been paying this woman two shillings a day and her food, and letting her take a parcel home at nights. And then all of a sudden she comes dressed up for tea, and sits down, and Mr. Haim says she's his future wife. What _does he expect? Does he expect Marguerite to kiss her and call her mamma? The situation's impossible."

"But you can't stop people from falling in love, Agg, you know. It's not a crime," said Mr. Prince in his weak voice surprisingly from the press.

"I know it's not a crime," said Agg sharply. "And nobody wants to stop people from falling in love. If Mr. Haim chooses to go mad about a charwoman, when his wife, and such a wife, 's been dead barely three years, that's his concern. It's true the lady isn't much more than half his age, and that the whole business would be screamingly funny if it wasn't disgusting; but still he's a free agent. And Marguerite's a free agent too, I hope. Of course he's thunder-struck to discover that Marguerite _is a free agent. He would be!"

"He certainly is in a state," said George, with an uneasy short laugh.

Agg continued:

"And why is he in a state? Because Marguerite says she shall leave the house? Not a bit. Only because of what he thinks is the scandal of her leaving. Mr. Haim is a respectable man. He's simply all respectability. Respectability's his god--Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Always has been. He'd sacrifice everything to respectability--except the lovely Lobley. It's not respectable in a respectable family for a girl to leave home on account of her stepmother. And so he's in a state, if you please!... If he wanted to carry on with Mrs. Lobley, let him carry on with her. But no! That's not respectable. He's just got to marry her!" Agg sneered.

George was startled, perhaps excusably, at the monstrous doctrine implied in Agg's remarks. He had thought himself a man of the world, experienced, unshockable. But he blenched, and all his presence of mind was needed to preserve a casual, cool demeanour. The worst of the trial was Marguerite's tranquil acceptance of the attitude of her friend. She glanced at Agg in silent, admiring approval. He surmised that until that moment he had been perfectly ignorant of what girls really were.

"I see," said George courageously. And then, strangely, he began to admire too. And he pulled himself together.

"I think I shall leave to-morrow," Marguerite announced. "Morning. It will be much better. She can look after him. I don't see that I owe any duty ..."

"Yes, you do, dear," Agg corrected her impressively. "You owe a duty to your mother--to her memory. That's the duty you owe. I'll come round for you to-morrow myself in a four-wheeler--let me see, about eleven."

George hated the sound of the word 'duty.'

"Thank you, dear," Marguerite murmured, and the girls shook hands; they did not kiss.

"Bye-bye, Princey."

"Bye-bye, Agg."

"Good night, Mr. Cannon."

Agg departed, slightly banging the door.

"I think I'll go back home now," said Marguerite, in a sweet, firm tone. "Had they gone out?"

"Who? Your father and What's-her-name? She's gone, but he hasn't. If you don't want to meet him to-night again, hadn't you better----"

"Oh! If she's gone, he'll be gone too by this time. Trust him!"

Mr. Prince approached them, urging Marguerite soothingly to stay as long as she liked. She shook her head, and pressed his hand affectionately.

III

When George and Marguerite re-entered No. 8 by the front door, Mr. Haim was still sitting overcome at the tea-table. They both had sight of him through the open door of the parlour. Marguerite was obviously disturbed to see him there, but she went straight into the room. George moved into the darkness of his own room. He heard the voices of the other two.

"Then you mean to go?" Haim asked accusingly.

Marguerite answered in a calm, good-humoured, sweet tone:

"Of course, if you mean to marry Mrs. Lobley."

"Marry Mrs. Lobley! Of course I shall marry her!" Haim's voice rose. "What right have you to settle where I shall marry and where I shan't?"

"I've fixed everything up with Celia Agg," said Marguerite very quietly.

"You've soon arranged it!"

No reply from Marguerite. The old man spoke again:

"You've no right--It'll be an open scandal."

Then a silence. George now thought impatiently that a great fuss was being made about a trifle, and that a matter much more important deserved attention. His ear caught a violent movement. The old man came out of the parlour, and, instead of taking his hat and rushing off to find the enchantress, he walked slowly and heavily upstairs, preceded by his immense shadow thrown from the hall-lamp. He disappeared round the corner of the stairs. George, under the influence of the apparition, was forced to modify his view that all the fuss was over a trifle. He tiptoed into the parlour. Marguerite was standing at the table. As soon as George came in she began to gather the tea-things together on the tray.

"I _say_!" whispered George.

Marguerite's bent, tranquil face had a pleasant look as she handled the crockery.

"I shall get him a nice breakfast to-morrow," she said, also in a whisper. "And as soon as he's gone to the office I shall pack. It won't take me long, really."

"But won't Mrs. Lobley be here?"

"What if she is? I've nothing against Mrs. Lobley. Nor, as far as that goes, against poor father either--you see what I mean."

"He told me you'd had a terrible scene. That's what he said'--a terrible scene."

"It depends what you call a scene," she said smoothly. "I was rather upset just at first--who wouldn't be?--but ..." She stopped, listening, with a glance at the ceiling. There was not the slightest sound overhead. "I wonder what he's doing?"

She picked up the tray.

"I'll carry that," said George.

"No! It's all right. I'm used to it. You might bring me the tablecloth. But you won't drop the crumbs out of it, will you?"

He followed her with the bunched-up tablecloth down the dangerous basement steps into the kitchen. She passed straight into the little scullery, where the tray with its contents was habitually left for the attention of Mrs. Lobley the next morning. When she turned again, he halted her, as it were, at the entrance from the scullery with a question.

"Shall you be all right?"

"With Agg?"

"Yes."

"How do you mean--'all right'?"

"Well, for money, and so on."

"Oh yes!" She spoke lightly and surely, with a faint confident smile.

"I was thinking as they'd cut down your prices----"

"I shall have heaps. Agg and I--why, we can live splendidly for next to nothing. You'll see."

He was rebuffed. He felt jealous of both Agg and Prince, but especially of Prince. It still seemed outrageous to him that Prince should have been taken into her confidence. Prince had known of the affair before himself. He was more than jealous; he had a greater grievance. Marguerite appeared to have forgotten all about love, all about the mighty event of their betrothal. She appeared to have put it away, as casually as she had put away the tray. Yet ought not the event to count supreme over everything else--over no matter what? He was desolate and unhappy.

"Did you tell Agg?" he asked.

"What about?"

"Our being engaged--and so on."

She started towards him.

"Dearest!" she protested, not in the least irritated or querulous, but kindly, affectionately. "Without asking you first? Didn't we agree we wouldn't say anything to anybody? But we shall have to think about telling Agg."

He met her and suddenly seized her. They kissed, and she shut her eyes. He was ecstatically happy.

"Oh!" she murmured in his embrace. "I'm so glad I've got you."

And she opened her eyes and tears fell from them. She cried quietly, without excitement and without shame. She cried with absolute naturalness. Her tears filled him with profound delight. And in the exquisite subterranean intimacy of the kitchen, he saw with his eyes and felt with his arms how beautiful she was. Her face, seen close, was incredibly soft and touching. Her nose was the most wonderful nose ever witnessed. He gloated upon her perfection. For, literally, to him she was perfect. With what dignity and with what a sense of justice she had behaved, in the studio, in the parlour, and here. He was gloriously reassured as he realized how in their joint future he would be able to rely upon her fairness, her conscientiousness, her mere pleasantness which nothing could disturb. Throughout the ordeal of the evening she had not once been ruffled. She had not said an unkind word, nor given an unkind gesture, nor exhibited the least trace of resentment. Then, she had taste, and she was talented. But perhaps the greatest quality of all was her adorable beauty and charm. And yet no! The final attraction was that she trusted him, depended on him, cried in his embrace.... He loosed her with reluctance, and she deliciously wiped her eyes on his handkerchief, and he took her again.

"I suppose I must leave here too, now," he said.

"Oh, George!" she exclaimed. "You mustn't! Why should you? I don't want you to."

"Don't you? Why?"

"Oh! I don't! Truly. You'll be just as well looked after as if I was here. I do hope you'll stay."

That settled it. And Manresa Road was not far off.

She sat on the table and leaned against him a long time. Then she said she must go upstairs to her room--she had so much to do. He could not forbid, because she was irresistible. She extinguished the kitchen-lamp, and, side by side, they groped up the stairs to the first floor. The cat nonchalantly passed them in the hall.

"Put the lights out here, will you, when you go to bed?" she whispered. He felt flattered.

She offered her face.... The lovely thing slipped away upstairs with unimaginable, ravishing grace. She vanished. There was silence. After a moment George could hear the clock ticking in the kitchen below. He stood motionless, amid the dizzying memories of her glance, her gestures, the softness of her body. What had happened to him was past belief. He completely forgot the existence of the old man in love.

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